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.
The next morning TR and I went to work on our parents to convince them that I should stay in London with them, but it turned out that our efforts weren't really necessary. Mother hadn't been keen on the idea of being an ocean apart from her boys, especially me, her baby. She had practically convinced herself and Dad when they talked the night before. All it took was my assurance that I still wanted to stay once I'd slept on the idea and she was won over. While Dad still insisted I'd be safer and better off back in New York, I think he quickly warmed up to the idea that I would be there with Mother while he was traveling around the outer edges of the coming war, doing his interviews and research.
He refused to commit himself until he'd looked into the possibility of my attending school in London. He took Terrence's Uncle Geoffrey to lunch and through him made an appointment to meet with the headmaster at Bancroft's the following Monday. With only a few days until I was scheduled to sail home and a week before the autumn term at the school was to start, it was all very rushed. Fortunately there were several openings in Terrence's class - in all of the classes, actually. Many families had left London over the summer and many more had sent their children to live in the country in anticipation of war. There was no time for me to take entrance exams or even have my records from DeWitt sent. It helped that Terrence's uncle recommended me and that my parents were able to pay full tuition. I still had to sit through nearly a full day of interviews before I was conditionally accepted, pending receipt of my records from home.
I wasn't sure which excited me more - the prospect of staying in London or Terrence's reaction to it. I'd realized when I first came up with the idea of staying how much he had come to mean to me over the summer and how much I would miss him when I left. We'd made a point of not talking about the end of the summer, of just living in the moment. Sure, I knew he liked me and enjoyed my company, but I didn't dare to hope that I meant anywhere near as much to him as he meant to me. But when he heard the news that I might be staying he was beside himself with joy. He'd always acted so much more mature than me but as I went through the process of getting admitted to Bancroft's he acted like a kid on Christmas morning.
On Thursday, August 31, Terrence spent the night at the hotel. We had to catch an early train out of Waterloo Station for Southampton to see TR off and he was coming with us. The train ride was pretty glum, especially for me. I'd been so wrapped up in the hectic pace of making school arrangements that it didn't really sink in until we were actually on our way to seeing him off that TR was leaving us. He'd been more than just a brother to me. He was my best friend, my advisor, my protector. And now he was not going to be part of my life any more. I had no idea when I'd see him again but I knew it wouldn't be soon.
It had to be even worse for TR. He was leaving his whole family, not just his little brother. He and I were both pretty quiet on the ride to Southampton. Mother and Dad were clearly feeling the separation anxiety as well, but they kept up a conversation all the way - Dad offering advice and Mother instructions. On board the ship, my parents each took TR aside for a private word or two. My usually upbeat, cheerful mother had tears running down her face. Even Dad kept wiping the corners of his eyes. TR had a few private words with Terrence before he pulled me aside on deck and we stood by the railing.
"You take care of yourself, little brother. I know you've depended on me quite a bit in the past, but I'm sure you'll be just fine on your own. As you keep saying, you're tougher than you look."
"What about you, TR? You're going to be all alone. I hate leaving you like this."
"I'll make out all right. And I won't be alone. You and Mother and Dad will always be in my thoughts and in my heart."
"I'll write to you every week."
"Don't make promises you can't keep, kid. I know you mean well, but you'll soon be caught up in your new life here. Besides, with the war coming, who knows what mail delivery will be like? Let's just say we'll write as often as we can."
"I love you, TR. I'm going to miss you so much."
"I love you too, Woody. I won't be there for you if you need me, but you've got a good friend in Terrence. He's a good guy. Lean on him if you have to."
TR hugged me and held me tight for a long while. I felt like I never wanted to let go, but he finally pushed me away, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand.
"Enough of the mushy stuff, Woody. We're both starting out on new adventures we should be looking forward to. We'll still be brothers and we'll be together again someday."
The scene on the dock was nowhere near as festive as the one in New York when we sailed in June. Most of the American passengers had no one seeing them off, and most of the British travelers weren't going off on holiday, they were escaping the coming war. Their departures were as tearful as TR's.
As the ship pulled out and we were still waving, an announcement came over the loudspeakers on the pier. Germany had invaded Poland. Britain and France had both guaranteed to aid Poland if that happened, so it looked like the long-feared war was about to begin.
Our original plans had been to spend the night at a hotel in Southampton and catch a morning train back to London. But with the big news, Dad was in a hurry to get back to the city, so we went straight to the train station.
It was late when we got back to the hotel in Mayfair and Terrence's parents weren't expecting him home until the next day, so again he stayed with us. This time we didn't need the rollaway bed; Terrence slept in TR's bed. In spite of what an emotional day it had been, neither of us dropped off to sleep right away when we got into bed. We lay on our sides, facing each other and talked for a while.
"So what's going to happen now, Terrence?"
He smiled. "What exactly are you referring to, Woody? School, TR, the war?"
"The war, I guess. Do you think there's really going to be one now?"
"I don't see any way around it. We've bent over backwards appeasing Hitler, letting him get away with everything he's done. The Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia. He probably thinks we'll let him get away with this, too, but at some point we have to make a stand."
"Do you think we'll win the war?"
"We? Last time I looked you Yanks were keeping your distance from the whole thing."
"Well, maybe we won't if it really comes down to war. We all fought on the same side in the Great War, you know."
"Yeah, and your lot came late to the party that time, too."
"It's just that things in Europe don't seem quite real or urgent from across the ocean. Maybe my dad can help make them more real by writing about them."
"I hope so. England and France have sizable armies but Germany has been building up its military for several years now. We can use all the help we can get."
Sunday morning found Dad, Mother and me huddled around the radio in the sitting room of our suite. Dad had learned that the prime minister would be addressing the nation shortly after eleven. Dad was calm as we waited but Mother was on edge. I wasn't sure how I felt. It was scary thinking that the war might actually be here, but it was exciting, too. As Chamberlain began his address, I could tell by his voice how disappointed he was. When he said, "I have to tell you now that ... this country is at war with Germany," you could hear the reluctance. But you could also hear the determination in his voice, the conviction that he had done everything possible to avoid war but now that it had begun, he was sure it was the right course. When his three-minute speech had ended, Dad turned off the radio and turned to Mother. She had tears in her eyes as he pulled her to her feet and took her in his arms. He reached out an arm to me and I stepped toward them, hugging them and being hugged in return. War had come.
We were still standing hugging a few minutes later when a loud, ear-piercing siren went off. We stepped apart.
"W-what's that?" I stuttered.
"Air raid siren. You should know by now as they've been testing it the last couple of days. But this probably isn't a test." Mother answered.
"You've got to be kidding. The war just started five minutes ago."
"And since it was declared according to a deadline it's entirely possible the Germans could have timed a raid like this, son. In any case, down to the shelter."
"Shelter? Where is it?" I had no idea the hotel even had a shelter.
Mother sighed. "Haven't you noticed the signs that have gone up in the past two days, Woody? You're going to have to be much more observant now that we're at war. There's an air raid shelter in the cellar. Now let's get moving."
We went out into the hallway and found a lot of people moving toward the stairway and joined the crowd. By the time we made it to the basement I was already feeling claustrophobic. Fortunately, the air raid shelter itself wasn't as cramped as I'd feared. It was actually quite roomy, although no one looked comfortable. Most of the women and some of the men looked as nervous as I felt. The room had probably been a storeroom of some sort. The women sat on the many straight chairs lining the walls while small children sat on the floor. Men stood around in small groups talking quietly. For myself, I paced.
It was just a matter of minutes before a well-dressed man stood on a chair near the door and shouted for our attention.
"Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention. The all-clear has just sounded so you may go back up. There are no reports of bombing anywhere. Apparently it was a false alarm."
As one, the scores of people in the room let out a sigh of relief. Even though it had been a false alarm, as we all slowly started for the stairs again I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
I didn't have much time to dwell on what war would mean to me, though. While Terrence had been showing TR and me around London during the summer, Mother and Dad had been looking at houses in Mayfair. As soon as TR had left for home, we moved into a beautiful house near Berkeley Square.
So I was settling into a new home as well as starting life at a new school. But school was my priority. While I couldn't help but be aware of all that was going on in the country and the world, I was more preoccupied with getting acclimated to Bancroft's. The school itself reminded me a lot of DeWitt. That wasn't surprising since most elite prep schools back home modeled themselves after English schools. My real concern was how the other boys would react to me. That had been my problem back home and was one of my major reasons for wanting to stay in England.
I quickly learned the pecking order among pupils at Bancroft's. At the bottom were new-bugs, the incoming class, and day-bugs, or commuters. At the top were sixth year uppers, and among them the proctors, or monitors as they were called, were the elite. As I was both new and a day student, I could have been on the bottom, but since the rest of the pecking order was based on age, I was near the top in that respect. In other words, as in most of my life up to that point, I felt like I didn't quite fit anywhere.
Fortunately, the other kids were distracted by the turmoil of the world situation and weren't focused on the more mundane aspects of student life, like making the new student's life miserable. For those who even noticed me, I was a curiosity, a foreigner whom it would take some time to figure out. In the meantime, I was left alone. It helped that I was vouched for by a popular student like Terrence. That didn't mean I immediately made friends with any of the students. Mostly I just tried to stay in the background, observe the others and learn the routines of the new school and student culture.
The classes themselves weren't so hard to adapt to, although I was a bit lost when it came to British and European history. Sure, we'd covered that briefly at DeWitt, but mostly we'd focused on American history. Athletics was what I was most concerned about, but I was lucky. The main sport for the fall was soccer, or football, as they called it. It was the one sport I was halfway decent in. I was small, wiry and agile, so I was able to get around the field, scooting between other players after the ball. Not that I was especially good at the sport, but I wasn't terrible. I dreaded the spring, though. The big sport then would be cricket and I knew nothing at all about it. I made that clear to one and all, preparing them for how bad I would be when the time came.
Most of the students lived in the dormitory, but there was a small number who commuted like Terrence and me. My commute was long but fairly direct. I got on the Central Line of the underground at Bond Street and took it most of the way across London to Liverpool Street Station and then took a bus to Woodford Green. Terrence had it worse than me. He had to take the Northern line from East Finchley to Tottenham Court Road, changing there to the Central line and riding the rest of the way with me, if we timed things right.
As the term progressed, the commute became longer, thanks to the blackout ordered at the start of the war. All of my visits to London had been during the summer and I had been thrilled by how late in the evening it stayed light. It hadn't occurred to me that the opposite would be true in the winter, that by Christmas my morning and afternoon commutes would both be in the dark. The afternoon bus to Liverpool Street Station was the worst. It had to crawl through the darkness to avoid hitting pedestrians or other vehicles with their shielded headlamps. The walk to and from the underground station at Bond Street could be an adventure, too. Some days I literally had to feel my way along the sidewalk.
The only time during the week Terrence and I spent together was lunch and our commute. As we lived miles apart it wasn't possible to see each other weekday evenings. We did start alternating weekends at each other's homes, though. On my two visits to Terrence's house during the summer, his parents had been polite but distant. I'd been concerned that they didn't like me, but Terrence said it took them a while to warm up to strangers. What I didn't learn until later was that they were also quite suspicious of the motives of the upper class. They couldn't understand why a rich kid like me would want to spend time with their son. Once they saw that I was in London for good and was still interested in being friends with Terrence, they lost their suspicions and began to thaw toward me. After a few weekends with them, I was practically one of the family.
My first weekend in Finchley, Terrence and I went for a walk Saturday afternoon. I'd seen a bit of the area on my visits during the summer, but he wanted me to get to know where he'd grown up. After a while we stopped at a café for tea. When it came time to pay I pulled a handful of coins from my pocket and stared at them, concentrating on the denominations. Terrence reached over and selected the appropriate amount.
"You've got to let me do that, Terrence. I have to get the hang of your currency."
"I know, I just wanted to help."
"It's funny, at home Mother has some British money, paper as well as coins, and I used to play with it when I was a kid. You'd think I'd be used to it by know. But it's different when you actually have to use it. It didn't help that TR was paying for everything all summer."
"Don't worry, you'll sort it out soon enough. But speaking of differences, there's something about you family that puzzles me."
"Oh, what is that?" I assumed it had something to do with our casual attitude toward money.
"You're always teasing me about us Brits being so formal, so proper, especially compared to you Yanks. So why is it that I call my mother Mum and you call yours Mother? It seems we're the other way around in that."
"You can blame my grandparents in New York for that. You see, back home some upper class, high society people think the way to differentiate themselves from the masses is to copy the British in mannerisms. My grandparents are like that. They're so stuffy they would probably make the Royal Family seem middle class in comparison."
"I thought you didn't spend much time with them."
"We don't now, mostly just holidays. But when I was a baby and my parents returned to New York from London, we lived with them for a few years. TR remembers more about that than I do. He says they're the ones who insisted that we call our parents Father and Mother. As soon as we moved into our own house Dad broke us of that as far as he was concerned, but it stuck with Mother."
"You ought to try calling her Mum sometime, see how she'd react."
"She'd probably turn around, looking for Gran."
Terrence was quiet as we started walking again. After a while he spoke.
"So your family really is rich, then, not just comfortably well off?"
"My grandparents are rich, but I think of my parents as what you call comfortably well off."
"It all depends on your point of view, I suppose. To someone like me they seem pretty rich."
"Does that bother you?"
"It takes some getting used to. But it doesn't bother me. You all seem to be quite normal people, not at all snobbish. That's what's important."
The war itself got off to a strange start. The German army practically flew through Poland, conquering the country in just a few weeks. The people of Warsaw held out for a while, but with no supplies and no help coming from Britain and France, the city fell by the end of September. The Russians invaded from the east and gobbled up that half of the country themselves. But then, that was it. One month into the war and it seemed to be a stalemate. The Germans and Russians had divided Poland but other than that, it was as if there were no war. The press and the public started referring to it as the Phony War, or the Bore War.
Not that the lack of military action eased the tension on the home front. There was the tension of waiting, and of wondering what the war would be once it really started. It was a part of nearly every conversation.
One Friday evening in late October over supper at his house, Terrence and I were talking about the reverse evacuation that had started. Since the spring over a million people, mostly women and children had left London for the country. After nearly two months of the phony war, many were coming back.
"They're fools if they think it's safe here now. The war hasn't even started and they think it's over." Mr. Atkins, who was always pretty quiet, was usually even more so when we talked about the war. Terrence had told me that his father had fought in the Great War but he never talked about it.
"Do you really think London will be a dangerous place, sir?"
"I don't see any way around it, Woody. Even during the Great War, London was bombed, first by Zeppelins, then by airplanes. And airplanes were so primitive back then, not like now. Look what the Luftwaffe did in Guernica in the Spanish Civil War."
"So you think we're going to be bombed like before?"
"Probably worse than before. The Kaiser wasn't a madman and yet Germany bombed civilian targets and used gas on the front lines. With a lunatic in charge things are bound to be worse this time. The government must think so, too. Why else would they have distributed 'Itlers and Andersons?"
"Hitlers?" I knew that he was referring to the Anderson shelters that a good portion of the population of London had half-buried in their yards and gardens, but I didn't know what he meant by a Hitler.
"Gas masks, dear." The words sounded so odd coming from a sweet older woman as she dished out our dinner. "Your family does have some, don't you?" Mrs. Atkins asked.
"Oh, those. Yes, my father got us some. Do you really think we'll need them?"
"I wouldn't put it past Hitler. He knows everyone in the city has them, so maybe it wouldn't be effective as a weapon, but it would still terrorize the population, and I get the feeling he'd enjoy doing that."
"Now don't you go scaring the boys, Albert. We'll just have to take one day at a time and hope for the best." I knew Mrs. Atkins was trying to reassure us but she wasn't very encouraging.
Dad was always talking about war preparations and possibilities, but somehow it seemed more academic with him. Mr. Atkins was quiet, serious and a bit depressed sounding. He scared me a little.
Maybe more than a little. That night I woke up twice in a panic, gasping to catch my breath. I wasn't having a specific nightmare, or even a bad dream. But the general anxiety in me was bubbling to the surface. I wasn't sure if I woke Terrence up with my tossing. He didn't say anything to me but both times he put an arm around me and pulled me close. I fell asleep again, held close to his body. After we'd taken turns in the bathroom in the morning, I learned he was aware of my restless night.
"You didn't sleep very well last night, Woody. Something bothering you?"
"All this talk about the war is getting to me, I guess. I hope I didn't bother you."
"Like I've said before, I sleep like a rock. I think I woke up a couple of times, but I went right back to sleep again."
"You put an arm around me and that seemed to help. I was able to fall asleep again, too."
"I'm no expert on psychology, but I think that we all need human contact and affection, some more than others. I have very little actual experience, though, as my parents aren't much on displays of affection. But I do know that on the rare occasion when I get a hug from one of them, it makes me feel good."
"I agree. My family is pretty affectionate and I love it. But that's family. I don't want to seem odd, having physical contact with someone else."
"Nothing odd about it, Woody. We may not be family, but you're my best friend. And I told TR I'd stand in for him if needed. So think of me as another brother."
I felt warm all over hearing him say I was his best friend. I also loved hearing that he was comfortable being affectionate with me, but the physical feelings he caused in me were anything but brotherly.
"Then be sure to let me know when you need a hug, Terrence. Friendship goes both ways, you know." While reassured, I wasn't very comfortable talking about affection with another boy, so I changed the subject as we dressed. "Your father seemed pretty pessimistic about the war last night."
"He had a bad time of it in the Great War and doesn't like to talk about war of any kind. But there's no getting around it these days."
"Did he fight in France? That's where my father was."
"Mostly in Belgium, in the trenches. A lot of the battles in that war were stalemates that dragged on and on. At one point, Dad was in a foxhole with three mates. The three of them were killed and Dad was pinned down there for two days. He nearly lost his mind, trapped in a hole with three dead pals. For twenty years he's fought bouts of depression and guilt."
"Guilt? I can understand being depressed, but why guilty?"
"Because he lived. And because there was nothing he could do to save them. For the last year or so when it looked like another war was inevitable, he's been worse than ever."
"That's got to be tough on you and your mother."
"It's not so bad for us, but we feel so terrible for him. He's really a wonderful man, just too sensitive for his own good."
"I know men aren't supposed to be sensitive, but I think it's a wonderful trait for anyone to have."
"I agree, Woody, but there are times when it can be a burden."
"Boys! Are you coming down for breakfast?" Mrs. Atkins called up to us.
"On our way, Mum," Terrence answered as he opened the door and stepped out into the hall. I followed him downstairs where the kitchen table was laden with a huge meal.
"The government's started distributing ration books so it's only a matter of time before we'll be limited in what we can buy. It's already getting hard to find some things in the shops, so eat while you can, boys."
"He went for a walk. He's not feeling well this morning."
"How did he sleep last night?"
"No worse than usual, dear. Don't worry about him. He'll be fine." Mrs. Atkins turned to the sink.
"You think he's okay?" I asked Terrence in a low voice.
He nodded. "Okay isn't exactly the right word, but he'll do."
One Friday afternoon in early December Terrence had spent nearly our entire underground ride to Mayfair going over the day's history lesson, explaining the difference between the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. History was probably my weakest subject and most of my knowledge of the Middle Ages came from Hollywood. Even in movies, it usually took Errol Flynn's presence to keep my attention, although Terrence's intensity kept me hanging on his every word. But it wasn't history that really had my interest when it came to Terrence.
"So how come the island was named after the Britons when it was all of the others who took over so long ago?"
"Well, don't forget the name England comes from Angle-land. Everybody got a little credit."
"At least it's not called Jute-land. So it seems like the English are mongrels just like Americans."
"That was all so long ago, though. The last successful invasion was the Normans nearly nine hundred years ago. Our populace has been pretty stable since then."
We came up out of the Bond Street station into a darker than usual evening.
"New moon last night, Woody. It looks like we may have to feel our way home tonight."
We made our way very slowly, occasionally bumping into each other or others who were walking toward us in the dark. Even with Terrence just two feet to my side, he only appeared a shadow when I glanced at him. Blackout regulations allowed us to use flashlights, but they had to be aimed at the ground and their glass covered with tissue paper. Terrence and I each had one but we usually alternated using them to save on batteries. He was using his that day and was walking close to the buildings, feeling his way along. We'd just passed Grosvenor Square when my foot landed on air instead of pavement as I accidentally stepped off the curb. Although it was only a drop of a few inches, I wasn't expecting it and tumbled out into the street, dropping my books as I fell. Terrence called out and came toward me. By the time he reached me I was on my knees, feeling around for my books, counting them as I gathered them. He helped me to my feet.
"Are you all right, Woody?"
"A little banged up, but other than that I'm okay, I suppose."
"You've got to be more careful in this blasted darkness. You could twist an ankle badly stepping off the pavement unexpectedly like that. And while you're not very heavy, I'm not sure I could carry you the rest of the way to your house. Now stay close so you can benefit from the light from my torch."
The thought of him carrying me took my mind off the bangs and scratches I'd suffered. I felt even better when he put his arm around me and drew me close. The last few blocks we walked like that, Terrence's left arm around my shoulders, me snuggled against him. I wanted so badly to lay my head on his shoulder but I knew that might be taking it too far. He was making me feel better than I ever had and I couldn't ruin it by going queer on him.
He didn't seem to think our closeness was queer, though. From that day on, whenever we were alone, we kept physically close. Walking home in the dark, he always had his arm around me, even when it wasn't pitch black. When we were alone in his room or mine, we often sat close together. After a while it seemed almost natural for us to be touching. When we read or studied, he sometimes sat on the sofa while I lay with my head in his lap and he'd absentmindedly run his fingers through my hair. Sometimes it was the other way around, although I wasn't being absentminded when I touched him. Every nerve in my body was alert, fully aware of every sensation.
From the day we'd met on the ship, Terrence's presence had warmed me from the inside out. Just being around him made me feel wonderful, better than I could ever remember with another person. Our physical contact increased the intensity of my attraction to him. I often became sexually aroused, especially when he held me in bed at night. He never seemed to notice, although I was aware that he was also aroused at times. At first I was nervous about possibly giving my feelings away, but he was so casual about it all that I soon relaxed and just enjoyed him.
As good as I felt though, I wasn't quite satisfied. I knew I was being greedy, but I wanted more. I wanted to take the next step although I had no idea what that step was or how to go about it. But I knew I loved Terrence and I wanted more of him.