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.
I spent most of New Year's Eve day eating and resting, but mostly waiting. TR usually got home around six o'clock and Peggy was due at seven. But it was Terrence I was waiting for. Mother said he usually arrived somewhere in mid-afternoon.
I had an early lunch at home and then a late lunch at a nearby cafe. I listened to the radio for a while, but then decided to take a nap. It was going to be a late night and I wasn't used to any kind of activity, so I knew I'd be very tired by midnight.
I was dreaming of Terrence when his voice woke me.
"I don't know how we ever won North Africa and Sicily if all of our blokes spend their afternoons lazing about in bed."
"Terrence!" I scrambled out of bed as fast as my gut and arm would let me and hugged him tightly. I realized just as I did that he had only extended his hand to shake. He tensed up as I wrapped my arms around him but after a few seconds he returned the hug.
"So what are you doing here? You could have knocked me over with a feather when your mum said you were down here, but she wouldn't tell me why. Your last letter only mentioned a broken wrist. They're sending men home because of that now?"
"It was a little more complicated than that. Sit down and I'll tell you all about it."
We sat side by side on the bed and I told him about my injuries. After repeating the story so many times I would have thought it would come out like a monotonous, unemotional recording, but looking into Terrence's eyes and seeing the concern in them made it all real for me again. It was as if I were back on the banks of the Sangro River. The concern on Terrence's face grew as I told him about the peritonitis in the days following my surgery.
"Thank God you've recovered now. I wish you'd told me about this in your letter."
"You would have been worried and there was nothing you could do. It worked out better this way."
"Only because you survived. How is your wound healing? Are you feeling all right?"
"The doctor removed my stitches on the ship when we were about halfway to England. It still looks ugly but aside from being sore I think it's healing fine. Mother took a look yesterday and she seemed satisfied with it."
I pulled my shirt up and loosened my belt so I could show him the incision. It was about four inches long and somewhat pink.
"That's a long scar for a bullet hole."
"They probably could have removed the bullet without making an incision at all, but they had to see what damage it had done, repair the hole in my intestine and clean me out as much as they could."
"And they're sure you're going to be okay?"
Terrence still looked very worried.
"Yes, I'm going to be fine." I laughed a bit. "The worst part now is itching - both the incision and my arm under the cast. I get tired easily but that should get better with time and as I put some weight on, if I can find enough food, that is."
"Well, aside from being skinny, you look great. I've missed you so much. Letters just don't take the place of seeing you and being with you."
"I agree. It's been over a year and that seems like a lifetime. There hasn't been a day where I didn't wish I could talk to you. Writing a letter or an entry in my journal isn't quite the same. Tell me all about what you've been doing. TR told me some but I want to hear it from you."
"There isn't much to tell. I still love flying, when I'm not being shot at, at any rate. Fortunately, I've had some assignments that didn't involve that recently."
"Yes, TR said you're flying a different kind of plane."
"A Lysander. It's a bit bigger than a Hurricane and it isn't a fighter plane so flying it gets me away from the dogfights now and then. I'm not permitted to say any more about it, though. Military secrets, you know."
"I know. You're not in danger, are you? Any more than usual, I mean?"
"There's always danger in the war, no matter what you're doing. But I do my best to take care of myself. How's your friend Peter? Have you heard from him at all?"
The abrupt change of subject told me Terrence didn't want to talk about his military activities.
"I haven't heard anything since he was taken to a hospital ship. His wounds were at least as bad as mine so I assume he's been sent home as well. I have his address in Kingston so I'm going to go there to see if he's recuperating at home like me."
"From your letters it sounds like he's been a good friend to you. I hope to meet him one day and thank him for taking such good care of you."
"I'd like you to meet him. I think the two of you would like each other. So if you can't talk about your missions, tell me about your leaves here with TR, Sarah and Betty. "
I purposefully named all three even though I really wanted to hear him talk about Betty. I didn't want to sound jealous, but that's what it was - I was terribly jealous.
"The four of us have a wonderful time whenever I'm in London. TR and I have become great mates. You've met Sarah so you know how delightful she is. And Betty is a great gal, a lot of fun. Are you going with us tonight?"
"Yes, that's why I've been resting up. TR offered to have Sarah find me a date, but I managed to get one on my own."
"Really? How did that happen?"
I told him about meeting Peggy on the hospital ship and becoming friends. An odd assortment of expressions passed over his face, maybe a combination of confusion and concern.
"So do you have feelings for her?"
"Do you mean, am I falling for her? No, nothing like that. But I like her and enjoy being with her."
"Well, it's good that you're dating, I suppose. You can't expect to fall in love with every girl you meet."
"No, I don't expect that at all. And I don't consider this dating. It's just spending time with a girl I like in a group of friends."
We sat and talked for over half an hour. I told him stories of Africa and Sicily. I normally didn't like talking about the battles, but telling Terrence was different. I wanted to share everything with him. It was as if no time at all had gone by since our last meeting, and I was relieved to see that it still felt as if we were the same friends who had parted so long before.
"Boys! It's time for tea." Mother called down the stairs. "Are you going to join us?"
"We'll be right up, Mother. And don't call us boys."
It was a clear night and not very cold so Peggy and I decided to walk to the nightclub off Regent Street near Picadilly. It was a relief to get away from the house, where everyone was fascinated by my `date.' Not that Peggy didn't look great and merit the attention. She'd done her hair and put on a tad more make-up than usual and in her dress uniform she was stunning. Everyone made a fuss over her. I kept getting winks from TR and Terrence.
Actually, TR, Terrence and Peggy all looked good in their dress uniforms. I felt like I didn't fit in. I was the ordinary-looking NCO in a group of attractive, sparkling officers. The others teased me a bit, reminding me that if we were all in the same branch of the same service, I wouldn't be allowed to `fraternize' with them. As it was we were an odd looking group, the four of us representing the US Army, the British Army, the Royal Navy and the RAF, a real cross-section of the Allies.
Mother and Dad and my grandparents also fussed over Peggy. She was the first girl I'd ever brought home so she was a rarity.
Terrence and TR left the house with us but turned toward Oxford Street to find cabs to pick up Sarah and Betty.
"Your family is wonderful, not at all what I would have expected, given the house and the area you're living in."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, your family is clearly very well off."
"Yes, we are quite comfortable." I felt like squirming. I was never at ease talking about my family's money but at some point it always came up.
"Quite comfortable, indeed," she laughed. "What I'm trying to say is that your parents don't have the airs of the upper class here. They're very down-to-earth, not at all snobby. They've welcomed Terrence into the family and weren't at all condescending towards me."
"That's because they are good people and that has nothing to do with money. Besides, my mother wasn't born to money. My grandparents are probably of the same economic class as your parents."
"Then maybe it's your father I'm talking about. He doesn't come across at all as upper class. Maybe money and class differences don't matter much in America."
"You wouldn't say that if you met my grandparents in New York. Their upper class snobbery would be just what you'd expect here."
Peggy and I arrived at the nightclub a few minutes early for our nine o'clock reservation but our table was ready. We sat and talked and listened to the band while waiting for the others. As the band began to play Paper Doll, Peggy took my hand.
"I've only got one arm." My left arm was still pinned to my side under my coat. I was hoping to use that as an excuse not to dance. "And I'm not much of a dancer even with two arms."
"Nonsense! Anyone can dance to this."
I reluctantly followed her out onto the crowded dance floor. Mother had given Terrence and me some dance lessons when we were in school, so I knew how to do the fox trot, but I wasn't comfortable being that physically close to Peggy and I had no idea how we were going to manage without my left hand being able to hold her right. She solved that by placing it lightly on my shoulder.
Although I'd been nervous, once we began I found it quite nice moving to the music. I wasn't very good but at least I didn't step on Peggy's feet or trip over my own. When the band segued into That Old Black Magic we stayed on the floor and continued to dance.
The others arrived while we were dancing. As we headed back to the table I saw the four of them sitting there watching us. TR smiled and gave me a thumbs-up while Terrence had a thoughtful look on his face. Sarah looked very pretty but it was Betty I was more interested in. Her hair was a shade darker than Sarah's and while she wasn't as pretty, she was still attractive.
Introductions were made and the waiter took our drink order. For most of the evening the girls talked to each other while Terrence, TR and I talked. But I kept an eye on Betty, trying to see what Terrence saw in her. She seemed all right, but nothing special. Try as I might, I couldn't find anything terribly wrong with her. Yes, she was more interested in talking about her hair, problems finding new clothes and critiquing the other women in the club than in world affairs. In that she reminded me of the girls we'd met on the Queen Mary, although she wasn't quite as self-centered as they were. But I realized I couldn't fault her for that, as Peggy and Sarah were talking about the same things.
It was a fun evening overall in spite of my social discomfort. I danced several times with Peggy, and even once or twice with Sarah and Betty - only to music that suited the fox trot, though. I left the jitterbug dancing to TR and Terrence. Not only had I no idea how to do it, I wouldn't have been able to manage with one arm.
The first time the others got up to dance, leaving Peggy and me alone at the table, Peggy stopped our waiter as he walked by.
"I saw a sign near the coat room that said No Jitterbugging. You clearly aren't enforcing that."
"That's to placate some of our older patrons who don't care for America's contribution to popular dance. There's really no way to enforce it, though, especially with all of the Yanks in here."
I hadn't paid much attention, but as I looked around I noticed far more than half of the men in uniform were Americans. The others returned to the table as I thought about that, realizing I'd also seen far more Americans on the streets than before I left for Africa. I mentioned that to Peggy.
"Yes, most of the British men are off fighting somewhere while more Americans arrive every day, awaiting their turn. As the saying goes, `The Yanks are overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here.'"
"We were afraid of being invaded by Germany and instead we've been invaded by America," Betty added.
"But at least it's a friendly invasion," Sarah said as she kissed TR on the cheek.
Over the course of the evening Peggy got her chance to jitterbug with both TR and Terrence, while I stayed at the table talking to either Sarah or Betty. And that was fine with me.
Shortly before midnight a waiter brought a bottle of champagne to the table and filled our glasses. My meal had soaked up much of the alcohol I'd consumed over the evening but I was still feeling a bit woozy. On top of that, I was tired. Even with my afternoon nap I was dragging. The crowd stood for the countdown to midnight, then TR toasted our little group.
"Happy 1944! May it be better than the last few years."
The band began playing Auld Land Syne and we each took a sip of champagne. TR kissed Sarah while Terrence kissed Betty. I didn't have time to wonder what I should do because Peggy grabbed me and planted a kiss on my lips. While it was a firm, long-lasting kiss it was close-mouthed. Even so, I was taken aback and terrified. I didn't move, just stood there as our lips were pressed together. When the kiss ended I was embarrassed to see that the others were all staring at me, grinning. Feeling very self-conscious, I quickly gulped down the rest of my champagne.
We all made toasts to one another and the New Year, which meant I had another glass of champagne. I danced one more dance with Peggy a few minutes later, but then immediately began to lose what little energy I had, a combination of the late hour, my partial physical recovery and the alcohol I'd consumed over the course of the evening. Peggy noticed before I even said anything and suggested we leave.
At Picadilly we caught a cab without a problem and headed toward Notting Hill. It was all I could do to keep from nodding off on the ride. When we pulled up at Peggy's address I asked the driver to wait as we got out of the taxi.
"How long are you going to be?"
"I'm not sure. A few minutes, maybe."
"I'd better turn off the engine then. Can't waste the petrol while you lovebirds are saying goodnight."
I didn't like him calling us that. We weren't, and I didn't want to give Peggy any ideas or false hopes. And it added pressure to what I was already worrying about, our goodnight parting. My thought was that a kiss on the cheek would be an appropriate symbol of my feelings toward her, although after the kiss at the nightclub she was probably expecting more. When we got to her door and we said goodnight, I leaned toward her cheek. She turned her head slightly and my kiss landed on her lips. The kiss ended up being even longer than the one before, and this time it was also much more passionate. When we finally separated we were both a bit breathless.
After a self-conscious, mumbled goodnight, I watched as Peggy went inside and then I returned to the cab. On the way home I thought about it. I decided I definitely liked kissing and Peggy was pretty good at it. But there just wasn't the electricity I felt when I'd kissed Terrence. The physical act was the same, but it didn't do the same things to me inside.
At home I thought about reading in bed, trying to stay awake until Terrence got home, but I was out the minute my head hit the pillow. When I awoke I was lying on my side with Terrence pressed against me from behind, his arm draped over me. It was just like old times and felt so good I wanted it to last forever. I lay there for a while, reveling in the comfort of it all, until I felt him stir. For a minute he pulled me closer, but then he started and quickly pulled away. I rolled over on my back toward him.
"Good morning, Ter. Sleep well?"
"Morning, Woody. I slept well considering I'm not used to sharing a bed these days. I hope I didn't disturb you." He seemed a bit self-conscious.
"Not at all. I've gotten used to sleeping alone also, but sleeping with you is so natural. That could never feel awkward or uncomfortable to me."
"Well, even so, I hope you got a good night's sleep, in spite of me. You need the rest."
"Don't worry about it. Sleeping with you is the kind of rest I need."
Terrence looked uncomfortable as he got out of bed. Maybe I'd expressed my feelings too clearly. It was the kind of thing we both said to each other a few years before, but he wasn't as open as before.
On Monday morning, I took the train to Kingston upon Thames to find Peter. On the way I thought about the few hours I'd been able to spend with Terrence. He'd had to leave just after lunch on New Year's Day so all we had was the morning. That wasn't as much as I'd wanted, but then no amount of time would have been. It was almost as though no time had passed since we were in school together. Almost. We'd both grown up and experienced things neither of us ever wanted to talk about. Horrors of war that we'd always carry with us, that would always be ours and ours alone. But as far as our relationship went, I was relieved to find it hadn't changed much. Terrence was less physically affectionate, but every now and then his eyes looked into mine and it was still like he could see inside me and I knew he still felt the same, even if he did talk about Betty and Peggy more than I would have liked.
I hated seeing him go but we knew he'd be back on leave one more time before I had to report to Pirbright, so that was something to look forward to. Even if I did have to share him with Betty.
I asked directions at the train station and had no trouble finding the modest, semi-attached house only a few streets away. A pleasant–looking, fair-haired woman who looked to be a few years older than Mother answered my knock.
"Good morning. I'm trying to locate Peter Wingate."
A worried look crossed her face.
"Is there a problem, sir?" She glanced at the two stripes on my sleeve.
"Not at all. I'm a friend of his, but we've lost touch since he was injured."
"He's at home. Who shall I say is calling?"
"I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. I'm Woody Cooper."
"Woody Cooper!" She beamed. "It's so nice to meet you. Peter talks about you all the time. You saved my boy's life."
"He's the one who protected me for so many months. I just patched him up when he was hit in my place. How is he?"
"He's doing quite well. Come in, come in. Peter!" She called out. "I've got a lovely surprise for you."
As I entered the house Peter appeared in a doorway at the end of the hall. Dresses in civilian clothes he looked even younger that I remembered him. A big smile spread over his face when he saw me.
"Woody! How did you get here?"
"By boat, the same as you, I imagine." I grinned at him. As much as I'd been looking forward to seeing Peter, I was still surprised at how good it felt to be with him again. "But just now, by train from London."
"That's not what I meant. Your last letter said you were still in Italy with a broken wrist." He glanced at the empty sleeve of my coat. "What made them send you back home?"
"Why don't you boys come into the parlor and sit. No need to do all your talking in the hall."
"We're not boys anymore, Ma."
"All right then, why don't you men come sit in the parlor? I'll put on some tea."
I politely declined her offer, mindful of the rationing. We followed her into the room where Peter helped me take off my coat. I noticed he had a slight limp and commented on it.
"It's nothing, really. I had a cast on to protect the bone while it healed. When the doctor took it off last week he said that with use the limp will go away. It doesn't hurt at all but the muscles atrophied a little over the weeks."
"I suppose the same thing is happening with my arm. Right now it just itches a lot."
"Itching didn't get you sent home. What are you doing back in England?"
I launched into my tale of the battle for Mazzagrogna and how I was shot before breaking my wrist, my surgery and the long fever that came after it. I saw the look of concern on Peter's face as I talked.
"It's all my fault. If I had been there you wouldn't have been shot."
"I daresay you would have protected me, but it wasn't your fault you were injured so it wasn't your fault you weren't there. There's no point in assigning blame in situations like that, although I still feel guilty about you being shot while protecting me."
"That was my job. If I'd been more careful I wouldn't have been shot."
"How is your lung healing?' I tried to change the subject.
"It's fine, as long as I don't exert myself. Then I get winded. The doctor says it will take time for that to improve. He said you really did save my life - that if you hadn't put that tube in my chest the other lung might have collapsed as well."
"That's usually only needed with closed chest wounds, like when a broken rib punctures a lung. The bullet hole itself should have been enough to equalize the pressure but it didn't seem to be doing that, so I didn't want to take any chances."
"I'm glad you did."
"So how long are you going to be home?" I asked, hoping to get the conversation off my heroics.
"My convalescent leave is just about over. I go back on active duty next week. They've assigned me a desk job at Pirbright where they can keep an eye on me."
"Then I'll see you there. I have to report back there later in the month for a medical exam. I'm not sure where I'll be stationed next though. Maybe they'll send me back to our regiment in Italy."
"I hope not. We've both seen our share of fighting."
"But the war's not over by a long shot. We only have a toehold on the continent in Italy. Everyone's talking about an invasion of France sometime this year."
"They should let someone else have a turn, Woody. We've already done our invading."
"That gives us experience they may want to take advantage of. But no more war talk, Peter. Let's just pretend we're old school mates who haven't seen each other in a while."
"That's fine with me. Let's go out for a walk. I'd like to show you around town."
We walked around the area for a while, Peter pointing out places of interest. He limped a bit and carried a cane for balance, but he didn't seem to be in any pain. He did have to stop to catch his breath at one point after climbing a small hill.
We passed a small park near the center of town and I stopped to look it over.
"This would be a good place for your statue."
"My statue? What are you talking about?"
"I told you, after the war I'm going to commission a statue of you kneeling, protecting me from harm while I tended the wounded."
"I think you may have a problem convincing the local officials I did anything special enough to warrant a statue."
"I'm sure they'll want some kind of war memorial. Maybe they'll be open to suggestions." And to someone offering to pay for it, I thought. I was sure Mother and Dad would gladly pay a few pounds to honor the man who protected me.
Peter seemed as uncomfortable with talking about his heroics in battle as I was and changed the subject.
"Did you do anything special to celebrate the New Year?"
"Yes, I went out with TR and Terrence."
"Just the three of you?"
"No, they had Sarah and Betty with them so I asked someone as well to even things out." I told him about our night out in Picadilly.
"You have a girlfriend now? You didn't say anything about her before."
"Peggy's not my girlfriend. She's just a friend." I explained about meeting her on the hospital ship and seeing her in London.
"Even so, it sounds like New Year's Eve was a date, not a dinner with a friend."
"That's only because we were all paired up and the others were couples. I asked her because I enjoy her company and I didn't want Sarah and Betty to arrange a blind date for me. That would have been really uncomfortable."
"I can understand that. But do you think Peggy thought of it as a date?"
"I don't know. I don't have any experience with girls so I don't know what they're thinking. But, yes, she probably did think of it as a date."
"Three couples, out having dinner and dancing, that sounds like a date."
"And then there was the kiss goodnight."
"You kissed her?"
"Well, it was more like she kissed me, but I did kiss back."
"How was it?" he blurted.
"You want me to kiss and tell?" I asked as I smiled at him.
"No, I'm sorry, that was rude of me."
"That's all right. Actually, I've been trying to sort out how I feel about it. It was nice, exciting even, but it wasn't like ..." I stopped short, catching myself before saying `kissing Terrence.' I was so comfortable talking to Peter that I almost let my deepest secret slip out.
I thought a minute, trying to come up with something to say that was honest but not too revealing.
"Well, it wasn't magical, the way I imagine a first kiss with someone I loved would be."
"But you can hardly be in love on a first date. Doesn't love take time to develop?"
"I suppose, but I'm a bit of an idealist when it comes to romance. I know dreams aren't reality, but what I feel for Peggy isn't love, just friendship."
"Well, you'd better make sure she understands that. You don't want to mislead her and maybe hurt her."
"No, I surely wouldn't want to do that."
"So what was it like seeing Terrence again? I know how much you missed him when we were overseas."
"It was great, most of the time."
"Most of the time?"
"Yes, when it was just the two of us and we talked, it was like old times, although a little more grown up. But then when we were with the others he seemed a little different. I suppose that's because I'd never seen him out on a date before, but when he was with Betty it was like he was impersonating someone else, as if he were acting like someone other than the Terrence I've always known."
"Well, he and Betty have been dating for over a year now, so they have probably fallen into a pattern of relating to each other. You haven't been around to watch their relationship develop, so it seems strange to you."
I hated to admit that Peter was right. There was that whole piece of Terrence's life I hadn't been a part of. He had moved on to another phase of his life and Betty was the center of it, not me. But still, the Terrence Betty was with wasn't the same one I knew. That both puzzled me and comforted me.
Peggy had to leave for Southampton to go back to Italy on Wednesday, so I saw her one last time the day before. I was determined to make it as little like a date as possible, but that was easier said than done. If I invited her to have supper at home that certainly wouldn't have been a romantic evening, but it would have made her feel like I was trying to pull her into my family. The two of us going out to dinner alone was out of the question, so I settled on a `double date' with TR and Sarah. It was a pleasant evening, but felt like a lot of work on my part. I had to focus on not leading Peggy on and on stressing our `friendship.' Even so, the evening ended inevitably with another passionate goodnight kiss on Peggy's doorstep.
Once again on the cab ride home I tried to sort out all of my feelings, which were more conflicted than ever. I liked Peggy as a friend and while her kisses were physically stirring, they didn't overwhelm me with passion the way Terrence's did.
But I liked the way everyone around me reacted to me being with Peggy. I felt a definite sense of approval from them that I'd never experienced before. They liked Peggy and I think there was a little bit of relief on their part that at the age of 20 I was finally dating. While I didn't think anyone in my family suspected I was queer, I think they were glad that I was finally on the social track that was expected of me. I didn't want to deceive them, but while I knew they were wrong about it all, I liked their reaction enough to not want to be totally honest with them.
So as much as I enjoyed Peggy's company, I knew my life would be less complicated once she left town.
To Be Continued.