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Authors: Mary-Anne O'Connor

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BOOK: Gallipoli Street
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Few of the guests could hold back tears as Jack sang ‘Maggie', his voice lifting through the trees, each touched by the gentleness of romance in a brief pause during these harsh, violent days.

Later, as Veronica sat in front of the hotel mirror, she reflected that although she'd missed having many of her family and friends there, especially her parents and Pattie, it was a dream wedding from start to finish. It had been hard to accept that her father wouldn't be there to give her away nor her mother to help her prepare, let alone give up Pattie as her matron of honour, but Veronica knew that she was one of the fortunate ones in this war, so she couldn't truly complain. Her man was alive, whole and near her, even if only for a short time. Most of the women at home could wait years before they saw their sweethearts again, if indeed they ever made it back.

The wedding celebrations had moved on into the Wazza district and Veronica shook her head at the thought. Simmo, Iggy and her brothers had looked set to ‘tie one on' and she was sure they'd be some of the last ones trying to squeeze onto the midnight tram, the only way to get back before curfew. She had seen the overladen carriages struggle along before, Australian soldiers trying not to fall off the rooftops as they cheered and sang their way home.

Not so for Jack tonight. They had checked in at the Semiramis Hotel, an elegant grand building that sat against the Nile in Cairo, their three-day honeymoon there a gift from Jack's parents. Veronica felt a thrill when she saw it: the sheer opulence of the building caused her to stand and gawk like the tourist she actually was. It was truly a palace, rising in classical beauty against the famous river on one side and manicured parkland on the other.

The interiors held an intricacy of furnishings unlike she'd ever seen. Thick patterned rugs ran down marble hallways, elaborate chandeliers hung high above, and there was an aura of sumptuous decadence in the floor-to-ceiling mosaics. Lush velvet and sheer gossamer curtains framed enormous windows that looked out across the Nile to the ancient pyramids and their vast secrets. Veronica had felt she was walking into a hedonistic world of eastern mystery, heavy in its seduction. Delicious, forbidden, exciting.

And now nerve-racking. She stared wide-eyed at the enormous bed, a shrine of gold silk and fine Egyptian cotton, grateful that Jack had given her a moment to change.

She brushed her hair loose and put on white cotton under-things trimmed with pale pink satin ribbon. They'd been a wedding gift from Pattie, who'd ordered them over from London from a catalogue. She wrote in the following telegram that she hoped it sped up the arrival of a cousin for May. Veronica blanched at the thought. Not because she didn't want children – she did, as many as she could bear. It was the thought of being sent home if she fell pregnant that concerned her, and being separated from her brothers and Jack again.

She saw him in the mirror and turned, smiling shyly, feeling self-conscious with her exposed arms and ankles. She couldn't believe this moment had finally arrived, that they were allowed to do what they were about to do.

Jack soaked in the image of her, knowing he would revisit it many times in the coming months, and they shared a moment of pure happiness, alone at last. And free to do whatever they wanted now that they were man and wife.

He moved towards her slowly, holding out his hand to lead her to the bed. He was a little nervous himself. Jack had never made love to a virgin and he didn't want to hurt her or frighten her. They lay down and he propped himself up on one elbow, handing her a glass of champagne, and they both drank rather quickly, calming their nerves. Then he took the glasses and placed them on the nightstand, turning back to trace his vision downwards, pulling the strings, as she held her breath, looking fascinated, excited and scared all at the same time. He drew the cotton away to reveal her breasts, which were full and soft to his touch as he ran his fingers across them. Veronica gasped, then tentatively reached out one hand and drew his face in to taste his lips.

Jack groaned and pulled her into his arms, delighting in the passion that she returned as they kissed, hungry and urgent. She pulled at his shirt and he flung it off over his head, ripping it at the shoulder; she laughed, then they were kissing again. He kissed her breasts, her stomach and her hips, pulling down her drawers to kiss even lower, causing her to gasp again. She kissed at whatever part of him she could reach; his hands, his neck, his shoulder, before he raised himself up and entered her, unable to wait. She flinched and he paused.

‘All right, my love?' he asked, and she nodded, moving slightly against him. It was all the encouragement he needed.

He cried out a few minutes later and fell against her, rolling onto his back and dragging her across his chest. ‘I'm sorry…about that.' He panted. ‘Just let me…get my breath back…and I'll do a better job of it.'

She just kissed him again and smiled, lying content in his arms. He looked at her curiously, realising she didn't understand what had just happened. Letting his hand wander downwards he decided he would spend the next few days showing her just what ‘a better job of it' meant.

Several hours later Veronica heard her own voice cry out as she reached a place where the red and black behind her eyes exploded and her thighs tightened about him. The Egyptian cotton wrapped about their sweat-soaked bodies, her hair clinging against his arm as he joined her. They collapsed as one, exhausted, and slept, only to awake in the dawn hours and begin again.

It was two full days until Veronica donned her dressing gown and finally drew the long, sheer white curtains, emerging from their room onto the porch. She stared out at the rising sun as it lit the Nile and touched the faces of the pyramids, sending shadows beneath them. Deep in those dusky brown patches Jack's division were now gathered, in the last throes of slumber. An army in respite.

The pause from war was sweet, even sweeter for her.

Jack would have to report there tomorrow and she was expected back in Cairo, but he had leave in a week and they would be able to spend the weekend together. She knew she was lucky, but she hated to leave him for an hour, let alone a week. Sighing, she acknowledged that soon a week would feel like an hour in comparison to the months he would surely be away.

He came to stand behind her, wrapping her in his arms and brushing her hair gently across her shoulder to kiss her neck. She arched it towards him, leaning back into his warm body, hugging his arms. They stood together, soaking in the magnificent scene, both of them reflecting that soon enough the shadows would be his world again and she would be unable to share in it.

The room service arrived with a hot breakfast of bacon, sausages, eggs and coffee, but they ate it cold in the end. They could eat and sleep when they were apart. For now, both needs just seemed to get in the way of the far greater one they had discovered in each other's arms.

The great monuments above them scored the sky, an ancient attempt to defy the passing of time and find immortality upon and below the earth. But the mortals beneath knew that no matter how hard they clung, the earth would move forward, taking them with it into the unknown.

Part Three
Twenty-two

Boulogne, France, June 1916

Rose focused as best she could on the road ahead, but without headlights and a windscreen, it was a difficult business and extremely dangerous. The wounded men in the back of the ambulance were tended by Beatrice and Emma, two other members of the Yeomanry, who were more than happy to leave the driving to Rose. They hurtled through the warm summer night and the distant rumble of artillery grew fainter with each mile.

During the day the sun had lit the fields a luminous green seemingly from within, their colours rich beneath the blue sky as the poppies waved and bobbed delicately in the breeze. Rose felt the sunlight there was somehow softer, comparing this gentle landscape with the vast, sun-baked expanses at home. Even the smallest of cottages were beautiful, with their white walls and red-brown roofs.

Then again everything about France was beautiful to Rose, aside from the brutal reality of casualties. Firstly, it had given her ideal refuge from Gregory, as he would find it very difficult to locate her there, in the full flush of the war, especially under the false names they had adopted of Agnes and little Eliza. And secondly, it had given Elizabeth a hiding place where she was loved and cared for. In all, to Rose, war-torn France meant freedom.

Of course she found it hard living in Boulogne while Elizabeth stayed in Calais, but she had to keep her daughter a secret from FANY who wouldn't have allowed her to join if they'd known she had a child. She had Sundays off, thanks to her arrangement with Stella, her supervisor. Rose had told her that she needed to tend to elderly relatives that day. This was partly true – she did have an older relative she visited on Sundays, however she hardly needed ‘tending'. On the contrary, she was as capable a person as anyone was likely to meet. Her aunt Joelene was the reason Rose had chosen France in the first place. She had made it all possible, and the day they had arrived on her doorstep had been the beginning of Rose's salvation.

She had fallen into her aunt's arms, weak, exhausted and, for the first time in her life, without access to money, clutching her belongings and her small child. Yet, as her aunt told her that day, holding her chin and accentuating each word, she'd ‘chosen to fight for a life worth living, and that makes you stronger than you ever knew you could be'.

And she did feel strong, in a different way from anything the old Rose would understand. The old Rose would see strength in getting her own way, or being admired and envied for her beauty. The new Rose had learned a whole different meaning of the word.

Elizabeth seemed to have inherited this strength too, displaying it in her own charming, baby way. A regular little miss she was, Rose reflected, smiling to herself.

Elizabeth adored Joelene and was blossoming living in the pretty coastal town of Calais and playing with her little French friends. She was already saying her first French words and sat with Joelene on the balcony overlooking the port like a grown up, sipping at her milk and calling ‘Bonjour!' to passers-by. Their aunt, in turn, was relishing the opportunity of showering Elizabeth with attention, telling Rose again and again how much she reminded her of her own daughter, Marguerite, who had been killed at the age of sixteen in a train accident. Personally Rose thought Elizabeth looked almost exactly like herself, with the exception of her white-blonde hair, and was very unlike her cousin who had been dark haired with an olive complexion. The only real similarity lay in the large brown eyes that were consistent throughout the Dwyer family, and perhaps it was there that Joelene found traces of her long-lost daughter. Or perhaps it was the determined nature of Elizabeth's character, a quality the Dwyer women seemed destined to possess.

BOOK: Gallipoli Street
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