April 9th, 1919
No. 13 Canadian General Hospital, Hastings, England
The first little song of love
"Has this always been a hospital?" I enquire as I survey the corridor we are currently walking along. Jem has been working here for a good eighteen months now, but only now have I finally managed to visit him.
My brother shakes his head. "It was originally a workhouse," he answers. "The older part is some eighty years old, but the newer buildings were erected sometime in the last twenty years."
"A workhouse," I murmur, suddenly seeing my surroundings quite differently. We've all read Oliver Twist, after all.
"It's alright. We have steam heating in most of the buildings and direct access to water and electricity. I've worked under much worse conditions," replies Jem with a shrug.
He's alluding to his time spent in the Mediterranean, of course, and I suppose after that, you gladly take just about anything, even a workhouse. And yet…
"No worries. I promise this place isn't haunted," Jam adds and flashes a grin my way as he opens a door to his left and motions for me to go through it.
And though I know it to be a joke and I realise that I should laugh at it, I feel the laugh catch in my throat. I attempt for a smile instead, but even that apparently comes out weak, for after Jem has closed the door behind both of us, he turns to me with a quizzical look.
"Since when have you been scared of ghosts?" he asks and gently nudges me with one elbow.
I sigh. "I'm not scared of ghosts. You just reminded me of something," I answer quickly, not quite sure if I want him to ask further or not.
But I suppose Jem wouldn't be Jem if he just let something like this slide. "What is it?" he immediately wants to know.
I don't answer right away though. Instead, I cross the room – it looks like some combination of office and simple treatment room – and walk over to the window. The look outside does little to heighten my mood though, for the unfriendly brick buildings only serve to remind me of the history of this place. And even apart from that, this obviously isn't an area of Hastings where more well-off people have settled, and it shows.
"Walter," I finally remark.
For a moment, nothing happens, but then I hear Jem's footsteps behind me and he appears next to me at the window.
"What about him?" he asks, cautious now.
I turn my head away, look out of the window again, though without seeing much at all. "Oh, it's probably nothing," I begin slowly. "Only… before he… before he died, he said that if any of us named a child for him, he'd come back and haunt us."
"As if we needed further encouragement," Jem replies. His voice is serious, but when I turn my head very slightly to look at him, I see the ghost of a smile on his lips.
He's right, of course. If it could bring him back, I'd name my first son for Walter without a second thought. Hell, I'd probably even name him Cuthbert, if I thought it would help at all.
"Do you miss him?" I ask instead, almost surprising myself by voicing the question out loud.
Now Jem's the one sighing. "Of course," he answers. "I mean, it's slowly becoming… not easier, per se, but… I am slowly arriving at the point where I know him to be dead. I no longer catch myself thinking of him every day and, for a second or two, forgetting he's dead, only for the realisation to return like a blow to the gut. It's… his death is starting to feel like a fact instead of a bad dream."
I nod, very slightly. "You see something beautiful and no longer think 'Walter would like that' but 'Walter would have liked it'," I add quietly.
"Still hurts like hell," Jem replies and grimaces. And he's right.
Just because Walter's name is now irrevocably connected to the past, the pain isn't any less. It's just another form of pain, not as hot and burning, but a duller, deeper kind. For just because we have accepted the fact of his death now – had to accept it – that doesn't make the memory any less painful.
"It… it will change though," Jem continues, his gaze turned inwards. "It takes time, but there will be a day when you can remember and not hurt as much."
Surprised, I look at him. It sounds as if he's talking from experience, but I can't see…
"Jerry," explains Jem when he notices my questioning look. "I know you were never close to him and there's no shame in that, but he was my best friend."
Jerry. Of course.
I suppose I could have known it. Perhaps I should have. But Jem is right. Jerry and I never had much to do with one another and even though I regret his illness and death, I primarily think of him in connection to Nan. To Jem, however, Jerry was important long before he married our sister. It is, therefore, quite understandable that his death probably wasn't any easier than Walter's was.
I wonder… but no. If Jem learned about the nature of Jerry's death somehow, there's no use in opening old wounds. And if he doesn't know… well, sometimes ignorance can be a blessing.
"Would you do it? Name a son for Walter? Or Jerry?" I ask instead.
For several seconds, Jem looks out of the window, clearly thoughtful. "I reckon there are people who'd expect it of me," he answers.
"Since when are you interested in people's expectations?" I ask, feeling a little smile make its way onto my lips.
Jem, too, laughs softly. "True," he concedes. "Though you have to admit that it's not the worst way to honour the memory of someone you lost."
"Hm… maybe," I answer, though not really convinced. "But it's also quite a burden for the child, isn't it?" After all, we both of us know how it is to live with the name of someone long dead.
"I suppose you're right," agrees Jem. "And I also suppose that that's the reason why they invented middle names. That way, you can honour someone, dead or alive, and the child still gets a name of their own. Two birds with one stone, if you will."
Sounds logical. At any rate, that he thinks this way is hardly surprising. After all, Ian is Ian John and Sara Sara Anne in full.
"Besides," Jem adds, "It looks as if you'll be the first one who gets to find out if Walter makes good on his promise and really comes back as a ghost."
He says it with a smile and an amused glint in his eyes that almost suffices in hiding the shadow of melancholy beneath it.
Out of the corner of my eye, I glare at him, but truth be told, I am well aware it was naïve of me to believe that Jem wouldn't notice. Ken might be pretty clueless when it comes to this particular case of stomach bug, but Jem obviously isn't.
"Come on, spill! Am I right?" Jem asks and nudges me when I don't react.
My eyes turned back to the window pane, from where my half-translucent image looks back at me, I nod.
"I knew it!" declares Jem, sounding decidedly pleased with himself. "Fourth month?"
"Beginning of fifth," I correct, my voice toneless.
Not that my brother notices. Instead, he has taken me by the shoulders and turned me around to study my appearance thoroughly. "Well, you're tall and slender enough to hide it even into fifth month," he points out, "But it won't be long until your pretty uniform won't fit anymore."
As if I didn't know that myself.
Another scrutinising look from Jem. Then he suddenly raises his head, as if just having realised something. "Wait a minute. Four months ago, you were –" he begins.
"In Germany," I interrupt him. "Excellent deduction, Sherlock." I can't prevent my voice from sounding a little irritated.
Jem, however, just grins. "Well, who would have thought that you'd bring such a lovely souvenir from Germany," he remarks, obviously quite pleased with the thought.
I don't reply, instead trying to shake off his hold on my shoulders. Unsuccessfully, of course.
"It also explains why you were so exhausted," Jem observes.
I shrug – still without dislodging his hands. "It was a combination of things, I guess. The lingering effects of the flu, the general strain of the past years and…" With a vague wave of my hand, I finish the sentence.
"And the baby," Jem voices what I don't want to, and nods. "Didn't the doctors of the medical board notice it when they examined you?"
"Obviously not. But it's already been a month since they diagnosed me as having debility and sent me on my way," I answer, a little unwilling. When will he finally let go of my shoulders?
"So, you're still playing the little virgin for the army's benefit?" Jem enquires and raises both eyebrows.
I, on the other hand, have to suppress an eye-roll. "I thought about just telling them, but there's no use to it now. It would just complicate things needlessly. If they have to bring me back as Ken's wife instead of as a nurse, it would only mess with everyone's plans. And even as his wife, I can't be with him as long as he's still stuck in that camp in Bramshott, so there's no benefit to telling the truth. It's just easier to keep everything as is and spare myself the hassle," I explain.
Besides, there's still the option of my un-sanctioned marriage garnering me a dishonourable discharge, should it become known to the army. It doesn't make much of a difference either way, but Ken said there might come a day when I regret not getting a general demob after all these months of hard work. And though I have too much on my plate right now to give it much thought, he's probably right – there's no telling if, sometime in the future, I won't come to mind after all.
"That does actually sound quite logical," Jem concedes, finally letting go of my shoulders. "Does Ken know?"
I nod silently.
Jem makes a thoughtful sound. "Is he a little happier than you are, at least?"
Instinctively, I take a step back. "I don't know what you mean," I declare, but it sounds insincere even to my own ears.
Jem merely rolls his eyes at me. "You give off the feeling as if the child is mostly an inconvenience to you," he points out.
Ah, damn. When did Jem become observant?
Instead of answering, I fold my arms in front of my body, more an attempt at protection than a show of stubbornness.
"Come on, tell me," Jem asks, quite kindly, while he puts an arm around my shoulders and pulls me closer to his side. We are standing next to each other now, both turned towards the window, which at least means that I only have to look at his pale image and not at him directly.
I sigh heavily. "Oh, I don't know… it's just a lot happening all at the same time," I answer hesitatingly. "That I'm suddenly no longer a nurse but… you know. That it won't be just the two us of come autumn, even though we still have to figure out how to live together for any stretch of time. So far, the longest stretch of time we spent together was two weeks, which isn't really very much. Then there's the fact that Toronto is completely unfamiliar to me…" I break off and have another sigh.
"So, you intend to settle in Toronto?" Jem asks.
"That's the plan. And there's no need for you to look so sceptical. It was my decision and I still think it's the most logical one," I clarify, voice firm. "It's just that it's one more new thing at a time when everything already feels new and a little scary."
Jem squeezes me comfortingly and I watch my mirror image lay her head on the shoulder of Jem's likeness. "Do you know where you're going to live in Toronto?" he asks, probably in an attempt to direct my thoughts into a more practical direction.
"There's nothing definite yet. We decided to choose something together. Ken still has his apartment, but that's not very large and besides, he has told Nan that she and Connie can continue to live there after Di and Mildred and Rose have moved out," I reply.
Mirror-Jem frowns. "Where is Di moving to?" he wants to know.
"She and Mildred are looking for a bigger place. The apartment has apparently been pretty crowded ever since Nan arrived and now that Mildred's niece is living with them as well…" I vaguely wave my hand.
Jem's frown, however, only deepens. "But wouldn't it make more sense for Di and Nan to look for another place to stay together instead of Di and some friend?" he asks, genuinely confused.
I quickly lower my head so that my image doesn't betray me.
Can it be that he doesn't know?
That Shirley won't share his secret with anyone was pretty obvious, but for some reason, I thought that Di and Mildred were known to a larger circle by now, at least within the family. Walter knew, after all, Shirley and I do, and I don't see how Nan couldn't know by now. If Jem, however, is in the dark, that means Faith doesn't know either, which leads me to conclude that our parents also haven't been told.
Still keeping my head lowered, I try to make sense of my jumbling thoughts. I kept my love for Ken hidden for a long time, but that was my decision. I was always aware that I could tell at any time and that, though it might have been a bit awkward, I could count on my family to be supportive. That Shirley and Di obviously both think they have to keep this secret even from our parents feels… not right, somehow. Because no child should have to keep something like this from their parents.
But then, what do I really know?
"Rilla?" Jem's voice interrupts my thoughts.
Right. He's still waiting for an answer.
I arrange my features into a neutral expression before raising my head. "Di and Mildred have been living together for many years and obviously, that works out quite well. Why change it, now? And I could imagine that Nan would like to be alone for a time while she finds her footing in her new life," I finally answer, markedly casual, and am a little relieved at how well I manage. It might not be a totally convincing explanation, but it's also not one to be immediately disproven.
But Jem still doesn't look convinced, so I quickly continue, "In any case, Ken and I decided to look for a house, preferably with a garden. I think I will like having some trees in the big city. And it's important for him that we choose it together, so we'll only be able to look for it once we're both back. Alas, we'll see how that goes. What about you and Faith though? Are you going back to Lowbridge?"
It takes a moment, but then I can see how Jem shakes off any lingering questions about the living situation of our sisters and turns back towards me. "We thought about it, but decided to stay in the Glen," he answers. "One of us ought to go back, after all."
"What do you mean?" I ask, genuinely interested.
"Our parents aren't getting any younger," Jem replies with a slight shrug. "Faith says that the war was quite hard on them, and Walter's death even more so. Besides, Dad has been trying to provide medical care for both Glen and Lowbridge simultaneously ever since I left, and even though Faith helps him whenever possible, it's more than he can manage on his own. And with regards to Mum… not only did they all mourn Susan's death, her absence is also felt in very practical ways. Ingleside is too big a house for mum to keep all by herself. That's why I think it makes sense for someone to go back and keep an eye on her and Dad."
"That doesn't have to be you though?" I carefully point out and can't help my voice rising in question at the end.
Slowly, Jem shakes his head. "Maybe not. But I'm the oldest, am I not? It's my responsibility. And besides," he quickly continues as I open my mouth to protest, "Faith agrees with me. She wants to leave neither our parents nor John and Rosemary on their own. Jerry's and Bruce's deaths were terribly hard on them. And seeing as no one yet knows where Una and Fred will go after he returns in the summer… it makes sense for Faith and me to stay. That way, we can look after our parents as well as John and Rosemary."
My image in the window pane knits her brows into a complicated frown. "But… do you want to do that?" I persist. "What about your work?"
Jem smiles at my stubbornness. "It's truly alright," he assures. "Sure, there were times when I thought about working in a big hospital somewhere in the city, but I've experienced more than enough work in big hospitals these past years and what can I say? I've found that I don't particularly like it. If I go back to Glen, I can work with Dad, and in the end, I think that being a community doctor suits me much better than I ever thought in my youth. And besides, Faith has taken on a central role in caring for the village. She worked very hard to hold the place together these past years and let's be honest, The Glen has always adored her." He says it with the obvious pride always evident when he speaks of his wife.
Still, I am not totally convinced, and Jem obviously doesn't miss that, for he quickly squeezes my shoulder. "Don't look like that! I know our old world is too small for you now, but I'm different. I think it will be… a comfort to me to return back home. Living in Ingleside again, seeing my children play in Rainbow Valley… maybe it's an attempt to keep hold of a lost world, but the thought of Ingleside one day not being home anymore pains me. That's why Faith and I will stay and keep our little world together and look after the people we care about. And the rest of you, wherever you end up, will always have a place to come back to."
It sounds almost solemn, the way he says it, and I swallow heavily. Still, the thought is somehow truly comforting. The world might be big, but it's calming to know that Jem will keep Ingleside for us.
"And apart from that," Jem adds and grimaces slightly, "I wouldn't want to come back only to rip Ian and Sara from their home. This'll be difficult enough for them already."
Now it's me reaching for his hand, still resting on my shoulder, and giving it a comforting squeeze. "Faith wrote that they both long for your letters," I remind him. "You aren't a stranger to them."
"No, maybe not," Jem agrees slowly. "But I also wasn't much of a father to them these past years. We still have to learn how to be a family – just like you and Ken and your child."
I sigh softly. "But at least you have a knack for being around children. Bruce positively idolised you back in the day. I, on the other hand… I know nothing about children and don't particularly like them either. I'm not even sure if I can be a… a mother. And that is still feels completely surreal isn't helping either," I admit. Because Ken might have succeeded in taking away some of my uncertainty, but it's been a week since then and I have had a lot of time to worry.
In the mirror that is the window pane, I can see Jem thoughtfully cock his head to the side and look at me. When I meet his eyes, I can see something almost speculative in their depth. "I have an idea," he announces, obviously pleased at his own perceived genius. "Go and lie down on that couch over there, will you?"
In answer, I snort in a decidedly un-ladylike manner. "I will not let you examine me," I inform him. "For one, I already had a very nice doctor on London do that. For another, it would be… weird." At the last word, I wrinkle my nose.
Jem laughs. "Sure, it would be supremely weird," he agrees easily. "But I'd still like to try something. Humour me?"
For a second, I consider refusing, but Jem's stubbornness matches my own and it doesn't seem to be worth the struggle. So, I sigh heavily, earning me another smile from Jem, before I walk over to the couch in another corner of the room. Jem follows, still laughing softly to himself, which is not exactly conducive to my mood.
"Alright, what do you want?" I ask, annoyed, after having sat down on the couch and pulled up my legs.
Jem, standing next me, raises a stethoscope, looking more pleased than the presentation of an ordinary stethoscope normally warrants. I just about stop myself from rolling my eyes. "Using a stethoscope above clothing produces side noises," I remind him.
"Which is why you're going to have to sit very still to prevent any rustling. Or would you prefer to disrobe after all?" Jem immediately shoots back and this time, I don't suppress the eye-roll. I do, however, deign to unbutton my uniform jacket so that his strange plan isn't doomed from the start.
Jem places the stethoscope above my underclothing, sliding it over my stomach with a concentrated expression, and I have to say that it's all weird enough already. Several seconds pass and I just decide to put a stop to his little experiment, when Jem suddenly raises a finger to silence me.
"Here," he announces quietly and smiles. Then, holding the stethoscope head in place with one hand, he pulls out the ear pieces with the other and hands them to me. Still a little annoyed I reach for them and put them into my own ears. If I play along, it should be over sooner.
"Can you hear it?" asks Jem and at first, I want to deny it, want to say that I don't hear anything but my own heartbeat but then… then there's suddenly something else. A second sound, quicker and more fragile, almost imperceptibly and yet, undoubtedly there.
Very still, I sit, not daring to move or even to breathe, and listen to the fluttering sound of the second heartbeat. Thumbthumbthumbthumb.
Finally, many moments later, I raise my head and look at Jem. I want to say something but when I open my mouth, I find that I have no words.
Jem, however, seems to understand anyway. "Still unreal?" he asks and even though he is serious, his eyes are smiling.
I swallow, but still words won't come. So, I shake my head very slightly and reach out my free hand to touch Jem's arm in gratitude, before pressing down the stethoscope again.
Thumbthumbthumb, goes the little heart.
The title of this chapter is taken from the song 'Roses of Picardy' from 1916 (lyrics by Haydn Wood, music by Frederick Weatherly).
No need to apologise! It's lovely to hear from you again. I enjoy your reviews a lot.
Rilla and Ken definitely take a big step here in terms of couple dynamics. Rilla is all over the place, emotionally (as she's wont to do, what with pregnancy hormones messing with everything) and so she's actually subconsciously asking for conflicting reactions from Ken. On one hand, she wants to be reassured and somewhat protected. On the other hand, she expects him to back off the moment she tells him to. He does quite a good job of handling her moods though, so he certainly gets brownie points for that.
Your take on Rilla and Persis, their differences and similarities, is spot-on. They can both be stubborn, but in different ways. And while they both value their independence, they also assert that differently. Persis's adventure wouldn't be for Rilla, nor could Persis happily settle into what will be Rilla's future life. That might be part of the reason why they work as friends though - their differences keep things interesting.
As for the baby's gender... what can I say? Sometimes, wishes do have a tendency to come true ;).