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But I was Looking at the Permanent Stars

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Vignacourt was a town lodged firmly behind the Allied lines. Many of the citizens had left after the Germans had come dangerously close early in the war. Now days the town served as a place for rest. A place for soldiers to put aside what they had seen on the front lines and have a small moment of peace.

 

Both Terror and Errebus Company had finally received their rotation off the front lines. After weeks of high stakes alertness and constant shelling they were able to sleep and regain some of their energy. Thomas Jopson, runner for Terror Company’s Major Francis Crozier, was taking the time to mend the holes that had worn into his uniform. The mud was caked on across the fabric and was taking more time than originally thought to wash out. Yet it was a relaxing endeavour. Something about the repetitive motions involved in washing and sewing clothing soothed the soul. In the distance shells echoed but they would not reach here. He and the rest of the men were safe. Just for a moment.

Of course in moments of peace Thomas was able to think on what had been developing between himself and one Lieutenant Edward Little, leader of Terror’s First Platoon. He was an odd, stoic sort of man. Constantly worried not only for the men under his own command, but for all the men in the trenches. Their interactions had mostly come from Thomas having to deliver news to Edward from Major Crozier; yet from that a friendship had formed. The Lieutenant had offered Thomas protection in the moments where the shelling was such that Thomas would be unable to return to Major Crozier’s side. Talk between men thought that the Lieutenant was stoic, vaguely unapproachable. Always tending to keep his own council. Thomas knew better though. He knew that Edward had quite the sense of humour when he was able to show it. It was just that his sense of duty tend to overtake much else. He worried endlessly about the men under his care and as such tended to be rather dour. Edward wore his worries on his face, this constant look of concern and stress. It was this worry however, this love, which had endeared him to Thomas in the first place. In return it had been Thomas’ dedication to their commanding officer, and constant need to make sure that everyone was as comfortable as possible given the circumstances that had endured Edward to Thomas. They both cared a little too much for others all things considered. There was a war on after all. It was hard to foster feelings when you did not know where the next shell would come from.

Somehow despite all that the two had grown closer. Finding small moments whenever they rotated off the lines, even pushing the boundaries and stealing touches from each other in scarce empty portions of the trenches. All highly frowned upon of course, but they were not the only men who sought solace in one-another’s arms. Here, in Vignacourt, the two would finally have a semblance of privacy. The ability to talk about what was going on; and maybe, just maybe, talk about life after the war.

Here and now however, Thomas sat out by the side of the main street. Patching holes in uniform. It did not matter they had been given a new set, given how the mud could get in the trenches it always paid to have a spare. From this particular vantage point he could watch people move. The French villagers trying their best to keep a normal routine, the bread boy selling pastries to soldiers who had grown sick of what the army kept them fed with, and the Thuillier couple delivering yesterday’s photographs to soldiers wanting a souvenir to send home. The soldiers themselves were a mix of English, French, and Commonwealth. He knew for certain the Australians were amongst them since he had to listen to Lieutenant John Irving complain about the vulgarity of the Australians despite the fact that he himself had nearly ranked amongst them. Thomas however had not yet spoken to them, there was too much to do in regards to his own duties as well as what he aimed to do in his spare time.

 

“You look quite focused there Corporal Jopson.” Thomas turned his head at the familiar voice and found himself looking into the deep brown eyes of Lieutenant Edward Little. The man had shaved since coming off the line and was looking more akin to the man he had met before they had shipped to the Dardanelles back in 1915. Thomas gave the man a smile.

 

“Just tidying my spare uniform. Always useful to have a spare given everything.”

 

“Thinking about yourself for once Tom?”

 

“I’ve already fixed Major Crozier’s uniforms and made sure that most everything is done before I did this. Did you need anything mended Ed?” And like that they had dropped into using first names. There was no one else listening so there was no need for rank and formality here.

 

“I wouldn’t ask that of you. You need to rest as well remember. We do not know how long we would be off the line for.” Edward sat down from across the table, placing his cap over the mended jacket Thomas had left there.

 

“It wouldn’t be work if it was for you. Consider it a gift! I’d rather you be comfortable if we have to go back.” Thomas finally put down his needle and refolded his uniform pants. Despite his efforts there were still stains from the mud.

 

“I would consider it more a gift if you rested.” Edward reached across the table and placed his hand on Thomas’ shoulder, “Don’t work yourself to the bone Thomas. You can rest.”

 

“I could quite easily say the same for you Edward. We’ve been here three days already and I haven’t seen you once. How long have you spent making sure not only your own platoon, but the rest of the company is comfortable here?” Quickly taking a glance at who was around, Thomas dropped his cheek onto Edward’s hand.

 

“I’ll cede that,” Edward’s voice was warm as he turned his hand to rub his thumb against Thomas’ cheek, “I was thinking however, that we could get our portrait taken. I had put aside some of my pay after I heard a rumour about a photographer here, and I thought it would be a way we could capture this. Just a moment. No one is to suspect anything. Plenty of men have had their pictures together while here and no one has said a word. But we will know. It will be just for us. You and me.”

 

Thomas lifted his head and frowned, “But wouldn’t we have to book? The Thuilliers have been busy constantly since we arrived. I wouldn’t want to trouble them. Surely they would want to rest too?”

 

“There you are, caring about others. Don’t worry Tom. I have spoken to Louis and he takes photographs in the couple of hours after lunch. He would be ready for us soon if we so wished.”

 

Thomas smiled once more and gave a short nod, “then I better get my dress uniform on. If we are going to take a picture together then I want to look my best.”

 

“Thought you might. I will meet you at the farmhouse after midday.” Edward stood from his chair and looked around. Deciding that it was relatively quiet and that most people’s attentions were elsewhere, he bent down and pressed his lips quickly to Thomas’ cheek. When he pulled away he smiled at the small flush that had bloomed across the Corporal’s cheeks. Without another word he walked away. Thomas watched him for just a moment, a small smile across his face. It was still a while to midday. Till then he could finish his mending.

 

 

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Midday was certainly the busiest time around Vignacourt. The companies next in line for the Front lines were organising themselves and preforming standard drills. Transports were readied to send down fresh artillery to those that would need it. Then there was the mix of people who were simply enjoying a nice lunch. Despite the war some of the women who lived in the town had been able to maintain small garden farms; and soldiers eager for something more substantial than usual, had taken to bartering for whatever fresh food they could lay their hands on. Thomas had contented himself with the usual biscuit and tinned meat. He did not want to take any extra food for himself when there were so many more mouths to feed. The warmth of the day was seeping downwards, heating up the ground beneath his feet. It was an odd feeling to be content. Each part of Vignacourt held something different; and while Thomas had never been in the Thuillier’s farmhouse, he had grown used to its façade in the three days they had spent here. Over the door read ‘photos’, and standing before the door was Edward. He wore his neat dress uniform, one that had most certainly not left his pack since they had left England. Thomas’ own dress uniform was simply the one he had been resupplied with. No formal garments for a simple corporal.

 

“Mr Thuillier is definitely expecting us after midday?” Thomas asked as he approached the door. Edward jumped slightly at his voice, evidently being lost in his own thoughts before.

 

“Yes. There may be a couple of other men there. These photos have become quite popular souvenirs to be sent back home.”  Edward responded before giving three sharp knocks to the door before them.

 

“That much I did know. Major Crozier has had one done of himself and Captain Fitzjames. Which I did find peculiar since the man tends to shy away from being in front of the camera usually.” It was comforting to be able to share conversation like this. As if in peace time. Thomas watched Edward’s face as they waited for an answer to their knock. For the moment he did not have his usual dour expression, he had a small smile on his lips, and more colour in his cheeks than he had in the trenches. Thomas supposed that he himself would also look a touch different having cleaned himself of the frontline mud.

Before Edward could respond the door opened and before them stood a neatly dressed woman. She smiled at the both of them before leading them through the house. While Edward and the woman spoke together in French, Thomas found his attention drawn around the house. It was one thing he missed outside of his family; the comforts of home. A roof to shelter from the elements. Furniture to sink into at the end of a long day. In this house were an assortment of photos that Thomas presumed were of the extended Thuillier family. The central photo was that of the Thuillier’s son, their pride and joy. There was a yearning in Thomas’ heart to return to his family, and yet when he looked ahead to Edward that yearning eased. Something existed here beyond words. That was good too.

 

 

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The Thuillier’s had set up their photography area in a courtyard at the back of their family house. It was set up with a simple painted backdrop of a double archway standing before a lush garden. Speaking of a time before the dreary browns of the war. A backdrop perfect for pretending that the people stood before it were in a different place entirely. Outside of that there were pieces of farm machinery and a couple of inactive motorcycles from Louis Thuillier’s time as a dispatch rider. A skinny dog that either belonged to the family or served as a unit mascot sniffed around all the odds and ends. Somewhere Thomas could hear a cat.

 

“How would the two of you like to position yourselves?” Thomas’ thoughts were interrupted by the voice of Louis Thuillier. He stood beside his camera and a table of assorted bits and pieces. Edward looked toward Thomas for a suggestion but Thomas simply shrugged.

 

“We will go with whatever you think best sir. You are the photographer after all.” Edward said, turning his attention back to Mr. Thuillier. The Frenchman smiled and walked over to his backdrop. He picked out a mid-heighted stool and indicated for Thomas to sit down.

 

“It creates more interest if there is some difference in positioning. So in portraits with two or more people I like to have one seated.” Louis explained as he tidied Thomas’ collar, “I also think it looks more dignified for soldiers to be seated.” He led Edward into frame and positioned him behind and slightly to the left of Thomas. Without a word Edward placed his hand on Thomas’ shoulder. An action that seemed to please the photographer who offered up a smile.

 

“Now,” Louis spoke again once he stood behind the camera, “Exposure takes a moment so please do not move until I say so. That way the picture will be as clear as possible. I tried to take a picture with the dog once but he moved so it came out blurry.” Thomas listened at the photographer spoke of some of his portrait models. Yet part of his attention was more on the heavy weight of Edward’s hand on his shoulder.  He could feel through the fabric of his jacket that Edward was rubbing small circles with his thumb. If he could have moved he would have leaned more into the touch, but there was an audience. Somehow he wished he could let Edward know that he could feel it; somehow he wished he could return the comfort of touch.

 

“There!” Louis stood up from behind the camera and removed a plate from within it, “I’ll go place this in a room with the others and then I will return with a drink for you both! I’ll be a couple of minutes, feel free to have a look at my motorcycles!” Without another word he left. Edward dropped his hand from Thomas’ shoulder and walked to one of the emptier corners of the courtyard. Thomas watched him for a moment before rising from the stool to join him.

 

 

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In the privacy of the courtyard they could just talk. Not freely, but they could just talk. They could stand close to one another and give casual touches. Gentle, quiet intimacy. There was a peace here in the part riddled courtyard. A duck waddled aimlessly around a small pool of water, watched curiously by the white dog from before. Small wildflowers in a wide range of colours grew through cracks in pavement, giving off more colour than Thomas had seen since he had left England. Here, even more so than in the town itself, the war seemed a hundred years away.

 

“What do you dream of Edward? For after the war?” Thomas asked, breaking a moment of comfortable silence that had fallen between them.

 

“You mostly. I know it would be hard, but I like the idea that we could find somewhere together. Somewhere green. No mud, no rocks. I’ve never worked the land before but I could learn. We could grow our own food and have some animals. We could have a big house too. Then if you wanted you could have your family there, because I know you worry endlessly about them. Particularly your mother.”

 

“What about your family? Surely they’d want more for you than farming?”

 

“They’d want me to stay in the army. Rise in rank and stature. Once maybe I thought that was all I could be. You’ve shown me more than that.” Edward took Thomas’ hand in his own and lifted it to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to the palm, “We could watch the night and talk about the stars like we did once on the Dardanelles. Yet it would be different. It would be peace and we would be more than colleagues in a trench.”

 

Thomas took a step toward Edward and rested their heads together, “I think I would like that. We could have sheep that wander around the fields that we see only when it is time for shearing. It would just be us, and we would be safe.”

 

“Safe together.” Edward said softly. He moved his head slightly so he could press his lips against Thomas’. They kissed deeply, taking the moment of solitude they had to say as much as they could with that action. Thomas kept Edward’s hands in his own, keeping them both grounded and tied together. After a moment they parted and Thomas took a tentative step back. They still must be careful, yet they kept their hands entwined. A promised future, a promised peace. They would be together so long as they survived. So long as they remained untouched by the war.

 

 

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Louis Thuillier delivered the photo to Thomas as he sat in his normal spot on the main street the next morning. They had a polite conversation before Mr. Thuillier had to continue on his way to deliver the rest of the previous day’s photos. Carefully Thomas opened the envelope and looked at the picture. It was remarkably clear. Formal perhaps but that was the way they had chosen to pose. The part that Thomas liked best was the soft smile on Edward’s face. Most of the photos he had seen so far had been relatively serious in expression; but here, Edward was smiling. It was beautiful. Thomas placed the photograph back in the envelope and pressed it tightly to his chest. He would have to show Edward as soon as possible. This lovely photo that would look beautiful on their mantelpiece one day. A reminder of how they met. Of love out of conflict. Part of their story; captured forever on one day in Vignacourt.