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.
Ten days later I was on a hospital ship in the Mediterranean. I'd had surgery to remove the bullet in a field hospital. It had perforated my small intestine so they'd repaired that hole as well. I'd been told that an injury like that usually resulted in peritonitis, an abdominal infection. They'd cleaned me out as well as they could and were giving me penicillin, a fairly new drug, to fight the infection. Even so, I had a high fever for several days. I slept most of the time, which was a relief, as when I was awake I was burning up, half-delirious and very uncomfortable. As the fever finally started to come down I was judged stable enough to be transferred to the ship.
My awkward fall had resulted in a Colles fracture of my left wrist, so I now had a cast from just below the elbow to my hand, with only my fingers free. I was told it would be on for at least six weeks. That was the least of my worries. I didn't remember everything I was told in the days following surgery, but little bits stuck with me. A good number of people died of peritonitis. It usually depended on how long it had to take hold before the cause - in my case the hole in my intestine - was corrected. Only a couple of hours had passed, so the doctor was optimistic, in spite of my walk back from the front.
My second morning on the ship, at least I was pretty sure it was my second morning, I awoke to a pretty, red-haired nurse holding my right wrist, taking my pulse.
"Good morning. How are you feeling today?"
"Hot, but not as much as usual."
"We'll see how hot in just a bit." She put down my wrist and picked up a thermometer.
"Where are we?" I managed to get the question out as she put the thermometer in my mouth.
"Just off Malta. We're picking up some more patients for the ride home."
"Home?" I mumbled.
"Yes, in spite of your injuries you're one of the lucky ones. We won't be in England in time for Christmas, but possibly we'll make it for the New Year." She took the thermometer out and looked at it, then made a note in my chart.
"Why am I being sent back? Am I dying?"
"Hardly," she laughed. "You've still got a fever, although it's down considerably. That's very good news. You won't be out of the woods until it's gone completely for a few days, but things are looking good. Even so, it will take quite a while to recover from your wound and get your strength back. And as you won't be able to use your wrist for a couple of months you won't be any use at the front, so you're going home to recover."
"You're sure I'm going to be all right?"
"You'll have to ask the doctor for details, but you seem to be doing just fine." She hung my chart on the foot of the bed. "By the way, if you need anything, my name's Peggy Sykes."
"I'm Woody Cooper."
"I know." She smiled and pointed to the chart.
I had very little experience talking to girls around my own age and I was usually pretty awkward around them. That hadn't changed since those days on the Queen Mary with TR and the Fuller sisters. My injuries and the fever didn't help any.
After Peggy left I thought about going home. Of course it would be good to see my family again, but uppermost in my mind was that I was going to see Terrence. It had been over a year and our only contact had been through letters. I would finally be able to meet this girl Betty and see for myself what her relationship with Terrence really was.
Knowing I was going home made me a little apprehensive. As long as I was stationed far away I could pretend Terrence hadn't changed. At least, that his feelings toward me hadn't changed. I knew he would necessarily have grown up while I was away. I had, so it was only natural that he had as well. After all, we were both twenty now, no longer schoolboys. But in spite of the changes I'd gone through I still felt the same about him. While I knew he'd never felt quite the same for me, I hoped he still felt as he had.
Peggy came back to check on me every couple of hours. As I got to know her I was able to relax and carry on a less stilted, more natural conversation.
On one of her subsequent visits I asked her a question.
"How long was this ship in port in Taranto?"
"About ten days before you came aboard. Why?"
"My friend Peter was taken to a hospital ship and I was hoping he might be on this one. But he was shot over a month ago."
"He's probably back home by now, if that's where they decided to take him. What kind of wound did he have?"
I explained about his chest and leg wounds.
"He'd probably be sent home with those kinds of injuries. You should be able to look him up once we get back, but unfortunately we have no mail service while we're at sea."
"I wrote to him and to another friend back home and my parents right after my surgery, so they all know I was hurt, but they won't know I'm coming home."
"I would imagine those letters were pretty strange, considering your feverish state of mind."
"I was somewhat foggy but pretty lucid at the time. The fever hadn't really kicked in at that point. I was sensible enough that I only told them about the broken wrist, not the abdominal wound. I didn't want them to worry."
"Then they'll probably be surprised when you get home."
My fever hung on for a few more days so I was still trapped in my cabin. The day after we left Gibraltar my temperature came down to normal for the first time. A couple of days later it was still down so Peggy allowed me to walk about the ship. I couldn't go out on deck, but I was at least finally allowed out of my room. She accompanied me as I walked, her hand lightly holding my right elbow.
"Just because your fever is down that doesn't mean you're out of the woods. And you've been in bed for so long your legs are probably a bit weak."
"I tried to get up and stretch them a little in my room when I felt up to it, but that wasn't very much. I still feel a bit wobbly."
"I'll take you for a walk every day and you'll feel stronger in no time. But we'll still have to stay below. "
The ship reminded me of liners I'd been on, although it wasn't very big and everything was painted a drab gray.
"This ship was a small passenger liner the military converted when the war began," she explained as we walked. "The first class cabins have three beds in them and second and third class have two beds. You're in third class but you don't have a roommate because of your infection and fever."
"I've never sailed third class before. It's not so bad."
"So you're used to second class? It isn't all that different, just slightly larger cabins."
I kept quiet, not wanting to admit I'd never traveled second class either.
"Either way, the accommodations are much better than the troop ship I came to Africa on. That was more like steerage."
Peggy was quiet for a few minutes.
"You know, you're really quite nice for a Yank," she said a bit shyly.
"You don't like Americans?" Early on I'd explained my background to her and how I came to be in the British Army. She'd also given me a bit of her history. She'd grown up in Liverpool, the daughter of an Irish mother and English father.
"It's not dislike so much, but some of you Yanks are a bit arrogant, at least those I met before I enlisted in the Navy."
"You think we're arrogant?"
"Some of you, at times. I was still back home when American troops started arriving in Britain and so many acted as if they were coming to rescue the poor, helpless British. They'd spent the first few years of the war sitting safely at home while we were the only ones fighting the Germans and being bombed incessantly, but they somehow thought they were superior."
"I suppose that is a bit arrogant."
"But only some of you, not all. Some Yanks like you are perfectly charming." She blushed as she said that.
As the days went by my legs got stronger so I really didn't need Peggy's help getting around the ship, but she insisted on accompanying me anyway. She was good company, and pretty much the only person other than the doctors I spoke to very much on board.
A doctor came by once a day to check up on me, but the day before we were to arrive in Southampton he spent more time with me and gave me a thorough exam.
"You're doing quite well. I'm very pleased with your progress. I can tell you now that it was touch-and-go for a while. Your fever hung on for so long we were beginning to lose hope."
"But I'm okay now?"
"Well, the infection is gone and your wound is healing nicely, so that's good. But you've lost a lot of weight and you didn't have any to spare. We're sending you home for a few weeks medical leave with instructions to rest and eat. You need to gain weight and build up your strength."
The little mirror I used for shaving told me that my face looked a bit gaunt so I knew I'd lost weight. Peggy was always urging me to eat but I hadn't had much appetite.
"And then where do I go?"
He checked my file.
"You're to report for duty at Pirbright on January 22. I believe you're familiar with the place?"
"Yes, very much so. It'll be nice to be back there."
"There's no guarantee how long you'll be staying there, but they'll examine your progress at the hospital and then decide what to do with you."
After he left I was restless. I looked around for Peggy but didn't see her, so I decided to go for a walk on my own. After a couple of laps around the ship I stopped to rest in the lounge nearest my room. I sat in a chair next to a soldier somewhat older than me with a long leg cast.
"Where's your girl?"
"She's not my girl, she's my nurse."
"I know what her job is, but look around. Do you see any other soldiers being escorted by nurses? I'm on crutches and they still make me get about on my own."
"Peggy's just a good nurse. I'm sure if you asked your nurse for help she'd do whatever you needed."
"I can think of something I need, if you know what I mean," he gave an exaggerated wink, "but I don't think my nurse would be willing to do that. You might have better luck with yours, if the way she looks at you is any indication."
"I'm sure I don't know what you're talking about." Actually, I wasn't that naïve. I knew what he was imagining but he was wrong and I didn't want to talk about that.
"Be a gentleman if you want. I know what I see." He got up and hobbled away on his crutches.
I thought about what he'd said. Sure, Peggy was sweet and attentive, but that didn't mean anything. That was her job. Helping her patients feel better was what she was supposed to do. Besides, she'd told me she was twenty-two. Why would she be interested in a twenty year old kid like me?
The next morning when I awoke we were in port. The whole ship seemed much more alive than usual, with those patients who were ambulatory getting ready to leave and those who weren't being helped. Peggy came by as I was trying to get into my uniform. I had no problem getting the trousers on and I'd asked for a larger shirt so the sleeves were full enough that I could just barely get my cast into the left one, but I had no luck with the coat.
"Let me help you with that. I can't believe you got the shirt on."
After holding the coat so I could put my right arm through the sleeve she wrapped it around me and buttoned it, pinning my left arm to my side under it.
"You can bend your arm to sit but it will probably be tight."
"I never thought I'd say it, but it's nice to have my uniform back on."
"You look quite dashing, although a bit too thin. Please try to gain some weight while you're on leave."
"I don't think that will be a problem. As my abdomen gets less sore I'm more in the mood to eat. I did quite well with our little Christmas dinner the other day. With rationing at home I think I'll have to go out to eat a lot to get as much food as I want."
"Do whatever you have to. And speaking of home, would you mind if I stopped by to see you in London?"
"London? Aren't you going back to Italy?"
"Yes, but we get a week's leave between trips. Several of the girls from my training have taken a small flat in Notting Hill to use when we`re on leave. There are rarely more than two of us there at a time so it works out well. I thought as long as we were both going to be in London I could check up on you."
"You don't have to do that. I'm on the mend now and besides, your job ends when I leave the ship."
"I'm not talking about my job, silly. I'd just like to see you again."
She blushed and I realized that maybe that soldier on crutches hadn't been so wrong. All of the comfort I'd developed in talking to her disappeared and I was once again the tongue-tied unsocial clod she'd first met.
"Um, sure, okay, if you want."
There was a long, uncomfortable pause in the conversation.
"All right then. I suppose I can get your home address from your records."
"You don't have to do that. I'll give it to you. And the telephone number as well."
I wrote them down and gave them to her. She carefully folded the paper and put it in her uniform pocket.
"I can't give you my number as we don't have a telephone at the flat, so I guess it will be up to me to call you."
She gave me a hug and left. It was an awkward hug because I wasn't expecting it and didn't respond until she was starting to release me.
If I needed a reminder that I'd lost strength in addition to weight, carrying my duffel bag over my right shoulder from the tube station at Green Park was it. I was worn out by the time I got to the house. Even so, I hesitated outside the front door. It was nearly dark, not quite four in the afternoon, which meant only Mother and my grandparents would be home. They had no idea I was in the country, much less coming home, so I didn't want to give anyone a heart attack by just walking in. I'd thought of calling from the train station in Southampton but I didn't want to have to explain my condition over the phone.
I took a deep breath and rang the bell. A minute later, Gran opened the door just far enough to peer around it, letting very little light out. She squinted at me, then flung the door wide open and shrieked.
"Woody! Is that really you?" She threw her arms around me and hugged me tight.
"Lydia! Albert!" She called over her shoulder, not letting go of me. "It's our Woody. He's home and he's safe!"
Mother and Granddad appeared in the hall behind Gran, both looking astonished.
"Mum, move aside and let me at my boy."
Mother rushed forward and hugged me even tighter as Gran stepped away. In spite of the thrill of seeing them all again I was feeling very weary. If Mother hadn't been holding me I might have fallen over.
"Let the lad in the house and close the door. You'll have the ARP warden coming around with all that light in the street." Granddad gently pulled Mother away from me.
I stepped into the house and dropped my bag on the floor. The three of them stood back, looking me over.
"You're so thin! Hasn't the army been feeding you?" Gran inspected my face.
"I thought that was part of the idea of the rationing, so the troops could get the food they needed," Granddad added.
"What are you doing here? How did you get home? Are you all right?" Mother looked gravely concerned. Maybe I'd lost more weight than I'd realized.
"One at a time! Let's all sit down and I'll explain. It's been a long trip and I'm a bit tired."
"We were just about to have tea. Come into the parlor and sit while we get it."
"You stay with Woody, Lydia. Your dad and I will get the tea."
I managed to unbutton my coat and shrugged it off. While Mother hung it up I sat on the settee. She joined me and inspected my cast.
"You can't have lost all this weight from a broken arm. There must be more to your condition than that. What haven't you told us?"
"I'll explain it all in just a minute."
My grandparents came in with the tea tray and a plate of biscuits.
"The biscuits are all for you, Woody. You look like you need them more than we do," Gran said.
"Am I really all that thin? I knew I'd lost some weight, but is it that noticeable?"
"You look like a skeleton swimming in those clothes," Mother commented, handing me a cup of tea.
"Part of that could be the shirt. It's extra large so the cast fits in the sleeve."
"That doesn't explain your sunken cheeks. What happened to you?" Gran asked.
"All right. I was hoping this could wait until Dad and TR got home, so I'd only have to go through the story once, but here goes. My condition was a little more serious than just the broken wrist. Before I fell and broke it, I was shot in the belly. The bullet perforated my small intestine."
Mother and Gran gasped and Granddad looked concerned.
"I'm okay now, just a little sore, but I had a pretty bad infection for a while, and haven't felt much like eating."
"Are you sure you're all right? Why didn't you tell us when you wrote?"
"I'm fine, Mother. I didn't tell you in my letter because I didn't want you to worry. I was going to write about it after I'd recovered. But then the infection set in and by the time I was well enough to write again I was on the hospital ship on my way home."
"You could have died, Woody! Peritonitis is very dangerous."
"So they told me. Thank god for penicillin. That's what saved me."
"Yes, we're all very fortunate for that. We didn't have penicillin in the last war."
"So how long are you going to be home? I suppose it's too much to hope that they've decided you're done with the war."
"Yes, Granddad, once I've recovered I'm sure they'll put me to good use. But you have three weeks to fatten me up before I report to Pirbright."
"Then we'll have to go out to eat a lot. You won't gain weight on what we can buy at the grocers."
Dad came home about an hour later and TR an hour after that. I went through my story again with each of them. We went to dinner at Claridge's to celebrate my homecoming. It was a wonderful celebration but I found it very tiring. A short time after we got home I excused myself to go to bed early. TR followed me down to my room in the cellar.
"So tell me about the battles you were in, Woody. I want to know everything. You've been fighting your way across two continents and I've been stuck behind a desk."
"I haven't been fighting, just cleaning up after those who were. I've only shot one German and then I had to patch him up."
"You shot a German? Tell me about it."
So I told him the story of Peter getting shot. That reminded me that I had to try to track him down while I was home. Like me, he might have been sent home to recuperate and Kingston-upon-Thames was only a few miles from here. TR wanted to hear more about the battles I'd been in even though I kept telling him they were all pretty much the same. Different terrain and intensity, but lots of gore, blood, death and destruction. There was certainly nothing glorious about any of it.
I finally cut him off by asking about Sarah. He went on and on about her and I could tell he was even more taken with her than his letters had indicated. As he wound down I was able to ask him what I really wanted to know about - Terrence.
"I asked Mother about him and she told me he was fine, but she said I should ask you for details, as he spends most of his time out with you and the girls when he's on leave."
I was careful not to be too direct in examining TR about Betty, but I wanted to push the conversation in that direction. Unfortunately, TR thought I was asking about Terrence's military exploits. I wanted to know about them also, but I was more concerned with his relationship with Betty.
"Terrence doesn't talk much about his flying. I realize the importance of keeping things secret, but talking about dogfights after they're over doesn't pose any security threat. He used to talk about them all the time, but he hasn't had much to say lately."
"Maybe it's like me talking about battles. They're all pretty much the same and it gets tiresome talking about them after a while."
"Actually, I wonder if he's still flying the Hurricane. He mentioned a while back he'd been taught to fly a Lysander, and they're not fighter planes."
"What kind of plane is that? What do they do?"
"I asked around as I wasn't familiar with it. A Lysander is a small plane that can carry a pilot and one or two passengers, maybe some supplies. The SOE uses them."
"Special Operations Executive, Churchill's secret army. I know very little about them - no one does - but I have heard they use Lysanders to fly underground commandos in and out of occupied territories. Those are very dangerous missions."
"And you think that's what Terrence is doing?"
"He could be. That would explain his reticence in talking about his missions. He might confide in you but I doubt it. If that's what he's involved in he knows how important secrecy is."
"I hope he gets leave while I'm here. I'll ask him if I see him."
"You'll get your chance the day after tomorrow."
"He's coming home?"
"Yes, it's New Year's Eve and we're all going out to a nightclub to celebrate."
"All? The whole family, like tonight?"
"No, not the family." TR laughed. "Just us young folk, Sandra and me, Betty and Terrence. And now you, of course. I'm sure the girls can fix you up with a date if you'd like."
"I'm not sure that would be much fun for me. You know how awkward I am around girls, especially those I don't know."
"You're still like that? Hasn't your time out in the world loosened you up any?"
"In case you haven't noticed, there aren't a lot of women in the military. And even fewer in battle. Where would I get the experience?"
"Well, think about it. Even a blind date might be more fun than being a fifth wheel."
That statement told me a lot about how things were. They were definitely two couples, TR and Sandra, and Terrence and Betty.
"Look, I can see you're barely able to keep your eyes open. Why don't you meet me for lunch at the café on Pall Mall and we'll talk then?"
"That sounds good to me."
"Good night, Woody. I'm so glad you're home. Even as skinny as you are, you're a very welcome sight."
It turned out I didn't have to think much about whether or not to have a date. Peggy called late the next morning.
"I don't mean to mother you, but I wanted to make sure you got home all right. All of that travel with only one free arm would be difficult even if you were up to full strength."
"It was tiring. I had to rest up before we went out to dinner, and then went to bed shortly after we got back."
"You went out for supper? Did you go to a British Restaurant?"
"Um, no, we went to a local hotel."
"That's good. I hope you ate a lot."
"As much as the Ministry of Food would let them serve me. I think my appetite is back to normal."
"So when can I come by to see you?"
"Any time, really. I don't have any plans except for tomorrow night."
"Home only a few hours and you already have a New Year's Eve date?"
"Not exactly. My brother and a friend have plans and they invited me to join them and their dates. Say, if you're not doing anything, would you like to come along?"
I spoke before I thought. It had occurred to me while talking that I could combine seeing Peggy with avoiding an uncomfortable blind date, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I realized it sounded like I had just asked Peggy on a date.
"You want me to be your date?"
"Well, the lads offered to find me a girl but you know how distressing blind dates can be. The way I feel I'm not really interested in any kind of date, but as we've become pretty good friends I thought it might be a chance to spend some time with you. It would certainly be more pleasant for us than a walk around a hospital ship."
I hoped that would make it sound like I didn't mean it as a formal date, just joining me for a night on the town with a group of friends.
"I think any time with you sounds wonderful. And as I don't have any other plans, I'd love to join you and meet your friends."
When I met TR for lunch I half-expected Sarah to be there as well and sure enough, she was.
"Woody, it's so good to see you again. TR was just telling me about your exploits."
"Pretty boring stuff. Gruesome, but monotonous."
"Well, I think that what you're doing is heroic, saving all those lives."
I noticed TR flinch a bit at that. I was sure he would never consider his job to be heroic.
"Everyone has their own role to play in this war, and they're all important. Some are more obvious than others, but we all depend on each other."
"I know. TR is always complaining about his job but he doesn't appreciate how much the boys at the front depend on him to get them the supplies they need to fight."
"But you wouldn't call me a hero, would you, Sarah?"
"You'll always be my hero, war or no war." She smiled at TR, and then turned back to me. "Did he tell you we're engaged?"
"Engaged? No! When did that happen? And why didn't you tell me?"
"I proposed Christmas Eve. It was pretty spontaneous and it's still unofficial. We haven't told anyone, so keep it under your hat. When I give her a ring we'll make the big announcement."
"Congratulations! I haven't had much chance to see you two together but from what little time I've spent with you and from TR's letters, I think you're made for each other."
"I couldn't agree more, little brother. Now do you think you can keep our secret from the family for a few days?"
"As long as it isn't for very long. Does Terrence know?"
"No, we haven't told him or Betty yet. You're the first to know."
"Well, you'd better make the announcement soon. I've never been any good at keeping secrets from Terrence. When do you think you'll get married?"
"It will only be a small wedding, but I've always dreamed of being a June bride, so we'll probably wait until then."
"I hope I'm still stationed in England by then. I'd hate to miss it."
"You can't miss it if you're going to be my best man."
"You mean it? You really want me to be your best man?"
"Of course. Who else?"
I'd thought that maybe he'd ask Terrence. After all, they'd become such good friends in the past year or so. But I was thrilled that I hadn't lost my place while I'd been away.
"Enough of the long-term future, lads. We've got lots of time to plan that. What about tomorrow night, Woody? Do you want me to find a date for you? TR says you're not sure."
"Actually, I already have a date," I grinned sheepishly.
"You certainly move fast. Did you run into a girl on your way here today?"
"No, TR, I met her on the hospital ship home."
I explained about Peggy. I felt obligated to be truthful and not make it sound like a romance, but at the same time it felt good to be able to talk to TR like an equal. He'd been telling me for years that I would follow in his dating footsteps and I wanted him to be proud of me and think that I was. So maybe my relationship with Peggy came across sounding more amorous and less like a friendship. That was clear from TR's comment.
"What is it with the men in our family and their wartime nurses?"
To Be Continued.