Curley is a bit of a mess, her dress wrinkled and unevenly ironed, her hair left down and straight, barely a touch of lipstick. She’s only run down to the store for some sewing things – she keeps hopelessly knotting up her thread and snapping her needles – so she hadn’t thought to dress up.
Well, she’s coming out of the door with her things when she walks slam into a bony shoulder with her nose and it starts bleeding everywhere, right away.
“Oudch,” she says, pinching her nostrils closed with her free hand and tilting her head back. It makes the blood slide down her throat, but she’s distracted from that when she sees the desperately concerned face staring down at her.
“Are you alright?” he asks, his eyes huge. The boy she’s run into is about a foot taller, curly hair brushed neatly, white buttoned shirt now distinctly dotted with drops of red down his right side.
Curley stares at the ruined shirt and says, “Shit.” Then she remembers that’s not very ladylike and says, “Shit, sorry for saying shit,” her voice mangled and warped by her plugged nose.
He stares at her, surprised, and then laughs.
“Hello, I’m Bill Dwyer,” he introduces himself, “and I think we should get you some help with that nose.”
“Curley Foster,” she says, and holds out her handful of needles to shake. She realizes the problem and just shrugs, clear out of empty hands. “It’s no worry, I’ve had worse.”
This is how she meets Billy.
Bill’s smart as a whip, and tries explaining things like maths and patterns to her. Prime numbers and factors and fractions and – well, Curley has a hard enough time counting out proper change.
The thing is, Curley’s not very good at things like that. She can sing whatever you like, and she loves listening to radio plays, but when it comes to books, she’s hopeless.
She tries explaining it to Bill once, during a picnic. His head is resting in her lap, and she’s been carefully disarranging his hair back into his natural curls. She just says, “I don’t understand. I just can’t. I’m too stupid for your numbers, Billy – I can’t even bloody read.”
(She always seems to be swearing. Oops.)
Bill frowns at up her and holds her eyes – he’s a serious, attentive boy, looking her square in the eye the way no one else seems to. She’s pretty far gone for those baby blues.
He asks her, “Can you write your name? Like a signature?”
“No! I can hardly tell a J from an L,” she whines, not wanting to talk about it anymore. She gets enough of this sort of thing at home – Bill doesn’t make her feel thick, not very often, and she doesn’t like this.
Bill tells her, “Then we’d better start practicing right away. You’ll have to be able to sign a marriage certificate by next June.”
She blinks at him. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” and he bites his lower lip, looks up at her through his eyelashes, “that’s when they’ll ship me out. I’ve joined up.”
“Oh.” Curley’s heard about the war in Europe and all that. She’s never really given it much thought, but apparently she ought to start. Then the rest of what he’s said catches up and she echoes, “Marriage?”
His teeth show up one by one as his grin slowly widens.
Bill holds her hand on the couch as he asks her father for permission.
Curley’s father is slumped down in his chair, in his undershirt and suspenders, a half-full glass in his hand.
It’s painfully embarrassing for Curley – it’s awful for Bill to see her father like this, and it’s awful for her father to see Bill at all. She wishes that Billy wasn’t always so carefully proper about things.
Her father looks Bill over and barely glances at Curley before he grunts, “Fine. You want to take on this useless girl, on your own head be it. Joanna,” and now he looks at her, sneering, “you’ve always been a disappointment. Don’t fuck this up or you’re out on the street; God knows I’m not taking you back in.”
Curley doesn’t cry. It’s strange; she always used to. She cries all the time, when it comes to her father. But she doesn’t cry and she follows Bill out of the house, his hand gripping her fingers, until they’re on the street away from any windows.
Billy puts his palms to both of her cheeks and searches her face for something, his eyebrows drawn up and distressed. “Are you all right there, Curl?”
“I think I’m fine,” she tells him. She still feels curiously calm. “I’m not going to go back there ever again, not if I’m alone.”
He smiles a little bit. “Let’s go find you a place you can stay till the wedding, then, love.” And that’s probably why she didn’t cry; she’s not alone anymore.
She stays with a friend of Bill’s, a pretty dark-haired girl named Betty O’Neill, for the couple of months it takes to get the papers filed and the money together for a house. Betty’s parents are very nice and welcoming, but times are hard for everyone.
Curley takes on a job in a factory to pay whatever the O’Neills will accept and set some aside for when she’s married. She and Bill see each other almost every day – now that they’re engaged, almost every day out is ‘chaperoned’ by Betty, but she’s not a stickler for things like kissing on the mouth at the end of the day.
Not to mention that she helps correct Curley’s writing when she practices away from Billy.
“You really can’t read,” Betty says thoughtfully, only a few weeks before the wedding.
Curley leans over her paper and messy penciled letters, letting her hair fall to hide them. “No,” is all she says.
Betty reaches to touch her fingers to the inside of Curley’s wrist until Curley looks up. She says, “I’m not saying it to be mean. I only thought – well, Bill must love you very, very much.”
And really – Curley knows that she isn’t what anyone would expect for someone like Billy. She doesn’t take care of her mousy brown hair, and she can’t draw a line of cosmetics straight to save her life. She’s not very pretty and she’s not very smart, and even the way she laughs sounds like a donkey.
Betty looks her over, obviously thinking along the same lines, and then she smiles. “Why don’t you and I practice some other things? Writing and letters, that’s for you and Bill. But between us, we can learn about stuff that’s really important.”
Curley turns out not to be a terrible cook, according to Betty’s praises. Curley’s never cared one way or another about food or what it tastes like – sometimes the texture of certain things can make her gag, but really, she’s never had too big an appetite.
The hair, though – she really can’t get the hang of it.
“You take out the roller,” Betty says, showing her in the mirror, “and you pin it back. That’s not so hard.”
Curley stares at the hot rollers and declares, “I’m going to burn the house down. Starting with my own thick head.”
Betty laughs. “Well, you have the straightest hair I’ve ever seen. It’s funny… Bill should be the one called ‘Curley’.”
“Oh. Oh! I get it,” Curley says, and laughs, too. “Good one, Betty!”
They only invite Curley’s mother to the wedding, from Curley’s side. She cries through the entire service, and she cries while Curley carefully traces out Joanna Lynn Foster and leaves that name behind.
And then Curley’s crying with her, both of them messy and sad about the things they’ve lost.
Bill helps with her hair afterward, shut up in their new house that he’s gotten good and ready for her. He can’t stop calling her his wife, and she can’t quite bring herself to say the word husband yet. His fingers are gentle and steady as they work out each pin, carefully placed just a few hours ago according to Betty’s strict instruction.
“You looked so beautiful today,” he tells her, kissing the top of her neck, the round of her shoulder. “We’re going to be just brilliant together, you and I. When I’m,” he starts, and hesitates.
His hands wrap around her from the back, running from her elbows to her wrists to tangling their fingers together. Bill says, “When I’m away, for the war. I’ll think of you every day, just the way you smiled at me when you said we’d be together forever.”
“Bill,” she says, trying so hard not to cry again. There’s a time for tears, and either it’s passed or it’s coming, but it’s not now. She lifts their joined hands and kisses his wrists, the hard jut of his bone when he turns them, and she holds on.
Bill only asks once, very late at night. He’s resting on her, his ear over her heart, breathing along in the same rhythm. He says, “You said when we first met that you’ve had worse than a nosebleed. How much worse?”
Curley doesn’t answer him. She tries to keep breathing, not to tense up under his weight. She’s sure he notices anyway.
He doesn’t speak again. He’ll probably fall asleep and let her pretend he never asked.
She tells him, very softly, “I would always hide and he would always find me. That’s all.”
His arms tighten around her and that’s the end of that.
She finds out she’s pregnant three days before the news comes that his unit has been captured.
Curley can’t work in the munitions factory while she’s pregnant. That’s just good sense. She has enough money put aside from before, though; along with the military check that comes every two weeks, she’ll make it until she can work again.
Betty comes to stay with her when she’s six months along and getting clumsier every day. She brings over any baby thing her parents still have around – bassinet, high chair, jangling toys, mountains of cloth diapers. She help Curley write out checks for the bills and keep track of that schedule – Curley forgets about the electric every other month, it seems like.
Betty and Curley write a letter to Bill once a week, on Sunday nights. Curley signs each one carefully; Curley Lynn Dwyer.
The baby’s finally come. I couldn’t wait to meet her. She seems like a right clever girl. Betty
licked liked the name Diana but I think she’s more of an Emmy. Betty was telling me about a lady mathmetishen named Emmy something. It’ll do.
I’m going to start up working again and Betty’s told me she’ll look after Emmy
buring during the days when I need it. She’s been helping me with my letters, as I hope you can tell.
I miss you terribley,
Curley Lynn Dwyer
She only receives one letter from him, late in 1944, when he’s been missing for two and a half years. It doesn’t say much beyond that he thinks of her and he has mates in with him and they all take care of each other so they’re all fine.
Curley has to put that away carefully before she ruins it. Then she sits alone in their bed and sobs, silently, for a very long time, trying not to wake up Betty or Emmy – already big enough to come wandering in to investigate something like this.
She keeps thinking he’s alive he’s alive he’s alive. It’s the answer to a question she hasn’t let herself ask.
She gets a letter saying he’ll be home in one week, and then everything is a flurry of getting things ready for him. Betty’s been married six months by then, off on her own, already starting a family herself.
Bill walks up to their driveway with a hitch in his step, just about skin and bones compared to the man she sent away. He’s deeply tanned and his eyes are sunken, but he smiles and lights right up when she opens the door before he can knock.
“Curley,” he whispers, like he can’t think of anything else to say.
She doesn’t say anything, just jumps for him, gets her arms tight around his neck and drags him down to put his face to her shoulder.
“Mum? Who’s that?” Emmy asks, walking into the front hallway. Her nicely pressed dress and ribbons have all turned red since Curley left her thirty seconds ago.
Bill stiffens and lets go, backs up a few steps, while Curley turns to reach for their daughter. “You’ve spilled your tomato juice, sweet thing,” she sighs, and then turns back to Bill.
He’s gone sickly white, staring at her and Emmy, looking from Curley’s hazel eyes to Emmy’s blue, from Curley’s straight hair to Emmy’s unruly curls.
“Is that…” he says, choking a little.
“Don’t ask me if she’s yours, Bill Dwyer,” she warns, laughing. “Emmy, this is your papa. Go on, like we’ve been practicing.”
Emmy says, “Papa,” and hides her eyes in Curley’s dress. Red is getting everywhere, but Curley couldn’t care a single whit less.
Bill comes close and puts his hand on Emmy’s back, his fingers easily spanning the entire width of her. He looks at Curley with something like wonderful panic.
“I guess you didn’t get a single one of my letters,” Curley sighs. “Well, come on. Wait till you see how good I’ve gotten with all that practice.”
He tells her tiny slivers of what it was like. Sketches out the barest of characters for each of his four mates, a little bit of their adventures. A joke here and there that raised their spirits – but raised them from what, he won’t say. He gives her seconds out of a day, minutes out of every year he was gone from her. And it’s not enough.
She pushes. Of course she does; she’s never quite gotten the hang of considering someone else’s feelings. “You don’t ever want to tell me,” she accuses, just about at the end of her rope after a year of his dodging questions. “You think I’m too stupid to understand what it was like.”
“No, Jesus, Curl – I don’t want you to understand.” He runs his fingers through his springy hair that he keeps letting grow out a little too long, like he’s forgotten how to go to a barber, or that he can. He looks at her helplessly and says, “There are things you don’t – shouldn’t – have to know about.”
Curley crosses her arms and points out, “Well, you shouldn’t have had to live through them. I don’t think just telling me could be worse.”
He shakes his head and explains, “I want to protect you from this.”
“I don’t want to be protected from the last five bloody years of your life, Bill!”
He takes a deep breath in and then out and reaches for her, tucks her hair behind her ear. He smiles and tilts down until their foreheads touch and he breathes, “Oh, fine then, if you insist.”
“So, which of your Secret Nine lives closest?” Curley asks, two weeks later, setting down some tea near his books.
“Dave-o, I think.” Bill doesn’t look up from his notes. He’s in courses for a degree, with all sorts of maths that just look like a jumble of squiggly lines to Curley. “He married Kate last April – she was a nurse when we got in. They’re just two towns over.”
“We’re going to go and have tea with them, then,” Curley decides.
That gets his attention. “What? But – the Secret Nine. We’re going to meet up every nine years.”
Curley shakes her head and asks, “And who says you can’t see each other in between, too?”
David’s a clear-eyed man, who smiles a lot but doesn’t mean it very often. He and Bill talk for about an hour straight about what the others are up to and what they’re working on or studying.
Kate sits with Curley and Emmy on the other couch, and watches them with some shock. She quietly tells Curley, “This is the most he’s talked about the war around me. Ever.”
“Oh, yes, that sure got bloody annoying,” Curley agrees, and then turns to David. “You were blind for a while, weren’t you?”
He cuts off a sentence to frown at her.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” she asks, glancing at Bill for confirmation. “Only ever since Billy told me about it I can’t get a song out of my head. Are the stars out tonight, I don’t know if it’s cloudy or bright…”
David joins with, “’Cause I only have eyes for you,” and then barks out a sharp laugh. “Christ, Bill, she’s just like you said!”
Kate’s staring at all of them like they’re mad, but Billy gets a tiny little turn to his mouth that Curley hasn’t seen since they were married.
“Who’s next?” she asks him on the drive home – they’ve borrowed Betty’s car for the trip.
Bill shrugs, eyes on the road. “Do you really think we ought to?”
She nods and confirms, “Yep. What about… Gordon, where’s he?”
“It’s quite a drive,” he warns her.
She rolls her eyes at him and pouts. “You’re talking like I’m thick again. I hate that.”
He immediately pulls off the road, shuts off the car, and meets her eyes to say, “I’m sorry. That’s not what I meant.”
“I really don’t see why you keep arguing,” she tells the bushes a few yards off, really getting tired of all this. “I just want Emmy to meet her uncles properly.”
In the backseat, still keyed up and excited from the adventure, Emmy calls out, “Uncle Davey!”
“Uncles?” he asks with some surprise.
She lifts her eyebrows at him. “They’re your brothers, aren’t they? The way Betty’s my sister.”
It takes a moment of him staring at her, stunned speechless. Then he comes across the long bench seat, wraps himself up in her and says, “You, my dear, have utterly changed my life.”