Trapped in an abandoned French farmhouse during an air raid, Ambulance driver Fleur Demorest and Captain Ivor Carlyle indulge in one night of passion, only for tragedy to strike. Three years later, they meet again under entirely different circumstances, and must fight for their love amidst the carnage of war, forgotten memories, and societal pressures.
Armistice Day – November, 11 1918
The woman I saw die three years before should not have been standing in the middle of Trafalgar Square. I squeeze my eyes shut, having experienced many delusions since being invalided from the Army, but when I open them, she is still there. The press of the crowd and their shouts and tears of joy at news of the Armistice recedes, as does the snapping cold that caused me to stop to yank my Burberry trench coat’s lapels up and over my ears; all I hear is my heartbeat pulsating loudly in my ear and she is all I see. I am lightheaded by the rush of blood to my head, but the debilitating headaches that presage a delusion fail to knock me off my feet, and I stare greedily, soaking in the changes that only time could wreak on one’s appearance.
She was a little thinner, casting a new prominence on the curve of her elegant yet stubborn chin and her deep-set gray-green eyes; her hair—glorious and like molten caramel so many years before—hacked into a rough bob beneath her woolen cap; her luminous skin now possessing a yellowish tinge. Surely, a delusion would have conjured her as she was when we stumbled across one another on the Western Front, two people whose innocence had been ripped away like a bandage over a fresh wound. My hand moves to my upper chest, as though I can feel the bullet wound through the layers of my clothing, as though I am still watching my life’s blood and a fair bit of my innards gushing forth, as though I am experiencing my dulled surprise that I was dying just moments after reaching my twenty-second birthday.
I curl my fingers over the phantom wound, and open my mouth to shout for her attention, but my tongue is awkward and large in my mouth, and the roar of the crowd snatches at the rumble of sound I do emit. My body trembles with the effort to speak, a simple action grown so difficult over the months since my discharge from the hospital, and when I realize I cannot remember her name. I cannot remember her name! The woman I wept over and searched for in vain for three years remained nameless, another casualty of the upheaval war had made of my mind. Nevertheless, I am determined to find my way to her through the sea of people, and struggle gamely through the throng on the pavement to where she linked arms with a group of girls waving their caps on the upper base of Nelson’s Column.
I freeze when she turns her head and her eyes sweep across my face. The searing glance from her gray-blue eyes heats my skin better than my muffler and coat lapels combined, but its subsequent blank dismissal immediately chills the marrow of my bones. Had I misidentified the girl in my haste to believe I had found her again? I swallow the bile that creeps up my esophagus and step back, my feet reaching blindly for the kerb I abandoned to move to her side. Someone slams into my shoulder, knocking my service cap from my head, and I stare down as it is trampled beneath the boots and shoes of the wall of people massed behind and around me, pressing down the crowded streets leading to The Mall and Buckingham Palace in order to see the King.
“Watch it soldier,” Two hands clutch my shoulders. “I mean, sir!”
The owner of the hands, who appears entirely too young for his neatly pressed khaki uniform, raises his right hand in salute when he notices the dull braid and stars on the sleeves of my trench coat.
I cannot bring myself to return his salute and his proud grin fades. He shrugs his shoulder, obviously striving for nonchalance as I continue to stare at him in a rush of the sudden, inexplicable anger I could not control.
“I’ll bet you saw a lot of campaigns,” The boy’s eyes roam enviously over my own uniform, worn and well-fitting after years of service, and my Burberry. “Didn’t turn eighteen until August. Guess it’s too late for me now.”
I blink and realize how close the boy’s face is, white and shocked, for I have curled my fingers around his lapels and yanked him to me.
“Fortunate,” I rasp and shake the boy in frustration and grief. “Bless your bloody lucky stars.”
“Hey, officer! Let the boy go.”
Hands pull and tug at my hands and arms as the boy squirms to twist free. I stare at my fingers, almost knotted and bent double around the starched khaki, and let go.
The boy scowls at him, shaking off the helping hands from those in the crowd as he adjusts his pristine, innocent uniform. “What a nutter.”
“I’ve heard about those soldiers coming back…malingering it’s called.”
“Shell shock they said in the Times.”
“Fancy words for a raving lunatic, if you ask me.”
I flinch. These strangers had put in so many words what my parents, their friends, and their servants tiptoed around, hushed up, and side-stepped. I hunch my shoulders to ward off their murmurs and stares and push away from the hands that attempt to grab hold of me. I wade through the crowd to escape my humiliation, which, incidentally, brought a rush of heat to my face, but something compels me to look back. Pale eyes in a deathly pale face stare into my own, and her full rosebud lips that I remember so well hangs open in palpable. The shock gives way to a tormented expression I can feel and know I mirror from the three odd yards separating us. Far from triumph and joy, the recognition in her eyes tears my heart to bits. It was she; I had not conjured her from the depths of my despair as I had so many sleepless nights beneath the despondent stars over the Western Front.
I hesitate to make my way back to her, my feet seemingly rooted to the ground with uncertainty, but I force myself to turn and push through the crowd in her direction. This time, the crowd is not so accommodating, and I am swept forward in the surge of excited movement towards the Mall. The shouts I catch between the unintelligible cheering tell of Their Majesties’ appearance on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, and I know I can never reach her now. My hand rises involuntarily, as though somehow, some way, she could come to me, or me to her, with this foolish, futile gesture.
The only hand I touched was that of Fate, in the guise of the excited crush keeping us apart, pulling me further and further away.
As the distance between us increased and she abruptly disappeared from my view, I expected to fall into the dull, grief-induced languor the doctors diagnoses as shell-shock, but found my mind sharpened for the first time in months, the fugue cracked open and fallen away, as though I, like war-torn London, had awoken from a deep slumber.
I had lost her once before, but this time, I was going to find her and fight to keep her in my life.
“Give ‘er air!”
I came to and found a circle of faces peering down at me, brows furrowed with concern.
“You looked as though you’ve seen a ghost,” says Beatrice, the largest girl of the group. “Just toppled over.”
I close my eyes rather than offer a feeble explanation to continue my charade. The pavement was cold and hard beneath my shoulder blades and the backs of my legs, a sensation that would have been foreign to me before the war, swaddled as I had been beneath layers of petticoats and undergarments. There was also a risk that the surging crowd would step on me despite the knot of friends surrounding my prone body, but I wanted to pretend I had not seen him—or at least someone who appeared uncannily like him. The way my heart beat so hard it seemed to break my sternum, and how my knees wobbled contradicted my automatic assumption that it was not him, that it was merely a likeness. And then he’d held out his hand, the hope and fear crossing his poor scarred face an echo of my own hope and fear.
But I am a coward, faking a swoon to hide from the confrontation that would have occurred had he succeeded in making his way to my side. A confrontation that would unravel every secret I constructed at the cost of a friendship, my name, and my former life.
“Are you all right, Fleur?” The voices ask again, all of them blending into an echo of concern.
I shake my head, my eyes shut tightly: it would never be all right. It stopped being all right since the year 1914, which changed everything I thought I knew and held dear.
Behind the Story
As stated in the Next Big Thing post from late 2012, Till We Meet Again was inspired by a melodramatic pre-code that starred two of my favorite actors. I consider it to be a romantic bildungsroman, which covers the summer of 1914, the length of the First World War, and its immediate aftermath. After reading letters and books about the young men and women who died and served during WWI, I wanted to write a book about them and what the war did to them, how it changed their relationships with their parents and the Establishment. I also wanted to write a story about a seemingly mundane young woman who learns to take charge of her own life, first as a university student, then as an ambulance driver, and finally as a survivor of the war. There’s also class conflict, with my hero, Ivor, coming from the aristocracy, and my heroine, Fleur, coming from the middle classes, which is an element that is underused in historical fiction. Though this is mainly a romance, this is also about the bonds of friendship and kinship.
Check out my Pinterest page for Till We Meet Again
Finding information about daily life at Girton College was my greatest challenge. Every book published in the early 1900s about Cambridge treated the women’s colleges as an unwanted appendage and gave the bare minimum of information about their inner workings. After copious searches through Google Books, I managed to gather a number of articles and gleaned from biographies of women who attended Girton in the early 20th century–I also found an inexpensive copy of E.E. Constance Jones’s 1913 title, Girton College. Jones was Mistress of Girton (1903-1916) and was a famous ethicist of the Edwardian era.