April 21st, 1919
RMS Olympic, Atlantic Ocean
A silver lining
The night sky looks different when out on sea. Just as city lights hide the stars, the loneliness of the sea fully reveals them. Thousands upon thousands of stars, painted on the sky, until there's barely a speck of darkness left.
I lean a little closer to the window, letting my gaze travel over this night-time splendour, when I suddenly hear footsteps behind me. Only moments later Ken's arms close around me and with a sigh, I lean back into his embrace. "Everything alright with you?" he asks and presses a fleeting kiss to the back of my neck.
"Fine, fine," I assure and smile at his pale reflection in the window.
"What about our little bug?" he adds, his hands sliding downwards to cover my stomach, now unmissable beneath the thin nightdress, though the stiff layers of uniform just about manage to conceal it during daytime.
"Fine as well," I reply. "It doesn't seem to be able to sleep either."
Surprised, Ken raises his head. Our eyes meet in the makeshift mirror created by a window against a dark sky. "How do you know that?" he asks. "Can you…?" He breaks off and there's a silent wonder in his expression that makes me smile.
"Feel it?" I complete his question. "Yes, I think so. Just for the last few days. And it's still very faint. More of a fluttering than anything."
Looking over my shoulder, his gaze travels downwards. "Can I feel it, too?" he wonders, moving his hands lightly up and down.
"I don't think so, even I can only barely feel it. Give it a bit more time," I comfort him, moving my hands to lie over his. He nods, his expression losing none of its awe, and I resolve to find a stethoscope for him tomorrow.
"Come, let's go back to bed," I suggest, nodding towards the dark corner of the cabin where I know the bed to be. "Little bug and I are cold."
Ken doesn't have to be told twice and only seconds later, both the bug and I are safely ensconced in a cocoon created by two blankets and the arms of its father.
"Why did you wake up?" Ken asks and while he speaks, I can feel his breath brush lightly through my hair. "Was it a nightmare or…?" He leaves the question unfinished.
"No nightmare," I am quick to assure. "I was just… thinking."
A quiet, humming sound from Ken. Then, a second later, "What about?"
For a moment I want to brush it off, want to tell him that it's nothing, but the truth is, it isn't nothing. And I promised not to lie to him, after all.
Still, it takes several more seconds until I have collected myself enough to answer. Ken remains still, waiting, with only his thumb absent-mindedly stroking my arm.
A deep breath. "I thought about something Dr MacIver said recently," I confess. "He… he mentioned that he thinks I'd make a decent surgeon."
To be more exact, he said I am "bloody talented". Though it's questionable if he would have said that, had he known that on my penultimate day in London, I was woken by the sound of the gardener sawing off a branch from a tree next to my window. The only silver lining in that situation was that I was alone in the room and no one saw me break down.
Still… I'd be lying if I claimed never to have thought about medical studies myself in all those years. Even more so, because Miss Inglish wrote to me some weeks ago, telling me that she'll attend medical school come autumn. For a moment, her letter made an otherwise abstract thought very palpable.
Cautiously, I peer at Ken. In the darkness, it's hard to read his face.
"But Dr MacIver is known for being having weird ideas. He's not to be taken too seriously. He's a genius, but also a bit batty," I add quickly, hoping to close down that particular topic.
Ken, however, seems to have other ideas. His eyes search out mine, thoughtful now, as he raises a hand and lets his fingers dance along my face. "Would you like to do it? Become a doctor?" he asks.
I let go of a breath, feeling a little frustrated. "It's hardly possible, is it?" I point out, lightly patting my stomach. "When the next school years starts, our little bug here will just be about to give its debut."
"That wasn't my question," Ken replies calmly. "I asked whether you'd like to do it."
"Medical school takes years," I remind him. "Most men would be glad to have their wives sitting at home instead of wasting time on their studies."
"That might be true," nods Ken. "And I suppose, two years ago I would have been of that opinion as well. But you're not going to be sitting at home either way, and what's more, I wouldn't want you to. You forget, my love, that I was allowed to watch you do your work."
He meets my confused frown with a smile. "In Arques, I had a lot of time to observe you around your patients. Not even when you cared for me, but when you took care of all the others. I don't need to be told how amazing you are at what you do," he explains.
I shrug, though it's no easy feat when lying down. "That was a nurse's work and I already am a nurse," I remark.
Ken nods slowly. "Point taken," he concedes. "But it was you who suggested the correct treatment for me and that wasn't nursing work anymore. And besides, I was there when you saved poor Davis's life. That was incredibly impressive."
I pull a face. "Maybe. But you also saw me basically break down afterwards," I remind him. "And when I assisted with another operation some weeks later, it wasn't any better. I wrote you about that, remember? We had to amputate a finger of the German boy with his maimed hand and to this day, I have no memory of what happened between the moment Dr Cormer applied the bone saw and the moment I came to my senses outside the building. It's a just a great black spot of nothingness. That's why it doesn't matter what Dr MacIver thinks – I won't ever become a surgeon."
"But maybe a normal doctor?" asks Ken.
Abruptly, I sit up. "Why are you so set on me studying medicine?" I want to know, not sounding half as calm as him.
"I'm not," he replies, very composed, as he sits up as well. "I just want you to know that you could. It might be unusual, and I know it wouldn't be easy, but it's not impossible. If you want it, we'll make it happen. If only because I don't ever want you to rue the day when Smith and Young appeared in your tent back in Aubigny."
I can't think of anything better he could have said to calm me. So, I reach out my hand and weave our fingers together. Then, taking a deep breath, I answer, "I appreciate it and I thank you. It's true that I thought about it. Who knows, maybe two years ago, I might have really given it a try. But now everything is different, and I just don't think it's worth the effort anymore."
"Medical studies, you mean?" Ken asks while squeezing my hand.
I nod. "Let's be honest, I've never been particularly academically gifted. That's part of why I didn't go to college. I am good at nursing because it's practical work. You learn things by doing them instead of just reading about it. The thought of spending years in an airless auditorium, cramming Latin vocabulary into my head, is an abhorrent one to me. Maybe I would somehow get through it if I really put my mind to it, but I wouldn't enjoy it even for a second. And that's a lot of years doing something you don't enjoy," I explain and manage a crooked smile.
Ken nods, thoughtful. "Yes, I understand that. What then? Do you want to go back to working as a nurse?" he wants to know.
I know that many of my former nursing colleagues will do just that. Certainly, Maud and Miller. Miss Talbot seems to have gotten hold of one of the rare nursing postings within the much-reduced permanent army. The others, Polly and Lucy and probably Bryony as well at some point, will move on to live the life of wife and mother. Even Colette's time as a nurse is likely limited.
"No, not really," I answer slowly. "The work gave me a lot and it fulfilled me in a way nothing did before. But it's hard work, with long days and long nights, even as a private nurse, and I just don't think it's what I want anymore. Besides…"
"Besides…?" Ken prompts gently as I break off. His thumb brushes over the back of my hand.
Quite automatically, I have to think back to what Tim wrote when he explained why he decided on travelling the world with Persis instead of going back to finish his own medical studies. It's something I, too, realised when yet another Serbian POW succumbed to the flu right beneath my hands and there was nothing, but nothing, I could do for him
"Besides, I never want to see anybody die again," I answer quietly.
Ken lets go of a breath. "No. I can understand that," he replies, and I don't have to ask to know that his procession of dead is much longer than my own.
I squeeze his hand and he gives a lopsided smile. We will have this conversation as well, but it's a conversation for another day.
"If I'm being honest," I begin slowly, "And I know that it's going to sound both crazy and foolhardy, but… I've been thinking a lot about the amazing advances we've seen in the medical field in recent years and about how little of that actually reaches normal people. Think of the German boy. If his parents had brought him even a day earlier, we would have been able to help him so much better. That they didn't wasn't because they didn't care, but probably due to both lack of knowledge and lack of money."
I dare a cautious glance at Ken and he nods encouragingly, so I continue. "I've seen similar things in Montreal. Many people try home remedies first and sometimes that helps, but often enough, it just delays proper treatment and thus, worsens the condition. If they were just better informed, like knowing not to put poultices on open wounds, that would help a lot. Hygiene alone can sometimes work proper miracles. And in a perfect world, people would be able to see a doctor without having to worry about the cost."
"And you want to help them," Ken realises.
"These past years, so much was given for the war effort. I thought that maybe people are willing to donate for the returning soldiers and their families as well – and everyone else who needs it, really. Persis and Selina – if she wants to – surely know how to organise something to that effect. And with that money, we could really try to build something to teach people how to provide better medical care for their families. We could show them how to prevent illnesses, instead of just treating them. And for those really needing treatment, we might be able to employ a nurse and perhaps even pay for a doctor a couple of hours a week to offer free consultations," I explain and can't help thinking of Maud. Maud would be perfect for something like this.
In truth, I have given this matter much more thought than Ken probably guesses. Colette, who was the first to get me to voice my idea some days ago, is quite taken with the thought. So much so that she dithers between attempts at getting me to set up something similar in Montreal and the resolve to quickly teach Maurice better English, so that they can come down to Toronto themselves. Knowing Colette, she's probably already working on the teaching material.
Even Dr MacIver, who wasn't very impressed when I told him that medical studies wouldn't be in my future, was mellowed by the knowledge that I don't intend to give up the medical side of my life entirely. He even offered to come to Toronto a few times a year and operate on people who are otherwise unable to afford such operations. His only prerequisite was that I have to assist him as a theatre nurse. I agreed, trusting in my little stomach bug to provide a good excuse to get me out of that particular endeavour.
Dr MacIver's offer also made me wonder who else I could ask to help. Lionel certainly will, and I'm quite confident about Dr Connelly as well, seeing as Kingston isn't far away. Dr Hunter even lives in Toronto as far as I know and depending on where he and his French girl settle down, I could even get in touch with Zachary again.
Still… these are all pipe dreams. Castles built into the air – pretty to look at, but without a fundament to ground them.
My eyes search Ken's and suddenly, I feel shy. "Or is this foolish? Completely unrealistic? Is it presumptuous to think that people would want me to explain health care to them?" I ask and feel my stomach jolt nervously.
Ken slowly shakes his head. "You having been an army nurse will certainly help. Most veterans will likely trust you because of that alone," he muses. "And in my experience, most people want to learn as long as you take them seriously and are serious about what you do. And you are."
I nod tentatively. "And what do you think?" I ask.
His lips curve upwards in a smile as he raises a hand and gently tugs at the end of my braid. "I think it's a wonderful idea," he answers, "And I know you will do brilliantly."
And the moment he says it, I feel an invisible burden lift from my shoulders. I never needed his permission, but it feels good to have his support.
Even as I mirror his smile though, another thought pushed itself to the forefront of my mind, causing my smile to turn into a frown. "And what about you?" The question is past my lips before I can stop it.
"What about me?" Ken asks, apparently honestly confused.
Slowly letting go of a breath, I order my thoughts. "You always speak of taking your place in your family's company as if it's a done deal. It just got me wondering if… if that's truly what you want," I explain, wavering just the tiniest bit. Because he didn't hesitate to support my dreams and I am equally reluctant to leave his unfulfilled.
Ken's expression, however, clears at my words. "That's sweet of you, but I promise that this is really fine with me," he assures easily. "That might not be all that easy to believe, but I am good at organising things and it calms me to see everything go smoothly. Working for the company plays to my talents, even if it can be a rather… prosaic kind of work."
I must have continued to look sceptical, for he laughs and brushes a wayward strand of hair behind my ear.
"Besides," he adds, "I thought about what you said about Nan and Selina and about how they employed war widows as seamstresses. I'd like to try something similar – provide employment for returning soldiers, if you will. Many men in my unit worry about their futures and I'd like to help them. I am still… responsible for them. At least I feel like I am. And it's good fortune that I am in a position to truly be able to do something for them."
Through slightly narrowed eyes, I consider him in the dark of the cabin, but his expression is open and honest, without any trace of doubt.
Slowly, I nod. It's no surprise to me that he still feels responsible, even beyond our return to Canada. And yes, it might be prosaic work that awaits him, but then, isn't the same true for me as well?
Our world will always need dreamers and poets who can dream of a better world than the one we have. But to take a castle in the clouds and turn it into something solid, made of brick and mortar, you also need those who do the daily work. It might not always be romantic, but it's what both Ken and I am best at. We, too, have our hopes and dreams, but our story was never told in rhymes and verses.
I feel Ken's alert gaze upon me as he quietly asks, "All good?"
A beat before I nod, quickly and firmly. "All good," I confirm. For it truly is.
And yet, it's only Ken who slips back into sleep some minutes later. While his chest rises slowly and his heart beats lazily against my fingertips, I am fully awake. Eyes wide open, I look out into the darkness, as my thoughts slowly trawl in circles.
I can't even say how long I lie there, wide awake despite the early hour, but when the dawning morn begins to paint the cabin a kaleidoscope of greys, I finally give up on sleep. Very carefully, so as not to wake Ken, I climb from the bed and tiptoe over to the bathroom. I am quickly dressed in my uniform and on deck before the sun has risen above the horizon.
At this early hour, not many people are up yet with only some seamen and the odd soldier saluting me politely as I pass. It is, accordingly, still very quiet. There's only the ship's machines quietly droning in the background, the wind whistling past the deck and the sound of the waves smacking against the hull.
I lean against the railing, looking out at the sea and the dark horizon behind it. Behind me, in the east, the sun slowly climbs above the horizon, but I don't turn around. Too many years have I spent starring fearfully to the east. The west might yet be cast into darkness, but it's where our future lies.
It feels, still, not completely real. We make plans and try to put them in motion, so that they might become true, but part of me still waits for the day when I wake up and find that the past months were but a dream. For the day when I wake up and find that the war is back.
Maybe it just needs time. Time enough to realise that the past is truly gone and that the future can finally become the present.
Now that I have shared them with Ken, at least my plans slowly start to feel less like a wild idea and more like something that could really become true. And the thought is… hopeful. I spent so many years helping to mend beaten and broken bodies, and it was good and important work, but… but isn't is so much better to prevent people from getting ill or wounded in the first place than having to nurse them back to health afterwards?
It feels like meaningful work. Different from what I did until now, but no less important. Not the same dream I had years ago, but the right dream for now. Because I, too, am not the same person I was when I first crossed the Atlantic. And even though I sometime miss the lightness of the girl of yore, I wouldn't want to go back to being her again. The past years were too important for me, maybe because they were sometimes sad and often hard. Quite as if we only learn to truly understand happiness after we've stood at the abyss. It's the kind of practical happiness I've come to appreciate. It's happiness of our own making and therefore, the only kind that can be relied upon.
The wind carries the sound of footsteps over to me and moments later, for the second time in this dwindling night, Ken's arms wrap around me. His lips brush my temple, and I lean back into his touch.
There's no need for words right now.
The first rays of sun slowly make their way over the ship, casting pale morning light above our heads and chasing away that night that still lingers in the west. These are the first moments of a new days and it feels right to greet it like this, in the arms of my husband and feeling the tiny fluttering movements of my child.
We will never forget what happened. No one will. It will probably never truly let us go, will stay with us in our dreams and our memories, in Ken's drawing and in the suffering I can't forget. In Jem's attempt to hang on to the old world and in that of Persis to find a home in a new one. In Shirley's desire for order and that of Carl to escape the truth. It won't ever let us go, not those of us who went and not those of them that stayed.
Still, we owe it to those who will never return that we take the chance we were given. I don't know if this world can truly be a perfect one, but I think that if we only manage to keep it peaceful, we will have achieved a lot. And until then, we will tackle life and try to master it as best as we can. That's what we owe to Jerry and to Walter and to all those others who will return no more. And somehow, we even owe it to ourselves.
"Look," I hear Ken's voice, quiet next to my ear, as he nods out at the dwindling darkness ahead.
At first, I don't see what he means. But when another ray of sunlight rises behind our heads and pierces the fog, I see it as well. A small sliver on the horizon, far away yet, but unmistakable. A sliver of land only just illuminated by the first light of day.
- Fin. -
The title of this chapter is taken from the song 'Keep the Home Fires Burning' from 1914 (lyrics by Lena Guilbert Ford, music by Ivor Novello).
Well, everyone. This is it. Almost ten months, eighty chapters (and a prologue), over 317.000 words and now, finally, we're done. It's been a real labour of love, but also quite the ride, which is in no small part thanks to you. I still remember how nervous I was before posting this story and it was your interest in it that, more than anything, kept me going.
It makes me really happy to know that there are people out there who enjoyed reading this story, which is why I want to extend my gratitude to everyone who followed it. Even more than that though, I'd like to thank those who took the time to review, especially my Anne girls (you know who you are). I'd be writing even if no one was reading, but there's no doubt that reviews make a writer's world go round and this writer is no exception. I really can't thank you enough for your kindness and encouragement and general loveliness throughout!
Now, for anyone who's interested: while wrapping up this story, I already started working on my new project behind the scenes. I'm taking a well-earned week of vacation now, and there's still some work to be done after that, but I hope to be back with an entirely new story within the next few weeks. If you'd like to, we'll see each other then!