Chapter 24

Night shift slipped past tediously, broken up by penicillin rounds and paperwork. Grace saw Ally only fleetingly when she flitted into the ward to consult on some post-operative matter with Major Philips. Across the ward her eyes were rubbed red with crying and even though they did not speak, the urgency of her friend's problem would not leave nor the hastiness of her promise to fix it all come the morning. The more minutes to cross the clock, the more she thought about it the more she realised the impossibility of Ally's situation and began to emphasise with the decision she had made. Grace didn't condone it but she could understand it.

When dawn finally came, too soon and too slow, Grace was dead tired; she had been pinching herself awake for the past hour. She intended only to swing by the mess hall to grab a slice of toast before throwing herself into bed. However, the post had arrived. As she yawned her way through the mess hall, Eileen shoved a sheaf of envelope's into Grace's hands.

'First post dump since Belgium,' Irene grumbled. 'Makes you wonder if yours are getting through at the other end and the army aren't just chucking them in the sea for too much bother.'

The post had been notoriously unreliable as was proved by the fact that of the four letters Grace held in her hand, one was from David Webster from when he had been languishing in the replacement depot. The postmarks on in indicated that the poor battered thing had been bounced back and forth across Europe like a shuttlecock before finding its way to her well after the arrival of the man himself.

One letter, she could tell from the Derbyshire return address was from Dorothea's parents. Hopefully it was nothing more than a polite thank you for her previous correspondence rather than a quest for further details into the exact circumstances of their daughter's death.

The final two were from home, both written in Lillian's careful hand. The sight of these last letters chased away all Grace's exhaustion because she knew exactly what they must contain. She ran all the way to her room to tear them open in peace.

Responsibly, she got an hour or so's sleep, fraughtly trying to remind her mile-a-minute brain that she was tired. Once she had got all the rest she could, she cadged a lift with a supply truck down the road to the American camp.

She was lucky; orders for the 101st the head back to Mourmelon for a few weeks R&R had temporarily been rescinded from on high due to transport problems and the unit was still hanging around the outskirts of Haguneau. The boys she passed, once she had thanked her driver, were full of the lazy joy of being off the line. She passed a basketball game, an ugly slushy snowman, mean running by with bags of loot. They were drunk on the strange, unfamiliar sensation of being safe. They didn't have to duck as they walked across the road and could throw out the rules of light and sound discipline. Their excitement coloured the grey landscape of melting winter.

Though of course, some of them were just straight up drunk despite it only being ten in the morning. The town houses in which they were billeted had been completely stripped bare, the rule being if it wasn't nailed down it was up for grabs.

Grace caught a few wolf-whistles as she skidded through the streets. She stood out against this sea of reckless masculinity even in her unflattering khaki, but some of the catcalls sounded familiar and she looked up to see Joe Liebgott and David Webster hanging out of an upper storey window. She waved up at them.

'Hey, Marlene!' called Joe, his sharp face bright and cheerful for once. 'Why don't you come up for a spell?'

'Can't,' replied Grace. 'I'm looking for Captain Speirs.'

Joe chuckled darkly. 'Speirs? I heard it was Captain Nixon you was "looking for" these days.'

She flushed bright red, she couldn't help it. David jumped to her rescue by giving Joe a little shove which almost toppled him out of the window. 'Give it a rest, Joe.'

'Alright, alright. I know a lady never kisses and tells.'

'Come up,' David said again. 'Speirs will be coming round any minute to inspect the platoons, make sure we're not all drunk on duty.'

'Your platoon leader won't mind?' she asked, not wanting to get either of them into trouble.

Joe shrugged carelessly. 'Nah, it's only old Malark since we lost that clueless Looey to General Taylor or wherever the fuck he went. A bit of female company would cheer us all up.'

'Because you're all so down in the dumps,' she said but let herself in all the same. She had her own reasons for being in a mind to celebrate.

The front door to the house was ajar, the lock broken in like a burglary and once inside Grace could see that the men had infested the place like rats. They were billeted in much the same condition as the nurses: makeshift bunks in old family homes but clearly this was a man's domain. The girls, despite their transitory life, always tried to make their quarters homey by keeping their belongings tidy and ordered no matter how short their stay. Here the men of second platoon had sprawled themselves across the house like raggedy gypsies. Whoever was one day coming back to this house would find it in a state of complete careless chaos; empty bottles, mountainous piles of cigarette butts and small fires heating up packets of rations.

Grace wrinkled her nose against the deep and permeating smell of tobacco and sour, unwashed bodies as David led her into what he described at their "humble abode". 'Humble's the word for it. Won't Speirs have anything to say about the mess when he comes around?'

Sergeant Malarkey answered as he strolled in, cigarette sagging loosely between his lips. 'Speirs ain't one of those officers overly concerned with how things look. He knows the important things. Though…' He frowned as he gazed around the space he was supposed to be commanding. 'It is looking especially shitty this morning. Hey, guys!' he called to his platoon. 'How's about we have a little spring clean.'

A low groan rose up from the men who were awake. But Malarkey had made up him mind and was using his flimsy power to rouse them.

Grace would have gladly helped in the clean-up. Since entering the house her fingers had been itching to start tidying the mess but Sergeant Malarkey gently steered her to one of the only available seats, a flabby armchair which belched dust when she upon it, and offered to fetch her a coffee.

She felt a little like a queen presiding over her subjects as she watched the clueless men stumble around making half-hearted attempts at tidying which mostly involved tossing full ashtrays out of windows.

Luckily, the session up was broken up by the arrival of a young, pale looking private with news.

Private Heffron, "Babe" as she remembered her liked to be called walked into the house looking slightly bemused.

'Hey, Babe,' said Malarkey. 'You see Captain Speirs while you were out there? He heading our way?'

'Uh… yeah.' The young man answered the question like it was difficult. 'I saw him. It was really weird.'

'Weird how?' asked Webster.

'He gave me these.' Babe reached into his pockets and pulled out three crisp packs of cigarettes, the good kind that officers got first dibs on, and a thick bar of chocolate. 'And then he smiled. At least I think he smiled. I saw his teeth.'

'You know what that means,' said Malarkey. 'You're a dead man, Babe.'

'What?!' he squealed.

'Everyone knows, if Speirs is handing out the smokes he's about to pull the trigger.'

Babe looked genuinely alarmed at the thought, his eyes flicking back forth between Malarkey, Liebgott and Webster who were all smirking.

'Don't worry,' said Grace. 'I just think he's in a really good mood.'

'His coming!' someone in the hallway called.

The platoon stood to a lazy attention and Grace almost found herself joining them as Speirs swept into the house.

Malarkey scampered forward to intercept his commanding officer. 'We were just fixing the place up, sir. It's not so bad…'

'Yeah, yeah, yeah,' Speirs waved him away. 'It's great. You want a cigarette?'

Malarkey nervously took one that was offered him. And a second and a third as they were further pushed on him. And a final one to tuck behind his ear.

Speirs offered the rest of the packet around to the assembled room before pushing further into the house. He stopped as he saw Grace ahead of him. 'Oh, you're here.'

'I'm guessing you got your mail today.'

'How could you tell?'

'Your face looks like it's about to break in two, you're grinning so wide,' she said though his face was only mirroring her own feelings. 'You should scale it back a bit, you're scaring the men.' More seriously she added, 'Congratulations, Ron.'

The hug she pulled him into was a little awkward, this was Speirs after all, but if marriage hadn't made him family, blood now certainly did. They were bond by this baby, tangling him permanently into her life.

Stiffly, he pulled away from her after a few brief seconds, his face flustered. 'I've got a photograph, do you want to see?'

He fished it out of his breast pocket where it lay next to his cigarettes and extra ammunition. The he had only had it for a few hours it was already well loved, battered, pushed up at the corners. His grip lingered on it as he passed it over, as if wary about relinquishing it to less than certain hands.

The picture showed Lillian, smiling not up at the camera but down at the small bundle held to her chest. She was angle the baby towards the camera, giving it a view of her son's tiny scrunched face.

Grace gazed at the photograph and fell in love. Her nephew. It was strange to think that somewhere out there, all the miles back home was this perfect little creature who was now part of her family. In this photograph he was nothing more than a soft focus blue; a round, hairless head, small, half-closed eyes, the barest suggestions of features but when she got home there would be a baby, a baby to cuddle and love. A baby who would quickly grow up to become a whole person.

She was getting a little teary. 'Oh, I am going to spoil this one so much.'

Speirs was buzzing too. He spent so much energy enforcing this stern façade, repressing all emotions that might inhibit his ability to do his job properly, and now the happiness was bursting out of him, straining at the seams. His lips twitched compulsively with all the effort it took to stop his face splitting into the broadest of grins.

'Come down to Company HQ,' he said. 'We're having a celebration. Wetting the baby's head.'

She and Ron met Nixon at the door of the Company HQ, the house where she had spent the night before last. It was the first time they had seen each other since, well… and Grace was quite sure how to act. What was expected of her? She needed him to steer this one because she was completely at sea.

He threw her a small smile. 'Hey.'

'Hello,' she replied in a quiet voice.

Ron looked between the two, saw something he didn't want to see and huffed, 'I'm going inside', before stomping off.

Nixon's eyes stayed on her and Grace found herself unable to meet his gaze. The painful thought in the forefront of her mind was that the last time he had looked at her so thoroughly and with that same intense concentration, she had been naked. She considered it safer to fix her attention on the laces of her boots which were in need of replacing.

'I… uh… Wanted to check you were okay,' he stumbled. 'When I woke up yesterday you were gone.'

'No,' she answered. 'When you woke up yesterday, you grunted "ten more minutes", rolled over and then I'm guessing slept for a couple more hours, then you woke up and I was gone.'

'Oh. Sorry.' He had the decency to sound sheepish and she looked up, just to check.

'It's alright. Dick gave me a lift back.'

Nixon's eyes sharpened. 'What did he say?'

'Nothing.'

'Huh. I just expected him to… Never mind.' He shook his head. 'So, you're okay?'

'I'm great. I had a nice time.'

'Nice? I was aiming for something a little more than nice. Guess, I'll have to keep practicing.' He stepped in, slipping his hands around her neck to cup her cheeks. His hands were cold without gloves but it was easy to lean into the kiss he offered. After a while she pulled away but without much resolve.

'Careful, you don't want to upset Ron.'

'I don't think much is going to upset Speirs today.'

'Still, we should go inside. Be social.'

With a sigh he nodded in agreement and they separated.

Lewis was right; nothing was going to anger Speirs on this day. Grace had never really considered the possibility of children. She was the youngest in her family, had never nursed in paediatric wards, had never really come into contact with any children. Of course, she had always assumed that one day she would have her own, but it seemed a dim sort of inevitability. Watching Ron reacting to the news of his first born son sold the idea to her.

He wasn't loud, jumping from the rafters, that would be out of character. He was in a state of quiet shellshock, numb with joy as if he didn't quite know how to deal with his happiness. Grace didn't know what sort of father he would be but she knew her nephew couldn't ask for a better one.

Despite the fact that it was barely ten in the morning, Harry and Nixon went off to find some champagne which they found with surprising ease. Grace didn't want to know where they had pilfered it from or what act bordering on illegality they had to commit. But everyone was in general high spirits and even Dick could be prevailed upon to take a sip. The face he pulled before passing the bottle to Lieutenant Lipton was hilarious.

Lipton raised the bottle in toast. 'To… What's the boy's name, sir?'

'Robert,' said the proud father. 'My son's name is Robert.'

They all drank to that. Grace took back the photograph from him and studied the grainy image. 'He's probably the most beautiful baby I've ever seen. And he looks a bit like you, Ron. A bit around the eyes.'

Nixon snorted. 'Why do people always say that? I have never seen a new-born baby that looks like anything other than a new born baby.'

Harry slapped him good-naturedly on the back. 'Come on, Lew, you must've looked at your kid and recognised just a little part of yourself in him. Or was Nixon Junior all milkman when he came out?'

Silence fell through the room like a dead weight. It was unclear whether it had been a pre-agreed secret between all the men in the room or that Harry just sensed that he had made a mis-step but suddenly everyone was either staring at Nixon or Grace, just waiting for either of them to say something.

Grace didn't say anything. She couldn't think of anything, she just kept relaying the question over in her head probing it for any weak points where she might have misunderstood the meaning. No, there weren't any.

Nixon laughed nervously, his eyes quickly flicking to Grace and then back to the rest of the room. He was going to play this off like nothing had happened. 'He's got dark eyes like me. Started going brown before we'd even left the hospital.'

The atmosphere was choking and Grace suddenly turned and left the room. She didn't offer any explanation, just left. She was in the hall and out the door before she realised that it had been a bad move to flounce out like that. Stupid and melodramatic. Now they would all know something was up.

She considered going back in, plastering on a smile and pretending that her vision wasn't blurring with tears she was desperate to stop from falling. Instead she froze on the porch staring at a pile of slush swept into the ugly gutters, as another part of her considered just running and never seeing any of them again.

After a few moments she heard the soft thud of jump boots on the doorstep behind her. She turned, Nixon was there looking at her strangely. Hopefully he had made a better excuse to explain why he had to leave the party. He leant against the door frame and took a deep breath.

'So… I have a kid.'

Her head snapped around to look at him. 'Don't say it like it's nothing. It's like you're trying to me think it's not a big deal and I'm just getting upset over nothing.'

'You're upset?'

'Of course I'm upset! And you knew I would be or you would have said something earlier.'

He crossed the space between them, taking her hands in his. She didn't snatch them away as her instincts told her to but she still refused to look him in the eye. She might cry if she did.

'You always knew I was married,' he said softly.

'There's a difference between having a wife and having a wife and a child. It's just the one, right? You don't have a whole brood waiting for you back in America?'

'Yeah, just the one,' he said. 'His name's Michael. He's two and half now but he was only a couple of months when I last saw him. Kathy used to send me pictures but she hasn't in a while now. I don't know him and he doesn't know me.'

'Is that supposed to make things better?'

'No, definitely worse,' he said sadly. 'It's a strange feeling when you realise that Ron Speirs is a better father than you.'

'How can you know that? Like you said, you haven't even had a chance.'

'Speirs has spent every day for a month waiting on that letter. Did you see the way he was looking at that photo? He's in love with a kid he hasn't even met yet. Me, I barely even think about my son. It's only those letters from Kathy that remind me that I am a father at all. Sometimes I think, you know, if I just got back home and saw him again I'd remember how to do the "dad thing". Then I realise I never knew how even when I had him.'

The story made Grace's heart ache for him and her anger was cooling off in the face of sadness but still, a sad story didn't change how things were. As much as he liked to forget about his family they still existed and nothing would ever change that.

'It's horrible,' said Grace. 'And I am so, so sorry for you but it does change things.'

'How? I don't understand why anything should change.'

Grace tried to explain her feelings in a way that didn't make her seem completely irrational. 'A wife… One day you could leave her or get divorced or something. A child is forever.'

'Do you want me to leave my wife?'

'No! I don't know. I don't want to marry you.'

'Okay, 'cause I'm not on one knee.'

'I don't know what I want,' she said. 'Actually, yes, I do. I'm going to go back to the hospital and I want you to leave me alone.' She disentangled her fingers from his.

Nixon jumped back in alarm. Genuine panic registered on his face. 'What, forever? Because we don't have to…?'

'No, not forever. Just for a while. Okay?'

He nodded slowly. 'Okay. And you'll let me know when "a while" is over? Like, the very second.'

'Yes, I'll let you know.' She stood and pressed a chase kiss to his lips. He wanted to deepen it, she could tell, maybe use the kiss as a reminder as to why she should stay with him, but he didn't. 'I'll see you later, Lewis.'

Another chapter which I hope is alright.

Thank you for those few people that review every chapter, I really appreciate it, expecially SparkELee who is my new favourite person. Caught-offsides I would love to hear your suggestions, and StanziWood I hope you don't think I'm being too tough on Grace and Nixon.

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