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.
For the next two weeks I concentrated on trying to relax, gain weight and get my strength back. I spent a good part of my time walking, stopping now and then for something to eat. I still tired easily, but that was slowly getting better. Most days I had lunch with TR and occasionally Sarah joined us.
Terrence had one more leave while I was still at home recuperating. This time it was for three days. He always went to visit his mother and Alice on his longer leaves and he asked me if I'd like to come along. Of course I jumped at the invitation. Not only was it a chance to spend time with him without Betty, but I thought that maybe, by being alone with him in a place where we used to be the closest, our relationship could return to what it had been.
Since my schedule was more flexible than his, I arrived in Axbridge a few hours before Terrence. Mrs. Atkins was at work so it gave me a chance to catch up with Alice. I'd written as soon as I'd arrived home and explained the extent of my injuries, so I didn't face all of the questions I'd become accustomed to. Even so, she still fussed over me quite a bit. I put my bag in the room in the attic, staring at the bed and remembering the good times Terrence and I had had there, then went down to the kitchen. Alice inspected my cast and abdominal scar before we sat down for tea.
"I hope you don't mind weak tea. We have to stretch our ration."
"I think we're all pretty used to it by now. In the army we get as much as we want, but at home my parents are making do with less as well."
"So how are you and Terrence getting on? You've seen him since you've been back, haven't you?"
"Yes, once, although we didn't get to spend much time alone. He seemed a bit distant - physically, anyway. Talking, he's the same old Terrence and it's like no time has gone by, but he's not as affectionate. I think he's making a deliberate effort to pull back."
"Do you think that girl Betty is the reason? What's she like? Is anything serious going on between the two of them?"
"She's all right, I suppose. I don't want to like her but I can't find anything really wrong with her. I'm not sure exactly what their relationship is. It's definitely not like TR and Sarah's. Those two are such a good match, so comfortable with each other. They talk and relate effortlessly. But Terrence and Betty both seem to be trying – Terrence, to pay the right attention to her, and Betty, to convince him she's the girl of his dreams."
"Maybe that's because he's never had a girl of his dreams. He doesn't know how to act around her because it doesn't come natural to him, and she won't ever be what he really wants."
"I don't know about that. He wouldn't be trying so hard if he didn't want it to work."
"He's trying to want what he thinks he should want, instead of what his heart tells him."
"I wish I was as sure of that as you. Maybe his feelings for me were just a passing phase, just a part of adolescence. Now he's growing up and changing."
"I don't think so. When he visits us he talks more about your last letter than his last date with Betty."
"Well, we'll see how these couple of days turn out."
"You look weary. Are you feeling all right?"
"Yes, the traveling was just a bit tiring. My strength is taking its time returning. I've gained some weight but I still tire easily."
"Why don't you lie down for a bit and rest up before the others get here?"
I went upstairs and lay down on the bed fully dressed, thinking I'd just rest a minute or two. It was chilly, as the only heat was that coming up the narrow, steep staircase. I pulled a blanket over me and immediately dozed off, waking abruptly to a noise in the room. I looked up and Terrence was standing there smiling down at me.
"This is getting to be a habit. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Everyone keeps asking me that, but yes, I'm fine, I just need to rest now and then. Even that is slowly improving. I'll be back to my old self in another month or so, I think."
"But you've only got a little over a week before you report back to duty."
"I know, but the first thing they'll do is give me a physical examination. If I'm not ready for active duty they may give me more time off. In any case, I doubt if they're going to send me back to my regiment in Italy right away. And even if they do, it will take a couple of weeks aboard a ship to get there, so that will give me more time to recover."
"Let's hope they find a desk job for you, like your mate Peter. You've seen enough frontline action."
"I agree, but the war is far from over. Until it is, we're all going to see a lot more action."
I'd thought it was cold in the attic room in the afternoon, but when Terrence and I went upstairs to go to bed that night we could see our breath. Alice gave us an extra blanket, but it looked like it was going to be a cold night.
"We'll just have to snuggle and keep each other warm," I suggested.
"That wouldn't be appropriate," Terrence muttered.
"What do you mean? After all the times we've slept together it's practically second nature to us."
"That's when we were boys. Now we're men and what's acceptable behavior for boys isn't right for men."
I was very disappointed by Terrence's attitude. More than disappointed, actually. Crushed was more the way I felt. But I didn't push the issue. The last thing I wanted was to start our little holiday with an argument. So I crawled under the pile of blankets and kept to my side of the bed.
I was happy when I awoke to find that while Terrence's conscious mind had changed, his unconscious was still the boy I loved. I was lying on my side and he was right behind me, his arms around me, holding me tight. I sighed, comforted in more than one way by his warmth.
The next time I woke up I was alone and feeling much colder. I threw off the blankets, put on a few layers of clothes and went downstairs to the kitchen. Mrs. Atkins was standing at the stove.
"Good morning. Where are Terrence and Alice?"
"They went into the village to do some shopping. Terrence tries to give me money but I know the RAF doesn't pay much and I'd rather he save his money for his education. So when he comes here he wants to help out by buying a few things for us." She smiled. "Except the lad is completely lost at the grocer's and would probably use all of our rations in one week, so Alice goes along to oversee his shopping."
Mrs. Atkins put a bowl of oatmeal in front of me, set a tea pot on the table and sat down opposite me. She didn't waste any time getting to the subject she really wanted to talk about.
"This works out well, as I wanted to talk to you alone. Now that you've had a chance to meet her, what do you think of Betty?"
I thought for a moment, wanting to be accurate but not letting my jealousy show.
"She's a nice girl, somewhat pretty, fairly bright and pleasant. I've spent quite a bit of time with her since I met her and I know she's very fond of Terrence."
"That's a fairly lukewarm testimonial. What don't you like about her?"
"I don't mean to sound so blasé about her. She's a fine girl and I can't think of a single criticism of her. I suppose it's just that I don't find anything especially appealing about her either. And that's probably a good thing, considering she's Terrence's girl."
"Do you think he's serious about her?"
"I don't know. I only spent the one evening with the two of them, and then a little time alone with him afterward. He was very polite and attentive when he was with her, and talked about her quite a bit later. I think it's important to him that I approve, so maybe that means he's serious about her."
While he'd repeatedly asked me what I thought of her, I hadn't thought of his questioning in quite that way until just that moment and I didn't like the implication.
"You don't think your brother getting engaged is giving Terrence any ideas, do you?"
"Why? Has he said anything to you about that?"
I'd expected to be grilled about Betty but I was alarmed that Mrs. Atkins was thinking Terrence's relationship with her was serious enough for marriage to be a possibility. TR and Sarah had announced their engagement at lunch on New Year's Day just before Terrence went back to his base so he and I hadn't had a chance to talk about it.
"No, but in his last letter he mentioned the engagement and then talked of Betty in practically the next sentence, so I was concerned."
"I'm sure it's not that serious. After all, TR and Sarah are older, and because TR is stationed in London they are able to spend a lot of time together, so they know each other very well. Terrence and Betty only get together once a month for a date that just lasts a few hours."
"So you think their relationship isn't all that serious?" Mrs. Atkins seemed somewhat relieved but still worried.
"Well, let's just say less serious than TR and Sarah. Beyond that, I can't say. What do you think?"
"I'm at a loss. A boy doesn't talk to his mother about these kinds of things. I thought maybe he'd confided in you."
"As I said, we've talked a bit about Betty, but there's nothing he's confided in me about."
And if there were, I wouldn't tell her. I knew she was concerned for his well-being, as well as being afraid of losing her boy. He was all she had, after all. But if Terrence were to confide in me it would be just that, a confidence that I would not reveal to anyone. After all, there were already quite a few secrets between us that I was keeping. Yes, I'd talked to Alice, but I hadn't really told her more than she'd already guessed.
Even so, Mrs. Atkins and I spent the rest of my breakfast reassuring each other that Terrence and Betty weren't about to run off and get married.
That afternoon I decided to try to take Terrence back to our younger days and maybe remind him of how we used to be. I suggested we go for a walk in the hills. My idea was that we would go to our tree and maybe that would take him back to our affectionate school days. It was cloudy, chilly and somewhat damp out, but I figured climbing the hills would be good exercise for me and would warm us up.
We'd only been walking a few minutes when Terrence revealed he was thinking about something other than our tree however.
"Do you ever think about getting married, Woody?"
"Married? Why do you bring that up?"
"No reason, except that we're growing up and meeting girls. And TR and Sarah's announcement, of course. Haven't you ever thought about it?"
"Well, I suppose, a little. But in the abstract, like something that will probably happen, but far off in the future."
And that was true. In spite of always knowing I was queer, I'd also always assumed that somehow I'd eventually get married and have kids. It was what was supposed to happen so somehow it would. I knew that was very contradictory so I didn't think about it too much.
"Why so far off? I know we're not quite 21, but we've been in the military for over two years and seen a lot of life. We're not boys anymore."
"We haven't seen all that much. Military action isn't what the rest of our lives is going to be about. We still have our education to complete and as far as girls go, we've only begun meeting them."
"You mean you don't like Peggy? You're waiting for someone better?"
"I like Peggy just fine, but I don't even know her, really. And marriage shouldn't just be about liking someone, about being compatible. It should be about love, a sort of magical feeling between two people."
I was struggling with my words. I wanted to shake him, to yell at him, to tell him that just because he'd met one girl who was `okay', that didn't mean he should be thinking about marriage. But I tried to stay calm, to keep the discussion in the abstract.
"Magic? You're a romantic, Woodrow Cooper. All these years I didn't know that about you."
"Yes, I suppose I am a romantic. I just think love should be about more than liking someone and being compatible. It's special and pretty rare. Otherwise, people would end up marrying just about anyone who comes along."
"I agree that love is special, but do you think it's instantaneous, like love at first sight, or something that grows?"
"A little of both, I think. I don't mean that you instantly fall in love with a stranger, but sometimes when you meet someone, there's an immediate attraction or fascination, almost a magnetic pull toward them."
"You mean physical attraction, like lust?"
"Well, that might be a part of it, but it's so much more than that. It's something you feel just hearing their voice, or looking into their eyes. It's like chemistry, where everything reacts." I thought about that day on the Queen Mary when I met Terrence. "And then as you get to know that person, the attraction grows stronger."
"You may not have spent much time thinking about marriage but you sure know what you think about love. You sound like you've been in love."
I squirmed inside, feeling I'd given myself away. Terrence knew everything and everyone in my life, so I couldn't admit to being in love without him realizing.
"I guess I have thought about it a lot. As you said, I'm a romantic, and a bit of an idealist, too. I think love should be a little ideal, not perfect, but definitely special."
Terrence was quiet for a while after that. So was I, mainly because, between the climbing and the talking, I was getting out of breath. We still had a little way to go to get to our tree and the walk was longer and steeper than I remembered. I'd thought the exercise would warm me up but I felt colder than when we'd left the house.
When we stopped to rest after a short but steep climb, I was out of breath and trembling from the cold. Terrence noticed and looked concerned.
"I think this is as far as we'll go. You're not up to any more climbing."
"I'll be fine once I've caught my breath."
"Perhaps, but there's no reason to overdo it. I think we should head back." I must have looked as disappointed as I felt because Terrence smiled. "I know, you wanted to go to that tree. I could see you were leading us in that direction. But the war's not over yet, so maybe we're not meant to go there until it is."
"But we're so close to it right now." I was thrilled that he remembered the tree and our promise and thought if I could just get him there I could turn back the clock and get back to our old relationship.
"And we'll go there once the war is over. We promised each other, didn't we?"
"Yes, we did. I'm glad you remember that."
Terrence put his hands on my shoulders and looked into my eyes.
"I could never forget anything about you, Woody. You've been much too important a part of my life." He put his arms around me, pulled me close and rubbed my back vigorously. "Now let's get you back to the cottage where we can warm you up properly."
I gave in and went back downhill, content that Terrence kept his arm around my shoulder most of the way back.
The rest of our stay in Somerset was closer to a feeling of old times. We talked less about Betty, Peggy and the war. We also tried to avoid talking about the future, since we had no idea what was ahead of us. We were both still expecting to go on to college, but those were only vague plans. I'd always been somewhat homesick for New York and as the war went on that feeling got stronger. But going home meant leaving Terrence, so I couldn't think about it. So we stayed in the present, just taking those few days we had together as they came. There was no nightly cuddling in bed, but each morning we woke up wrapped around each other, so I knew that he still wanted to be close to me, even if he tried to avoid it while awake.
Before we left the cottage for the train station Terrence surprised me with a goodbye hug. We were taking the train to London together so it wasn't really goodbye, but it was our last moment together in private.
"We know what our hugs mean to us, but I don't think others would understand a flight lieutenant and an army corporal hugging on the platform at Paddington." He smiled and I could see that while he tried to keep his distance from me emotionally, he still felt the same. Sure enough, when we parted at the station in London, he shook my hand
Less than a week later I took the train again, this time to Guildford to report back to duty at Pirbright. Or at least be examined by an army doctor to see if I was ready for active duty. I sure didn't feel like I was. Although I had put on quite a bit of weight in the three weeks I was in London and I felt much better, my walks in Axbridge told me I hadn't regained all of my strength. The doctor agreed, but thought I was well enough for a job on the base, so I reported to the administration building.
There I found that the army had anticipated the results of the examination and had made plans for me. I was assigned to be in charge of a barracks of medic trainees and was also given a class to teach. This time I wasn't just playing an injured dummy like before. I actually had to teach based on my battlefront experiences. And, in keeping with my new responsibilities, I was promoted to sergeant.
It was made clear to me that this was all temporary, however. The reason that was given was that this was a chance for me to continue to recover from my wounds and that as soon as I was ready, I'd be reassigned to an infantry regiment. What wasn't said was what we all knew – that at some point later in the year there would be a major invasion of the continent and I would probably be a part of that.
I settled in, though, preferring to live in the moment, concentrating on my new job(s) and not thinking of the future. I'd known since I'd joined up that I had no control over it, so there was no point in worrying. And my new jobs gave me enough to worry about. In spite of having been `on stage' with both Mother in her first aid classes and in my early medic training, I still wasn't comfortable with public speaking. But that was actually the easiest part of that job. I found that if I focused on my memories of specific battle wounds and injuries, the presence of the class in front of me wasn't as overwhelming. But my memories of battlefield wounds were so horrific I usually pushed them as far to the back of my brain as possible, trying not to remember them. To have to talk about them in detail was difficult and enough to drive a little thing like a fear of public speaking right out of my head. It was all I could do to get through each class without breaking down.
As far as overseeing a barracks full of trainees was concerned, that wasn't as hard as I'd imagined. After all, these weren't raw recruits who had to have military discipline instilled in them. I wasn't a drill sergeant. I thought of myself more as an advisor, although I did have to enforce regulations. I had a little room to myself at one end of the barracks and spent most of my free time there reading or making notes for my next class.
I also had a little bit of a social life. I had two friends on base, Peter shuffling papers in administration and John still working in the hospital. I introduced the two, hoping we would all be friends, but Peter had strong feelings against conscientious objectors, like most soldiers. So most of the time I saw them separately.
I had frequent 24 hour leaves so I was able to go into London for overnight visits at home. Only once did one of my leaves correspond to one of Terrence's so in spite of being stationed pretty close together most of our contact was still through letters.
When I was off the base I noticed changes in the area. In London I'd been impressed by the number of American soldiers I'd seen, but in the country to the south there seemed to be new American bases everywhere. England truly had been invaded by the American army. It wasn't unusual to see hand painted signs along the road like `Caution - Yanks on the Road - Drive with Care.'
The first week of May I had two indications the invasion of the continent was getting close. First, I was told by my commanding officer that when the current training session was over, I would be reassigned to a combat unit. And then I received a letter from TR informing me that `due to circumstances beyond our control' he and Sarah were moving their wedding up from the end of June to May 20. Since that was going to be right around the time I was being transferred it was difficult for me to arrange leave, but I managed. Everyone was being given brief leaves, allowed to go home one last time to say goodbye before the invasion.
And so on the afternoon of May 19, I took the train to London. On the roads were convoys of troops heading south toward the Channel. But the trains heading north toward London were packed with soldiers on leave, some to visit family, some to have one last wild, drunken night, some for last-minute weddings. The invasion was coming soon, although no one knew where or exactly when.
I tried to pry some information out of TR when I got him alone at home. Since his boss was in charge of supplying the Allied troops, he had to know something about where the troops were going.
"You know I can't tell you, Woody. That's probably the biggest secret of the war to date."
"I know, but can't you give me a hint?"
"Not even that. There are all kinds of rumors circulating and all I can say is that some of them are right."
"That's a big help. The rumors range from Norway to the Bay of Biscay, with some talk of the Mediterranean thrown in."
"You're a bright lad, I'm sure you can figure out the best options."
"The most logical is somewhere along the Channel, especially seeing all those troops moving that way lately. So that means either the Pas-de-Calais or Normandy."
"See? You don't need any hints from me."
"So it's one of those two?"
"You didn't hear it from me." Terrence ran his right hand across his lips in a zipping motion. "But enough talk of war! The invasion is just a convenient excuse for us to move up the wedding date, anyway."
"Excuse? You mean you wanted to get married earlier? I thought you both wanted to wait until June."
"As I said in my letter to you, the change is due to circumstances beyond our control, although I suppose if we'd been more careful we could have controlled them. You see, Sarah's pregnant, Woody. You're going to be an uncle."
"Pregnant? You're kidding! How did that happen?"
"Believe me, I wouldn't kid about something that serious. And I think by now you've figured out how something like that happens."
"I know, I didn't mean that. I'm just so surprised. When is she due?"
"Right around the first of the year. You've got to keep this a secret, though. We haven't told anyone and neither can you. By the time the baby comes they'll all realize the wedding was a bit late, but for now we want to enjoy it without a lot of tongues wagging."
"I'll keep your secret, but what about Terrence? Can't we even tell him?"
"I'd like to, but I'm afraid he'll tell Betty. We think she suspects, but if she gets confirmation she'll tell everyone. So no, you can't even tell Terrence."
Although the only secret I'd ever tried to keep from Terrence was my true feelings for him, it wasn't hard for me to keep TR and Sarah's secret. He only had a 24 hour leave so he arrived in London Saturday morning about an hour before the wedding and left early Sunday. The only time we had alone was a few minutes before we fell asleep that night.
The wedding was bigger than I expected. My family only consisted of my parents, grandparents and me and Terrence, so in my mind I'd doubled that to account for Sarah's family. But on the groom's side Mrs. Atkins and Alice had come in from Axbridge, my Aunt Marion and cousin Pamela came from Coventry and TR had invited two men from his office and they each brought a date. And Sarah's family was much bigger than mine, with her parents, a younger sister, both sets of grandparents, a few sets of aunts and uncles and a number of cousins, plus a few friends. So all together there were just over forty people in attendance.
The ceremony was at Grosvenor Chapel, the church we'd been attending since we'd been in London. Afterward, the reception was held in a ballroom at Claridge's Hotel. The menu was somewhat restricted due to rationing but it was a still gala affair. There was a small band and lots of dancing. This time I didn't have the excuse of my arm in a cast and there were so many more women than men so I was forced to dance. I was allowed to sit out most jitterbug dances after I tripped over my feet in my first attempt. Terrence, on the other hand, was in great demand. Dancing seemed to come to him naturally and I enjoyed just watching him.
Late in the afternoon I was returning from the men's room when I heard Betty's voice and the name `Terrence' around a corner. I stopped to eavesdrop when I realized the subject of her conversation with one of the other young women.
"Terrence and I will be next, I'm sure."
"He's asked you to marry him?" The other girl asked.
"Not yet. He's a dear and a great catch, but he seems to be a little slow when it comes to the subject of marriage. Every time I allude to it, the hint just goes right over his head."
"So what makes you think you'll marry him soon?"
"We're such a good pair but he just doesn't seem to realize how comfortable we are together. So maybe I'll have to do more than hint."
"You can't come right out and ask him. That wouldn't be proper."
"No, but a situation might arise where he'll feel obligated to marry me. It's been known to happen."
"You mean you'd lie to him to get him to propose?"
"It wouldn't have to be a lie. I could arrange it so it would be the truth."
"I don't know if I could be so devious."
"It's not devious if it gets both of us what we want. He just doesn't know he wants it yet. And I'm not saying I'll do it. But if he doesn't wake up soon ..."
Just then they came around the corner and nearly bumped into me. Betty looked as alarmed as I felt.
"What are you doing, sneaking around corners?"
"Not sneaking, Betty, just coming back from the loo."
I walked back to the ballroom, not wanting to risk giving away that I'd overheard them. The rest of the party I was in a daze. I was horrified by two things I'd learned. First, that Terrence and Betty were apparently sleeping together. And that Betty might use that to trap him into marrying her.
As much as it made me ill to even think of Terrence and Betty together, I knew there was nothing I could do to stop that. But I had to find a way to prevent him from being forced into a shotgun marriage.
To Be Continued.