War was hell on flowers.
Alan discovered that the first wartime spring, and it had only gotten worse since. Dutch tulips were the first to go, along with Swiss edelweiss. English flowers lasted a little longer, but eventually, even they were in short supply. There were more important things to spend money and land on growing, and by mid-June of 1943, the time of year when, before the war, Alan would have been busy with wedding arrangements, his shop was depressingly bare.
Not that it really mattered. The customers had disappeared at the same time as his flowers. Most of the young unmarried men of the area were gone. The women they’d left behind had more important things to worry about than flowers, and, apart from old Mrs. Crawley the church organist, who thought that wartime was no reason not to have fresh posies on the pews, few of them came in anymore.
It took him aback to hear the bell ring, as he stood in the back watering his pathetic pots of geraniums. Leaning on his cane—the reason he hadn’t shipped out with the other village men—Alan limped out to the front to see who was there.
Captain Gary Krazowski was at the counter, dinging the bell in an evident panic.
That was the one advantage that had come to Alan’s flower shop since the war began. The aerodrome on Salisbury Plain, mere minutes from the village, was home base to dozens of Air Force men with nothing to do in their free time except try to impress the local girls. When they ran out of nylon stockings and Hershey’s chocolate, they resorted to flowers.
“Hey, Al.” Gary smiled. “Boy, I'm sure glad you’re in.”
“What is it this time?” Alan asked fondly. Gary was American, and, as with a lot of the Americans Alan had met, everything about him was big. Big hands, broad shoulders, loud voice. He was not an unattractive man, Alan had to admit, but he had a distinct air of “bull in the china shop” whenever he came into the small florists’.
“I met this real pretty WAAF officer. Evelyn. Told her I’d go to the dance with her tomorrow night.”
“But…” Alan took a vase from the shelf behind the counter and began to fill it.
“But I forgot I already told Janie from the village that I’d go with her.”
“I see. Well, if you want my advice, I’d stick with Janie.”
“Oh, I am,” Gary agreed. “But I need something to keep Evelyn sweet. Just in case things don’t work out with Janie.”
The bouquet was a mere shadow of what he could have done before the war, but Gary was satisfied with it. He paid gratefully, giving Alan more than was necessary and refusing the change.
“I owe you big time,” he said. “If there’s anything I can do to pay you back…” He hesitated. Alan was about to demur, when Gary went on, “Hey, maybe there is. You like the planes, don’t you? I see you out there sometimes, watching.”
Alan did go out to the Plain on occasion. His doctors had told him exercise was good for him, and the walk to the Plain was manageable. Sometimes, Alan sat outside the fence and watched the airmen and their aeroplanes, wondering if that was where he’d be now, if not for his leg. Wondering if that’s where Jim would be now, if he were still alive.
“Come by sometime, tomorrow maybe,” Gary went on. “I’ll bring you in, let you see ‘em up close.”
“Is that allowed?”
Gary shrugged. “Couldn't hurt to try, right?” He gave Alan another hearty, “Thanks, Al!” and left the shop.
Alan tidied up the trimmings, swept them into the bin beside the counter, and went back to his geraniums.
Alan lived in the house he grew up in. He even slept in the same room where he was born, the bedroom at the back of the house. From the window, you could just make out the stones of the Henge, standing sentry in the distance.
His father was killed in the Great War. The “war to end all wars”, only it hadn’t. Alan’s mother raised him and his younger brother Richard in this house. When she died in 1938, Alan took over the flower shop she’d started as a widow with two young sons and no money.
Richard was gone now too, off at war like the rest of the men. Alan got occasional letters from him, so heavily marked up with the censor’s black pen that it hardly seemed worthwhile reading them.
Alan had a quiet life in the village. He enjoyed his work, even now the flowers were in short supply. He had friends, the boys and girls he had gone to school with and who were now married with children of their own. And his injury, the damaged leg that had kept him out of the war, spared him the village speculation that would usually attach itself to a thirty-five-year-old bachelor who didn’t seem to have any interest in women.
As if, Alan sometimes thought, a bad leg has anything to do with sex.
He had his dogs as well, William and Mary, two aged Springer spaniels who had belonged to his mother. They were just his speed, and they loped along beside him as he went on his usual walk after supper, down through the village and then back up across the field towards the Henge.
It was the nineteenth of June, and still bright sunshine at half past six in the evening. It reminded Alan of summers past, of watching the sun rise through the stones on the summer solstice, first with his mother and brother, and later, with Jim.
He was nearly at the Henge when he saw a group of men coming in the opposite direction, headed for the village. They were in uniform, talking loudly and smoking. William, the more social of the dogs, strained at his lead and, as the men drew closer, Alan recognized Gary Krazowski.
“Hey, there, Al!” Gary had a grin on his face, as usual, and he bent to pat William’s head. William wagged his tail gratefully.“Those flowers worked a treat with Evelyn. I sure do owe you one. Come up to the aerodrome tomorrow, like I said, OK? I can’t wait to show you the planes.”
He was gone before Alan could say anything, jogging to catch up with his friends. William huffed a little and bent his head to sniff at the ground, and Alan walked on.
The aerodrome was larger close to than Alan would have expected. Half a dozen planes sat inside, the Spitfires and Mosquitoes that Alan had watched flying overhead for months now. More of them left than came back.
“This one’s my baby,” Gary said, waiting for Alan to hobble over to a gleaming silver plane. “Beauty, ain’t she?” He smiled at it with all the pride of a father looking at his child, and wiped an invisible mark off the fuselage.
“Very nice.” Alan meant it. “She’s gorgeous.”
“Most civilians don’t appreciate her,” Gary said. “You an Air Force guy after all?”
Alan shook his head. “No.” He wasn’t sure why, but he felt he had to add something more, so he said: “I used to be a motorcar ‘guy’.”
“Oh, yeah?” Gary’s omnipresent grin grew larger. “What kind?”
“I had a 1927 Sunbeam touring car.” But he’d loved all kinds of cars. Alan would have bought dozens if he’d had the money, which of course he didn’t. He could barely afford the old Sunbeam. He’d scrimped, saved and borrowed to get it, and every day, he wished he hadn’t.
“Still got it?” Alan shook his head again, and glanced down at his leg. He hadn’t thought of Gary as the subtlest of men, but he seemed to understand that, his expression turning towards the sympathetic. Just as Alan was about to tell him it was all right, another American in uniform approached.
“Who in the name of Sam Hill is this?”
“Local liaison, sir,” Gary replied, his back straight and his face straighter. “Thought it’d be a good idea to get in good with the villagers.”
The other man stared at Gary like he was mad, then at Alan like he might be a German spy. “Get him out of here,” he finally said. “And get back to work, Krazowski.”
Gary saw him out, all the way to the fence that marked the perimeter of the base. “You coming to the dance tonight?” He asked, when Alan turned to say good-bye.
Alan looked at him. He appeared to be serious. “I’m, ah, not much of a dancer, I’m afraid.”
“Well, maybe we could meet for a drink or something first. Can I come by your house?”
It seemed like an odd request. “What about Janie? Don’t you need to pick her up?”
“I’m meeting her at the hall.”
Gary was a good customer, and he had shown him the aerodrome. “Do you know where I live?” Alan asked.
“That little cottage with the tea roses at the front.”
Alan blinked. “You know about flowers?”
“You must be rubbing off on me, Al.” He snapped a salute in Alan's direction, then was gone. Alan headed back to the village.
The sky clouded over as the day wore on. By evening, it was raining, big drops bouncing off the pavement and the windowpanes. Alan was putting the blackout cloths in the sitting room windows when there was a knock at the door.
Gary was dressed to the nines, in full uniform. He looked good, even better than he usually did, and Alan felt a knot tighten in his stomach. Water dripped off the brim of Gary's hat, and, as Alan stood staring, Gary said, “Could I come in? It’s a little damp out here.”
Alan stood aside. Gary came into the house, shaking off the rain in the entryway. The dogs, even Mary, trotted up to greet him, sniffing at his pant legs as he hung his hat on the rack beside Alan’s battered raincoat and the dogs’ leads.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Alan asked, belatedly realizing he was meant to be the host.
“Got anything stronger?” Gary conscientiously wiped his feet on the mat and went through into the drawing room.
“I don’t often drink,” Alan said. Another souvenir of the accident. “My brother might have left some scotch…”
”Tea’s fine. Thanks.”
Alan went into the kitchen and started the stove. When he went back to the drawing room, Gary was standing, looking at the photographs on the mantelpiece.
Alan finished attaching the last black cloth to the window and switched on the nearest lamp. “Your family?” Gary asked, pointing at the pictures.
“My parents and my brother.” Alan’s mother was standing in front of the flower shop. It was one of the last pictures they had of her. On either side of her picture, in their matching frames, Alan’s father and brother looked out in their uniforms. They could have passed for twins, born twenty-five years apart.
“You’ve got a military family.” Gary sat on the flowered sofa. William jumped up beside him, and Gary scratched his ears.
“My father died in the last War. I don’t know where Richard is.” Somewhere in France, Alan thought, but that could have changed by now.
“My brother Frank’s in the Pacific,” Gary replied. “Lucky bastard. Bet he’s not putting up with rain like this out there.” There was a pause. “You ever regret not joining in?”
Alan stiffened. “I don’t exactly have a lot of choice.”
“I didn’t mean that. I just thought…”
“I’d better see to the tea.”
Alan knew it would be awhile before the kettle boiled. He nevertheless went to the kitchen. Mary trailed in behind him, going to her water dish and drinking thirstily. Alan leaned against the countertop, listening to the rain drench the back garden, until he heard the door creak open behind him.
He turned around.
“I wasn't getting on your case, Al,” Gary said. “Sorry if I made you feel like I was.”
The kettle whistled. Alan reached for the old brown teapot. Gary watched him as he took the Tetley’s tin down from the shelf. “What happened to your leg?”
“I told you,” Alan said, filling the teapot from the kettle. The sooner Gary had his tea, he thought, the sooner he would leave for the dance, and this would be over. “I was in a car accident.”
“A long time ago?”
“Long enough. Milk or sugar?”
Gary shook his head. Alan poured and passed one of the teacups to Gary. It was large, heavy local pottery, but it looked fragile in Gary’s hands.
“Hey, I almost forgot,” Gary reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a brown rectangle. “I brought you a gift.” He handed the Hershey’s bar to Alan, who stared. He hadn’t seen chocolate for a long time, but he knew what it meant to American servicemen like Gary. In this context, it made no sense. None of this made sense, not the aerodrome visit, not the cup of tea, not the way Gary was so nice to him, over and over again, for no reason other than that Alan sold him flowers when he needed them. Or was that the only reason?
“Thank you,” Alan said, at last, although it sounded uncertain even to him.
Gary smiled anyway, that brilliant grin again. “I like you, Al.” He looked at Alan for a long moment. Alan drank his tea too quickly, and winced as it burned down his throat.
Gary set his teacup down next to the threadbare “Scenes of East Anglia” teatowel, and took a step towards Alan. The hand that landed on Alan’s shoulder was surprisingly gentle, but the look in Gary’s eyes was suddenly so much like Jim that, in an instant, it all came crashing back: the road, the brakes, the scream, the crash. The silence.
“Janie will be angry with you if you’re late.”
Gary chuckled, but his eyes stayed on Alan. “I’ll make it up to her with some flowers.”
“You should go.” Alan hoped his voice sounded firm. Gary paused, then to took his hand from Alan’s shoulder.
He thought he saw a look of disappointment on Gary’s face, but it didn’t last long. A moment later, the sunny smile was back. “Thanks for the tea, Al.”
Alan saw him out, waiting while he put on his hat and coat and gave William and Mary a goodbye pat. Then he winked at Alan, as if this was just another scrape he’d helped avoid, and left.
Alan awoke with a start that knocked Mary off his lap. The wireless had gone off the air and was hissing static at him. He blinked, disoriented, and wondered why he had jolted to so suddenly. Then he heard the knocking on the door.
Alan stood up, stepping over Mary and switching off the wireless as he passed it. He couldn’t hear rain. Opened the front door, he noticed it had stopped. Gary even looked dry as he stood on the doorstep and said: “Alan, look…”
Alan sighed and rubbed sleep from his eyes. “Where’s Janie?”
“I took her home. It’s after midnight.” He looked at Alan. “I’m flying out tomorrow, Al. Over to France. You never have to see me again.”
Alan didn't say yes, but he didn't say no. When Gary swept him up in his strong, American arms, Alan let him, let him push into the house and slam the door behind him. Let him kiss him, over and over again, soft and sweet, hard and demanding, until his body buzzed with it and Alan couldn't think why he'd ever been reluctant to do this.
He drew the line at allowing Gary to carry him up the stairs.
Gary was enthusiastic in bed, seemingly unconcerned with the little awkward moments when teeth collided or when an elbow jabbed into a ribcage. He wasn't even put off by Alan's bad leg. Gary ran a gentle hand down it once, but he soon became preoccupied with other parts of Alan’s body.
It was good. Alan could never compare him to Jim, but Gary was large, in all ways, and he knew what he was doing. Once he’d spent between Alan's thighs, he slid down the bed and took Alan into his mouth, sucking him happily until Alan grew short of breath and spilled more prolifically than he had in years.
Afterwards, they lay together. Gary had a tattoo on his bicep, an American flag with its stripes and forty-eight pinpoint stars. As he traced it, Alan found he wanted to do something he very rarely did: talk.
“Jim was my lover.” He knew Gary wasn’t asleep, but he was quiet. “We'd known each other since we were boys.” Jim was the first boy Alan had loved, the first man he’d slept with. The only man, until now. “He wanted to move to London.” But Alan couldn’t leave the village, couldn’t leave his widowed mother to her flower shop. They’d argued about it, many times. On the last occasion, they’d both been drinking. Jim told Alan he wanted to go to the train station that night, and it made no difference to him if Alan came or not. Alan volunteered to drive him, if “volunteered” was the right word, and they’d stormed out to the car.
It was dark, and the road to the train station in Salisbury was narrow and winding. People claimed alcohol didn’t affect the ability to drive, but Alan would swear until the day he died the reason he couldn’t keep the Sunbeam on the road was because he was drunk.
He might have managed to get there anyway, dipping into the ditch and running into bushes all the way, but some kind of bird, a plover or a pheasant, appeared out of the bushes. Alan hit the brakes and the car skidded off the road. Alan’s side was crushed against a tree, and his mangled leg kept him in the car. Jim wasn’t as lucky.
It was morning before someone found them. Mr. and Mrs. James Barnsley, on their way to Salisbury cathedral for a wedding. Mrs. Barnsley had been wearing a little blue hat with a short veil, Alan remembered that, and she’d stood beside the car, holding his hand, while her husband looked for Jim. When he came back, he shook his head grimly, and Mrs. Barnsley tightened her grip.
She stayed while her husband went for the doctor. Alan was taken into hospital. When he saw his mother, he asked about Jim, even though he knew the answer already.
“I’m sorry, dear,” his mother said, brushing her hand over his forehead. Alan never spoke of it again.
“He died,” Gary said.
“Because of me.”
“It was an accident, Al.” That was what the police and the village decided. It hadn’t made Alan feel any better then, either.
Alan expected Gary to head back to the barracks, but Gary said, “I’ll show up on time for my flight in the morning. That’s all they care about.” So he stayed. Alan slept fitfully, and when he noticed the dawn beginning to streak the sky, he got up and went to the bedroom window.
It wasn’t the best angle for viewing the Henge, but Alan’s memory could fill in what he was missing. On the solstice, the sun would be rising through the stones, dazzlingly brilliant and perfect. The Henge had been designed for it, thousands of years ago by people long forgotten, and it was still an awesome sight.
Alan remembered a story his mother had told them as children, about the two celestial kings the ancient people of the area had believed in, around the time the Henge was built. The Holly King and the Oak King. Twins who fought for dominance twice a year, on the summer and winter solstices. The Holly King, the darker twin, won on the summer solstice and ruled the earth until the winter came, when the light-bringing Oak King supplanted him and the cycle began again.
It was about rebirth, about darkness giving way to light and vice versa, a never ending circle that had been going on since long before the Henge was built. As children, he and Richard had thought the story fascinating. As adolescents, they found it ridiculous. Alan hadn’t thought of it for years.
“You seem thoughtful.” Gary came up behind him.
Alan, turned. He was a handsome man, Alan thought, not for the first time, but he was also good-natured, and he meant well. “Be careful. Don’t do anything stupid.” Stay alive.
“I’ll do my best.” He bent his head. As they kissed, Alan slid his hands up Gary’s arms, over the tattoo to rest them on his shoulders. “Thanks, Al,” he said, when he pulled away. “I didn’t want to leave without doing that.”
Alan had his tea and toast, trying not to notice the Hershey bar still on the kitchen counter. He fed the dogs and went down to the shop, thinking of a new arrangement he might try. He’d never thought about putting holly or oak leaves into a bouquet before, but flowers were in short supply. He needed all the greenery he could get.