She glanced towards the stairs, wondering just how long the queue was outside, and saw a young man coming down the stairs on crutches. Although he was young and in civilian clothes, out of respect for his injury the sailors squeezed to one side to let him through. His white shirt was open at the neck and the sleeves were turned up part-way to the elbows, revealing darkly tanned arms to match his face and neck. He had rather longish, dark hair – the way students wore it, not what would be acceptable in the services. Emily thought he was the best-looking young man she had ever seen.
When he reached the foot of the stairs, he paused to look around. He caught sight of Emily and smiled right at her; then he hobbled over. “Are you all alone here?”
“Not really. Marjory is supposed to be helping, but she got called away. I don’t know why exactly, something about deliveries.” Emily glanced over her shoulder at the door through which Marjory had disappeared a few minutes earlier.
“I better see if I can help, then,” he offered at once, coming around the end of the table. Then propping himself up with both crutches under his left arm he started serving the food with his free hand.
The apparition was so extraordinary that Emily found herself quite incapable of protesting – as she knew she ought to do on account of his leg. Instead she only nodded thankfully, while feverishly searching her brain for an explanation of where this young man could have come from and what he might be doing here. She remembered Major Fitzsimmons saying something about Conscientious Objectors being assigned to the various support services. Emily presumed they would be allocated to places like the Fire Department and St. Johns Ambulance Corps first, but it wasn’t completely unreasonable to send one along to help here.
Although most of her friends from the Peace Society had answered the call to the Colours when the time actually came, she still had one friend who remained true to their common ideals, Michael Woolsey. Michael came from a Quaker family, and, like his father before him, he was a “conshy” who refused military service. Emily had had a terrible crush on Michael when they were at University. Even after a girl friend had gently explained the “facts of life” about Michael’s sexual preferences, Emily hadn’t stopped loving him.
“I was looking for Major Fitzsimmons,” the young man beside her announced, drawing her attention back to the present. Although this young man was darker and taller than Michael, something about him reminded her of him. He certainly had a warm smile and an unselfconscious helpfulness and maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t “one of them”?
To the young man she answered easily, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. She’s off at some co-ordinating committee, and I have no idea when she might be back. They want to get all the various support services working more closely together, but I think they spend more time bickering over turf and titles. So, it could take rather a long time – seeing the way committees are and especially committees of do-good ladies.” Emily risked a quick smile at the stranger.
He laughed appreciatively, giving her a new, more discerning look that sent a little shock through her. The smile he shot her was clearly approving without being predatory.
“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but what is a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” He put his look into words.
“What makes you think I’m a nice girl?” Emily quipped back. Without even thinking, she fell into the kind of repartee that was so much a part of her University days.
He laughed but retorted without missing a beat: “Innocent until proven guilty – or some such thing.” Then he gave her another quick but observant glance.
Emily was starting to feel very self-conscious. She wasn’t exactly dressed to meet the man of her dreams – not in an old, threadbare apron over an ancient cotton blouse and skirt, flat shoes, naked legs, and her hair pinned up at the back of her head out of the way. And on top of that, she was sweating, and her hair was coming down in random strands.
“So, what are you doing here?” he pressed her.
“Oh, well, in case you missed it, there is a war on, and I wanted to do something useful.”
“Most girls seem to be flocking to the Women’s Services – WRNS and WAAFs and all that. A bit more glamorous than the Salvation Army, surely?”
Ah ha, Emily thought, he was trying to test her commitment to the war before admitting to being a conscientious objector. It must be horribly difficult to be a “conshy” at a time like this, when the country was truly threatened with invasion for the first time since the defeat of Napoleon.
“Well,” Emily drew a deep breath to answer his question with the sufficient forcefulness to assure him that she was not the kind who had eyes only for a uniform. “Glamour is not the issue. I simply don’t want to be a member of a military organization. I admit, Hitler has to be stopped and only military force is going to stop him now, but that does not mean I have to personally join an organization whose raison d’etre is war.”
“Well, it’s not as though the women’s services are being asked to carry guns or drop bombs. Most of what they do is just clerical, answering phones and all that,” the young man pointed out reasonably.
“That may be, but I’d still be part of an organization that quite frankly has been involved in a great deal of oppression – particularly in our Colonies. And furthermore, our military leadership is probably rather grateful to Herr Hitler for giving them an excuse to buy all the toys they wanted to have anyway.” Emily was surprised to discover that she still felt quite strongly about this. It was one thing to admit Hitler and the Wehrmacht had to be stopped, and another to forget that the British military had brutally suppressed people all over the world for the last hundred years. Emily was a vehement opponent of Empire.
The young man laughed. “Fair enough. We’d never have got the budget for monoplane fighters without the Luftwaffe frightening Parliament to death. I take it you belonged to one of the university peace societies that voted ‘under no circumstances to die for King and Country’?”
“That was the Oxford Union, actually, but yes, I did belong to the Peace Society. And you?”
“Oh, no! Too dim for University.” He waved the thought aside, almost losing his balance in the process, and for a moment they both concentrated on serving again.
Emily didn’t believe him. His accent was upper class without being “over the top,” and his self-confidence suggested a man used to authority, even privilege. And then there was the long hair and the civilian clothes. He had to be a “conshy” and still afraid to admit it. Emily felt she had to say something to put him more at ease. “Actually,” she tried, “I think we’re almost as much to blame for this war as Hitler is.”
“What?” That surprised him so utterly that he stopped serving to stare at her.
The sailor in line at once complained in a heavy Australian accent. “Give us a break, Mate. You can flirt with your Sheila later; I’ve been waiting in this line half an hour!”
“Right!” The young man turned back to the sailor, serving him an extra-large portion. They exchanged a grin that was almost conspiratorial.
Emily felt compelled to explain herself, feeling more self-conscious than ever. “What I mean is that we more or less drove the German people into the arms of Hitler. If we hadn’t imposed the Treaty of Versailles on them in the first place, they would not have had the economic crisis which drove them to despair. Have you ever read John Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace?”
He shook his head.
“Well, Keynes was with the British Delegation at Versailles, and in 1919 he predicted almost exactly what would happen. He couldn’t foresee Hitler, of course, but the—”
The door from the kitchen swung open, and Marjory burst in with loud apologies and explanations. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the young man beside Emily. “Where did you come from, dear boy?”
“Oh, I just dropped by to see Aunt Hattie, and seeing a damsel in distress, I offered to give her a hand.”
“That was very kind of you, I’m sure, but you shouldn’t be standing about on that leg. Go and give Cook a hand in the kitchen. He’s starting the sandwiches, and you can sit down to do that. I’ll take over here.” She shooed him out of the way and into the kitchen before Emily and he had a chance to exchange another word.
Emily noted, however, that he had referred to Major Fitzsimmons as “Aunt,” and Marjory clearly knew him. So maybe he wasn’t a conscientious objector after all? In that case, he must have a reserved occupation – a scientist perhaps? Or cipher work for the Navy? Or translating? He seemed slightly foreign in an indefinable way, and he might speak a foreign language well without having gone to University. Perhaps he had gone to Swiss boarding schools as some of the wealthy boys did….
She was still pondering it when the hot food gave out, and Marjory sent her into the kitchen to help with the sandwiches. She found the young man behind a massive table with loaves of bread, slabs of butter and packages of cheese and ham. Emily joined him at the table. Before she could even get a word out, he smiled over at her and put down his knife to offer his hand. “I’m afraid I’ve been terribly rude. I should have introduced myself. I’m Miss Fitzsimmon’s nephew, Robin Priestman. And you?”
“Emily Pryce.” They shook hands.
Before Emily could get out another word, he urged with a decidedly wicked smile, “You were about to tell me how we started the war?”
“Well, not started it,” Emily corrected, feeling a little silly. She got the feeling that this young man was highly amused by her, but not in a malicious way. On the contrary, he seemed to be intrigued by her in exactly the way she had always wished Michael had been: as an intelligent woman.
Before she went up to Cambridge, she had had her brief encounters with men, mostly sailors, who were interested in her as “a skirt” only. She had hated it intensely. Nothing had made her more uncomfortable or angry than wolf-whistles and compliments referring to parts of her body. In a way, that was what had first attracted her to Michael and his crowd. They had always treated her as a person, a mind, a fellow human being first and a woman second. And then she found out why....
But this young man seemed to be interested in both – in what she was saying as well as in what she was sexually. She wanted to retain that interest and to convince him that she had a brain and something to say. “I just wanted to explain how our revanchist policies resulted in the economic collapse and the humiliation of Germany, which in turn gave rise to political extremism, including National Socialism. After all, the main reason Hitler was so popular was because he promised to ‘tear up Versailles’ and restore German sovereignty on the Rhine and give it back an army suitable to a nation of its size. Territorially, until the invasion of Czechoslovakia, all he was asking for was the same ‘self-determination of peoples’ that Wilson had promised in his Fourteen Points and which all other peoples – except the Germans – had been granted.”
Too late, Emily realised maybe she had been talking too much politics. Her best girl friend at College had warned her that she tended to do that. Emily had never been a debutante, after all, and her intellectual parents had never taught her the “social graces” expected of a young “lady.” She wasn’t supposed to be a “lady,” but the vanguard of the proletariat. Her roommate at college had tried to give her some tips, the most important of which had been: “Men love talking about themselves. The best way to make them think you’re brilliant is to ask them questions and then tell them they’re brilliant. Oh – and you can never go wrong by asking a young man about himself.”
“You must have a very important job,” Emily ventured, “to be exempt from military service.”
That clearly startled him. He cocked his head and asked, “What makes you think I am?”
“Oh, well, everyone wears a uniform now-a-days – if they have one.” Emily pointed out with a laugh. It was so true.
Suddenly Emily got the feeling she had made a terrible mistake. He was in the services, and she’d been babbling on about the military being almost criminal and how she would never want to be part of it, and all because she’d wanted to please and impress this young man. She was an absolute fool! She had done everything wrong – just as her roommate said.
But meanwhile the attraction was so strong that she found herself asking timidly, almost pleading, “But you aren’t one of these gung-ho types who wants to go out and kill the Hun, surely?”
“No, I’m worse than that,” he told her cheerfully, clearly enjoying himself.
“What do you mean?” she asked, baffled. What could be worse than that?
“Well, you said you were in one of these peace societies that see war as fundamentally wrong, and I’m a professional. Did Cranwell and all that.”
“RAF training college.”
“Yes,” Emily whispered. It wasn’t that she didn’t know what Cranwell was, it was that she was beginning to grasp the magnitude of her error. “Your leg?” she asked almost inaudibly.
“Broke it jumping out of my Hurricane. Seemed a shame to rip up a uniform to accommodate the cast, so I’ve been wearing civvies while on convalescent leave.”
Emily couldn’t take it any more. This wonderful young man had walked into her life, offered to help her in an awkward situation, looked at her with the interest she so longed for, and he was a professional soldier. Not only that, but she had made an absolute fool of herself by jumping to wild conclusions without proper evidence. The embarrassment and confusion was so intense she felt she had to leave. She got up and started to back out of the kitchen. “I’m so sorry.”
“About what?” Robin asked, baffled.
“About – oh, dear.” She turned and fled.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish