But what of those left behind?
The sounds of the wireless and rustling paper drift out from her office, and Melinda smiles; List again, reliable creature that he is. The smile fades, turning somewhere along the way into a sigh – it’s been a long day, and now, more than ever, she needs time to think. She grabs her coat, pulling it on at the same time as she says goodbye to her secretary.
Mary beams at her. “Have a good night.”
Melinda smiles, gives her a quick, “You also,” and walks out into the darkness of the city that never sleeps.
She’s keenly aware of the footsteps behind her as she makes her way down the street, but studiously ignores them until the call comes form behind her – a British voice, quite a rare thing to hear around these parts. “Excuse me?”
Even though the hairs on the back of her neck are standing up and her throat is dry, she finds herself turning.
There’s a tall fellow, slightly hunched, frowning at her. His voice is quiet and certain, almost a mutter. “I’m sorry, you look like someone I – ” He stops, stares. “You’re… Nathalie?”
She struggles to speak as she looks at one more she’s left in her wake. “Paul,” she manages eventually, the word loud in the silence.
Ypres, Belgium. 1916.
The tavern is small, nothing worth putting on a map. A fire flickers in the grate, casting flickering shadows onto the patrons. She collects glasses from tables, keeping an eye on her surroundings.
One of the tables – in the quieter, darker corner of the room – is, unusually, occupied… but silent. She frowns, and glances over to see a young man staring into his drink, a frown on his face. She thinks she recognises the uniform. Ah: a Tommy. With recent events, she has been wondering how Britain has changed in the hundred and ten years since she was last there.
He looks up when he hears her approach, and seems surprised when she asks, “Sir?”
“You speak English?” He leans forward, and his eyebrows are somewhere around his hairline. After a brief moment, he slumps back. “I, er… pardon me. What can I do for you?” He’s Welsh, and young – younger even than he first appeared. He regard her with suspicious hazel eyes. His shoulders are tense, his posture that of a man expecting a blow.
The Belgian accent is natural on her tongue after so many years of practice. “Is something wrong?”
There is a pause as he seems to search for a way to explain himself. Finally he lets out with a sigh, “I go back to the front tomorrow.”
She has seen the men returning hollow-eyed and terrified, or as corpses; but then, she also remembers a weapon in her hand, the taste of blood on her tongue, the gun strapped to her hip under the dress in place of a sword. “Ah,” she says quietly. “How old are you?”
She hears an involuntary gulp; his eyes staring into the depths of his tankard, he answers, “Eighteen.”
She shakes her head but it’s minute, impossible to spot unless you’re looking for it. “And how long have you been saying you are eighteen, Tommy?” The question is sceptical, but not unkind. It’s impossible to be cold, seeing what she does in his eyes.
“Paul,” he corrects her, seemingly unfamiliar with their nickname for the British. “Today… I’m seventeen today.”
“Your birthday.” She walks across the room to place the glasses on the bar, makes a request of the barman, and returns to the table, taking the other seat, a glass of wine in each hand. “A toast, then.” She lifts her glass.
There is a nonplussed pause from Paul’s side of the table; he stares at her, firelight reflecting in his eyes. Eventually, he nods, raising his glass to gentlyclink against hers. He gives the smallest, most wan smile she’s ever seen, and says, “I should know your name.”
She cocks her head, wondering whether this is altogether wise. “Nathalie,” she answers. “Where are you from?”
He frowns down at his wine. “Cardiff. Well, Swansea originally, but I was raised there. M’mother, she…”
She supposes, somewhere at the back of her mind, that she shouldn’t do this. She made a promise a long time ago to remain uninvolved, but she has heard tales of this war, heard the shells over and over…
It’s his birthday. She owes him one small act of kindness.
“To Cardiff,” she invites him, raising her glass.
He smiles, genuinely for the first time since she has met him, and does the same.
That night, they sit in one of the fields, and she gives him the name of all the constellations she can see. His eyes shift and flicker, taking in the shapes and the stories, and – for one, fleeting moment – he is young again.
She should be surprised when she sees him again, soon afterwards, but she isn’t; he smiles, raises his glass. She does the same in return, making her way to what has become her seat.
She recognises the hazel eyes and the stamp of Wales in his voice – and wishes she didn’t – even as he stands here older, grey around the temples. “I’m sorry,” she lies calmly, “I think you may have confused me with someone else.”
It has been thirty years. She still looks twenty-something.
He gestures to the slavemaster’s mark under her right eye, the mark she had in Ypres, and she curses silently, vehemently. “No,” he says, stepping towards her, further into the light cast by the streetlamp. “But you were… you were Belgian, last time.”
She swallows. “I haven’t been for quite a few years.” She laughs, nervously and hollowly.
The way he looks at her is cautious, like an animal cornered – or a man faced with something he can’t possibly understand. “Is your name even Nathalie anymore?”
She shakes her head and, when he says nothing, begins to walk away. She manages three steps before he calls after her, “Please.” She hesitates, turns, and it’s enough. “One drink,” he pleads her. “Just give me a drink, and some kind of explanation. It’s all I ask.”
God, she’s a fool. She pauses, knowing in her heart that this is a terrible idea, that she should stay uninvolved, and then nods. “One drink.” She follows Paul, slowly and with tense muscles, eyes never straying to the man beside her, his eyes still as hazel and his hair still as hastily combed from his face as ever. He is in no way an old man, his walk still strong and his voice still certain.
He hails a cab, and she sits next to him as stiffly as a board, her hands on her lap. The light passes, flickers depending on what’s outside the windows, illuminating his wide, worried eyes as he pretends not to watch her.
They eventually step out, reaching a door; he unlocks it, and they step into a modest, darkened apartment. He moves as if to take her coat, but she shakes her head; she won’t be here long. He tries to hide his hurt, failing, and she pretends not to notice. (She shouldn’t be here. This was never meant to happen, one of them was never meant to find her… She should leave.)
Instead, she sits down on the sofa, says quietly, “Scotch.” One drink. He nods, moving away. In the silence his absence leaves, she looks around for photographs, possessions – it’s in the corner, black and white and a little faded, the frame old and not particularly expensive: a picture of a smiling woman, soft and a little bashful. The woman is mostly homely, but her eyes are sparkling, and in the moment the photograph was taken, they might be the most beautiful thing Melinda has seen in a while.
She recovers herself at the scrape of a chair, sees Paul drawing one up opposite her. He smiles at the familiarity of it, and for a moment she wants a tavern, a fire, and none of the thirty-one years she has had. He passes her a tumbler of scotch, cradling one of his own. There is a moment of silence, his eyes tracing over her face as he seems to drink her in, before he asks, “How do you do it?”
“What?” she asks, startled by the question.
“Look like you do. Was it makeup, or – ?” He gestures to his right eye, the movement unconscious, before clearing his throat, leaning back carefully in his chair. “Never mind.” It suddenly occurs to her that his accent has softened, and somehow she feels sad for the loss of it. “What’s your name?” he asks, his eyes a little frightened, and her throat dries. It suddenly seems too much to give, too much of a contract.
“Melinda,” she says, and the word is heavy in the silence. “For now.”
He takes a mouthful of his drink, and asks, “How old are you?”
She smiles, small and wistful, and replies quietly, “Still older than you. Do you have any family?”
His eyes stray to the picture, and he restrains a smile. “Wren.” The smile fades, and his eyes return to Melinda. “She’s been gone a few years now.” He looks down at his lap, grimacing and seeming to search for words. “I’m sorry for bringing you here. I just… I had to know.” Again he meets her eye, and she sees a frightened seventeen-year-old in an Ypres pub. “I didn’t forget. Even after the war. At first I thought you were dead… then I heard you’d escaped. Someone said they’d seen you on a boat somewhere…”
She nods. “I did. I went to England, you see, and spent the second war there.” He’s silent, attentive, and she can hear his breathing – it’s steady, rapt. “I wondered about you occasionally.” She closes her eyes, exhaling, suppressing the memories. Just another piece of debris left in her wake, unimportant and yet painful to remember. “I’m sorry.” She should have said it so long ago, really, but she had forgotten. She’s forgotten so many things.
“No…” He shakes his head. “There’s no need.”
She rubs her eye with the heel of her palm and a sigh, and the words slip from her before she intends for them to. “I’m so tired.”
He looks at her with a wan smile – and that’s the same, but there are so many new lines in his face, marks of a life she’ll never understand. “Me as well.” He gazes down at his lap, his next words quiet and addressed to his legs. “Been a long time.”
Yes, it has. The words, the new wrinkles he has, the grey in his hair… they’re all sharp reminders that she shouldn’t be here; that he knew someone else, not the closed, cold woman in front of him. Suddenly she’s bolting down her scotch, the burn of it good and needed and familiar, far more familiar than the wine Nathalie used to favour, and she’s standing to leave. It’s just a light touch he lays on her arm, and she frowns, says, “One drink. That’s all I promised.”
He nods, his eyes more than a little desperate. “Thank you,” he says, and he smiles – there’s hope in it, even now. “I’ll see you?”
She nods, once, shortly, unable to meet his eye, and feels him take back his hand. “Thank you,” she replies, and then she’s walking through the hall, out of the door, not looking back.
It’s unlikely they will meet again – New York is a big place, after all. She will make sure of it.
She looks over her shoulder once, taking in the little house, and then turns her gaze to the road ahead, unable to keep herself from breaking into a run.
She returns to the office breathless and shaken; List asks where she’s been, and she replies, “Nowhere important.”
She makes sure neither List nor Mary needs her, locks her office door, and finds herself slumped at her desk, unable to stem the tears running down her face.