Everything changed after the War.
D-Day came and went but the fighting continued. The dying continued. Nazi Germany fell, and so did atomic bombs, care of the United States, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki four months later. The bombs alone killed up to a quarter of a million Japanese people, mostly civilians. The Third Reich killed untold millions. The War killed untold millions.
World War II concluded, nominally, on September 2, 1945. The world would never be the same.
The war ended but the dying continued.
The suffering continued.
The rationing continued.
It was a year before soldiers began returning home, and when they did Captain Jordana Freemantle, formerly an ambulance driver and battlefield surgeon in The British Army, was reluctantly among them. Jordie went from organizing field hospital units and liaising with the Women’s Transport Service carrying injured combatants and shuttling vital military intelligence to attending women’s fundraising luncheons at the Bristol Women’s Institute and organizing appropriate daytime outings for her young children between shifts at St. James’ hospital. Life at home was very different war, and she hadn’t the first idea how she was meant to fight it, if she should fight it at all.
She was home now, deep in the heart of the biting Bristol winter, overseeing the care and feeding of her growing children. This was everything she had fought and come close to dying for many times. Knowing this did nothing to stop her wanting to march to the hospital and demand a complex surgery to scrub into. Jordie was tired of thinking; there was altogether too much to be thinking about, to be remembering. Hell was behind and on her shoulders and in her head. That wasn’t where she wanted to live. Over there.
Jordie flicked open her silver-plated cigarette case to retrieve a cork-tipped Craven ‘A’. She hesitated to light it, caught up watching Dawn squeal as she soared down the tall slide at the center of the playground.
Five months back from the last of the fighting and mending, Jordie still felt out of place in her vermeil gold jewelry and her utility suit and fascinator, more suited to a uniform of trousers, boots, and a military jacket meant to keep out the worst of the rain, or even the scrubs she wore in the mobile hospitals she’d commanded. Jordie wasn’t meant for civilian life. She was never more certain of this than when she was alone with her children. Had she ever been so innocent of the horrors of the world?
“Is anyone sitting here?”
Jordie cast her eyes toward the fair-skinned woman addressing her, instinctively taking her measure. She was auburn-haired, hazel-eyed, and buxom; buttoned up in a navy box coat, adorned at the notched lapel with a pristine Bakelite brooch, and a wine-red beret sat at a daring angle atop her head. A knitted scarf befitting the weather was looped round her neck and tucked into her coat. She wasn’t injured. She was beautiful. She was fine. They would all be fine. The War was won. Can a war with so many casualties be won?
The woman raised her eyebrows when Jordie didn’t respond.
“Sorry, were you speaking to me?”
“Yes, I was asking if it’s all right for me to sit.”
“Please, by all means.” Jordie gestured for the other woman to join her on the iron park bench, waving her unlit cigarette about. “I’m having a smoke, you don’t mind, do you?”
“It’s nothing I can’t live with.”
Jordie permitted herself a hasty smoke, and as promised, her companion didn’t complain. If anything, she seemed envious of Jordie’s chosen vice.
“Care for a smoke?”
“No, no, I gave it up years ago, but thank you.” She spoke in dulcet tones reminiscent of a habitual smoker and whiskey drinker. Jordie was reminded of a woman she used to know.
Jordie’s children, Daniel and Dawn, continued to make merry with the other little ones in their winter finery. Though it was too cold for the children to play outside for long this close to Christmas, Jordie had conceded when confronted with a matching pair of sad brown eyes pleading for room to roam. She had missed her two beyond measure during the War; she only wanted to see them happy now.
“I bet I can guess which are yours,” said the other woman, apropos of nothing.
“I’ll take that bet.”
“The snow-streaked princess in blue and the princeling doting on her.” Sure enough, Daniel stood waiting at the foot of the slide to catch his baby sister as she landed and ushered her swiftly back to the ladder to go again.
“How could you tell?”
“The boy has your eyes and the girl your hair.” The well-dressed lady gave mother and daughter further considering glances. “And your nose, if I don’t miss my guess.”
“It’s a fine nose,” the woman defended on Jordie’s behalf. “Lends character.”
“It’s too long,” Jordie muttered, echoing her mother’s despairing refrain from girlhood.
“Not at all, and whoever’s said so can keep their monstrous opinions to themselves.”
“It was my mother.”
“Say no more. Mothers are notoriously difficult.” She clicked her teeth. Jordie made a wordless noise of agreement. “I still contend she’s wrong. You’re as lovely as they come.”
Jordie looked at her sidelong. Her face was open as the bright, grey sky conveying not an ounce of intrigue. “Thank you. Shouldn’t I know the name of my nose’s staunchest defender?”
The other women laughed. “Romana Gentry.”
“Jordie Freemantle. Jordana properly, I suppose, but I prefer Jordie.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Jordie.”
They exchanged a genial handshake. Romana had a sure, firm grip Jordie admired after an age of shaking the hands of overbearing men in and out of uniform. They settled closer on the bench now they were no longer women thrown together by public inconvenience.
“I reckon I can guess which of those rabble rousers is yours as well.”
“I expect you can. Do your worst.”
Jordie took in the dozen-odd children at play on the snowy park grounds. Excluding her own, there was a roughly even split of boys and girls running amok in the Winter Wonderland that was Bristol’s early snowfall. After a couple of false starts, she zeroed in on a clutch of girls building higgledy piggledy snowmen under the supervision of a petite girl no older than Dawn, attired in a chic cream coat over her holly leaf green frock with a matching knit cap utterly failing to keep her auburn tresses in order. Her direct, vociferous voice was audible across the play area.
“I can see from your face you’ve spotted her. Madeline’s not an easy girl to overlook.” She indicated another child, a boy, keeping to himself at the heart of a rapidly growing snow fort. “That’s Troy, my nephew. He’s lived with us since my sister took ill last year. I suppose he always will now.” She must have passed, thought Jordie, and she thought better than to ask. There had been so much death, it didn’t do to dwell, or one might never see the sun again.
“Yours going stir crazy indoors too?”
“Ah no, I was the guilty party this once. I couldn’t bear to pass another minute staring at the same four walls. It was the park or a day trip to my mother-in-law’s.” Even the words had a chilling effect on burning.
“My, you are desperate.”
“You have no idea.”