Beth lay quietly scanning his sleeping face as the shaft of moonlight moved slowly around the room. They had drawn open the blackout curtains a little once the light had been put out and the fire had died down to embers; the darkness seemed so oppressive to them both these days. She loved to watch him secretly like this while he slept, trying sometimes to keep awake herself in order to do so. She wanted to spend every hour she had with him awake, even if he slept, so as not to miss a second of time with him. The war could take him from her and this could always be the last time they lay beside each other and she so loved that place, the feel of his hand on her tummy, his breath on her neck. She had been made only too aware of how transient her time with him could be in December, when he had not returned with his men from an assignment and had been reported 'missing, presumed dead'. But his team had not given up on him and, against orders to the contrary, had gone back to Belgium, managed to find him and bring him back. In fact they had risked so much for him.
She watched worriedly now, though, as Craig restlessly changed position for the umpteenth time and the muscles in his jaw flexed as he ground his teeth and involuntarily gnawed the inside of his bottom lip. She wondered what horrors were going through his mind. They had only managed to meet once since his safe return but things between them had been a little cool, she felt, understandably perhaps since there had not been a lot of time to spend together. She thought that he was holding himself tight inside somehow, that there was something he wanted to say and had he let himself go there would have been no holding back. That had been six long weeks ago but now finally they had managed to get some real time together.
This should have been the happiest of nights for Beth, since that evening he had finally asked her to marry him. But she needed time to think things through and reassess the situation. She had put off giving him an absolute answer which she knew had disappointed him but he had taken it well, she thought. It was not a direct refusal after all; she just needed time to think, a woman's prerogative. A few months ago she would not have hesitated, but things had changed in her life. One of her main concerns was her mother. The War had taken it out of her and she now seemed to need her daughter more than ever: there was only the two of them. Things had also changed between Craig and herself, inevitably so, perhaps, or was it he who had changed?
The two had meet at the railway station in London and had travelled by train the short trip out to the Surrey countryside where Craig had booked a room for them in a quiet pub. Beth was slightly uncomfortable with this but now that the flat she used to borrow from her cousin in London had been bombed out they had to find somewhere else.
They walked hurriedly up from the station, hand in hand but continuing to say little to each other as they had on the journey. On reaching the old pub they were certainly glad to get out of the cold winds that were scurrying across the fields and thrashing against the stark hedges. Entering the old building with its low beams Craig had to duck his head as they went through the door into the porch. They had managed to obtain the room without questions being asked by the landlady, just a wry raised eyebrow from her. She had asked Garrison to sign the register but had not insisted on Beth signing too which would have caused a lot of embarrassment. Perceptively, the landlady had noticed Beth pushing her left hand deep into her pocket to cover the fact that she wore no ring. So many old taboos had gone out of the window in recent years. Good luck to them was her attitude; they might not have much of a chance to be together for long.
They had enjoyed some supper together by the fire in the snug which had been accompanied by a small glass of whisky offered to them by their host. It did not do to ask how she came by this. She had a bit of a soft spot for lovers she intimated which embarrassed both of them; she had winked as she left them. Fortified with this Craig had hesitantly asked Beth to be his wife.
The bill paid, they had then retreated up the old wooden staircase to their room where a small fire glowed welcomingly. No sooner had the world been shut out behind them then they had fallen into each others arms but rather than the attentive, sensual and tender love making they had previously enjoyed together Craig seemed to be seeking only oblivion, leaving her somewhat out of the equation. Maybe this was in response to her wanting time to think, she was not sure but it certainly was a new departure. Was he more disappointed than he had let on?
New too was yet another red scar, this time across the side of his muscular torso. She instinctively wanted to touch and caress it but she knew from past experience that he would not allow this or discuss what had happened. His previous shoulder wound had taken a long time to heal and she knew it still troubled him on occasions. He also now had an almost indiscernible limb, noticeable only to those who knew him well.
She had grown used to not asking about so much and it was beginning to come in the way of things. Craig was a quiet man, she knew, and most of the time he was content to let her prattle on about her life, air her ideas, views and hopes, and talk about her friends and mother. He told her something about his own family, his sister and her kids, but it seemed he was happy just to listen to her or spend the time in companionable silence. However, these silences were becoming less comfortable and she felt she had to search for something to fill them.
Beth had long since realised that the role he played in the war was far more dangerous than she had first thought. She had believed in the beginning that he was playing a training role but realised fairly quickly that that certainly would have been a waste of this young, fit and competent soldier. Later, his ever increasing scars told her that he had to be in a combat situation, but of course he never divulged how he received them. However, his pattern of deployment was different from other young men posted to the front and he was not stationed at the usual American Army base, but rather in a secluded old mansion house – this much she did know but she was not sure how she knew. Her regular letters to him were sent to a central address and those from him to her came via the same route. She had her suspicions that he was working covert missions but he had never told her outright. More recently she had heard him murmur in his restless dream-filled sleep disjointed sentences in English and in German. He mentioned words that sounded like some form of code names. This fed her suspicions but she knew better than to ask him directly what he did, 'careless talk cost lives', wasn't that what the posters said? She felt sure he would be horrified if he knew quite how much he now gave away in sleep; but there were so many questions she would have like to have asked. These days his easy smile broke less across his face and even this too had hardened like his body and the boyish, handsome good looks were being replaced by strain lines, and his pale blue-green eyes were more distant.
As though he knew he was being scrutinised he opened his eyes and looked directly at her and, as if to prove her thoughts wrong, a smile softened the tension in his face. Without being able to resist she followed the line of his jaw with her fingers and her thumb brushed gently across his lips, for which she was rewarded with a soft kiss. Not wanting to be disturbed from her thoughts she coaxed him back to sleep, into which he obligingly slipped back, more peacefully this time.
She knew how she must have disappointed him by asking for a little time to think about his proposal. Had this prompted his behaviour towards her earlier? Was he angry with her, wanting to assert himself in some way? After all, he knew that she had read the letter that he had given to his sister, intended to be given to Beth only in the event of his death. His sister had passed it on to her in December, fearing the worst. She could not possibly be unsure of the depth of love he had for her after having read that!
There was no doubt in her mind either about how much she loved him too. She did so with every fibre of her body but was this enough, could this sustain them? To marry would inevitably mean a move to America, away from her mother, the life she knew and the friends she loved. This was a lot to ask and she felt sure that these considerations had passed through Craig's mind and had prevented him from making the proposal sooner. Perhaps what had prompted him now was an awareness that things were changing and he wanted somehow to reaffirm their relationship, to stop it or them drifting apart. Or was there another reason? Did he want to test the water so it would make it easier to break away from her if she refused him? The war that had brought them together was insidiously coming between them.
Garrison turned slightly and his ever-present dog tags which lay in that hollow place below his Adam's apple chinked a bit and caught the moonlight. They drew her attention as her mind had begun to wander, with sleep threatening. She had grown to understand how important the Army was to him and that he was a career solider in every sense. Her life as an army wife would not be easy. He would be away often and she instinctively knew he would never be happy taking a desk job. Could she live such a life and ever get used to the constant fear of losing him? The experience she had been through when she had been told that he was on the 'missing' list had been a terrible one. She had already lost Robert to this war and somehow the wondering what had happened to someone seemed even worse than the knowing.
She had been lucky to find another love as deep, if not deeper, than that which she had had with Robert or was that an illusion because of the circumstance they found themselves in. Now was she asking too much of life to hope to be happy again. Was it really possible? She knew happiness was not a prerequisite of life. Some people expected it to be so but that was not the truth of it. You could spend your life being disappointed if you believed that.
She knew the War would not go on for ever but it was dragging on despite the massive offensive of the previous June which had promised so much. Optimism had filled the country and folks felt more positive for a while, even taking trips to the sea side again until the "doodle bugs" which rained down on London had put a stop to that. It was now spring 1945 and still fierce fighting went on along the Rhine and in Italy. The hostilities in the Far East seemed endless and cruel. When would it end? It had been said of the Great War that it was the "War to end all wars" but the lessons had not been learnt. Could she or Craig guarantee that they may not spend their lives 'together' going through the same thing time after time? Would it be easier just to walk away now to save herself from the heartbreak?
Craig lay beside Beth in the cosy bed, in a world somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, too tired to come totally around. He was always tired these days, it seemed. He could feel Beth beside him, her hand lying gently on his chest, her leg hooked over his, and he was even aware of the soft warm smell of her skin and this was enough for him right then. His thoughts drifted.
Although he had hoped that she would accept his offer he had understood her reticence. In fact he was touched by her hesitancy. He knew he was changing, how could he not, but into what he was not quite sure? It was becoming more difficult to keep the one side of his life, the more brutal side, apart from the tender times he had with the woman he loved. He killed men just like himself, who had lovers, families, hopes and fears, sometimes with his own bare hands, face to face, eye to eye - how could this not change a man? The horror he had seen, what men could do in war.
He felt he had put Beth on the spot with his question, especially after their long absence from one another, and also he felt that he could have chosen a more private place to have asked her. But he had thought that there was no time like the present, wait too long and the moment would have gone all together. He had not intended his proposal to be in a form of an ultimatum but he thought this was the way she had taken it. Perhaps it was? Perhaps he would find it easier to break now, like this, while there was still love, than for it all just to drift apart or for her to begin to mistrust his motives or, God forbid, to resent him for using her.
He knew he needed her but not at that expense. She was his north and south, his way home, his one clear light in what was becoming an ever more clouded existence but she was never, he acknowledged, a soul mate. No one was that. He had asked her because he really wanted it to be and would do everything in his power to stop the rot setting in.
Whatever had possessed him to act towards her as he had earlier that evening, he asked himself. He felt embarrassed but above all angry with himself. He had wanted this short time together to be so special. Perhaps it was time to let her know more about what he did, to open up to her and let her in so she could understand what was driving him - but at the same time he wanted to protect her from the horror of it all. How could he do this? It seemed such a fine balance to keep her safe from it all but at the same time not to alienate her from him.
There were of course things about his life in the army which were positive, such as the camaraderie which had built up between him and the four men he led. Would it be easier for her to know that he had good friends who kept an eye on him? Would it be giving too much away if he told her the real truth about them? She must have wondered but she had not asked. They had taken a while in December to find him but they alone had risked all, including their chance at parole, to bring him back to safety.
The war would not last for ever, he felt sure they were in the endgame now. He was on a 'need to know' basis for a lot of things but he was in a more privileged position than most because of the nature of the operations he undertook. Perhaps he could reassure her on some things without giving away too much privileged knowledge. Despite the original failure to break over the Rhine the Allied forces had eventually done so at Remagen earlier that month. New advances had achieved much since then and now the Ruhr, the industrial heartland, was open to the Allies. The awful bombing of Dresden, which he and many like him had not been able to condone and was not common knowledge, did however seem to be demoralising and destabilising the German resistance at last.
The war, Beth's attachment to Robert, and her loyalty to do right by her mother, had made him think that there might be insurmountable difficulties which would prevent the possibility of marriage. He had been almost too afraid to ask just in case she said no. He had tried to distance himself from her but he could not keep away. How could he make her choose between her life here and him and an unknown future as an army wife? Some British girls seemed to jump at the chance to escape this small island for a life in the U.S. with a guy that they hardly knew. Beth was different, she was more considered, thoughtful and wise, but the time had come and the question could not be avoided. Make or break. Could he persuade her from her other fears which he knew she must have?
He felt her slowly disentangle herself from him, move from under the covers and slip from the bed. He could sense her trying not to disturb him and this in itself roused him to wakefulness and he opened his eyes to see her lovely soft form move away lightly across the room. She stood by the window, the moonlight highlighting her body. Unaware that he was watching, she crossed her arms across herself and stared out at the night sky. As he watched, her shoulders tightened and her head dropped and he realised that she was trying to hold back tears and doing her best not to make a noise.
Alert now, Craig swung out of bed. The room was cold as the small fire in the grate, which had been so welcoming, had long since dwindled to nothing. Ever practical, he picked up a spare blanket from the ottoman at the foot of the bed and wrapped it around his shoulders; as he crossed to her she turned her back to him and tried to wipe away the tears. He turned her into his arms and enveloped them both in the warmth of the blanket. The gesture touched her heart and the tears flowed; a sob escaped her lips as she leant into him and put her head on his chest. She wept for what seemed an age to Craig but he let her do so. How could he put her through this? He felt dejected and helpless; was her answer 'no' then?
Eventually she stopped crying and he lifted her and carried her over to the big winged arm chair which stood adjacent to the fireplace. He sat himself down and closed her in his arms and the blanket on his lap as he began to speak to her softly. She folded into him, placing her head of his chest, and snuggled in. She could hear his heart beating, every breath he took and the continuous susurrus of his voice; the low soft timbre in the bottom register resonating. This calmed and soothed her and her breathing steadied to match his.
He told her of his hopes and plans for both of them and of how much he loved her. How he had thought he had laid the ground work, introducing her to his family in his letters, a family which would welcome her and her mother generously; his sister a ready friend to her. Her old friend would always stay in touch – the world was getting smaller by the day.
Her mother he knew would be a concern to her but, unbeknown to Beth, he had talked with her when they had all had Sunday lunch together. Beth's mother had not been too tactful about what she thought of him and had in no uncertain terms made him aware that she did not want to see her daughter hurt anymore, reminding him unnecessarily that Beth had already gone through Robert's loss. She had almost tried to warn him off, telling him that she was suspicious of his intentions and felt that he was 'using' her daughter. She felt that he was a 'fly by night' like other American soldiers just out for what they could get while they were away from home, so very charming, offering so much but not meaning any of it. She'd seen the other girls left with a broken heart and a baby to boot.
Knowing that he could not fall further in Beth's mother's estimation he stood his ground to prove that he was not like that, that his love was genuine. He had eventually been able to persuade her of his true feelings towards her daughter, so despite the initial friction, they had parted with mutual respect for one another and with an understanding that they both had Beth's best interest at heart. She had eventually told him that she would not hold Beth back from any chance of happiness and would go along with any decision they made.
Beth listened, not speaking, not wanting to stop the flow, he had thought so much through. Craig told of his career hopes and knew that this might be a stumbling block for her and he tried to assuage some of her fears. He felt sure that the actions of the Allied forces that Spring would bring the war to a close and if it was in his power he would seek a less active role in the future; he had seen enough of active service to last a lifetime. She looked up at this comment and he caught the slight lift of her eyebrow: perhaps she knew him better than he knew himself.
He opened up about his present situation, as much as she knew he could, and even told of some of the operations he and his men had been on, sometimes even using his quiet humour to try and soften the edges of what she knew must have been desperate times. He talked of his men fondly; his hope and fears for their futures. Mumbled words spoken in his sleep now made more sense as he filled in the picture for her. Beth let him continue as it seemed to have a cathartic effect on him; he became visible less tense, more like his old self.
Eventually he ran out of words and fell silent as the March dawn light came weakly to the window. He took her face in his hand and tilted it to his and kissed her softly. Lifting her in his arms, with the blanket slipping from around them, he carried her to the bed and there he made recompense for his crass and selfish behaviour of earlier that evening. What more could he do to show her how much he loved and cared for her?
They were roused from the sleep into which they had finally fallen by the sound of the breakfast gong and the movement of footsteps on the rickety floorboards on the corridor outside their room. Other guests were making their way to and from the bathroom and along the corridor to the stairs and down to the lounge for breakfast. The outside world had come noisily into perspective. Craig frowned in exasperation but Beth's smile brought him back to a better humour and he too smiled. Laying back he stretched out an arm across the pillows towards Beth inviting her to come closer, and so she laid her head on his shoulder. As he cradled her he gently moved locks of her tousled auburn her from her charming face and tucked them in behind her ear. At that moment she knew what the answer must be and looking up directly into his eyes she finally gave him the answer he had really been wanting. A deep sigh left his body as though he had been holding his breath, and once his exuberance had left him they both fell back into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.