It's time, please.
“Tonight we begin the life we were meant to lead,” Lillian whispered, plucking the pin from his breast pocket so quickly that he barely blinked in response.
He watched the brave colors of his regiment drift to the bottom of his glass. The medal rolled along its edge once then lay still.
“Now. Bottoms up!” Lillian sipped her vermouth. She placed one long, white finger on his collar. Noting his gaze still locked on the dull metal sunk in its gin bath, she dropped her hand and pouted.
“Come on.” She leaned in.
The bartender slid another drink across the bar.
The man fumbled in his pocket and withdrew a ten pound note crumpled around a playing card. He shoved the card back into his pocket and extended the note.
The bartender shook his head.
“Thanks, mate,” he said, voice dropping, “but …you know.” He glanced at the manager’s office door and back to the man, money in his hand still outstretched. “No cash in the Officer’s Club.”
“Oh — yes. Quite right,” the man said. He brushed an imaginary speck of lint from his dinner jacket and pocketed the money once again.
The bartender’s eyes narrowed. “You do have an account, right?”
“Yes. Yes we do.” Lillian’s voice rang out above the murmur of the jazz ensemble. A man in dress uniform leaning against the bar a few feet behind Lillian lowered the lighter he held to his cigarette and turned to eye them.
“The name is Jerman.” Lillian’s smile dazzled as she hooked her arm through the man’s. “Major and Mrs. Robert Jerman.”
The bartender saluted and noted something on his pad before turning to the man with the cigarette, who continued to stare at Lillian.
Feeling good, Jerman steered Lillian to the back of the room where a bank of French doors opened onto the night. He relished the sensation of her delicate silver gown swishing against his leg as they moved through laughing groups of uniformed men and swung wide of dancing couples. Her bobbed hair shone and all eyes seemed to follow her as they passed.
He pushed open a door and led her across the threshhold. The music was fainter outside but still audible over the gentle hum of cicadas and the burble of a stream that flowed somewhere beyond sight in the darkness.
She stopped suddenly on the bluestone terrace and pulled a card bearing handwritten names from her clutch. She tore the card in two and dropped the pieces to the ground. “It’s official.” She grasped both ends of his cream silk scarf and pulled him to her. “I’m yours. All night.”
Jerman placed one hand around Lillian’s waist and with the other lifted her hand. Her dress floated above her slim hips and her heels clicked as they twirled across the flagstones. Synchronized. Together.
She was with him. She was with him.
“Hey there.” His cigarette resting between two fingers, the man from the bar tapped Jerman on the shoulder. “I don’t know who you are, but I’m a regular on her dance card.” He turned to Lillian, eyebrows raised. “This is my dance.”
Lillian shrugged and laughed, wrapping her fingers more tightly around Jerman’s.
“Sorry chap,” Jerman said, gesturing to the cardboard scraps as he spun Lillian away across the terrace. “She’s cancelled all but me. For tonight at least.”
He had never felt so happy.
He stopped and cupped her chin in his hand. She faced him, smiling. Expectant. He closed his eyes and bent to kiss her.
A brass bell clanged. “Time!”
“No,” he whispered into her hair, gripping her waist more tightly.
Harsh lights snapped on inside. “It’s time, please!”
She drew away.
He gazed at her, standing haloed in the white light that grew brighter as it poured from the open doorway. He could barely see her now.
He braced himself on the rough jamb of the open door, battered sign for The Old White Hart creaking overhead. He blinked into the glare of the street light, windswept rain slicing through it and onto the pavement below. Black taxicabs whizzed by.
“Mr Jerman, wait!”
He turned to see a stolid, red-cheeked woman fishing his medal, dripping, from one of the empty pint glasses he had left at the bar.
“Don’t forget your pin!” She hurried to the door and handed it to him.
He fumbled as he lifted the pin to his chest. It clattered to the floor. He bent to retrieve it, staggered, and fell hard against the wall.
“Oh, dear. Let me help, Mr. Jerman.”
She scooped up the pin and fastened it to his rough tweed coat. Then she righted the woolen scarf which had fallen askew and patted him on the shoulder. “There you are. Right as rain.”
He stood still, eyes closed. “Thank you, Angela.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a playing card.
The Queen of Hearts.
He pressed it into her hand.
Angela flipped the card to read the words handprinted, carefully, along one edge:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
“You and your playing cards.” Angela smiled and shook her head. “Be careful, now. That pavement’s slick with rain.”
Without looking back, Jerman raised one arm in a weak wave and stumbled into the rain-slicked street. He called over his shoulder, “See you tomorrow, I imagine.”