this side of mortality (part three)
It was a truth of war that they never mentioned along with so many others for fear that voicing it aloud would make it real. They knew death like the back of their hands but putting it to words gave it power and allowed fear to settle over their hearts. They’d been in this war far too long to let it.
October 14, 1916
“Where am I?” asked Benjamin Gray as soon as he could speak, trying to sit up too fast. A hand was placed on his chest and he was lowered back to his cot (was it a cot?) gently but firmly.
The voice that replied to him was Welsh, quiet in either tone or nervousness. With Benj’s head pounding, he couldn’t figure out which, but he could pinpoint the accent. Something was off, though. He opened one eye and looked, properly looked around him for the first time.
He was in a field hospital; the cot that he thought he’d been lying on was nothing more than a bundle of blankets with something stuffed into them. This wasn’t the familiar comfort of the hospital bed in Verona. He could feel his cheeks tingling with the signs of incoming fever, and all around him, men were slumped over onto makeshift beds like his or the ground.
He turned back to the nurse and then said accusingly, “You’re not Tatty.”
“Who?” Her voice was pleasant but confused. She wasn’t dressed like a nurse but she was sitting between him and another soldier – Max, his face pale – and putting cool cloths on both of their heads.
“She’s – never mind,” Benj said after a moment, looking around again. “Where am I?”
She pressed her lips together. “You’re in Pérrone. You’ve been here for a little more than a day. You’ve got a nasty fever.”
“Never mind that,” Benj waved off her concern, “Where are my friends? Are they alive?” Belatedly, he glanced at her and added, “You’re not a nurse.”
“No, I’m not a nurse,” she admitted, “but your soldiers just liberated my town from German control and so many of you were wounded that we had to put all hands on deck.” She paused. “Which friends?”
“Uh, Seth. Danny. Nate.” He cast a glance at Max next to him; his face was ashen, but he looked alright, just asleep.
The blonde woman looked troubled and then left for a few minutes. She returned quickly. “Seth and Nate are alright, they’re arguing with one of the actual nurses over there to try and get out of bed. Danny’s right here.”
Benj turned to his other side and nearly started. The man that was on his left and who his eyes had just skimmed over was none other than his fellow soldier. With his face this swollen and red, Benj could barely recognize him. He let out a sigh. “Oh, God, is he going to be alright?” He tried to get out of bed to take a closer look, but he was contained by the woman again.
“His swelling is going down,” she said uncertainly.
“Good, he got married just a few months ago and I think that his wife would appreciate if he came back in the same condition that he left.” At least he wasn’t dead but Benjamin barely realized how lucky he was, not only to have won that battle, but for him and all of his closest friends to come out of it alive and mostly well.
Or so he thought. “Your fever’s high,” said the woman, pushing him back into his bed. “I’m going to get you more water, but stay here. You’ll make it worse if you get up.”
“Nurse,” he called, and then amended his words. “Miss. What’s your name?”
She turned on her way to the water cooler. “Jones,” she informed him, “Seren Jones.”
October 17, 1916
Tatiana did her count once, twice, then three times. Her eyes were weary, her shoulders heavy, and every step that she took dragged on the ground before she finally sat.
“Seventeen,” she said at last.
Lydia flinched beside her as if she’d been struck. “Only seventeen now?” Her voice softened. “We started out with thirty.”
Tatiana tucked a chocolate lock of hair behind her ear and averted her eyes. “The fever took three more this morning.” Her voice caught in her throat, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this, Lydia. All our supplies are gone.” Her voice was a whisper now. “We’re just sitting around waiting for them to die.”
“We’re not,” Lydia corrected her sternly, but without her usual force.
They two of them were seated on an uprooted tree in what had once been the courtyard of the hospital. In the aftermath of the bomb that had brought down the building, they had had to try and make do with what they could. Most of their supplies had been destroyed in the explosion, and the move along with the bombing had weakened or even killed some of the soldiers as well as the nurses who had been doing their best to transport them. Matron Collins-Stroud was one of them; she was in a cot now, one of the ones that had been vacated after the soldier in it had died.
“This isn’t something we can treat, Lydia,” Tatiana said bitterly, “We just have to trust that they can sweat fevers out, but even that’s nearly impossible. We don’t have much clean drinking water, we’re running low on supplies, and so many of the other nurses are incapacitated too.” She stared forward at the thirty – no, seventeen – living patients that constituted what remained of her and Lydia’s section of the ward.
Lydia wasn’t looking at the patients, though; her gaze was to the side, past the gates, at the shack not too far. Derek had survived the bombing – miraculously, the targeting of the hospital had been so precise that the damage didn’t even extend beyond the gates very far. They were keeping him in the shack for now, but now that everyone was out in the open with the hospital and all of the nurse’s quarters destroyed, Tatiana didn’t know how long her and her friend could keep up their charade and keep sneaking out to attend to him.
“When does the next shipment of supplies arrive?” Lydia asked.
Tatiana considered this, trying to recall what Matron Collins-Stroud had told her a few days before the hospital had been bombed. “Friday,” she said at last, “If the other hospitals haven’t been bombed, and provided that the roads are still usable enough for them to travel down.”
“It’s Tuesday,” reflected Lydia, “We have to keep them alive for another three days on what we have left.”
They both turned to the basket of assorted supplies that had been scavenged from the wrecks of the hospital or pushed out on gurneys. It wasn’t enough for seventeen patients, much less the hundred or so soldiers and nurses wounded now.
“Three days,” agreed Tatiana with a sigh. “We’ll do our best.” She paused. “I’ve got an idea about Derek, by the way.”
“What is it?” Lydia lowered her voice suddenly, turning to face her friend conspiratorially.
Tatiana’s hazel eyes drifted past the woman to the shack. “With all the people who’ve died, no one will know that he’s a… you know.” She swallowed uncertainly. “We could probably sneak him into a bed here, give him a false name, and no one would be any wiser.”
Lydia stared at her thoughtfully. “Can we move him?” she asked at last.
Tatiana nodded. “I think it’ll be alright to now.”
The blonde finally relented. “Alright. He’ll be safer here.” She bit her lip. “We’ll do it at midnight. If anyone sees us, they’ll just think we’re… taking out one of the bodies.”
Tatiana winced, but nodded.
October 20, 1916
“I’m fine.” Benj waved off the concern, the light being shined in his eye. “I’ve been fever-free for four whole days! Look, you can feel my head if you want to.” He took Seren’s hand and she jumped as he placed it on his forehead. “You can send me back out. I’m ready, I promise you.”
Seren exchanged a look with the General. “Is he ready?” asked General Jones after a moment.
Seren shrugged. “I’m not a nurse,” she reminded him for the millionth time, “But everyone you’ve sent in is either dead or recovered. They can go back out.”
General Jones nodded and then ambled off. Benj watched him leave. “It’s like they want us to stay,” he said bitterly after a moment, “Everyone was so eager to get us up off of our feet when I was in Verona and barely recovered, but now that we’re all alright, they’re content with just keeping us here.”
“Easy, Benj,” Seth warned him on the ground from beside him, where he was absently playing cards with Nate. “You sound too eager. Do you really want to go back out?”
“The war’s not over,” Benj pointed out, “And this is my second time recovering in a hospital in a year. We need to get back out there, and maybe if we go soon, we’ll get leave for Christmas.”
That seemed to raise Seth’s spirits. “I’m sick of the Somme,” he agreed with a snort, “but I’ll take it if it means we get to go home.”
General Jones returned and clapped Nate against the shoulder. “How do you boys feel about shipping out tomorrow and helping lead the attack at the north of the Somme?” He said it as if it were a choice, but Benj knew it wasn’t.
Nevertheless, he straightened. “I’d feel excellently about that,” he said firmly, “If you promise us one thing.”
Seth shot him a sideways glance to be less impudent, but Benjamin Gray had had enough of taking orders blindly without knowing where they would lead him. He’d been injured twice within the course of one year; rash as it was, he wanted a guarantee on the other side. “You’ll let us go home for Christmas,” he said at last.
General Jones hesitated. “I don’t know if we’ll be done this offensive in two months,” he said at last, but then he relaxed ever so slightly, “but we’ll do our best to get you out of there by then. I know you all just went out in July, but it’s been several months of hell, for you. I’ll do my best to get you back out there.”
Benj’s trust in the General was implicit. He locked eyes with him and nodded.
November 13, 1916
“The shipment never came,” Lydia said hollowly for the millionth time.
Tatiana rubbed a hand over her eyes and side, leaning against the rubble of the hospital. “I know,” she said again, “and we’ve raked this building a million times. I don’t know what else to do, Lyds. We’ve got no supplies anymore. We ran out of bandages yesterday and I’ve started ripping up shirts today. All we can do is take the patients we have left in the one ambulance that we have and get out of here.”
Lydia’s brow furrowed. “And where will we go?”
Tatiana gestured broadly. “Anywhere! As long as it’s not here and it’s got supplies. I’m not picky. Maybe,” and then she deflated, “Maybe we should go home.”
“Wouldn’t that be giving up?” Lydia asked bitterly.
The brunette shook her head. “We’re regrouping,” she corrected. “There’s no way that we can survive like this anymore. We’ve lost too many, and we’re going to lose them all if we don’t change something now. We have to get out, Lydia. This isn’t a hospital, anymore.” She directed her words to the crumbling bricks beside her, the rubble that was all that remained of the hospital that they’d lived in and worked in for more than a year.
Lydia crossed her arms over her chest and looked away. “And how do you propose we get them out? We just drive until we find the next city? How are we even going to get an ambulance to move?”
Tatiana paused. “My father loves cars,” she admitted, “I know how to drive.” Perhaps it was a bit improper of a lady of her background and upbringing to admit to such a thing, but she didn’t mind. Right now, she had a duty of care. “We’ll drive to Venice. They must have a hospital there, and if not, then we can always board a ship and take them home.” It had been too long since she’d seen her mother but Tatiana knew that the woman would be proud of her for doing her best to save these men and the injured nurses. “It’s our only option, Lyds. Matron Collins-Stroud make us take an oath that promised we’d do whatever we could, remember?”
“Matron Collins-Stroud is dead,” Lydia reminded her, but then hesitated. Her pale blue-green eyes went to the empty beds, the straggling soldiers and nurses left. Her gaze softened. “You’re right, we can’t stay here like sitting ducks. We have to move them.”
Derek was sitting up in his bed, the bandages across his chest in need of changing; unfortunately, they no longer had any resources to help him. This was what Tatiana suspected had been the deciding factor for Lydia, but she kept this thought to herself. Instead, the brunette only said, “I’ll get the ambulance.”
They packed in every last living soldier and nurse into the ambulance; fortunately, it was on the larger side, but it was still a tight squeeze. Tatiana put herself behind the wheel and Lydia squeezed in beside her, and they set off for Venice. With the roads half-bombed and obstructed, the normally two hour trip took nearly four, and it needed frequent pause when one of the patients needed to be sick, but they finally made it; Tatiana, Lydia, and the fourteen patients that they had left.
“Where’s the hospital?” Lydia said at once to the first shopkeeper they passed by. Neither of the two women spoke Italian, and the shopkeeper didn’t speak English, but he could judge by the ambulance and their uniforms where they wanted to go and pointed them in the direction.
They had another problem when they reached the hospital. “We’re packed to maximum occupancy,” said the Matron as they both pleaded their case.
“We drove all the way from Verona,” said Tatiana accusingly.
The woman pursed her lips. “I’ll take only your most urgent patients,” she said a last, “but we can’t spare another bed. We can take six maximum.”
Lydia assessed the patients and sent the worst six off. “What’ll we do with the rest?” she asked Tatiana, but the Matron overheard.
“You can get on a ship,” she added, pointing at the harbor. “It’ll take you back home to England.” Tatiana wanted to protest at once that England wasn’t home to her, but the Matron kept going, “They’ll have clean clothes and bandages; that should help you until you get there, and I wish you the best of luck – but we simply can’t take anyone else.”
Tatiana was hesitant to leave her patients in another’s hands, especially when two of those patients were Easton and Ariel, but she nodded. “Alright. We’ll head out tomorrow morning.” Already night was setting over the town, and the nurse was exhausted. She parked the ambulance in a street corner. “We’ll stay here for the night,” she told Lydia firmly, “In the morning, we’ll get on the first ship home.” They had to have some priority; they were part of the VAD and they were transporting injured soldiers. The woman hesitated suddenly. “Will you look after the patients for a little bit? I just need to send a letter.”
Lydia didn’t need to guess who it was to. She nodded silently, and Tatiana slipped out of the ambulance and toward the nearest post office.
November 13, 1916
Darling, dearest, Benj,
It’s been at least a month since I’ve heard from you, and about the same since you must have heard from me. I’m sorry for not writing sooner, my love, but the hospital was bombed and all our priorities were on trying to save our patients. We couldn’t save all of them. In fact, we couldn’t even save most of them. We were so low on supplies and the shipments that were supposed to come never did.
I’m in Venice now, but just for the night. If you’re still with Nate, tell him that Ariel is in a hospital here. There’s not enough room for everyone, so I’m taking a ship back to the UK tomorrow. I think we’ll head back to Wales; my home’s a hospital too, and my mother runs it, so I know that we won’t be denied any space there for the eight remaining patients and Lydia who I still have with me.
I don’t even know if you’ll get this letter, or where you are, but please, don’t look for me in Verona. I’ve headed home. I don’t know when I’ll next get to see you (I say that every letter, don’t I?), but I know you’re alive. I don’t know how, but I’m sure of it. And as soon as I can be, I’ll make sure that I’m deployed back out. My mother doesn’t need any help running the hospital in our home, and I’m better needed in the field. With any luck, I’ll end up close to you, though I pray that you won’t need me as a nurse again.
Stay safe, darling. I’ll be waiting for you for the rest of my days if I have to.
Love love love,
November 20, 1916
Shaking fingers undid the clasp on his helmet, and Benj all but threw it off. His hands were stained in mud and sweat and blood – this time, none of it was his own. This time, Benjamin Gray had finally emerged unscathed. This time, they’d won. The Somme was theirs.
Around him, soldiers were congratulating each other. Others were mourning the dead. Others were merely sitting in the mud and looking shocked that it was over. Benj found Seth in the mud and took a seat beside him, patting his knee.
“Look, we finished with a month to spare before Christmas.” Benj cracked a smile. “General Jones is going to follow through, just wait.”
Seth stared at him, uncomprehending for a moment. “We get to go home now?” he asked.
Benj suddenly felt horror shoot through him. He didn’t know much about this condition that often left soldiers broken after battle, but he feared that it was affecting his friend. He gripped Seth’s soldier tightly and forced a grin onto his lips. “Yeah, we do.”
General Jones made good on his promise. Within two days, they were at the nearest harbor, being shuttled onto boats.
“I need to get to Italy,” Benj said to the General, who frowned.
“Aren’t you English?”
“Yes, but,” he paused. “I need to go to Italy. There’s someone there that I have to see.”
General Jones still looked confused. “These boats are all headed back to the UK. You’re going to be home for Christmas, not still out in the field.” Before Benj could protest, the General was called away by another one and he was left on his own.
The other soldiers were in high spirits, cheering and joking around and shoving each other in their lines as they shuffled onto the boats. Danny was the only one who noticed Benj’s glum face. “What’s wrong?” the older soldier asked.
“I wanted to go to Italy to see my girl,” Benj said with a shrug, raking his hand through his curls. “I haven’t written to her in ages, and she hasn’t written back either. Or at least, I haven’t been receiving them because we’ve been moved around so much.”
“You can always send a letter when you get back home to England. I’m sure she won’t be upset when she finds out why you couldn’t write back,” Danny replied, and then paused when Benj’s face fell more. “What?”
“There’s no one to go home to,” admitted the younger soldier, “My Dad and brother are still out fighting, and my Mum and my sister both took up factory jobs the last that I heard from them, and that was months ago. I don’t know where they are, or where I’ll go when I get back.”
Danny didn’t hesitate. He clapped Benj on the back affectionately. “You can come with me to Anglesey. I’m going back to see my wife, and my mother would be delighted to have someone else at the table since my sister is probably still at her hospital.”
“Are you sure?” asked Benj uncertainly.
“Of course,” replied the older soldier confidently. “No one deserves to be alone on Christmas, least of all us when this is the only leave we’ll likely get for a while.”
Benj had to agree. He cracked a grin. “Thanks, mate.”
November 25, 1916
Wales was just like Benj remembered it, save for one thing; the atmosphere was vastly different. The air had been excited the last time that he’d been here, with soldiers and young nurses ready for war to prove themselves, but now there was a sense of weariness. The war had stretched on for two years longer than they had expected it to, and everyone just wanted it to be over.
Mia met them at the port. “I didn’t think you’d be here!” Daniel said delightedly as he swung an arm around her shoulders and planted a kiss on her head as she sunk into his side.
“We only got word that you were coming home yesterday,” said Mia with a grin. “Your sister’s here too, she kept asking if I was joking when I told her. Your mother was so excited that she nearly dropped a bedpan.”
“I hope it wasn’t a full one,” joked Benj, and Mia looked at him, noticing him for the first time.
“This is my mate, Benjamin,” Daniel was quick to introduce them. “Benj, this is my wife, Mia. He’s English, but he’ll be spending Christmas with us.”
“So that makes two of us,” said Mia as she reached out to shake his hand with a smile. “Pleasure to meet you, Benj.” The nurse paused. “Oh, before the two of you get too comfortable, I’m not meant to take you straight home yet.” A grin curved up her lips higher. “We’ve whipped together something for the soldiers. Nothing too fancy, but to show our appreciation.”
“You lot really know how to throw parties,” observed Benj with a smile. He was exhausted, but fortunately had managed to bathe on the journey and his uniform had been cleaned; he really didn’t mind heading to a dance. It was one of the pleasures that the war had long since deprived him of.
The event was held in the same place that the last one he’d been to had been in. The Welsh really did know how to throw a party. There was music again, and food (even if it was under ration now). Mia and Daniel had gone off to dance, and Benj had been left alone by the food, which was fine by him. It’d been a while since he’d had anything but military rations and rum, and he was already looking forward to Christmas dinner.
He absently looked at the dance floor and all the soldiers and their sweethearts dancing together. It was a scene of reunion that he missed. He was happy for his friend, he really was, but Benj couldn’t help the sense of longing. He thought back to early August, the last time he’d been in Verona, and his heart clenched suddenly. He turned from the dancing pairs only to stumble straight into a young woman. He grabbed her arm before she fell.
“I’m sorry – “ he started, and then stopped. “Tatty?”
“Benj?” She stared up at him, her hazel eyes wide in the dim lighting of the hall. She was wearing a red dress very unlike the nurse’s uniform that he’d last seen her in, and her hair was in ringlets. Her lips were crimson-red and her cheeks were flushed in sudden shock, but she was in front of him and she was beautiful and suddenly he wasn’t sure that she was real.
He reached out for her, scarcely believing that she was actually there, and when his arms found her waist and he knew that she was real, he tugged her closer quickly. Her arms found his shoulders and her lips crashed against his. Ever mindful of propriety, she kissed him for only a few seconds before she seized his hand and quickly guided him from the hall into the cool night. Benj promptly trapped her between himself and the brick wall, unwilling to keep away after so long without her.
“How are you here?” Tatiana said, breaking the kiss long enough to ask.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go in England so I came to stay with one of the other soldiers,” Benj replied breathlessly, “Why are you here?”
She smiled against his lips. “I live here, remember? My hospital got bombed and Lydia and I had to transport all the patients that we could and relocate. You didn’t get my letters?”
Benj shook his head mournfully. “I got moved around a lot and I couldn’t either write or get letters delivered to me. I didn’t mean to not write back to you, I promise, I just couldn’t.” His blue eyes searched her face in the moonlight. “You don’t resent me, do you?”
“I could never,” replied the nurse with a bright smile, “But you’ve got to make it up to me now.”
“And how am I going to do that?” asked Benj, a grin already slanting up his lips. She couldn’t resist any longer; Tatiana tugged him down by his uniform and kissed him again.
They were so occupied that they didn’t even hear the door opening. It was the shout that interrupted them: “Get off of her!”
Benj suddenly found himself dragged away from Tatty roughly, and before he could react, he’d been punched in the jaw. He reeled sideways and then Tatiana caught him before he could topple over.
“Dai! What is wrong with you?” The nurse said sharply.
Benj looked up and made eye contact with Danny. “What the hell, mate?” he asked weakly.
Daniel was scowling. “What the hell is wrong with you? I leave you alone for ten minutes and I come out to find you snogging my little sister? What about your girl in Italy?”
“This is my girl in Italy!” Benj managed, his head swimming, and then paused. “She’s your sister?”
“How do you know my brother?” Tatiana was looking between the two of them in confusion now that her anger and embarrassment had been replaced.
“That’s Danny, he’s in my unit.” Benj’s mind was still whirring; he suddenly felt like a fool for not putting it together. Tatiana said her brother was named ‘Dai’ and he was a soldier; he hadn’t realized that Danny was just another nickname for Daniel as well. Nor had he realized that whenever he talked about his sweetheart, the Italian nurse in Verona, that it matched the description of where Daniel’s sister worked.
Evidently, Daniel looked equally confused and sheepish at not putting this together. “Your girl was Tatty the whole time?” He asked, scratching the back of his head, “Why didn’t you just say so?” He whirled on his sister. “Why didn’t you tell me that you were seeing anyone? Especially a soldier who I could have been working with?”
“Because then you’d punch him,” Tatiana replied with a roll of her eyes, “and look, you proved me right.”
Benj let out a short laugh. “I tried to show you a picture of her once but you wouldn’t look at it!” That would have saved them a mountain of confusion and miscommunication now. “And I never told you her name because she wouldn’t tell me it either until that one day I had a really bad fever so she got into my bed –“
Tatiana promptly hit his arm with her palm and he stopped talking.
Daniel narrowed his eyes at the two of them uncertainly. “I don’t like this,” he declared at last.
“Join the club, I never would have picked her for a sweetheart if I knew that her brother was going to punch me in the face.” Benj earned another swat on the arm. “I’m joking, darling.”
“Darling,” Daniel repeated, his nose wrinkling.
Tatiana rolled her eyes. “You’re drunk, Dai. Imagine if Mia’s Dad punched you when he found out that you were dating.” This was enough to have the young man paling slightly. “Besides, I thought you two were mates. Better that I’m with someone you trust, yeah?”
Even if his face was flushed with the red glow of alcohol, Daniel considered this. “Alright,” he said at last, and then added, “Just don’t… snog in front of me or anything.” He disappeared back into the hall and presumably to Mia a second later.
Tatiana turned back to Benj. “Are you alright, darling?” Her fingers skimmed his jaw and the place he’d just been punched.
Benj nodded. “Nothing that you can’t kiss better,” he decided breezily. His jaw still ached, but right now, he couldn’t bring himself to care about any of it; not going to England for Christmas, dating the sister of one of his fellow soldiers, getting punched in the jaw. He was with the woman he loved and he intended to stay at her side as long as possible.
Tatiana’s lips twisted up. “I can’t believe you never realized that he was my brother. He’s Welsh. His name is Daniel – his last name is Penvrane!”
“I’m an idiot,” agreed Benj with a laugh.
Tatiana grinned and then reached out with her thumb to wipe off a streak of her lipstick on his jaw. “Maybe,” she relented, but then she stepped backward into the wall and tugged him back onto her by the tie of his uniform. “But you’re my idiot.”
“Yeah, I’m yours,” agreed Benj with a smile as he bent to kiss her again.
December 25, 1916
Josephine Penvrane wasn’t sure how she had managed to create the longest table in all of Great Britain, but she’d somehow managed it. It stretched through four rooms, around two corners, and was laden with as much food as they could manage with the rations. She had wanted to make sure that everyone in The Rookery, including those recovering in the hospital section of it, were able to enjoy Christmas dinner.
Of course, her children were seated close to her near the center of the table, along with Mia, Benj, and Lydia who’d all joined them for their meal.
“I don’t know where the potatoes have disappeared off to,” mused Josie as she peered down both sides of the table and then shrugged. “They’ll come around at some point.”
Benj’s eyes were wide. “Are all your family dinners like this?” he asked Tatty from across the table, and Josie stifled a laugh.
“No,” she answered in place of her daughter with a grin. “Only the really special ones. I’m glad you’re joining us today Benj – and you, Lydia,” she added quickly to the woman seated at her side.
The blonde woman smiled and then promptly snatched her roll away from the patient seated beside her who kept trying to steal it. “Hands to yourself, Haddock.”
“With someone as beautiful as you around, I can’t help myself,” replied James Haddock with a cheeky grin at Lydia.
“I’m talking to the roll,” Haddock added cheerfully, and snatched it away from her with a grin when he caught her off guard.
Mia and Daniel were conversing with the patient seated to their left, who chattered away pleasantly even if he only had one ear and had to constantly lean closer to the couple. Josie watched them with affection, her rosy lips curved up to see someone making her son so happy. She knew that she’d have to send him back out to war soon, and though a part of her had already hardened herself to it, another part still remembered him as a baby boy, not the teenager who had run off in the middle of the night to enlist in this endless war.
There was a laugh across the table and Josie redirected her attention to her daughter and Benj. Tatiana was always the model of propriety (or so Josie thought; she was yet to hear of the reports of what her daughter had done with that very soldier in Italy), but right now she was leaning awfully close to the boy beside her, her hazel eyes shining as she giggled as something he said. To his credit, he wasn’t being entirely improper either, but his curls hung only inches from her face as he repeated whatever he’d said and made her blush.
Lydia beside Josie had finished squabbling with the patient and had relented and given him her roll – only because he was more injured than she was and it was Christmas, she’d told him – and then turned to the older nurse. “When’s Mr. Penvrane coming home?” she asked gently, immediately knowing what the woman was missing.
Josie bit her lip. “I don’t know,” she admitted, “I hoped it would be this month so that he’d be able to see his children again; it’s been two years since he last saw either of them. I’m not even sure where he is right now – he doesn’t write as often as he should, and he keeps getting moved around so my letters to him come back to me because they can’t find him.”
She tried not to let it bother her. Here in The Rookery, there were plenty of people who needed her. She’d never felt this useful and useless at the same time in all of her life; on one hand, there were people who depended on her and her skills for their survival, but on the other, she couldn’t do anything to protect the husband or her son and daughter who she’d sent off to fight in a war or to heal those hurt in it. Josephine Penvrane was stuck at home with the wounded, and this was the first time since the war had begun that she finally felt at home once again – even if her husband wasn’t there.
Lydia squeezed the woman’s shoulder. “You’re doing great things here. He’ll be so impressed when he comes home and sees how many people you’ve helped.” As usual, she didn’t mention how the woman might not see her husband again after all. It was a truth of war that they never mentioned along with so many others for fear that voicing it aloud would make it real. They knew death like the back of their hands but putting it to words gave it power and allowed fear to settle over their hearts. They’d been in this war far too long to let it.
Josie smiled, and then squeezed back the younger nurse’s hand. “Thank you. I hope so.” The topic was too heavy on her mind, so she cleared her throat quickly and then pushed a conspiratorial grin onto her lips. “Now, you’re best friends with Tatty. Do you have any good stories about her?”
“Oh, you bet,” replied Lydia cheerfully. “Do you know how she got Benj to fall in love with her?”
Across the table, Tatiana heard the sound of her name. “What are you two talking about?” she asked, narrowing her hazel eyes curiously.
Lydia shrugged innocuously. “I’m just telling your mother about your marvelous love story.”
Benj flushed. “All of it?”
The flush was as good as an admission of guilt. Josie smiled beatifically at him and then turned to Lydia as the blonde nurse started. “Right, so she had to give him a sponge bath right after he got there –”
“Lyds!” Tatiana said in shock.
James Haddock burst into laughter and Benj turned scarlet and even Daniel let out a small snicker and Josie suddenly felt awash in a feeling of home. She lifted her fork, delicately stabbed at a vegetable, and said, “Tell me more.”
February 20, 1917
The soldiers had long since returned back to the front, this time in Belgium, but Tatiana was writing just as much as she had before her hospital had been blown up. There were no nurses to giggle at her this time whenever she received a letter from her sweetheart and always had to run off to read it in private, but some of the patients who’d been there for long term gave her knowing looks in amusement whenever they saw her rush off when the post arrived.
Josie caught her one morning. “Benj?” she guessed as she saw Tatty pocket the letter, and her daughter nodded guiltily. Josie quite liked the soldier when he’d stayed at The Rookery for all of the time that him and Daniel had had for leave, but she felt compelled to ask, “What happened to my rule about not getting attached to soldiers?”
“We’re all attached to soldiers, Mama,” Tatiana said with a sigh. “Not always romantically, but look at you! You’re in love with one too, you can hardly encourage me not to do the same.”
Josie reached out and squeezed her daughter’s shoulder. “I’m going to tell you what I told Mia,” and what she’d told her self, internally, secretly, “You have to be prepared for the worst. You have to know what you’ll do with yourself and how to pick up the pieces if he doesn’t come back.”
Tatiana smiled a pale smile at her mother. “Of course, Mama. This is war. Each time he leaves, I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again, but, well,” her cheeks colored in slightly, but she went forward with it anyway, “I love him. I have to have faith that he’ll come back so it keeps us both going.”
Josie nodded at her daughter, and her cheeks still red, Tatiana flounced off to read the letter, ignoring James Haddock wolf-whistling in the background (and then Lydia’s immediate reprimand).
March 24, 1917
Darling, dearest, Tatty,
Are you still working with your mother in The Rookery? Getting bored of Wales yet? (Just kidding, don’t skin me alive.) Belgium is nice, way nicer than the trenches in France were. I mean, they’re still cold and wet ad smelly, but the good news is that we’re close to a town so sometimes we get to go there. It’s not the same work of sitting around all the time in shifts. We’re doing a lot of digging and I have some experience now dealing with explosives, but that’s probably all that I can say!
Danny says hello and that he’ll write to you when he’s less exhausted. He’s currently asleep. Max is bored and trying to see how many cards he can stack on his head without Danny noticing – the count is at sixteen as I write this letter, but it keeps going. Anyway, he just says the usual, to take care of your Mama and Mia.
It’s been only three months since leave but I’m counting down every second until the next time I see you. It’s cliche, I know, but I can’t help it. I just want to be back with you. Maybe this time you can come to England and I’ll introduce you to my parents and my siblings. None of them will punch you in the jaw, not even Sarah, I promise. They’ll love you as much as I do. Well, maybe not as much as me, but you know what I mean. Next time I’m home and they are too, I’ll take you with me. It’s about time they met my girl.
Love love love (you know, the more I write this, the more it grows on me. Three times the love to you, my darling),
April 3, 1917
Darling, dearest, Benj,
How could I get bored of Wales? It’s the best place in the world, and I can say that with certainty now. I’ve been to Italy and back, and Bryn Du is still paradise. The daffodils are in full bloom now. You know how much I’ve always loved them, right? I’ve been working with my mother here for some months now along with Lydia. It’s a relief to be working somewhere with a steady stream of supplies after what happened in Verona. Soon, though, Lyds and I are going to the VAD hospital in London; they’re in need of more nurses there, and my mother is fine here.
Dai is just getting lazy. Tell him that if he doesn’t reply to my letters promptly then he’s at risk of me getting extremely cross with him. Mia is doing fine. She misses him, but we all do. That’s why we keep busy. If we dwell too long on what we’re missing or what we might lose, we might never move at all and that’s too much for us to take. Stop stacking cards on my brother! How many did you end up getting on his head before he woke up, though?
There’s nothing else to report here, really. Remember James Haddock? He’s getting well enough to leave soon, which Mama’s a bit relieved about since he causes so much trouble, but I think Lydia is a bit upset about it. He’s wore her down by constantly teasing her – you know how she likes witty banter, right? She won’t admit to being upset, but she’s been finding reasons to constantly check up on him lately. Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it, darling?
I’m terrified to meet your family. Not because it’s too serious (because yes it is a serious step to take but yes, I’m ready to take that step with you), but just because I’m scared they won’t like you. You got the best case scenario with my mother and Daniel, but my Dad would have been a bit tougher on you – it’s okay, we’ll butter him up by the time you get to meet him, but what if your family hates me? The next time you see me, I’ll likely be in England, so maybe you’ll get to make good on your promise.
Speaking of making good on your promises, I believed I was promised your undying love and affection. I still have that, right? I’ve got to check to make sure that you haven’t lost any of your sappiness in the past few months.
Love love love (I told you it was a good closing!),
May 29, 1917
“It’s your birthday,” said Lydia in a sing-song voice.
“Yes it is,” replied Tatiana with a grin.
“You know what that means, don’t you?”
Tatiana considered this. “You’re taking me out for cake when our shift is over and if the Matron lets us?”
“Well, yes,” Lydia said, caught off guard, but then she returned to the previous vein of conversation. “Also, you’re eighteen now. You can get married.”
“So I can.” Tatiana kept her features neutral as she rearranged a cupboard of sutures.
“Are you going to?”
“Depends on if he asks,” replied Tatiana with a laugh, hoping that her cheeks didn’t turn red and betray her.
Lydia laughed behind her. “Alright, Tatty. In the clearly highly unlikely and almost impossible chance that that happens, what’ll you say?”
Tatiana didn’t need to answer. She flushed, and Lydia laughed. “Oh, don’t you start,” the brunette teased her friend. “As if you wouldn’t say yes on the spot if James Haddock came back and proposed.”
Lydia pretended to be affronted. “On the spot? No, of course not. I have more class than that.”
Tatiana bumped her friend’s shoulder. “Look at you, you’re not even trying to deny it anymore.” She grinned impishly at her friend until Lydia let out a half-scoff and turned away.
“James Haddock or Benjamin Gray or not, we’ve still got plenty of patients to take care of,” she reminded the brunette.
“Already on it, Eames,” replied Tatiana cheerfully as she picked up the stitches. “Now, who’s the lucky soldier who gets stitches today?”
June 1, 1917
“Are you going to propose?”
“Shut up, Seth!”
“Aw, come on, everyone else is asleep.”
There was a gruff sound from the side. “I’m not asleep because you two are gossiping like old maids,” Max said.
“Sorry.” Seth dropped the volume of his voice. “Are you going to propose?”
“Should I?” In the dark, Benj’s blue eyes were wide, his light eyebrows drawn lower over them. “What if she says no? What if she thinks we’re too young?”
“Her brother got married when both him and his girl were eighteen,” Seth pointed out. “Speaking of, have you written to Danny about it?”
Danny and Nate had both been sent further north a week earlier. They were both the best at planting explosives, and if this offensive was to work, then they were going to need many of them in the tunnels that the Allies had dug under the German forces. Benj had been a part of digging them, but he hadn’t actually done most of the explosive planting; he was still a little bit nervous that one would go off in his face.
Benj shook his head. “Danny would probably punch me,” he reflected, “Again.”
“Is that going to stop you?”
“No,” Benj said immediately, and then he paused again. “I don’t have enough money for a ring. Not yet, anyway. Maybe when we finally get compensated for all of this, but for now, I’ll have to think of something else.”
There was the sound of a cot straining and then Max’s voice came through the night. “Go with flowers. Girls love flowers.”
“And chocolate,” Seth suggested.
“And come up with something long and sappy,” Max suggested. A second later, he added, “That shouldn’t be hard for you.”
“That was a compliment,” Max amended.
Benj reached for the compass in his pocket and flipped it open. He couldn’t see the picture in it in the dark of the night, but he already knew what it looked like. He’d seen it so much that he’d memorized every detail of it. Benj snapped it back shut and nodded. “Right,” he said finally, “Next time I’m on leave, I’m going to London, marching up to her, and asking her to marry me.”
July 31, 1917
Exactly one year since the first time he’d been on leave, Benj got off of the train and marched into the VAD Hospital in London.
“Hello, darling,” he said, catching her off guard in her hospital ward as he spun her around by the waist to kiss her.
She squeaked in surprised when he drew away. “You didn’t tell me that you were coming!”
Benj gave her a small smile. “It’s only until tomorrow morning. It was a last minute thing, only because we’ve been having some roadblocks in our attack and the General wanted to send us all home for a little bit before we got demoralized again.”
“Nurse Penvrane!” called the Matron. “If you’re going to see your sweetheart will you please do it outside the ward?”
“Am I interrupting?” Benj said suddenly, remembering where he was.
Tatiana was shaking her head. “No, it’s alright,” she assured him, folding her apron off and tucking it onto a shelf along with her cap. “Lyds, will you cover for me for a little bit? Benj is only here for today.”
Lydia shot her a knowing look that Tatiana pretended to ignore. “Of course. You two have fun.” She offered Benj a wave with the hand not occupied with doing stitches, and then returned to her patient.
Benj led her out of the hospital and immediately began winding his way down the streets, one arm around her. “You really know your way around here,” observed Tatiana in appreciation.
“Well, you’ve shown me Wales, haven’t you? Welcome to England. I know everything here.”
“I thought you were from Brighton?”
Benj opened his mouth and then closed it. “Right you are, darling. That I am, but I’ve been to London a few times. I want to take you somewhere nice.”
He led her to a bridge. Tatiana had never been there before, but aside from a few short places outside the hospital, she hadn’t been to London very much at all so it didn’t surprise her. Benj pointed out landmarks from the bridge and chattered to her about them. If he was nervous, then she didn’t notice it; she was so enchanted to have him by her side again that she hung on to every word.
She didn’t realize because she was distracted by staring at some figure in the distance that he’d pointed out, but he’d pulled out daffodils and gotten down on one knee by the time she’d turned around to face him. Her hazel eyes widened.
“I don’t have a ring,” Benj said quickly, “I can’t afford one, not yet. I’m not as wealthy as your family is, Tatiana, and I know that you deserve the best and I don’t know if I can give you as comfortable of a life as your parents have, but I can give you my love and promise that I’ll never stop trying to be a better person for you. We don’t have much time, and I never know if I’ll come back when I leave you, and I’ve always been absolutely terrible with expressing to you how much I love you, so please, let me show you. Will you marry me?”
She stared at him for a moment longer, a moment that felt like an eternity to Benj, and he was almost scared that she was going to turn him down right there and then and march off the bridge, but then a grin quirked up her lips. “Yes, I’ll marry you,” Tatiana said, beaming as she bent to kiss him, nearly knocking him over onto the street in her excitement. “I don’t care if you don’t have a ring or that you’re not wealthy. You’re all that I want.”
They were sappy in their bliss for a few minutes before finally he straightened his uniform and drew away. “Right, we need to find somewhere to get married.”
“I already know a place,” Tatiana said, dragging him down from the bridge.
“Have you been thinking about this too?” Benj asked in wonder.
Tatiana reddened. “A bit,” she said, and then added quickly, “As a precaution, that is. I didn’t know for sure that you’d come back and propose!”
Benj laughed. “As if I could wait any longer. Come on, let’s get married.”
On July 31st, 1917, they became Benjamin and Tatiana Gray. Benj wore his soldier’s uniform and Tatiana wore her best blouse and skirt. Their witnesses were Lydia, another nurse from the hospital, and a man they’d pulled in from off of the street because they needed three, and afterward, the two of them pooled together what they could manage to get a room in a bed and breakfast for one night.
“I can’t believed we eloped,” giggled Tatiana at last when it was over, lying in his arms under the covers. “We’ll have to get married again, when my parents and Daniel are there.” She paused, and her eyes widened. “I need to meet your family still.”
“And you will when this is over,” Benj assured her. He shifted in the sheets. “We’ll get married again, and we’ll do it properly this time. We’ll have a nice big cake, and I’ll wear a better suit, and you’ll get to wear a white dress –“
“Will I still get to wear a white dress after this, technically?” Tatiana challenged, and then smirked at him until he blushed. “Mr. Gray,” she said after a moment, testing the name on her tongue.
“Mrs. Gray,” he replied, and then grinned. “Sounds a bit more mundane than Miss Penvrane, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, but it was worth it,” Tatiana replied with a laugh, and then leaned forward to kiss him again.
August 1, 1917
“Do you have to leave?”
She’d pressed kisses to every inch of his face, his neck, his hands – everything that she could see, and he’d done the same, right there on the train station with no shame in their newlywed bliss.
Benj tucked a chocolate lock behind her ear. “You know I have to,” he reminded her.
Tatiana pressed his hand to her lips and then clasped it between hers. “You’ll write?”
“Of course I will.” He grinned at her, his boyish charm shining through, and she suddenly remembered that though they were married and they’d been in the war for years, they were both only eighteen years old. His eyes were endearingly blue as he fixed them on her. “Hopefully, this is the last time I’ll have to say goodbye to you.”
“And then you’re mine, and even General Jones can’t take you from me,” Tatiana replied, her lips quirking up.
The train whistle blew, and Benj pressed a last, long kiss to her lips before he ran for the train, waving to her out the window until he could no longer see her.
September 21, 1917
“It will get better, I promise.” Lydia’s grip was tight on her shoulder, but Tatiana, curled at the bottom of her bed with her face buried in her arms, her shoulders quivering with sobs, shook her head.
“How can it?”