Waiting For Eternity
WW2 Ghost Romance
Format – ebook
Length – 21,000 Words
July 1940. The Battle of Britain is heating up and emotions are running high at Langdon Royal Air Force base, especially for the fighter pilots in the front line and the nurses who care for them.
Then, in 2003 Jen Saunders makes one last nostalgic visit to the World War Two airfield and reawakens ghosts of the past.
Copyright © 2007 by Alexandra Marell
All rights reserved.
First published 2005
Second Edition 2007
All characters in this publication are purely fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Enjoy this free story, but please do not repost it elsewhere on the internet. Thank you
Time. It moves like a fast-flowing river when you’re in love. Like a still lake when love’s gone. When you’re young and have things to do, places to see, people to be with, it blows right past you like a hurricane. When you’re old and there’s nothing to do but wait, you can only sit in the still, quiet eye of the storm and listen to the silence.
But I like the silence. It’s where I find you.
How long has it been now? Does time mean anything where you are? Are you still waiting for me?
So many bloody questions.
Do you remember how silly you thought that word sounded, coming from an American? You taught me how to say it like the best of them.
I can still hear your voice echoing down the years. Still remember everything we did and everything we said.
As if it was only yesterday that you came storming into my life and into my heart – and just refused to leave.
Royal Air Force Langdon Airbase, July 1940
“What the bloody hell are you doing in here? Ladies’ bathroom. Can’t you read?”
“Quick, help me out. I need a pair of knickers.”
“Knickers, you know?”
“Yes, I’ve heard of knickers.”
“It’s for a bet. Come on, love, England’s counting on you. If I don’t appear with a pair of knickers before that American officer does, I’ll have to wear the bloody things all night.”
“And I should help you, because?”
“Why should… oh, you’re American? Thought your bloody hell didn’t sound right. You’re here with him?”
“What the bloody hell’s wrong with my bloody hell?”
“That officer, he’s your boyfriend, right?”
“No, he bloody ain’t. Now beat it, you’re not getting my knickers.”
“Aww, come on, love. Don’t do this to me. No funny business, I promise. All right, you say bloody hell beautifully. Like a proper lady. Or a princess; you could be Princess… What’s your name?”
“Jen, Jen Saunders.”
“Okay, Princess Jen Saunders. Look, I’ll get down on my knees, if you like. Please could I borrow your knickers for five minutes? Promise I’ll bring them back. Then… I’ll buy you a drink. How’s that?”
“As a lord. God, you’re beautiful. Has anyone ever told you that? Yes, of course they must have.”
“You’ve got one heck of a pick-up-line, do you know that?”
“Yes, I’ve been told. What colour are they?”
“What colour are what?”
“Your knickers, love. I get extra points if they’re red or purple.”
“Bugger. They’ll have to do.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Okay, just turn around.”
“Good show, Jen. Think of it as helping the war effort, keeping up morale and all that.”
“Do you ever stop talking? No, don’t answer that. Here, you can turn back… Now what’s wrong?”
“Wow… Nothing: they’re…nice. Very nice.”
“Will you quit waving them around, someone will see.
Look, I’m freezing my butt off here. Literally. Go do what you gotta do.”
“Yes, ma’am. England appreciates your help in the fight for freedom.”
“Just bring ’em back, that’s all.”
“Wait, what’s your name?”
“Christopher. Flight-lieutenant Christopher Mitchell Anderson, otherwise known as Mitch. The man who’s going to teach you to say bloody hell properly one day.”
“Well, Flight Lieutenant Christopher Mitchell Anderson, otherwise known as Mitch, blah, blah, blah. I want those back in five minutes, otherwise you’re dead.”
“Hey, shh…we don’t talk about things like that. Awful bad luck, you know. We’re immortal, see. Look, I’ll be back in two minutes, then I’ll buy you that drink. Wait for me, love. Don’t move from that spot.”
“Just bring ‘em back, Mitch.”
* * *
RAF Langdon Airbase, 2003
“Mother? Mother, are you all right?”
“Christopher?” Jen Saunders frowned. With a shaking hand, she smoothed back a lock of her wind-blown hair.
“I’m sorry. I think I fell asleep for a moment.”
“Away with the fairies, you were.” Christopher crouched down in front of her and took her hand in his. “I knew this would be too much for you. Come on, let’s get you home.”
Jen waved him away and turned to stare back into the distance.
“Don’t fuss. I’m okay.”
He couldn’t see what she was staring at. Her eyes, which shone with unshed tears, seemed to be fixed on a single spot at the far end of the airfield.
“Is that where he died?” He kept his voice gentle, knowing this would be hard for her.
Jen nodded slowly. She made no effort to wipe away the tears that spilled over her cheeks. She raised a hand. “Over there. They couldn’t be saved. The smoke and the fire, you see, it was…too much.”
“You should have told me, Mother. Why didn’t you say anything?”
She managed a small smile, her hand touched his cheek.
“You’re so like him.”
“But you should have told me. Why did you let me think Robert was my dad? All these years I thought he was, and now you tell me…”
“Oh, sweetheart. So many people lost, others stepping into their shoes. I don’t know why I couldn’t tell you.” His mother shook her head, as if she wasn’t sure now of the decision she’d made so long ago.
“Guess I just wanted to keep Mitch all to myself. Robert was a good father, though. He always thought of you as his own.”
“I know, Mum. I can’t believe you’ve carried this all these years. What was Mitch like?”
Jen studied him for a long time, her smile tinged with sadness. “He was like you. Beautiful, brave, and…so full of himself.” She laughed softly at some distant memory. I loved him…” Her voice broke on a sob and for a moment she closed her eyes. Her eyelids trembled. “I loved him very much,” she said at last, regaining her composure with a shaky breath. “I should have told you. You had a right to know.”
Christopher pulled a tissue from his jacket pocket and handed it to her. “Here. It’s all right, mother. Really it is. Don’t let this upset you.”
Holding hands, they both stared across the deserted airfield. A light breeze whipped the grass growing between the cracks in the concrete runway. A door banged back and forth on one of the now-derelict hangars. What was it that Winston Churchill said?
So much owed by so many to so few.
“Flight Lieutenant Anderson.” Jen said the name slowly, letting it linger on her lips. “I can still see them all, Chris. Dispersal was over there.” She raised a hand and pointed to a roofless, red-brick building. “That’s where they’d wait for the alerts. The runway was just a grassy field then. They put the concrete in for the heavy bombers which came later. I used to stand by the wire and watch out for Mitch.”
“Mum, don’t tire yourself.”
She was no longer listening. Jen’s face shone with a radiance he hadn’t seen in a long time, almost as if, in her mind, she was back in nineteen-forty, in the thick of the Battle of Britain.
“If he saw me he’d always shout, Red Lion, eight-o’clock. Don’t be late. They had to believe they were coming back, you see.”
But not all of them made it back – Christopher knew his history well enough. Knew that every day familiar faces would be missing and another family would be in mourning for a brave son who’d given everything for his country.
“They were all so young, Christopher. Eager, green and so very young. But then, so was I.”
Christopher stroked the velvety skin on the back of his mother’s hand. She seemed determined to tell this story.
“Okay, then. Tell me about him. If it’s not too painful, I’d like to know.” He sat beside his mother on the concrete block, slipped an arm around her back and stretched out his legs, “Tell me about my father.”
RAF Langdon Airbase, July 1940
“She’s coming over, mate.”
“Oh, bugger. Look, tell her I had to visit a sick relative or something.”
The improbably blond airman reached for his jacket and cap. One arm in, one arm out, he stumbled over his chair and looked around for a fire exit or another door. Anything rather than face the wrath of Jen Saunders, who was advancing on him with a face that said she wasn’t about to let him go until she’d had her say.
“Hey, you, don’t you dare leave.” She sidestepped him neatly, blocking his escape. “Wait for me, you said. Don’t move from that spot. Where the hell did you get to last night?”
“I… I…” Mitch backed into the wall, distracted for a moment by a blonde curl that had escaped the confines of her nurse’s cap. It bobbed against her cheek when she moved, lending her an endearing air of vulnerability. Take your cap off, he wanted to say. Let me see you with your hair down. Wisely, he kept his mouth closed. Jen placed a flat palm on his chest and pushed him back, very lightly. Mitch stumbled dramatically into the wall and widened his eyes in mock-fear. A hint of a smile flickered across Jen’s mouth.
And that was it. The moment he fell in love with her. Of course he didn’t know it at the time; that’s what hindsight’s for. All he remembered initially was the telling-off she’d given him. How the hell was he supposed to remember he’d gone storming into the ladies’ toilets and demanded her knickers? He’d passed out, dead drunk, five minutes later. And the knickers in question had mysteriously disappeared. In fact, they were quite probably now gracing the backside of some floozy one of his mates had picked up that night.
“Well,” she said. “You owe me an explanation. You, you…rat.”
She wasn’t about to back down. He admired her for that, given his reputation as crazy-guy extraordinaire. He had to be, in this game. The crazier the better. It gave him an edge, a spark of brilliance that set him apart. It kept him alive, but it could just as easily get him killed. He walked a fine line these days.
His plane was always the first up, even when it wasn’t supposed to be, and always the last back. Then, of course, everyone could witness the stupidly low, and highly frowned upon, barrel roll that was his trademark. They all did it of course, diced with death, even when they didn’t have to. Mitch liked people to know he was around. Didn’t want to die and not leave anything behind. Because they were all going to die; that’s where he came from every day.
Today could be your last day on earth, mate. Make the most of it. Make your mark.
No one would remember Christopher, the man he used to be, all floppy brown hair and clothes that looked as if they’d been borrowed from his dad. But, who could forget dashing airman Mitch, with his witty backchat and couldn’t-care-less attitude? And the hair that nearly made his Squadron-Leader have a coronary when he’d first bleached it for a bet.
And then there was his newly-found disposition for running into ladies’ bathrooms, and demanding knickers. Not much he wouldn’t do. Or a dare he wouldn’t take. Imminent death made you reckless. Brave to the point of stupidity. He wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, except, strangely, this small woman who now had him pinned against the wall by the sheer force of her outrage.
“Get that sorry ass of yours to the nearest lingerie shop, pronto,” she said, her voice darkly threatening. “Or it won’t be the enemy that kills you, Mitch, because I’ll be doing it for them.”
His drinking companions sniggered when she turned and stomped away, having described in horrible detail what would to happen to him if he didn’t get said underwear to her by that evening. And, surprisingly, Mitch managed to stifle the impulse to throw her over his shoulder and carry her out to the jeers and cheers of all his mates, and show her who was really in charge here.
Instead, he found himself meekly touching his cap, staring far too closely at the way her shapely backside wiggled, and wondering what size she was.
And later that evening he was even more surprised to find himself standing on the doorstep of the nurses’ quarters, politely asking a rather fierce-looking matron if Jen was available.
Not that his visits to the nurses’ quarters were anything unusual, just the method of entry he was using at this time. Drainpipes were more his style. He bit back a smile. Somehow he didn’t think Jen Saunders would appreciate him suddenly appearing at her window bearing a pair of very lacy, bright red French-knickers.
He had no idea why they were called French, but the colour would match her eyes if he remembered anything about their earlier encounter. She’d been blazing all right, but she didn’t have him that whipped. He wanted to see her face when she opened the parcel, and wasn’t leaving until she did. The thought had crossed his mind that perhaps she’d model them for him. Hell, most of the girls he knew would be glad to. They’d cost him an arm and a leg, so she owed him something for that.
No way she’d agree. Still, didn’t hurt to ask. She may have left him somewhat stunned that afternoon, but he was recovering fast.
Jen Saunders had thrown down a challenge. He wasn’t the type to back down and neither, he suspected, was she. She’d won the first battle, but he aimed to win the war. And he would see her in these before the night was out. If it was the last thing he did.
* * *
“Oh, Jen, he’s so cute. Are you really not going down?”
Jen leaned over the banister rail and stared, with some satisfaction, at Flight-Lieutenant Anderson, who despite using every charm offensive in the book, still hadn’t managed to wheedle himself past matron. She wasn’t going down. No way. Cute or no cute, he deserved a little discomfort for what he’d done to her. After waiting in the bathroom for over an hour for him to come back, she’d had to walk back to the base on one of the windiest nights of the year because, by then, she’d missed the last bus.
What the hell had she been thinking? Handing over her underwear had seemed such a perfectly reasonable thing to do last night. Now her behaviour left her hot with embarrassment.
“Nope. Let him stew, the rat. Too bloody sure of himself.”
It’s gonna get him killed. But he’ll go out in a blaze of glory. He’s not going quietly into the night, not him.
The thought almost made her relent. They were all living on the edge these days. All of them doing crazy things.
And the future, which used to be something that happened without having to think about it, was becoming an elusive thing. Something they’d always taken for granted but was now a precious commodity.
Something some people didn’t have any more. That the man standing downstairs giving matron the puppy-dog eyes might not have.
Jen stood and stretched out her arms, stifling a yawn as she contemplated a relaxing evening drinking cocoa and reading the racy novel she’d managed to get her hands on. Twelve hour shifts were a bitch, and didn’t exactly put you in a good mood. She took one last glance at the now-desperate Mitch and turned for her room. Did he even realise how difficult it was to walk knickerless in a gale-force wind?
No, let him stew, he’d survive. Or not. It wasn’t her call anyway; she had nothing to feel bad about. She wasn’t responsible for this mess of a war. Just someone who was trying to help.
“Does that mean I can have him?” Her friend winked and took one last look downstairs.
“Yeah.” Jen started on the buttons of her uniform. “Take him. He’s all yours.”
* * *
She wasn’t going to relent.
He’d tried every trick in the book, and still matron stood before him like the proverbial Valkyrie, arms folded and daring him to get past her. He’d thought there wasn’t anything he couldn’t or wouldn’t do. Heck, he was beginning to learn a few rather surprising things about himself since he’d had the misfortune to run into Jen Saunders.
Women. It was simple, right? They either loved you or they didn’t. Sometimes they said yes, sometimes they said no. You either lucked out, or you walked away. Like buses there’d be another one along in a little while.
Since he’d turned into Mitch he hadn’t had so many of the nos. That really hadn’t bothered him. Until now.
Why the hell didn’t he just hand the parcel over to the dragon and have done with it? Then he could walk out of Jen Saunders’ life and, with a bit of luck, never run into her again.
Because, he wasn’t thinking with his brain right now. He was thinking with his trousers, and that image of her wearing the French-knickers just wouldn’t bloody-well leave him alone. Suddenly, the most important thing in the world was not to die before he’d seen her in them.
He sighed dramatically as the door closed in his face, and squinted up at the building. It was going to have to be the drainpipe after all.
Two nurses walked by, giggling at the sight of him staring so forlornly.
“Jen Saunders,” he said flashing his best smile. “American. Which floor’s she on?”
* * *
It had been a hell of a day. Even in the middle of a war, when she thought she’d seen everything, there always seemed to be something else waiting to test the reserves. Jen undid the remaining buttons of her uniform and slipped it off. Throwing it down, she flopped back onto her bed and let out a long breath. One of the young airmen had died on them, just like that. He’d been getting better. Had started talking about going home and then he was gone, quietly in his sleep. Just gave up for no reason, some reason, who knew? There wasn’t a damned thing she could do about it.
Covering her eyes with an arm, she tried not to think too much. Without some degree of detachment she couldn’t do her job. Especially during this war. Everybody needed to do their job without question right now.
And then there was Robert. He’d asked her out again and she was starting to waver, to think very seriously about saying yes. So he was a little older than her, but mature men were good; right? She could do far worse than a consultant surgeon. Any nurse would tell her that.
Her friends looked on enviously and couldn’t believe she even had to think about it. Her father would approve. Oh yes, Squadron-Leader Bradford Saunders, who really hadn’t wanted to bring her to England with him, would approve of her marrying a surgeon. Fitted right in with his image of what he’d always wanted her life to be.
Enough to give her a headache just thinking about it. Her roommate was away for a long weekend and she was thankful for that. Anne never stopped talking, and had made it more than plain that she’d have Robert if Jen didn’t want him. Always dropping incessant hints, despite the fact that Jen had told her more than once that she was welcome to him, and he wasn’t actually her boyfriend anyway.
Jen hauled herself from the bed and slipped into a robe, picked up her spongebag and made her way to the bathroom. Bath, cocoa, novel and sleep. And nothing else. She wasn’t going to think about young airmen who lay hopeless in their hospital beds. Or Robert and his offer of a date at the opera. And she certainly wasn’t going to think about cheeky fighter pilots who thought the height of amusement was stealing her knickers.
The bathroom door closed just as she reached it, the bolt sliding across with a determined click. “Damn,” she muttered and closed her eyes in frustration, wondering if she had the energy to walk upstairs to the bathroom on the next floor. No, she didn’t. Exhaustion was overtaking her and if she didn’t get to bed soon she would fall asleep right there in the corridor. The small kitchenette that served her floor was, thankfully, deserted. Good, she thought, setting the kettle on the stove. She really didn’t feel like chatting tonight. Absently stirring her cocoa, she wandered back to her room.
Mitch had looked so funny standing there trying to sweet-talk matron.
No, funny wasn’t the word. Surprised? Like someone who was used to having women fall at his feet and had finally come up against one he couldn’t charm, and it had confused the hell out of him.
“Ha!” She gave a small chuckle and let herself back into the room. They didn’t call matron the dragon for nothing. She’d earned that nickname with honours. Not that she had a clue what went on behind her back.
Inevitable, really, given the combination of young nurses and over-confident airmen. They were all screwing like there was no tomorrow, and for some that was a grim reality. Jen had been on a few casual dates, but tried to steer clear of any involvement, given that she was going back to America after the war. That was until Robert had come onto the scene. His soulful gaze and quiet persistence were working on her in subtle ways. It wouldn’t be a one-night stand with him, she already knew that. All she had to do was say yes. And maybe she would, but not tonight.
She slipped the satin robe from her shoulders, let it drop to the floor, and lay back onto the bed. Found her book and thumbed it open. John and Amanda were about to do the dirty deed somewhere in a hot, steamy jungle, and a little escapism was just what she needed right now. She plumped up her pillow and reached for the cocoa.
Then she froze.
Christ, someone was in the room. She looked around.
No, not in the room; there wasn’t exactly anywhere to hide, but she could hear someone moving. Keeping very still, she listened, and there it was again, a scuffling noise and a muffled curse. A slight breeze caused the curtains to ripple and focused her attention on the window.
Someone was climbing in through her window. For a moment she stayed very still, before jumping from the bed and grabbing her robe.
“Boy, have you got the wrong room, buster,” she muttered picking up a large medical textbook. These airmen thought they could do what they liked and maybe this one had just got the wrong room, but she wasn’t in the mood for this tonight. All she wanted to do was read her novel, drink her cocoa, and go to sleep. It wasn’t too much to ask. She made her way determinedly to the window and stood beside it while the shape struggled with the flapping curtains. This guy wasn’t going to forget Jen Saunders in a hurry.
It wasn’t a very hard blow. Being a nurse, she really didn’t want to hurt whoever it was. Only wanted to make her point, but it was enough to floor him. The airman went down with a surprised grunt, hit the floor and lay there, unmoving.
Jen folded her arms and gave him her best glare. “Okay, you can get up now.”
“I said you can get up. Quit fooling around.”
Still no response. The nurse in her was struggling with the outraged woman now, and, of course, the nurse won. She dropped to her knees beside the still figure and reached across to pull him over. He was just coming to with a slight groan. He flopped onto his back, and then she was looking into the very blue and rather dazed eyes of airman Mitch Anderson. He stared at her for a moment, gave her a lopsided grin, then his eyes closed and he fell back.
Jen sat on her heels, hardly able to believe what she was seeing, or what she’d done. She also had no idea how she could feel incredibly annoyed and concerned for someone at the same time. Him again. He seemed so very determined to force his way into her life, yet every time they came into contact with each other they seemed destined to come to blows. She’d wanted to hit him in the canteen, especially when he’d had the nerve to smirk at her when she was making a perfectly valid point about her missing underwear. And now he was here, lying on her bedroom floor, possibly with a concussion, making her feel horribly guilty.
This was one persistent guy. Why, oh why hadn’t she just gone down and accepted the parcel? That would have been that. End of story. Never have to see Mitch Anderson again. But, no, she’d had to give him a reason to pull a stupid stunt like this. God, she could have pushed him out of the window and killed him, the stupid jerk.
“You’re a stupid jerk, you know that?” she told him, thinking that she ought to do something. Make sure, at the very least, that he wasn’t seriously injured. “And I didn’t hit you that hard.”
Pulling herself up, she crossed the room to the basin and reached for a wash-cloth. A cold compress was what he needed.
It’s more than you deserve, you idiot.
As she dropped to her knees beside him once more and felt gently for the bump on his head, she thought that perhaps she would say yes to Robert.
Time she got herself a regular boyfriend. Someone steady, and not crazy. Someone who would never contemplate climbing in through her bedroom window.
There was enough madness around her without adding to it by having anything to do with Mitch Anderson.
Thought he could charm the birds off the trees? Well, not this one. And how the hell was she going to get him out of the front door, past the dragon? Matron always had her own door open at this time of night for that very reason. He didn’t look in any fit state to climb back down the drainpipe.
Jen twisted him round and pulled his head into her lap, watching for signs that he was coming to. He was taking rather a long time over it, which was typical of him.
Probably made a drama out of everything – even being unconscious. Well, concussion or no concussion, when he woke up he was going to be treated to another very large piece of her mind, and then she needed to work out how to get him out in one piece. This was nothing compared to what would happen to the both of them if matron found him here.
* * *
He’d been right about her not appreciating it, but, as usual, hadn’t stopped to think his cunning plan through.
Climb in the window, give her the parcel, then somehow convince her to try on the contents. Simple, yes?
What the hell was it with this woman that she couldn’t be within ten feet of him without either threatening him or trying to kill him?
But this was nice. He nearly gave the game away there and then in the struggle to stop his trademark smirk from breaking out all over his face. She really thought she’d knocked him out? Insulting, really. Surely he looked tougher than that? Okay, so the blow had hurt some. Definitely been worth it, though. Now he was happily lying in her lap, enjoying a wonderful view of her breasts spilling over the lacy cups of her bra.
And he also had her completely at his mercy. She would be feeling guilty about this, right? Yes, this one he intended to milk for all it was worth.
Mitch gave a little moan to signal his imminent awakening, and fluttered his eyes open. There was so much concern in her expression that he almost felt sorry for deceiving her.
Heck, what was the saying? All’s fair in love and war.
Well, they had the war, but he wasn’t about to fall in love with anyone. Focus on the mission – getting her into the underwear. He gave another groan for effect. God, she was pretty. Perky little nose, full red lips, although now they were stretched tight, in a thin line of disapproval. Soft brown eyes. Nurse’s eyes – full of compassion. And a body to die for, as the now completely open robe revealed. One that would certainly look great in the red, lacy things he’d bought her.
Time to move, mate. Getting a bit carried away here.
Her arms slipped around his shoulder and he let her pull him up. The delicious scent of some flower he couldn’t name washed over him as he rested his head on her arm and breathed against her skin. She pulled her robe closed, self-consciously, and helped him to sit up. Their eyes met.
Mitch risked a tentative smile. Yes, this was very nice.
Definitely worth being hit over the head for.
Spongebag in hand, Jen walked to the door, resolutely trying to ignore the man stretched out on her bed. Impossible, of course. With an exaggerated sigh she turned back to him.
“Look, I’m taking a bath. Then we need to figure out how to get you past matron. Don’t move from there. You need to rest, okay?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Mitch saluted, flashed her a grin and lay back against the pillows. Her pillows. Which she should be relaxing on right now. Jen was fairly sure there was nothing wrong with him, but she couldn’t take a chance. Not if he might have a concussion.
Hell, now she felt responsible for him as well as guilty.
“And don’t even think of trying to climb back out that window, do you hear me?”
“Loud and clear. Umm. If you like I could help you wash your…”
“And don’t you even think about that either,” she ordered him, but she could see by the smirk on his face that he already was.
“Look,” she pushed back her hair and closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, he was still there.
“Just stay put, and don’t touch anything.”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
Mitch put his hands behind his head, assuming a look of innocence which didn’t fool her for one moment. The leery grin was still on his face. He had her. And he knew it.
What the hell had possessed her to hit him? He could have delivered his package and gone back the way he’d come, and she’d never have had to see him again. Now she was stuck with the most annoying patient she would ever have the misfortune to nurse.
She spun on her heels. He called her back and slipped his hand under his leather flying-jacket to bring out a neatly wrapped parcel. “You forgot these.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Think you did, love. Go on, Jen, take them. It’s the least I could do after…”
“No, don’t go there.” Jen held up her hands as if by doing so she could make him magically disappear.
“Do you any idea how difficult it is to walk home in a gale without underwear?”
Mitch’s eyes widened for a second and he looked suspiciously like someone trying to stop himself from laughing and not succeeding very well. His mouth twitched at the corners as he struggled to keep a straight face.
“Never done it myself, but I’m willing to give it a try. Go on, take ’em. Cost me an arm and a leg.”
“Good.” Jen snatched the parcel and tossed it carelessly onto Anne’s bed. “Right, now I’m getting that bath.”
“Not going to try them on?”
“She looked back over her shoulder and raised her eyebrows. “In your dreams, Mitch.” Did he seriously think she would put them on for him? He may be cute, but he wasn’t that cute. Was he? She sneaked another look, then quickly looked away. Damn, but he was. Pity about the being a complete idiot part.
“I am not.”
“Put them on, then.”
“Look, buster, you’ll be modelling these for me before I put ’em on for you.”
“All right, you’re on. Throw them over.”
Mitch sat up and shrugged out of his leather jacket while Jen watched with eyes getting wider by the moment. He was opening the second button of his trousers by the time she’d flown across the room and stopped him by slapping her hand unceremoniously into his crotch.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Trying them on. Be a love and get them for me?” He looked down pointedly at her hand and moved his hips, ever so slightly.
“Are you mad?” She followed his gaze, realised where her hand had landed and hastily removed it. “I do not want to see you in ladies’ underwear.”
“Well, I won’t look as good as you in them, that’s for sure. But come on, hand them over. I never run from a challenge.”
Jen stood back and folded her arms. “Neither do I.”
“Thought as much. You want to go first?”
“Has anyone ever told you how annoying you are? No, don’t answer that. Okay, Flight-Lieutenant Anderson, you’re on. You sure you can handle this?”
“No problem.” Mitch settled back down again, jacketless, trousers almost undone. And that smile was back. The smile that told her he thought he’d got one over on her. That he was in charge of the situation. Who the hell did he think he was dealing with here? She’d show him who was in charge.
Jen picked up the parcel and pulled at the string, glancing at him once again. He won’t be looking quite so calm when I’ve finished with him, she thought, taking out the underwear and holding it up.
Well, he had good taste, anyway. The red, lace-trimmed silk slipped through her fingers, feeling both wickedly sinful and satisfyingly expensive.
She looked around again, unable to resist half-closing her eyes and giving her bottom a very small wiggle. He couldn’t see what she was doing; her robe still covered her and she had her back to him. A quick glance. He’d leaned forward ever so slightly, eyes widened in anticipation. Smoothing the silk over her hips she thought, yes, Mitch Anderson, you are going to regret ever asking me to do this. The French-knickers covered her original panties well enough, so she pulled her robe closed and turned around to face him.
“Yes.” It came out slightly squeakier than his normal voice. He was also having trouble with the smirk. Try as he might, he didn’t seem to be able to get it back on his face.
“Okay, here goes.”
“Wait.” His hand came up to stop her.
“What now?” She pulled the robe closed while he pushed his cuff away from his wristwatch and made a big show of looking at it.
“How long do I get?”
“What do you mean, how long do you get?”
He was mad. She had a truly certifiable lunatic in her bed. And was about to flash him her underwear because he’d said she was too chicken not to do it. That must make her mad too. Oh, hell, she’d known this man all of two days and already she was acting like him.
Think of Robert, she told herself. Good old, reliable Robert. Pillar of the community. With his Rolls Royce and his sensible hair and his season ticket to the opera. Robert, who would never, in his wildest dreams, climb in through her bedroom window to give her underwear. And who would never expect her to parade in front of him in it, like some harlot.
“One minute. Are you crazy? Yes, I know. We’ve already established that. I am not standing in front of you in my underwear for a whole minute.”
“Fifty seconds, then. Those things were bloody expensive.”
“Thirty, and that’s my final offer.”
“All right, done.” Mitch looked at his watch again and counted off the seconds. “Three, two, one. Go for it.”
Jen pulled the robe apart, only now realising that he was seeing a lot more than the knickers. She almost wavered then, her trembling hands wanting to do nothing more than close the robe and run from the room. A room that was getting hotter and hotter as the seconds ticked away.
No blushing. She was in charge here, right? There was no way Mitch Anderson would keep his composure. He was obviously a complete idiot who never took anything seriously. But as she stood there in front of him she felt the atmosphere in the room changing. The air was suddenly thick and heavy and her chest heaved in an effort to breathe it in.
Mitch sat right up, blinked and cocked his head to one side, his lips slightly parted and a look of mild confusion on his face. His eyes scanned her body briefly and came back to rest on her face. If she hadn’t known better, she would have said his expression was one of shock.
A sarcastic comment froze on the tip of her tongue as she stood there, not doing any of the things she’d planned to do. She’d planned to give him a bit of a show, get him all worked up and then swan imperiously away to her bath and leave him to stew. Instead, all she could do was stand there dumbly, with an expression much the same as he was sporting. The game had suddenly turned deadly serious. Someone had changed the rules, flipped a coin, and now she didn’t know what to do. His thirty seconds were up, but she made no move to close the robe as he searched her eyes, and trapped her with the intensity of his gaze.
She probably would have stood there all night, robe open, if he hadn’t shaken himself out of the haze and slipped quietly from the bed to close it for her.
“You play dirty, love.” He leaned in and whispered it close to her ear, his voice low and barely there. His hot breath caressed her skin and she shivered. “It’s really not fair.”
He was still looking at her as he reached for the ties, warm fingers grazing her hip when he closed the gown.
Jen found herself moving slightly into his touch, disappointed it didn’t last longer and that he was turning back towards the bed and picking up his jacket.
He slipped it on, adjusted the collar, shook his head and muttered something to himself, as if he’d forgotten she was in the room.
Lifting his head, he studied her thoughtfully for a moment, and that’s when she saw it. The person he really was behind all the bravado and the brashness.
The person who hid behind that self-satisfied grin and wise-cracking talk.
She saw the fear and the uncertainty. The hopelessness and despair of a life lived on the edge.
And something else.
For a split second when their eyes locked she saw it all, and that was the moment she fell in love with him. Only she didn’t know it at the time, either.
* * *
Langdon Airbase 2003
“He sent me a poem, you know. Underneath all that noise and bleached hair, he was a sensitive soul. Just didn’t like anyone knowing it.”
“Mother, this is all very personal. You don’t have to tell me everything.” Christopher inspected his fingernails then stuck his hands in his pockets.
“And I won’t, don’t worry. If I go quiet for a while, well, it’s just as you say, too personal.” Jen gave a small laugh. “I remember it all, though, everything he said, everything he did. He wanted to be remembered, you see. Made me promise I’d never forget him. How could I ever forget him?”
Christopher nodded in agreement. “Sounds as if he was a real character.”
“He was that. Look, here it is.” Jen opened her purse and fished inside, bringing out a folded sheet which she offered to him. “I’d like you to have it.”
Christopher took the sheet and unfolded it. “Andrew Marvell?”
Jen laughed again and stared into the distance. “Took me a while to work out what it all meant. Wasn’t very well up on poetry.”
He scanned the handwritten verse and smiled to himself. “Had we but world enough and time…” After a few moments of reading silently, the smile faded. “But you didn’t, did you?”
“No, we didn’t. That’s what he was trying to tell me. I thought it was just a crummy pick-up line, but he was right. He had this knack of being right about the important things. Used to annoy the hell out of me.”
“So when did he give you this?”
“Oh, he appeared at the worst possible time, as usual. Robert had two tickets to the opera…”
* * *
Royal Air Force Military Hospital, Langdon. July 1940
“La Boheem.” Jen stared at the tickets.
“Bo’em, it’s pronounced Bo’em, and it’s an opera. Say you’ll come with me, Jen.”
“Oops!” Jen giggled and put her hand over her mouth.
“I’ve never been to the opera before. Will I like it?”
“I’ve no idea. Say you’ll come anyway. If you don’t like it, we can sneak out during the interval like a pair of naughty schoolchildren. How about it?”
Jen looked up at Consultant Surgeon Robert O’ Connor.
Tall, dark, and handsome Robert O’ Connor. He stood there, hands in pockets, quietly waiting for her to make up her mind. Never pushing her to a decision, never harassing her for anything she wasn’t prepared to give willingly. He’d told her that much. Said he wanted her but knew the score. Knew she was going back to the States after the war and didn’t want to start anything they couldn’t finish.
He was right. They’d talked about it sensibly and rationally, as he probably did everything, and decided they’d just be friends. Casual dates, theatre, that sort of thing. But one of them wasn’t going to stick to the agreement. She could see it in his eyes. In the way they followed her everywhere she went. The silent longing, the simple look of adoration. And she was falling for it.
Falling for his gentlemanly charm and quiet persistence.
Starting to think that maybe she wouldn’t be going back to the States after all. Starting to think that maybe she had a future here with him.
“Okay. I’ll come, but can we stick to what we said. You know, about taking it slow?”
“Of course we can, Jen.” He looked at his watch and flashed her a smile. “Look, I’m due in the operating theatre in a few minutes. I’ll pick you up on Saturday at, say, six o’clock. Perhaps we can catch a meal after the show? I know a little place where they can still get hold of a good steak.”
“God, real food? I’ll love you for life, Robert. Just get me that steak.”
“Would you, Jen?”
She knew what he meant as he stood there shyly. But she didn’t have the answer he wanted. Not yet anyway.
“Nothing. See you on Saturday.”
He turned and strode purposefully through the double doors at the end of the corridor, almost bumping into Anne, who appeared through them pushing a trolley.
“So, did he ask you?” Anne stood in front of her, arms folded. “Come on, tell me everything.”
Jen took a step back, almost knocked over by Anne’s enthusiasm for her love life. “Yes, he asked. And, yes, I said I’ll go.”
“Yes! So, where’s he taking you?”
Anne burst into noisy laughter. “Opera? How boring. Anyway, I thought most of the theatres were closing for the duration.”
Jen shrugged absently, “Apparently not all of them. Then he’s taking me to some posh place for a meal.”
Anne sighed. “You lucky cow. Oh, by the way, your brother asked me to give you this.”
She fumbled in her pocket and brought out an envelope.
Jen took it, frowning. “I don’t have a brother.”
Anne gave her a knowing look. “Okay, I’ll rephrase. A very handsome, secret admirer asked me to give you this.”
Jen’s heart skipped several beats. She turned the plain, brown envelope over in her hand. “Airman, strange hair, stupid grin?”
“The very man. He’s waiting downstairs.”
“What for?” Jen’s heart started a slow, heavy thudding. “And why should I care?”
“Well, I don’t know.” Anne pointed to the trolley.
“Enema on ward five, I don’t suppose you’d like to…”
“No way. I’m off in five minutes. He’s not really waiting, is he?”
“That’s what he said. He’s in A and E.”
“Accident and Emergency? Is he hurt?”
“Thought you said you didn’t care?” Anne pushed open the doors and negotiated the trolley through it.
“Read the letter, and remember-”
“Yeah, I know; if I don’t want him, you’ll have him.”
“Good-looking bloke like that? Sure will, you lucky cow. You can’t have them both, you know. That’s just greedy.”
Jen pocketed the letter, telling herself she wasn’t going down, but already knowing she was. She couldn’t leave him standing there. It wouldn’t be polite, would it?
It had absolutely nothing to do with wanting to see if his eyes were still as blue as she remembered, or as vulnerable-looking. Or if he was in A and E because he was hurt.
She walked back to the office. Scribbled up her notes while his letter burned a hole in her pocket. Checked on the coma patient, got someone a drink of water, delivered a bedpan. Then, with no excuses left, she set off down the long corridor.
Back to her room. Definitely not to A and E.
Then why was she headed there, almost at a run? And why had she nipped into a deserted stock room to read his letter? A letter in whose contents she had no interest whatsoever? She sat down on a stack of boxes, took it out of her pocket and ripped it open.
It looked like a poem. Oh, God, he’d written her a poem.
Her insides suddenly felt weak and watery. No one had ever written her a poem, and it was long. As she scanned down the verse, which had been carefully written out in beautiful copperplate script, she read a name at the bottom that wasn’t his, and felt both relieved and disappointed at the same time. So he hadn’t written it. Hadn’t gone home and spent hours working on a poem especially for her. Good, now she wouldn’t have to be beholden to him.
She read the first few lines, realising it was quite old and rather Shakespearean in style. Andrew Marvell. Who the hell was he?
Had we but world enough and time, this coyness lady were no crime.
Coyness? When had she been coy with him?
We would sit down and think which way to walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Oh heck, was he asking her on a date? She couldn’t go on a date with Mitch, she was going out with Robert.
It took her two attempts to get the letter back into the envelope, her hand was shaking so much. It hadn’t shaken like this when Robert asked her to the opera. Neither had her heart done the tango, as it was now. And she hadn’t been the slightest bit worried whether her hair was in place or whether she looked awful without make-up.
Right now her feet were taking her to A and E of their own accord and she was raking fingers through her hair, removing her hat, and pinching her cheeks to get some colour into them.
She found him just outside the door, leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette. He threw it down as she approached, and she was completely taken aback by the lurch of excitement that jolted through her when he turned. No, not excitement. Nervousness – or something. She couldn’t tell what she was feeling. Her heart was jumping around in her chest, her breath had caught in her throat and all she could see was him, striding towards her now, his face deadly serious and intent on her alone.
She thought he might walk right through her because he didn’t stop, even when he was so close they were touching. Body to body, he caught her by the elbows and she staggered back a few steps. He steadied her, his lips came down on hers, and it was so sudden and unexpected that she had no time to resist, or to think of anything beyond what he was doing.
She’d been kissed before, of course she had, but not like this. This kiss didn’t ask what she wanted, it told her. It didn’t try to persuade or coax. It didn’t say I might, or maybe. It said you will, and I do, and we don’t have time to discuss this. Don’t have time for pretty speeches and flowers. Maybe we don’t have any time at all. This could be all we have.
As she listened to his kiss, her body began to soften against him, her hands were creeping into his hair and her lips moving at last against his, giving him her own message.
Telling him it was okay, she knew what he wanted, and she knew why he wanted it so urgently. Telling him he should take it because she wanted to give it to him because he needed it so badly.
She felt him calming down at last, until his lips were no longer crushing, or demanding anything. The tempo slowed to an easy rhythm, her body against his, swaying gently as he held her.
Even though she was vaguely aware of people walking past them, looking at them, some staring curiously, someone whistling, a mother hiding her child’s eyes, she didn’t care. Mitch needed her, and she knew then that she needed him too. Needed his strength and his warmth. His intensity and his sadness. Like she’d never needed anything before.
All thoughts of Robert and the opera vanished from her mind as if he’d never existed.
There was only Mitch, warm and solid in her arms, his lips on hers, his hands on her shoulders, holding her to him as if he would never let her go.
She already didn’t want him to. Not now. Not ever.
Don’t do this, a small voice whispered. Don’t fall in love with him. How could you bear it if anything happened?
How would you go on? It was already too late. Mitch ended the kiss and took a few ragged breaths. Pressing his face to her shoulder, he spoke to her at last.
His voice was thick and unsteady as he struggled to breathe and get the words out.
“Jen,” he said. “Oh my God…Jen…”
Mitch had always known that when he fell it would be hard and fast and there would be no going back. That’s why he’d never allowed himself to fall in love. Before now.
As he stared at the woman who seemed to have occupied every one of his waking thoughts for the last week, he had to wonder at the crappy timing of it all.
Raids were becoming more frequent, he was flying longer hours, and the chances of surviving all this were getting slimmer by the day. He was good at what he did, but that didn’t mean anything these days. He took a chance every time he went up. Kept his affairs in order, said his goodbyes, and if he came back – well, that was a bonus.
It really hadn’t worried him until now. He’d bloody well gone and kissed her, she’d kissed him back, and suddenly, that was that. His fate was sealed and his future irrevocably tied to Jen Saunders. A future he suddenly and quite desperately wanted back.
“So what do we do now?”
Her eyes were still wide, still a little dazed from the kiss.
He hadn’t given her time to think or change her mind.
Before she’d drawn breath they were bumping along a country road in his borrowed Land Rover. Not exactly a kidnapping, because she hadn’t exactly resisted. More like a seize the moment manoeuvre, Carpe Diem and all that. He’d had no idea where they were going until he’d spotted the little tea shop in the village and pulled up outside it.
And here they were, ordering tea and cakes and what with that, and the poetry, he had to wonder if good old Christopher was going to make a surprise appearance any moment now. This was just up his street. All he needed was the hair and the tweed jacket and, voila, there he’d be.
Mitch lit up a cigarette, took a long drag, knocked the ash into the ashtray and looked straight back at her.
“Well, you could marry me.”
Jen gave a strangled gasp, which turned into a small laugh. Her hands flew to her face. After a few seconds she lowered them slowly, eyes even wider now, mouth open. “What did you say?”
“I said you could marry me.”
He hadn’t intended to kiss her, and he definitely hadn’t been going to say that. But now the words were out, it seemed the most logical thing in the world to say.
Because where the hell else did they go after that kiss?
He could see she was thinking it too. Just for a split second it was a distinct possibility, so he kept talking, because Mitch never could keep his mouth shut.
“What do you say?” He stretched out a hand out and caught hers across the table. “Let’s just do it, Jen.”
“But I hardly know you.”
She was struggling now, and yes, it was crazy. He knew how this worked. She made excuses, he gave her reasons. She said convince me, so he would.
He let go of her hand, once he’d satisfied himself that he hadn’t shocked her into running away, and sat back while the waitress served the tea and placed a two-tier plate full of odd-looking cakes on the table. She smiled genially at them and asked if they wanted anything else.
Mitch waved her politely away and took a deep breath.
“My name is Christopher Mitchell Anderson, otherwise known as Mitch. I was born in London. Was up at Oxford doing a PhD when the war started, so I joined up. I’m a bloody good pilot, and I’m in love with you.” He leaned his elbows on the table and took her hand again.
The more he thought about this, the more he wanted it.
The more he looked at her, the more he wanted her.
They both did. Christopher the romantic, and Mitch the crazy. Christopher was already picturing the cottage with the roses around the door. Jen in a white dress sitting on a rug in the garden while he lay, with his head in her lap, reading her his favourite poetry.
Mitch had skipped that part and gone straight to the hot, steamy sex. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? And she’d closed her eyes, as if trying to think of an excuse not to do this, so he squeezed her hand to remind her he was still there.
“It’s not such a daft idea, you know, when you think about it.”
She picked up a cake and eyed it suspiciously. Mitch took it from her and placed it back on the stand. “We can get married quarters or something, all cosy like. And every time I look up, there you’ll be, and every time you look up, there I’ll be.”
“Thomas Hardy, Far From the Madding Crowd. Tea?”
She shook her head and laughed again as he poured the tea and pushed the cup across the table.
“Do you want someone else to kiss you like that? No one else ever will; you already know that, don’t you?”
“I know.” Her voice was barely there. She stared into the cup and stirred the tea around. “I still don’t know who you are.”
“I just told you.”
“No, you didn’t. You told me what you are. Now tell me who you are.”
“Then will you marry me?”
“All right, all right.” He raised his hands in surrender, sat back and wondered what he could say to convince her that he actually wasn’t a lunatic and he meant every crazy word he’d said.
Okay, Christopher, I think this one’s yours.
* * *
Jen was having trouble keeping up with him, and damn, but this marriage thing was actually starting to sound good. He’d make one hell of a salesman.
When he’d said married quarters a picture of the two of them snuggled up on the sofa, talking or reading, or just plain snuggling, had popped into her mind and she’d known then what was missing from her life. She did her job, went home, drank her cocoa. Went to the opera with Robert.
Oh, God, Robert. No, don’t think about him now, it’s too much. But her life was downright boring. Empty. Nice as Robert was, she knew now what was missing. Passion.
What would she rather have? Mitch-cuddles on the sofa, intimate talk in the dark as they held each other. Him making her laugh with his daft comments, her silencing him with a kiss. Tickling him. Him tickling her. Mitch making love to her in their bed, and probably other places too. The two of them living every moment, treasuring every second they spent together.
Doing it all, saying it all, because they couldn’t afford to leave anything unsaid, or undone.
Or a box at the opera, country house parties. Polite conversation. Kissing someone, but thinking of someone else. Making love and wishing it was him instead. Of long years wondering what she’d missed because she’d taken the sensible path and hadn’t grabbed at life when it had run out to meet her.
She couldn’t imagine for one moment ever tickling Robert. He’d probably laugh politely, just to humour her. With Mitch the two of them would be in hysterics within a minute, probably rolling around on the floor, laughing until they cried. She didn’t do much of that. In fact she didn’t do any of that. And she probably never would with Robert.
She shook her head to clear her thoughts. Mitch looked as if he had something important to say. And there it was again – that dizzying current of excitement she’d felt just before he’d kissed her. She put down the cup carefully because her fingers were shaking now, and gave him all of her attention. Watching the way he stubbed out his cigarette, the way he closed his eyes while he composed himself, the intensity of his gaze when he finally looked at her again. The honesty. The love.
She thought the next few moments would be the most important of her life, with everything hinging on what he said next, but, as she looked at him while he searched for the right words, she realised that it had already happened. Somewhere along the line she’d already fallen in love with him, only she couldn’t remember where, or when. But she knew why.
Brash, noisy Mitch Anderson, who had stormed into her life like a hurricane, had crept into her heart so quietly and so softly she hadn’t even noticed it. And she knew he’d never leave. She’d never want him to.
She reached across for him this time, her fingers lightly grazing his, her eyes telling him he didn’t have to speak – the decision was already made. She couldn’t remember much of the poem he’d sent her, but two lines had stuck in her mind.
The grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think, do there embrace.
They could have been written for them. Time’s winged chariot really was at their backs, and wasn’t about to slow down, for them or for anyone. All they could do was hop on board and enjoy the ride.
Jen placed a finger on her lips when he opened his mouth to speak. “Shh. Let me go first,” she said, reaching for one of the cakes and peeling off the silver wrapping. She flattened and folded it while he watched her, his head cocked to one side, eyes narrowed as he tried to work out what she was doing. Then she wrapped it around the ring finger of her left hand and held it up.
“Does it suit me?”
His first reaction was one of utter disbelief. She saw it in the way his eyes widened and his jaw dropped. The way someone looks when they were never in a million years expecting the reaction they were getting. And for a moment Jen thought she’d totally misinterpreted what he’d said and that all this was just wishful thinking on her part.
Then his mouth curved into a smile, and her heart did a happy dance. “Are you saying…?”
“Yes, Mitch, I am. You do still want to?”
“Hell, yes.” He stood up suddenly, as if he were going to burst into song or something, but then seemed to realise where he was, ran a hand through his hair and sat down sheepishly to the curious stares of the other diners.
“Sorry about that. I can’t believe what you just said. You’ll really marry me?”
“And this isn’t a dream? Because I have these dreams…”
“No, Mitch, this isn’t a dream. I don’t know when I fell in love with you. I only know that I did, and we have to do this now.”
He nodded, his face turning serious again. “Do you know how many weddings I’ve been to since this war started? People are getting married in droves. Never thought it would be me, though. I love you, Jen. Come here.”
She could just about reach him across the table. He put his hand out to steady the back of her head and kissed her, starting slow and building up, until the waitress came over and politely suggested they take it outside.
She remembered the fit of giggles she’d had as he dropped a handful of pennies onto the table and pulled her out of her seat. The way he’d pushed her up against the wall the moment they were outside, and kissed her again. How he’d told her he’d always be there for her and would never leave her, no matter what happened.
She remembered how they’d driven back to the base in silence, each of them glancing at the other, almost shyly, until he put his hand out to cover hers and she’d felt as if her heart might burst right there and then.
She remembered the shock of hearing the siren as they neared the airfield and found it under attack. How they’d both gone to do their duty. He’d dropped her off at the hospital and, with one last kiss, he was driving away.
And she remembered thinking it might be the last time she ever saw him, and that if he didn’t come back she’d want to die right there. How could she live without him?
She remembered. She remembered it all.
Langdon Airbase 2003
“You married him?”
Jen smiled at the memory. “Your grandfather had a fit when I told him. Wasn’t exactly what he had in mind for me. Maybe I should have invited him to the wedding? Who knows? Mitch’s mum was very sweet about it, though. I liked Emily.”
“Aunty Em? So that’s who she was.”
Christopher blew out a long breath and contemplated his utterly amazing mother. How on earth had she kept this a secret all these years?
“But you’d only known him a week.”
Jen laughed at that and shook her head. “I’d heard stranger than that by the end of the war.” She turned to him, eyes shining, and he couldn’t tell if the tears were happy or sad. He guessed a mixture of both and pulled out another hankie for her.
She wiped away the tears and carefully refolded it.
“Thank you, Christopher. I just knew. It’s not something you can explain, or rationalise.” She turned and gazed at him fondly. “Do you remember how you were when you first met Sara? Well, imagine that every time you say good bye, it could be the last you time you see her. Every kiss, every touch, it all means so much more when the future is on the line. Concentrates the mind like nothing else.”
“But what about Robert? What did you tell him?”
She was quiet for a long moment. “That was hard. I think he thought…well, as I said, it was hard. He didn’t deserve it. I know that’s part of the reason I married him. I felt I owed him. Does that sound awful?”
“When did you tell him?”
“The same day. There was no point in waiting. I wasn’t going to change my mind. He took it so calmly, but I could see how much I’d hurt him. It was a bad raid, and we lost a lot of planes that day, lots of casualties on the ground. No time to talk.”
“But he waited for you, didn’t he?”
“He did. You know, I was so angry with him at first. It was as if he’d been biding his time, waiting for Mitch to die so he could step in. But no,” she placed her hand on Christopher’s arm at his shocked expression. “It wasn’t like that. I just needed someone to take it out on, and he was so patient with me.”
“He loved us, Mum.”
“I know. I know, and I did love him in a way.”
“But not like Mitch?”
“No, son. Not like Mitch. Never like Mitch.”
* * *
Town Hall, Langdon, August 1940
Jen blinked as she walked out of the Town Hall into the bright sunlight. She stared at the people walking by, pushing past her. So many people going about their lives, each with a story to tell.
Nobody noticed them walking arm in arm down the steps onto the pavement. A few turned and smiled when Mitch squeezed her so hard it made her shriek with delight.
But no-one knew. Not really.
All they saw was another couple coming out of the Registry Office. Two young people in love, starting out on their married life. They might have seen the hope and expectation on their faces as they contemplated a future together. The excitement of getting married in wartime, as so many were doing. But no-one saw how much she really loved this man she’d known for such a short time.
No-one could possibly see that if she loved him for the rest of her life, it wouldn’t be enough.
She laughed out loud and caught her breath. Kissed the best man when he excused himself to return to base. Watched Mitch shake his friend’s hand.
And then it was just the two of them.
She looked up at Mitch, cap in hand, standing with the sun at his back, his hair shining like a halo, a huge grin on his face. He reached out to caress her cheek.
“So how does it feel?”
Jen leaned into his hand, covering it with her own, then caught hold of it and brought it to her lips, kissing his fingertips one after the other.
“Weird, wonderful. I mean, Jen Anderson. It sounds so strange.”
She lifted her left hand and inspected the ring. “Mrs. Jen Anderson…oh, Mitch…”
“Heck, you’re not going to start crying again, are you?” He fished a large hankie out of his uniform pocket and handed it to her, watching her fondly while she blew her nose.
“Never seen anyone cry so much at a wedding. Especially their own.”
“I always cry at weddings, and I can’t believe we just did that. My dad’s going to kill me.”
“You’re not regretting it, are you?”
“No way. Come here. I’ve missed you so much.”
“Well, I’ve been busy fighting a war, but Christ, I missed you too. Kept thinking you were going to change your mind.”
“Hey, you’ve got me for life, got the ring to prove it.”
She held her hand up once more, squinting at the ring in the sunshine, then at him, her husband. A month ago she didn’t even know he existed and now he was her husband. The man she would hopefully spend the rest of her life with, whose bed she was going to share, whose children she was going to have, and all those other things that married people do.
He dipped his head for another kiss and she lost herself in the slow, delicious sensation of his hot mouth covering hers. Suddenly she couldn’t wait a moment longer. It had been three weeks. Three weeks of trying to remember his face, reliving that first kiss, snatched conversations on the telephone. Three weeks of wondering how it would feel when he made love to her. Three weeks to work herself into a frenzy of wanting him so much she thought she wouldn’t survive it.
And three weeks of worrying that he wasn’t going to come back.
Always worrying, even now she had him here in her arms, still not quite able to believe he’d made it this far. The battle was heating up. The odds weren’t good, and she needed him to make love to her right now.
But he was leading her across the street, weaving them in and out of the traffic. Pushing her through the door of a small photographic studio.
“Got to get a picture of this. Something to show the kids.”
It’s funny how things stick in your mind, things that seem inconsequential at the time. Things that are going to mean so much in years to come because they remind you of times you can never have back.
For Jen it was the bell. The insistent tinkling of the bell over the door as Mitch swung it back and forth, trying to attract the attention of the old man who was perched precariously on a ladder, sorting through boxes on a high shelf.
She remembered how worried she’d been that he might fall off, and how they’d both started giggling because the old man had steadfastly ignored them, even when the actual photographer had come in and taken their picture.
Photographs done, they made their way back to the old Land Rover which was about as far from a wedding car as you could get, stopping off to buy flowers from an old gypsy woman on a street corner. She’d taken Jen’s hand and insisted on reading her fortune, and just for a split second Jen had been hit by such a wave of panic she thought she might be sick.
She didn’t want to know. The future was a faraway place and the here and now the only thing that was real. The woman had insisted, holding her firmly and scanning her hand, then quietly giving it back to her, the smile a bit too bright as she declared they would have a long and happy life together. She’d refused to take any money for the flowers. It had spoiled the day a little. Mitch sensed it on the walk back to their vehicle, drawing her into his arms and squeezing her tightly.
“Hey, Mrs. Anderson, what’s up?”
“Nothing, Mitch. I’m good.”
She slid her arms around him, thinking how wonderful it was to be here doing this with him. Even in the middle of a busy street, he had the knack of making her feel that they were the only two people in the world.
And when he kissed her she didn’t care who looked. What did they know? No-one saw the way her skin tingled and prickled even before he’d touched her. No one saw how blue his eyes were when they were this close or the shadows his eyelashes made on his face. No-one saw how perfect this all could be…if only…
They pulled apart. Mitch opened the Land Rover’ passenger door, slipping something into her hand before she climbed in. She looked down at the small, velvet-covered box and then at him.
He nodded at her to open it. “A wedding present. It’s not much. Thought we could get some pictures for it.”
She pulled out the locket, threaded the silver chain through her fingers and held it up, tears threatening once more.
“Bloody hell, Mitch. What are you trying to do to me? Where’s that handkerchief?”
He handed it to her, bending anxiously to look into her face. “You do like it?”
“Mitch, I love it. It’s perfect, you’re perfect. This is just too much.”
She turned so he could put the locket on her, wiping at her eyes and composing herself because she could see that all this crying was starting to worry him. What she’d said about always crying at weddings was a lie. She never had, before now.
Looking back on her life, she thought that if she had to pick moments she could define as the happiest, then the two of them standing on that busy street, him fastening the locket around her neck and teasing her gently about all the tears, would have to be one of them. She felt so close to him then, not just physically but deep inside. He was there, and she knew he always would be.
As he steered the Land Rover into the stream of traffic she noticed the keys on the dashboard, picked them up and turned them in her hand.
“Rented us a cottage, love. Bit of a slum, really but got it dirt-cheap. Farmer says we can do it up.”
“Yes. Don’t go thinking it’s one of those chocolate box affairs you Americans believe we all live in. There are no roses round the door, but you could plant some if you like. I’ll find you a bike so you can get to the hospital, and I’ll have to live at the base while I’m on call, but it’ll be ours. And I get to carry you over the threshold. What do you say?”
She almost didn’t recognise her voice when she finally answered him. Low and a little husky from all the tears, it reflected exactly what she was feeling at that moment.
“I’d say get me there fast, Mitch. I want you so much.”
“You’ve got me, love.”
“No, I want you to make love to me. I really need you to make love to me.”
He flashed her a grin, and put his foot flat down. It was a miracle they got there in one piece. There were no speed cameras or traffic cops on every corner in those days, and the ancient Land Rover wasn’t even capable of moving very fast, but by the time they got to the cottage they were both nearly hysterical with laughter.
Mitch leapt out and pulled her into his arms, swung her high into the air, and ran up the path with her. Jen fumbled with the key, and Mitch kicked open the door.
He stepped over the threshold, letting her slide down his body as he released her. Starting a kiss that lasted until they’d climbed the steep, cottage stairs and made it to the tiny bedroom.
Someone had put fresh linens on the old brass bed, which creaked and groaned when they flopped on to it, laughing again when it wobbled dangerously. And then she was opening the buttons of his uniform, slowly and deliberately, her gaze firmly locked on his eyes. Trying to look sexy, and succeeding, if his expression was anything to go by.
Mitch in a uniform. Every woman’s fantasy. Mitch out of a uniform? Well, she was just about to find out. The jacket hit the floor, followed by his shirt and tie, and then it was her turn. His fingers closed over the buttons of her blouse and she lay back and sighed, because, after this, she’d have given him everything. Heart, body and soul.
Langdon Airbase 2003
“Oh, see now; I’ve made you cry. Here.” Jen pushed the handkerchief into Christopher’s hand and watched him wipe his eyes.
“It’s not a sad story, not really. We laughed a lot, Chris. It was either that or cry, and Mitch wasn’t the crying kind.”
“He looks so much like me.”
Christopher stared at the photo of his mum and dad on their wedding day. He already had a picture of his mum and dad on their wedding day, or so he’d thought. Now the man he’d always believed was his dad suddenly wasn’t, and this man was. And Mitch looked so like him, they could have been clones.
“You’re cross with me, aren’t you? Here, let me…”
Jen reached for his hand. Christopher moved it away, his eyes still on the photograph.
“No, of course not. Don’t fuss, Mother. I’m not five years old any more.”
“You are angry with me and I don’t blame you, but please try to understand. I was so empty after he died that I locked the memory away somewhere deep inside. You were the only thing that kept me going.”
He let her take his hand then, calming a little as he tried to adjust to it all. She’d told him most of the story in the car on the way down, but it wasn’t until this moment, when he’d looked at the picture, that it had really started to sink in. This man, holding his mother on her wedding day was his link to the past, not Robert. They looked so happy, and it was as much a shock seeing his mother with another man as finding out about his father.
He turned his mother’s hand in his, giving it a gentle squeeze, forgiving her for keeping this all from him, and received a heartfelt smile in return.
“Thank you, Chris.”
“It’s all right, Mum. You did what you thought was right, as you’ve always done. I’ve never expected anything less of you. You are the most amazing mother anyone could hope to have.”
“Flatterer.” Jen shook her head, still smiling. “You’re so much like him.”
“I’m sorry I snapped at you, Mum. It was just seeing that photo. . .” He glanced around then, and a small shiver ran up his spine. “It was like the past suddenly reaching out to me. Spooked me a bit, that’s all. This place is creepy. Should we be getting back?”
“Not yet, son. Just a little longer, please?”
“You’re looking tired. I really think we should get back.”
Jen looked at her watch. “It’s not time yet.”
“Time for what? Oh…”
She was staring at the runway again. He closed his eyes. What right did he have to be angry with her? She’d borne all of this alone, but she’d made sure he’d had everything. Robert had inherited a considerable fortune, all of which would be his one day.
His mother had lived nearly a lifetime with a man she didn’t love, and she’d done it for him. The least he could do was try to understand and thank her for it
“Three o’clock. I need to be here at three o’ clock.”
“Is that when…?”
“Yes, love, it is. I just want to be here.”
“Then so do I, Mum.”
She went very quiet then, for a long while simply staring across the airfield. She’d told him she wouldn’t share everything, so he sat patiently beside her while she continued to relive her memories. He guessed there came a time in everyone’s life where they needed to sort through what they’d done, put things in order, try and make sense of it all.
And he guessed there came a time to question things and maybe come to realise how they might be done differently another time around. Maybe like his mother was doing now.
He shook his head. The past never comes back, no matter how hard you wish. And you can’t change it. All you can do is live with it.
* * *
Thatch End Farm Cottage, September 1940
“Looking good, Mitch.”
“Yes, I think. You’ve got hidden talents, sweetheart.”
Jen pushed herself into a sitting position and took off her sunglasses. Mitch in his civvies. Not a sight she saw very often. Every now and then a moment of normality would slip itself into their abnormal lives. A glimpse of how it might have been had the war not interrupted the flow. But without the war she’d still be in the States, walking another path. He’d still be the carefree student in the photographs she’d seen of his pre RAF days. This chaos had brought them together. How could they complain?
She gazed approvingly at his handiwork then scrutinised her arm. “Hey, I’m getting my tan back, look.”
Mitch finished off the last few brushstrokes of whitewash and stood back to inspect his work. “Definitely an improvement. Looks as if we might get our chocolate box after all. How did it go with your dad?”
“Oh, he’s still mad at me, gave me a lecture. You know, the usual.”
“Do you care?”
“No. Yes, just a bit. He is my dad, after all. I don’t want us to be on bad terms, not now.”
Mitch put his arm behind his back, hiding the whitewash brush, and sidled over to Jen.
“Pass me my shirt, would you?”
“What for? I’ll only be taking it off you again.”
“Is that right, Mrs.?” He was very close now, brush at the ready. Jen threw her sunglasses onto the grass and lay down.
“Looking good, Mitch.”
“I take it we’re not talking about house painting any more? Close your eyes, Jen.”
She did as she was told, already feeling the familiar tingling in the pit of her stomach.
The way they wanted each other bordered on the ridiculous. She tried to be strict with herself while on duty, but even then she found herself nipping into the stock cupboard so she could think about him without distraction. Or to read one of the poems he’d taken to giving her, especially when he was leaving for the base.
Thoughts of him sustained her through the long days and lonely nights when he was busy fighting for King and Country. Nights he should have been with her. Using up time they couldn’t afford to waste.
“Hey!” She shrieked and rolled over, rubbing at the dab of whitewash on the tip of her nose. Pulling him with her, she wrestled the brush out of his hand. He didn’t put up much of a struggle. He never did.
“Now, what shall I do with this?” She waved the brush at him. Before she could do any damage it was sailing across the lawn. He rolled her over again and kissed her. And, God, this man could kiss. When they did this, time didn’t exist. There was no yesterday, no tomorrow. Nothing but two people completely lost in each other.
Do you want someone else to kiss you like that? No one ever will; you know that, don’t you?
I know, Mitch, and no one else ever did.
And these were things too private to share with anyone.
These memories that made her smile at inappropriate moments and made her ache in the long, lonely nights of her life. Memories that made her feel things she thought she’d never feel again. That haunted her and reminded her of how it was, and how it could have been.
The feel of his lips, the line of his body pressed against hers. Clean, smooth skin. Lying on fresh sheets. Taking their time, no hurry, no rush. Coming and coming again, drawing it out for so long she thought she wouldn’t survive it. Sighs and whispers, please and thank you and I love you and always will. Thinking there can’t be any more and finding that there was.
Or times when he’d come straight from duty all hot and sweaty, stubbled jaw scratching her face because he couldn’t wait. Her back scraping against the rough stone wall, on the kitchen table, wherever they landed.
And hot, always so hot, urgent and frantic. No time to think, or ask, or question. Demanding, insisting, taking and giving. Here and now, because that’s all there is.
He’d made her as crazy as he was. The only way to get through.
“No, wait. Stop, Mitch.” She pushed him off and tried to roll away, but he caught her again.
“You seriously want me to stop?”
“No, I don’t want you to stop, but I’ve just remembered, the farmer’s wife; you know, Mary? Said she’d be calling over with eggs.”
“You want me to stop for eggs?”
“Get off, Mitch. She’ll see us.”
“Then we’d better give her something to look at.”
He pinned her down and took his time. Made love to her slowly, deliberately, until she was both hysterical with wanting him and worrying that the farmer’s wife would catch them, doing it right there on the grass in front of the cottage.
* * *
Langdon Airbase 2003
“Sometimes I see you so clearly. Do you remember how we laughed when we found the eggs sitting on the back doorstep, Mitch? I liked Mary, she was so kind. Gave us all that stuff, because we had nothing. Bed-sheets, pots and pans, plates. We only had four cups. I’ve still got them, you know. After all this time, I’ve still got them.”
“Poor as church mice, we were.”
“But happy mice.”
“Yes, happy mice. I’ve missed you, Jen.”
“I know. You came to me with nothing but a boxful of books and a suitcase full of clothes, but you left me with so much. How did we manage to cram so much into so little time?”
“We had passion, love. And we lived it, gave it all, took it all, held nothing back. I waited, love. Missed you so much.”
“I know, I know. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to go on this long. Chris needed me. You knew what you were doing when you gave me him.”
“You did well, Jen, but he doesn’t need you any more. It’s time to let go.”
“I know, I know…”
“Not long now. Soon be three o’clock.”
“That time already? Funny, now that it’s here, it seems to have all gone so fast. Does time mean anything where you are? Are you cross with me for making you wait so long? So many bloody questions. I’m scared, Mitch.”
“Don’t be, Jen. Dying’s easy. Leaving those we love is the hard bit.”
* * *
“It was Thatch End Cottage.”
“What did you say, Chris?”
Jen forced herself back to the present and focused on the voice. Christopher’s voice, not his. But when Mitch spoke to her it seemed so real. She’d never told anyone about these conversations she had with the dead. Who would have believed her? She’d been walking in two worlds for so long now that there couldn’t be anything to be scared of, could there?
“Thatch End Cottage, it’s where you lived, isn’t it?”
“It is, Chris, but I’ve never told you that.”
“Children see a lot more than you think, Mum. You used to visit and sit outside, staring at it endlessly.”
“But you were so young then. How could you possibly know?”
“It’s just there. The name, it’s always been there, and now I know why. You planted that rose, didn’t you?”
“Yes. I never asked where it came from, Mitch turned up with it soon after we moved in. Kind of an obsession with him, so much that I used to tell him he loved that rose more than he loved me. It’s not there any longer. The place is some sort of holiday home, I think. The farm was sold off about fifteen years ago when the old folks died. Mary was such a sweetie. She never had any kids of her own so she sort of adopted us. Always popping round with bags of fruit and vegetables, baskets of eggs, stuff from the farm. Always had time for a cup of tea and a chat.”
“Was it lonely, living out there?”
“Kind of, but Anne, irritating as she could be, was a good friend. Always made sure to visit when Mitch was away. We hooked her up with Philip, Mitch’s best friend. Kind of a shaky start, but they made it to the altar eventually. We used to have a good laugh, the four of us. Phil made homemade wine. Lethal stuff.”
Christopher glanced at his watch. “It’s almost time. I guess we’re getting near to the end of this story?”
“Yes, son. The end is near. Won’t be long now.”
“Oh, Mum. I don’t know if I can bear to hear the rest.”
“Shall I stop?”
“No, you need to tell it. Mitch would have wanted me to know, wouldn’t he?”
“He would, Chris, and thanks for listening. These stories need telling because they validate our existence, you know? We are what we are because of the people around us. They touch us and leave a mark. Some fade, but others stay as fresh as the day they were made. Some heal, but others burn for the rest of our lives. I should never have kept this from you.”
With a deep sigh, she leaned her head on Christopher’s shoulder. “This story should have been told a long time ago. I’m so sorry, Mitch.”
* * *
Thatch End, October 1940
“Get on the bloody bike.”
“No way, Mitch. You’re too drunk, we’ll fall off.”
“Look here, Mrs. I’m a bloody fighter pilot. I think I know how to drive a bike.”
“You don’t drive a bike, you ride it.”
“Well, thank you, Anne, I never would have known that if you hadn’t told me.”
“You’re welcome, Mitch. Oops.”
“Grab her, Phil. She’s fallen in the ditch again.”
“Anne? What are you doing down there?”
“Sleeping, what the hell do you think I’m doing? Pull me out.”
“Your command is my wish. No, that’s not right. Er, I wish you were my commander, er…”
“Philip, pull me out!”
“Only if you’ll marry me.”
“Marry you? You’ll have to do better than that, Philip Stevens.”
“It’s not fair. Worked for Mitch.”
“Well, Jen wasn’t bothered about expensive jewellery and dirty weekends in five-star hotels, or she wouldn’t have married Mitch, would she?”
“Are you saying you’ll have sex with me if I take you away for the weekend?”
“Only if it’s a five-star hotel.”
“You’re on. Mitch, you’ll do my weekend shift, won’t you?”
“No problem, mate.”
“No. Mitch, that’s three in a row. It’s not fair tell him, Anne. You can wait, can’t you?”
“Aww, come on, Jen, Anne’s going to have sex with me. You wouldn’t want me to die before Anne had sex with me, would you?”
“I don’t want anyone to die, Phil. That’s not the point. We had things planned for this weekend. Mitch?”
“Hey, look at me, no hands. It’s okay, Jen. Phil can owe me big time for this.”
“It’s not okay, I hardly see you as it is. Tell him it’s not okay.”
“Jen, he’s covered for me loads of times. I can’t say no.”
“Yes, you can. You would if you loved me.”
“Hell, come back, Jen. Where are you going?”
* * *
It’s funny how the world turns on such small things.
Roads we take, decisions we make. No matter how small and inconsequential, they all make a difference in some way. Some change the world a lot, others just a little…
* * *
“Come back, Jen. Where are you going?”
Mitch pedalled unsteadily down the dark lane, wishing now that he hadn’t had that last glass of wine. Pretty revolting stuff, but it was alcohol, and it was free.
He wasn’t looking forward to tomorrow’s hangover, though. Philip’s wine was famous for that. Jen hadn’t touched a drop. That’s why she was being so unreasonable about this.
She was simply too sober to realise that Philip needed to have sex with Anne before he burst. Perhaps it was a guy thing? Where the hell had she got to?
He found her sitting on a rock at the side of the small river that ran through the valley. Outlined by the pale moonlight, her back to him. All stiff and still angry; he could tell that much. And he didn’t like it one bit. They weren’t supposed to argue, they were in love.
Arguments were for people who hated each other. Oh God, that must mean she hated him.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time to ride the bike across the field. You have good ideas when you’re drunk, and you have arguments with your wife, and she runs away from you, and she never speaks to you again.
Then you fall off your bike because you’re too drunk to notice how bumpy the ground is.
“Jen, I fell off the bike.”
“I think I’ve hurt myself.”
Mitch sat up and rubbed his sore head. Stupid stone.
She still hadn’t turned around. When the world stopped spinning he’d go and talk to her. Tell her how much he loved her and how she wasn’t to hate him because Philip was his best mate, and you had to stand by best mates.
Especially when they wanted to have sex with their girlfriends.
Mitch stood up and then walked unsteadily towards her angry back, reaching out a hand to touch her hair. She was shaking.
“I said go away. I’m not talking to you.”
“Are you crying?”
“Why, love? Philip will make it up to me. We have the whole of our lives in front of us and it’s only two days. Let me do this for him.”
When he dabbed at the corner of his eye with his handkerchief, it came away streaked with blood. “Ouch, look what I’ve done.”
She didn’t want to look, he could see her trying not to, but she did. She didn’t want to look alarmed at the blood either, but her eyes widened ever so slightly as she glanced at the hankie, then at his head. She folded her hands together to stop herself helping him. He could see them twitching when he handed it to her.
“Would you? Please.”
She sighed, and so did he when she took the hankie from him. Her hands were light and gentle as she pushed back his hair and pressed it onto the wound. The tears that had brightened her eyes fell, unchecked, and made haphazard tracks down her cheeks. And his heart ached so badly because he’d done that to her.
“I’ll tell him I won’t do it. He’ll survive, or find someone else to cover. Heck, he’s done enough favours for people. Flown more hours than most, has Phil.”
Jen closed her eyes for a moment before scooting across to his waiting arms, the stiffness softening. She relaxed against him. With her arms around his back, she leaned her cheek against his shirt, and suddenly it was all okay again.
“No, Mitch, it’s all right. I’m sorry.”
“So am I, love. I’ll tell him when we get back.”
“No, do it. I don’t mind. You’re right. He’s been a good friend.”
She had another look at his head then while he sat very still, following her movements with his eyes. It was a big responsibility loving someone this much, and not one he’d ever taken lightly. Once he’d said the words he was there for life. Mitch didn’t do things by halves.
“We need to put something on that. Don’t want it going septic.”
“You want to get back, then?” He started to get up. She pulled him down again, clutching his sleeve, her face holding an emotion he couldn’t fathom.
“Not yet, Mitch. I need to tell you something.” A small hint of a smile played at the corners of her mouth but her eyes held nothing but anxiety, as if she had both good and bad news at the same time.
“What is it?” He tilted his head to look at her, not really worried – she didn’t look too sad, more as if she was worried that he might not like her news.
“I was going to tell you this weekend. Bought a bottle of proper wine and everything to celebrate.”
“Is it your birthday? God, I’m sorry Jen…”
“No not that. I’m pregnant, Mitch. We’re going to have a baby.”
* * *
She hadn’t been sure about it or how he’d react. What if he didn’t want a baby? They were young and there was a war on. The worst possible time to have a child, but she knew they hadn’t been careful enough to avoid it. The inevitable downside to wild, spontaneous sex. She’d only missed one period, but she was fairly sure.
The timing was bad, but also sweetly poetic. She knew exactly what he was going to say.
“Good.” He spoke quietly, sounding as if he meant every word. “Now you have a reason to go on.”
“You’ll see him, Mitch, you will.”
“Him?” That brought a smile. “I hope so, Jen, I hope so.”
Mitch groped for her in the semi-darkness, pulling her to him, but it was her holding him, trying to tell him without words that everything would be okay.
Pretending, lying, reassuring him with promises that weren’t hers to make.
As she held him close and told him everything he needed to hear, she wondered who would hold her when the time came.
The mood shifted subtly as it always did when they were within touching distance. She could feel his skin tingling, his chest rising and falling as he breathed her in. Hands sliding over clothes, reaching for buttons. Warm breath heating her skin. Hard clay soil scratching her back as they lay down. The sharp, acrid taste of the wine mixed with the taste of him. A slow, slide into ecstasy.
Every time they did this she was more aware of what she had to lose, clung to him more tightly, went to places she didn’t know existed.
And every time they did this, it was harder to come back.
She wanted to stay there, with Mitch buried deep inside her, that almost pained look on his face, while they lost themselves in something so good that all they could do was cry out at the wonder of it. Her name, his name, over and over, as if they were magic words that would keep them anchored to that spot forever.
In the background she could hear the splashing and gurgling of the river moving relentlessly on, like time, stopping for no one. She twisted her hands in his shirt and kissed him more deeply. Clung to him and tried to make time stop, just for a little while.
Oh, yes, he knew what he was doing when he gave me you, Chris.
* * *
I used to lie in bed watching you getting dressed.
Watching you, always with a sinking heart, turn into Flight-Lieutenant Anderson. You used to love it, didn’t you? The thrill of it all. The excitement of battle, the adrenaline rush. All those manly things.
I could see you didn’t any more. You had too much to lose now.
You always sat on the bed before you left. Held my hand, asked me what I’d be doing, whether I was working. Talked about maybe seeing a film, or going to the pub when you came off duty. All those normal things married couples do.
The baby wasn’t much of a reality yet. We both knew it was early days and anything could happen, but it seemed to calm you down. You were very quiet after you found out, and you never really told me what you were thinking. You didn’t get the chance, did you?
That morning you came back. Something you’d never done before. You’d flashed me that grin of yours as I waved you goodbye from the bedroom window. Next thing I knew we were both back on the bed going at it like rabbits, you still in your flying-jacket, the fur collar tickling my face.
Then you swung your rucksack onto your back and left.
I lay on the bed, too relaxed to get up and wave to you again. By the time I realised that I should, you were turning into that bend in the lane.
You didn’t look back. And it was the last time I ever saw you.
* * *
Jen looked at the clock, heard the sound of the Land Rover pulling up in the lane. Stopped by the mirror, patted her hair, checked her make-up. Took a sip from her half-finished glass of wine and then flung open the door.
“Phil?” She peered around him, frowning, wondering what he was doing here when he should be in a five-star hotel having sex with Anne.
He stood there on the doorstep, not moving, not saying anything. It didn’t take her long to realise why. The sound of the wine glass shattering on the stone-flagged floor stayed with her for the rest of her life. She stepped back and asked the question she already knew the answer to.
“Philip, where’s Mitch?”
Langdon Airbase 2003
“It was a long time before the world came into focus again. I sat in a kind of fog that, looking back on it now, lasted for years. At first it was black, just like night, then very slowly, starting with your birth, Chris, there was a tiny speck of light, and I started seeing faces again. Recognising names and places. And hearing what people were saying. You and Robert got me through that. I don’t know what I’d have done without you two.”
She did, though. She’d always known exactly what she’d have done if she hadn’t been pregnant.
Christopher seemed to know it too. He opened his mouth to speak. She stopped him.
“Yes, I did resent being pregnant, I did resent that you stopped me from following him. But when I first saw you, Christopher… well, you’re a father. You know, don’t you?”
“You wouldn’t have done it, would you?”
“If I hadn’t been pregnant? Yes, I would have.”
“No, Chris. There’s not a lot left to say. Apart from this, I’ve always made sure I said it all – that’s one thing the war taught us. I’ve always told you how much I loved you. I got that right, didn’t I?”
“Mum, it’s all right, really it is. You couldn’t have loved me more. You must have known how much of a shock this would all be, though. I think I’ve coped quite well, considering.”
“You have, Chris.”
He was right, she couldn’t have loved him more. He wasn’t only her son, he was her link to Mitch. A constant reminder of what Mitch looked like. A small glimpse of how Mitch would have changed if he’d had the chance to age alongside her. Christopher was both her anchor to this world and her window to the other one.
“It was over there.” She pointed to the far edge of the field. “A damaged plane was trying to land. It clipped Mitch’s wing as he was coming in. They both went down. I was on my way home from the hospital, might have even heard it. I used to spend hours lying still and trying to remember every detail of that journey home. You just got used to it after a while. All the noise, the explosions. I might have heard it, I’ll never know. Philip never forgave himself.”
“Finish the story, Mum.”
“I will, son. I need to say something about Robert. He was a hero in his own way, too. There were so many quiet heroes in that war, working away in the background, largely unsung. I wasn’t the only one who suffered a loss. Everyone you met had a story to tell, a son, a father, someone who’d died. Courage isn’t only about facing the enemy head on without flinching. It doesn’t have to be noisy and obvious. All those mothers and wives who gave their loved ones without question, then had to go on without them, were every bit as brave as those who did the fighting. Robert did join up eventually. I think he felt guilty, maybe he thought it would make me love him, I don’t know, but he survived it. We lived with his parents at the mansion in Devon. I’d never realised quite how rich they were until I saw that place.”
She stopped talking for a moment, her thoughts drifting back. The future called to her, but the past still had such an irresistible pull. Sometimes she didn’t even have to think about it; it was there, surrounding her. The sights, the sounds were sometimes so real, she thought she was losing her mind. Robert had found her the best doctors, but the most they could offer was that she was suffering panic attacks. Maybe they were right.
The past had never left her alone, so much so that she’d never really lived in the present.
“Have you decided what you want to do with the mansion?”
“Since the fire? No. I’ll leave that up to you, Chris. Robert did love us both, and we should thank him for that.”
* * *
What can I say about you Robert? I never loved you properly, you know that. But I did love you in a way. You deserved a medal for the way you stood by and took everything I threw at you. And all your life you had to stand and be compared to Mitch and know that you’d always be found wanting.
People talked, didn’t they? About the indecent haste with which I married you after Mitch died. They said I married you for your money, and they weren’t far wrong. Does that make me very wicked?
You know, I can’t even remember our wedding day. All I have of it are pictures of blurred shapes in my mind, moving around me, coming in and out of focus.
Scattered conversations, the clink of glasses, the flash of the photographer’s camera.
I thought it was all a dream and I would wake up, my heart racing, and find Mitch asleep beside me. And I used to dream that Mitch had died and I’d married you, and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t wake up from it. For a long while I didn’t know which one was dream and which was reality.
I need to forgive you, Robert. Forgive you for catching me when I was at my most vulnerable. Forgive you for the way you wouldn’t give up, even though you knew I didn’t really want to marry you. And forgive you for not being Mitch.
You need to forgive me, too, for never really appreciating what you did for me. I think you did that a long time ago. You were always more generous than I was.
* * *
“Hey, I think you nodded off again. It’s nearly three o’ clock.”
“Three o’ clock?”
“You wanted to be here for three o’ clock, remember?”
Christopher watched his mother blink several times. Her eyelids drooped, and her voice was fading, almost as if it was too much of an effort to speak. He glanced at his watch again, anxiously wishing three o’clock would come so he could get her home. She took a deep breath, as if gathering up all her reserves, then hugged him surprisingly tightly for one so small and old.
It made him smile and warmed his heart. She’d always been so strong, a fighter. After Robert’s parents died, she’d taken on the family business at a time when women weren’t supposed to stay at home, and built herself a reputation that was second to none.
“Oh yes, I remember now.” She stayed in place, leaning against him, a reassuring warmth as she’d always been.
“I remember it all, Chris. There’s only one small part of this story left to tell. And I need to give you this.” She reached into her bag and brought out a small, well-thumbed notebook. “No, don’t read it yet,” she said when he flicked open the cover. There, on the first page, in faded ink, was his father’s name.
Her hand covered his. “Later”, she said and gently closed the book. “I want to say my goodbyes first. Is that okay?”
“It’s fine, Mum. You don’t have to ask.”
“I know, son, I can’t help it. You’ll always be that little boy with his socks around his ankles and the skinned knees, running to me for a hug and a kiss. It’s a mommy thing. Doesn’t matter how old you are, I always worry about you.”
“I know that too.”
* * *
Fast forward the years. Rewind them. If we could watch a film of our lives, which bits would we skip? And which bits would we watch so much, we’d wear out the disc?
Rewind the happy bits, fast forward the tears, pause here and there, remember, forget.
Laugh at the clothes we wore, cry for the people no longer here. Be envious of all that youth and energy, long gone. Marvel at how we made it through. Wonder why we need so much today to make us happy. We were happy then, and we had nothing but each other.
Babies crying, children laughing, awkward youth, wedding bells, proud parents.
Peace, a different world, men on the moon. War, always more war. Did we learn nothing?
Too young to be a grandparent. First grey hair, wrinkles.
Looking in the mirror and seeing your mother.
And here we are, at last. How many years has it been, Mitch? Too many. You always said I kept you waiting, and I did, didn’t I?
But you’ll forgive me, won’t you?
* * *
As she fell silent against him, Christopher contemplated this amazing woman, who he was more than proud to call Mum. So many hopes and dreams. So much love. It had sustained her for a lifetime – that wonderful thing she’d had with Mitch.
“You should have told me, Mum.” He whispered it quietly, not really wanting her to hear. He thought he understood now, why she hadn’t wanted to share it. Too precious a memory to give any of it away, even to him.
“I wish you had, Mum. I would have kept it safe for you.” He stroked her hair as she slept, realising for the first time how very small and fragile she’d become. He knew she was old, but she was his mum. As she still saw the little boy, he still saw the smiling, yellow-haired beauty he remembered from his childhood. Remembered how happy he’d always felt that she was his mum and no-one else’s.
And now, suddenly, she was little and hardly there, as if giving away her memories had somehow robbed her of the energy that had kept her going all this time.
Giving away? Don’t you mean sharing? he corrected himself.
He shifted positions to look at her, already knowing she wasn’t asleep, and she had been giving away her memories after all.
She’d passed them on to him because she no longer needed them.
He kissed the top of his mother’s head, his hands shaking as it sunk in. “So like you, Mum,” he whispered. “So fiercely protective of the things you love. And thanks, I’m honoured you gave them to me. I will keep them alive for you, but I’m not going to keep them to myself. Oh no. I’m going to tell them. The kids, they deserve to know about their granddad. Don’t you think? And the great-grandchildren. Will they understand? It all happened so long ago.”
Another time, another world. A single event that changed so many lives. If only we could turn back time.
If Mitch had known he was destined to die that day, would he still have gone? If he’d had the choice? Would he have boarded that plane and flown out in defence of his country?
“Yes, I would, son. We all did what we had to do. Every one of us.”
“Yes, it’s me, Chris. Let me take her.”
Christopher kept his eyes closed, desperate to hang on to the image of his father. It felt so real. Now he understood why they were here. Mitch stood before him – bleached hair, blue eyes, RAF uniform. Exactly as he was in the photograph.
“Shouldn’t I do something,” he said, his voice heavy with tears. “Call an ambulance? Maybe she’s still…”
“No, son. Let her go. It’s time.” Mitch gave a small laugh. “I’ve been waiting long enough. Let me take her.”
Christopher hesitated for a moment, his eyes still closed, wondering if he was dreaming. Then he felt for his mother’s hand and gently placed it into Mitch’s outstretched one. She still leaned against him, but now something was missing. He knew then that he wasn’t dreaming. She’d really gone. Not to a better place, just a different one.
His father’s eyes softened in understanding. “She knew it was her time, son. It’s what she wanted.”
Mitch turned to go, raising a hand to his head in a final salute. “I love you son. And I get to take this bloody uniform off at last. Come on Jen, I’ve waited so long.”
The words sounded in his head, but Christopher couldn’t see who Mitch was talking to as the image started to shimmer and fade. He wrapped his arms around his mother, held her close, and said his private goodbyes to them both.
“Dad, I’m glad I got to meet you at last,” he whispered to the retreating figure. “Look after her. She’s fussy, you know. Like’s everything just so. Didn’t you, Mum?”
He buried his face in her hair, letting her mop up his tears as she’d always done. And when he looked up again he could have sworn he saw two figures walking into the horizon. Two special people, who deserved to be together at last.
Wiping at his eyes, he stared into the distance. Nothing there. Just an old sheet of newspaper flapping and blowing across the runway that had seen so much drama, so much laughter and so many tears. All so long ago.
He sat for a long while crying and holding her.
Eventually he got out his phone and called for the ambulance she didn’t need because he didn’t know what else to do.
What do you do at times like these?
Christopher picked up the notebook, only now noticing the bookmarks inserted between the pages. He’d never know whether it was his mum or Mitch who’d put them there. He guessed they were perhaps a final message from both of them.
Written in his father’s distinctive, cursive script, the first, dated June 1940, looked like a diary entry, the second like a poem that had never been finished. Or maybe it had. He’d never know that either. Both of their voices spoke to him as he read…
Go home and re-live happy memories. Look at the photos and give thanks. Thanks for all the good times and maybe for the not-so-good times, too. They all count. All teach us things we need to know and help us on our way. And whether you share them or not, the important thing is to have them and to honour them for what they are. Small footprints in time. Each of us helping to build a pathway to eternity.
He looked across the runway one last time, then turned the page.
Keep your memories in a book or in a box under the bed. Keep them in your head and keep them in your heart. Keep them in all the places you’ve ever been and in all the people you’ve ever known.
Don’t let them be dimmed by the passing of time. Keep them, my love. Keep them.
Thank you for reading!
Copyright © 2006 Alexandra Marell
Thank you for reading. I wrote Waiting For Eternity after visiting a deserted WW2 airfield and being deeply affected by the amazing atmosphere.