This story can only be found bundled with the Erotic Novella “Conquered Love”
“A movie!” she exulted from three thousand miles away. “They’re making a movie of our book!”
“Our book” was Healing Their Wings, a bittersweet, sometimes funny novel about American nurses in England during World War II. My grandson’s wife had based it on oral histories recorded from several of us who had kept in contact over the past half-century.
I rejoiced with her at the news, but then came a warning she was clearly embarrassed to have to make. “The screenwriters are bound to change some things, though. There’s a good chance they’ll want it to be quite a bit, well, racier.”
“Racier?” I said. “Honey, all you had to do was ask the right questions!” How had she missed the passionate undertones to my story? When I spoke, all too briefly, of Cleo, had she thought the catch in my voice was old age taking its toll at last? The young assume that they alone have explored the wilder shores of sex; or, if not, that the flesh must inevitably forget.
I had to admit that I was being unfair. Knowing what she did of my long, happy life with Jack, how could she even have guessed the right questions to ask? But it hardly matters now. The time is right. I’m going to share those memories, whether the movie people are ready for the truth or not. Because my flesh has never forgotten – will never forget – Cleo Remington.
In the summer of 1943, the air was sometimes so thick with sex you could have spread it like butter, and it would have melted, even on cold English toast.
The intensity of youth, the urgency of wartime, drove us. Nurses, WACs and young men hurled into the deadly air war against Germany gathered between one crisis and another in improvised dance halls. Anything from barns to airfield hangars to tents rigged from parachute silk would do. To the syncopated jive of trumpets and clarinets, to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Ac-cen-tuate the Positive”, we swayed and jitterbugged and twitched our butts defiantly at past and future. To the muted throb of drums and the yearning moan of saxophones, to “As Time Goes By” and “I’ll Be Seeing You”, our bodies clung and throbbed and yearned together.
I danced with men facing their mortality, and with brash young kids in denial. Either way, life pounded through their veins and bulged in their trousers, and sometimes my body responded with such force I felt as though my own skirt should have bulged with it.
But I wasn’t careless. And I wasn’t in love. As a nurse, I’d tried to mend too many broken boys, known too many who never made it back at all, to let my mind be clouded by love. Sometimes, though, in dark hallways or tangles of shrubbery or the shadow of a bomber’s wings, I would comfort some nice young flier with my body and drive him on until his hot release geysered over my hand. Practical Application of Anatomical Theory, we nurses called it, “PAT” for short. Humour is a frail defence against the chaos of war, but you take what you can get.
Superstition was the other universal defence. Mine, I suppose, was a sort of vestal virgin complex, an unexamined conviction that opening my flesh to men would destroy my ability to heal theirs.
These very defences – and repressions – might have opened me to Cleo. Would my senses have snapped so suddenly to attention in peacetime? They say war brings out things you didn’t know were in you. But I think back to my first sight of her – the intense grey eyes, the thick, dark hair too short and straight for fashion, the forthright movements of her lean body – and a shiver of delight ripples through me, even now. No matter where or when we met, she would have stirred me.
The uniform sure didn’t hurt, though, dark blue, tailored, with slacks instead of skirt. I couldn’t identify the service, but “USA” stood out clearly on each shoulder, so it made sense for her to be at the Red Cross club on Charles Street in London, set up by the United States Ambassador’s wife for American servicewomen.
There was a real dance floor, and a good band was playing that night, but Cleo lingered near the entrance as though undecided whether to continue down the wide, curving staircase. I don’t know how long I stared at her. When I looked up from puzzling over the silver pin on her breast she was watching me quizzically. My date, a former patient whose half-healed wounds made sitting out the dances advisable, gripped my shoulder to get my attention.
“A friend of yours?” he asked. He’d been getting a bit maudlin as they played “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”, and I’d already decided he wasn’t going to get the kind of comfort he’d been angling for. I shook off his hand.
“No,” I said, “I was just trying to place the uniform. Are those really wings on her tunic?” I felt a thrill of something between envy and admiration. The high, compact breasts under the tunic had caught my attention, too, but that was more than I was ready to admit to myself. I watched her movements with more than casual interest as she descended the stairs and took a table in a dim corner.
“Yeah,” he said with some bitterness, “can you believe it? They brought in women for the Air Transport Auxiliary. They get to fly everything, even the newest Spitfires, ferrying them from factories or wherever the hell else they happen to be to wherever they’re needed.”
His tone annoyed me, even though I knew he was anxious about whether he’d ever fly again himself. But then he pushed it too far. “I hear women are ferrying planes back in the States now, too. Thousands of ’em. Next thing you know there won’t be any jobs left for men after the war. I ask you, what kind of woman would want to fly warplanes, anyway?” His smouldering glance toward the corner table told me just what kind of woman he had in mind. “Give me a cozy red-headed armful with her feet on the ground any day,” he said, with a look of insistent intimacy.
“With her back on the ground, too, I suppose,” I snapped, and stood up. “I’m sorry, Frank, I really do wish you the best, but I don’t think there’s anything more I can do for you. Maybe you should catch the early train back to the base.” I evaded his grasp and retreated to the powder room; and, when I came out at last, he had gone. The corner table, however, was still occupied.
“Mind if I sit here?” I asked. “I’m Kay Barnes.”