Here’s a snippet from “This Ground which was secured at great expense”, the darker of the two novellas in Home Fires Burning. (Which is one of many books available half price at ARE today.)
Nicholas stared at the fire, trying not to meet his friend’s eye. “I envy you and your Fergal. Knowing where you are with someone must be wonderful. Did you see him at all when you were in London?”
Phillip stared into his glass again. “For an afternoon, in the company of all my family, including a younger sister who tried to monopolise him. We barely had a minute alone—I might as well have been back in Ypres.”
“Don’t say that.” The wine had loosened Nicholas’s tongue but he was beyond caring. At least he could talk to Phillip, frankly; there was no one else he could be so candid with. “I assume, at least, you were still on speaking terms, unlike Paul and me. Hostilities commenced and the barbed wire put up.”
“Oh yes, but a fat lot of good that does. Having him close enough to talk to means having him close enough to touch and being unable to do so. I was thinking all the time about the big bed upstairs and how we couldn’t get into it.” Phillip slammed down his glass onto the chair arm. “Might never get into the bloody thing together again, not with him being away till I go back. Missed chances, never to be retaken.”
Missed chances. Aye, the both of them. “If you really were my guardian angel, what chances would you grant me?” The wine was making Nicholas bolder as well as garrulous; bold enough to leave his seat and sprawl at Phillip’s feet, in front of the hearth.
“The chance for you to be whole and well, and with this wretched war out of your system.” Phillip’s face was flushed—a carafe of white wine begun on empty stomachs had seemed an excellent idea earlier on. It might still be if it made the memories of mortars and mud recede even further. “It’s what I’d wish for any of us.” Phillip emptied the last of the
wine into his friend’s glass. “Happy days, old man. Or as happy as we can make them. Oh, and a happy belated birthday, too.”
“Thank you.” It had been Nicholas’s thirtieth birthday two days after he’d got home, although all he’d had was a card from Nanny, more suitable to a boy than a man, a perfunctory note from Paul wishing him many happy returns, and a blue-iced cake from the kitchens. Only Phillip had bothered to make a fuss of the event.
“I have some things for you from mother,” Phillip produced a small parcel, clearly labelled with Nicholas’s name. “I was meant to take them back to Ypres with me but I thought it would be better you had them here.”
Nicholas smiled, incredulous at the stunning generosity he was being shown by a family who only knew of him from their son’s report. He knew the depths of Phillip’s generosity, his surprising openness; maybe this was a trait the whole family shared. He picked at the wrappings with unsteady fingers. “Chocolates, she’s sent me chocolates. Wrapped to within an inch of their lives so that they would survive the journey back.” Tears began to well in Nicholas’s eyes, maudlin tears germinated by the bleakness of his own household’s celebration of the event and watered by the alcohol. “You must thank your mother for this. I’ll write as soon as I can, but will you thank her, too? You’ve a way with words.”
Phillip smiled tenderly and touched his friend’s arm. “Aye, I will that. Only don’t write from here. The family think I’m having a few days on my own. Don’t shatter their illusions.”