My shoulders rocked back into the bed as my husband grunted and strained on top of me. I knew the routine I had to just lay there until he finished and I could wash myself and he would be snoring away in no time. This was the last time we would have to do this for an age. That I'd have to endure doing my marital duties. Henry shivered and made an animal grunt over me rolling off me and mumbling unintelligible words before pulling the blanket over his shoulders and turning onto his side. He was asleep before I could have counted to ten. I got out of the bed and tip toed to the bathroom to wash myself out. I couldn’t turn the light on, I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror afterwards it was too… Too… I just felt dirty.
He was gone tomorrow, shipping off to England before going to France or Africa and to war… It didn’t seem real. I felt guilty I was looking forward to him going… I didn’t really like him that much. I never had felt great being around or with him. He was 24 I was still 18, I got married quickly like most people did when America declared war in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. Well I was married last year, 1943, when this war seemed unending. My dad and my mom pushed me into it and now I was free of him.
I didn’t want him to die… I didn’t want anyone to die… It was just I needed breathing room, to find my head and my… Something. I needed something nebulous to me now which I hoped to pluck from the fog created by the constraints of a marriage which would help me being more at ease with myself. I finished wiping myself off. I really didn’t want to get pregnant. I always cleaned myself out after we had sex, which was always an ordeal, always, I couldn’t stand it, I knew I could still get pregnant I just wanted to minimize the chances.
I pulled the silk robe on which I had on the hook on the back of the bathroom door and made my way back to bed and lay as far as I could possible manage from Henry. He was breathing hard and his snores were unpleasant enough without the snorts and gurgling noises he made. I couldn’t sleep, I wrapped my arms around my shoulders basically hugging myself for comfort and security. I made a mantra of I’ll be alone tomorrow, over and over. It was a security blanket to keep myself sane.
I just stared out into the dark, unable to close my eyes. I was a little disgusted. I was always after sex. Always. I usually tried to find an excuse to avoid it, or do housework late into the evening so he would already be asleep. Drunk and snoozing. He was going tomorrow. He was going and I would be alone!
The night passed slowly, and sleeplessly. Henry didn’t have the same problem he was sleeping easily. I didn’t get that. I would be scared out of mind at the idea of going off to war, Europe was a mess. My dad had gone to Europe in the First World War and not too many of his friends had returned with him, he barely spoke about it but my mother had passed down tid-bits over the years.
When the dawn light finally broke through the curtains of our bedroom I knew I hadn’t slept a wink. Henry woke as the alarm clock rang loudly, the hammer ringing angrily side to side against the two small bells signalling it was 5.45. He groaned and got up. I stayed in my pretence of sleep avoiding any additional conversation past the necessary. I could hear him shaving and washing in the bathroom before entering the bedroom once more and rumanging in the closest.
“Laura,” he tapped my shoulder. I turned, acting groggy and tired, rubbing my eyes. “I have to go.”
He was dressed in his military uniform, with the cap and sleek polished boots which I spent ages shining. He leant over me and kissed my cheek and gave me a sincere and grim nod and left.
Get up. Get up and at least see him to the door. I threw my legs from the bed and found my slippers and went out following in his wake, he had picked up a large duffle bag and had it resting over his shoulder opening the front door. I came and stood behind him.
“Bye be safe,” I called after him. He turned and just nodded again, turning his back to me and walking out. We lived on an avenue full of bungalows with a lot of other military families and all the other men were marching out of their houses in almost unison taking what could be their final steps towards the congregation point at the top of the street to wait for the silver, metal army bus. I wanted to just shut the door and close that portion of my life away until he got back whenever that would be. That was too much. That would have been too rude. He waved to me from the bus stop as the bus pulled up to pick them up, I waved back just before he was obscured by the vehicle. I closed the door and rested my back against it sliding down to the floor. I was wiped out exhausted from not sleeping but equally my adrenaline was pumping. I couldn’t be happier.
Was a bad person? I don’t think so…
My mother came around the house later that afternoon.
“How are things with you darling?” She asked as I poured us each a cup of coffee and slid hers over the kitchen counter.
“Well no let’s be serious here, you’re alone now.”
“I know but it’s been all of four hours.”
“Well yes that’s true I suppose. I married your father right after he got back from the first war and it was hard for me thinking about the danger he’d already survived, I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
“Well I’m sure he’ll be ok,” I mumbled not looking up from my cup.
“That’s the spirit! It’ll just be lonely here without your husband and you don’t even have a child!”
“I know I don’t…” Thank god I didn’t.
“Well you need to stay active to keep yourself… you know sane.”
“Well you could get a job, women have been taking up jobs now the men are gone.”
“I suppose I could.” That wasn’t a bad idea to be honest.
“Well look into it.”
“I will. I don’t think I’d fit in a factory or anything.”
“Well there are plenty of jobs at the town hall for the army. It’s filing, secretarial work but it will help the cause. You can do your part and occupy your time with something meaningful.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Don’t just think about things just do them. You don’t want to wallow about the house and become a shut in waiting for Henry to come back.”
“I won’t!” I whined my frustration growing. I know I wasn’t that broken up about my husband leaving but she didn’t know that! I should be given a little bit of a break before she came after me. It was constant nagging from her. Get married. I did against my best thinking. Have a baby as soon as possible. Nope. Now it was get a job the same day I had been left alone. She really annoyed me sometimes.
“Well you have the car now right?”
“Well drive down there tomorrow morning, no need to waste time and mope about the house, be driven! This your chance to get some work experience!”
“Don’t be snippy with me young lady, I’m trying to help you.”
“I didn’t sleep much last night and Henry left 4 hours ago.”
“Excuses, excuses,” she waved me off dismissively. “We’re at war!”
“I know we are!”
“So do your part, you’re a young lady without children!” She added sternly raising her eyebrows at me heavily hinting at her disapproval of that fact. “You need to be a go getter!”
“Fine, I’ll go this afternoon then!” I cried out just wanting to stop her constant nagging. I didn’t realize I had to be on the receiving end of a barrage of ‘helpful suggestions.’
“Good for you,” she smiled taking a satisfied sip of coffee. I hated that smile, the smile of getting her own way. Acting like I was making my own decision when she really was pushing me into doing what she wanted. “Now do you want to come over for dinner tonight? It’ll be the first time you’ll be alone for pete’s sake.”
“Is it?” I racked my mind, but yeah I suppose that was true, I lived with my parents until I got married and moved out… I hadn’t really thought about that… I guess I could go, I wasn’t the best cook, Henry always berated me with rude and cutting comments about everything I attempted to stir up. “No, first night I should get used to being alone.” I decided against it.
“You can stay over if you like, if you do decide to come the door is always open for you,” she smiled. She was being nice now things were going exactly the way she wanted.
“We’ll see…” I didn’t want to commit to that yet.
“Well I’ll be off to the grocery store, I’ll get some butter and meat with the rationing book as a special treat when you come over honey,” she smiled again and reached over and pinched my cheek. How condescending.
She polished off her coffee cup and got up and washed it up herself. That was a little insulting towards my housekeeping abilities. I had barely drank any of mine, disgusting, foul drink. She left. Two people had left my house today and both times I’d been thankful.
I ran a bath and then changed into a smart, navy blue dress and black shoes with a small heel. I took my reflection in and smoothed my hair down, pinning it back with a hairband. Ok ready to go! I got into the cream colored coupe which was my husband’s pride and joy. He definitely loved the stupid car more than me, not that I really cared too much about it but it was nice to be in control of it and have it all to myself.
I rarely drove that much, I took the bus to the grocery store as Henry had the car out during the day when he was at his old job at the docks. So I took it a little slow and careful down to the town hall. There really wasn’t that much traffic. I guess a lot of the men had enlisted and gone off today, a few months ago wherever and whenever else people joined up and went off to Europe or the Pacific before that. A few men from my neighborhood had died, but I didn’t know them well enough to feel like it personally affected me.
Apart the rationing and men disappearing the war hadn’t felt like it had really come to America. There wasn’t fighting on our actual soil… Maybe that was selfish of me… I’m glad I wasn’t in London or Paris for that matter. Though I was blonde so I would have been alright I guess. I felt terrible for even thinking that.
I pulled up to the town hall. It was fairly busy I suppose for that place, the town itself was becoming increasingly deserted as the male population just emptied out, more and more over time as the fighting intensified. I got out of the car and looked at myself in the reflection of the window, making sure I still looked presentable. Fine. Passable.
I walked up the old timey steps into the hallway of the town hall. I hadn’t really let myself consider what I was doing, I was just tired and irritated by my mother. I wandered around a little lost in the atrium until a middle aged woman with a clipboard came up to me.
“Hello, good afternoon,” she smiled.
“Can I help you?”
“Yeah my husband shipped off this morning and… Well… I thought that…” I was stumbling over what I was looking to say.
“Help out with the war effort?!” She asked smiling broadly, it was a little unsettling, “good for you missy. Do you have any skills?” I just shook my head. I really didn’t. “Well we need someone in the mail room, we get a lot of letters from the local army base, they read them and make sure nothing suspicious has been written and well I’m not too sure what it’s men’s business, then we get a sack full and have to send them back out to their destinations. There is another position…”
“The mail room is fine,” I interrupted, I couldn’t be given too many options. I could push envelopes into pigeonholes or into a sack.
“Excellent! We don’t get too many volunteers because… Well, it is a little morbid but the post also includes the telegrams…”
“Which telegrams,” I asked cluelessly.
“About those who… Who pas… No who gave their lives in the war effort,” she said grimly.
“Oh. Right. Well ok,” I had already said I would no point backing out now and making a terrible impression. I was already in a daze getting myself into this mess… Though sitting at home all day would be even worse. I could have taken a day or two though. Screw it I was here, no turning back.
“Ok phew, good, we don’t get many people who want to work in the mailroom,” she explained. “When can you start?”
“Whenever,” I shrugged.
“Well I’ll take you there now, if that’s ok?”
“I suppose it is…”
I meekly followed the woman with the clipboard off the nice atrium down the stairs which instantly became grotty and dank and dark.
“I’m Peggy by the way,” she said over her shoulder, “Peggy Smith.”
“Laura Mic,” I started fake coughing, “Hollis.” I corrected. I don’t know why I gave my maiden name, I just did. Well that happened. I hope I didn’t have to provide any identification. I could just say I’m not long wed and I forgot in the moment I suppose.
“Right well the woman who works down here too,” she glanced side to side, “she’s off today, but she’s a… What’s the term, she’s an Austrian Jew,” she whispered like she was conveying a top secret.
“Yeah she escaped before the war got serious, but,” she glanced around yet again. “She hasn’t said anything but the gals around here suspect her family didn’t make it out.”
“Right,” I mumbled. I didn’t really know how to respond to something like that.I tried to think how I’d react if that happened to me. I just couldn’t even imagine, couldn’t even start to form an idea of what it would be like to be at war. I was kinda bummed out that I had to use a rationing book. I had made myself feel bad at my own selfish behavior.
“So here is it!” Peggy gestured to a dingy little office, the glass had ‘Post,’ frosted into the window, she opened it up and, ok it was more roomy than it looked. There was what I expected, a sorting table with worn leather upholstery in the centre of the room with a lot of pigeon holes surrounding it, covering every wall from bottom to top. There was a heisen sack on the table tied from with rope at the top, the word ‘mail,’ was printed on it in that familiar army stencil font. I shuddered internally. I didn’t want to be here I realized. I couldn’t back out now. No one was loathed more in society than those who shirked their ‘duty,’ why had I let myself be bullied into this by my mom? What the hell was she doing? I bet she thinks that making me do something in lieu of her participating counted as her own contribution to the service.
“Right so what do I do?” I asked floundering a little, any confidence I had deserting me.
“Oh today? Well that is great! How eager of you!” She grinned. Condescending. “Nothing today, you need to be instructed, taught you know, it’s a little bit slapdash, but the jew will help you tomorrow? If that’s ok?”
“Yeah I supp… That’s sounds great,” I gave her a false smile which she returned enthusiastically.
Leading back up into the lobby of the town hall I heard a squeal and a flash of red hair rushing over to me. Before I couldn’t truly see what was happening the new person had my hands held in their own squeezing them.
“Danny?!” I blinked confused. It was Danny Lawrence from my high school, I hadn’t seen her in quite a few months, since my wedding in fact. I had kind of sequestered myself in my house. Miserable and reclusive. She towered above me, genuinely excited.
“Yeah! You coming to work here too?” She asked happily. It was rare to see anyone other than grey and gloomy since… Since probably 1941. It looked alien. Huh. That was a depressing thought to have.
“I guess,” I mumbled back, I was a little taken out of place. “Yeah.”
“Come on let’s go get a coffee!” She half asked and half commanded taking my hand and pulling me to the steps taking us to the plaza.
“Bye girls! See you later Danny and see you tomorrow Miss Hollis.”
“Hollis?” Danny shot me a questioning look, as she shot a wave over her shoulder which I just copied out of politeness. “I thought it was Michael?”
“Yeah, I gave my maiden name.”
“Oh my god! Did Henry… Did he?”
“No!” I interrupted catching her drift. “I just gave my maiden name.”
“He shipped out this morning, literally today.”
“And you came right to sign up to work? Good for you.”
“Yeah, when did you start up?”
“Like 4 maybe 5 months ago, Wilson was shipped off during my first week here,” she explained. I totally forgot she married Wilson Kirsch… Jesus, I hadn’t been a good friend after school. She was the year above me, ah that’s just a poor excuse. A really poor excuse.
“What do you do?”
“Switchboards, like most of the gals, you know Lola Perry is up there too?”
“I didn’t know, I haven’t been in contact with many people from school.”
“Too smitten?” She asked in a sing song voice, “too happy with your man?” Ew, no. Too miserable to get out of my funk.
“Sure,” I lied. I remember she was happy with Kirsch, I guess she was a Kirsch too now actually.
“Aww. Well it is great to see you, I mean terrible how we’ve come back together but great to see you,” she rambled out as she lead me across the street into a small corner coffee shop. It was almost empty. Like most stores and shops were nowadays. It was depressing. She fished out her cash and slapped down my hand as I followed suit. “Don’t be silly, my treat.”
“Grab a seat,” she asked. The coffee shop was dark and had red leather stools and uncomfortable looking wooden benches by plain wooden tables, which looked to be splintering. I wandered over to a booth and slid down the wooden bench and took out my pack of cigarettes and lit one up with a booklet of matches dragging the ashtray from the centre of the table in front of me. I rarely smoked but I felt like it now. It was a good thing to see Danny again, from what I remembered she was a bit overbearing but if I didn’t speak to people at my new place of work then I would literally speak to no one but my parents and stay home all sad all the time.
Danny sat down opposite me and without asking took a cigarette from my pack and a match from the book.
“I hope black coffee is ok?”
“Yeah that's fine, thanks.” I did need some caffeine, I was wiped out from not sleeping.
“So where's Henry going?”
“Oh right, Wilson went to the Pacific,” she told me. I really had nothing to say to that.
“Ok, so where you living now?” I asked trying to make conversation.
“Nearby, very near in an apartment in town, how about you?”
When we finished the coffee Danny returned to her work in the town hall and I drove back to my bungalow, my empty, lonely bungalow. The whole avenue seemed a little more grim than usual. I had nothing for dinner, the refrigerator and pantry were almost bare and I didn't have the energy to go out again. Using the little ration book was confusing to use. I sat with a glass of water in the small living room smoking just drained. Reality didn't feel quite there, it was a hazy fog I was detached from. I suppose I could use this as a fresh start. A fresh way of life.
I hadn’t really felt like a real person since I had left school and got married. I had just stumbled through the motions of what I had to do. The cleaning, the cooking, the sex, it had all just dragged by in a fog I had been numb to.
I was exhausted, but feeling more positive about things after a short period of reflection. I would get on with things, make my own decisions for once. Not let myself be pushed about by the events I caught up in.
My eyes opened and I was sitting on the couch. Oh wow, I had fallen asleep in the living room. It was dark still outside. Getting lighter though, there was a pale light weaved into the night sky pouring through the closed curtains. I stood up and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I made myself something small to eat with the pathetic amount of ingredients I had. Which was powdered egg on a slice of slightly stale bread. Disgusting.
I had a shower and milled about just trying to kill time before I set off to this new post I had walked into blind yesterday. It was a little unsettling. Things still didn’t feel real. They would probably fall into place when I had a fixed routine, I hadn’t had a routine for a long time. Some order would be good for me. Some order and discipline around which I could carve my own choices and destiny out of. However meagre that might be, it would still be mine.
I hadn’t actually been given a time to arrive, to start at. Danny had dragged me away before the lady… Peggy I think her name was, could give me the details.
I set off around 7.30, aiming to arrive before 8 to see what was going to occur. I needed something to do. As much as I didn’t truly enjoy my husband’s company at least when he was around the house time passed by, there were things to do for him. I showered and dressed in a smart dress again and wore the same stockings as I did the day before, they were rationed as well. I didn’t know why.
There were a group of young, well older than me, women walking up into the town hall as I got out of my, well husband’s car. I hung back. I didn't want to have them taunt me or laugh at me, they reminded me of the clique of girls in school who I was always nervous and uncomfortable around. One thing I did like about staying at home most of the time for the last few months was the ability to avoid any awkward social situations. The hint, a small hint of the anxiety flashed over me momentarily. I shook it off before walking into the atrium.
“Hi!” Peggy ran over to me waving. She was too happy it was suspicious.
“Hi, reporting for duty,” I smiled back trying to fake the positivity. Eugh, why did I say that. I was kicking myself for that.
“Sorry dear you'll have to remind me of your name.”
“Laura M, Hollis, Hollis,” I repeated my maiden name.
“Of course, of course silly me, I forgot easily, this really is a man's job,” she explained slapping her head slightly to indicate forgetfulness. “Well take this,” she handed me a slip from her clipboard. “Just address and full name, age all that. You're over 18 right?”
“I am 18.”
“Good good, even if you're not,” she lowered her voice, “just say your are,” she winked. “It's the effort not the number,” she raised her head again and started speaking normally once more, “anyway remember your way down to the mail room?”
“Well be a good girl and see yourself down and wait for the refugee girl, fill that in and return it to me whenever, ok have a good first day and thanks for helping out and doing your part,” she patted me on the shoulder and hurried off. Ok. I made my way out the antechamber down into the bowels of the building to the post room.
I pushed open the door, the room was empty, I flicked on the light, it took a while to turn on, humming and crackling to life. I guess this was the first day of my new life, I couldn't get out of it now, well when the war ended. If it would end, it had been going for ages and ages with no end in sight. I walked around the table in the centre running my hand lightly across the worn surface. After a full rotation I hopped up onto the table so I was sitting with my back to the door looking up an almost full cork bulletin board. It was all just war propaganda leaflets about saving food and not talking to strangers.
I kept scanning them, I had seen them all before. I took out a cigarette and lit it tossing the pack and matches aside on the table top. I let a giant puff of smoke out tipping my head back letting it spread out around the ceiling.
“Who are you?”
I jumped out of my skin in shock, having not heard anyone enter, falling off my perch, I bumped my head on something falling down.
“Ow,” I moaned rubbing my hand on the pain emanating from my skull. “Ow!” I shut my eyes and held my hand to my head.
“Are you ok?”
I opened my eyes to see a pair of big, dark brown eyes looking at me. I blinked a few times, before taking in the scene. A raven haired woman in a black dress was kneeling next to me. I had never seen anyone who looked like her before. She was beautiful. Like a movie star come out of the screen to life. I stuttered and spluttered out words like a fool before trying to compose myself.
“Are you ok?” she repeated, she had a slight accent, I couldn’t place it. I guess it was Austrian.
“Yeah… I just bumped my noggin,” I said and instantly went red with embarrassment at using such a childish term.
“You…” she paused and smirked, it wasn’t condescending, just bemused. “You hurt your head,” she stressed the word.
“Uh-huh,” I nodded, still having a little trouble finding words. I was bit intimidated by her.
“Laura Hollis. I’m helping you down here,” I said, I felt like I was coming across stupidly.
“Oh someone has finally been sent down to my crypt. You must be pretty naive and gullible to be tricked into taking a role down here,” she was still smirking.
“I guess I am,” I still hadn’t broken eye contact. I was losing myself in the dark pools of her eyes, the pain in my head fading away the longer I gazed.
“I’m Carmilla, Karnstein,” she held out a hand. I glanced down at it before quickly reconnecting our eye contact and reaching out to take the offered shake and shook her hand. This wasn’t going to be too bad I decided.
Screams permeated my mind’s eyes, screeching ghoulish noises of death and destruction broke out of the darkness. Tanks and planes and the cries of war shattered the abyssal shroud I was coated in. Wrapped in oblivion which was torn to pieces by the flashes of Blitzkrieg. I shuddered and moved through the room, it wasn’t my room, it was familiar but I knew it was danger. I ripped open the door and the walls fell down like a doll house being deconstructed.
A plane cut a nasty trail over head and I ran, ran into the haze, tripping over my own feet, there was no path, no world, just white and black with rumbling noises howling from the purgatory I was locked in. The ground shook and knocked me down, I tried to pull myself from the floor but it was sticky and held me down like quicksand. Every time I attempted to regain my footing I was constricted tighter to the bubbling black soil.
I crawled as the cracking noise of jackboots came up behind me. I don’t know how but I managed to turn onto my back propping myself up on my elbows which were ensnared in nightmarish tentacles. Nazi boots, in Nazi uniforms circled me, I looked up holding a protective hand over my face, I could only see gas masks and glowing orange eyes boring down through my soul. The biggest of the stormtroopers reached down at me with a leather glove and the swastika banded arm and I shot awake in my bed.
America. I’m in America. I’m safe in America.
I rolled out of bed and got into the shower. I had a film of sweat, an eighth of an inch layer over my body top to bottom. I stood under the nozzle, letting the boiling hot water scourge my skin. I then turned the knob to turn the jet into a freezing torrent, shocking me back to the real world. Here in America. I repeated that to myself, just focus on that. Don’t think of what could have been as it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen to you.
I toweled off and patted my hair dry and changed into a black dress, I had a small little flat the government had kindly given me. I had lived in a manor house in Austria but… No. Don’t think of that. It’s better to be alive and here.
I walked to the bus stop and smoked waiting for the shuttle to take me to the town hall, for another day of drudgery, as an outsider, a weird foreigner in a strange land. I sighed and flicked away the butt as I got on and flashed the government issued pass and took a seat in the middle. I went down the side entrance of the town hall, so I could avoid the groups of women and older men who worked there. I liked to be a ghost. I hated being the centre of attention, not even that, having any attention on me. It reminded me of darker days and what fixated attention could potentially lead to.
I looked through the glass and saw someone in my little room. One small room at my home to my small room at work. Always alone but it looked like that might change. I pushed open the door, all I could see was a girl with brown, blonde hair, she was rocking her head side to side and blowing smoke up at the ceiling. I spoke and she fell. I walked round to help her. Ok, she was cute. Really cute. No, play it cool, play it normal. People might be tolerant here, but not that tolerant.
“Carmilla, Karnstein,” I introduced myself offering a handshake she took it smiling. She hadn’t broken eye contact maybe… No, she’s just odd. Stop being presumptuous. Things were looking up though.