The crumbs were coated in a thick saccharine glaze of rose coloured buttercream, the jam sinking deep into the sponge until it oozed from the edges and bled into the frosting. Margaret placed it between the plates of bread and pastry with a pride born of months of rationing. He was coming home.
"He's a hero, our John," clucked her mother in law, her shrill accent disguised between mouthfuls of Victoria sponge. "That's why they're giving him leave, you see. It's a privilege, and he's a hero, is our John." The ladies around her preened like hens, muttering aloud about the medals he might be wearing, or if he could even be made a general before too long. "Our Margaret," she continued, "Could be a lady before long, she could. What with our own John."
And the women squealed and sighed, her mother in law quite pink with the exertion of such boasting. She reminded Margaret of a great pudding, decorated with heavy floral garnishing, with currants for eyes. On any other day, she would be embarrassed by her mother in law’s new money ways and heavy tongue, but today there was nothing but pride. John was coming home.
"They tried to blow up the whole submarine, so they did," Mrs Criddle continued, licking icing sugar from her fingers with a pointed tongue. "Right out of the water. Huge guns. Three thousand men killed dead, but Jerry hadn't reckoned with our John." She pressed her fingers together like a mock missile. "He spotted them on the radar and fast as you like, he turns the boat-"
"Submarine, love." Her husband interrupted, over his pipe. "It's nowt a boat."
"So fast as you like, our John turns this here submarine and fires on Jerry. Six, seven, eight, fast as you like. And Jerry is firing back, mind and all the water is fire and oil. But our John struck 'em fast, like. He saved his boat, alright."
"Submarine, love. Submarines aren't boats, dearie."
She flexed her wrist indifferently. "I don't bother myself with such things. All I know is that our John is a hero, and we are very proud." The women clucked again, and Margaret went over the window to peer through the lace, in case he was standing there on the step, unsure what to say.
Maybe she would be a captain's wife. Or a general. When the war was over, they would be stationed in India, up in the north where the tea flowered in the valleys, and she would have serving boys and valets to teach English and share afternoon tea with. She imagined watching John, his handsome face glistening in the monsoon rains, as he played polo with the governor and viceroy. No more crowded, dirty Liverpool. They'd be free.
The church rang for noon, the room listening to the bells awkwardly over teacups and raised saucers. Almost on cue, the sound of an auto engine usurped the steeple, the women smoothing their hair with excitement. Margaret braced herself. She pictured herself before him, red lipped and smiling, as he leaned in and kissed her as he had written about for so many long months.
The door was knocked on, but it wasn't John. A red faced sergeant in a badly battered raincoat stood twisting his baton nervously in his hand. "Is John alive?" Margaret heard herself say, her voice heavy with the bluntness of war. The man looked flustered.
"Yes. Yes of course. But it seems no one wrote to you about-" He stopped, gesturing to the army vehicle. "About. Well. It might be a shock, is all. But the lad's alright."
The tarpaulin covering the rear of the truck was peeled back with burnt fingers, the reminded her of mincemeat. Then, two legs, in uniform, shuffling over the threshold as if numbed. His left arm was gone from the elbow down, his sleeve pinned neatly by his pocket, his face like a little bakerlite doll held over a candle. The eyes were the same, dark marble green, but the nose was missing and the head half concealed by his cap.
"Poor lad lost his tongue in the fire," the sergeant continued. "Wanted me to tell you he loved you and that he was sorry." He sniffed, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket. "Still, your John’s a hero, you know."