After the almost miraculous reunion with Evelyn, Mick is wondering what he wants his future to be. The only thing he knows is that he wants to get out of the hospital at last and that he needs some time to think.
It is not a spoiler to say that the sea will play an important role in this. So this story's title song is "The Ocean and Me" by Sophie Zelmani.
It's the ocean and me
We're the ones to be
I always fall asleep
Beside the sea
And we've got a certain way
How it wakes me every day
I never know though
With what kind of wave
And you know about oceans
How brutally it can rush
Drown you or calmly caress you
With a gentle touch
Sometimes I bring my boat
When I believe it'll let me float
It's just that I'm so often
The ocean has you
Has the waves of you
And I've never felt a sea
December 31, 1945
The first moment I opened my eyes, my body tangled in the covers and my mind caught up in the aftermath of a terrible dream I couldn't remember now, I had no idea where I was.
Not at the hospital, for sure, with nobody else breathing or coughing or moaning in the room and the bedclothes, printed with pink and pale blue flowers, giving off a faint scent of lavender.
Bright sunlight was filtering in through drawn curtains, the thin pink rose-patterned fabric fluttering softly with a light wind.
Pink roses? I wondered, and it dawned on me who it was that loved those floral patterns and had decorated the room with an abundance of roses and lilies and leaves all over the bed and armchair and curtains and as good as anything else - most prominently, the horrible wallpaper.
Apart from her unfortunate taste for all things flowery, however, my landlady, Mrs. Cunningham, was an affable elderly widow, and the room that would be mine for a while might be small and cluttered, but it was clean and quiet and so delightfully private after the two years I had spent sharing all kinds of sleeping quarters, if we had any worth mentioning, with a bunch of other men.
There was a large window facing southwest which I usually kept open to let in the summer's glorious sunlight and the odd tender sea breeze, and the ocean was within easy walking distance even for a cripple like me who still got tired far too quickly.
The encounter in the train station a couple of weeks ago still felt like some surreal dream, although the very fact that I was still here and not aboard a ship back to the good old U.S. of A. was proof enough that it had really happened.
The prospect of a less-than-exciting desk job to fill my days and either a crowd of soldiers or just a bottle of something to keep me company in the evenings had become entirely insupportable after my plan to attend Evelyn's reading and sneak off unseen at the end had gone so totally and wonderfully astray.
The morning after I had so embarrassingly succumbed to what must have been a migraine headache, I had blinked into an unfamiliar room in the early morning light, not unlike the way I'd woken up in my new lodgings a few moments ago. I had been utterly disoriented and puzzled until the connecting door opened and she walked in, wearing the same cream-coloured sweater and tan pants she'd worn the evening before, now wrinkled from the night she'd spent on the sofa as not to intrude on the privacy I needed so desperately.
I felt rather guilty when I saw she wasn't looking particularly well-rested, but still I was glad she'd left me alone for the night.
It was bad enough that there was no concealing the extent of my injury and my clumsy, awkward way of moving.
I had to admit, even though I hated myself for it, that I could not have stood having her see or touch my severed leg or even brush it unconsciously in her sleep. It was clear enough without these physical reminders that I was no longer the man I had once been.
So, when she asked me the next morning to come and live with her in the apartment she had in a suburb of Sydney, I was unable to say yes immediately, no matter how much my heart wanted me to.
She took it very calmly and said it was fine if I needed to bide my time about the decision.
"All I'll say is that what happened to you hasn't changed a thing for me. I still love you, and I still want to live with you, very much so. But it's you who must decide, it is your life after all. I'm not going to push you one way or the other."
A few kisses and a small breakfast later, I was on my way back to the hospital, my head spinning with the sheer improbability of it all and the unresolved question of what it was that I actually wanted.
It wasn't the Atlantic City job and it wasn't any other kind of dull occupation behind some desk or counter.
It certainly wasn't people treating me like I'd lost half my brain and not just half my leg.
Nor did I fancy turning into an old man before my time, becoming bitter in my feelings and rigid in my views, deprived of my physical ability and unable to allow anyone to get close to me, numbed and jaded from leading a joyless, solitary life that had been stripped of all promise and happiness.
No, I wanted to catch up with everything I had missed in my life so far and to leave the dark shadows of the past behind, even if I had no idea how to accomplish that.
I wanted to laugh and love and live again, and I wanted to be happy.
Yet I doubted all that would ever be mine.
It had never been when I was still whole, so how could it be now that I had no job and no home and a disability rendering most of what I would have loved to be or do difficult or even impossible?
I took my time, weighed the pros and cons ceaselessly during pensive days and sleepless nights.
The week before Christmas, I received a telegram from Lieutenant Chertreux who wanted to know when I would be fit enough to finally come to Atlantic City and take up my new position.
I was still insecure about how to answer Evelyn's questions, but the utter repulsion I felt at the thought of taking that ship to the States sealed part of my decision, and I telephoned Chertreux to say that my personal situation had changed and I needed to stay here for the time being.
Understandably, he was not very thrilled that I bowed out after I had kept him waiting for so long, but his anger hardly touched me. I knew I had done the right thing.
I was free.
Whatever that meant.
Free to pick up the pieces of my broken life and to see if there was a way to put them back together?
I had no idea where to start now that I had freed myself from a job I had not wanted in the first place – even if it was a job that would have been all one could want to somebody with a more pragmatic mind than mine, a secure government job that would also have included board and lodging.
Maybe I was crazy to throw that opportunity away to face an uncertain future.
Having cut the ties that would have guaranteed me a safe existence, albeit predictable and boring, my own boldness scared me, and I leaned against the wall outside the nurses' station where I had gone to make my phone call, trying to grasp what I had just done.
Amelia approached, pushing a trolley stacked with dirty dishes. She paused to ask, "You okay?"
"No idea", I replied laconically.
When she didn't go away and kept sharp, questioning eyes trained at me, I finally told her.
"Bravo, Carpenter", she said, her voice dripping with biting irony. "That was pretty fast. It only took you a full week to find out you don't actually want to dole out army supplies in the U.S. now that you've found your sweetheart is here. But better late than never, I guess. Now when's the wedding going to be?"
"Amelia", I groaned. "Nobody's getting married. I haven't even decided yet if I …"
"Oh, yes, you have. Don't tell me otherwise. Yes, I know you keep saying it's not possible because you've got that little handicap and you think that means you're not good enough for her any more. Can't you see that's nothing but a huge load of crap, Carpenter! Why don't you finally understand that a missing leg doesn't make you any less lovable?"
"But there's so much I can't do, Amelia. So much has changed. She really deserves better than …"
"Than what? A man who loves her? A man she loves?"
"Everything's always quite simple in your happy little world, isn't it?" I snapped at her with a sudden rush of rage. "What good is a man who loves her but cannot even make a living? The only things I know anything about are fishing and boats and pearl-diving. Great fields of expertise for half a man." I scowled derisively.
"Do you always have to paint everything as black as you possibly can?" she retorted, high colour staining her cheeks. "Sure, I can imagine your life feels rather shitty right now, but you haven't lost your brains, or your hands, for heaven's sake, there's plenty you can actually do! You just need a bit more time to think and decide, but believe me, there are jobs for guys like you, and they're not all about sitting in some dreary office, pushing papers. Just keep your eyes open and give some things a try, and above all, stop thinking you don't deserve to be happy!"
A strand of hair had fallen across her cheek during her irate rant, and she swept it behind her ear with an angry flick of her hand, gripping the handle of her trolley forcibly while she pinned me down with another piercing glare.
I couldn't do more than stare back at her, breathing hard.
There was nothing soft in her brown eyes when she finally shook her head at my muteness and walked off stiff-backed, the rubber wheels of the trolley squeaking on the linoleum floor.
My blood was boiling. It was easy for her to accuse me of being too pessimistic. She didn't have to live with the sudden loss of all she'd held dear and all the ramifications of a life-changing injury, and she had a large, close-knit family to fall back upon when times did get rough for her. Although I doubted they ever would.
With a scornful snort, I pushed away from the wall and went outside to calm down, hiding away in the farthest corner of the gardens until a gentle summer dusk began to fall.
But in the end, I had to concede grudgingly that she had not been completely wrong.
My main problem was that I had never seriously considered any profession that didn't build mainly on my physical strength and ability. I had always wanted to work outdoors, preferably at sea, had loved working as a fisherman and sailor before I took up the pearl trade.
The latter had been all I'd ever wanted in a job – a bit of an adventure every time I plunged into the clear depths of the tropical waters to bring up the pearls I'd sort and sell later, a perfect occupation that granted me independence and a small income, held me accountable only to myself, and allowed me to be out on or in or by the sea virtually all the time.
I had never wasted a thought on what other way I could possibly earn my bread.
I hadn't thought I'd have to any time before I'd turn sixty, or older.
I hadn't reckoned there would be a war, destroying my home, my health, my hopes and plans.
But maybe Amelia was right and I was taking too dark a view of my life. Maybe I just needed some more time to see what possibilities I might still have despite my newly limited scope of action and to make up my mind about my future.
And as I slowly walked back to the hospital building, trying to put off the moment I had to step back inside, into the stuffy air of the dreary institutional corridor, another thing became crystal clear: I needed to get out of here, rather sooner than later, and do my soul-searching elsewhere. A change of scene might help raise my spirits, and perhaps I'd manage to come up with a decision by the time Evelyn's tour was finished in late January.
Once more, it was Amelia who came up with a good idea from her seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove of practical advice. Three of her brothers had by turns stayed with an elderly widow in a tiny town on the outskirts of Brisbane while they had attended some training courses in the city. Amelia thought Mrs. Cunningham might be well inclined to let her spare bedroom to me.
All it took was a telegram and a phone call to agree on the formalities. The price asked was more than reasonable, the location sounded rather nice, and I left the hospital the day before Christmas Eve.
Amelia went to the station with me, insisting that she carry the bag that held my sparse belongings.
"Take care, Carpenter", she said when the train had pulled up beside the platform. "And behave yourself. I don't want to hear any complaints from Mrs. C." She lifted an ironic eyebrow.
"You take care, too", I said earnestly. "Keep in touch, will you?"
"Of course I will. Someone's gotta look after you until your lovely lady is back, and kick you in the butt when you start feeling sorry for yourself again. Oh, and before you go …" She set down my bag, looked up at me with a wan little smile and treated me to a heartfelt sisterly hug, adding a peck on the cheek after a moment's hesitation. "Safe travels, Corporal."
Balancing precariously on one crutch and my good leg, I raised a hand to salute her before I got on the train to find a seat amid all the folks traveling home for Christmas.
Having arrived at my new dwelling, I was not unhappy to find that Mrs. Cunningham was not only a quiet, unobtrusive person who didn't ask too many questions but also just as glad to ignore the upcoming holiday as I was.
She apologized to me for not doing anything in particular to mark the occasion, saying she couldn't bear the memories it conjured up, memories of the husband she'd lost in the first and the son she'd lost in the second World War.
As for me, I hadn't felt any desire to celebrate in more than a decade, not since Grandma's death, and Evelyn was too far away, with her aunt and her sister in Sydney, to make the trip back for just a couple of days before her tour continued.
Truth be told, I had not wanted her to abandon the plans she had made long before I reappeared. She would have been more than happy to have me around for Christmas, saying it wouldn't be much of a family feast anyway with only an ailing elderly aunt and her unmarried sister attending, but I had just not felt up to meeting her folks yet, and she had reluctantly, unwillingly agreed to leave me to myself.
So there was only one special thing about December 25, 1945, and it had nothing to do with Christmas.
It was the day I saw the sea again for the first time since I had crossed the then-dangerous Pacific waters aboard a crowded hospital ship.
Mrs. Cunningham had served a rich breakfast and offered to keep me company if I wished her to, but I declined politely, declaring I wanted to take a walk, or rather to practice a bit of that slow hobbling about that passed for a walk now.
She didn't mind my desire to be left alone and only nodded with genuine sympathy when I said I needed some fresh air and a bit of exercise.
I heard the sea before I saw it.
Mrs. Cunningham's little house was situated quite close to the beach, and the rush of the waves was faintly audible the moment I stepped outside on this quiet, warm day.
I forced myself to cover the short distance down the street and around the corner at a slow pace, prolonging the peculiar feeling of anticipation prickling in my stomach.
Wasn't it ridiculous to feel so excited at the mere prospect of coming back to the sea, a sight that used to be as common to me as brown fertile soil to a farmer or downtown pavements to a city dweller?
But still, when I turned the corner, I held my breath, stopping in my tracks to take it all in.
A crescent of pale yellow sand stretched ahead of me, sloping ever so slightly towards the water that lapped gently at its edge, the ocean a vast glittering canvas boasting the richest emerald green and sapphire blue and all the hues in between.
The beach was deserted. Small wonder. Nobody would go sunbathing at noontime on Christmas Day.
All the better, though. I hadn't been keen on curious eyes checking out that solitary stranger.
I ventured further and found that walking the beach wasn't quite as tricky as I had feared it would be. The ground was dry and hard, and my crutches sank in a little but not so much that it would have bothered me as I made my way along the broad golden strip of sand to where it narrowed down and curved back on itself.
There, beneath a cluster of palm trees, I cast the cumbersome crutches aside and dropped carelessly into the fine sand. The freshly healed incision in my thigh flared up sharply with the impact, but I didn't dwell on it.
After all, I was by the ocean again after such a long time, with a warm summer breeze that tempered the sun's heat pleasantly.
I simply lay there for a while, cooling off with my head in the shade of the palms, hands folded beneath my head, inhaling the salty tang in the air, listening as the waves sang their age-old song, a cigarette stuck, forgotten and unlit, in the corner of my mouth, entertaining the momentary illusion that I was back where I belonged.
After a while, I took off my shoe to dig my toes into the warm sand, savouring the old familiar feeling of the tiny smooth grains clinging to my skin. How often had I done this absent-mindedly with both my feet, never wasting a thought on it?
It is true: You don't know what you've got until it's gone.
A bitter rush of emotion swept over me that very moment.
Sure, I was back by the sea, but what good did it actually do?
It didn't help make any decisions about my future or make all my troubles go away.
It only served to make me see all that was past, all that I wouldn't, couldn't do any more.
It conjured up painfully beautiful recollections of jobs I had held, of people I had met, of things and places I had been fond of, the women I had loved, and of the man I had been then, vigorous and healthy and totally unaware of what a great gift that was.
I had taken it all for granted when I, of all people, should have known from experience just how quickly things could change, how easily things and places and loved ones could be lost.
Yes, it was lovely to be on a sunny beach after such a long time, but it hurt that all I was unable to do more than drag myself along for a few hundred yards and think dark thoughts.
I remained lying on my back motionlessly, sometimes staring into the spotless blue sky, sometimes dozing a little, until I eventually picked myself up and trudged back home, unhappy that this excursion to the seashore had not been the success I had imagined, not the boost my tired spirits needed so badly. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Still, some masochistic urge drove me to return in the evening of this very day. I had stuffed a small flask of brandy into my pocket before I left the house, a little Christmas gift to myself.
I sat down in the sand somewhat more cautiously than I had before because my leg ached a bit, morosely staring at the eternal swell and dip of the waves, getting entirely lost in my fruitless loops of thought.
Only when I almost fell over, I realized I had been trying absent-mindedly to cross my legs like I used to do often when I sorted my pearls.
Hastily, terribly mortified, I made sure that nobody had seen me.
Actually forgetting for the shortest while that my right leg had been gone for almost half a year now made me feel like a complete idiot.
A deep crushing sadness took hold of me as I watched the sun sink lower and lower above the sparkling surface of the ocean. It was a beautiful sight, but it failed to touch me as it would have before the war.
I pulled out my little bottle of brandy and slowly unscrewed the top, took a good swig and enjoyed the warm prickly feeling as it ran down my throat, a simple bit of comfort at this time when everything seemed to get too much and I couldn't think straight and clear enough to make a decision.
By the time the sun had gone down completely, the flask was half empty and that unbearable sadness still there.
I missed my old life so much, and I missed Evelyn so much, yet I still could not give her a definite answer, which in turn made me hate myself even more.
I knew I could not tarry forever, and I vowed to find a way to end this misery.
But not right now. I was too drowsy, and it was all I could do not to stumble as the ground seemed so sway a bit with every step I took.
There was still tomorrow.
December 25/26, 1945
I made an embarrassingly big entrance when I came back from my late-night outing, walking even more unsteadily than usual with half a pint of brandy in my system.
I had almost made it safely to my room without alerting Mrs. Cunningham to my not-so-presentable state when, just outside my door, one of the crutches connected with the corner of a low wooden table that carried a huge, ugly porcelain vase holding a bunch of dried flowers. There was no chance I could have prevented the thing from toppling over and smashing on the wooden floor with a tremendous noise.
No fifteen seconds later, Mrs. Cunningham popped out of her bedroom, a plaid shawl wrapped over her frilly nightgown. "Goodness me, Corporal! What happened? Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm okay", I said wearily, trying hard not to slur my speech. "That … that vase isn't, though. It's beyond repair, I guess. I'm sorry."
"Don't you worry. It wasn't valuable, and I didn't particularly like it anyway. I've got another that will go there." She frowned and looked at me warily. "Are you sure you're alright?"
I bit back the sarcastic remark on the tip of my tongue that I certainly wasn't alright and didn't know if I'd ever be. Instead, I settled for the polite version. "I am, Mrs. Cunningham. Just a little tired."
I made to scrape the pieces of the vase together with the tip of a crutch, which didn't amount to much, and then tried using my foot instead, which sent me tumbling against the wall, catching myself just so.
"Careful, Corporal! Leave those shards, I'll take care of them." When I didn't react immediately, she added in a motherly tone, "You go and have a good night's sleep."
Defeated, I retreated into the privacy of my room. That was what I had come to, having old ladies pick up after me because I couldn't do it myself, or keeled over if I tried.
I didn't bother to undress before I crept between the sheets. All I did was remove my shoe and fling it into a corner of the room to vent my anger, hoping belatedly it wouldn't destroy another of Mrs. Cunningham's knickknacks. Luckily, it didn't.
. . . . . . . . . .
I woke up late the next morning, plagued by that slight nauseous dizziness that feels almost as awful as a full-blown hangover.
My back was cramped from sleeping in an awkward position, and I felt grubby and hot in the shirt and pants I still had on.
I sat up quickly – too quickly, for it made my head spin madly. I squeezed my eyes shut, groaning, waiting for it to pass.
Careful not to move too fast now, I got rid of my whiffy shirt and wrinkled pants, washed thoroughly and brushed my teeth to dispel the evil aftertaste of too much booze.
Thus cleaned up, I felt almost human again, if still disgusted at myself for getting plastered and sleeping in my clothes and generally for being on the verge of reiterating my old pattern of blocking out anything that troubled me by either working or drinking like crazy, or a combination of both.
Working wasn't much of an option right now, and I had also better be cautious about hitting the bottle if I didn't want to end up the hopeless drunken failure I'd sworn I'd never be.
I definitely needed to get a grip on myself.
Wondering just how to achieve that, I suddenly remembered a bit of what Lieutenant Chertreux had said in his futile attempt at cheering me up after the ceremony in the hospital gardens.
You can do most anything you want to do. Exercise. Swim. Drive a car.
I had dismissed the idea as laughable at the time, but why not give it a try now that I had the sea right at my door? I guessed I would at least manage not to drown. And if I did, so be it.
After a small breakfast, I went back to my room and got out those old dark shorts I'd thought I'd never put on again. They were actually long enough to cover up my mangled leg completely, so it wouldn't make much of a difference if I wore those or my usual tucked-up trousers. If I should encounter someone en route to the ocean, I'd get stared at one way or the other.
I needn't have worried. The beach was deserted as ever when I arrived. Without any spectators, I left my crutches and my shoe and shirt at a safe distance from the waterline and, holding on to a conveniently low rocky ledge that jutted tongue-like into the sea, made my way down to the foamy edge of the ocean.
There, I sat down on the rocks for a short pause, the water swirling enticingly around the base of the ledge. The waves licking at my foot were fresh and pleasant in the searing heat, and I got up again, ventured further with the rocks for support until deeper water welcomed me and I finally lost my grounding, gladly pushed off from the ledge and immersed myself fully in the water.
At first, I simply allowed the sea to carry me away, drifting aimlessly, leaving myself to the gentle play of the rolling waves, savouring their cool caress on my skin, realizing just how much I had missed this.
Floating weightlessly, I was almost able to forget that there was something wrong with me.
After a while, I began to swim in earnest, moving along instinctively, doing what felt right without thinking much about it, eventually working out the best way to compensate the missing leg and to find a good balance in the water.
I grew bolder then and tried diving.
I didn't go very deep, but it was marvellous to hold my breath and sink beneath the waves, passing through the slanted luminous triangles the sunlight formed below the surface to create a silently wondrous world down there, not unlike the waters around the reefs in the Trobriands that I had known like the back of my hand.
I would have loved to stay in the water all day long, but my muscles were beginning to ache after a while, so I started back towards the shore, feeling wonderfully refreshed and pleasantly tired and a lot more hopeful when I climbed out of the water and lay down atop the rocks to dry off in the sun.
So the water was still my element after all.
Maybe there was some rightful hope of claiming back some of the other important parts of my old life, too.
Maybe there were more things I was still able to do than I would have thought. If my swimming days were not entirely over, who knew what else might be feasible despite my disability.
Doing things differently, less easily maybe and less deftly but doing them nevertheless, was better than doing nothing at all.
Suddenly, I felt that I did want to go on and see what life had in store for me, and, very slowly, I was beginning to trust, just a little bit, that something good might come out of my losing that leg. Who knew if I had ever found Evelyn otherwise?
I closed my eyes and felt a little involuntary smile tug at my lips. I hadn't been at ease like that for a very long time.
Yes, I wanted to live life to its fullest.
And I thought I had my answer for Evelyn now.
December 31, 1945
I rose from bed and splashed my face with cold water to wake up fully and to rinse off the remnants of the depressing dream.
I recalled some bits of it now. I had been in Cleveland train station again, hunched over the crutches, weak and shaky, and I had seen Evelyn approach in her grey suit and heeled shoes, exactly as she had been on the day we met, but she did not hurry over when she glimpsed me. She remained where she was, while I crumpled to the ground under her indifferent gaze, without making an impact, without making a sound, without any pain or feeling, just sinking down on the cold wet concrete of the platform, and she simply turned and walked off, never looking back.
I was so tired of all those nightmares, but I figured they'd never go away. There was just too much I had seen, too many bad things etched forever into my brain.
Making some new, good memories might help, I told myself wryly, without quite believing it really would.
But a few good things had come my way since the fateful fight in the jungle that had ended life as I knew it. Amelia's steadfast friendship. Chertreux's generous job offer. My room at Mrs. Cunningham's, with the sea close at hand. Finding I was still able to swim rather fine.
She could well have reacted the way she had in my dream, or turned away from me after the first elation of our chance meeting had abated.
Instead, she had embraced what was left of me without as much as batting an eyelid and invited me to share her home and her life. I wasn't convinced that she was aware of what exactly she would be getting herself into, but she seemed to be serious about it.
She had phoned me at Mrs. Cunningham's when she was back from her aunt's on Boxing Day and had promised to ring me again some time on New Year's Eve, when there would be another little break in her tour through the southern suburbs of Sydney.
Despite my wish to be with her, I still occasionally doubted that we really had a future together, not sure how things would play out, but I was nevertheless looking forward to her call. Happy anticipation tickled me from inside like a smitten schoolboy while I got dressed.
There wasn't much of my modest prewar wardrobe left, but I treasured the few items that had survived – the old navy shorts, two pairs of casual khaki pants and half a dozen rather well-worn colourful shirts. Nothing fancy, but my own. I had never cared a lot about clothes, but it made for a nice change to be out of the army-issue stuff I'd been wearing for the last two years.
Mrs. Cunningham, for her part, had been disappointed when I first appeared in those old khakis, fitting a lot more loosely now than they should have anyway, and a floppy blue shirt, untucked, with the three top buttons undone.
However, she had been quick to agree that there was no need to play the dashing soldier any more with the war over.
"If this is what you prefer wearing and you feel more comfortable this way, it'll certainly help with your recovery", she had said, adding a little wistfully, "But … you did look great in that uniform."
What on earth was it with women and their adoration for men in uniforms?
I was glad to be shot of mine for good, and it was with a certain relish that I threw aside even my lightweight cotton shirt that late morning when the sun got all too scorching.
Normally, I would have gone swimming, as I had done every day since discovering that it was still possible.
Today, however, I didn't want to miss Evelyn's call, so I stayed on the sundeck behind the house.
Mrs. Cunningham had gone out for some grocery shopping, and I thoroughly enjoyed having the house and small garden to myself. It almost felt like being on vacation, lounging in a deckchair with a silly but entertaining mystery novel and the glass of cool homemade lemonade my considerate landlady had brought me before she left.
I must have dozed off with the book face down on my bare chest and started up when I heard Mrs. Cunningham call my name.
Assuming I had failed to hear the telephone ring, I laid my book on the small wicker table and, bending to pick up the crutches, shouted, "Coming!"
"No, no, stay where you are", Mrs. Cunningham chirped cheerfully from the back door. "Here's a young lady come to see you."
I rose nevertheless. Remaining seated while greeting a visitor would have made me feel even more invalid.
How lovely of Amelia to look in on me again. She had dropped by a few days earlier to see how I was doing, and I liked the prospect of chatting with her for a bit while I waited for the desired phone call.
But the figure emerging from the shadowy doorway behind Mrs. Cunningham wasn't Amelia.
Both of us cried out at the same moment.
We laughed involuntarily, and Evelyn, so pretty in white linen pants and a sleeveless olive-green top, strode over and hugged me tightly, pressing her cheek firmly against my chest before she straightened up to kiss me.
I inhaled the scent of her hair and brushed the top of her head with my lips, murmuring into the auburn waves, "What are you doing here?"
"I've come to see how you are getting along", she replied, planting a kiss on my collarbone. "And to collect my answer." She stepped back for a moment and studied me. A smile lit up her face. "You're looking … incredible."
"Is that good or bad?" I asked wryly.
Evelyn's reply was a long deep kiss.
From the corner of my eye, I saw Mrs. Cunningham retreating discreetly.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I took her down to the seashore, and we sat in the sand for a long time, not talking much, just content to be in each other's company.
When I asked why she wasn't way down the coast, following her tour schedule, she said she had cancelled a couple of readings, citing unspecified "family reasons".
"Bert was furious, as you can imagine, but I couldn't just not come and see you. I couldn't possibly wait until the tour was over. I felt bad enough that we didn't spend Christmas together."
"Don't worry about Christmas. I haven't celebrated in more than a decade."
"When was the last time you did?"
"That must have been back in '30, I think … yes, that was the last Christmas with my family. My mother died not long after, and that was about it with my family life. Except for my grandparents, of course, but we didn't do anything fancy for the holiday after my mother ... was gone."
"Your grandparents ... are they still …" Her voice trailed off when she met my gaze.
"No", I said matter-of-factly. "I … have no family any more."
"That's what I thought", she said instead of launching into wordy declarations of sympathy, and I loved her all the more for it.
We spent most of the day by the sea, but I didn't go swimming.
I didn't want to undress in front of her, and I was glad I had not chosen my shorts this morning, although the khakis I wore were too warm for the weather. I had rolled up my left trouser leg to the knee for a little more comfort, while the right one remained pinned up neatly to keep entirely out of sight what I didn't want her to see just yet. Or rather, never at all.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I had expected her to take her leave after the dinner Mrs. Cunningham had served for the three of us, but she surprised me again when she stayed on, telling me she had rented a room at a boarding house in town because she wanted to us to see in the new year together and spend a few days with me before she'd go back to do the rest of her tour.
So we returned to the beach as the sun was setting.
Evelyn had changed into a navy blue dress, a white cardigan draped over her shoulders. I felt a little shabby next to her in my old pants and faded crimson shirt, but the only smart clothing I owned right now was my dress uniform, which would have been totally out of place. Besides, I knew she didn't actually mind my outfit. She wasn't that superficial.
On our the way to the sea, her hand came to rest in the small of my back from time to time - the closest we could get to walking hand in hand at this point.
Inwardly, I cursed those darned crutches, vowing I'd take up training with a prosthetic leg again as soon as I got the chance.
I wanted to hold hands with her as we took a stroll, wanted to be able to pull her close to me without having to fear I'd lose my balance.
The sand was still warm from the sunny day when we sat down to watch the sun slip away in a fiery halo, gorgeously mirrored in the ocean.
She put her arm around me and laid her head on my shoulder, while my arm came around her back, my hand resting on her hip.
It felt like it was just the two of us in the world.
Alone beneath a vast dome of darkest blue upon which star after star appeared now, filling the sky with pinprick-sized sparkling dots. A pale yellow moon hung there, distant and mysterious, as time seemed to stand still.
Having her near me, holding her close, felt so right that I suddenly wondered why I had taken so much time about my decision.
I had tried to be rational, taking her career and the life she was used to into account, throwing my fears and misgivings, my pride and my wish to make it by myself into the scales, but, to be honest, I had known the final answer all along, in my heart at least.
I still was not ready to admit that I might require any practical help with my everyday life. I was sure I could have managed on my own, had it been necessary. I didn't need to rely on anybody to get on.
What I craved, what I had sorely missed, was something else.
Her presence, her touch, her support, and, above all, her love.
I had nevertheless avoided addressing her unspoken question all day long, hesitant to cross that threshold, to take the daring step.
The very moment I was about to speak, she turned her wrist into the moonlight and squinted at her elegant little wristwatch.
"Five to twelve", she said quietly and rummaged in the large bag she'd been carrying along.
"Here." She gave me a bottle of beer and opened one for herself. "I thought we should have something to toast the New Year with."
We waited silently until the minute hand had moved to the top of the dial.
"Happy New Year, my love." She kissed me on the lips before she raised her bottle and said, "To 1946, whatever it brings. May it be a good year."
"It can't get much worse than the last one", I said ironically, clinking my bottle against hers. "For me, that is. I don't know how good it will be for you with a grumpy invalid under your feet."
She frowned for a moment with a puzzled expression until the meaning sank in and she cried out, "So you mean you really want to …"
"Yes, Evelyn. Yes, I do."