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.
It was the first Christmas of my life I wasn't looking forward to, mainly because it would be my first Christmas without TR. While Mother, Dad and I were going to Coventry to spend the holiday with my grandparents, and that would be nice since I'd never spent Christmas with them, I would still miss TR. In our household, the holiday had always been about us kids, and while that was of course changing as we grew up, we were still the center of it all. Or we had been last year, anyway. Now we were an ocean apart, I was thousands of miles from home, and the world was at war. I felt like I was being forced to grow up and leave childhood behind before I was quite ready.
The other reason I wasn't looking forward to Christmas was Terrence. Between school and alternating weekends at each other's homes, I'd spent part of every day since summer with him. He was my TR stand-in, but he was so much more than that in his own right. He was the best friend I'd ever had, someone completely special in my life. I knew that even if my family had remained in London for the holiday I wouldn't have been able to spend it with him. He had his family and I had mine and that was that. But going away meant there would be close to a week without seeing him. And as his parents didn't have a telephone in the house, we wouldn't even be able to talk to each other. It was going to be like being in exile, which was an odd thought, considering I was living in a foreign country as it was.
School let out a bit early on the Wednesday before Christmas and Terrence and I had planned on my spending the night at his home, a sort of pre-holiday Christmas. The next day my family was taking the train to Coventry and we would be gone six days.
When Terrence and I left the East Finchley tube station it was nearly dark. He automatically draped an arm over my shoulder and pulled me close. While I liked it when he did that, I was, as usual, a bit apprehensive, because I knew I liked it too much in a way that he certainly didn't intend. He always appeared to be quite natural about it but I had noticed he was less likely to have this kind of physical contact around Finchley than in Mayfair. So maybe he was aware of unintended implications of our contact and didn't want to be seen touching me near his home. Or maybe he just felt I needed more protection in the heart of London. I tried to just enjoy the feeling and not think about it too much, though I wasn't entirely successful.
As we were approaching Terrence's street I could make out two forms standing in front of the bakery on the corner. It wasn't until we were a dozen feet away from them that I was able to tell that they were women, one facing us and one with her back to us. Terrence quickly dropped his arm to his side.
"Cousin Alice! What are you doing in town?"
The woman facing us squinted as the other turned around and I saw it was Mrs. Atkins.
"Terrence! Woody! You're early. Alice and I were just picking up some cakes for tea. Alice, this is Woodrow Cooper, Terrence's American friend I was telling you about. Woody, this is my cousin Alice Stearns."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Woodrow. And it's always good to see you, Terrence."
"Nice to meet you, Mrs. Stearns." It felt odd, standing and chatting on the street corner in the dark.
"It's Miss Stearns, but please call me Alice."
"I know my question was somewhat abrupt, but you didn't answer me, Alice. What brings you to London?"
"Just a spot of legal bother, Terrence. Nothing to worry about. I had to meet with Mary's solicitor and sign some papers to finalize her affairs."
"Well, let's not stand around in the cold and dark when we have a perfectly warm, well-lit house down the street. Let's go home, shall we?" Mrs. Atkins put an end to the conversation as she turned to walk towards home.
Terrence and I followed the two women as they walked very slowly and carefully down the street to the Atkins home. When we were in the house behind the blackout curtains, I got my first good look at Miss Stearns. She was short and petite, almost fragile-looking, with grey-streaked light brown hair wrapped in a bun on top of her head. If she was Mrs. Atkins' age that would put her in her mid-fifties, but even with very little makeup on she looked younger.
The women went into the kitchen to prepare tea and Terrence and I went upstairs to his room. There was an open suitcase on the bed and a dress laid out beside it.
"It looks like Alice is staying the night. That means we'll be sleeping downstairs."
"Downstairs? There's no place to sleep down there."
"Do you see any place up here? At least there's room for us on the floor of the sitting room."
There really wasn't any other place to sleep in the house. It was what Terrence called a two-up, two-down, with only the two bedrooms and a small bath that had been a storage closet as recently as ten years before upstairs, and the sitting room and kitchen downstairs. I'd never slept on a floor in my life but Terrence seemed to take it in stride. I didn't want to complain so I said nothing and went back downstairs with him.
"Your cousin must rate pretty high with your mom. Not only are you giving up your bed for her but we're having cakes with tea." Usually when I'd had tea with the Atkinses we had homemade scones or biscuits, never anything from the bakery.
"Well, you know we don't have very many relatives. Dad's an orphan and Mum and Uncle Geoffrey only have Alice and her brother Tim for cousins. And Tim has been in South Africa for nearly forty years so Alice is pretty much the whole family."
"And she never married so that's all there will be, except for you."
"Tim has a family but yes, I'm the end of the line here in England."
Just then Mr. Atkins arrived home from work. A few minutes later the women brought the tea and cakes from the kitchen and the rest of the afternoon and evening was taken up with childhood reminiscences alternating with news on the radio. At ten o'clock the adults went upstairs to bed, with Alice profusely apologizing to Terrence for taking his room from him.
"So this is it?" I said, pointing to the floor.
Terrence laughed. "It's not so bad. Think of it as a new experience. Besides, I'll be right there next to you. If it weren't winter we could sleep in the Anderson in the garden out back. At least there are a couple of cots there."
"No, thanks. Even in the summer I don't think that would be very comfortable. I'm sure I'll survive a night here."
He took the cushions off the settee and chairs and arranged them on the floor, making a bed nearly as big as the one upstairs. We made it up with sheets and blankets and stripped to our underwear, then laid down on it. I had to admit it really wasn't that bad. Of course, snuggled up against Terrence nothing could be very bad.
"So how come your cousin never married? She seems very nice, though a bit, er..."
"Well, she is a spinster, but that wasn't what I was thinking. I was trying to decide which pr- word was appropriate. Prim, prudish, prissy, proper. She kept looking at me all evening as though she wasn't quite sure she approved."
"Oh, she's not really like that but maybe she picked up a little of that attitude from Mrs. Hallstead, her late employer."
"Oh? What was her job?"
"When Alice was about our age she hired on as a companion to Mrs. Hallstead. She's the Mary that Alice kept referring to. The Hallsteads were quite well-off. Not in your family's class, but well-fixed nonetheless. Mr. Hallstead spent a great deal of time in Africa on business and as they didn't have any children, the missus had been alone quite a bit. That's where Cousin Alice came in."
"Well, the two ladies must have hit it off if Alice stayed with the family her whole life."
"Mr. Hallstead died quite young of some exotic tropical disease he picked up on his travels, so it was just the two ladies for years after that. Mrs. Hallstead was only about ten years older than Alice and they did seem to be a good match. There was a house in London as well as the cottage in the country where Alice lives now, so we saw quite a bit of them when I was younger. Mrs. Hallstead died about a year ago and left most of her estate to Alice. The family has made quite a bit of trouble over that and I suppose that's why Alice is in town now."
"But if Mrs. Hallstead had a will leaving it to Alice, what trouble can they make?"
"Mum hasn't told me the details, but apparently families can make all kinds of problems, even if they're not close. Mrs. Halstead's only relatives were a niece and nephew who had almost nothing to do with her when she was alive but feel they deserve her money because they're family. They're claiming Alice had 'undue influence,' or something like that."
"It doesn't seem fair. You should be able to leave your things to whomever you want."
"You'd think so. I guess there's something to be said for not having any money. No worries about who gets it when I'm gone."
"You're not going to be gone for a long, long time, I hope, and who knows what fortune you'll have accumulated by then."
We'd been lying there side by side on our backs in the dark. Terrence put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me closer, not that I had been very far away on our tiny make-shift bed. Without a thought, I lay my head on his shoulder. He gave me a bit of a squeeze.
And that's the way we fell asleep.
When I awoke a few hours later I had shifted my position slightly. I was lying on my side facing Terrence, had my head more on his chest than his shoulder and had an arm draped over him. His light snore told me he was sound asleep. I snuggled against him and again he gave me a squeeze. My eyes were still closed but as I became more awake I realized there was dim light in the room. I opened one eye and saw the light was coming from the stairway. At the foot of the stairs was Cousin Alice in a floor-length robe, her long hair down over her shoulders. She was staring at me, or rather at Terrence and me, with a look on her face I couldn't decipher. I froze, not sure how I could pull away from Terrence without letting on that I was awake. I certainly didn't want to have to explain why I was all over him. I closed my eye, thinking madly, and in a second heard her moving on the stairs. A moment later the light went out and all was quiet again.
I don't know how long I lay there having imaginary conversations with Alice, trying to explain the way I was wrapped around Terrence, trying to make it sound innocent.
'But the cushions were so narrow. Every time I moved away from him I slid off onto the floor.' Or, 'I had a bad dream and Terrence was trying to comfort me. We must have fallen asleep that way.'
I tried to convince myself that there was nothing wrong in the way we were sleeping. After all, both Terrence and TR had said that affection between brothers and friends was all right. But that was easy for them to say. They were normal. They didn't get the same perverse thrill I got from their affection. I wasn't able to convince myself of any innocence in our sleeping position, but I was finally able to fall asleep thinking that maybe the room had been dark enough and Alice's eyes old enough that she didn't get a good look at us.
Fortunately, Mr. Atkins was a noisy early riser, so by the time any of the adults came downstairs, Terrence and I were up and dressed. Mrs. Atkins' hospitality toward her cousin included a large breakfast, although I couldn't complain about her generosity of food on mornings when I was the only houseguest. She was a firm believer in starting the day with a full stomach. Terrence and I concentrated on filling our stomachs while the adults talked over the meal. Maybe I was being paranoid, but it seemed to me that Alice was inspecting me even more intently than the evening before.
As soon as the meal was over, Mr. Atkins left for work and the ladies began to clean up.
"Did you boys sleep all right down here?" Mrs. Atkins inquired.
"Sure, Mum, it was fine."
Here was my chance to offer an explanation, even though I hadn't been asked for one.
"Yes, it actually wasn't bad, Mrs. A. The cushions were a bit narrow and I felt like I had to hold on to Terrence to keep from falling off, but I slept better than I thought I would."
"And what about you, Alice? Was my bed to your liking?"
"It was fine, dear. I did wake up in the night once wanting a sip of milk. I hope I didn't disturb you boys when I came down."
"I never even noticed. How about you, Woody?"
"No, I slept like a log."
"I still think you boys should have kept the bed and let me sleep on the cushions."
"Don't be silly, Alice. Lads their age could sleep in a tree if they had to."
"Then I'd really have to hang on," I joked, hoping to underline my explanation.
Terrence suggested he and I go to the sitting room but Alice began to question me about my family and our reasons for being in London, so we remained seated and had another cup of tea. While Alice was polite she was also very thorough in her questioning. After a bit, I tried to squirm out of her interrogation by asking about her life.
"Terrence says you live in the country. I'm not very familiar with British geography, but where exactly do you live?"
"Axbridge, in Somerset, about a hundred miles east of London, not far from the Bristol Channel. It's a very rural, very lovely area."
"Is that anywhere near Coventry? That's the only place I know of other than London."
"Well, Axbridge is closer to Coventry than it is to London, but Coventry is quite a bit further north. And much more industrial. Somerset is mostly farms. You boys should come out for a visit when you break for summer. A holiday in the country with some fresh air would do you good."
I could see from the look that crossed his face that Terrence wasn't happy being called a boy but I didn't mind. I usually still thought of myself as one. But I was pleased with Alice's invitation. I took it to mean she had no misgivings about me - that either she hadn't clearly seen me snuggling with Terrence in the night or she had given it an innocent meaning. At any rate, she must have finally decided she approved of me.
"They'd probably be bored to death out there, Alice. Young lads need the excitement of the city. They've too much energy to lie about in the country. But I dare say the country would be safer for them than the city."
While Terrence probably preferred his mother's use of the term lads over boys, he still bristled at her comment.
"You keep saying we're not safe in the city, Mum, but nearly four months into this phony war we're perfectly fine here."
"So far, son, and I hope it continues that way. But one never knows what direction this war will take."
"I wouldn't mind visiting the country but I'll have to work next summer to try to make some money for college, although I suppose the war will delay that."
"University will still be there when the war is over and you'll still need money. But if you'd like to go to the country for a short holiday before you start working, maybe we can arrange it. I'll talk to your father."
This talk about money, college and the war got me thinking how short-sighted I was. I had been just living day to day, not giving any thought at all to the future. Maybe it was because, in spite of the uncertainty of the war and my living in a foreign country, I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I had my parents and a nice house in Mayfair. My experience so far at Bancroft's was better than it had been at DeWitt. And I had Terrence. He was overwhelmingly the one factor in my life that made it wonderful. I'd never had a best friend before, one I could spend every spare moment with and never be bored. And one I lusted after as well. That complicated matters, as I had to be careful not to let on, but it also made it more enjoyable.
So I didn't think about the future. It couldn't possibly be better than the present. College was out there somewhere, as was the war. But right now, I had Terrence, and that was all that mattered. Hearing my name spoken brought me out of my thoughts and back to reality.
"What do you think, Woody?"
"Think? What do you mean?" I had no idea what Mrs. Atkins was asking my opinion of.
"About us going to the country for a short visit when we break up for summer. Haven't you been listening, Woody?"
"Sorry, Ter, Mrs. Atkins. My mind wandered a bit. It sounds great to me, if we can manage it. I'd love to see more of England than just London and Coventry." A trip to the country, or anywhere for that matter, with Terrence sounded great, even if it meant spending more time under Cousin Alice's watchful eyes.
"Well, it's still a long way off but I'll talk to Albert and when the time comes we'll see what we can do."
The ladies shooed us out of the kitchen so they could finish cleaning up. Terrence and I went back to the sitting room. It was nearly ten o'clock, the time I had to leave to meet my parents. I didn't want to go but I knew it was time. I had one more thing I wanted to do and I was still debating whether or not to do it.
Several weeks before, Terrence and I had decided not to buy each other Christmas presents. I knew he didn't have much money and I didn't want him spending what little he had on me. But he meant so much to me I had to give him something so I bought him a small present anyway. But now that it came down to it, I was afraid he'd be offended, so I wasn't sure what to do. My nervous indecision must have showed because Terrance asked me if I was all right.
"Yeah, I'm fine. It's just ..." I took a deep breath as I picked up my book bag and dug through it. "I know we agreed not to exchange gifts, but I wanted to give you something."
I pulled a slim gift-wrapped package from my bag.
"It's just a book. No big deal, but, as I said, I wanted to give you something."
Terrence had no expression on his face as he took the gift from me so I couldn't tell if he was angry or pleased. He carefully removed the wrapping paper and held up the book, Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
"Some call it the great American novel. I thought it might give you an idea of part of our past. If you need any help translating it, let me know."
I hoped a little levity might break Terrence's silence but instead he set the book down and went upstairs. The difference in our families' financial situations had been impossible for us to overlook but we usually made light of it. But now I'd obviously made a mistake and embarrassed him.
I was deliberating on how long to leave him alone before going up to apologize when he started back down the stairs. The first thing I noticed was the smile on his face. Then I saw that he had in his hands a gift-wrapped package about the same size as the one I'd given him. He offered it to me.
"Two minds with one thought," he grinned. Relieved, I tore open the wrapping and saw it was also a book, Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. "And I'll return the favor if you need help with translating."
I jumped up from my chair and threw my arms around him in a tight hug. He gasped in surprise but then I felt his arms around me as well.
"Thank you, Terrence, it's wonderful."
"And thank you, Woody."
I was in no hurry to end the hug and Terrence didn't seem to be either, but a few seconds later it was broken up by the sound of a throat clearing behind me. We separated and I turned to see a smiling Mrs. Atkins and a thoughtful Alice in the kitchen doorway.
"You're not leaving without saying goodbye to us old ladies, are you, Woody?"
"No, ma'am, I'm not leaving quite yet. Terrence and I were just exchanging gifts."
"I thought you'd decided not to do that."
"We did, Mum, but then we each broke the agreement."
He showed the women the two books and they both commented on our similar thoughts. It made me very glad I'd decided against my first impulse, an anthology of Walt Whitman poems.
Before I knew it, it really was time for me to leave. After much hugging and wishes of a happy Christmas, Terrence and I left the house. As we started up the street an older man in uniform turned the corner and came toward us.
"Uncle Geoffrey!" Terrence exclaimed as we got nearer. "I didn't expect to see you until Christmas Day."
"Yes, I'll be back again on Monday, but I thought I'd drop by and see Cousin Alice. Your father telephoned from the bank to let me know she was visiting." He looked at me. "So, I see you two lads are still getting on."
"Of course. Woody's my best mate." As always, I felt a warm glow hearing him call me that.
I'd seen Colonel Howard a few times at the Atkins home over the summer but hadn't run into him since school started.
"I see you're in uniform, sir. I thought you were retired."
"There's a war on, in case you hadn't heard, son. I may be a bit long in the tooth for combat, but His Majesty can always make use of someone with my experience. And I daresay he'll have need for lads like you before long."
"Do you really think it'll come to that, Uncle Geoffrey? The war doesn't seem to be very much so far."
"It hasn't even begun yet, Terrence. I'm afraid we're in for a rough time."
"That's what my father says. He thinks this war could be even worse than the last."
"Your father's a bright man with good instincts, Woodrow." Dad had obviously made a good impression on the colonel. "Well, I haven't got all day to dawdle. I want to see my cousin and then His Majesty needs me."
The colonel marched off in the direction of the Atkins' house. Terrence and I watched him for a moment.
"Do you think he's really as important as he makes himself out to be, Terrence?"
"I have no idea. Sometimes I think he's all bluff and bluster, but then he's always right in his predictions. And he does have a lot of contacts. He got you into Bancroft's at the last minute, after all."
"Yes, I'll always owe him for that. I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't come through."
"Fortunately, we don't have to think about that."
We walked quite a way in silence, each wrapped up in his own thoughts. At the entrance to the tube station, we stopped and stood looking at each another, reluctant to part.
"You and your family have a wonderful Christmas, Woody. And come see me directly you get back to London."
"You can be sure of that, Terrence. I hope you and your family have a great Christmas, too."
Then he surprised me by hugging me, right there on the street in broad daylight. I hugged him back, fighting the impulse to kiss him on the cheek. Even with all of the affection we shared, that would have been far too much. Instead, I whispered in his ear, "I'll miss you."
He released me and stepped back.
"Hey, it's only six days, Woody." He smiled. "But I'll miss you, too."