It was so easy to feel alone, now; during the war there was never time for it, never a moment to spare between the blood, the drumbeat of dire news, the onrushing river of drowning, broken men. There hadn’t been time for loneliness when she was struggling against starched, piggish Victorians who couldn’t see her, as a woman and as an Indian, as anything more than a servant. Even after the Somme, once dear Michael was lost, her grief was just another thing she packed into her nurse's bag and took to work with her. There was no time to mope like a Bronte heroine while she was working, or studying in secret with one of the greatest surgeons of the age. And there were her friends, both at the hospital and the rooming house; pragmatic Abigail, fellow nurse and flatmate who’d become a beloved older sister; jolly, flat-footed Archie, whom she’d never expected to even tolerate, had become a fine physician and a true confidante. Less expected, and even more confusing, she had found herself besieged by suitors. That was not always welcome or calming, but it was certainly a convenience in avoiding loneliness. Her brief association with Captain Gates had been diverting, but in the end unwise, and then the influenza had claimed him along with so many others. And poor Simon, the one shellshock case she had allowed herself to become close to, until he had clung too hard, gone back to Australia now, where she hoped he would not look out upon his homeland and see the blazing Turkish sun.
A door opened behind her, and a phonograph spilled the maudlin complaints of a Vaudeville singer into the road.
...After you’ve gone, there’s no denying. You’ll feel blue, you’ll feel sad.
You’ll miss the only pal you ever had...
She closed her eyes and drifted to the grueling summer of 1918. It would get so stuffy in their third floor flat, she would open all the windows and doors, poor herself a tipple of gin, and sit in the kitchen sill in a fashion of which the matron of nurses would certainly not approve. The sound of messy ragtime or jazz would drift from the open window downstairs; a clattering, out of tune piano, an imprecisely plucked banjo, a lazily strummed guitar, and sometimes, when the landlady was not at home, a striving but not quite succeeding trombone. She would brace her foot against the bricks and perch there with her eyes closed, listening and occasionally laughing, until the music inevitably stopped and the sound of confident American footsteps came clanging up the fire escape stairs.
“Shouldn’t you be studying?”
“Shouldn’t you?” He climbed right past and over her into her kitchen to purloin himself a glass.
“I already have, of course. Are you stealing my gin again?”
“If I get my own I won’t have an excuse to come up here,” he said, brash and open in a manner she found both alarming and fascinating. She moved aside on the wide sill and made room for him.
“I hope you are studying,” she told him. “If you don’t succeed in the medical college, I don’t see many conservatories that would be willing to take you.”
“And how many conservatories accepted you?”
“Of course. Is it important to you that I be successful?”
“Compassion is part of my profession; I want the best for everybody.”
“I’m not a patient, Florence Nightengale, you don’t have to wipe my brow. Although I wouldn’t mind…”
“Is that what you think I do? Wipe brows?” She adjusted her uniform's skirt so she wouldn’t trip over it as she got up to leave, and he tugged playfully at the hem of her apron to keep her from going.
“I’ve seen what you do.” Alongside her in the wards, and in the ambulance service. And he knew her secret, that Lucien Dubenko had taken her on as a protege, and had told no one. “For a nurse, you’re already a better doctor than I’ll ever be.”
His hand was still resting on the fabric of her skirts. It was very inappropriate, even though said patch of cloth wasn’t near to touching her body. She watched his fingers. “I think you’ll be quite fine,” she said, sincerely. He looked up at her face, then, she could tell by the way his head moved. She fixed her gaze down at their hands, six inches apart.
“Nobody in my family ever got out of a one room schoolhouse before,” he said quietly. “Where I’m from… I thought I was lucky to get out, see the world, New York, London. Said I’d never go back. But they need doctors there. Good doctors. Who’ll treat everybody. You see enough people blown apart at the front, torn up in factories, you realize...”
“We’re all the same,” she nodded, looking up to find him smiling at her. She wished it were true.
Abigail appeared beside her, jostling her off her mind’s path. “Looks like they’ll give us a room for the night. A semi-respectable hotel for two semi-respectable ladies.”
“Fine,” she agreed. Abigail looked out into the harbor. “Is that your parents’ ship out there?”
“No, it’s past the horizon by now. That one’s coming in, I think.” From Le Havre, perhaps Lisbon, or even farther. Carrying refugees, wanderers, lost souls... Or just average people, she scolded herself for her lurking romanticism. Fortunate people with a firm, fixed route and a destination.
Her mother had pleaded with her with sorrowful eyes too full of disappointment to weep. “Come back with us, come back to Kapurthala. Where you belong.” To raise an independent daughter was her mother’s greatest tragedy.
‘Beautiful Kapurthala,’ her father had so often said, and she supposed it might be, but she barely remembered it now. “Perhaps I belong right where I am,” she had argued, half-hearted. Perhaps she didn’t belong anywhere, and so it wouldn’t matter where she’d go.
Her father took a long look inland, as if he could see the whole, gray island from here on Portsmouth harbor. “What life will there be for you here? Do you think they will let you be a nurse now the war is over? Do you think they will let you be a doctor?” He didn’t want an answer. “No. There is a husband waiting for you in Kapurthala,” he’d reminded her as the ship’s horn blared. “Even at your age.” In his mind that settled the argument. “There you will have a home. Here, you will always be a stranger.”
They were right, if sometimes she forgot it. But she’d feel just as much the alien in Punjab. If they really looked at their grown, unmarried daughter, who dressed like an Englishwoman, spoke like an Englishwoman, lived alone, had unseemly friendships and bizarre, unthinkable ambitions, they’d have known she was right about that.
‘There’s a husband waiting for me back in London, too, if I’ll have him,’ she could have told her parents. At least that might have given them some peace of mind on their long journey home. A proposal of marriage from one’s professional mentor was as excellent an arrangement as could be hoped for a woman in her position. She was certain of his adoration, and more importantly, his respect. She felt great affection for him, and such gratitude for the opportunities he’d opened before her. A sensible woman would have accepted immediately.
For a good while now, however, when it came to such matters, she felt altogether insensible.
“The sun’s going down.”
“I’d better go inside before I’m seen keeping company with the likes of you.”
He smirked and tipped his flask into her teacup once again, and they toasted the descending haze. “Think it’ll be a quiet night?”
“On the ward? No, it’s never quiet. There’s always someone…” Suffering.
“I know. Just hoping. Will you be around later?”
“Do you mean to ask if I might prowl like a fiend through the underbelly of the surgical wing in the dark of night, carving up cadavers under the tutelage of my mad mentor?”
He laughed. “Yeah, that’s what I meant to ask.”
She nodded. “Naturally.”
“Have any plans for breakfast?”
“You really are trying to ruin my reputation, aren’t you?”
“Maybe I’m trying to improve mine,” he told her. She was holding his banjo on her lap, trying to make any sensible chords out of it. “Maybe,” he continued, “I like spending time with you.”
She looked up, and after a moment, “We have time together here,” she said quietly.
“They say the war could be over soon.” He was suddenly frustrated. “I never…”
‘Nor have I,’ she wanted to say. The words felt like lead shot in her chest.
“I wish you could see the Delta,” he said, abruptly.
She stared, understanding and wishing she didn’t. Then he was up and then kneeling in front of her. He reached out, and gently arranged her fingers properly on the neck of the instrument. He held her other hand under his own, and for several seconds stroked her thumb. “You need a pick,” he said. “Surgeons can’t have calluses.”
“I’m not-- I mean, I’ll never really be--”
“Sure you will. Look at everything you’ve already done. Really, I never met anybody like you. And… I’m glad I did. That’s what I wanted to say.”
He strummed their joined hands, and the strings vibrated all the way through her body. She hadn’t noticed when it had gotten dark. ‘I’m a very modern woman,’ she thought. “I’d like to have breakfast…”
He smiled, and that vibrated all the way through her body, too. “See you at sun-up, then.” He bounded down the stairs so fast she worried he’d trip over his new Oxfords. She leaned over the rail and called after him, waving the banjo. “I’m late!” he called back. “Keep it!”
“Sun’s going down. We should get settled. Early trip back in the morning.” Abigail’s voice jolted her into the present. She found she’d been gazing west into the channel, far past her parents’ ship, as far west as her imagination could cast itself, into the broad Atlantic.
It had been a year since the armistice, and the whole world was still an open wound, uncertain of ever healing. Her parents were on their way home. Abigail would soon be married. And so many friends, such very good friends, gone away. Yes, it was easy to be lonely now.
It was on the train back to London that she decided; she would accept Lucien’s proposal. It would be an eccentric but comfortable life. They would have a true scientific partnership, a shared passion for pushing the bounds of medicine and social progress forward into this still young century. It was an ideal offer.
She sat waiting for him in the anteroom of his surgery, hands folded primly in her lap to keep them from fidgeting. An ideal situation, she repeated to herself.
Lucien’s dour housemaid appeared in the doorway. “He’ll be delayed.”
“Of course. That’s fine.”
“It’s a bad one.”
“I’m sorry. Will he need assistance?”
“I’m afraid the poor gentleman’s done for. These motorcars…” She shook her head as if nothing else needed said. “He’d like you to wait in the study, if you would. Follow me,” she instructed, as if Neela did not already know the way.
She sat in front of Lucien’s desk, glancing over at his books and papers to see if there was anything she could work on. The housemaid scowled a little, but didn’t scold her. Then, as she was about to close the door behind her, turned and said, “Oh. You’ve had a letter,” as if she’d just recalled.
“A letter for me? Here? But why not--?”
“Well, it found you here, didn’t it? Perhaps the sender presumed… well, what people might presume isn’t any of my affair.” She filed crisply through a box on the desk and retrieved the envelope in question. “From America, no less.”
Neela’s outreached hand froze. “From… from America?”
The maid pointed to the sender’s address and tapped, annoyed at being questioned, before she placed the letter into Neela’s shaking hand.
She was late, it was nearly an hour past sunrise now, the streets would be swarming with people. A secluded meeting was unlikely, but an early morning picnic in a crowded park would still be a lovely reward after a long, arduous night. She had barely cleaned herself up, hardly arranged her hair before she found herself dashing across the campus toward their appointment, hoping he would still be waiting.
She didn’t find him there. She found a commotion in the street, and pushed into the crowd of onlookers, hoping for a sight of him. None came. What she did see set off her instincts, until she realized this was only the aftermath. She found the uniform of an ambulance service. “What’s happened here?” He gave her a funny look, and she made her voice less demanding. “I’m a-- I’m a nurse. I see there’s been a collision? What’s happened, is there anything I can do to help?”
The driver snorted. “It’s all done now, miss” he said, gesturing to the thickening pool of blood in the street. “Not much but God and the knife can help the poor sod now, ‘m’afraid.” She followed the man’s gaze over to the pavement and a crumpled, bloody shoe.
And then she ran, ran, ran.
Lucien’s silver letter opener was cold in her hand. Or her hand was cold. Her arm was ice. She could not unfreeze it. Until she could; she hastily sliced through the paper, lucky not to cut her hand. There was no long, confessional letter. Not like the ones she’d composed and then burned, not knowing where else they could be sent. A small card fell out first. She picked it up and softly gasped. A watercolor postcard. Sunset rose and gold, blue and green, a landscape like she’d never seen. She dug her fingers into the envelope again, and they closed on a strangely shaped silver object. A note was attached to it with a string: "If you’re not going to give my banjo back, you’re at least going to need this." She slipped the pick over her thumb, put her hand to her mouth, and laughed.
The study door opened and Lucien smiled warmly at her, despite his difficult case. “If I’d known you were here earlier, I would have had you observe. Well. We’ll have plenty of opportunities, won’t we?”
She met his eyes. “I do so care for you,” she said softly, and his face fell.
‘Maybe I don’t belong anywhere.’ ‘An ideal situation.’ ‘Any sensible woman.’ ‘Beautiful Kapurthala.’ ‘You’ll always be a stranger.’
A tear fell onto the pretty postcard and made a rainbow streak to the paper's edge. Slowly, she turned it over to read the message:
"I wish you could see the Delta."
She nested the card within her palms. “I will…”