The Angel of Tobruk

By Reece Pocock

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Cairo Egypt - 1941

The first thing Private Jeff Douglas remembered was a moan and he wondered where it was coming from. He was in a fog and it was slowly clearing and he realised the noises were coming from him. Between the groans there was a voice, a beautiful voice, it sounded angelic; so soft and melodic. ‘Jeff, Jeff, are you waking up?’ The fog cleared enough for him to see the Angel with a concerned look on her face. He must be dead to see an angel, he thought. ‘Jeff, Jeff, wake up. The operation went well. You were wounded at Tobruk. Wake up!’ She sounded English, and had a hat partly covering her red hair. He didn’t know there were red headed angels that wore hats. He thought they all had blonde hair. She smiled, ‘I’m nurse Davies you can call me Stephanie. The orderlies will be here shortly to take you back to the ward.’ Jeff opened his mouth to ask her to stay but no sound would come. He was scared and thought she would protect him. He pleaded with his eyes, she hesitated and took his hand, ‘It’s all right. You’ll be all right.’ He held on tightly. Slowly she eased out of his grip and left him lying on the barouche. An orderly wheeled him back to his ward where they placed him in a bed. He went back to sleep.

 

He awoke from a dream. His beautiful Angel had asked God to spare him—she would look after him. If she was going to care for him – where was she? He desperately wanted to see her. Perhaps God sent angels to be nurses, and then they disappeared back to Heaven. He hoped she was still here.

 

A large overhead fan turned slowly spreading heat more than cooling any of the patients and staff. He was in a ward with about twenty patients in a long room with beds set out each side with an aisle down the middle. Nurses were moving among the patients and there was a babble of talking and laughter. He tried to sit up and felt dizzy. A nurse appeared at his bedside, ‘Hello Jeff,’ she said brightly in an Australian accent, ‘I’m Nancy, I hope you’re a bit better. The operation went well. They got the fragments out of your shoulder. There wasn’t anything in your chest. You’ll be as good as new.’

 

Jeff continued to slip from sleep to wakefulness for the next two days. When he was asleep, he dreamt about the Angel and when he was awake, he thought about her. As his rationale returned he realised she wasn’t an angel but a nurse – a very pretty nurse. Nancy was changing his dressings and he asked, ‘Nancy, where’s Stephanie Davies?’

 

‘Not you too? All the men fall in love with her. She’s got a boyfriend. He’s a bomber pilot in the Air force. She doesn’t go out with anyone. You’ll have no chance there.’

 

‘Will they send me home?’ asked Jeff.

 

‘No way, you’ll be back at Tobruk shooting Germans before you know it,’ said Nancy.

                                                                        *

 

Tel Aviv, Syria – Dec, 1941

Jeff kept waking in the night, listening for artillery and machine guns, and then worrying when he couldn’t hear them. Sometimes, his vivid dreams made him run from his tent only to realise he wasn’t in danger.

 

The diggers had lived like rats in a hole for eight months and it seemed like the whole battalion breathed a sigh of relief as they realised they were free of the Tobruk hellhole.

 

Hard training had brought Jeff back to full fitness and health. The 9th Division were issued with new uniforms, been able to bath regularly, and no longer had to deal with the lice and insects that made life a misery.

 

Jeff’s first night leave was to Tel Aviv. Kevin, Vic, and Steve were with him. The diggers were singing as the crowded canvas covered truck wound along the bumpy road towards the city.

 

The truck stopped in front of the English Club; the music could be heard in the street. Vic clicked his fingers to the beat of the band. They entered the Club and it was pulsing as popular music blared out from a British Army band. A soldier in uniform was singing into a microphone on a raised area where a six-piece band was playing with two saxophones featuring when the singer paused between verses. Drums, piano, trombone, and trumpet completed the sextet. The band members were laughing and seemed to set the happy mood of the club.

 

Soldiers were dancing with nurses and women in uniform, as others sat and drank at the bar and at tables. The music and the ambient noise from the crowded club made Jeff smile and strut into the club in a happy mood. He heard occasional shouts as the dancers swung in rhythm to the band and others sung along to the music.

‘Jees, take a gander at that redhead,’ said Vic. Jeff slammed his drink onto the bar and threaded his way through the crowd to her table. Her face was etched into his mind; even though the only time he had seen her he was coming out of a drugged daze. There were three other nurses at the table and Stephanie was talking and didn’t notice his approach. He waited for her to finish. One of the others looked up at him.

 

‘Hello Stephanie,’ he said when there was a lull in the noise. She was more beautiful than he remembered.

 

‘Hello,’ she said flashing him a smile.

 

‘Jeff, Jeff Douglas. I was in hospital in Cairo.’

 

‘I remember. A shoulder. A bullet in the shoulder. How is it?’

 

‘Better. I wasn’t sure you’d remember me.’ said Jeff.

 

‘Why don’t you sit down?’

 

‘I’ve got some mates.’ He indicated the three grinning Diggers watching from the bar.

 

‘What do you think?’ said Stephanie to the other nurses.

 

‘I’ve always wanted to wear one of those slouch hats,’ said one.

 

After the others were seated and names exchanged, Jeff noticed how awkward the soldiers were around the girls. They’d hardly seen a woman for over a year and he was pleased the nurses sensed how shy they were, and tried to make conversation easy.

 

‘I saw you after the operation,’ said Stephanie. ‘I came to the ward, but you were asleep. Nancy said you were doing well so I left it at that.’ Jeff was sitting close to her and watching her face; he smelt her perfume and placed his hand on the table close to hers. She felt the gaze, turned away and Jeff felt he had to relax, not be so intense. He leaned back and picked up his drink.

 

Jeff’s eyes sought hers, he moved closer to her so the others couldn’t hear. ‘The funny thing is I thought about you a lot. When I came around I thought I was dead and you were an Angel.’

 

Stephanie laughed. ‘I’m certainly no Angel. Some of you boys say funny things coming out of the anaesthetic.’ Stephanie picked up her drink and Jeff felt her gaze on him over the rim of her glass. She placed her drink on the table. ‘Some of them think I’m their mother. Now, do I look like a mother?’

 

‘Not like my mother,’ said Jeff. ‘Would you like to dance?’

 

‘Love to.’

 

The band was playing a waltz, and Jeff held Stephanie close. His mind blocked out the sounds of the club and he felt there was just the girl in his arms and the music. I must not say something stupid, he thought. Jeff wanted to tell Stephanie she was beautiful but he held back not wanting to embarrass her. The band took a break and Jeff held her hand as they walked to their seats.

 

The Club became noisier. It was almost midnight; Stephanie and Jeff were talking, when a large staggering English Corporal approached. He looked down on Stephanie, ‘Dance?’

 

Stephanie smiled and said, ‘No thank you.’ Jeff thought the man was rude. But, the corporal was drunk so he made allowances for his behaviour.

 

The Corporal muttered, then looked at Jeff. He swung a punch and Jeff felt the pain of a blow on his bad shoulder. ‘Leave our girls alone,’ the Corporal’s voice rose above the din. ‘They’re too good for you colonial bastards.’

 

Jeff punched the hand away from his shoulder, and sprang to his feet. The Corporal swung and Jeff took the punch on his bad shoulder again and winced as pain travelled down his arm. He punched the Englishman in the stomach; then hit him flush on the jaw. The big corporal collapsed at his feet.

 

The bar hushed. The Diggers looked around the club. The corporal’s companions were crossing the room; Jeff knew they were in trouble when one of them yelled, ‘Get the colonials.’

 

Kevin, Steve, and Vic, jumped to their feet, and with Jeff, formed into a circle. The corporal’s companions came at them. The Diggers beat them back. Other English soldiers joined them and some of the other Australians attacked the English from the rear. The Australians were outnumbered and were driven back towards a wall of the club where the English using chairs and tables beat them to the floor. Jeff felt the pain of blows raining down on him as he tried to protect his head. There were now fights all over the club as some of the other colonial nations joined the Australians.

 

Jeff heard Stephanie yelling, ‘Stop it. Stop it.’ Military Police whistles joined the noise and twelve MPs pulled the British off Jeff and his companions. They frog marched the rioters – including the four Australians – to large vans.

                                                                        *

 

Next Day, they arrived back at Khasa, their faces bruised, under guard, after spending the night in the English Military jail. They were marched before the A Company Major, and charged by the MPs with disorderly conduct. They were fined and confined to barracks.

 

Five days later, after completing his confined to Barracks sentence, Jeff nervously opened the door to the canteen in Tel Aviv; he breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Stephanie was waiting for him smiling and waving. He fingered the letter from her in his pocket, and remembered the elation he felt when she invited him to meet her. She said she wanted to apologise for the behaviour of the English and the trouble it had caused.

 

‘I can’t understand why you were punished when you were defending yourself,’ she said. ‘I’ll bet those bruises still hurt.’ Stephanie’s hair was pulled back into a bun so it would fit under her hat. A few wisps had escaped and Jeff watched as she brushed them away with her hand.

 

‘All over now. Can I get you a drink?’ he asked.

 

‘A shandy would be nice.’ Jeff walked to the bar and ordered a beer and Stephanie’s drink. He noticed other soldiers were looking at him.

 

He made sure the chair was closer to Stephanie when he sat down. ‘The fight was stupid,’ said Stephanie. ‘That silly corporal thought I shouldn’t talk to you. And, the rest of the British in the fight thought so to.’ He wondered what she would look like with her red hair let down framing her face. Two English soldiers seated at the next table watched, and whispered to each other staring angrily in his direction. He returned the stare, and then decided to ignore them.

 

‘How long are you in Tel Aviv?’ he enquired.

 

‘Six weeks, I’m doing a theatre sisters course. Are you here long?’ He placed his hand on hers on the table. She left her hand there and smiled at him.

 

‘We’re going to Lebanon soon. They don’t tell us much but the grapevine says next week.’

 

He blurted out the question that was uppermost in his mind. ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’

 

‘I was going with Sandy Langridge. He’s an English Pilot in Bomber Command. I don’t know anymore, I think it’s over. I haven’t heard from him. It’s so hard to get mail in the war.’

 

They talked. The time seemed to fly and he couldn’t believe it when she said it was time to go.

 

They stopped in the shadow of the truck that was to return him to Khasa. He was close enough to see his reflection in her eyes. He kissed her gently and she responded. They lingered in a kiss until she pushed him away. ‘You'd better go. You’ll miss your truck.’

 

‘I don’t care,’ he said kissing her again.

 

She pushed him away; slipped from his arms and called as she waved, ‘ Write to me.’ Then she was gone.

                                                                        *

 

The 9th Division transferred to Lebanon in January 1942 as part of the Ninth Army. The 2nd 43rd’s task was to build fortifications in the foothills of the Lebanon Mountains. It was back to the pick and shovel for the next few months as they built a defence line including concrete pillboxes, barbed wire and anti-tank ditches.

 

The truck dropped Jeff at the ordinance depot in Tripoli, the town in Northern Lebanon close to where they were stationed. He felt the letter in his pocket. Just the touch of it made him his heart race with excitement. It had arrived on the mail parade and he knew the words by heart. Stephanie had finished her course in Tel Aviv and was granted leave. She had heard how beautiful the old city of Tripoli was and decided she would like to see it. Perhaps, she suggested, Jeff may be able to obtain leave and meet her there. Jeff had never felt like this before, his heart pounded in his chest when he thought about her, he just wanted to be with her. She was waiting in the depot canteen; she smiled and signalled him to sit next to her. He kissed her gently.

 

‘Are you staying in the depot?’ he inquired

 

‘In a hut.’

 

‘I’m in a tent.’

 

‘Shall we go for a walk?’

 

‘Good idea,’ he said.

 

Arm in arm, they entered the city. The Australians had visited many Arab cities during their visit to the Middle East, but the ancient city of Tripoli had a special charm. He had taken leave there before and liked to wander around taking in the history. The British and the Fighting French had recently occupied Tripoli, which was an important seaport. With the occupation came independence and since November last year, the city had become a part of the Independent Republic of Lebanon. The narrow streets were a confusion of houses that seemed stacked on top of each other.

 

Children played happily in the streets and stopped to stare at Stephanie and Jeff asking for money or sweets. The women seemed to float along, dressed from head to foot in their long black dresses; their deep dark eyes stared and seemed full of sadness. Jeff was drawn to the Lebanese women’s eyes; the only part of them he could see.

 

Their walk led them to the Railway Station. ‘This is so wonderful, you can feel the history,’ said Stephanie.

 

‘After Tobruk anywhere is peaceful,’ said Jeff.

 

Stephanie moved closer on the Railway Station seat. Their lips met. Finally, she broke away. ‘We mustn’t scandalize this beautiful city,’ she said.

 

‘Shall we have dinner?’ Jeff asked.

 

‘I saw a nice place on the way here. Let’s try there.’

                                                                        *

 

After dinner in the quaint Lebanese restaurant where they ate goat and delicious dates, Jeff showed Stephanie to her room. Outside her door, she drew closer into his arms and Jeff kissed her gently. She pressed into him and kissed him passionately; Jeff felt his passion rise. Nothing else mattered but this beautiful woman in his arms. He fumbled at the buttons of her tunic. She pushed him away, opened the door, and guided him into her small room. Jeff undressed her and laid her gently on the bed then removed his clothes and lay with her. He took her in his arms and slowly caressed her naked body. He was conscious of being elated at the thought of making love to her. Then he felt the ecstasy of her gentle touch.

 

Later, as they lay in each other’s arms, Stephanie said, ‘I lay here thinking about you and how happy I am being here with you. Then I think about the war and the rest of the world and everything. I wonder whether I have the right to be happy.’

 

‘You have every right,’ said Jeff. ‘You’re only taking a moment from this stinking war to be normal for a while. It’s not normal to fight and kill people. One day there will be no war.’

 

‘We have no future, all we have is here and now, the war changes everything,’ said Stephanie.

 

‘How can I make you a part of my life in the future?’ Stephanie gazed into Jeff’s eyes and he hoped she realised what he’d said.

 

‘You’ve made me so confused,’ said Stephanie as her tears welled up, ‘I’m afraid to think about what’s going to happen after the war. I don’t know what I want any more.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘Let’s not talk about the future. We have no future, all we have is now.’

 

Their hands explored each other as their bodies entwined and they made love again.

                                                                        *

 

Next day the truck climbed slowly up the mountain road as the driver concentrated on his gear changes and the tricky driving conditions. Sitting beside him, Jeff’s mind was racing. Had it all really happened or was it a dream? Last night was like heaven and he had found himself willing the sun not to come up and spoil it.

 

His love for Stephanie had changed his life forever; the war must not take him. Life had so much more meaning. How could he keep her? Life would mean nothing until he saw her again. It might not be for years; he could be back in Australia soon and she would be on the other side of the world. Would this accursed war never end? The war could ruin his chance of happiness with his Angel; life without her was unthinkable.

 

She said she loved him, but she was holding something back, perhaps it was just the war. He hoped so, he had virtually asked her to marry him and she ignored it. He knew she was right; they couldn’t plan their future together they could just live for today. However, that would not stop him from thinking and dreaming of a future with her. He wanted to go back to Tripoli, take her into the mountains and hide, just his Angel and he away from the war where no one could find them.

                                                                        *

 

Jeff engaged in shoring up fortifications and the tedious jobs around the camp with no action, time dragged on. He lived for his letters.

 

He longed to be out of this war and home; he wanted to be with Stephanie, and hoped for a normal life. Stephanie wrote often. She had transferred from Tel Aviv to Cairo and he found he was replying as fast as she wrote.

 

In June 1942, the news of the British defeat at Tobruk was a shock for the men of the 9th Division, to some it seemed their effort and those of lost comrades had been for nothing. The relentless march of Rommel’s forces towards Alexandria continued and Jeff thought the Battalion might soon be in the desert again. If Rommel reached the Canal, there was little doubt the whole defences of the Middle East would collapse. The badly mauled Eighth Army, fighting back strongly, had succeeded in halting Rommel at El Alamein, seventy miles west of Alexandria. Both sides were licking their wounds.

 

By the 4th July, the 2nd 43rd Battalion was in position at Ruweisat Ridge near El Alamein.

                                                                        *

 

The Allies and the Axis forces fought to standstill. Both had to replenish supplies and equipment. El Alamein was quiet. The battlefield was a mess. Rotting bodies and burnt out machines and vehicles littered the landscape. Both sides were exhausted and General Auchinleck was unable to dislodge Rommel’s army from El Alamein. Flies were a problem because of the bodies. Troops were out trying to clean the area. Jeff Douglas and Corporal Kevin Cross were on a detail to bring up ammunition and spares for the carriers. Their carrier drove towards the ammo dump. Suddenly, a Stuka screamed out of the sky towards them.

 

Jeff halted the carrier in an attempt to avoid the bombs. But it was too late.

 

Military Hospital Cairo Egypt—July 1942.

The bomb headed straight for Jeff and he moved to get out of the way. His eyes opened and the nightmare lingered in his thoughts. His chest felt like he was receiving a hundred blows and he threw his arms up to ward off the puncher. There was no one there. He felt the warmth of the sun through the window and watched the slow revolutions of the ceiling fan as it attempted to move the hot air in the hospital. For a while, he couldn’t remember where he was. Then his chest pains brought back memories of the war. He closed his eyes and the bomb continued racing towards him. He cried out, ‘No.’ Then pushed further under the covers.

 

But, he was safe. The war wouldn’t get him here. The ambulance had taken him away from it. Perhaps his wounds would mean he didn’t have to go back.

 

Two nurses approached his bed. One of them was Nancy. ‘Do you get shot just so you can see us?’ she asked. He winced. ‘That bad, is it. The doctor wants some x-rays, so I can’t put you back to sleep. Are you hungry? We’ll get you some breakfast.’ She pulled back the blankets and checked his dressings. ‘You need new bandages.’

 

‘Is Stephanie Davies here?’ asked Jeff.

 

‘She was earlier. Your name was on the admissions register. I’ll send an orderly to tell her you’re awake.’ Jeff watched as Nancy spoke to a man moving a patient, and then retrieved bandages from a cupboard.

 

Nancy unrolled the old dressings from Jeff’s wounds, and replaced them with new ones. She finished and laid him down. His head settled back into a soft pillow and he realised he was clean and out of his uniform for the first time in weeks.

 

When his breakfast arrived, he realised he hadn’t eaten since the field dressing station at El Alamein. His arm was in a sling and he was struggling to break the eggshell, he sensed a presence at the end of his bed. He looked up, and saw Stephanie standing there.

 

‘Let me help,’ she said as she sat on the bed and took the top off the egg. Jeff could see concern and alarm in her face. ‘What have they done to you?’ she asked.

 

‘Skittled me again. Worse this time.’ He noticed her eyes were red. ‘I got over the last lot. I’ll get over this,’ he said.

 

‘I hope so.’ Tears appeared and ran down her cheeks.

 

‘Don’t cry,’ he said, worried about her. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me?

 

‘Not like this.’

 

Jeff touched her hand. ‘I’m glad you’re here. It makes me feel better. If I wasn’t wounded, would you be pleased to see me?’

 

‘Of course.’

 

‘I’m glad you’re here.’ Jeff moved his hand to his egg. ‘I can’t eat this one-handed.’

 

Stephanie took the spoon and scooped egg from the shell and fed him. ‘This is the kind of treatment all patients should get,’ he said between mouthfuls.

 

‘It’s your lucky day,’ she said, more relaxed.

 

Jeff finished his breakfast and Stephanie had to return to her duties. He watched as she waved to him from the door.

 

Half an hour later, orderlies placed him on a barouche and wheeled him to where a large x-ray machine took pictures of his chest. Some of the positions he had to hold were painful, and he was glad when it was over. The shrapnel was lodged too close to his heart to remove. They decided to leave it there.

 

During the next three weeks, the terror of the war receded from his mind as he luxuriated in the care and attention. The pain reminded him of the war, but frequent visits from Stephanie made him experience, for the first time in his life, the feeling of loving and being loved by a woman. As the pain became less severe, his depression lifted.

 

‘News from home?’ Stephanie asked, noticing Jeff holding a letter.

 

‘Mum’s opened a boarding house in Clare.’

 

‘Is it doing well?’

 

‘So far.’ He placed the letter on the blankets and took Stephanie’s hand. ‘After the war, I can show it to you. You can meet my family.’

 

Stephanie’s expression became serious. ‘Don’t make plans. We have to finish with the war.’ She seemed harder and more serious than the girl from Tripoli.

 

‘One Day it’ll be over. Our life will start from then,’ he said.

 

‘There won’t be any chance for us after the war. You live in Australia and I live in England.’

 

He felt Stephanie was slipping away. ‘You know I love you.’

 

‘For now you do. We’ve been thrown together and found love for a little while. That’s all there is.’

 

‘I want to be with you,’ said Jeff.

 

‘I’m with you now. After the war, it’ll be a different world. Before you were wounded, I was thinking about not writing to you again. It’s becoming too complicated, then you came back into my life.’

 

‘Are you saying you don’t want to see me?’

 

Stephanie took his hand, ‘No, of course not. We have time here and now. That’s all we have. It’s no use thinking about anything else.’

 

Jeff lifted Stephanie’s hand to his lips. ‘I’ll always love you,’ he said.

                                                            *

 

Five weeks later, the three quarter moon hung in the sky like misshapen yellow ball. Jeff pulled Stephanie close as they strolled slowly through the hospital grounds. She stopped and turned her face to his and the kiss aroused him. He led her to some bushes where they lay down. They undressed, and he felt the sweet softness of her breast and watched her intake of breath at his touch. She moved against him and became the loving woman from Tripoli he remembered. He lost himself in the joy of making love to her.

                                                                        *

 

The weeks seemed to evaporate overnight. Jeff couldn’t hold back time and his fear of the war returned. They made love in their favourite place in the bushes in the weeks up to his departure, and at least he thought he would carry the sweet memories of her with him to the horror of war.

 

On his last night at Cairo, Stephanie came to him in his hut. ‘We could run away and join an Arab tribe,’ he suggested. ‘No one could find us in the desert.’

 

They lay in Jeff’s bed and he hated the thought of never seeing her again. She had told him not to think about after the war; he couldn’t help it. ‘I don’t want to go,’ he whispered. She moved closer into his embrace and he felt the pleasure of her body against him.

 

‘I’ll miss you,’ she said.

 

‘I’ll find you after the war,’ he said. ‘I can’t let you go.’

 

Stephanie threw the blankets back and got out of bed. She found her gown, dressed, and looked at Jeff. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.

 

‘This is it. It’s over. You have to face up to it. Like I have. Just remember our good times together.’ She rushed to him, kissed him on the cheek; he felt the wetness of her tears. She rushed out into the night.

 

Next morning the truck drove through the outskirts of Cairo and despite occasional quivering hands, and sickness in his stomach; it was the thought of never seeing Stephanie again that occupied his thoughts.

                                                                        *

 

The stars shone on a clear night as Jeff walked down the main Street of Clare. He hoped being home would make him forget the horrors of the El Alamein campaign and Steve’s death in action. He often woke in the night to the thundering artillery and the terror of tanks approaching him. Many times, he had gazed at the stars in the Northern Hemisphere and now he felt at home again as he picked out the Southern Cross and the night skies seemed to be welcoming him home. He paused at the door of The Globe Coffee Palace, it was March 1943, and it was almost five months since the war stopped for him at El Alamein. He wondered if his family were still up at ten o’clock at night. He slipped his bag from his shoulder as he gazed at the door. He was home, he had made it, he wondered how and he wanted to savour the moment. It was just an ordinary full panel door with flecks of paint peeling. It meant so much more to Jeff, it was the symbol of his family who he thought many times he would never see again. With his heart quickening in anticipation, he lifted his arm and rapped on the door.

 

His sister Elaine screamed, ‘Jeff, Jeff. Mum it’s Jeff,’ and flew into his arms. Grace, his mother, ran to the door. Through screams and kisses, Jeff picked up his bag and made his way to the kitchen table.

 

‘I was afraid I’d never see you again,’ said Grace, tears showing on her cheeks. ‘You look all right. How are you? How are your wounds? Did they heal? How long can you stay?’

 

‘I’m fine Mum. I can stay three weeks.’

 

‘That all, there’s plenty of room here.’

 

‘Have you got a cuppa Mum?’

 

‘Off course, are you hungry.’

                                                                        *

 

Next morning Grace, Jeff’s mother, handed him a letter that had arrived a week ago. He immediately thought of Stephanie. He hoped to receive a swag of answers to his letters all at once. Sure enough, the envelope showed the letter had been chasing him around the world.

 

            Leeds England

            December 12th 1942

 

            Dear Jeff,

            Yesterday I married Sandy Langridge.

 

Jeff let the letter tumble onto his chest as all his hopes of being with Stephanie were dashed. He felt the sting of tears and a cry escaped from his lips. His mother heard the cry and asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ He held the letter out to her. She read the rest of it aloud.

I know that may come as a shock but Sandy and I were kind of engaged (not really engaged but we had a kind of understanding) before I met you and he asked me to marry him and I accepted.

 

I will never forget our time together but I suppose we were blind to the practical things like you living in Australia and me in England.

 

Have a wonderful life Jeff. Under the circumstances, I think this should be my last letter.

 

You and our memories will always be in my heart.

 

Love Stephanie.

 

‘This is terrible Mum. I really loved her. I don’t know what I’m going to do.’

 

Grace put her arms around him. ‘I know you don’t think you will, but you will get over it. You will always have a pain in your heart but you will do what everyone else does and get on with life.’

 

‘It doesn’t seem to be worth the effort.’

                                                                        *

 

On board Thomas B Corwin on route to Townsville, Queensland, January 1944

Jeff’s body was covered in sweat and he felt like he was on fire. Earlier, Kevin and Vic had discovered him writhing in pain, and helped him to a crowded makeshift sickbay occupied by many other sick diggers. He closed his eyes and pressed his hand to his forehead, hoping it would somehow ease the pain between his eyes. He could hear the thump, thump of the ship’s engines, and wondered what kind of hell he was in. The sickbay had fans whirring trying to circulate the stale air. He opened his eyes. He was sick with dengue fever, and was feeling worse every day. There were eleven other soldiers lined up, some two to a bed, and most of them had a tropical disease. He had come through the New Guinea war zone without being wounded, but he was too sick to appreciate it.

 

He closed his eyes again and tried to will the pain away, then wiped sweat off his face with his sleeve. He heard a voice and opened his eyes. ‘Are you feeling any better, Private Douglas?’

 

A doctor was standing by his bed. He was dressed in the uniform of a captain. ‘No Sir. Sore throat, bloody awful headache, I’m sweating like a pig, and my piss is red.’

 

The doctor touched Jeff’s arm. ‘How long?’

 

‘Three weeks, just before I left Finschhafen.’

 

‘Red urine. You have more than dengue fever. Anything else?’

 

‘I’m not pissing much.’

 

The doctor placed his hand on Jeff’s cheek. ‘Puffy face. You need more tests. It’s hospital for you in Townsville.’

 

‘What’s wrong, Sir?’

 

‘The tests will show. I’m sorry about your leave.’ For Christ’s sake, thought Jeff, if I’m going to die tell me.

 

The doctor moved onto the next patient. A nurse entered and through the open door, Jeff noticed there were soldiers lying out in the passage on mattresses and groundsheets. A nurse was bending over one of them trying to comfort him.

                                                                        *

 

Jeff never recovered full fitness so the Army discharged him. He moved into a boarding house in Adelaide and started work as a trainee at Perry’s Plumbers.

 

Two years later Jeff’s health slowly returned. The letter was lying on the table when he came home from work. He examined the envelope and noticed it had been readdressed from his mother’s home in Clare. It was postmarked Leeds England. As he opened the letter, a photograph fell out showing a boy neatly dressed in a sailor suit. The boy would have been about four years old. He was smiling at the camera with a cheeky grin. There was a something familiar in the look and the grin.

 

He started to read the letter. The first line jumped off the page. Samuel, the boy in the photo is your son. He dropped the letter and looked at the photo. There was no doubt there was a likeness to his father. His heart was pounding as his excitement built.

 

He took the letter, lay down on his bed, and read it over and over again, parts of the letter made him sit up in anticipation.

 

            Sandy my husband was killed in a bombing raid over Germany.

 

I will be happy to write to you again, and you are welcome to visit us to see your son if you are in England.

 

He let the letter drop and picked up the photo again. The curtain billowed making him look through the window at the evening changing from Day to night. He wondered whether Samuel ever lay on his bed watching the same sun as it disappeared bringing the nightfall. Perhaps he was too young. He imagined he was sitting with them telling his son the evening was the part of the Day he liked the best.

 

He still had money left over from his Army gratuity. His boss wouldn’t be pleased and he might get the sack.

 

Jeff swung his legs off the bed. He opened a draw and took out his bankbook opened it and frowned. He didn’t have enough. He hoped his mother would lend him the rest. He found a writing pad and started writing.

 

Leeds England – June 1947

The golden light of a summer morning shone through the dispersing clouds. Leeds was bathed in a mellow glow so different from the harsh Australian summer sun, thought Jeff. He was dressed in his new pinstriped blue suit, and stood staring at the imposing façade of the Leeds General Hospital. He watched the hot flame of the match flare, and nervously lit a cigarette. He flicked the blackened matchstick into the gutter and tried to calm his excitement.

 

The hospital loomed above Jeff like a citadel. His excitement was replaced by fear. Fear that Stephanie would no longer love him and his son would be disappointed in his father. What if he couldn’t persuade her to be his wife? She in England and he in Australia would mean he would rarely see his son. He’d lived without Stephanie since Cairo, and he didn’t want to live without her any longer. He had to persuade her to marry him and move to Australia with Samuel. His resolve returned.

 

He threw the butt of his cigarette down and started walking while adjusting his tie for the twentieth time. He checked the buttons on his suit, and climbed the steps to the entrance. When the woman behind the enquiries desk turned her head and looked at him, he asked nervously, ‘Can I see Stephanie Langridge please?’

 

‘I think she’s on Day shift today. I’ll try to find her. Whom shall I say is calling?’ asked the receptionist.

 

‘Tell her it’s an old friend.’

 

Jeff nervously waited for ten minutes. He was in a no smoking area and he wanted a cigarette. He placed his hands in his pockets, then realised he might crease his suit. He couldn’t sit still and paced around the waiting area conscious of his hands smoothing his clothes and constantly adjusting his appearance.

 

She stopped on entered the waiting room, trying to make out who had asked for her. She was wearing a small white hat pinned into her red hair above a white uniform with a nurse’s watch pinned to her chest. ‘Jeff?’ she enquired softly. ‘Jeff, is that you? Oh, my God it is. You look different in your suit.’

 

They hugged not speaking. Jeff heard the sounds of the hospital. An alarm went off somewhere on the wards, and then the patter of a child’s running feet hurrying to greet a parent. He was conscious of the feel of her body against him through the gown, and the pleasure of holding her again. He whispered in her ear, ‘I’ve missed you.’

 

‘It’s so good to see you.’ Tears formed on her cheeks. She wiped them with her hand.

 

The public address system intruded, ‘Sister Langridge report to surgery please.’

 

‘Are you staying in Leeds?’ she inquired.

 

‘Yes.’

 

‘Come to dinner at about six-thirty. You know my address. Have to dash.’ He stood watching her disappear through the door into the surgery area and resented the fact that a sick person needed her more than he did.

 

He walked out into the Leeds Day, and lit a cigarette happy that his dream was still possible. She appeared to be just as pleased to see him, as he was to see her.

*

 

He arrived and climbed the stairs to Stephanie’s upstairs flat. It was part of a neat group of units, freshly painted and with the pinkish wash of the setting sun shining into the stairwell. Jeff had a bottle of wine that had cost him two pounds from one of the waiters at the hotel. Stephanie opened the door carrying a small fair-haired boy, dressed in pyjamas. The boy glanced at the visitor then laid his head on his mother’s shoulder. Stephanie smiled and stepped back allowing them to enter. She gently touched his arm then withdrew it.

 

‘Hello,’ she said quietly.

 

‘Samuel,’ said Jeff placing his hand out and gently stroking the boy’s hair. Samuel momentarily lifted his head then placed it back on his mother’s shoulder. Jeff wondered what the boy would be thinking. Had his mother told him Jeff was his father?

 

‘We’re having roast beef,’ said Stephanie as she placed Samuel down. ‘I had to beg some coupons from the girls at work.

 

‘Wine!’ she took the bottle.

 

‘I had to buy it on the black market,’ said Jeff. She was wearing a blue dress that showed off her figure. It looked new. Her red hair was combed down to her shoulders and set of with a neat clip.

 

Jeff looked at the boy and Samuel stared back at him. He ran to his mother, clasped her legs, and buried his head in her dress. He understood Samuel’s attitude because he was apprehensive too. He had thought about this moment from the time he discovered he had a son.

 

The boy left his mother and sat on the settee. He picked up a toy car and started to play with it.

 

‘What are you like at carving?’ Stephanie asked.

 

‘I’m an expert.’

 

‘The carving knife and steel are in the kitchen. You can help me lift the beef out of the oven.’ Jeff entered the kitchen and when they were alone, they stood staring at each other, unsure of what they should do. Jeff pulled her towards him.

 

He kissed her and the soft pleasure of her lips reminded him of why he had dropped everything to be with her. ‘There is much I don’t understand,’ he said.

 

‘You will. We’ll talk when Samuel goes to bed.’

 

Jeff sniffed the air. ‘What’s that smell?’

 

Stephanie yelled,’ No! The roast!’ She pulled the oven open as smoke and the smell of burnt meat rushed out. Jeff grabbed a cloth, pulled the smoking mess out, and placed it in the sink. ‘It’s ruined,’ exclaimed Stephanie. She stood staring at the blackened beef. Jeff placed his arm around her as she burst into tears.

 

Jeff feigned an English accent, ‘A trifle overdone.’

 

Stephanie jumped back, her anger flaring. Finally, she noticed Jeff was smiling. ‘How far is the nearest fish and chips shop?’ Jeff enquired.

 

‘I ask you to come to dinner and we have to buy fish and chips.’

 

‘At least we have the wine. Why don’t we go for a walk and eat the food out of paper. It’ll be fun.’

 

It was only a short walk to the fish shop and Samuel took Jeff’s hand with Stephanie on the other side. They ate dinner on some seats near the shops.

 

Back at Stephanie’s flat, Samuel was soon asleep. Jeff opened the wine and kissed Stephanie; this time he was more relaxed, and pictured her returning to Australia with him.

 

They moved to the settee. ‘You must be proud of Samuel,’ said Jeff. They placed their wine on the table and Stephanie laid her head on Jeff’s chest and affectionately rubbed his arm.

 

‘He likes you.’

 

‘I wish I’d known him when he was a baby.’

 

‘You’ll get to know him,’ said Stephanie. Jeff stroked her hair with his hand and the gesture made her rub his arm harder. She stopped and sat up.

 

‘It was about six weeks after you left Cairo that I realised I was pregnant,’ said Stephanie. ‘Matron sent me home to work in the hospital in Leeds. When I got home, Sandy Langridge asked me to marry him. I told Sandy I was pregnant and he said it didn’t matter as long as everyone thought it was his child.’ Stephanie dropped her head back onto Jeff’s chest. He placed his hand on her shoulder to reassure her.

 

‘You were so far away and the solution was so easy with Sandy.’ Jeff gently squeezed her shoulder. She lifted her head and Jeff noticed tears at the corners of her eyes. ‘I often thought about you. I read the papers for news of Australia and listened to the radio for anything about the Ninth Division.’ Stephanie wiped her face with her hand. ‘Sandy couldn’t get leave very often. Mother came up from Sussex to help me until Samuel was born.’

 

‘I went back with her for a few months. I came back to Leeds and went back to work. Then Sandy was killed.’ Jeff stroked Stephanie’s hair and curled it around his finger. She continued, ‘After D-Day, we were very busy at the hospital with wounded and sick. It’s strange to think about it now. I grieved for Sandy like a dear friend – which he was – but not like my husband.’

 

‘I hadn’t told anyone. I was free to be with you. But, what was I going to say? Dear Jeff, the man I married instead of you is now dead, and I can come to you now. It doesn’t matter if you have married someone else, I’m available.’

 

‘I would have come for you like a shot,’ said Jeff. Even though he knew, he wouldn’t have been able to because of the war and his sickness.

 

‘I didn’t even know if you survived the war. All I could think of was what I could say to you. Forget about that letter I wrote to you -- I didn’t mean it.’

 

Stephanie extracted a handkerchief from her pocket to wipe her eyes. Jeff felt tears tugging at his eyes because he was sorry Stephanie was distressed and he knew he couldn’t help her. ‘I had a pension because of Sandy’s death, but I was a nurse and I wanted to work. After the war, they published all the Commonwealth medal winners in the Times. It said you were mentioned in dispatches in New Guinea.’

 

‘What did you tell Samuel?’

 

‘Nothing until I received your cable saying you were coming. What good would it have done if he never saw you again? I didn’t want to lie to my son; it was a relief to tell him the truth.’

 

‘I wish I had written to you.’

 

‘You can see how difficult it was for me. I wasn’t sure you’d want to know,’ Stephanie’s tears were running down her cheeks despite the handkerchief.

 

‘Can you see how hard this is for me?’ said Jeff. ‘I don’t know whether to be elated because I have found you and Samuel, or angry because I was denied knowledge of my son.’

 

‘Now we have to work out what we are going to do. I just want to go to bed. I don’t want to think about it now. It’s been too much for one day,’ she said.

 

Jeff lifted her and carried her to the bedroom. She cradled her head on his shoulder until he laid her on the bed. She sat up and started to remove her clothes.

 

When he awoke, there was faint light entering the room. The alarm clock showed it was five AM. His thoughts went back to Tripoli. He’d always thought that was the happiest he had ever been. Last night had been like that, when he discovered Stephanie’s body again. He felt like they’d never been apart. Stephanie moved, Jeff put his arm around her and felt her breast. She sighed and responded to his touch.

                                                                        *

 

The train stopped to the sound of belching steam and growling carriages. Samuel sat with Jeff on the station seat, watching people getting on and off. The boy held his father’s hand, and at times gazed at him for minutes at a time. Stephanie was at work.

 

Jeff looked at the train almost without seeing it. He loved Stephanie still and wanted her for his wife. He would do all he could to persuade her to return to Australia as his wife. ‘Why are you my father?’ Samuel’s voice brought Jeff out of his thoughts.

 

‘Fathers and sons don’t choose each other. All I can say is you are my son because your mother and I loved each other. I love you and I always will.’

 

The boy looked confused and Jeff wondered how he could make a four-year-old understand the answer to a question that was almost impossible to answer. To his surprise, Samuel squeezed his hand and moved closer. He placed his arm around the boy and pulled him against his side on the bench.

 

That evening after Samuel was asleep Jeff sat on the settee as Stephanie made a cup of tea.

 

‘I’ve taken a week’s leave from the hospital so we can be together,’ said Stephanie.

 

He drank from the cup and held it up to his mouth while he tried to think. Every word he uttered in the next few minutes would affect the rest of his life. The cup started to rattle on the saucer. Stephanie reached out, and put her hand on his arm, he looked at her and stopped shaking. He placed his cup down. He sat with his arm around her staring at the opposite wall; she rubbed her head on his chest and he felt the warmth of her body.  He placed his finger gently under her chin, lifted her head, and gazed into her eyes. ‘Will you marry me?’ 

 

‘Yes.’ They kissed. Jeff controlled his excitement because he knew he had only achieved half of what he wanted. They had to settle on where they were going to live.

 

‘Will you and Samuel come back to Australia with me?’

 

Stephanie sat up and placed her hands in her lap. ‘I’ve been thinking about nothing else ever since you came. I think it’s the only way we can be together.’ She nervously rubbed her hands on her legs and turned to face him. He took her hands and the earnest look on his face made her smile. ‘I’m a bit frightened about going so far away from my family,’ said Stephanie. Jeff was surprised that all he felt was relief.

 

‘When will we get married?’ he asked.

 

Stephanie stood. ‘As soon as we can in Lewes,’ she said. ‘I’d better ring Mum and Dad and tell them to get ready for a wedding.’ She found some change for the phone box and hurried out the door.

 

Half an hour later, the door opened. She was sobbing. She grabbed the doorframe to hold herself up. Jeff crossed the room, picked her up, and carried her to the lounge. ‘It was terrible,’ she sobbed. ‘When I told my father you were Samuel’s father, he called me a liar and screamed at me that there was no chance we could get married in Lewes. He refused to go to the wedding.’

                                                                        *

 

Two days later, Jeff stood holding Samuel with Stephanie in front of the marriage celebrant in the Leeds town hall. She was dressed in a flowing blue dress and a head-hugging off-white hat with a feather to one side; Jeff wore his blue suit.

 

The town hall was a tall building with beautiful stone pillars holding up the roof at the entrance. Carved gargoyles decorated the front. The room was large, with high ceilings and a booming resonance. Jeff smiled at Stephanie as she clung tightly to his arm. He felt like shouting at the top of his voice with happiness. The celebrant droned on. He felt pressure on his arm from Stephanie; the celebrant was waiting for him to say, ‘I do.’

 

After the wedding, they had dinner at the hotel. The next day, Jeff learned he had been successful in adding Stephanie and Samuel to his return passage to Australia.

                                                                        *

 

Stephanie’s flat was a mess. Boxes, suitcases, trunks, clothes, and utensils were lying on the floor. Into this chaotic scene walked Stephanie’s father and mother.

 

Walter Davies entered with an air of authority and fingered his neat ginger moustache. Phillippa, his wife, followed carefully stepping around the spread out boxes. ‘Is this the man who has ruined your life?’ Walter asked indicating Jeff.

 

‘This is Jeff Douglas, my husband,’ said Stephanie.

 

‘I can’t say I’m pleased to meet you,’ said Walter Davies.

 

Jeff looked down on the smaller man. He nodded his head and said slowly, ‘Mister Davies.’ 

 

‘Ahh! The Australian.’ Jeff said nothing as Walter approached clenching his fist, ‘I would like to thrash you and throw you out the door,’ said Walter. ‘You ruined my daughter’s chance of a good marriage.’

 

Jeff made no move to defend himself. ‘Mister Davies. I don’t want to fight you, but I will if you force me to.'

 

Stephanie pushed between the two men. ‘Father, please. I love Jeff. I have loved him since I met him. I told you, but you wouldn’t listen.’

 

Phillippa, who had picked Samuel up, pleaded with her husband, ‘Walter please. Don’t make it any worse than it is, sit down.’

 

Walter, his face red with rage, backed away and stood in the middle of the room.

 

‘Father,’ said Stephanie. ‘Listen to me, I love you and mother. I love Jeff too.’

 

‘I will never understand you girl. You could have made a good marriage,’ said Walter.

 

‘I have made a good marriage,’ shouted Stephanie. Walter stared at his defiant daughter, her angry eyes boring into him.

 

‘What may I ask, are your plans?’ asked Phillippa.

 

‘We’re catching the late London train tomorrow. The next day we’re sailing to Australia,’ said Jeff.

 

Phillippa moved to Stephanie and hugged her. Walter looked away ignoring his daughter. ‘Please write to me,’ Phillippa said quietly. ‘Come on Walter, there’s nothing we can do here. She won’t change her mind.’ They walked towards the door. Phillippa turned back for a final glance. Jeff noticed she was crying.

 

Two Days later, they arrived at the London docks ready for embarkation later that afternoon. Stephanie’s mother and father were waiting. Jeff had to help the distraught Stephanie onto the ship while she carried the crying child.

 

By the time the ship left, Stephanie had brightened and waved to her parents who were looking up at the ship from the dock. A tentative Jeff watched his wife closely hoping she wouldn’t change her mind and run back to her parents. He was pleased when the ship finally left the docks and made its way down the Thames.