The pub was atrocious, shining with the forced cheer designed to crowd out of mind the dingy truth of life outside—the Blitz had scored claws deep into the neighbourhood, rubble covering the street and grit coating clothes, hair, dark under the nails. Last night the bombers had hit Westminster, hundreds dead, a chamber of Parliament collapsed. London went on, regardless, it had all these months. Christ, but he hadn’t known how lucky he’d been in Bridstow, less important by far. But it hadn’t felt right to knock about in his old flat after Sandy, a miasma of death around the whole place, and his in-charge, who Alec wouldn’t have thought capable of human emotion, had nodded understandingly—damn the man—when he’d asked to be transferred. Nothing out of the way about it, all eager hands and foolish minds were rushing towards London to get themselves blown up.
He had held forth at some length about it, wandering around the stripped flat to scrounge the last things left lying around—Sandy’s Treasure Island tucked under his side of the mattress, the Spode he had left till the last to roll gently into sheets—and Ralph, playing with his lighter and nodding along looking terribly bored, had snapped, “I’m sure they need doctors in India, Alec, why not try your luck there?” and he hadn’t been able to find any way of saying that he didn’t disapprove of the desire to save others, to ease their deaths, that he only found the eagerness unseemly, insulting. Bim hadn’t died easy because he’d died a hero. Sandy hadn’t.
Those children tonight. Oldest couldn’t have been more than ten. Both parents dead, too, and one of the ambulance crew clutching the infant close to his chest, still mewling faintly. God above knew what the nurses would do for it, likely nothing could be done and the baby would be dead by the time he got back on shift in the morning, but it had been a relief to see the Sister rescue it, face tight with anxiety, soothing its cries gently. The volunteer had stared stricken after it, no notion of what to do past the initial crisis, and Alec, caught in an instant of sentiment he would deny if quizzed about and was already regretting, had put a hand on his elbow and dragged him away. He had heard one of his colleagues recommending the place—for location, if little else—and had dived into it sight unseen, still towing the boy behind him.
He’d come in willingly enough, nearly half dead-weight, but was now looking around him with rising signs of repugnance. “You’re very kind,” he said, “but I should go.”
“After you’ve had a drink,” Alec returned, not unkindly, making a conscious effort to keep his voice low and even. In the filtered light the boy looked damnably like Ralph, though the air of startled innocence was new and strangely laughable. He couldn’t be more than twenty.
“I don’t,” he said, which Alec ignored entirely on the pretence of fetching their beers; there was enough of a din that it was more than plausible, and he found himself strangely reluctant to let the boy off on his own. Some civilians sometimes took it too hard, and ten to one it had been his first day on the job.
“I don’t drink,” he said again, when they were set in front of him.
It had been a while, Alec thought, biting back his first response, since anybody he knew considered downing a beer drinking. “Saves me getting back up in ten minutes,” he said, and, “I’m Alec Deacon.”
“Andrew Raynes,” he said, and drew a finger through the rim of condensation left by Alec’s beer. “I’m a conscientious objector.” He looked up with that, jaw squaring. He really was very young.
“Quaker?” Alec asked, and off the surprised nod, added “I’ve never known any of your people to run from danger.”
“That,” Raynes said, heating, “is not what it’s about, Dr. Deacon.”
“No?” The beer was better than he’d expected—not a sample of the synthetic trash that had proliferated almost everywhere—and the prospect of sitting in the relative dark with an attractive, challenging boy, surrounded by indifferent strangers, suddenly appealed very strongly. ‘D’you think you’re shirking danger, running around in the Blitz?”
“That’s... surprisingly pragmatic,” Raynes said, and Alec smiled into his beer. “Don’t you think it makes a moral difference?”
Alec shrugged again. “I think this is a crucial war. And I think fighting it is less a choice than an obligation. But I think also that we need somebody to pull people from out of the ruins. We can’t all fight, in any case.”
Raynes peered at him, narrowing eyes in a way that looked terribly incongruous with his open countenance. “It’s not a matter of personal courage, Dr. Deacon. I chose not to hand my will to an institution, that’s the crux of it. Soldiers aren’t allowed to refuse to kill people they know to be innocent.”
“I suppose,” Alec said, “that they choose it because the alternative seems far worse. I doubt anybody asked the Poles what they wanted, poor bastards.” Again the squared jaw. Alec thought, twined, Ralph would love him, and Ralph would massacre him, and sighed out a helpless breath of laughter. At least he no longer immediately wondered what Sandy would make of every situation, every new acquaintance. Small mercies.
The boy bristled, his hands tight on the edge of the table, his skin going blotchily red. “That hardly justifies turning one’s self into an automaton.”
An automaton. He was very young indeed. “Have you known any soldiers, Raynes?”
“I was an orderly at an EMS hospital,” he said, “before this.”
“Did you think them automatons?” Gently, gently, too many people must have turned on him for being a CO, why nobody thought clearly for themselves was an abiding mystery. “Or were you not on talking terms with them?”
“We spoke.” A new stiffness to him, curling the body inwards, shoulders hunching. “One of them was my friend, I thought.” Like an animal curling around a great wound; he’d seen men cradle a broken arm to their chest just so.
“One of mine,” Alec said, skirting gently around it, modulating his voice to a low drawl, “was a pilot, one of the first they put in the air. By the end of it he was running on less than no sleep, drugged to the gills. The last I saw him, he’d accepted that he would die—of statistics if nothing else—and he’d chosen to come to my birthday on his downtime instead of falling over and sleeping on the airfield.” He’d been too hopped up to do anything so relaxing as sleep, had kept Dennis up for hours after Ralph dumped him there: but what mattered for a story was probability, not truth.
Raynes said, “I’m afraid I don’t take the moral,” and sat up with a conscious effort till his shoulders met the wall. Even with circles round his eyes and a quiet tremor in his dust-coated hands he looked ridiculously wholesome, like an escapee from an illustrated story for children stranded in the dank and dingy world of wartime London. Alec, examining his own desires while swirling the last inch of froth, found only boundless frustration—who had sheltered the boy so resolutely like a mid-Victorian virgin forbidden even from hearing dirty words?
“No,” he said, still kind, “I don’t suppose you do.” It would be last call, soon, and he had an early shift in the morning and an empty flat to return to. “It hasn’t one. Never mind. Are your digs close by?”
“Yes. I’m sharing with a friend.” Sandy had always said that, that full year—always, “I’m sharing digs with a friend”, never mind whether he was speaking to stranger or to Theo; it had, by the end, become a shared joke. “You should come speak to him, Dr. Deacon; I still get too excited to sound out my reasoning properly.” He had risen from his seat, and stood looking earnestly down, casting Alec in his looming shadow.
“If I can get away from the hospital at a decent time,” Alec promised, chiefly to be rid of Raynes, and surprised himself by meaning it.