"I expect you'll be wanting to join the Territorial Unit."

The words had been innocent enough. It wasn't a command or an order exactly. But when Lieutenant Colonel Alistair Fitz of the Black Watch made a suggestion to his son like that there was only one correct answer. That was how it had been with his father since Fitz had been a boy. Even in letters from as far off as Egypt and India he could detect it. I expect you'll be wanting to join the club team. I expect you'll make top marks. I expect you'll be going to Edinborough. The tone was always implicit. Expectation and appearance were everything to his father.

The truth was Fitz hadn't wanted to join a Territorial Unit. He hadn't wanted to join the Army at all.

But war was brewing. His father had prophesied the conflict and the failure of peace long before the official declaration came. Sometimes Fitz thought, despite the horrors he had seen as a Captain in the Great War, his father desperately wanted another war. At the very least Fitz knew he wanted his son to have one. Only a war can make a man, his father insisted.

He had urged his son to join the King's Army after he finished at university. He wanted him to attend the Royal Military Academy, earn his commission and, if he still insisted on being a man of science, join the Royal Engineers. The Army was where he could make a name for himself, he said. Wasting his time in a laboratory would do little to advance his station. But Fitz didn't want to be a Sapper and he certainly didn't want to be a leader of them.

Yet here he was, a member of the 1st Line Territorial Army. A private who had graduated with first class honors in a platoon of lads from Glasgow.

Joining with the Territorials had been an easy decision in the end. It certainly seemed better than enlisting with the Regulars. At least with the Highlanders he could keep his job in the laboratory and spare his mum the heartbreak for a little while longer.

The Government would want your brain not your body, his poor mum had insisted when he'd first told her he was joining up. The remark had earned a derisive snort from his father about what a poor excuse of a body it even was. At least be an officer, she had pleaded then, once war was imminent, wanting him to delay his entry into the service and stay safe as long as possible. She tried arguing that his intellect would be better served as a strategic planner behind the scenes; a remark that had earned another bitter laugh from his father about how Fitz wasn't fit to plan a tea party.

It had been a terribly uncomfortable dinner. His father's brief trips back to Glasgow always were. He can still remember almost every exchange. Both his mum's teary pleas not to join and his father's derision. The words from both parents are all he can hear on the troop train from their training camp at Carrick to Aldershot.

The Highlanders time training at the huge garrison in Carrick had been an eye-opening experience. Training weekends in Glasgow, even in the spring of 1939, had involved little training. It was more of a social club really, complete with billiards and reading rooms. He was a Saturday night soldier, a lab technician who knew how to march and that was about it. It hadn't involved much actual military knowledge and little sacrifice to his normal routine. That all changed when they mobilized and moved to Carrick Airfield.

In Carrick he'd been issued an Enfield Rifle and a gas mask. They'd gone to the range and fired actual bullets. They fixed bayonets and plunged them into dummies dressed like German soldiers. There had even been talk about visiting a slaughterhouse to practice sticking the bayonets into actual carcasses to get used to the resistance they'd feel when plunging them into a human body

Fitz had blanched at the mere thought. He tried to keep his abhorrence of violence and general squeamishness around blood a secret from his squaddies. He kept much of his life hidden from the people that were his new family. His job in a research lab, his degree, his father's position as a senior officer. All anybody knew about Fitz was he liked to read and he lived with his mum. He had no sweetheart and didn't talk about his mates back home.

He talks now though on the train to Aldershot. They're on their way to it, headed down south to a base even bigger than Carrick. He natters on about the flora and fauna in France, the conditions for a channel crossing, how large a wave it would take to capsize a troop carrier. It's more than anybody can remember him ever talking in over six months.

"Nervous, Fitz?" one of his squaddies laughs derisively, in a way that reminds him too much of his father. "Want to go back home to mum?"

"Piss off," he growls. "If you're not scared, you're a liar." There is no question about where they're headed. He knows anyone who says they're not afraid of seeing combat is full of it.

"Aye, Fitz is right," his sergeant defends. "We're going into combat, lads. It's the great unknown.

Combat. The word had been on their lips for months. It had been a vague idea. Something they could train for and imagine, but never really experience until they were there. Now it was becoming reality.

They muse about what it will be like, what they will do, how they'll react. All Fitz can think about are his father's last words at the station. I'll see you on the other side, he'd stated simply and that had been that. He tries to turn over what the words even mean. There had been a fateful lingering tone. Almost like his father didn't expect him to come back at all.


It's the last weekend pass he knows they'll have before they go across the Channel. One of his squaddies fatefully adds that it will be their last weekend pass ever and they all give a nervous laugh. Each news report issued from France casts more of a pallor on their training in Aldershot. The British Expeditionary Force is in an all out retreat. Staying in garrison, under lock and key, musing about where in France they'll be sent, how they'll do in combat and just how unstoppable the German war machine is has everybody on edge. It's why they need the pass.

He reckons they're a conspicuous group, a bunch of Scottish blokes tramping around the streets of London in uniform. He doesn't mean to lose them. He hopes, at least, they hadn't intended to lose him either. He knows he should be enjoying what may be his last night of revelry, but his legs just don't take him to the dance halls or pubs. They take him to the only thing in London worth seeing. The place where Faraday had discovered the basis for electromagnetism. Where Dewar had pioneered his work in molecular spectroscopy and Davy had all but invented electrochemistry. The foremost center of scientific research and exploration

He doesn't know how long he is standing outside the stately Corinthian columns of the Royal Institution before she arrives.

"Do you think they'd let me in if I knocked?" A lilty feminine voice sounds from beside him. He turns to see a young woman cupping her face against the glass and attempting to peer inside through the window. He doesn't know whether it's because he's been surrounded by blokes for six months, but he can't take his eyes off her. She isn't dressed in anything unusual, a blue polka-dot dress with a belted waist, and her dark hair falls gently around her face in soft curls. "Are you wanting to go inside too or are you just admiring the architecture?" He knows he's staring, but can't stop. He wills himself to say something, but finds himself mute and still unable to stop gazing at her. "Been awhile since you've seen a woman?" she teases knowingly.

"Yeah," he finally replies sheepishly and forces himself to turn his eyes back to the building.

"I've been inside it before, you know," she states proudly.

"Oh, me too. I went - "

"For a - "

"Christmas Lecture." They say the words in unison and he feels a smile instinctively spread on his face.

"My father brought me to my first one when I was eight," she beams at the memory. "We went every year."

"I always wanted to go when I was younger. Bit of a long trip from Glasgow though."

"Right."

"But when I was at University I came every year." He's not sure why he feels the need to explain himself to the stranger. He's not sure why he feels a strange flash of competition when she informs that she went to Christmas lectures too while she was at University either.

"Were you in London then?" He can't remember the last time a woman was this interested in anything he had to say, nevertheless a relative stranger.

"No, I went to Edinburgh."

"You went to Edinburgh?"

"I did." He puffs his chest out, sensing the incredulousness in her voice. "Why's that so surprising?"

"Just didn't see a pip." She glances to his uniform collar and the lack of a star. She'll ask him now, he knows, why a product of Edinburgh standing in front of the Royal Institute didn't become an officer.

She informs him she went to Bedford College and seems equally excited to learn they had attended the same lectures and had probably ridden the same train to this Institute. The conversation on the steps of the Royal Institute continues in a hurried, but excited fashion. He stumbles over words when he talks too quickly and interrupts her, but she interrupts him too. It takes ten minutes of conversation about the lectures they'd both taken in while at university before either even introduces themselves.

She's the first to extend her hand.

"Jemma Simmons."

"Leopold Fitz."

She shakes his hand with a surprising strength and firmness. He's slow to let go of it.

"Leopold?" She repeats in question. "Do people call you Leo?" He winces at the name only his father uses.

"Just Fitz actually."

She tells him she's from Sheffield, and when he inquires what she's doing in London her reply that she's just taken a test takes him by surprise.

"Like with a pen and paper?"

"Well, it certainly wasn't with a rifle," she teases.

"Obviously not." He rolls with the barb with surprising ease.

"It was a for a job my old maths supervisor recommended me for." She chews on her lip uncertainly. He's only known her an hour, but knows the look of uncertainty on her face well.

"You know what I like to do when I'm nervous about the results of an exam?" he asks and then doesn't wait for her to answer. "A crossword puzzle."

"A crossword puzzle?" she looks at him quizzically.

"You know, the cryptic crosswords from the Telegraph. They keep my mind...occupied," he admits, somehow sensing she is a young woman whose brain is always occupied too.

"Yes, but that'll only keep my brain occupied for five minutes." She blows out a loud sigh.

"You can do the Telegraph crossword in five minutes?" He can't help the smile that forms on his face then as he folds his arms across his chest.

"Usually."

"I can do it in four." He can't help his braggadocio.

"Four minutes?" She forgets about her exam then and sizes him up from head-to-toe in a way that should make him uncomfortable.

"Four minutes," he affirms, forgetting to be uncomfortable.

The challenge is implicit. He doesn't know who initiates it, but they soon find themselves on a quest for a Telegraph crossword puzzle so they can learn who can do it fastest. It's over three hours of wandering around London. The conversation is effortless. He wonders if it's the shared love of science or perhaps the Christmas lecture connection. He tells her more than he's told his squaddies in over a year of serving together. About growing up with his mum, and the machines he'd built as a child. He talks about not fitting in at school and hating every course that wasn't a science. She echoes almost everything he says. Whereas he usually struggles to say anything of interest to a woman, she is hanging off every word. They're perfectly at ease with each other in a way he's never been with anyone before, despite having just met this woman. They never find a Telegraph, but neither seem to care.

Somehow they eventually end up on a bench in Kensington Garden beneath a great bronze statue of Edward Jenner.

"You know, I'm surprised. I'd always heard the Scottish regiments wore kilts," she looks at his wool battledress.

"Only with the dress kit," he informs. "Bit impractical for combat." The lame attempt at a joke works and she just laughs and tells him she's only been to Scotland once.

"My family took a holiday to Perthshire. It was so lovely."

He tells her he's from Glasgow and that London is the furthest he's ever been from home. The talk of being far from home brings them out of the past quite suddenly.

The playful and teasing lilt to her voice she's had all night suddenly vanishes.

"Are you on your way to France?" He doesn't dare ask himself why he thinks he hears such trepidation in the voice of a woman he just met.

"I think so," he replies with a resigned indifference. He knows their sister unit in the 51st Lowland is already over there, fleeing to the coast as they speak. It's only a matter of time. He'll be in combat soon.

He wants to ask if he can write to her even though he knows it's silly. A girl as clever and pretty as her wouldn't be unattached. Still it would be nice to have someone to write to, someone other than his mum.

She talks about finding a dance hall with a forcibly cheerful tone, as if a night of dancing can wipe away the looming threat of where he's headed.

Instead they stay on the bench by the statue of Dr. Jenner. They keep talking about Christmas lectures at the Institute. He shares how he'd hoped after a few more years working at the University lab in Glasgow he could apply for a job at the Institute. She informs him that's always been her dream job too, but that she'd been forced to stay in Sheffield to help her mum and dad at their shop.

They talk about dreams deferred. Subjects they've always wanted to study and things they'd always wanted to do. She reveals the job she'd taken this test for, the one she's so nervous about, is somehow connected to the war effort. She finally asks the question sometime after midnight. Why a man who can do the Telegraph crossword in four minutes with a degree from Edinburgh was now a private in the King's Army.

"I mean I had to," he shrugged simply. "We're at war."

"You said you joined a year ago." They're prying words, meant to get at the truth behind his motivation in joining. He thinks for a moment about lying again, telling her the same things he'd told his mother about serving Scotland proudly as a Highlander. He can't make the lie form from his lips, but he can't seem to tell her the complete truth either. Out loud it seems far too foolish a reason.

So he tells her all about his father instead. His estrangement from his mum and service in Egypt, Palestine and India. He tells her about living with the scorn and disappointment of a man who believes him to be inferior in every way. In the end, he doesn't have to tell her why he joined. She's intuitive. She understands him.

Rather than question him further about it, she tells him, in turn, about the correcting cast she had to wear for her scoliosis as a child. How she'd been homebound for over a year and how her parents thought she'd fall far behind her classmates, but the opposite had happened. She tells him about being bored by most of her coursework, even at university, and longing for something more. It feels like she's talking about his own life and all he can do is nod fervently and agree.

"Not just a challenge. I want an adventure!" Her eyes shine brightly. They muse then over the adventure he's about to depart on, trying desperately to put a positive spin on the uncertain future he faces.

Sometimes before sunrise she takes his hand, gives it a squeeze, and asks him to write her.

He leaves Southampton aboard the SS Hantonia at 1400 hours on a Saturday in June and is sick three times before they arrive across the Channel at Cherbourg. It's his first time at sea and, though his legs feel like jelly, it's not seasickness that has him so ill. They sit in the harbour for hours waiting for the French authorities to finally allow them to debark. He keeps waiting to hear the bombers of the Luftwaffe screaming overhead or feel the ship list suddenly to the side when struck with a torpedo.

Leadership had tried to keep the news from France under wraps, but they'd all heard about the disaster at Dunkirk. He knows they're the rescue squad, but he can hardly believe a bunch of Saturday Night soldiers from Glasgow are here to rescue the British Expeditionary Force.

"You are the BEF now," their commander had declared firmly.

If it was supposed to be inspiring, Fitz isn't inspired. They haven't done any battle drills or preparation. He has no idea what to do if his platoon meets a column of German tanks. He has no idea what he's doing here.

He thinks about Jemma and the perfect night they'd shared in London. He'd penned a letter to her and his mum on the Channel crossing. Both letters are in the breast pocket of his uniform.

He had tried not to read too much into her request to write him. She was a warm, friendly person who had been kind to a soldier doomed for the front. Deep down he knows it's more than pity that had kept them talking all night, but somehow thinking that it's pity is more comforting than the alternative.

The roads are crowded with refugees fleeing west. It's a bizarre feeling to be heading into the place everyone is fleeing, especially when he just wants to flee too. They've been officially christened the 2nd British Expeditionary Force and their mission is to cover the withdrawal of what's left of the original BEF in France. He tries to memorize the sand tables and maps of the Cotentin Peninsula and Norman coast they'd received at the mission brief in Cherbourg. He knows they're hundreds of miles from the Germans, but the thought offers him little assurance. Their troop carrier seems to crawl along and, much like he had in the ship, he keeps waiting for the Luftwaffe to appear.

He thinks about his mum and feels awash in guilt at leaving her alone.

Then he thinks about Jemma and the adventure she'd spoken about. It gives him a strange sense of calm, thinking about her words about being meant for something bigger. He wonders what became of the test she took and if she got the position.

They drive all night and finally come to a halt twenty miles outside Rouen. It's been nearly twenty-four hours since they left England. He desperately just wants to put his head on a pillow, but he makes do with his rucksack. Despite the order to sleep, he doubts he'll get any.

He thinks first of his father when they dig in for their first night at the front, about his stories from the Great War, and his insistence that war makes a man better. He gazes up at the stars and thinks then about Jemma's story about her dad's telescope and all the constellations she'd memorised within the first week of having it. He finds Delphinus, Lyra, and Cygnus and is comforted by the thought that perhaps, even at this early morning hour, she's looking at the night sky too.

They spend two days doing little but cleaning weapons and manning observation posts. He writes to Jemma both days. He pours out in his letters much the same things he had that incredible night in London. He knows he can't tell her anything about what's happening here. He can't tell her how he heard German troops were close to Paris or how thinly-defended their 150 km front is. Nor can he reveal that his brigade has just come under the command of the Tenth French Army. So he tells her about the Norman countryside, the Calvados cider the French people had brought them, and the bizarre combination of boredom and fear that seizes his every moment.

It feels strange to think all his years of education have been to ready him to sit in a muddy hole cleaning the bolt assembly of a rifle he hopes he'll never have to shoot.

He writes to her and feels guilty a woman he's barely known one week now has two letters in his breast pocket and his mum only has one. He tells her about the sights in Normandy. The cows and hedgerows. The farms and swamps. He tells her about the squaddies he shares a foxhole with who worked in the foundries and shipyards back in Glasgow. He tells her about how despite months with this group that's supposed to be his family he still doesn't seem to belong.

They have little information about enemy intel and he keeps his head on a swivel at all hours. He expects to find the Germans each time he goes to relieve himself at the trench at the edge of their bivouac site or takes over as sentry. Soon Jemma has three letters in his pocket.

He's writing her a fourth letter when things begin to happen. Their sergeant barks a few brusque orders and he stuffs the half-finished letter back in his rucksack. They pack up quickly and march all night in the dark to take over the right sector of a front that's supposed to stretch all the way to the sea. He keeps an eye on the constellations and realizes they're traveling south. They travel muddy unimproved roads, marching further than any ruck they'd ever taken back at Aldershot. He tries to remember his training as he clutches his Enfield rifle and monitors his sector. They finally load up on trucks at a depot south of Rouen. He tries to ignore that he sees most trucks moving the opposite way they are headed.

They finally halt around sunrise, east of a tiny village called Conches. He can see the spire of the village cathedral in the early morning sun. He thinks about Jemma and how they'd watched the sunrise over London on that bench in Kensington Garden. Then he wonders what's happening in the tiny village. Whether the priest of that parish and the baker and schoolmaster will take their family and flee when they hear the front lines have come to their home.

"It's not the front line, you twat!" his squaddies laugh derisively. But that's exactly what this is. The Army of Paris is supposed to be holding the line all the way to the Seine. Fitz tries not to be unnerved that his lieutenant only says "supposed to". There is no confirmation that the French unit is actually in position. The LT is unusually honest and tells them all as much as he knows, which unnerves Fitz even more. They're in an exposed position. There's a gap of eight miles on their right flank. There are two brand new French battalions on their left, soldiers as wet behind the ears as they are. Their job is to maintain the line here until further orders. Most importantly, intel reports little enemy activity in the area.

He finishes his letter to Jemma and updates her on the latest happenings in his grand adventure. He tells her about marching all night and the small village to the west and how pretty France is. He knows she'll be able to read through his words. She'll see how the letter was interrupted. She'll know he's moved closer to the Germans and the fear he's desperately trying to disguise.

Word trickles through around midday that their brigade has been renamed the Norman Force. The troop carriers they'd seen moving the opposite direction as them had been the rest of the division, sent back to Cherbourg to cover the actual withdrawal of British forces. They are remaining to hold the line with the French Army. Fitz wants to know why it's them. Why the 1st Battalion, Glasgow Highlanders are the ones elected to slow the German advance.

They hear the place where they'd spent their first night in France has been occupied by armored columns of German tanks and that elements of the Tenth Army that they're technically now a part of have surrendered.

So many rumors are being exchanged and word is travelling so quickly, he tries to make sense of it all. The Wehrmacht is coming. The rest of the 2nd BEF is in all-out retreat. The Saturday Night Soldiers of the Highland Light Infantry are the ones left to hold the line. He thinks now about his mum's plea to commission, about his dad telling him to join the Engineers. He laughs at his erroneous belief that joining the Territorials would somehow keep him out of combat longer.

He looks around at the lads from Glasgow, thinking about their training exercises from Maryhill to Aldershot. He tries not to imagine what will happen if they don't hold this position. If the rest of the Army isn't able to return to England. If France falls and England is next. He thinks of his mum. Then he thinks of Jemma.

Then he hears the snap of a bullet.