The blackout curtains rendered the hotel room pitch black. Unable to sleep, Tom couldn’t see Harry. He was aware of her warmth, her breathing, the feel of her slip against his thigh as she curled up next to him, facing away but he could see nothing. The panic of being in solitary returned to him and he couldn’t breathe.
Moving quietly so he didn’t wake her, Tom clicked on the low-watt bedside light and felt for his cigarettes.
Oh God this was such a bloody mess. She’d done everything she could to make his homecoming a wonderful event and he’d let her down. He was always letting people down, he was a complete failure.
He still felt slightly queasy from the large dinner she’d bought him. After years of living on cabbage soup and black bread, the food was too rich and he was unable to finish it. She’d apologised for the rationing but it had made no difference, his appetite was diminished. A fitting analogy, he thought – no appetite. Once more, Harry had offered him everything on a plate, both literally and figuratively but once again he’d not been able to accept either.
Why was that? What was wrong with him? Was it his upbringing or the privations and mental torture he’d endured in Colditz? A gentleman didn’t take advantage of a woman, even if that woman was more than willing, and Harry was a lady. Even if they were to be married, he owed it to her reputation to wait until their wedding night. He couldn’t, in all conscience, dishonour her and then go back to his regiment, perhaps to be killed and leave her spoiled and soiled, unfit for marriage and possibly pregnant.
Oh God! He was such a bloody prig! He’d seen death and destruction all around him, he’d seen men shot down right next to him, worn their blood on his battle dress … how many of them had died virgins? The war had changed everything, people were rutting like pigs all around him, not knowing when the next day might be their last. Why did he have to be so completely hog-tied by his principles as a “properly brought-up young gentleman”? Was he going to die a virgin? Did that even come into the equation?
Harry stirred in her sleep and he looked over at the perfect curve from her neck, over her shoulder, the thin strap of her slip bisecting it like a country road crossing the soft hills at home.
Was that it? They’d grown up together; did he feel too close to her? She was his … brother. He’d never, ever thought about her as a girl until that last night, his going away party when she came downstairs in that beautiful ball-gown. He’d always loved her, she was his soul mate but as a boy.
Oh God, oh God, was he queer? Did he fancy other men? Was he unable to perform with Harry now, as a man with a woman because he didn’t want her? He loved her with all his heart but … Oh God! The thought hit him so hard that he lit another cigarette and sat upright in bed. There had been only one temptation. His school was of the old style – cold showers and long runs, no thinking about “beastliness”. Any boy caught indulging in that sort of thing was sent down immediately.
Young Hamilton hadn’t been lust, it had been pity. The poor skinny boy with the weak chest who couldn’t do games and who suffered so badly from the cold who’d shivered by his bedside saying
“Willis, Willis, may I come in with you please? I’m freezing to death here.” The windows were wide open and the howling gale was icy so Tom had moved over and let the younger boy climb in alongside him, hugging the stick-thin body to his to warm him. Had that been desire? Had he wanted to … had he wanted him …? He’d had a reaction but that was just physical, there were no … emotions. They’d been warned about that, their tackle would betray them but they were young gentlemen and must rise above that kind of disgusting stuff.
Was that it? Now that Harry was so obviously a woman, and a very beautiful woman, in her WRNS uniform, was he incapable of wanting her because she wasn’t a boy any more?
Unbidden, the terrible vision of Harry’s face came to his mind, when she was forced to witness him being beaten for something they’d done together. The only concession the Brigadier made to Harry’s gender was that she could not be whipped but he found a more insidious and vicious punishment for her – Tom would receive double the lashes, one for him, one for her and she would watch. He lay face down across his father’s desk, the switch rising and falling on his bare buttocks, biting his lips til they bled, so determined he was to not cry out but Harry was sobbing, pleading. She it was who screamed when the switch fell, not him. Afterward, Harry, holding him tight, crying, saying how sorry she was, Dick coming to join them and put Tom between them, going to find salve for his poor sore bottom.
Grandmama had called them both to her study when Harry was about 13, the first day of the holidays and explained, not unkindly, that they were both growing up now and it was unsuitable for them to go swimming in the lake naked. They would both wear swimming costumes and there would be no more playing in each others’ rooms. Certain things, certain behaviour was now off-limits. They were not little heathens and would conduct themselves accordingly. Tom felt as if the wonderful innocence of their childhood had died and now they had to live with shame and prudishness.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t know what was expected of him. You couldn’t spend years in a boys’ school or in the army and not hear the other chaps talk about girls. Technically he probably knew as much as any unmarried man of his age but doubted that most of it was reliable information. Was he really just terrified of getting it all wrong again, of failing and so he was unable to react physically, to return the warmth of Harry’s kisses, the passion of her caresses?
Think about that party, he told himself. Remember how she looked in that dress. Tom Willis’ famous memory clicked back on and he re-lived the night.
Harry glided down the sweeping staircase, one hand on the banister and Tom stood transfixed. This was his brother Harry – his hunting, shooting, fishing, tree-climbing brother.
“Close your mouth, Tom, you’ll catch flies,” she smiled as she allowed the Brigadier to escort her into the ball room. He’d watched her, standing like a statue by the punchbowl as she danced with one young man after another but he’d not had the courage to ask her. He was a terrible dancer, he’d be useless at that too.
Extricating herself from the waltz-hold of an elderly neighbour she slid over to him and whispered “Rose garden, now, I need a smoke.”
Outside, they’d sat on a stone bench and watched the moonlight on the lake and he’d supplied her with cigarettes.
“What on earth is the matter with you, Tom? You haven’t said two words to me this evening?” He’d swallowed hard, clumsy and tongue-tied.
“You don’t look like you, Harry.” Her laughter pealed out and her shoulders shook.
“Well I could hardly come to your farewell party in jodhpurs, could I, you noodle. You look so dashing in your uniform, really scrummy.”
“Thanks. You look … beautiful.” There, he’d said it. She turned her face to him, pale in the moonlight and said
“I’m glad you think that, Tom, because I have a present for you, a going-away present. Something for you to take with you.”
He looked perplexed and she raised him to his feet, sliding her arms around his waist and tilting her chin up towards him.
“Kiss me, silly – it’s not that difficult. Go on, kiss me.” Tom was scarlet with embarrassment and … something else he could hardly identify but he planted a chaste kiss on her lips. “Oh for goodness sake,” she complained. “No, not like that, I mean like a … oh come here,” and with that she held his head firmly and pressed her mouth to his, not allowing him to wriggle or escape. Her mouth opened slightly and he could feel her tongue, very lightly between his lips, brushing the edge of his teeth. He jumped back, alarmed.
“Where did you learn that?”
“Amanda showed me – her gardener showed her. Good isn’t it? Come on, try it again, it’s jolly good fun once you get the hang of it.” And so they’d learned to kiss, their arms twining around each other, and hands fumbling in clothing, seemingly with a life of their own, until Tom leaned back and drew a long, shuddering breath.
“Stop, Harry. This will go too far. I can’t…” She slid back into his embrace and looked him in the eyes
“Yes, you can, Tom. I want you to, that is my gift to you. If anything should happen to you over there, I want me to be the last thing you think of … and this will make sure of it. I love you, Tom and I want to do this … for you.”
In the bedroom, Tom Willis sighed and shook his head. The memory of that night had saved his sanity in Colditz – the thought of coming back to Harry had been the only thing that stopped him taking his own life.
He suddenly realised that thinking about the party and about Harry’s offer had aroused him. He felt hot and breathless and a quick exploratory grope under the covers confirmed it.
He moved the ashtray and ran a hand along Harry’s shoulder, down her back and the length of her thigh, moving the silky fabric of her slip aside to feel the softness of her skin underneath. Harry stirred and rolled towards him, still half-asleep and dreamy, nestling under his arm, her breast nuzzling his chest and he knew then that it was going to be possible. Perhaps it was what she wanted more than anything else and he was selfish to deny her.
“Just be patient with me,” he asked, switching off the light and lying down by her.
“Entirely as you want, Tom -you lead, I’ll follow – I want you to be in charge.” For the first time in their lives together, Harry wasn’t going to be bossy. She wanted him to take control. Perhaps it was true what the chaps had said, most women just wanted to be dominated. He smiled in the darkness and let his hands wander over her. She’d be his wife; they would do this whenever they wanted. He’d better get to know what he was doing.
He was going to say something but changed his mind and just lost himself in Harry.