The crowd in the dance hall swayed, momentarily without co-ordination, and two couples collided.
“Don’t mention it: we British aren’t natural jitterbugs, are we?”
As ritual apologies were made, Billy looked past his partner and into the eyes of the other girl. And on both faces recognition dawned, so plainly that ‘you’re mine’ might have been in neon lights flashing above their heads. And then the dance ended, and the moment of choice was upon them
Should Billy remember that he was engaged, Elspeth that she was married, sigh, and accept the primacy of those commitments? In another time and another place, they would have done it, and lived not unhappily ever after. But just now the storms of war had torn them from the anchorage of home and family, flung them rudderless into interesting times, so that any prospect of love was like a lifebuoy, to be grabbed, and clung to.
“Could I have the next dance? My name’s Billy Hughes, by the way.”
“Mine’s Elspeth Morris…yes, thank you.”
He smelt nice, soap and tobacco, and held her well, firmly but without impertinence. Not good looking, no, big mouth and prominent eyes like a frog, but the smile and the twinkle in the eye made him a most attractive frog. He held her carefully, amazed at the prize in his arms: blue-eyed, mousey-haired, but what a mouse! Wavy and rich, like a mouse that ate cream and butter all the time, a dairy mouse. He walked her back to her lodgings.
“Can I see you again? Maybe tomorrow evening?”
If he made it back: but neither of them said that.
“Yes, all right. Well… goodnight.”
She did not say take care. The men were not up there to take care. It was her job to take care, to oil and grease and check meticulously, so that the aircraft were worthy of the brave boys who flew them.
Her eyes shone with joy.
“Made it back?”
And because he might not tomorrow, she could not refuse him. He kissed her hungrily, spoke of love, took her body where it longed to go. They knew it had to end: there was a fierce sweetness in the knowledge. Enjoy every sensation, even pain, because it might be your last.
June became July, which matured into August, and in August he had sad news.
“I’ve been posted.”
She nodded. One last time, and they parted. He did not tell her where his posting was. They both had prior commitments, must part, but oh! It felt like amputation.
Her husband, posted to North Africa, wrote infrequently. She began to forget his face, his voice, but still, when it came, the letter was a blow.
I never thought I’d write this, I can only beg you to forgive me, but I’ve found someone else…”
The betrayal enraged her. She had cut off a part of herself for her duty, sacrificed joy and passion and precious friendship for a man with no loyalty to her, or to their vows. Her husband let her divorce him, but that was poor compensation for the shame, the whispers and sniggers. Her frog was lost, and now she was divorced, damaged goods, and bitter as unripe lemons.
The Americans arrived, rich, glamorous, eager for action.
“Say, Elspeth, honey, why not?”
It was a thrill to speak a new language; the attention was a wake-up call for her feelings.
“I’m sorry, Pat, but I guess I’m taken already.”
“Sure, that’s a real shame.”
The balm of flattery, applied by such a perfect gentleman, eased her despair. Maybe one day she’ll meet someone else special: just now she has unfinished business. After the war is won, she’ll find out what happened to Billy Hughes, see him one last time for a proper goodbye, or lay a flower on his grave, and then she’ll start over.
In charge of a maintenance unit, she crossed the Channel in the spring of ’45, and found France wonderful. She had never been abroad before, and the adventure, spiced with danger, completed the cure. In the country of romance, bitterness was vanquished. What’s life about but feeling, loving, losing? Her marriage was a casualty of war: leave it at that.
She was halfway inside the gear box of her creaking and weary equipment truck, when a group of liberated POWs marched into the yard, uniform in tatters, heads high, showing off their drill.
It was her voice, calling an order, that made him turn. Billy shouldn’t, he should leave well alone, she’ll have gone back to her husband… he knew he shouldn’t but he did. He forced his way through the crowd.
“Excuse me, excuse me, pardon, m’zeiur — ”
She swayed, he grabbed her, supported her.
“Billy… no, I’m all right, it was just a shock.”
“I know I shouldn’t, but I had to speak to you, I… just wanted to make sure you’re all right.”
He was a battered frog, she a grey-streaked mouse, but as his eyes foolishly, against all common sense, drifted to her ring finger, his face flashed with hope, though his mind leapt guiltwards.
“Was it my fault?”
“Oh no, no. My husband never knew… are… are you married yet?”
“She was killed in a raid.”
“Oh Billy, I’m so sorry.”
“Be sorry for her, not for me. I’m in love with someone else…”
He flung his arms around her, and kissed her as though he sought to weld their bodies together.
They did not hear the applause that broke out around them, or the Captain’s heartfelt sigh. The paperwork for a marriage on active service was the devil, and what they saw in each other she couldn’t imagine, but there it was. And then her eye caught that of the officer commanding the POWs, lounging in the sun with a cigarette, and on each face dawned a recognition so clear it might be in neon lights…
Jennifer Foster is a Wiltshire (England) homemaker, currently writing for pleasure and to take her mind off the housework she hasn’t done!