War is never beautiful.
There is nothing attractive, nothing to admire. The bravery ends with the soldiers. The soldiers; young, beautiful men with souls and everything ahead of them. I've met and seen so many of them, alive and dead. There are men who are incredibly courageous and they look at their wounds with adoring eyes, thankful that they are going to live and will have something to show for it. Some are terrified, they haven't the slightest idea why they are where they are and they only want to return home to their mothers. My heart aches for them. All of them. I would give a soldier my heart, if I knew it'd help to ease his pain.
Virginia Thorne, Diary Entry #20
The country celebrated each time a POW escaped and returned to home. England had fallen behind with their count, but after a few excruciating weeks, they had achieved a few long awaited victories. Many families had been able to hear the good news. The war was far from over, yet many refused to lose hope that their loved ones would return. Nurses wanted all the men to return. Virginia, especially, wanted all the men to return.
As a young girl, her mother had told her that if she decided to be a nurse, she'd have the heart for it, but perhaps too much of one. Virginia had been the sort of little girl who cried when a small creature died, that buried kitties and puppies and other woodland creatures, because she wanted them to have a restful afterlife. Every night, Virginia poured her feelings into diaries, lamenting about how much it hurt her to know that some soldiers, some young men, never made it home.
She had worked a few years in the emergency division, but after seeing the life fade out of the wounded's eyes, she moved to a typical medical facility. In the case of a bombing or an overabundance of wounded soldiers, the facility where she worked would be utilised as a shelter, where she would again have to witness the death and agony of men. However, for the time being, she had made herself comfortable with physicals, common ailments and regular check-ups for the soldiers.
Virginia pulled the door open, slipped in, and pressed her back against it, allowing the door to close quietly. Inside, a soldier – her patient – was already waiting for her. He was a smaller man, though the stiffness in his posture told Virginia that while he may have physically been a boy, he was not a boy in his mind nor his spirit. His arms were straight at his sides, one hand clutched his hat.
'Hello,' she said, flashing him a welcoming smile.
In response, he said nothing. His bright eyes watched her, staring at her in silence. Virginia lifted her shapely brows and cleared her throat, hoping to elicit a response from him. Still, nothing.
Cupping the clipboard as though it was a delicate bubble that could pop under too much pressure, Virginia scanned over the darkly printed information in front of her. The name caused the corners of her shapely lips to curl up, peaking at the corners. So very coincidental, she thought. 'Jack Rose, is that correct?'
He nodded, but said nothing. Virginia did not take offence to his gesture, or lack thereof; silence was common in a soldier, especially one who had been through the horrors that he had. Although she hadn't been told prior to their meeting, Virginia was a very efficient reader and before she spoke again, she knew all about his life at Colditz.
As all of her movements were, the nod she gave him was delicate. 'And your... significant other?'
'Are you sure? It's written here as... Elizabeth Carter.'
'Yes, I'm sure.'
'I see. In that case, I've made a note to remove her. I'm so sorry... it's required of me to ask, to keep our records current. You understand, Mr. Rose.
Routine physical, she had been told. Mr. Rose had been complaining of headaches, though he hadn't suffered a crippling one. More of a nuisance, they'd been described as. The door opened suddenly, revealing the pudgy face of one of the centre directors. Respecting Jack's presence with a polite but brief nod, he turned his squinty eyes to Virginia, who had frozen in mid-write.
'Miss Thorne, when you're finished... I'd like to ask you about the organisation for one of the centres.'
'Of course, I'll be in right as I'm finished.'
When she turned back around to face her patient, his plump lips had twisted into a smile.
'Yes,' she started, smoothing her uniform out. Since she had already thought about it earlier, she knew exactly what he had realised. 'It is. T-h-o-r-n-e. With an e...'
'Mine is with an e, too.'
She peeked up at him, his expression was playful. Her cheeks flushed with colour. Instantly reacting, she bowed her head and pretended to be very concerned with his papers. 'What do you think is the cause of your headaches, Mr. Rose? Stress, perhaps?'
She could feel Jack's eyes on her, floating delicately over every curve and line in her body. It wasn't a greedy gaze. He clearly wasn't the sort of man who typically invoked the uncomfortable feelings that a woman experienced when a man visually gobbled up her appearance.Virginia had her pen poised against the paper, scribbling quickly. Jack leaned forward, trying to see what she was writing, and once he caught a peek of the words 'stress-induced', he nodded. 'Yes, that's correct.'
'Let's begin the physical, Mr. Rose.' Virginia returned to the cabinet, retrieving the necessary equipment; a blood pressure metre, a stethoscope, and a few others. She always avoided bringing over large quantities of things, having found it envoked a nervous scatter in the patient. After arranging them neatly on the table, she picked up the stethoscope and turned to him.
'If you could... unbutton your shirt for me, Mr. Rose.'
Jack quickly began undoing the larger buttons of his uniform jacket, looking off to the side. Although she wanted to respect his privacy, Virginia was unable to look away, and paid for her curiosity when Jack's eyes travelled to hers. He shrugged out of the jacket, then hesitated with it folded over his arm.
'Um, do you...'
Virginia was at his side, hands extended. 'I do, I'll put it right... I'll hang it up on the coat rack, right there.'
'Thank you,' he responded, handing the coat over. Draping the stethoscope around her neck, Virginia did as she had promised, carefully arranging the coat on the hook to avoid any wrinkling. She knew better than anyone how important a soldier's garments were. Jack had continued undressing himself, and his top shirt and his vest underneath now sat next to him.
Virginia approached him, pausing to insert the rubber pieces into her ears. She held the rounded piece between her fingers, then nervously placed her palm against his chest, pressing the piece flush against the smooth plain of his pectoral. His skin was soft and warm underneath her touch, and Virginia turned her eyes away to avoid his eyes. 'Breathe normally, if you could. I've just got to listen to your heart.'
Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump. As though he had just finished running a marathon, his rabbit heartbeat boomed in her ears. Virginia slowly raised her eyes to meet his. 'Mr. Rose...' She straightened up and removed the pieces from her ears, allowing it hang round her neck.
'Mr. Rose, I'm by no means a psychologist, but I've read that it helps to hear someone's voice. If it will calm you, I'm more than happy to do so.'
With wide eyes, he blurted, 'Why? Is there something wrong?'
'No, not at all. Your heartbeat is very quick. It's very clear that you're nervous, Mr. Rose, but I'm not going to hurt you.'
'I'm sorry, it's just that... doctors make me nervous.'
'You needn't apologise. Would you like me to talk to you while I do this?'
Virginia nodded once, and replaced the earpieces. 'Take a deep breath for me, please.' Approaching him like a frightened animal, she pressed the piece back against his chest, to which Jack responded by closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. The exhalation pushed his lips forward.
'There we are, that's much better.' Jack did not respond, but continued to breathe steadily. After a few moments, Virginia nodded and backed away, returning to the table with the other devices. Allowing the silence to continue, she removed the stethoscope from her neck.
'Do you study psychology?'
Virginia hesitated before returning to his side with the device. 'No, I'm... merely a nurse. Although, I do... nevermind.' She lifted his arm and wrapped the band around it, securing with a gentle yet firm press of her fingers. She began squeezing the rubber ball, watching with soft eyes as the indicator rose higher on the metre. For a moment, there was nothing but the constant sound of air being forced into a tube.
'Sorry, it's none of my business.' When Jack spoke, retracting his interest, Virginia released the air from the band all at once, recorded the numbers, and began unwrapping the cloth from his arm.
'No... it's nothing, really... just that I quite enjoy reading books... and I've been reading some on psychology, which I find terribly fascinating. I thought perhaps if you'd needed someone to talk to...'
'No, I wouldn't want to bother you with -'
'Please,' she urged. 'If you need to... I think it would be... well, I'd... I'd love to hear your stories.'
'Well, thank you. I'll keep that in mind, Miss Thorne.'
Much her dismay, she had checked all the necessary vitals that one would check, and nothing had shown that he was in any great physical danger, resulting in him needing to stay longer. That being said, the documents had informed her of the entire reason he was here, and she'd need to address that. Virginia sighed and tucked the clipboard under her arm as she walked to the coat rack to retrieve his uniform.
'All right, Mr. Rose... I believe that's all I can do for you. Whenever your headaches return, take an aspirin and lie down... in a cool, dark room. Try not to think too hard about anything, merely... relax.'
Jack nodded, giving her a modest grin. He dressed himself quickly and scooted past her, exiting. Virginia had purposely bowed her head as he left, wanting to avoid the disappointment if he hadn't looked at her one final time. As soon as he'd gone, Virginia realised that she hadn't worn gloves. Peering around her to see if anyone would notice, she brought her hand up and pressed it tightly to her cheek. The warmth that he had left had long gone, but Virginia still found it in her imagination to feel it.
As if an alarm had sounded, Virginia shot up from behind her desk and rushed to the window. Jack was walking down the street with the proud gait of a soldier and she might not have known it was him had he not paused and turned to look up at the windows. She inhaled and held her breath, waiting to see if he could see her through the dingy windows that reflected the cloudy skies above. He turned his head slightly, his shoulders heaved, then dropped, closing his eyes as if savouring the memory – and began walking back down the street. Having seen him again, Virginia wanted to crash through the window and run into his arms, take every ounce of pain away and let him know how much she appreciated his bravery. Her fingers drifted up to her exposed collarbone, stroking it gently.
She snapped her head in the direction of the voice, yanked too harshly out of her daydreaming. 'Yes, coming!'
Chapter 2: 2
The next two days had dragged along for Virginia. She worked, organised, took care of the patients she was given, following procedures as she had for the last year and a half of being at that particular centre. Despite having seen a handful of young, handsome men over those forty-eights hours, none of them had affected her the way Jack Rose had. As hard as she had tried, removing him from his mind had been an impossible feat. She couldn't stop thinking about the timid, pouty soldier with his smooth skin and rabbit heartbeat. Jack Rose had left such an impact that everything, even a simple checkup, was inordinately romanticised.
The following morning, Virginia made the journey to the centre, although she hadn't come in as early as usual. She had been dismissed from her morning duties, as a group of new girls were training and took over her work. She hadn't made haste with the journey, walking leisurely along the paved roads, stopping briefly to greet familiar faces.
The moment she set foot in the centre, the sense of purpose skittered back up to her, wrapping itself around her neck like a pet squirrel. They had been fortunate in not having any bombings nearby in the past few days, so the centre had fallen into its habitual scuttle.
“Good morning, Miss Thorne.” Elizabeth, an older woman who had been working for the centre for what she could identify as 'ages', passed by, giving her a warm smile.
“Morning,” she nodded, heading towards the corridor. As if there had been a Thorne-radar put out, Sarah came bustling around the corner. Sarah was famous for being able to carry large quantities of things without colliding into the walls, as she was doing now. Virginia pressed herself up agains the wall to avoid getting in her way. “Morning, Sarah.”
“Someone was here for yah this mornin',” Sarah shouted from behind the stack of folded linens which she was carrying. “Handsome too.”
Virginia threw herself after her friend, nearly dropped her belongings. “Was his name Jack Rose? Sarah? Sarah! Wait!”
Despite her questions, Sarah had ducked into the next room with not a single word more. Frustrated and clenching her fists, Virginia ran after her, repeating her name. Sarah was a rambunctious young girl who had come from Ireland following her two younger brothers when they had been drafted into service. They were both still alive and well, and visited the centre often. Her accent was heavy and deep, making everything she said sound far cheerier than others. She had a round face with a porcelain complexion, emphasised by the freckles that peppered her entire face. Sarah also had developed a penchant for romance, and involving herself in the romantic affairs of others. Especially Virginia's.
Toeing the edge of the cupboard open with the tip of her boot and balancing the linens with one hand, she began unpacking them, arranging them neatly on the shelves.
“Sarah, please. Was his name – ”
“Yes, Virignia! Yes. His name was Jack Rose and he was terribly sorry to have missed yeh'. Is he your new lovah'?”
“New?! Goodness,” she pouted. “You make it sound as if I've a new one every week.”
“So... he is, then?”
Sarah set the final square of fabric on the shelf and twirled round with crossed arms. “Yeh' think I'm daft, do yeh'?”
“Of course not, Sarah, but you... he's just a soldier that was here two days ago. It was probably a courtesy visit.”
Sarah threw her head back, fox-coloured ringlets bouncing with each chuckle. “A courtesy visit – oh, yer' funny today. Soldiers don't pay nurses courtesy visits, Miss Virginia, if ye've not noticed.”
Virginia collapsed into the wooden chair, both her heart and spirit deflating. It's just as well, she thought. I'm acting like a child, involving myself in a soldier's business. It's none of my mine. Recalling the advice that her mother had told her when she was young; falling in love with a soldier can be a blessing and curse. These are men who haven't seen a living woman in months. Virginia knew that she was not only smart, but fortunate in looks. Most men only saw her beauty, she kept her place and didn't expose her studious side. Believing for a minute that Jack Rose had taken an interest to her for more than that was an outrageous notion.
Not more than two hours had passed before her interest in Jack Rose flared up again, reminding her just why she missed him. She had just sank into her routine of filling out her diary, scribbling down the day's thoughts when the door to the office room was thrown open, hitting the back wall with a clatter. Thinking she had been caught daydreaming on the job, Virginia nervously threw her hand to a nearby document and began filling out information.
“Virginia!” Sarah shouted, bursting into the room. “You've got to come out and see!”
'Please, it must wait. I can't. I'm busy.' Since Sarah had the interest of a child, finding everything and anything fascinating, Virginia thought nothing of this outburst. It was another among many.
“Virginia...” she whined, trying to get her attention. A devious expression had mutilated Sarah's ruddy face, which made her incessant whining even more unnerving. “Nah, yer' not. Is that yer' diary!? Look now, go on and – ”
Virginia didn't budge, she continued scribbling furiously at the document in front of her. “Just because I've my diary open on the desk doesn't mean I'm writing in it. It really must wait, Sarah, I just ca – ”
“He's 'ere again... with a book, this time. If you don't have him, I certainly will. He's a gift from God, he is. This is his second time comin' today – what's wrong with you?”
Virginia tried to find her sense, although the idea that he had come with a book had completely shaken her. “I-I-I wasn't here the first time, Sarah.”
“Right... which accounts for only half of his appearances. Don't be cheeky, Virginia. Go on and talk to Mr. Rose.” She drew out the sound of his name, mocking Virginia's already obvious interest in the boy. “Ye've always wanted a soldier. I know it's true. Besides, I've already told him yer' here, don't make me a liar.”
Virginia panicked. Her heart rate quickened, her slender fingers began to shake, causing her writing to falter. Sarah had no reason to lie to any man, especially a soldier. Refusing to see him would not only be a lie on Virginia's part, but would undoubtedly cause harm to Jack, considering what he'd been through in the past. Quickly, she lifted her hand and pen to the diary, hurriedly jotting down a small entry.
Bless him, she wrote. Bless his soul if he's reaching out to me, finding companionship in me. I should feel honoured and embrace the opportunity to better a soldier's life wholeheartedly. My heart, I know, wants it as much as my patriotism does. Virginia Thorne, Entry #21
Slapping the book shut as she scooted herself out from behind her desk, Virginia tucked the diary back into her coat pocket. Sending a warning glance towards Sarah, she rounded the corner and began walking down the hallway that led to the main room. Virginia walked steadily, baulking the attempts of her inner young girl, who wanted to show just how excited she was to see him. Had she not, she would've ran down the hallway, flying through the doors and not stopped until she had thrown herself into his arms.
And there he was. Standing stiffly, his hat still on his head. He had something tucked underneath his arm, but from the angle Virginia had come in from, she was unable to see exactly what. She ducked back behind the safety of the door before he had seen her. She flattened her palm against her chest, steadying her breathing. After a moment, Virginia rounded the corner, striding towards him with a graceful confidence.
“Mr. Rose,” she said, putting on her best show. As soon as he heard her voice, he turned to face her with the same bright eyes she'd seen before. Virginia wanted to melt into his hands, fall into him and disappear amongst him. As she closed in the distance between them, Jack reached up with his free hand to remove his hat. Courtesy, Virginia marvelled, was something that a soldier always maintained. The usual bustle continued around them, unaffected by their meeting. No one paused to look nor inquire, knowing that they had no place in listening in to a soldier's conversation. Virginia bit her bottom lip and returned her eyes to Jack.
She opened her mouth to speak, hoping to apologise for missing him earlier this morning, but was cut off by Jack's nervous, hurried way of speaking.
“I don't want to keep you, I know you're busy but...” His head dropped down to the book in his hands. “I found this... and I thought you'd want to have it.”
He hesitantly extended the book, as though he was embarrassed to have considered giving it to her in the first place. It was a worn copy, but a copy nonetheless. Virginia recognised the words on the front instantly; it was one of the most detailed accounts of psychologies that had been written. She'd heard its name referenced in many other, smaller works and Virginia had only ever dreamed of owning it.
“Oh... my...” Virginia cupped a hand over her mouth. “This is...” Her eyes scanned over the title again and again, as if she was unsure she was reading it correctly. Her fingers trembled with excitement, but instead of taking it and cramming her nose directly into the pages, she shook her head so harshly that her soft, white curls swished across her cheeks. “You shouldn't...”
“If it's useful, please take it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rose. You're so very kind. I haven't, well, I don't have copies of my own, I only read what's made available to me... thank you. Thank you so much.”
“It was my pleasure.” Looking like the cat that had got the cream, Jack pushed the book into her arms and leaned forward. His hand jutted awkwardly out from his side and Virginia slowly shook it, putting a barrier to avoid getting too interested. She failed, and began nodding slowly as she drifted off into her own thoughts, remembering what his chest felt like underneath her fingers. She nodded again, continuing the handshake for far long than necessary.
In a whisper so slight that she almost hadn't caught it, Jack said, “Okay, goodbye.” Virginia still had her fingers wrapped around his, holding on delicately, but firmly enough that he couldn't pull away. Once she realised this, she threw her head down, allowing her curls to fall in her face. The memories scampered away like mice. “Oh, oh... I'm so sorry. Goodbye.”
With that, Jack took his hat out from underneath his arm and gave her a gentle smile (which, to Virginia, was as much of a gift as the novel). After putting the hat on and adjusting it to a picture-perfect positioning, he nodded once and turned, heading towards the door.
“Oh,” The sound of his boots stopped, and he pivoted back around, looking at her. “One last thing, I found chapter four interesting. Perhaps you will too. Good evening, Miss Thorne.” Jack descended the few stairs quickly but heavily, despite his slightness. Virginia stared at the door, clutching the novel to her chest.
“Lordy, lordy,” Sarah howled as she shoved passed Virginia, jostling her out of her daydream. Sarah's laughter echoed as she stomped into the next room, obviously expecting an explanation. Virginia wasn't going to say a word, not until she'd steadied her voice, finished her work and returned home to her cat and tea kettle.