By Cat 2
“Meeting you was fate, becoming your friend was a choice,
But falling in love with you I had no control over.”
Rhapsody Angel looked up from her book, to see Captain Magenta, Mario Moro, standing nervously by the coffee machine. She nodded, putting her book down.
He took this as an invitation to come closer, sitting down in the chair opposite her.
“This any good?” She glanced down at her book, One man’s dream by Shruthi Prathima. The book was old, creased and tattered. She suspected that if you shook it too hard, sand might fall out, but she could never bring herself to replace it.
“I like it.” She said, softly, shutting the book and waiting for Mario to get on with what ever he wanted.
Mario sipped at his coffee for a second before asking in a quasi-casual voice. “You seen the latest posters for the Skybase Movie Club?”
The Skybase Movie club was Captain Blue’s brainchild. Though you’d never guess it to look at him, Blue was an old movie buff, with an impressive collection. He had somehow or other managed to persuade the Colonel to once a week give over the gym for a movie. It was very popular, mainly because, with the shutters down, it was the one place in Sky base that was dark and public. If you wanted to hold hands, or even kiss in the back row, no one minded, because until the lights went up no one would see.
This week, if the posters were to be believed, the film was Some Like it Hot. Like most of the Spectrum population, she suspected she’d seen it before, but the film was a classic, worthy of a re-watch.
Mario swallowed, his fingers playing nervously around the edge of his cup. “Was wondering if you wanted to go and see it, maybe grab a bite to eat together before hand?” His tone was casual, but the tension in his body betrayed him. He was actually serious about this.
Caroline’s fingers ran over the spine of her books.
She could actually feel the sand in the cracks, rubbing against her fingers. Sand had got everywhere at Cherry Beach. There was no escaping, any more than you could escape the past...
Seven years ago
Cherry Beach RAF Base, Location Classified
definitely not how he planned to tell her, if he ever had planned. And even now,
after what had happened to Byron, what it meant to all of them, especially poor
Kate, he was still unsure
He shook his head. What did Kate say? “If you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.”
He wondered if God was laughing now.
Slowly, he checked his appearance in the mirror.
Clean uniform shirt, even if his pullover needed a wash. Trousers relatively clean, and anyway she wouldn’t be able to see them under the plastic apron.
Slowly, Alex Edric, Red Cross Orderly Level three, drew a deep breath and stepped out into the night.
“How are you holding up?”
“I’m O.K.” Caroline Foster-Finch raised an eyebrow. On the screen opposite her, Kate Atkins laughed, running fingers though her short dark hair. “Well, alright, I’m not O.K.” The laugh ended in a cut off sob.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t talk to you sooner.” Leaning back, Caroline looked at the photo on her dresser. It showed the four of them, Kate, Byron, Alex and her, at the summer ball, the year before The War had started. Kate was wearing a red velvet dress that shimmied whenever she moved. Not being a very girly girl, it was the only time Caroline could actually remember seeing Kate in a dress. Byron, then only just her boyfriend, had hardly being able to keep his hands off her, overcoming his natural shyness to drag her on to the dance floor or the bouncy castle at every opportunity.
“It’s O.K. Don’t think I’d have been much company before hand.” Hands tanned by the harsh sun reached out, rubbing at green eyes. “Everyone’s here being very kind, very helpful, it’s just...”
“None of us know what to say,” Caroline said, gently.
Kate gasped. “Watson keeps apologizing to me. Like it was his fault that…” She broke off, swallowing deeply.
Caroline kept silence, mentally filling in the gaps for her friend. That Byron had been in the line of fire. That the rebels were so focused on killing the invaders of their land that they ignored International Law. That Byron had refused to stand aside when ordered. That a kid, and by all accounts it had been a kid, maybe fourteen or fifteen years of age, had a gun and knew how to use it.
“That he was the one to pronounce there were no life signs.” To say that Byron was dead.
Caroline nodded her understanding of Kate’s words. That was the hardest thing to accept, about all of this. That she was talking to Kate about something, anything, that Kate wouldn’t be able to tell Byron as soon as she turned off the videophone. That he wouldn’t suddenly appear, dusty and exhausted from a long shift in the hospital, throw his arms over Kate’s shoulders and kiss her while they were still talking. That Byron was gone and Kate was still here.
They had always
seemed at once the most natural and unnatural of couples. At university, Kate
was a Chemistry with Archaeology student, while Byron was training to be a
doctor. Kate was very outgoing, very friendly with everyone, while Byron was
more private, about his personal life. Kate was a practicing Christian, although
she would not talk about this while on duty with the Red Cross, whereas
Byron was an agnostic atheist. When she had an opinion on something, be it
politics, sport or social issues, Kate would argue with you insistently, trying
to get you to listen to her, to understand her point of view, but Byron was much
more laid back. Kate hated drinking alcohol, but loved dancing. She never liked
kissing Byron after he’d been drinking, but he needed
But they were more alike than most people thought. Kate’s outgoingness, Caroline knew from school, masked a great shyness, which Byron had worked hard to overcome. Her rows hid an inner centre of calm like the eye of a hurricane, that Byron, even if he would never admit it, needed. Both were selfless, serving the Red Cross without question, agreeing on the day when war was declared, to serve as a trainee doctor and Enhanced Skills First Aider in the Red Cross’s Voluntary Aid Detachments, willing to serve overseas. They complemented each other quite well.
“Are you going back home?” Caroline asked, uncomfortably.
Kate snorted. “I’ve had the required time off, if that’s what you’re asking, and Marion offered to find me a post in England, but I want to stay here.” Her face was grave as she shrugged. “There’s nothing anyone can do to take away the pain, to make me feel better, so I might as well try and ease someone else’s.”
Hmm, and I bet no one raised any real objections to that, Caroline thought leaning back.
While she didn’t doubt that Kate’s colleagues would be sympathetic, the simple truth was they needed every hand they could get. The Plasta desert, where Kate was currently serving, was one of the hotspots of the conflict, especially at the moment as pitched battles between the rebels and the security forces raged less than a mile from the Red Cross base. Decades of conflict had left few permanent buildings or cities, so the Red Cross was operating out of tents, fighting just to maintain basic standards of hygiene.
Overall, the situation in the Red Cross wasn’t much better, with the Geneva Convention, which had previously offered some protection to their members, being almost universally ignored. Requests and appeals were launched nearly every month, as far as Caroline could tell, for new members, even for posts in home countries, to try and free more VADS up for the front.
“Byron was going to ask me to marry him, did you know that?” Kate’s voice knocked her out of her reverie.
“He said he was going to propose. In his last letter, he told me he wanted to
“We found it yesterday,” Kate whispered. “Do you know what he’d written in there?”
At Caroline’s raised eyebrow, Kate hastened to explain, “It’s from the Bible’s Song of Songs.” She blinked and quoted: “Love is as strong as death.”
“Oh, Kate.” Caroline tried to reach out to her friend, in spite of the screen, but the other woman pulled back. “If I had been the one killed, ” Kate said softly, “Byron would have been cursing God.”
In one sense, the tragedy was that all the odds pointed to Kate being the one who wouldn’t come back. Kate, by her own declaration was a ‘First Aider and proud of it’. Even now, she was an enhanced skill First Aider, one of those who ducked under bullets and bombs to reach the casualties and stabilise them before they were transported to safety. They boasted the highest casualties of any of the VAD services.
Byron was a doctor, normally safely encased in the hospital tent. He had gone out into the field when it was supposed to be calmer. Unfortunately, there had been some rebels out, searching the battlefield for their own wounded and dead. A party had found Byron and ordered him to stand aside, so that they could kill his patient, a young officer in the security services. Byron had refused, and a young rebel, little more than fourteen according to the report, had opened fire. Byron had been killed almost instantly.
“Are you? Are you blaming God for what happened?” Caroline asked, uncertainly. Her own experiences with life and death were limited, unless you counted her nightmarish experience with John. Her views on religion, life and life after death were uncertain. She had tried talking to Kate about it a couple of times, but Kate’s faith was so instinctive, so primitive, it was hard for her to understand those without it.
Kate shook her head. “No, I have to believe that, as the Beatles say, ‘There will be an answer’. That doesn’t mean I’m not yelling at the Bastard asking for one.”
Caroline nodded. She could understand that. Kate had just lost the man she loved. Even if she believed that there was a reason, an answer to why it happened, it didn’t mean she wouldn’t want to know it, even possibly be angry about it. Kate’s faith might be instinctive, but it wasn’t blind. It questioned everything.
Perhaps that explained the sort of calmness that surrounded Kate at this moment. Initially, Caroline had thought she was in shock, but she had quickly realised that this didn’t fit. Nor was Kate numb anaesthetized by grief or in denial. She just… seemed to have accepted the situation as it was.
Then again, Caroline supposed, Kate had had a week to process the news. Caroline had just come off a five hour shift to find Alex waiting for her to tell her, and he had only just heard from the Red Cross weekly news bulletin.
The bell outside her quarters rang, announcing the changing of shifts in five minutes.
“I’ve got to go.” Caroline felt guilty to leave like this, but Kate smiled, in spite of the tears on her cheek.
alright. Caroline,” she said as her friend got to her feet. “Even knowing
everything that was going to happen, I don’t regret it: not meeting Byron, not
falling in love with him, not choosing to serve, not the dangers out here,
nothing, not for one minute.” Earnest eyes gazed at Caroline.
“Don’t let what happened with John make you cold to love. It hurts like the
devil, but it’s always worth it. I promise.”
She’d heard the same things from both of them since the mess that had been her second year of university. Both Kate and Byron urging her to find someone, to be happy. At first she’d been angry, hitting back that Byron was Kate’s first proper boyfriend that Kate had never really dated until Byron had asked her out. Kate had pointed out, slightly tartly, that A, that had not been entirely her fault, the guys had simply been interested in one thing (and it wasn’t dating), and B, she had at least being looking.
At that point,
Byron had normally pulled them apart
She’d normally accept that Byron was right and promised it wouldn’t. But it was difficult, more so now, when most of the relationships she knew that existed were for sex, for a few moments of comfort after a rough night. Perhaps a few were genuine love, but most were just about fear of dying alone.
Explaining this to Kate at this moment seemed cruel, so she simply smiled and told her to keep safe. Kate snorted and said she was being watched by so many people to make sure she didn’t do anything stupid, she wasn’t sure how she was supposed to treat the casualties. They left it at that.
Caroline turned to see Alex Edric running up towards her. He was dressed in uniform, obviously about to go on shift same as she was, the navy colour of his Red Cross garments contrasting with the dark green of her own flight suit. She had stopped by the board where the lists of casualties of the war for that month were posted. It had been four days already since Alex had told her, but she was still surprised to see Byron’s name on the list. But there it was, about half way down the sheet for January. Bishop, Byron S.
“Hi.” Alex stopped before her. He had pulled on the plastic aprons that had been issued when it became apparent that in spite of rules insisting that all uniforms should be worn for one shift, then washed at 60oC, this was impractical, especially overseas under fire, when safe water for the casualties to drink was precious enough. Now uniforms for Red Cross were washed once a week and plastic aprons had been issued to wear, one for each casualty. “I... I’ve got something to tell you.”
She froze, thinking of Philip who’d gone home to Malta to help in the fighting there; of Hazel still in the UK last time she heard, not that it was any reassurance with attacks there almost every other week.
“I spoke to Byron, the day before he died.” This didn’t surprise her. Alex and Byron had fallen into friendship so easily that it was easy to forget that Alex had been Kate’s friend first. “He wanted to ask me to be his best man, if Kate said yes.” He swallowed. “He said he’d been thinking and wanted me to know that, if anything happened. Said that in this world, we don’t get second chances, and we shouldn’t leave things unsaid and...” He stared up at her. “Right, sorry, I’m babbling.” He drew a deep breath. “I love you, Caroline. I have been in love with you since the minute you wandered in the TV room and Kate told me you were going to be sharing the rent of the house with us.”
Caroline stood shock still. She couldn’t even find a vague courtesy for a reply. She had never seriously considered Alex as anything other than Kate and Byron’s friend, though she knew he was viewed as a nice enough guy and a skilled orderly by others on the base.
But as a guy in love with her… He certainly had never acted like it. He was just… there. Thinking back, she remembered Kate and Byron inviting her and Alex along on outings with them to the cinema or to dinner. Had they known and being trying to set them up?
It was a lot to take in, especially with Alex standing there in front of her.
“I…” She struggled to find something, anything to say.
“I don’t want you to say anything yet,” Alex added, holding up a hand. “I just thought, with everything... I should tell you.” The silence stretched for a moment between them, before Alex smiled. “Right, I’m due on duty. Got some casualties coming from the North, Berklin gas victims, it looks like.”
Nervously, he stepped forward and kissed on her the cheek.
“You deserve the best,” he whispered, softly. “I just want you to be happy, to be with someone you love. Even if it’s not me.”
She nodded, dimly aware of him, as he hurried towards the concrete buildings of the hospital and she headed towards her craft. As the roar of the engines sounded in her ear, she had a sudden flash of the photo sitting on the desk in her quarters. The summer ball, all of them together. Byron’s arm wrapped around Kate, Alex standing next to Byron, her next to Kate. She realised something that must have always been present, but she’d never noticed before. That Alex’s eyes were resting on her.
“So…” Captain Magenta stretched out the word. “What do you think?”
Rhapsody Angel gave it some thought.
She thought everyone would say she was mad, agreeing to a date with Captain Magenta, Spectrum’s own answer to Casanova, only less successful. She thought she had a pile of paperwork that needed doing, and an engine that could do with a tweak. She thought she could be hanging out in the Lounge with the other Angels.
But she thought of Kate with her words of encouragement so long ago, to find love in the midst of her own heartache. Of Alex, who’d died less than an hour after confessing his love, strangled by a soldier out of his mind from the hallucinations of Berklin gas, never knowing if his love was returned or not.
Life meant taking chances, as the song said. They’d played it at Alex’s funeral.
“Give me five minutes to change.”
She watched the expression of complete surprise and happiness light up Magenta’s face, before the door to her quarters closed. She was not daft; she didn’t think Mario Moro was the one, as romance novels said, the one who would own her heart, or anything like it. But he was a good guy, and she believed that this time he was sincere. That he was trying in his own way to make amends for all those other times when he’d been obnoxious to her or upset her. She could see it in his eyes and she liked him even when he was flirting. So she’ll give him a chance.
“Living might mean taking chances but they're worth taking.
Loving might be a mistake but it's worth making.
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean, whenever one door closes,
I hope one more opens.
Promise me you’ll give faith a fighting chance, and if you get the choice to sit it or dance, Dance!
I hope you dance.”
Kate Atkins and Byron Bishop are original characters from my 2009 Christmas Story ‘Driving Drunk’. Since then, they both have kind of acquired lives and histories of their own, and I hope people don’t object to their use. Alex Edric came into being in ‘Reunion in War’, and again decided he wanted his own story. The VAD, or Voluntary Aid Detachment, scheme was started by a Joint committee of the British Red Cross and St. Johns Ambulance (as only Red Cross personnel are guaranteed protection under the Geneva conventions) in 1914, though it had initially being proposed to back up the medical services in the event of War in 1909.
VADs were aged between 16 and 48. Those between 19 (originally 21) and 42 and unmarried could become mobile VADs, meaning they agreed to be sent wherever they were needed, including overseas. Immobile VADs provided invaluable help in hospital, as relief for the formal medical staff. Women were required to undertake assessment in First Aid and Nursing, with 50 hours hospital service to qualify, while Men only had to take assessments in First Aid. Men and Women also served separately, though I suspect by the time of this story that would have changed. In spite of the invaluable service the VADs provided, their sacrifice (245 died in First World War alone) is often ignored or forgotten today. I like the idea that it was restarted for the Terrorism Wars again to provide medical support for those caught up in the conflict, especially as Red Cross would be able to access those in remote areas more easily.
Quotes are from “I Hope you dance”, recorded by various artists, written by Mark D. Sanders, and Tia Sillers and Anonymous. The Song of Songs is a book in the Bible, containing verses, which can be interpreted as being about the love between man and woman. It is a very beautiful book and well worth reading. Some Like it Hot is a 1959 movie starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. It is not essential to see it to understand the story, but I would recommend seeing it anyway as it is a classic and incredibly funny.
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