Reaching Out from a Mind as Dirty as All Outdoors
If you get lucky enough, I might post adult-only material from time to time, so be 18 or over, or please be elsewhere.
I'll be discussing erotica here, the writing of it and the people who write it, as well as what we've written. I find all these aspects stimulating, but if any of them bore you, feel free to skim. You never know what you might miss, though.
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Free Lesbian Historical Romance Story: The Bridge
This historical story set in WWI England may be as close as I ever come to a non-erotic lesbian romance story, one I may someday expand into a novel. It was published in Through the Hourglass: Lesbian Historical Romance.
Upstream the river riffled over stony outcroppings, but under the bridge it ran deep and clear. Reggie leaned over the wooden railing and stared down into those amber-green depths, willing herself to see only a great speckled trout balanced in perfect stillness against the current. An ordinary Midlands English stream, all green shadow and shimmering sunlight and blue reflected sky. An ordinary fish. Yet she could not block out visions of bodies submerged in other streams throughout the ravaged countryside of France, flowing ever redder with blood until they reached the Somme. Even the songs of birds in flight, spilling over with rapture, warped in her mind into cries for help, help that could never be enough.
"Shell-shock," the doctors might say, but it scarcely mattered what one called it. Pure, searing grief, not war itself—though war would have been enough—had breached her defenses. Grief for Vic. For herself without Vic.
By what right did England bask in such a May morning, calm and lovely, while over there artillery’s thunder still shook the fields, and men rotted in muddy trenches? How could she bear to stand idle in the midst of such peace when her place was over there, even...even with Vic gone? All the more with Vic gone.
But she must adjust, must let the peace of home heal her—not that anywhere felt like home now. Or ever could again, without Vic. If Reggie could prove herself recovered, not only from her physical injuries but those of the spirit—capable once more, clear-minded—they just might send her back to the war. An experienced ambulance driver, strong as most men, skilled at repairing motorcars and field-dressing wounded men; here in pastoral England she was of no use, but over there she was desperately needed.
Reggie straightened abruptly, trying to focus on the tender green of new leaves, the glint of sunlight on the flitting gold and peacock blue of dragonflies. She shook herself like a retriever emerging from deep water.
“Don’t move!” The low, terse command froze her in mid shake. “There’s a nest...” The voice came from below, less peremptory now, but Reggie’s mind raced. A machine gun nest? She fought the impulse to drop to the wooden planks of the bridge. Surely not gunners, not here! A nest of wasps?
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” The speaker was almost whispering. “It’s just that swallows are nesting below you on the supports of the bridge, and I’ve been sketching them, but they get uneasy when you move so suddenly and might leave the eggs.”
A flush of fury heated Reggie’s face. Forced to the verge of panic by some silly schoolgirl! She bent over the wooden railing, an angry shout surging into her throat, and saw, first, a head of tousled light brown hair cut short about the ears. A schoolboy, then! All the worse! “WHAT do you bloody mean by—”
The artist looked up. The remainder of Reggie’s words, stifled, burned like mustard gas in her mouth.
Not a boy. Not a child at all, though she might have been taken for one if it weren’t for tiny lines at the corners of mouth and eyes, and a certain look in those eyes that spoke of a share of pain in her life; rather like what Reggie saw in her own when she was careless enough to look in a mirror. Her hair was really no shorter than Vic’s pale curls had been in France, and Reggie’s own dark thatch had been cropped a good deal shorter back then, a necessity in the filth and chaos of battlefields. She realized uneasily that it was about time she cut it again. Eight months in hospital had left it just long enough to tie back in a straggly knot, which she would have hated if she had cared in the least about appearance these days.
“I really am terribly sorry,” the woman said. “I shouldn’t have startled you like that. I get too engrossed in what I’m working on; it’s my besetting sin. One of them, at any rate.” A flashing smile turned her rather ordinary face into something quite different, almost enchanting, in the elven manner of an illustration from a fairy tale. “You must be Lady Margaret’s cousin, and this is her bridge, so really you’ve much more right here than I. We’d heard you were spending the summer with her. I’m Emma Greening from downstream at Foxbanks.”
She stood from her perch on a mossy rock and made as if to extend a hand, then realized that she couldn’t possibly reach up to where Reggie stood and withdrew it in some confusion. “Just a second and I’ll climb out of here with my gear.”
Reggie found her voice, or at least some version of it just barely suitable for the occasion. The hoarseness couldn’t be helped. Vic had claimed to quite like what being a little too slow to get her gas mask on once had done to her tone. “No, you can go on sketching. I was about to move along at any rate.” Emma Greening...what had Margaret said about her? Something, in all that chatter about the local population, something about being an artist, but Reggie had paid no attention to any of it. No one in this dull, placid countryside mattered to her.
Now she wondered just how much Margaret had told the local population about her. Or how much Margaret herself understood.
“I should be going myself,” Emma said. “I can sketch swallows in my sleep—it was the bridge itself I wanted to catch in a certain light, and I think I have enough now to be going on with.” She packed her sketchbook and paint box into a satchel slung over her shoulder, and stepped from the rock onto the steep riverbank.
“Here, I can give you a hand with that.” Reggie heard the brusqueness in her own voice, and couldn’t quite erase the remnants of her angry frown, but found herself reaching down from the top of the riverbank without remembering how she’d got there. Emma’s sun-browned hand met hers in a firm grip, and she was up the slope so quickly and easily that it was clear she hadn’t needed any help at all.
“Thanks. I’ll be getting along now, and I do apologize for disturbing you.” Her smile now was merely polite.
This would be as good a time as ever to practice behaving normally, Reggie thought. Best to scotch any gossip about her being a bit odd. “Don’t leave on my account, Miss...Greening, is it? I’m Regina Lennox. Make that Reggie. Sketch here all you like. I’m the one who should apologize for being such a troll when you startled me.”
Emma’s smile flashed brilliantly again. “A troll? How funny that you’d say that! This is indeed a perfect troll bridge, which is why I was sketching it, for a book I’m illustrating. A children’s story, the one with the three goats.”
“Trip, trap, trip, trap over the bridge?”
“That’s the one,” Emma confirmed. “For now I wanted to get the bridge itself, rustic and charming, with the swallows, and that wren darting in and out of the bittersweet vines on the other side—she must have a nest there—and the clump of purple orchis just where the bridge meets the bank. All lovely and peaceful before the goats or troll appear. A lull before the storm sort of thing.”
“So the troll got here prematurely.” There was something comfortably familiar about this sort of conversation.
Emma tilted her head, surveying Reggie with mock seriousness. “No, I wouldn’t cast you as the troll, exactly. In any case, I was the one under the bridge, or nearly so. I’m a better candidate for trolldom.” She leaned her head the other way with a frown of concentration belied by a twitching at the corners of her mouth. “I see you more as the biggest Billy Goat Gruff—stern, shaggy, putting up with no nonsense from any troll.”
“Certainly shaggy...” Reggie stopped short. Memory hit her like an icy blast. Vic used to tease her, rumpling her hair when it got shaggy and needed cutting, calling her a troll—often followed by, ‘Well, get on with it, you slouch. Kiss me if you’re going to!’ She felt her face freeze into grim stillness, bracing against the familiar onslaught of grief.
Emma stepped back. “Sorry again,” she said, sounding embarrassed. “I have a bad habit of blurting outrageous things without thinking.”
“It’s not you,” Reggie got out, but no more words would come.
“I really should be going now, anyhow,” Emma said quickly. “I’ll just leave you in peace. I expect we’ll run across each other in the village from time to time.”
Reggie watched in frozen silence as Emma picked up the bicycle lying beside the lane, settled her art supplies in the canvas panniers at the back, mounted, and rode away. Her divided skirt revealed a brief glimpse of quite nice lisle-stockinged calves above sturdy boots—and a smudge of moss stain where she’d been sitting on the rock.
So much for behaving normally! Reggie’s spasm of grief was subsiding. She wished she could call Emma back, but the bicycle had disappeared around a bend edged with dense shrubbery. And what could she have said? “I froze up because you reminded me of someone.” Which wasn’t even true. Emma didn’t particularly resemble Vic. It was more the light, pleasant conversation, the brief exchange of banter...
Ah. That was it. Just as the rehabilitation counselor had said, but Reggie had resisted. Guilt. Survivor’s guilt, they called it. Why should she be the one to survive? How could she deserve, or accept, even the least pleasure?
Well, she had enjoyed herself, if only for a few minutes. Maybe that was a sign of healing. She rubbed her hands across her eyes, then turned back to the bridge. A swallow darted under the arch, and a second bird took flight from the nest on the wooden underpinnings while the first took over hatching duty. On the far side a wren darted in and out between clusters of tiny white flowers on a trailing tangle of vines—bittersweet, Emma had called it. A small butterfly speckled like polished tortoiseshell flitted between masses of ferns on the upper bank. Emma would probably know what it was called.
It occurred to Reggie that this side of the bridge was the farthest she’d been from Margaret’s house since she’d come here, and also that it must be close to time for lunch. A quick sound in the water and a spreading ring of ripples showed that the trout concurred and had snatched a mayfly from the surface.
She went back across the bridge, pausing to look down into the water. Only when she was well along the lane did she realize that her mind had played no tricks this time. She’d seen only the river, and the fish, and the reflection of a swallow in flight.
Margaret met Reggie at the edge of the garden, clearly relieved at her return.
“Elsie told me that you’d walked down toward the river, so I was just coming to tell you that lunch will be ready on the table in a very few minutes.”
Margaret was kind, but closer to a middle-aged aunt than a cousin, and she worried far too much. The river at the bridge was nothing like deep enough for anyone to drown herself in. Someone with Reggie’s height would need to lie prone in the water like a pre-Raphaelite vision of Ophelia in order to manage it, and she was certainly not the Ophelia sort. Nor the Hamlet sort, when it came to that. Back in their Somerville College days at Oxford, she had played Othello to Vic’s Desdemona in the all-women dramatic society, Vic teasing her into laughter so often during rehearsals that the actual performance startled them both with a fierce tension that went well beyond the dramatic. And well beyond the performance.
The thought brought a stab of pain, but also a wave of relief. She had not been sure that her mind still held such happy memories, that the tragic ones had not destroyed them. Margaret need not fear that she would destroy herself, with such memories to preserve.
She supposed she should make some effort to appear less submerged in despair, whether she were or not. “Very pleasant down by the bridge,” she said casually as they walked back to the house. “That artist woman you spoke of was there, sketching birds’ nests or something of the sort.”
“Oh, you’ve met Emma! How nice! We must have her over for tea one of these days.”
Tea. Over there, tea had been at best a brief pause, or no pause at all, to swig a bitter brew from a thermos bottle; tea or coffee, no milk or sugar. Still hot only if you were lucky. And when any of the lads you transported in the ambulance were in good enough shape to sit up and drink, you willingly gave your share to them.
“She didn’t strike me as a tea party sort.” Which was a plus in Reggie’s opinion, or would have been if she’d cared. She did care a bit, in fact. Emma seemed like someone she could enjoy chatting with, bantering, in a casual friendship uncomplicated by passion or drama.
“Well, she keeps quite busy with teaching drawing at the Midbury School for Girls, and does the most charming illustrations for children’s books, and is active in village affairs and war relief as well, so she might not have much time for tea. But she’s really quite nice, and from a good family.”
How genteel, Reggie thought. Although the split skirt and the slim strong calves that clambered up a steep riverbank as easily as they propelled a bicycle had not struck her as particularly ladylike.
It occurred to her that Margaret was sounding suspiciously like a matchmaker. Of course she couldn’t be blamed for wishing Reggie to make friends, or to at least do something besides mope about the house, but could there possibly be more to it? Surely not. Hard to be certain whether her cousin had guessed how much more Vic has been to her than a chum from student days, or a teammate in the grim work of bearing stretchers and driving ambulances on the battlefield, where an exceptionally long ranging shell could hit vehicles, patients, drivers...
Trying desperately to distract herself from that last image, she played along with the casual conversation. “Yes, she introduced herself. Said something about wanting to catch the bridge in a certain light.”
“Artists can be rather odd like that,” Margaret prattled on. “But they say she’s very good. I’ve only seen her sweet watercolors of birds and flowers and local scenes, but her work is shown in galleries in Birmingham, and even a few times in London at the Royal Academy of Arts, which is quite grand, I believe.”
Reggie was relieved to be stepping through the French doors from the garden into the morning room, where the housekeeper Elsie had lunch laid ready. For once she even had an appetite.
“Is there a competent seamstress in the village?” she asked Margaret when the meal was nearly over. For an instant her cousin’s mouth hung open in astonishment before she could answer.
“Oh! Well, yes, there’s that Miss Ogilvie who used to be a governess until she retired here to live in Bramble Cottage after her great-aunt died and bequeathed it to her. You know, that charming little thatch-roofed house just where the Mosely road branches off from the High Street? Thatched roofs are dreadfully susceptible to vermin, of course, but so picturesque, and Miss Ogilvie has had her roof rebuilt and sealed off from the interior, and then re-thatched, and—”
“An admirable woman, I’m sure,” Reggie broke in. “But can she do a decent job of altering clothing?”
“Oh yes. Of course no one is having new frocks made these days, with everything so scarce and so dear, so she does a great deal of mending and taking in and letting out and restructuring, until one would scarcely believe that the garments weren’t new. She even...well, I took her that immense paisley silk shawl my great grandfather brought from India, the one that used to be spread across the grand piano, and she sewed folds and tucks and fashioned it into a quite stylish evening wrap without making a single cut in the fabric! I’m so glad you’re thinking of having some clothing altered. You’ve lost so much weight during your illness!”
There was some truth to that, although Reggie knew quite well that Margaret also wished she would dress more conventionally. The tunic and trousers and trench coat that had been the accepted uniform for ambulance drivers in the war zone were fairly close to what the Women’s Land Army girls wore as they farmed here in England, and thus not exactly unconventional, but there were times and situations where they were out of place. Not that Reggie gave a damn for such times and situations.
The next morning Reggie packed up such clothing as she’d brought, mostly those tunics and trousers, but also two severely styled black gabardine dresses and a long skirt of brown twill. She drove an old cart pulled by grey Molly, a pony elderly enough not to have been requisitioned by the army with most of the other horses in the area. The Daimler that had been the pride and joy of Margaret’s late husband still stood forlornly in the stable, only saved from being requisitioned by being in poor repair, and likely to be taken soon for parts in spite of it. Margaret went along into the village to do some shopping.
“I do think you’ll like Miss Ogilvie,” Margaret said cheerily as she went off to browse the meager wares of the baker and greengrocer and have a look-in at the tearoom in case any close friends were there.
Reggie did like Miss Ogilvie. They recognized each other as two of a kind almost immediately. Reggie in her trousers was, of course, easier to spot, but Miss Ogilvie in her tailored suit had a way of moving, of holding her head, meeting Reggie’s eyes with a certain subtle smile in her own that was unmistakable if one spoke the unspoken language.
When Reggie held up the brown twill and asked whether it could be refashioned into a split skirt, the seamstress cast a professional eye over it, then over Reggie’s hips and thighs, and nodded with just a touch more than professional approval. “Quite enough fabric for that. Styles are shorter now, so I can take a good deal off at the bottom and use it for paneling to insert along the inseam.” She knelt to take the required measurements with no hint of impropriety, to Reggie’s slight regret and great relief. No complications, just an acknowledged fellowship.
Miss Ogilvie looked up. “Do you ride a bicycle? A split skirt is just the thing for riding.”
“I might take it up for the exercise. And the convenience, of course.”
“Excellent exercise, especially when one has been in hospital for some time.”
Reggie stiffened. “Yes. I suppose Margaret has spoken of it.” How much else had she told her backward, countrified world about Reggie’s affairs?
Miss Oglivie rose, jotted down numbers in a journal on her desk, and turned with a companionable smile. “Just that you’d been injured driving an ambulance in the war, and in hospital for several months, and had come to recover in the fresh country air. Nothing more, I assure you. No gossip gets spread around town without making its way here, but no gossip originates here, or ever will.”
Reggie relaxed just a notch or two. “Well, that’s all true. I’m a bit scarred on the back and shoulders, but nothing to interfere with bicycling.” It occurred to her that a little innocent gossip about Emma Greening might not be out of line. “I thought of the split skirt when I chatted with a lady artist yesterday who wears one when she cycles.”
“Oh, I’m so glad you’ve met Emma!” Miss Ogilvie’s words spilled out in a manner quite startling after her professional coolness. “She could use the company of someone from beyond this rural backwater. It’s been stifling for the poor girl this last year, taking care of her elderly parents. They went quite to pieces after her brother was killed. Of course this is her home, and the basis for most of her art, and she keeps busy with her teaching and volunteering for war causes, but other than the art she has precious little joy in her life. She can’t even get away now and then to London as she used to, visiting artist friends in Bloomsbury and Chelsea and, you know, all that lot.”
Reggie did know “all that lot.” And she understood what Miss Ogilvie, despite her claim of initiating no gossip, wanted her to know.
After a few more measurements pertaining to taking in
the waists of the trousers and dresses, and advice as to a barber who might do a decent trim of her hair, she left Miss Ogilvie’s establishment with her mind in turmoil. So Emma Greening was indeed a country girl, but one with a decidedly worldly side and artistic tastes that went well beyond sketching birds and flowers. If both Margaret and Miss Ogilvie were bent on pushing them together...well, Reggie had clearly been underestimating Margaret’s powers of perception.
Perhaps it would be better not to think of friendship with Emma Greening after all if Reggie meant to avoid complications, and drama, and—and passion. She thought again of that slim, strong hand, those calves below the split skirt, that sudden, brilliant smile. Definitely some danger there.
Once she’d been out and about and visible in the village, Reggie thought it best to keep up the effort to avoid appearing any odder than she could help. There were some fittings with Miss Ogilvie—“Lydia” by then—and a single appearance at church wearing one of the altered gabardine dresses, which were then hung at the back of her closet and ignored. She found that passing the gravestones on the way through the churchyard was so disturbing that only the exquisite organ music got her through the service. So much death in war. So many denied a peaceful rest in a country churchyard.
Reggie also accompanied Margaret by bus to the nearest good-sized town. While her cousin shopped, she found a fix-it shop that sold repaired bicycles, chose one to be delivered once suitable adjustments had been made, and struck up a companionable conversation with the owner. He’d been invalided home early in the war, but swore that operating from a wheeled chair or on crutches just made him better at understanding the mechanics of vehicles in general. They swapped stories of jury-rigging repairs to ambulance lorries and the horse-drawn caissons that bore the great guns, using whatever unlikely bits of metal or binding could be scrounged, from bent metal stirrups to leather bootstraps.
What Reggie did not manage, in all this whirl of sociability, was to see any trace of Emma Greening. Could the artist be avoiding her? She could scarcely be blamed after Reggie had been such a...well, such a troll. Strange that the absence of someone she’d barely met could feel like a hollow place inside her. Just as well to leave it at that.
Still, she mentioned Emma’s absence to Lydia Ogilvie, who was not deceived by the attempt at an off-hand tone. “Yes, she’s away doing volunteer work at least one week out of each month. If you want to know more than that, you must ask her yourself.”
Three days later Reggie saw a bicycle with familiar canvas panniers leaning against the low wrought iron fence surrounding the churchyard. In a far corner of the enclosure, someone with unruly light brown hair sat in the grass by a gravestone, bent over what might be a sketchbook. Not a suitable time at all for a casual greeting. Still, Reggie leaned her own second-hand bicycle against the fence and stood watching against her better judgment.
The bent head lifted. Emma gazed at the stone for a long minute, then raised a hand to rub an eye. To rub a tear from an eye, Reggie was certain. Quite definitely not a time to invade someone’s privacy.
Yet there Reggie was, setting one hand on the top rail and vaulting easily over the fence, striding between the ancient and not-so-ancient headstones, and dropping to the grass beside Emma.
Emma looked up, face drawn, eyes bright with tears. She didn’t seem surprised at all to see Reggie. “Mother can’t bear to come here,” she said in a low voice. “But if I draw the stone, with flowers that bloom here or some I’ve picked, and leave my sketchbook open on the hall table, she’ll pick it up and look. That’s the closest she can come to acceptance.”
The open sketchbook showed a watercolor scene, still damp, portraying the grey stone with softly muted edges and an inscription that could just barely be read, although the one on the actual stone was sharp and all too recent: “Lieutenant Edward Greening.” In front of the pictured stone, small bright buttercups danced on delicate stems, minutely detailed mirror images of the actual flowers before them, just as an oak branch in full leaf at the top of the page matched the very one arching above them
“Your brother?” was all Reggie could think of to say. Something about sitting on the grass together made any formality absurd.
Emma looked back at the stone and went on as though they were longstanding friends, the sort with whom one could share deep thoughts when one desperately needed to speak them. “At least Eddie came home. So many others never will. Who knows—you might even have carried him in your ambulance. But he was too broken to live long, in too many ways. And he’d lost someone he loved over there. I think he would rather have been buried there too, in ‘some corner of a foreign field...’”
“‘...that is forever England.’” Reggie continued the quotation without conscious thought. “So you know Rupert Brooke’s poetry.” Vic had loved Brooke’s poetry. Reggie braced for the pain the thought must bring, her face tightening.
“Oh yes. Rupert was from this district, a distant cousin in fact, and Eddie knew him at Cambridge. He was given his book when it came out. Eddie thought him rather too sentimental, but his words were sadly prophetic and do stick with one in times like these.” Emma turned, saw Reggie’s expression, and reached out to touch her arm. “You lost someone there?”
The pain came, but now she could speak of it, which made all the difference. “Vic only went to the war because I did, and now she’s dead, when it should be me.” She drew a gulping breath. “I want to go back, I must do the work again, but with her gone...” She groped in a pocket for a handkerchief. She’d thought all her tears had been spent long ago, but one was making its way down her cheek.
Emma passed her a paint-stained square of cotton cloth. “Work is the only thing that helps, no matter how hard it is to do, but there’s more than enough of it on this side of the Channel. I go to Oxford once a month because I’m needed, but also because I need to do the work.”
Reggie stared at her blankly. “Oxford?”
“Somerville College has been converted to a hospital for the duration,” Emma explained. “I was in training there to go to France as a nurse, but then Eddie...then I had to care for my parents. Now I go one week a month as a nurse’s assistant, filling in when others need time off, helping with cleaning, changing dressings, lifting, sitting with cases who can’t be left alone. Sometimes the lads like me to make sketches of them to send home to their families and sweethearts, pictures showing them less...less harshly than a photograph would.” She snatched the cloth back and used it on her own cheek.
The flush on Reggie’s face this time was of shame, not anger. What a thick-headed jackass she’d been, assuming that folks in the peaceful countryside knew nothing of the horrors of war. And giving no thought to what became of the wounded she carried to the field hospitals, or from those to the ships, once they got back to England.
“I could be of help there,” she said slowly. “I could go with you.”
“Yes. You could.”
A long, considering silence. Then: “We were at Somerville together, Vic and I. Victoria and Regina. We got ragged about the names, of course, but eventually everyone just took it for granted that we did everything together.”
Emma smiled at that, not her brilliant, flashing smile, but one of understanding.
“I should go there,” Reggie went on. “There are people in Oxford I must see, a tutor who was a mentor to me, and to Vic, and wrote to us when we went to the war, as did some others as well. But I’ve been putting it off. To be there, when Vic never will be again—to tell them how it was, how she died. It’s a bridge I must cross, but I don’t know how I can bear it!”
Emma wrapped her fingers around Reggie’s as though they had a perfect right to be there. To Reggie it felt as though they did.
“I can give you a hand with that,” Emma said, echoing Reggie’s words by the wooden bridge where they’d met. “Over any number of bridges.”
Reggie tightened her grip, leaned forward, paused, and thought briefly of looking about to see whether any passerby could see them. But Emma had leaned forward as well, so that their faces all but touched, and a breeze through the oak leaves above them sounded uncannily like Vic’s voice saying, ‘Get on with it, you slouch!’
So Reggie did. And the salt of spent tears had never tasted so sweet.