By Mickey S.
This is a fictional story. Most of the characters and events are figments of the author's imagination. However, some of the fictional characters take part in real events and some real characters take part in fictional events. In spite of that, this is a fictional story. My thanks to Tim and Drew for all of their help. The author retains all rights. No reproductions are allowed without the author's consent. Comments are appreciated at NJMcMick@yahoo.com.
Terrence went out to Saturday lunch with his Uncle Geoffrey once a month. My parents had the colonel to dinner now and then as well. Mother thought it was important that Terrence have some family contact as often as possible and Dad enjoyed his conversations with him. Terrence returned from his lunch in March somewhat excited.
"I talked to Uncle Geoffrey about our plans for the army. He's not sure what he can do but he's going to give it some thought."
"Did he think there was a chance we'd be able to stay together once we've joined up?"
"Well, he didn't exactly say that. He echoed your father's thoughts about the military not being very concerned about individual soldier's wishes. But he's got a lot of connections and he said he'd do his best to make sure we both got good positions."
"Did he give you any idea what we might do?"
"No, but he did say the infantry is the place where most troops end up. There hasn't been a lot of ground fighting since Dunkirk, except for some defensive action in northern Africa, but sooner or later that's what war always comes down to."
"Maybe the colonel can get us positions way behind the lines in some kind of support capacity, something safer than being right in the line of battle."
"I'm sure my mum will put pressure on him to do just that, but I don't want any special treatment as far as something like that goes. If he can arrange it so we can be together, great, but as far as getting me a desk job away from the fighting, that would be cheating."
"You mean you want to fight?"
"Not especially, but I don't want favored treatment either. Sure, I'd love to be safe all through the war, but some blokes are going to have to risk their lives on the front lines and I think we should all have an equal chance to be at risk or be safe."
"I hadn't thought of it like that. I don't want to be a casualty of war, but I don't want someone else to be one in my place either."
"That's my point. My dad took his chances in the Great War and by luck he didn't die but he still felt guilty that he survived and his mates didn't. I can't imagine how guilty I'd feel if I stayed safe through favored treatment."
Terrence and I spent the break between winter and spring terms in Axbridge again. Mrs. Atkins and Alice met us at the train and I was surprised to see that this time they'd brought the car.
"I've decided you boys can do some driving while you're here." Alice smiled at us. "I know how much you enjoyed it last year. I almost never use the car so I've got some petrol coupons set aside."
We put our bags in the car, but then the ladies suggested a walk into town for lunch. We went to the Lamb, which was clearly Alice's favorite place to eat. I thought Mrs. Atkins seemed a bit distracted during the meal. She kept looking at Terrence a bit wistfully and I figured it was probably because she had missed him.
Afterwards she insisted on paying. I instinctively started to object, but a look from Terrence stopped me. I realized it was important to her that she be able to host us.
When we got back to the cottage Alice dropped us off at the front door and drove around the house to put the car in the garage. As we went inside Mrs. Atkins suggested we take our bags upstairs.
"But don't dawdle. Come right back down when you've unpacked. There's something I want to talk to you about."
Terrence and I took our bags up to the attic room. I was feeling a little nervous. Alice had guessed there was more to my relationship with Terrence than friendship. Might she have said something to Mr. Atkins? I knew, given what she had told me about her special friendship with Mary, that was unlikely, but I was overly sensitive. Terrence didn't seem at all bothered.
I nervously followed Terrence back down the stairs. The women were sitting in the kitchen having a cup of tea. We sat and Alice poured us each a cup. Mrs. Atkins cleared her throat.
"Your Uncle Geoff was out for a visit last week. He said you've spoken to him about the army. Does that mean you've given up on going to university?"
"Not given up, just postponed. We talked about that at Christmas, Mum."
"Yes, but you hadn't made a firm decision at that point."
"But you knew that's probably what I would do. All of the lads at school are signing up. I feel I have a moral obligation."
"Damn moral obligations! I've already lost my husband to this bloody war. Do you think I want to lose my son as well?"
Mrs. Atkins was clearly angry. I'd never heard her curse before. She spoke through clenched teeth trying to keep her voice down and her emotions under control.
"I certainly don't want the war to claim me as a victim either, Mum, and you know I'll do everything I can to not let that happen. And if Woody and I stay together, you can be sure he'll patch me up if I need it," he added, smiling, trying to ease the tension.
"Please don't joke about it, son. War is too serious a subject."
"I know, Mum, and I do take it very seriously. I know soldiers die in war and many are gravely injured. But far more survive it intact. That's what we have to think about. Look at Uncle Geoffrey. He's been in the army for forty years and he's all right."
"That's because he's managed to spend most of that time behind a desk."
"Maybe he'll arrange that for me, too."
"Enough talk of war and death," Alice interceded. "We all do what we have to do and pray for the best."
Our two week holiday in the country was very lazy. We took the car out to practice driving a few times, with Terrence doing most of the driving. He enjoyed the feeling of power and control more. I was content to sit back and enjoy the ride, letting someone else do the driving. Most days we walked, usually in the hills behind the cottage. Sometimes we talked, but often we walked in silence. I wanted to just enjoy our time together, but I couldn't stop worrying about the future.
One day we were high up in the hills after walking over an hour and we sat under a tree to rest and enjoy the view. Even at the low elevation of the cottage we had a nice view of the village from our attic room, but here we could look out past the town and see nearly all of southern Somerset. Terrence leaned back against the tree and had me lie down with my head resting in his lap. His fingers played with my hair.
"I wish we could stay like this always, Woody. No war, no worries, just you and me together, enjoying the peace and quiet and the beauty of the countryside."
"Yes, it's so tranquil out here. It's hard to believe half the world is at war."
Terrence let out a contented sigh that made me feel even better than our physical contact. While we may have thought of our relationship differently, he was clearly as happy to be with me as I was to be with him.
"Let's make a promise to each other, Woody. No matter what happens to us during the war, when it's all over we've got to come back here, right to this very tree, and be together again. The war may change the world, and I'm sure it will change each of us as we get through it, but it will never change our friendship."
"I promise, Terrence. Nothing will ever change the way I feel about you."
"Then it's a deal."
He leaned over and gently kissed me on the forehead. I reached up, took his hands and held them tight to my chest.
On our return to school the atmosphere was different than it had been before. Everyone knew this was our last term, that when it ended our lives would change drastically. There was a bit of a frantic intensity to everything we did, whether it was our studies in class, socializing at lunch, or playing cricket.
Cricket continued to baffle me. Maybe it would have been easier to understand the game if I hadn't already known baseball. It's not that I was an expert on baseball - my experience at DeWitt had proven that - but I did understand the fundamentals of the game. I kept trying to compare cricket with baseball and that only confused me. And the other students didn't tolerate my ignorance as well as they had the year before. Then, they hadn't expected much from the Yank, and just subjected me to good-natured teasing. Now, in my second year, they expected more of me, so when I let them down their reaction was more like that toward the English boys who couldn't play the game well.
The bombing had eased all through the spring. I was afraid that once the winter was over there'd be a threat of invasion again, but Dad didn't think so. He said that the Germans had been hoping to destroy the RAF and break our will with the bombing to make an invasion easier. But since they had accomplished neither, there was little likelihood that they would try to invade. They would probably just keep pounding away at us with air raids and trying to achieve a blockade with their u-boats.
In the middle of May the bombing let up even more. Some part of London had been attacked nearly every night since the previous September but now many nights in a row went by without sirens or attacks. If, as Dad said, the Germans had abandoned their plans to invade they probably had some other strategy in mind. I couldn't imagine them just giving up. On one of our Sunday afternoon walks through London Terrence and I tried to guess what was coming.
"I can't imagine what Hitler wants, Terrence. He already has most of Europe and North Africa. If I were him I'd be content with that. You'd think he'd be trying to consolidate his hold on all of the territories he's captured already."
"I'm sure he's doing that. But I doubt if he'll ever be content. He's a megalomaniac intent on world domination."
"Dad says he's offered to negotiate a peace with England but Churchill hasn't even dignified his offer with a response."
"I can imagine what the offer is like - Britain being a semi-independent nation under German control like Vichy France. At least he defeated France militarily before setting up his puppet government there. He hasn't been able to beat us so he wants us to give up."
We had worked our way through the City by then and were standing facing St. Paul's Cathedral. The entire area around it had been reduced to rubble during the winter's bombing, though somehow the cathedral hadn't been damaged. Since then most of the rubble had been cleared away so the huge building looked even bigger surrounded by empty space.
"It's almost as though God put his hand over it to protect it from the bombs," Terrence mused.
"Something sure did, although I'd like to think God would be more concerned with saving people than buildings. I have trouble even thinking of this as a church. With its dome it looks so much like our Capitol building in Washington. To me it's more like a government building than a place of worship."
"It depends on what you're used to. When I saw your Capitol building on my trip to Washington with Uncle Geoffrey I thought it looked like a cathedral."
We walked back down to the river and stood on the embankment looking across at Southwark.
"I miss New York. Sometimes when we walk along the river I imagine it's the East River and I'm looking across at Queens."
"I thought the big river in New York was the Hudson."
"That's on the west side, and it is the larger river. It's much, much wider than the Thames. The East River is wider, too, but I'm more familiar with it because it's only a couple of blocks from our house."
"What's happened to your house? Is it just sitting there empty?"
"Yes, it's closed up. Our cook has another job but the housekeeper is working for my grandparents. She goes to our house now and then to air it out and dust."
"Two full time servants. You're really roughing it here in London with only a girl coming in to clean."
"We don't really need a cook, with both Mother and Gran more than able. And we probably don't even need the cleaning girl, but she needs the job. At home my parents did more entertaining." I sighed. "I'll always think of the house in New York as my home but I don't suppose I'll ever live there again."
"You'll go back home someday, I'm sure."
"Probably, but I won't live there. First, there's the war. Who knows how long that will last? And then there's college. By the time I finish my education I'll be old, maybe thirty or more."
"Thirty isn't that old."
"I know, but it's too old to be living with my parents. I can't even imagine what my life will be then."
"Neither can I but there's so much to come in between now and then. It's best to take it one step at a time. Right now we have three weeks left of school, and that big examination at the end. That's what we should be focused on."
At school we were preparing for the Higher School Certificate Examination. It was one test that covered everything we'd learned, or were supposed to have learned, in the two years of sixth form. Fortunately those were the only two years I'd been in school at Bancroft's, so the test would probably not be any harder for me than for the English boys.
"I know that's our priority, but I'm sure we'll both do fine on the exam. And it's hard not to think past it. When do you think we'll hear from your uncle?" I probably asked Terrence that at least once every day and I knew he had no more idea of the answer than I.
"It has to be soon. I can't imagine what's taking so long, but I'm trying to believe it's because he's found something really good for us and it's taking a while to iron out the details."
With the end of the regular night air raids, we moved back upstairs to our bedrooms in early June. Since we'd moved the single beds from my room to the cellar for my grandparents I generously allowed them to continue using them upstairs. That left Terrence and me with a double bed, but neither of us minded at all. It was good to be back in the privacy of our room. Back before the bombing, when Terrence was spending every other weekend with us, it had been my room. But now, as we moved into it with a shared bed, we both thought of it as our room.
In late June two events took our minds off studying for our final exam.
First, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. That was a complete shock to me but I didn't feel bad as it seemed to come as a big a surprise to Stalin, too. Russia and Germany had had a wobbly peace for a couple of years, starting with their non-aggression pact of 1939. For the first few days it looked like there would be another successful blitzkrieg.
"I don't know what Stalin was thinking," Dad said over supper one night. "Ever since Rudolph Hess flew here last month and was captured, Britain has been warning him that an invasion might happen, but he refused to believe it."
"Do you think Germany can defeat Russia, Mr. Cooper?" Terrence asked. "They captured a lot of Russian territory in the Great War."
"The German army outnumbers the Russian, but the Russians are tough and they're fighting for their homeland. And both the British and Americans will provide what aid they can."
"You mean we'd help the Communists, Dad?"
"Remember the old proverb, Woody, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That's never more true than in times of war. We don't like Stalin's regime but we like Hitler even less. So as long as the Russians are fighting the Germans, we'll be their allies."
"But not officially, and from a distance. After all, you Yanks still aren't at war."
"No, but I'm sure the lend-lease program will now be extended to Russia as well as Britain. If the Russians can hold off until winter they stand a chance. Remember, it was the Russian winter that did in Napoleon."
The other big event of the week was far more personal. Terrence's Uncle Geoffrey called to invite the two of us to lunch the last Saturday of the month to discuss the military plans he'd made for us. Dad suggested the Colonel come for supper instead, as the whole family wanted to be in on the discussion.
By tacit agreement that discussion was postponed until after the meal. All through supper the talk was of the Russian invasion. Terrence and I were impatient but between the information Dad and the Colonel had it was a fascinating conversation. Finally, after the whole family was settled in the parlor with after-dinner drinks, the men with brandy, the women port, the subject became more personal.
The Colonel cleared his throat importantly and began.
"Now I know you lads' top priority was to stay together in the army, so you may be disappointed with what I have arranged. But I want you to hear me out and remember that I only have a limited amount of influence."
I felt a tightening in my gut and when I looked at Terrence I saw the same disappointment on his face that I was feeling.
"I might have been able to arrange for you two to be together, but that would have used all of my connections. You would have been together, but God knows where. In the infantry, probably, and maybe in some godforsaken place like the jungles of Burma. So I decided to use what influence I have in a way to get you positions that were suitable and might keep you here in Britain as long as possible.
"Let's start with you, Woodrow. Terrence has told me about your first aid experience, both in helping your mother train others and your on-the-spot work at the Café de Paris. You seem to have an aptitude for it. So I've arranged that after your basic army training you will go for medical training at Pirbright in Surrey. You'll be trained as a medic, but as there is little actual fighting going on right now, you'll be kept on to assist in the training of others. You won't be an officer but you will start off a corporal. How does that sound?"
I'd been half-distracted thinking about how Terrence and I wouldn't be together, but the idea of being a medic, and one who helped train others, really appealed to me.
"I like it. That job sounds perfect for me. So I'd be stationed right here in England for the war?"
"There's no guarantee of that. One goes where one is needed in times of war. But for now, you'd remain here."
I looked at my parents and grandparents and saw the relief on their faces. The more I thought about it the more I liked it. I'd been dreading the whole idea of military service - the physical roughness of it, the manly camaraderie that I never seemed to fit into. But this seemed to be more like what I knew, what I could do and be comfortable in. In spite of being separated from Terrence, I had to give the Colonel credit. He had made a good guess as to what would be right for me.
"But what about me, Uncle Geoff? I don't have any specific skills or experience that would fit in the army."
"Yes, you were a bit tougher to sort out. You're a very bright lad but as you say there's no one special talent that stands out. Your mother has practically been begging me to find you a desk job here at home, and I would very much like to see you safe all through the war as well, but I know you would resent being pampered that way. And losing your father the way you have has made the war very personal to you. So, even though it isn't my field, I've decided you might fit in well in the Royal Air Force."
"The RAF? But I can't fly a plane. I can barely drive Cousin Alice's automobile."
"Not everyone in the RAF is a pilot. There are many other jobs on the ground and in the air. And even most pilots have no prior flying experience so that isn't always a determining factor. You will be evaluated during your basic training to see what you would best be suited for. If they think you have what it takes to be a pilot you'll go to the RAF College Flying School at Cranwell. But I'm hoping you'll be kept on the ground. And regardless of what position you have, I've seen to it that you'll be stationed here in Britain."
"The RAF," Terrence repeated quietly. "I'd never even thought of that. I'd love to do something to protect us from the Luftwaffe, but I don't think I could be a part of Bomber Command, bombing German cities as they're bombing us, killing German civilians."
"No one wants to do that, my boy, but we all do what we must. If you have a ground job you won't be involved in that. Or you might be attached to Fighter Command, defending Britain. We won't know until they've decided what you're best suited for."
"I suppose there are enough positions that I might find one I feel comfortable with. And, as you said, it's better than being in the infantry."
The Colonel stayed for a while as we all talked over his plans for us. Actually, he talked with my parents and grandparents. Terrence and I were pretty quiet, both of us lost in thought, trying to imagine what our future would be like in the places that had been chosen for us.
When the Colonel left Terrence walked him to Oxford Street where he could get a taxi to his flat. I stayed behind to talk to my parents. They both liked the idea that I would be in England, helping to train medics the way Mother trained Air Raid Wardens.
"I can't imagine training other medics when I have so little first aid training myself. Surely they must have more qualified people."
"No doubt the actual training will be done by doctors, Woody. But they'll need assistants, just as I do when I'm running my classes." Mother replied.
My parents' enthusiasm was contagious and soon I was more comfortable with the idea. If I couldn't be with Terrence at least I'd be safe doing something I liked while making an important contribution to the war cause.
Later, in bed, Terrence and I finally got to talk to each other.
"I think Uncle Geoff did a better job at finding you an appropriate position than he did me."
"You don't like the idea of being in the RAF?"
"No, that's fine. I really admire them. But, as well as he knows me, he completely misjudged how I felt about losing Dad. He thought I'd be thrilled to do to the Germans what they did to me and Mum. But I could never be happy tearing apart someone else's family like that."
"So what do you think you'll end up doing?"
"To be honest, I think Uncle Geoff is a bit torn. He promised Mum he'd try to keep me safe and he knows a ground position would be best for that. But he'd be so proud if I ended up a pilot."
"And what do you think?"
"I hope they keep me on the ground. It's hard enough driving a car. I can't imagine what an airplane would be like. I don't think I could do that."
"I think you could do anything you set your mind to. But I'd be a lot happier knowing you were safe on the ground as well."
"You know I'll be careful no matter what. You don't have to worry about me."
"You can't control everything, Terrence."
"No, but I'll try."
"At least we'll both be in England, if not together."
"But not very close. Cranwell is in Sleaford over a hundred miles north of London while Pirbright is about 25 miles southwest of here. I think that aside from all of his other reasoning, Uncle Geoffrey is actually pleased with putting that distance between us."
"Pleased? Why would you say that? Doesn't he like me?"
"No, actually he likes you just fine for the most part. But he said something on our walk that indicated he thought our friendship was a little too close, maybe bordering on unnatural."
"He said that?"
I was slightly panicked, worrying that he'd seen through me. Sometimes I wondered how anyone, especially my parents, could not see how I felt about Terrence. But no one other than Alice did, as far as I knew. And she saw it only because she'd once felt the same way toward Mary.
"No, but he implied it. Our friendship is special and different, so it's not surprising others can't understand it. Some are bound to think the worst but they're wrong and they're not important anyway."
Well, maybe wrong about Terrence, anyway.
"So he thinks it will do us good to spend some time apart and have to make new friends. He says the best friends he has today are those he made when he first joined the army."
"I'm not sure that will happen with me. I've never been good at making friends."
"I know you're not outgoing and social, but you are a good person and likeable. I'm sure you'll make friends in the army."
"Maybe, but they won't be like you."
"No, I daresay I'll never have another friend like you in my life either, Woody."
The Higher School Certificate Examination wasn't as difficult as I feared. As I expected, the hardest part for me was history. Since that was Terrence's favorite subject he'd been tutoring me for two years, but there was still a lot I didn't know. I knew I did well on the science and mathematics parts and thought maybe they would bring my score up enough to pass. Terrence didn't seem to be at all concerned for either of us. He'd breezed through the exam and as he knew my strengths and weaknesses he was sure I'd passed as well.
It would be well into August before we got the results, however, and that was just about the time we'd be going into the service. Now that I knew we wouldn't be together I wanted to spend all of that time with Terrence, but I knew that wasn't possible. My parents wanted me at home with them, and Mrs. Atkins wanted him in Axbridge with her.
We ended up with a compromise. I would go to Axbridge with Terrence and spend a week there. Then I would return to London for the rest of the time.
The visit was pretty much the same as our previous ones. Alice's gardens were in full bloom and we spent some time helping the women with them. And we walked in the hills a lot as we had in the spring. The weather was great and the countryside was even more beautiful than it had been in the early spring, but I had a vague, gloomy feeling all week. When Terrence returned to London the next month we'd have two days together before I had to leave for the army and him the RAF. And then God only knew when we'd see each other again.
I couldn't even for a second let myself think of the possibility that either of us might not make it through the war. Of course we'd both be fine. That was a given. But we were already two years into the war and so far it had all gone Germany's way. Before it was all over we'd have to find some way to turn it around and recover all that Germany had gained. That could take years.
My last day in Somerset Terrence and I walked up into the hills, quieter than usual. My feet felt heavy. I knew that this was the last time I'd be in Somerset until after the war, if then. And the last day Terrence and I would be alone together. I had no idea what the future had in store for me but I wasn't looking forward to it.
"There's our tree."
Terrence's voice snapped me out of my brooding. I looked where he was pointing and sure enough, it was the tree we'd lain under in the spring, the one we promised to return to after the war.
"But the war's not over."
"If only it were. But I wanted to be sure I could find it again so when the time comes we can fulfill our promise."
We stood under the tree, side by side, looking out over the countryside. Terrence took my hand and held it, giving it a little squeeze now and then. After a few minutes he let go and put his arm around me, turning me towards him. I looked up into his eyes. There wasn't as great a difference in our heights as when we met. I'd grown to 5'9" so he was only about three inches taller than me. He surprised me when he leaned down and kissed me lightly on the lips, then more firmly. It quickly became a deep, passionate kiss that lasted over a minute.
When we parted I wanted more, but I had to leave that up to Terrence. I always wanted more when I was with Terrence, but I had to let him take the lead. I didn't want to push him any further than he was comfortable. In spite of all of our love-making and other sexual play, we had only kissed one time, that night in the shelter in Finchley. I had started it that time although Terrence had quickly taken it further.
"I know two men kissing isn't appropriate, but I can't think of a better way to express my feelings for you. And before we go off to war, a farewell kiss is in order, don't you think? We can't very well do that in London next month or at the train in Axbridge tomorrow. So I thought an early farewell here at our tree would have to suffice. I hope you didn't mind."
Mind? How could I ever mind anything with Terrence?
"No, I agree that there are circumstances where the inappropriate seems appropriate." Damn, I sounded so stiff and formal, but I didn't want to give away the extent of my feelings.
"Good, now whenever we part with a firm handshake and a clap on the shoulder, we can look into each other's eyes and we'll know what we're really thinking."
I'd know what I was thinking, but unfortunately it wasn't quite the same for Terrence. It was close, though, and I was happy with that.
I spent most of my days back in London helping Mother with her first aid course. A couple of days I tagged along with Dad as he went to various government offices and Broadcasting House researching his news articles. I would have liked to have spent more time with him but I knew that every minute helping with Mother's course would be to my advantage in the army. So for the most part I had to be content with spending time with Dad in the evenings.
Our test results came in the mail the day before Terrence came back from Somerset. I used every bit of self-restraint I had to keep from opening mine before Terrence got home so we could open them together. If the wait had been more than one day I don't think I could have done it.
There was no need to be tense or worried though. We both passed. So we were officially high school graduates, class of 1941, in American terms anyway. To the British we were holders of a Higher School Certificate. Diploma, certificate, it amounted to the same thing. We could now move on to college. But that would have to wait awhile.
Our final week together flew by. We weren't able to make love at night due to my family being in adjoining rooms, but just sleeping together and cuddling was enough. We'd taken full advantage of the privacy we'd had in Axbridge to do more.
The whole family, including my grandparents, went with Terrence to Kings Cross Station where he was to get the train to Sleaford. One by one, Terrence hugged us goodbye. Mother and Gran both kissed him on the cheek as well. When he got to me he shook my hand and patted me on the shoulder, a mischievous look in his eye.
"Aw, the hell with it." He threw his arms around me and we hugged tightly. I didn't want to let go but we finally pulled apart.
"Keep your head down, Woody." he smiled at me.
"And you keep your feet on the ground."
A few hours later my family repeated the scene saying goodbye to me at Waterloo Station. Both Mother and Gran had fought back tears with Terrence but they didn't even try with me. Even Dad and Granddad's eyes were moist. I kept hugging them all until the train was actually starting to move, then ran and got on board.
As the city turned into country outside my window, I felt like I'd never been so alone. I tried to dream that I was staying on the train all the way to Southampton where I would take the Queen Mary back to New York. But as the train pulled into Guildford and I saw the army bus waiting, reality came crashing down on me. There would be no trip back to New York until the war was over. But at least Terrence and I were both safe for now. Maybe I'd spend the whole war helping train medics or working in a hospital, taking care of the wounded. And Terrence would be safe on the ground, working on a crew readying planes for combat missions. Maybe.
To Be Continued