April 16th, 1919
RMS Olympic, Atlantic Ocean

Though time may let us sometimes forget

"I heard someone say that they expect us to reach Halifax in five days," remarks Colette and leans against the railing by my side.

"It appears so," I confirm and give her a quick look before turning back to the endless blue of the Atlantic. We left Southampton yesterday and ever since we passed Ireland, there's been nothing in front of us but the sea.

At least there are no U-boats anymore. And at least I have Colette with me.

Whether it was pure coincidence that I ended up on the same ship as her or whether someone had a look at the units scheduled for sailing 49 and realised that I once served with one of them, I have no idea. Whatever the reason, when I went on board yesterday and was greeted by a cheerful "Îlliene!", I knew without turning around that, almost three years after my last time crossing the Atlantic, I would also spend this journey among friends.

"You have to come to my wedding," Colette now announces without further ado and it's immediately evident that this is neither an invitation nor a question. It's an order and not to follow it is not a viable option.

That I nod, however, is not really because of that. "Of course, I will," I promise, turning away from the sea towards her now.

"But you don't even know when and where it will take place!" she protests with a frown.

"Because it doesn't make a difference," I reply. "No matter when or where you are going to be married, I will be there. You were there for me as well, remember?"

Colette mulls that over for a moment, before nodding firmly. "True. And Matron let me feel her displeasure at me getting leave against her will for weeks afterwards," she points out and pulls a frightful grimace that is undoubtedly meant for the absent matron.

"See? If you make such sacrifices for me, there's no question about me being there for you as well," I assure.

"But don't you still want to know when and where the wedding will be?" Colette asks, sounding so sceptical that I have to laugh.

"Sure," I nod.

"In May. In Montreal," is her answer.

And immediately I am reminded of Polly asking me to go see Betty's family in her stead, should I ever make it to Montreal. It doesn't look as if Polly will return to Canada in the next years and I suppose someone has to do it and yet… I hoped this particular cup would pass me by. Not only because it's bound to be a sad meeting but because I feel as if it's not really my place. I only knew Betty for such a short while and gave less time to the friendship than she or it deserves. How am I to face her family, then?

But I promised Polly and you have to keep your promises. Somehow, I will honour this one as well. I don't know how, but somehow, I will have to. I owe it to them both, to Betty and Polly.

"Rilla?" asks Colette, making me start.

She is eyeing me quizzically and I quickly shake my head. No sense in getting her down as well. "It's nothing. I just got lost in my thoughts there for a moment," I assure her.

Colette's features remain sceptical, but she nods slowly. To curb any further questions, I hurry to ask, "Why Montreal, anyway?"

Maurice hails from the Gaspé Peninsula and Colette grew up on the banks of the St Lawrence River, somewhere to the north of Quebec City, where she later went for her nursing training. As far as I know, neither of them has any direct ties to Montreal.

"Because that's where we're going to live," Colette explains readily. "My cousin's husband's sister works as a ticket inspector in Montreal and she got Maurice a job as tram driver. He's been back for a month and is currently trying to find a place for us to stay that is both affordable and has a roof not threatening to start leaking at the first sign of rain. I'll squeeze in a short visit at my aunt and uncle's place and as soon as I'm in Montreal, we'll get married."

"Tram driver?" I asks, only partly because I have no idea what to respond to their wish of an affordable and yet non-leaky place to stay.

Colette shrugs. "It's a job," she points out pragmatically. "Sure, he prefers automobiles to trams, but we can count ourselves lucky that he managed to get a job this quickly at all. He hopes to be transferred to the workshop where they service the trams in the long run. And the grand dream is to one day open his own garage and repair automobiles. I don't think it very realistic, but he swears that the automobile will be the main form of transport in the future."

"And when automobiles are concerned, Maurice is the undisputed expert," I reply. Truth to be told, I have never given the matter much thought myself.

"Probably. He sure is fascinated enough by them," Colette retorts with a little eye-roll, making me smile.

In response, she also flashes an amused smile my way. "And I'll try and find work as a nurse somewhere," she adds. "The big hospitals are no more forthcoming about employing married nurses than the army is, but Montreal should be big enough for me to find suitable work as a private nurse. And who knows? With two wages and the War Service Gratuity paid by the army, Maurice might even get his garage in the end."

"He'd love that, I'm sure. To spend the whole day patching up automobiles," I remark.

Colette laughs. "Sure. He is welcome to do his own washing though," she declares. "Oil stains are even harder to get out of clothing than blood is."

The trick with blood, of course, is to use cold water. However, I don't have any idea how to get oil stains out either.

"And you?" asks Colette, putting the question of stains to rest. "Toronto?"

I nod slowly. "Yes, Toronto. I've never been there, but Persis assures me that it's a lovely city. I guess I'll just have to take pot luck," I explain with a crooked little smile.

Colette immediately grows alert. "You could come to Montreal instead," she suggests eagerly. "You know Montreal, after all."

"I do," I concede. "But Ken's family is in Toronto and they have some kind of company there that is currently headed by his uncle but that he's expected to take over at some point. It makes sense for us to go to Toronto, I suppose, though I'd love to have you and Maurice close by, of course."

"How long does it take to get to Toronto from Montreal? Twelve hours by train?" she enquires with a frown.

"Something like that, I think," I confirm, not without some regret. In Toronto, I will have my sisters nearby and, at least for a while, Persis as well, but it would have been lovely to be able to see Colette more than a few times a year. This even more so because it looks like Polly has now permanently slipped into the role of pen pal.

Her sigh tells me that Colette feels quite the same way, but she squares her shoulders and visibly calls herself to order. "We'll find reasons for visiting each other then," she declares. "You'll come for my wedding and I'll visit in autumn to get to know your baby."

Ah.

"So, you noticed," I remark and try for a smile that comes out somewhat lopsided.

Colette shrugs, unmoved. "You're not doing a bad job of hiding it, but when you know what to look for, it's pretty obvious," she informs me.

She's probably right about that.

"And?" asks Colette, watching me intently from the side. "Are you happy?"

It might be considered irrational, but somehow, I'm incredibly grateful to her for not just expecting me to be over the moon on principle. "It's… quite a lot to get used to," I answer slowly.

"But?" prompts Colette and raises both eyebrows.

"But all things considered, I am looking forward to meeting it," I finish, surer now, and feel a smile rise within me as I remember a fragile little heartbeat.

At this, Colette nods, clearly satisfied. "Then I'm happy, too," she announces. "And I suppose goddamn Kenneth Ford is as well?" She wiggles her eyebrows and I have to laugh at the memory of how my husband acquired that particular nickname.

"He's pretty happy, yes," I confirm with a smile.

"Well, he better be," Colette replies. Then, craning her neck a little, "Where is he, by the way? I have hardly seen him at all since we boarded the ship."

I shrug. "Probably off somewhere with Matt Irving and the other officers," I explain. "They're still quite busy with all the paperwork."

Colette huffs and I have to quietly agree with her. I would love to be able to spend more time with Ken as well, now that providence or some benevolent higher power put us in the same ship. Still – five days and then a whole lifetime. I can get through five more days, especially because we at least have the nights together.

As expected, it's quite late before I see Ken again. I am only able to wave at him and Matt during dinner, before Dr MacIver claims my presence at his table, and it takes some while before the good doctor allows me to leave again. By the time I reach our cabin, Ken is already there.

It is, that has to be said, a very nice cabin. The Olympic, sister ship to the unfortunate Titanic and Britannic, is in troop ship mode, but it's still unable to deny its first iteration as a luxury liner. Ken, as one of the highest-ranking officers on the ship, was allocated a roomy, quite posh cabin. My place would have been in a normal double cabin with another nurse, but even before we set sail yesterday, Ken organised my move into his cabin. As there are not many officers of his rank on the ship at all and because I was properly introduced to every last one of them, that didn't pose too much of a problem.

As I enter the cabin, only lit by a single lamp, I see Ken sitting at a desk in one corner, looking at something in deep concentration. Only when I walk over to him does he raise his head and smiles at me. "Hello my love," he greets. "How are you?"

I move to stand behind him, sliding both arms over his shoulders. "I'm well," I assure, while craning my neck a little to look past him at the desk. "What are you doing?"

Even as I speak, Ken's hands have started collecting the papers spread out in front of him. "Oh, this is nothing," he replies. "I only…"

Abruptly, he breaks off. His hands, too, suddenly still in their movements. In the light of the lamp, shadows pass over his face like thoughts. It takes several seconds, but then he seems to pull himself together. His hands reverse the earlier work, and spread out the papers on the table again.

"I was drawing," he explains. "Do you want to see it?" There's something almost reserved in his voice and his expression, and for a moment, I pause. But then I lean forward a little to see what's on that table.

These are, indeed, drawings. Some on heavy, cream drawing paper, others on mere paper scraps or on pages that have machine written army orders shining through from the other side. Regardless of their surface, however, all the drawings have some undeniable similarities. For one, there's the distinct simplicity of execution, just charcoal on paper. For another, there's an absolute attention to detail.

And yes, there are also the motives to tie them together. Every last one of the drawings spread out in front of me shows the truth of this war in a blunt way that makes me shiver.

A group of soldiers in a trench, crouched down against the rain. A grenade exploding in No Man's Land. Two men with gas masks, hardly looking human anymore. A plane flying too close to the ground. A broken body hanging on barbed wire. A destroyed village, almost not recognisable as such. Medics, carrying a wounded man on a stretcher. A lone tree rising in No Man's Land. A man stuck up to his hip in mud. A pair of horses struggling to pull a piece of artillery. Several dozen corpses laid out neatly in lines. A tank rolling forwards relentlessly. A cloud of gas hiding the horizon. A German soldier cowering in a shell hole. A single boot with foot and lower leg still inside it. Soldiers climbing from the trench, bayonets fixed and ready. A weather-beaten cross of wood partly submerged into the earth.

If Walter and his poems caught the comforting, honourable side of this war – or, better yet, of the humans in this war –, these drawings speak a different language. They are relentless in how detailed they are and almost painful in how they keep the gaze fixed on the truth of war, even when it would have been easier to look away.

With the tip of a finger, I follow the contours that make up the face of a tired-looking private, hunkering down in a shallow dug-out. Beneath his steel helmet, he looks directly out of the picture, in a way that almost makes me believe he's right here with us – or we with him.

"I didn't know you could draw like this," I murmur, because for the moment, that seems to be the safest thing to say. Besides, I really didn't know. I've often seen him doodle little drawings into the margin of various papers in the past, but these drawings surpass those doodles by far.

"My mother is much better," answers Ken with a shrug. "She had lessons for many years, ever since my father discovered her talent shortly after their wedding. She paints beautiful pictures in oils and watercolours. In comparison to her works, these are just scrawls."

I know Leslie Ford's paintings. They hang in the House O' Dreams in Four Winds and in many a house belonging to a friendly soul besides. And even though these pictures are pretty to look at, all colourful and happy, they lack the raw honesty, the vulnerability, of Ken's charcoal drawings.

"Still, I was lucky to inherit some of her talent," Ken continues. "Everyone always thinks I ought to be able to write because my father is a famed author, but Persis was always so much better at it than me. Words come easily to her. To me, on the other hand… I was always better at drawing, without ever reaching my mother's talent."

I could argue about that and I am considering doing just that, when I absent-mindedly slide the drawing of the private to one side and, in doing so, reveal another picture that makes me forget all my arguments. It is the detailed picture of a man in whose face there is a hole where there should be a nose. That I don't shrink away at the sight is only because I've seen my share of mutilated faces, some of them very real and unbearably close.

"When did you draw these?" I ask Ken, making a little motion that encompasses all drawings on the desk. The man without a nose silently looks up at me.

Ken makes a thoughtful sound. "A lot of it while still at the front," he answers. "Most pictures are based on memories though, instead of being drawn from life. It's more… I draw the memories out of me. When I am overcome by the thought of a particular situation that refuses to leave me alone, I draw that situation, and for whatever reason, it helps a little. As if the memory, put on paper, loses a little of its awfulness. They… they don't torture me as much anymore, the memories. Though these days, it's less conscious memories than nightmares that get me drawing."

"Nightmares?" I ask. It surprises me a little that he has nightmares at all. In the few nights we shared since our wedding, I woke him more than once with my own nightmares, but the opposite has never been true.

What I did notice last night, when I woke after midnight and long before dawn, was that he murmurs the names of his dead in his sleep. From the list of dead in his notebook that he forced himself to learn as some form of penance and that, apparently, follows him into his sleep. For even though he murmured the names so quiet that they were almost imperceptible, they were still unmistakable.

And that's why, for a moment, I consider mentioning it to Ken, but decide against it in the end. If he knows it, he's still powerless. If he doesn't know, maybe it's better that way. For what is his list of names but another form of my procession of dead, which doesn't keep me awake anymore but managed to find a way into my dreams instead?

"Of course, I have nightmares," answers Ken, voice composed. "I can hardly imagine anyone returning from this war without nightmares, and I'm no exception. It's just that during and after the nightmares I am… frozen. I suppose that's why you don't notice them. Even after I wake up, my body is completely rigid for a few seconds, sometimes even a minute or two. I couldn't move if I tried. When I can move again, I am usually awake enough to recognise the nightmare as such. And then, I draw it."

I shiver runs down my back as I imagine waking from a nightmare and finding myself unable to move. Because he might talk about it quite matter-of-factly, but I can't really see how it could possibly leave him this unmoved. Instinctively, I nestle closer to him and he reaches for my hand and holds it tight.

"You could wake me. If you want to," I suggest cautiously.

"I know," assures Ken. "But I don't really need that, to be honest. It's enough for me to wake up and have you there by my side. Nothing chases away the nightmares as reliably as the knowledge that we're safe and together."

I turn my head to look at him and, to my relief, see him smiling.

"But don't you ever dare draw me while I'm asleep!" I warn him, because let's be honest – could there be anything cheesier?

And even though I mean it as a joke, I can see the smile slip from Ken's face. Thoughtfulness takes its place and once more, he seems to need a few moments to come to a decision. Instead of saying anything though, he reaches for a folder, opens it and takes out a thin stack of paper.

Immediately, I recognise the drawings as showing me. But instead of being loving, softly drawn portraits, the kind of which might perhaps be expected, every drawing apparently pictures a moment that was painful for Ken and somehow connected to me.

The first drawing shows me dragging on a cigarette, behind me a wall of rain. The last drawing shows only my back, bent forward a little, the open dress with its many tiny buttons not doing a very good job of concealing the vertebrae protruding sharply under thinly-stretched skin. And in-between these two drawings there are others, each of them showing a different situation and yet, taken together, painting a kaleidoscope of pain.

"Call me old-fashioned but I always thought that people draw the situations that made them happy," I remark pensively as I look down at the pictures. There's not much happiness about them.

"But I don't want to draw the happy situations out of myself," Ken answers slowly. "I keep these here and here." He raps his knuckles first against his head, then at his chest, where he obviously thinks his heart to be.

With a tiny smile, I take hold of his fist and move it downwards a little. "Here," I correct, letting the tips of my fingers drum against the back of his hand for a moment. Then I turn my eyes back again, surveying the spread-out drawings once more.

This is, I realise, his way of telling me. Months ago, I asked him why he doesn't speak about what he experienced and what he suffered through. He hasn't spoken much since then either, but these drawings and his decision of showing them to me, are his way of sharing his memories with me. And, as awful as they are to look at, I am glad he did.

I turn back towards him and kiss him gently. "Thank you for showing me," I remark quietly.

"Thank you for allowing me to show them to you," Ken replies calmly. "I didn't know if it was alright to burden you with these."

"It's not a burden!" I protest while keeping hold of his gaze with my own and hoping that he believes me.

Because it's the truth. It's not even the old saying of a burden shared being a burden halved. It's more… it's easier for me to shoulder his burden than my own. And somehow, I have a feeling he feels quite the same way.

Ken surveys my face carefully and what he sees there seems to convince him, for a smile creeps onto his lips. "Good," he nods and kisses the tip of my nose.

"And you can really wake me if you want to," I persist. I hate the thought of him lying awake in the dark, these horrible sights in front of his eyes.

Another careful look, shorter this time, then another nod. "I will," Ken promises, and I have a feeling that he truly means it.

But before I get a chance to reply anything, he gives me a gentle nudge. "Come on, let's go to bed," he suggests.

"Don't you want to finish this?" I ask, pointing at the unfinished drawing of a twisted body. I'm not sure if it's supposed to get a head at all.

Thoughtfully, Ken raises the drawing, holds it against the light for a moment. Then he shakes his head. "Not tonight," he decides. "Let's sleep."

He lets go of the drawing. In a gentle movement, it flutters down onto the desk.


The title of this chapter is taken from the song 'When you're away' from 1914 (lyrics by Victor Herbert, music by Henry M. Blossom).