Will was going to return to Loughborough after the war; after he could rid himself of the shackles of the Bulge. The rain here was wetter than what it was back at home. The mud stuck more. The cold was colder. He didn’t even know if he was in France, Belgium or Germany. He had hoped he was in Germany. The closer he was to Berlin the closer he was to home and Elizabeth. He’d throttle the bastard Hitler to death if he could.
After Will had left, Elizabeth had moved to London to help with the war effort. If you don’t stand for anything, you’ll fall for anything, her grandmother had always told her. This was her opportunity to show Hitler and Mussolini what she thought of their notions of fascism and dictatorship. If she could, she wouldn’t think twice about traipsing across the European countryside with Will.
‘Pass us the lighter there, Will,’ whispered James Chadwick, a foot soldier in Will’s regiment. Will looked up from the orb of candle light in which floated his hand writing a letter; My dearest Elizabeth… He clambered around in the choking dark; a notepad; bootlaces; two rounds of ammunition; an empty box of Woodbines; a lighter. He picked it up and chucked it hopefully into the dark beyond.
‘Thanks,’ came the disembodied voice of Chadwick.
Will returned his attention to the letter he was writing to Elizabeth. She was working in a rifle-making factory near Reading, the last he’d heard. In the space of six months he’d received eleven beautifully written letters from his beloved. Her tall, slanted writing embodied the very essence of her existence, he thought. It was tall, thin, and elegant with frequent eccentric variations. He smiled. Sometimes he thought he could smell the delicate fragrance of roses and the summer breeze coming from the envelope, but the December ice and blood over powered all that was subtle; all that was Elizabeth.
Gunshots rang through the night outside the tent. Tanks roared like angry beasts beyond the trenches. Shells whistled through the clouds above and landed on the dreaded boundary of Allied and Axis; British and German; Good and Evil; Life and Death. What would happen, he thought, if one of the screaming shells teetered over the boundaries into his camp? Impossibly implausible, he thought.
Impossibly implausible, Elizabeth thought, lying cramped in the basement of one of the bigger houses. Maggie was leaning against her, snoring loudly. When the wailing sirens woke them from the already uneasy sleep, they could follow the rats to the Underground, where when a bomb screamed out of existence over them, they might be lucky enough to die straight away, instead of letting the unforgiving water rush in and choke the life out of them. No, she preferred the basement. In her hand, she clutched onto a grimy brown letter she had just received; My dearest Elizabeth… It smelt of December ice and blood. Presently, we’re somewhere between France and Germany, it read, and we’re getting closer to that bastard Hitler everyday, my love. If I could, I’d throttle him to death. She reached to her left ring finger and turned the tiny diamond around into view remembering the day it was given to her.
There were roses and the sun; one of those rare days when the wind only breathed its steady life-breath onto the bare skin of lovers in a blooming meadow.
‘Marry me, Elizabeth,’ Will said, his crop of dark brown hair shining in the sun’s warmth. Elizabeth gasped as she saw the otherworldly effervescence of a diamond float from his pocket. She couldn’t remember the gold band sliding onto her slender finger nor did she even remember saying yes. All she remembered from that day was their loving embrace, roses and the summer breeze…
After the war, Elizabeth was going to marry Will. Her mother had given her the most beautiful dress made from Chinese silk. Her sister, Penny, had given her an amazing string of pearls. She had the dress, the pearls, now all she needed was Will; another month, perhaps, of waiting. Patience, she chided to her self as somewhere far away an explosion rocked the world.
After the war, Will was going to marry Elizabeth. There was a beautiful house south of Loughborough that he planned on buying. Of course he’d prefer to have a double-height hall, and a larger garden for their future children to play in, but he had to make do. Builders weren’t too plentiful during this war. Most of them were scattered across the continent, like him, or repairing the devastation that was London. During the initial bombings, he was safe with Elizabeth away from the fire, bombs and Hitler, but after his brother Tom was killed at Dunkirk, he couldn’t rest until he was busy, and there was no work for him in England. His father’s estate had collapsed. His cousins disappeared into various regiments. His dearest brother disappeared forever. It took him four years to make the decision.
In order to ensure that he could raise his children away from Lebensraum and Der Fuhrer he had to commit himself totally to the war effort. Of course he couldn’t die. He was only twenty-one. Death was a far away, distant notion.
Elizabeth thought of the day the war would end. She’d be working in the factory, Maggie, the fire-hearted, foul-mouthed east-Londoner would scream with joy, as Jefferson, the overly plump factory manager, would announce it from his perch above. She would pick up the death-sticks she had just assembled and toss them into the air, cursing their very existence and burst in to song, probably God Save Our Gracious Queen. Her tightly tied hair would dance back into life as she danced barbarically with Maggie opposite her. She would then go to the train station to welcome Will home…
He’d be sitting in a cramped compartment of a rattling train carriage. It would smell awful; sweat, smoke and dirty boots, but he wouldn’t mind. It was better than festering Berlin and the death camps with lines of decaying Jews laid out in the June sun. He would have been angry when he found out about the death camps. He would have got the closest German to him and beat him to within an inch of his life for what they’d done.
But it wouldn’t have mattered when he was on the train.
As it would slowly pull into the station, the snores of snoozing soldiers would desist as they realised they were almost home. When the train would finally grind to a halt, he’d make sure he was the first out of the train and first to lay eyes on the beautiful Elizabeth.
They would embrace then. Two lost souls would become one, reunited by the celebrations that would go on for weeks. But Will Taylor wouldn’t wait around in London when he could be home in Loughborough. Home with the roses and summer breeze and Elizabeth.
Elizabeth would lead him to her tiny Morris Minor and cram his trunk into the back as she set off. She’d smell the distant tang of war emanating from his clothes, but it wouldn’t matter. They’d be together.
‘Did you hear that Will?’ gasped James. It was dark again. No roses, no summer, no Elizabeth.
‘No,’ he muttered quietly, having been woken from a good dream.
‘The bombs are getting closer.’ But Will didn’t hear that. He was too exhausted to care what James was telling him. He ebbed back into the comforting world of Elizabeth’s Morris Minor.
They would pull up in front of a beautifully white house, gravel crunching beneath the tyres.
‘Elizabeth did you hear that?’ gasped Maggie, waking Elizabeth with a start.
‘No,’ she muttered tiredly.
‘The bombs are getting closer,’ she whispered. Around her there were children crying, a sleepy smell of gas and gravel crunching beneath her feet.
She would drag Will’s trunk up to the door of her parent’s house. He’d be exhausted having travelled for thirty-eight hours from Berlin.
‘Will, something’s just dropped outside! Wake up!’ James shouted, hoisting him from his bed sheets. Will didn’t respond. ‘It’s the gas!’ he guttered, hacking the cough of a bent over hag.
Elizabeth woke slowly, hearing a strange whistling above her. She smiled. She could smell roses and feel the summer breeze against her skin.
Then she felt the bomb explode and the gas ignite.
Will sat up, suddenly alert. A greenish mist crept into the dark tent, almost glowing. Outside there was nothing but shouts and yells. James lay hacking his lungs up on the ground before him, burning from inside out.
Before he could react, the green death-breath reached his lungs. It smelt like roses and the summer breeze.
After a brief moment of complete and all-ensuing blackness he looked up. Elizabeth was there, waiting for him to get out of the Morris Minor.
‘Come on, darling,’ she chided, ‘I can’t wait all day long…’ The scent of roses and the summer breeze kissed his skin. He was home.
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