Millie said he’d be lonely out in the hallway, so Guido stayed in our room. My arms around his chest and Millie lifting his ankles, we moved him across to the kitchenette and arranged him on the spare chair, his long legs tucked under the table so he wouldn’t trip us. Our first gentleman caller, Guido surveyed the bedsitter with a queasy expression. His head lolled so that his tweed cap fell off.
“Oh look, he has a bald patch. That’s rather endearing.”
“Don’t embarrass him!” My sister rushed to rearrange his wavy woollen hair, unravelled from a cardigan she’d long outgrown.
“More like understuffed. Let’s fill him with nonsense.”
I filled his stocking skin with balled up old newspapers, the Radio Times and the Littlewoods catalogue. Millie added stitches to his smile until it was positively beatific, his button eyes shining in the lamplight. He wore a motheaten worsted three-piece donated by sweet Mrs M at number 43 (who was everyone’s aunty, but especially Millie’s). His shirt, really a frayed blouse, Millie had somehow charmed from the doughty Miss B in the bedsitter above ours. On Guido’s feet were the boots Millie had found abandoned on Albion Street, splayed and fallen as if their occupant had exploded from them, which had given her the idea of making our own guy.
“I wish I’d managed to get him a tie.”
“Make one, darling, we must have something lying around that will do.” I considered the lining of my coat, mended in so many places another wouldn’t matter. Millie was too old for all this really, but there’d been no fireworks during the war, not for November fifth. She was so looking forward to Bonfire Night that I was too.
“If he must join us for supper, perhaps you should set a place for Guido.”
“His name’s Guy, silly.”
“Mr Fawkes signed himself Guido.”
“He isn’t that old Guido. He’s ours.”
“Thank goodness. We wouldn’t want to share our soup with a villain.”
Except, one never knew what the men one encountered had done during the war, what they’d been driven to. You’d see something in their gaze, like a London smog inside.
“Guido’s a splendid fellow,” Millie said, “He draws funny little cartoons, and he can conjure jelly babies from little girls’ ears, just like magic, and he can whistle whole symphonies.”
I knew who she meant, and I missed them too, every one of them, but it simply didn’t help, remembering and remembering. Another meal eaten in silence. It did neither of us any good.
“Guido, would you be a darling and do the washing up? If not, it’s Millie’s turn.”
Like every Saturday evening for what seemed like forever, we polished the same shoes into near respectability while the wireless warmed. We listened to the Round Britain quiz, Millie asking Guido for clues when we weren’t sure. I gave him a husky baritone, which Millie loved, and a fondness for educational digressions, which pleased me. When I’d pulled out the bed, she declared him frostbitten, and wrapped her scarf around his neck, the one she loved to wear, and that I’d knitted for somebody else.
She snuffled through sleep, kicking at dreams. Guido watched from the kitchen chair that had always been empty. I tried to imagine a man with long legs, well-read and husky and open-hearted, who would be kind to little sisters. I took my coat from atop our blankets and threw it over Guido.
Millie suggested we bring him along on our Sunday stroll.
“People will assume we’re begging for pennies, darling, and it hasn’t come to that yet.”
She hurried me along to Victoria Park, where the bonfire was under construction. Warped doors and three-legged chairs, it looked to be made from the broken-down parts of homes. I doubted there could be any gunpowder left in the world for fireworks, and spoiled Millie’s smile by saying so. When we got home, Guido told her there would be rockets, and catherine wheels and roman candles and fountains.
I generally read to her on Sundays, an Austen or an Elliot. But Guido volunteered, and chose Swallows and Amazons, which we all enjoyed. He played cards with us, Happy Families, with me peeping over his shoulder as Millie held his cards for him. While we let him win, she told him all about me as though I wasn’t there: sometimes hilarious and usually patient, uncommonly plucky. I hardly recognised myself. Millie kissed him goodnight, and, much to my surprise, kissed me too.
Next morning, Guy Fawkes Day, Millie overacted a fever. One sock hand on her temple, the other on mine, Doctor Guido diagnosed severe Mondayitis. He prescribed the absorption of astonishing facts in class for her, and especially tricky computations for me at work. Arriving home that evening, I found Millie whispering to him. Secrets, she said, and not for me.
“Careless talk costs lives.”
We ate a farewell supper of leftovers, Guido wasn’t hungry, before Millie gave him a piggyback to Victoria Park. There were so many guys there, with woolly hats and cloth caps and even bandaged heads. Guido was the finest and Millie told him so, and I wanted to ask her, how could she give him up so easily? Why did she not roar and bar the way, offer anything, everything, in his stead? So many guys were taken by those who made them, reluctant or frivolous or dazed, and added to the pyre.
“Not Guido,” said Millie, “We need him at home.”
She covered his eyes as the bonfire lit, comforted him as the rockets screamed, and together we brought him back home to his chair, which was no longer spare.