by Sandrine Lopez
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Men love their country. Men also love guns, shooting... killing. When those passions collide, terrible things happen...
My husband-to-be loved this England. And I loved him for it.
Then his letters from Europe stopped.
He never returned.
I remember the day, the exact moment, the missive arrived. Black ink finality on white. The beginning of November, 1918.
The Great War ended ten days later.
John and I grew up together. Marriage was an arranged convenience for our families. Fortunately we had fondness for each other, attraction which blossomed into love before the call of King and Country took him. We wrote frequently, enthusiastically, and I was proud, so proud, of his officership.
We were to marry on his return from duty. I listened to Papa telling how the War was going. The Allied Forces were pushing back the enemy. It would soon be over. John would be back before Christmas.
At first I thought duty meant John had no time to write. My urgent letters went unanswered.
Then the telegram arrived. My world, echoing the world torn apart, fell to pieces.
I buried myself in matters of distraction. I had always helped Mama with the gardening, and nurtured a red rose from smallest bud to fullest blossom. My gift to John for his return.
I could have let it die, wither away like my sense of purpose, in winter. Instead I potted the small bush and kept it in the conservatory.
Other duties prevailed. England had lost many young men - sons, husbands, fathers. Families suffered. John's father had also been lost in the War. Ours was fortunate. No brothers. An injury prevented Papa from fighting. We took John's family - mother and sons - in patronage. George, the eldest at 15, was to join the Army the following year.
I became a friend and confidante, while their mother worked to support them. Grateful of support but not wanting to be a burden.
George had young friends in the same position. I was a comfort, sweet gardener, to all - babes and children. Caring, sustaining, fostering. A mother in training. But the black ache I would not be one to John's children still darkened my soul.
The children were my roses. Men were the flowers the garden of England had yielded to the bitter winter of war. We were now in the uneasy peace of spring, a country barren with loss. These new shoots needed nurturing against the frost of mourning, until a summer of recovery, emotional and economic. Blossoming to take their places. I ensured they knew love, hoping we never saw war again.
The first bloom was George, now old enough to enlist. His nurturing was briefest. I knew the loss of his brother wore heavily on him, as I kissed him farewell on the cheek.
Before I realised, it was a new decade. 1920, scented with the promise of change.
Months passed. I was dressing the younger children when the door swung open. Silhouetted against sunrise was a soldier. I went as white as the ghost I perceived it to be - John. Restored.
Instead, it was George. My heart pounded... fear, hope, relief, disappointment. A tearful kiss on the cheek. In that emotional moment I realised, even though unalike - John was brown, hair and eyes, while George was fair and blue - there may be love there also.
We shared a few glorious weeks. Touching hands as we played with the children, our 'pretend family'. They had a Mama in myself and, briefly, a Papa in George. He was as bold in that as I imagined him as a soldier. Strength and vigour, but with tenderness also.
Another change. Ruth.
We had been at school together but our paths separated. I had heard she married abroad but no-one who knew wanted to speak of it. Rumour accused them of cowardice, fleeing England to avoid the War.
"Mary?" A woman's voice called, as I pushed a baby along for a morning perambulation.
I almost did not recognise her. I never considered Ruth fashionable but she was the personification of covers for women's gazettes. The skirt was short, revealing her knees. A thin top under her coat barely hid the lack of corsetry. I was more covered in my nightdress.
She indicated the perambulator. "Yours?"
Ruth was disinterested. "Not really my style."
"Where have you been?" I asked.
Ruth's eyes rolled upwards, hands spread. "Darling, where haven't I been?" She listed American states, an itinery embellished with appeal or disdain.
I became aware of a tall, rather dashing man approaching her. Ruth turned but before any introduction, he took her in his arms in a quite ungentlemanly way, pulled her face to his and kissed her. Only quite unlike any I had seen. Their lips locked, she held his face to hers. An uncivilised, almost brutal, savagery to it. But both were enjoying it, immensely. They continued for a minute, as I averted my gaze.
"Sorry Mary." I heard Ruth gasp, "This is... " Another breathlessness sigh. "James."
James, a smudge of Ruth's lipstick on his lips, offered his hand. It was strong and firm. A grip which could have crushed the life out of Ruth. Yet she endured it, as love only could.
Boldly, I enquired, "Is that how married couples kiss in America?" The country often headlined the vulgar, the indecent.
Ruth laughed. "We're not cuffed. Heaven forbid! We're... very, very good friends." They exchanged glances that implied far more. That explained the silence - love that dare not be spoken. Relationships outside of wedlock.
How very fashionable of her.
On my 21st birthday Mama gave me a book. Intended for my wedding, now indefinitely postphoned. Written by a woman doctor for all women. The loss of so many men meant we were replacing them in society, not just the 'little men' - the children I nurtured. Some women pushed further for suffrage, equality not only in work but every manner. No longer walking behind but side-by-side.
The book explained beyond the act of procreation, to the pleasure of physical union between man and woman. That sex was something to be enjoyed mutually, not just endured for the sake of children. It was too new, too different, for Mama to believe but she was forward thinking and cared for my well-being.
She held my hand tight as she imparted the book.
"Do not tell your father."
No more was said.
The decade passed quickly.
George and I shared long walks when he was home, usually with children still in my care. I had long felt the inner urge to have my own. I think George sensed it but felt as I had been John's, there was impropriety, disloyality, in replacing him.
I got letters from Ruth, living with James, and an invitation to a party. I expressed doubt to George, my chaperone, being associated with someone of dubious morality. Perhaps men viewed such things differently but his reply was, "Enjoy and be damned."
We arrived at the train station in the afternoon, and were met by Ruth and James in their new automobile. George looked so dapper in slacks and blazer. My heart pounded as we sped along sunlit lanes, verdant countryside a blur on either side.
"Faster!" Ruth urged James, laughing, no stranger to such velocity. I gripped George's hand for comfort. His reassuring smile melted away my fear. My heart pounded still, but differently.
Our room was furnished with a large double-bed. It took moments to see the incongruity of this.
"We're not... " I started, but George put a finger to my lips, took the key and said to James, "Perfect, old man. I'll take it from here."
Behind the closed door, George held me. "Nothing to get balled, old girl. I'll sleep in the chair. No need for them to know, is there?"
A gentleman still.
Ruth had made new friends. As the party began, she and James flapped, both smoking, making sure everyone had lots of drinks. She joked they left America because of the Prohibition.
"Juiced our own joint here, darling!" Ruth laughed, and attacked - not exactly kissed - James' face again. A small war of unashamed passion. Lust with the intent of attrition, to wear the other down towards... I could scarcely imagine what.
I needed to blur their indiscretion, and downed my champagne. "Something stronger, please?" I hissed at George.
I am no party pooper and brought my full attention on George, learning new dances with him. It was a hoot. I soon forgot Ruth, her crudity, even where I was. The only thing I knew was George, as we hopped and swung round the floor.
I had a notion of being guided, dancing upstairs, and became sensible at our bedroom door. Another couple along the landing were swirling into another, laughing and kissing.
"George, I... " A protest cut short by his lips pressing to mine. A gentleman's kiss, polite and formal. He tasted sweetly of champers and martini.
We fell through the door, stumbled across the floor, tumbled onto the soft bedding. Darkness... the only light the moon. Under its heavenly eye, tainted by shadows, George almost looked the image of John. I could imagine this being our lost wedding night.
It was a thing impossible. I burst into tears.
George sat up, and held me as I sobbed.
"Oh, George... " I sniffled, "How can I ever forget John?"
He hugged me tenderly. "I know, old thing. Don't you think I miss him too?"
He lifted my chin with his strong, gentle hand. Looked at me with those blue eyes. "I don't think you ever properly grieved, my brave, stiff-upper girl."
I hadn't. The rose was John's epitaph to me. I had hidden sadness behind smiles as I cultivated it. Nurtured George, the other children...
The wrongness of it all... the War, the death, rose in me to become anger. I thumped his chest.
"Why, George?" Another thump, harder. "Why!? WHY!?" I punched and wailed. He took it like a true man. Let me work through the veiled mourning of years in gall and tantrum. An uninhibitedness only drink can bring.
My heart pounded as loud as my small fists. George wrapped his arms round me, holding me tight until I could hardly move. I was still impassioned, struggled furiously, screamed, tears running down my face. Then he pressed his lips, open-mouthed, to mine.
I struggled against that too. My fury didn't dissipate but transformed.
George shrugged his jacket off, as his hands sought to unfasten my dress. Blazing with emotion, I unbuttoned his shirt, his trousers, then spun round as he undid, peeled off, my corset. I felt truly unbound in that moment.
The last remnants of clothing fell away. We were still fighting, an inspired contest. Not against, but with each other now. My rage became a terrible thing. I clawed at George with my nails, hissed like an undomesticated cat.
It was unseemly for women to fight...
I fought as I imagined John had, for what he believed in. Then dying, alone and cold, choked in dirt.
The same dirt the rose had grown from.
I believed in John. My fight was to be with him.
I clawed my way through reality. Tore away the facade of George in front of me, bareskinned as a newborn babe, yet as erect as only men could be, to reveal John.
God forgive me.
There was still an anger, a madness. I had seen George, as a boy, scrap with John. Children at play, rolling together. An energy, where the good fight was never to harm. George, and through him John, and I were as children, youth and maiden, in an act meant to create children.
I could not lay there, passively. Fate had given me one chance to experience this. My strengths are hidden within, disguised in a body considered frail. All those fortitudes, that potency.
I fought... remembered Ruth and James...
Decadent, yes. But such spirit. Men were always the hunters, the pursuers. Now that was changing, as was my rage. The same vitality. Not bad emotions like hate, but a storm of love.
It wrenched at my stomach, a tempest within. A downpour of God's tears. A tide which soaked me where John penetrated, and made us both damp to touch with exertion.
I needed to know all of John. What could have been. A lifetime compressed into one night.
My hands ran over his back, slowly but with growing urgency. Until I had touched, memorised, every inch of exposed, moonlit skin. I brought my thighs up against his hips, so I could experience him more. He swayed like branches caught in breezes, then tossed by a squall.
He brought his own fervour to bear, hard and deep, a fight to plant his seed. It would not, could not, ever grow to be the rose of our love. A baby. I prayed this first time I would not become a mother, no matter how much I yearned. I could not shame him that way, let alone myself.
It blossomed into burning heat. A glorious unfolding, as unexperienced words from that book became flesh, within my flesh. My senses ignited like fire, making my skin glow as if under summer sun.
I was still clawing John's back, lost in a haze of heavenly sensation.
Still crying, now with the absolute fulfilment of joy.
So much said as our souls touched, sparking like electricity, yet so little compared...
Was it greedy to want the whole night? Until the sun exposed my dark fantasy?
Ruth would have been proud.
I rolled on top of John, pressed home my attack. He pushed me to kneel up, tenderly exploring my skin, my softness.
Thinking only of John, until I thought no more. Natural instinctive love.
I had been starved by his loss, my own flower neglected, withering. He wet me, nurtured me, as only a man could. I grew again, my body, a radiant bloom. My face turned to the glow outside the window.
The next I knew was George, lying facing me, our eyes meeting with unsaid understanding.
"I'm ready now, darling." I told him, as we curled into each other and joined the sleep of those put finally to rest.
George asked Papa for my hand in marriage. We were joined in matrimony the following summer.
Our first true night together, with George and not the spirit of John, was wonderful. But we waited before starting a family, using birth control so we could enjoy each other as only married couples should.
I became with child in the spring of 1929, and gave birth as the new decade began.
We took the baby, our son, to Westminster Abbey, to see the Tomb. Innocent eyes not comprehending. But one day he will know.
We christened him John.
Victoria Blisse's Sunday Snog
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This was my entry for the 1920's themed issue of 'Filament' magazine, and while it ticked all the boxes I wanted, it didn't fit in with their ideal of erotic short stories. They were probably right but I wanted to give the era a go, and felt it more interesting not to just simply transplant 21st century sexual drives back to a 1920s setting. My view was, how could I get a proper and upright woman of that socially restricted era so passionate, so incensed, that it would explode and could come to the fore sexually. The burning and unfulfilled gap in her life, left by her husband-to-be being killed at the end of the First World War, seemed a good idea. I let it simmer through into the 1920s, her love eventually growing, like a flower, towards his brother George. The second idea was that the main character, Mary, would nurture the boys, George among them, in her care to be more considerate and loving, so they would one day be better husbands themselves, after the horror of war. Some of my feelings on current overseas conflicts came to the fore here too.
Anyone wondering what 'the book' is, it's 'Married Love' by Dr Marie Stopes, published in 1918, which gave me an insight into the understanding of female sexuality at the time. A chapter title from it - The Glorious Unfolding - is actually name-checked in the story itself. While it may seem quaint to many women now, I was pleasantly surprised how modern most of it is, and straight-forward. We writers of erotic literature now, nearly a century on, owe her a great debt. If in doubt, read Melvyn Bragg's overview here.