by James A Marin
art by Andrea Montano
A veteran of both World Wars, Edwina Carlson still possessed a military bearing. Her godson knew the pain of terminal cancer was endured without complaint. “You abstain from pain management.” Immediately Tony felt the fool; the statement of concern sounded more like an accusation. A smile from her, “We dabbled in many things after the First War, narcotics included.” Reflection, “We were attempting to exorcise demons.” A former officer with Royal Naval Beach Commando, he knew the emotional trauma combat inflicted.
The subject changed, “Father was never jealous of your relationship.” A poignant smile crossed her face; “He thanked me for making Esme happy.” Taking a thin, almost translucent hand, and seeing the one lacquered nail, “Tell me of your time together.” The poised West Indian closed her eyes, pictured it, and began.
Arrival close the front driving brand new ambulances. Trench coats and aviator goggles worn. Assigned in support of the Belgian Army. During stand-downs, Belgian officers came sniffing around – the other girls loving the attention. Not Esme’s case; though polite, she was standoffish. Somehow Edwina knew, snobbery, not the reason. She blushed remembering the times Esme was found looking at her. Standing in the background, the two observed the goings-on of fellow corps members. Heart pounding, Edwina placed a hand in Esme’s, who entwined their fingers. There was a long look between them before slipping away.
The Yser Front perpetually wet, a region of high water tables, intentionally flooded to deny the Germans. War of the island outposts – which any spit of high ground became. A deadly routine of sniping, patrols, and raids. Artillery fire that a watch could be set by. A steady trickle of wounded. A more regular flow of non-battle casualties: typhus cases, trench foot, pleural congestion, and melancholia. Wounded German POWs sometimes, decent fellows mostly, glad to be out of it. JAS, as Belgian infantry called themselves, lived at frog level.
Fall of 1918, the stagnant front begins to move. The Belgian army, rebuilt, goes on the offensive. Bitter fighting with heavy casualties expels the Germans. Edwina paused, searching for a turn of phrase once known, remembering it, smiling, “As said by the Americans, ‘Asses worked off.'” Tony smiled as well. A moment of somber remembrance, “The JAS were magnificent; more of them should have been saved.”
The war ended in November. There was an overwhelming need to purge the death experience and to embrace life. Paris decadent, Berlin deviant, a Bohemian experience in the extreme. A blur of alcohol, drugs, and sex. In the end, reality faced, time with Sabri Mahir at his Berlin boxing studio, sobering up, regaining focus, having sewn wild oats, the world returned to.
Following mainstream convention, Esme marries. The groom, titled, wealthy, heroic at Jutland. Edwina’s career with overseas administration. Before parting, the entire day spent together. The war toughened them, taught them perseverance and adaptability. A way would be found to continue.
Correspondence sustained them. Long letters with snapshots eagerly anticipated. Read many times, kept with care, albums filled. A hobby of new technology – home movies – stilted scenes of awkward exuberance shown. Then the annual rendezvous in the Algarve of Portugal. Esme’s husband pragmatic, an arrangement made. “You do not deserve this, Swann.” Averted eyes, “I do not deserve you.” Her husband lighting a Comoy’s London Pride pipe. “You mean the world to me; Edwina is a wonderful person.” Smiling around the pipe, “Your happiness has always been paramount to me.” Tears streaking down her face, “I love you both so much.” A lost child found now. “Why am I this way?” Swann held his wife, “Because it is who you are.”
1939, Indian summer, the Second World War begins. In short order, England is alone. Esme, a driver with Air Raid Precautions – these well meaning amateurs evolved into a professional auxiliary branch of the military, C.D., Civil Defense. Her husband, Chief Gunnery Officer on the Monitor Roberts. Their son Tony, in the Royal Navy as well, for the duration. After four years of political wrangling due to the absurd fears of racial pollution, people in high places finally acted as they should.
Edwina commanding a group of West Indian Auxiliaries arrived in the United Kingdom. Esme is ecstatic, reading her letter, Swann is quietly happy. A welcoming garden party is held. Tea, sandwiches, and a rarity for the wartime economy, a proper cake. The young ATS women, initially awkward, put at ease by Esme, smartly turned out in C.D. uniform, snapping them a perfect salute.
Smiling and speaking with each in turn, all impressed with the titled lady’s knowledge of the British West Indies and the smattering of Patwa used. Chatting with a gaggle of matronly chaperones, Edwina unaware of Esme’s approach. Having not seen each other since the outbreak of hostilities, the public reunion was, as much as possible under the circumstances, savored. Shaking hands, the firm grip lingered. “Welcome to my home, Captain.” Smiling, Edwina played her part, correcting, “Company Commander, Lady Bath.” The host, in return, “Of course, ATS ranks a bit different than the regular army.” Hand resting on the officer’s arm, in a whisper leaned in, “Three pips are a captain to me.” Edwina proud in being recognized by the person who mattered the most. The day’s outing went splendidly.
The two of them were not ashamed, though discretion was the byword, better for all involved. “After war was declared . . .” trailing off, a moment of composure, “I was frantic with worry.” Demure over a cup of tea, “And desire?” A coy look while nibbling a point of toast, “Yes.” The war continued each doing their bit, through buzz bombs and doodlebugs. The Little Blitz, the Luftwaffe’s feeble final throw, a nuisance. Against V-2 rockets no defense, the government saying as much. The BEF’s advance in northwestern Europe ended the reign of terrifying destruction.
“Swann has leave,” Esme informed, tracing a finger along Edwina’s bare body line. The other beamed, “Marvelous!” She wanted to see him; it had been a long time. Propped on an elbow, Esme looked at Edwina – “I am lucky to have you both in my life.” Edwina inquired about his arrival time; she cared for Swann deeply. “Soon I think. He wrote that leviathan monitor of theirs had run out of targets to shoot.” Edwina asked, “And Tony?” Smiling, his mother said, “Not much for him to do since Normandy and the Walcheren business over.” Edwina impatient blurted, “So?!” Pausing for dramatic effect, Esme let the other off the hook. “Since you insist, he has leave as well.” A squeezing hug.
Days before the reunion, Esme was killed in a road accident. To survive, Edwina became a Robotka. Wars end, memories fade, the wreckage remains. Life continued. Swann adamant she stay. Adrift, Edwina acquiesced. Different people with a common bond, a family. Eventually becoming master of the household, Tony followed his father’s lead, Edwina remained. As an adolescent, deducing the dynamic between the three, surprising them with his understanding of it.
Now years later, sitting on the soft green lawn of the back garden, he listened to Edwina. “How long?” the only question. “Soon,” the inevitable answer. Holding a thin almost translucent hand, his thumb caressed the one lacquered nail.
About James A Marin
For too many years, I have worked the graveyard shift on a locked inpatient mental health unit. I run vignettes through my caffeine-addled mind in an attempt to stay awake.
You can follow Andrea Montano on Twitter and Instagram: @AMontanoArt