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With Lisa in wartime

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Summer 1940

"But my dear," said Hilary, carefully brushing out Lisa's smooth, dark hair, "I couldn't possibly deliver the baby for you."

"Why not? You've given me better advice than anyone."

"All of that was as a friend. It's - it's just not done, I shouldn't have the objectivity that a doctor is meant to have." There was a slight tangle in the soft, shorter hair at the nape of Lisa's neck; she put down the brush and gently combed it through with her fingers. "Besides, don't you go to Doctor Dundas? He would count it as poaching."

"He was my doctor for - the last. He wouldn't let me see it afterwards, though I asked him to."

There was a silence. Hilary gazed towards the sitting room window; outside, the last of the twilight was fading from the summer sky. She could not help thinking of one of the first 'midder' cases she had seen as a medical student: a baby born with anencephaly. It had lived only a few hours, which had seemed too long. The sight had cured her of considering gynae a soft option and simultaneously removed any desire she might have felt to enter the field.

"He may have been quite right," said Hilary finally. She reflected that one hardly knew, for Lisa had been told nothing of her stillborn baby beyond the bare fact of its death.

Lisa turned her head to look at Hilary; the ends of her long hair slipped through Hilary's fingers. She said nothing, but her look of reproach was clear enough.

"If you won't have Doctor Dundas, there are any number of first-rate private nursing homes in Cheltenham. I could give you a referral; the place where I sent Mrs. Layton last month is very..."

Lisa shook her head. "I want to have it at home. I've had enough of hospitals. They've done me no good."

Hilary bit back an automatic remonstrance in defence of hospitals. This was, she realised with a shock, the closest to an argument that they had ever had.

"There's the Cottage Hospital close by," Lisa continued in her quiet, determined voice, "if anything goes wrong. And you would, if you were on call..."

"Yes," said Hilary. "Of course I would. Whether I were on call or not. But let's not expect it to come to that."

She hoped sincerely that it would not. If Lisa needed her, there could be no turning away, whatever Dr. Dundas or the General Medical Council might think. And even they would not have known the true reason for Hilary's unease: that a few months ago, she and Lisa had become lovers.

Hilary set the hairbrush aside. "It's past time we were getting ready for bed," she added.

"I don't think I'll be able to sleep now."

In the mouth of anyone else, it would have sounded a complaint or a plea for sympathy. Hilary would have put it down to neuroticism brought on by the hormones of pregnancy, predictable in a woman who had already confessed her susceptibility to nerve-storms. From Lisa, however, it was no more than a statement of fact.

"Perhaps you can decide that after you've tried," said Hilary gently. Her bedside manner was never this good with anyone else. "I'll give you some Medinal and lie down with you for a while, if you think it might help."

Watching carefully, she saw Lisa's face slowly light with the inward pleasure that, once, only Rupert had been able to kindle in her.

"I'd like that," she said. "If you wouldn't mind."

Hilary could not think of anything that she wanted more. But she did not say this. She only got up and held out her hand to Lisa, helping her to her feet. They went up the stairs together.

***

Not long after Lisa had shared the news of her pregnancy, Hilary had begun brushing her hair in the evenings. A kindness offered once soon became a habit. It had calmed Lisa's nerves but pleased Hilary even more, a small recompense that she could make for Lisa's quiet, thoughtful generosity.

This first barrier of intimacy broken down, the rest had progressed with an inevitability which surprised only through its naturalness. There had been no moment of crisis or decision, no ceremonial declaration and acceptance. There had been none of the thrilling, agonising interplay of lover and beloved. For Hilary this had come very much as a relief, for she had not wanted any of those things.

Hilary's only doubts had been matters of practicality and expertise, which she had confessed to Lisa one sleepy evening by the fire under the guise of reminiscence about her schooldays. For a few days the thought had troubled her, that having had a man as a first lover helped one very little, if at all, with one's first woman.

"Haven't you?" asked Lisa, with a sleepy incuriosity. "But I hadn't either, not until Berlin. At school one hardly knew there was anything to want - the physical fact, I mean. Or perhaps we all lacked initiative."

"That's how it was for us," Hilary agreed, thinking of her own hopelessly reserved devotion to her maths mistress, and then to a girl who had, after all, been only two years younger than herself.

They were already nestled so close together on the couch that it was impossible to tell who was holding whom. Hilary's hand rested just at Lisa's waist, a comfortable crease perfectly shaped to her touch.

"Berlin?" she prompted gently, feeling that she finally knew Lisa well enough to take the liberty.

"There was a woman who we both knew. Here in Gloucestershire it's almost impossible to imagine, but it was the sort of thing that one discussed at the more bohemian parties there. In French, of course. Ménage à trois. Curiosity, I suppose, or one could say that it was."

Hilary thought she could imagine how it had gone. "Men often are."

"Oh, it was my idea. In retrospect I must have been a little bit in love with her. Rupert was so taken up with other things; I wanted a friend, more than anything else. She was an artist; after a few weeks it was clear that we couldn't have been less suited. But none of us regretted it afterwards. I'm thankful for that."

"And did you find it different? In bed, I mean?"

Without thinking she had begun to idly stroke Lisa's side, a matter of a few inches, the satin of her dressing gown cool beneath her fingertips. A little further and she met the curve of Lisa's breast.

Lisa caught Hilary's hand in her own and pressed it home. "No," she said. "Nothing could have felt more familiar."

***

Over the past few months, although Hilary never allowed herself to take it for granted, their relationship had become ordered by the quiet habits of their life together, by Hilary's care and Lisa's need, by the calming predictabilities of their shared bedtime rituals reaching step by step into the bedroom.

To feel that Lisa needed her had been, for Hilary, the ultimate aphrodisiac. The reverse she had never doubted, not since the agonising jealousy that she had felt the first time Rupert returned home. She had been shut out, on the wrong side of the door, and she had hardly been able to bear it.

Now Rupert was with the troops in North Africa, and Hilary taking care of his wife at home.

Up in Lisa's bedroom, as she did every night now, Hilary helped her off with her dress, girdle and stockings. While she was tucking these away - for Lisa disliked feminine clutter as much as she did - Lisa unhooked her brassiere. She slipped it from her shoulders with a weary sigh, supporting her breasts with a cradled arm. She had always been generously endowed, by Hilary's comparatively modest standards; since the beginning of this pregnancy she had developed further. Although obviously made to measure, the brassiere had left deep, red marks in the flesh at her side. She would soon need to think of finding the coupons to buy another.

Hilary glanced at her for a moment, then turned away and busied herself with straightening the dresses in the wardrobe. Though she was covered to the neck in tweeds, her sudden, violent blush felt altogether as revealing as Lisa's unselfconscious nudity.

"Mrs. Layton has been telling me it's never too early to think about getting one's figure back," said Lisa, sitting down on the bed. She picked up a small tube of lotion, squeezed a little onto her fingertips, and began to rub it into her skin. "One has to discuss something at the vicar's wife's teas, I suppose. She recommends Ryvita and grapefruit. I often feel it's wise of you not to go."

"She's my patient," said Hilary dryly, leaning against Lisa's dressing table. She lit a cigarette. "I don't need to go."

"Perhaps she's right. But I could hardly feel it mattered - afterwards."

"It doesn't," Hilary said hotly. "And there's nothing wrong with your figure."

If asked by a patient, she might have offered brief, judicious advice on slimming after the baby's arrival; this, one might say, was the argument for keeping one's medical judgment rigorously separate from one's personal life. But she did not care. Though she could not have said when it had happened, Lisa's ripe curves had become her own standard for feminine beauty.

Allowing herself to look at Lisa again, she noted the layering of the marks crossing her breasts and belly, the reddish-purple of recently developed striae gravidarum underlain by older striations still not completely faded to silver. A reminder graven in the flesh that Lisa had borne - and lost - a full-term baby only two months before Hilary's own arrival in Gloucestershire - and that she had taken a lodger because she, for all her self-sufficiency, had thought that she could not bear to be alone.

Lisa rubbed the last of the lotion into her thigh in careful circles. She looked up at Hilary and smiled contemplatively.

"Are you coming to bed?"

Only recently would such a question have been asked aloud, for they were cautious of one another still. With little exception they had avoided directly questioning their own actions, anticipated nothing, relied upon the promptings of habit and instinct. This might have made life simpler but in reality it did not - at least not for Hilary, for whom analysis was a constant habit. Lisa seemed to approach their relationship with the same serene, satisfied acceptance that the small pleasures of life always inspired in her. Perhaps for her it was one and the same.

Hilary stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray on the dressing table. Rupert's ashtray, for Lisa did not smoke.

"Yes," she said. "But first I'll get you your Medinal."

In hospital it would have been a task for a nurse. Visiting even a private patient, she would simply have left the small bottle of barbitone with instructions for its use. With Lisa, things were different.

It was with gladness that Hilary fetched Lisa a tray with her evening cup of tea, and carefully stirred in the five grains of Medinal, which would be tasteless even without a sweetening of sugar. It was a low therapeutic dose, but enough to put her comfortably to sleep within an hour - and Hilary had no intention of leaving Lisa to wait alone for the drug to take effect.

Hilary undressed while Lisa drank her tea, and then joined her in bed. They fit together easily, spoon fashion. Hilary rested her hand against Lisa's belly, and felt immediately the kicking and turning of the foetus.

"She's lively tonight," said Lisa. She had early developed, and stubbornly retained, a settled conviction that she was carrying a girl.

"A good healthy kick."

Hilary felt a proprietary pride in this tangible sign of life - out of all proportion, as she immediately realised, to the small, and mostly token, medical role that she had played in Lisa's advancing pregnancy.

One might have thought, she reflected, annoyed with herself, that it was your baby.

Shifting herself a little closer, she pressed her face to the nape of Lisa's neck, seeking to lose her hot shame against the smooth sweetness of Lisa's hair, which had been washed only the previous day. She stroked Lisa's lower belly, feeling the spate of kicking begin to subside. Soft, coarse curls tickled the edge of her hand. She stilled it where it rested.

"Shall I...?"

"Yes," said Lisa. And then: "If you don't mind..."

"It will help you relax."

Although their habit was one of easy mutuality, there was no keeping of score. Lisa had in her turn been more than generous; tonight Hilary's only thought was to bring her pleasure and ease. It was, she had learned, one of the best treatments for Lisa's insomnia that she could have devised. If only one had thought of it sooner.

Hilary slid her fingers down between Lisa's thighs. She touched her as she would herself, rubbing in slow circles, dipping now and again between labia minora already slick and parted with arousal. Lisa took her pleasure quietly, as she took most things, only the hitches in her breathing and the rhythmic pressure of her hips into Hilary's touch betraying the intensity of sensation. Her climax came almost unheralded; she turned her face into the pillow and pressed her thighs hard together, deliciously trapping Hilary's hand amidst warm, dripping moisture.

Afterwards she lay still, her breath coming in great sighs. Her back was damp against Hilary's skin. For a long while Hilary thought that she might drift off into sleep in silence. Then, finally, she said, "Thank you, my dear. That was just what I needed."

"Darling," murmured Hilary. No other response was necessary.

Slowly Lisa's breathing slowed and gentled. So she passed almost insensibly into sleep, with Hilary lying awake beside her.

Lisa, reflected Hilary, had said once that Rupert told her everything. Over the past months she had mentioned this fact once or twice more, as quietly and matter-of-factly as she had done the first time. As Lisa did not generally repeat herself without reason, one could only presume that there was a message to be drawn from it. Most likely that the reverse was also true: that Lisa told Rupert everything, and therefore that he had accepted the fact with...

Only Hilary could not imagine how he would have accepted it. She hardly knew the man - and, despite Lisa's scattered confidences, she hardly knew his relationship with his wife.

Remembering how she had once speculated on the women who found commercial advantage in Rupert's loneliness, Hilary began to chuckle dryly at the thought that Lisa, as her landlady, might be said to have found commercial advantage in her own. Then, as her breath caught, she wondered whether she was holding back laughter or tears.

"Hilary?" murmured Lisa, the words dragged slowly out of sleep. "Are you...?"

"Shhh, my dear. It's all right. Go back to sleep."

However comfortable and domestic her situation with Lisa might be, Hilary knew and acknowledged herself to be no more than an interloper, a paying guest on sufferance. One could not look to any promised continuation, only be thankful for the moments as they passed. Given the uncertainty of the future that was all anyone could do.

Nonetheless, tonight as even after the happiest of evenings, she found herself lying awake while Lisa slept, asking herself: what happens when Rupert comes home?

***

From the window of her surgery waiting room, Hilary could see the Home Guard drilling on the village green. It was an unprepossessing sight. Knobby-kneed, anaemic local boys of sixteen or seventeen attempting to appear martial, generously mixed with the physically and mentally deficient and with the simply elderly. Many of them were patients of hers. As she could pick out their various ailments at a hundred paces - rickets, gout, old farm injuries - she was not surprised that a medical board had done the same.

As a bulwark against the threatened invasion, it was hardly encouraging.

They had survived the war thus far in Gloucestershire, though it might be said that it had touched them little thus far. There had been the influx of new workers at the aircraft factory, filling Hilary's evening surgeries to the brim. Then there had been the evacuees: Lisa, with typical generosity, had taken in three young siblings from Southend-on-Sea while suffering through her own early morning sickness. Hilary had treated their lice and impetigo without qualms, but had been able to do nothing about the bed wetting, and her new responsibilities at the EMS hospital, filled to bursting after Dunkirk, had left her seldom at home. She had been relieved - and thought that Lisa, quietly, was too - when their mother arrived to collect them and take them to an aunt's home in Ipswich. If she had been asked her own opinion, however, she would have advised keeping the children well inland. She had seen the effects of the war at first hand.

Hilary locked the surgery door against after-hours callers and went back through to the dispensary. She spent a long while straightening the drugs on the shelves, making certain in particular of her inventory of pentobarbital, chloral hydrate, and hyoscine hydrobromide. Having given both ends and means the proper consideration due to the year and the season, she shook her head, left the dispensary undisturbed, and went to drive home. She had ample supplies of Medinal in her bag, if the need were to arise. But it was not worth thinking about now.

Upon her arrival in Gloucestershire Hilary had been both charmed and annoyed by her panel patients' eagerness to pay in barter - whether in addition to, or as substitution for, the specified fee. She had always refused the offer, except in such cases when the patient's pride required a sacrifice of her own.

Now, with rationing beginning to bite, she would have refused them entirely - if it were not for Lisa.

Tonight she carried out to the car half a dozen eggs and a brace of rabbits, most likely poached. As she drove home, the rabbits laid on top of a copy of the Times on the back seat, she wondered idly whether the rightful owner of the land was a patient of hers as well. Despite her country childhood she felt a touch of squeamishness over them, but one could hardly have admitted this after spending twenty minutes lancing an abscess on the backside of the grateful donor. And they would make a good meal.

Dinner that night was roast chicken with mashed potato and peas fresh from the kitchen garden. Although Lisa would never have said, Hilary suspected that she had done most of the cooking herself, with minimal assistance from Annie's teenage sister, who had proved no substitute when Annie had joined up.

Hilary felt guilty at being looked after so thoroughly; her relationship with Lisa had long ago stopped being one between lodger and landlady, yet none of the essentials had changed. She wrote her rent cheque monthly (a criminally low figure, she had come to conclude) but received for it far more than she deserved. Thermoses of coffee for night calls; hot meals carefully laid out for her, whatever time she might come in; warm, welcoming fires in the sitting room... one hardly knew where the duties of a landlady stopped and the tributes of an affectionate friend began. Thankfully what happened in the bedroom could not be said to form part of either.

"This chicken is very good," observed Lisa softly, breaking into Hilary's reverie.

Although this was true enough, Lisa did not usually praise her own cooking. Hilary was surprised, before remembering that she had contributed the chicken as well, a day earlier.

"Yes," she said. "It was John Melton's. The carter; he lives in Stroud. I saw him today, drilling on the green with the Home Guard."

Lisa usually took a healthy interest in the village gossip but at the moment she seemed considerably more absorbed by her dinner. She nodded abstractedly, pressing peas and mashed potatoes together against the back of her fork.

"He won't go far against the Nazis," Hilary continued, "with the bad leg and his lungs in the state they are. None of them will: that's my medical opinion. It seems foolish, putting them on parade as if they stood half a chance against the Wehrmacht."

"People like to feel they're doing something, I suppose. Whether or not it does any good. We're not any different, are we?"

Lisa had a way of cutting to the heart of things without any extraneous fuss. She was, of course, entirely right.

A few days earlier Lisa had gone upstairs and re-appeared with a case in her hands: Rupert's old service weapon. It had not seen action since the Second Battle of the Somme, but, said Lisa, he had cleaned and oiled it during his last visit, and left it with her against such a contingency as they now faced. Hilary's respect for Rupert's prescience reached new heights. There was also an old fowling piece - unearthed from the garage and now propped uneasily in a corner of the hall - which one suspected would serve as no more than an irritant to German soldiers.

They had begun a series of polite demurrals over who should handle Rupert's service weapon, which had been ridiculous on the face of it because neither of them could shoot, and which had ended inconclusively.

"I don't suppose we are," said Hilary.

Despite her criticisms of the Home Guard, and despite her best efforts, she had found herself indulging increasingly lurid fantasies of herself and Lisa holding out in deepest Gloucestershire against the invading German troops, slipping away together into the countryside to carry on the fight when the Home Guard had gone - for who would look twice at two women nearing middle age?

One had only to look once at Lisa to know that all of this was impossible. She was now entering her third trimester. She could not run, or fight, or take to the hills.

If they did encounter the Germans it would not be behind a barricade on a narrow country lane, nor holed up defending the entrance to Mott's Cave. It would be in their own back garden, or their own kitchen. It would be just the two of them against a company of soldiers. And neither of them knew how to handle a gun.

Hilary had made her own preparations, quietly gauging the potential of the kitchen knives and then seeing that they were sharpened to a surgical edge. Although her work had been devoted to the preservation of life, she found it only too easy to envision slipping a carving knife between the ribs of an SS soldier, or laying him open from sternum to pelvis in one stroke, spilling the intestines out. It required no imagination. She could play out the gesture precisely in her mind; she knew how it would feel, the resistance as the blade sliced through muscle and skin. She was ashamed to realise that she relished the thought. In defence of Lisa and her unborn baby, she would gladly kill, if she could.

Yet she knew that trained soldiers with guns would give her little chance - and that was if she were by Lisa's side at all. Her heavy wartime responsibilities often kept her away from home for twenty-four hours at a stretch, between her stints at the EMS hospital and the new patients she had picked up after Dr. Lowe's retirement.

"If you hear the bells ringing for an invasion, and I'm not here," she said, "you should go straightaway to the EMS hospital. Get there however you can. I shall have to go, of course, wherever I am, and I may not be able to get away for days afterward; perhaps weeks."

Perhaps never, she thought.

It had been on her mind recently. One could predict so little of the future, except that there would be a desperate need for trained surgeons after an invasion. Even more so after a successful one; she could not imagine that able-bodied young men, whether civilian doctors or not, would retain their freedom for long. How ironic that her gender should give her the professional advantage at last. If it could be called that.

Lisa looked curiously at Hilary, laying her knife and fork across her empty plate. "We're meant to stay off the roads. You need to drive, naturally, but I should only get in the way."

"Yes," said Hilary impatiently, "but we're miles inland. If you start off as soon as you hear, you'll arrive before anything could possibly happen. Just say you're in labour if anyone stops you, it wouldn't be difficult to believe. And then - I shall have you admitted. I'll think of some reason. You'll be safe there."

"As safe as anywhere."

Lisa's smile was enigmatic, serene. Pater could have written essays on its depths. She rested her hand for a moment on the ample curve of her belly, then reached out to take Hilary's.

"Hilary, my dear, I'm grateful to you, more than I can say. But I couldn't possibly. You must see that. I'll take my chances. We'll all have to, wherever we might be."

Hilary choked back a fruitless protest. The rest of the world might take its chances; she could not bear the thought of Lisa having to do the same.

"Anything might happen," she said finally, "if we're apart."

Lisa was slowly rubbing circles with her thumb against the back of Hilary's hand, as though Hilary were the one in need of reassurance and comfort.

"Yes, of course. But, you see, it's different for me. I've lived under the Nazis before, when we were in Berlin. And under the Fascists in Rome. Rupert was always traveling; he would be away for weeks at a time. I got by somehow. This will be worse by far, but it gives me - a sort of perspective. One can endure so much more than one expects."

"But you're pregnant now."

"I was then, too."

"Of course," said Hilary, feeling the slow dawning that comes when one grasps that one has missed the point all along.

Thinking only of how she might protect Lisa, she had never reckoned Lisa's strength, nor realised the equal fortitude that quiet endurance might yet require of them. She knew, now, the fount of her longing to keep Lisa always by her side.

It was not for Lisa's sake; it was for her own.