I'm sure there are plenty of historical inaccuracies. Please don't hang me for them. I've only done mild research for this and I'll gladly fix any blaring errors.
London, 17 December 1940
Bomb debris had mostly destroyed the bathroom. Bits of shrapnel in the form of twisted sheet metal and brick had pock marked the white porcelain bathtub. The toilet wasn’t in much better shape. Maxine marveled that the small medicine cabinet mirror had not shattered just yet.
She bowed her head in front of the latter, running a damp rag against the back of her neck. The dreams had returned with a vengeance, threatening any possibility of sleep. Her sweat soaked through the thin cotton of her pillowcase, waking her in a physical state not unlike that of her dream. Cold, damp and shaken, she had resigned to stay awake. Sunrise wasn’t far off.
For the moment it was silent and Maxine rested in the comfort of her mind, blocking every sight and smell in exchange for blissful peace. It was the natural state of affairs to pretend that nothing was wrong. That the dining table wasn’t cracked down the middle. That the china wasn’t nicked and broken. That the streets outside weren’t full of craters. This sort of mild disbelief that London could be anything but the perfect center of Britain helped hide the devastation of war….for a little while. Despite anyone’s best efforts, there really was no ignoring the air raid siren. That screeching yawn that wailed for hours and hours on end every night to signal another bombardment.
So wrapped in the quiet morning hours, she didn’t notice the relatively normal sound of the creaking front door or the soft thump of footsteps as the owner entered the bedroom. His shadow dissolved in the soft fluorescent light of the last unbroken bulb and Maxine turned to look up at her husband. He hadn’t shaved in two days – or bathed for that matter. She could see the grime and oil in the pores of his face and the creases of his hands. His shirt clung to his flat stomach with something she suspected might be blood. He reeked of sweat and dirt and urine.
It had been over six weeks since she had last seen him. A short time for many wives, but a painful separation nonetheless. And now he was home and she couldn’t touch him. He didn’t make a move towards her either. Brian Malloch knew his wife very well, though they had only been married two years and the majority of that time had been spent apart. In fact, when he had taken time to consider it, he could count on one hand the number of months they had been together since their nuptials. Doubtless, that contributed to their general lack of affection now. Nevertheless, the Scot in him wouldn’t remain quiet for long.
“Does the water work?”
Maxine smiled a little. “So does the shower,” she promised. “Though I wouldn’t use it barefoot if I were you.”
“Maybe a sponge bath would be safer,” he said softly, but the playful twinkle in his eye had returned and she couldn’t help admiring it.
“Och, aye?” she asked in a decent imitation of his Scottish accent. “With what sponge?”
“Ye dinna mean to say they stole that too,” he said in reverent shock. Looting was rife in London. Anything that could be pilfered for use and/or money was taken. No exceptions. Maxine had come home three weeks ago to find their flat tossed and everything of value stolen except what was on her person and hidden in the floors.
Including her bathing sponge.
“You’ll have to make do with these.” She nodded to the wet rags draped over the side of the sink. Brian wrinkled his nose at them, but gave a short nod of acceptance. He stepped further into the room and Maxine moved past him to leave. Before she cleared the door his arm swept around her waist and his hand rested firmly against her stomach, as if protecting what was no longer there.
She froze at the touch. Her stomach had resumed its flat shape, but it was still sensitive. The doctor had said it would be some time before everything felt normal. Clothes were sometimes too much for her; his hand was like heavy lead searing her skin. She could remember when that was a welcome sensation. Now it served as an awful memory.
With great reserve, she calmly pushed it away and walked out, leaving Brian to stare at her retreating form and the remnants of their bedroom.
The streets were a sad sight. Many cobbled parts of town had been destroyed, leaving brick and cement wastelands behind. Brian could hardly recognize many of the shops he had once used when he first moved here. London was a different city now. It reminded him of the ruins of Urquhart Castle that he had once visited as a boy. Those ruins felt like home compared to this.
His stomach twisted at the thought of home. Thinking of Scotland was always a source of pain. It had been almost seven years since he had stepped foot on his native soil. Brought to London for schooling and kept there by marriage, the war had quickly destroyed any plans of returning home. He had been recruited as a Sapper and now, three years later, he was still in this stinking city.
It was a nuisance even before it was bombed. London didn’t appeal to his Highland state of mind. It was too closed off and too full of Englishmen. His second day in the city seven years ago had landed him in a fight with some drunkard at the local pub. His fourth day at basic training had landed him cleaning the WC because he spoke out of turn. Even Maxine hadn’t really liked him. He was too rough for her well-born prissiness.
He’d shown her. Yes….he had. And he’s married her and given her a son. Then the war came and she had lost the child and any affection for him. Now he was left to pick up the pieces of their marriage she no longer cared for in a city he hated.
He pushed through the crowds and made his way up the steps to their flat. The door still worked at any rate with a new bolt. He unlocked it and walked inside, groceries in one hand. Maxine spun from where she stood. There was a suitcase on the bed and clothes already stuffed inside. Brian frowned and slowly put the bag of food down on a table. “Just what do ye think yer doing?” he demanded.
She sighed, relaxing some before turning her back to resume her ministrations. “Packing. I’m going to Cambridge.”
His eyes narrowed in anger and suspicion. “Why?”
“My mother sent me a letter asking me to come home.” She pushed her hair behind her left ear. “The bombings haven’t reached the estate. It will be safer.”
“Aye. And when were you planning to tell me.” His tone was cold, but the underlying anger and hurt was very much detectable.
“I wasn’t going to run.” She turned to face him, eyes narrowed slightly in annoyance. “I’m not a coward. I wanted to be packed is all.”
“Right.” He took two long strides to stand in front of her. His hand snaked around her shoulders and rested firmly on the back of her neck. “Ye love London. Ye wouldn’t leave when I begged ye to. Now ye’ll run off to Cambridge without a second thought because yer mother sent word?”
“Then I’m doing what you wanted,” she said coldly.
“I want to go home,” he insisted. “Not to yer mother’s house.”
She shoved his hand back hard, but he brought it down on her waist, clenching hard, but not painfully. “Then you don’t have to come. Keep playing war here. Be the good civil servant. I’m going home.”
It was hard for him to keep his head when she stared to rile him. Maxine Grey Malloch was a beautiful, intelligent woman with a kind heart and a lovely smile. She was also the most overbearing bitch he had ever laid eyes on. “No. Ye’ll no go there. If ye want safety then go to my grandsire’s place.”
“Montrose?” Her face curled in disgust. “It’s full of refugees.”
His voice dropped dangerously low. “Aye….and it's my home.”
“Your precious Scotland?” she asked coldly. “It’s nothing but sheep land and lochs. The Germans don’t bomb it because there’s nothing left to bomb. I wouldn’t step foot on that land if you tied me up and drove me to the border.”
“Don’t tempt me,” he said, voice steely. “Ye’d have me stay here while ye run back to mummy, crying that the big brute ye married wants to take ye back to his cave.”
“You are a big brute!” she cried. Her fists pounded his chest. “And this is your fault! All your fault! Everything would be the same if you hadn’t insisted on—”
He grabbed her wrists and angrily shoved her against the wall. “You lost the babe, not me!” he shouted.
Maxine’s face fell for a moment in despair and shock. He instantly regretted it, and his hands loosened on her wrists. She stayed still against the wall, arms wrapped around her waist tightly. Her face was pale and her bottom lip trembled a bit. She was strong, but every person had a breaking point. “You weren’t here,” she whispered. “I…I tried…” Her voice choked and she looked down, shaking.
Brian swallowed hard. Fuck him. Would he never stop being such an ass? “Aye. I’m sorry, Max. I should have been here.” He reached out and touched her face. She leaned into his hand some, shivering in the cold. Risking a gut punch, he pulled her into his arms with his other hand. “It wasn’t your fault,” he whispered.
He felt her stiffen under his arms. They both knew neither of them believed that.