Set during Winter Holiday. Short piece of gentle nothing-ness, really, about John and Nancy's almost imperceptibly changing friendship.
Disclaimer: Not my characters; no money being made. Etc.
It's not really air in the igloo; more of a hot, thick, breathing fug, which, thanks to the hotpot, now smells deliciously of gravy as well as wood smoke and earth. Dick's spectacles steam up instantly when he and John crawl in, and he sits down where he is to polish them. John steps over Titty, next to Dick by the entrance, circumnavigates Peggy, who's trying to bring the kettle to the fire, and sits down next to Nancy, on the long log that does for a bench along the back wall. Nancy's unlacing her boots, head bent down low.
"Jib-booms and bobstays," comes her voice, clear as ever, from somewhere near the floor. "This knot is quite simply impossible." She throws her head back, giving up for the time being, and grins at John. "Hullo, skipper," she says. "How's the sledge running?"
"Beautifully," he says, unbuttoning his jacket and pulling off his cap. "We must have gone fifty yards out onto the ice."
Dick looks up from his spectacles. "Ten," he says, seriously.
"Alright, Dick," says John. "Ten. But jolly fast just the same."
Roger has come to sit next to Dorothea on the same log bench as Nancy and John.
"Bet I could have made it go further," he says. "I say, do budge up, Dot. There's not nearly enough space at this end for me."
"There's not enough space for you at all," Nancy tells him. "Squash him, Dot."
But Dorothea has obligingly squeezed herself along the bench, and Nancy is forced to shift sideways as well, until she is pressed up shoulder to shoulder with John at the other end. John puts a boot out to steady himself. He can feel Nancy's warm body, soft in layers of wool, pressing against his own, hot along his limbs.
"Push off, Roger," he says. "Go and slide further than ten yards, if you can."
"Come on, Dot," says Roger. "We're not wanted here…" and he skips quickly out of reach of Nancy's swipe. They leave, letting in a gust of cold wind as they crawl out, and Nancy shifts over, just a bit. John, fourteen years old, half-wishes she'd move further along, so he could cool down a bit, but at the same time, he rather wants her warmth back, her arm in its woollen jersey back pressed tight to his.
"Thank you," he says gratefully to his oldest sister, as she hands him a mug of tea. He swigs, quickly, stupidly, and swallows hurriedly without thinking about it, and then is forced into a series of spluttery coughs, eyes watering, as the scalding tea burns its way down.
"John, that's boiling hot," says Susan, unnecessarily.
So is he, now.
He looks at Nancy, who is grinning at him with sparkling eyes. She blows over her own mug, and takes a demure sip.
What can he do but grin back?
He punches her lightly on the arm. "At least I can undo my own bootlaces."
She laughs. "You have a go then, skipper. It's more a Great Aunt than a granny, this one."
"Knots aren't meant to be a problem for sailors," he says, setting down his mug, and crouching in front of her. Her leather ankle boots are well-worn and soft, her thick winter stockings torn just below the knee. She's in a woollen dress today, like his sisters and Dorothea; her mother has drawn the line at her 'comfortables' being worn in the winter. Her red cap lies on the floor next to his navy school one.
The knot is drawn tight against one eyelet. She seems to have added two reef knots to the regular granny, and the old, worn laces are thin and slippery. He steadily starts to unpick.
He's suddenly aware of Susan's eyes on him.
He feels his cheeks start to burn, without knowing why, and he quickly gives the knot a sharp tug. The knot comes loose with a jerk.
"Ow," says Nancy.
"There," he says.
"Thanks, Commodore." She bends down, and her hair tickles his hand as he draws away. He feels his cheeks burn hotter still. He scrambles to his feet, nearly kicks over his mug of tea, and sits down hurriedly on the log bench.
Nancy is pulling off her boots now and rubbing her ankles, sore after the first skating of the year. "Barbequed billygoats," she says, "but I don't half ache."
John sips his tea and tries to cool down. It's far too stuffy in here. He takes a deep breath, and imagines being outside again, out in the darkening winter afternoon. Out on the crunching snow, where it's gloriously cold and everyone's cheeks are pink with it… He suddenly wishes he was on the sledge again, with Nancy behind him, both their feet causing sprays of powdery snow as they steer, her arms tight around him, and her laughter loud in his ears.
He sets his tea down suddenly.
"Come on, Nancy," he says. "Let's go and show those able-seamen how it's done. Bet you can't go further than fifteen yards."
Nancy makes a face at him as she shoves her feet back into her boots.
"I've just taken these off," she says.
John pauses at the igloo door, and looks back questioningly at her.
"But you're on," she says, grinning, and follows him out into the winter afternoon.
Weeks later, John wakes in the silence of the arctic night. She's next to him, asleep, slumped against the packing cases and sheepskins. All around them are the sleeping bodies of the rest of the arctic explorers, lumps under sheepskins and winter jackets. The fire is almost out, glowing red in the polar darkness. Coals shift and fall, and Roger stirs, wakes, eyes wide, before turning over with an irritable gathering of blankets and sleeping again.
John allows himself to look at Nancy.
Her face is drawn, thinner and paler after her illness, and there are great dark circles under her closed eyes.
John feels a great yearning for something, but he doesn't know himself for what, or why, and he looks away, frustrated with himself.
"I'm cold, John," she says clearly, opening her eyes.
Startled, he grabs a sheepskin from the packing case, and pushes it towards her. She takes it, pulls it round her shoulders, and then shifts quickly towards him, so that she's leaning against him. Her eyes close, and her breathing is deep and regular, and he wonders if she even woke up at all.
He looks down at her. One eye is open, looking at him, glinting dangerously, daring him to say anything.
After a while, her breathing deepens again. She twitches slightly.
Gently, moving very slowly, John puts his arm around her, and feels once more the warmth of her body close to his. She's asleep, after all, and she'll never know.