Well, here it is at long last. Obviously, it isn’t perfect yet (the ending still needs something, not sure what yet), but I know it’s a huge improvement on the first draft. I tried to keep Elinor from seeming so moony while still providing a smooth transition from chapter one’s emotion to chapter three’s more “real life” feel. Have at it…
Chapter 2 (draft 1.5)
“All right then, class; you may put away your books. We have half an hour before the bell rings, and I would like to see just how quickly and quietly you can put your gas masks on.” Elinor stooped next to a golden-haired little boy who was trying unsuccessfully to unpack his gas mask from its little cardboard box. “Just like this, Harry. Now, remember how we did this yesterday? That’s right, Susan…put your chin in first. Now the straps go over your head. Make sure it’s tight, everyone. Don’t you all look silly?”
A collective giggle came from behind the masks that stared innocently back at Elinor as she went on talking smoothly. “Wonderful! Now, just breathe as usual. I am going to tell you a story. I want you all to be very quiet while you listen and we will see who can keep their gas mask on the longest without fidgeting. Would you like to pretend that you are elephants or dragons today? Dragons? All right, then, I will tell you a story with dragons in it. Sit still, Harry. Are you ready? Once upon a time, there was a princess…”
The end of the day was always hardest, even on Wednesdays when both children and teachers got half-holidays from school. Her head usually ached from the long hours of grammar, arithmetic, reading and history in the stuffy classroom, especially during the rainy winter months. Today the sun broke through the clouds for a few hours, allowing a little extra light to break up the monotony of gray skies, gray buildings, gray pavement and gray seas. Elinor turned her back against the afternoon breeze and let the sun melt away the tension of this morning’s lessons. The pain of saying goodbye to Ethan had grown numb with the anesthesia of time, but little things made it flare up again, as raw and emotional as ever. Little things like preparing children for biochemical attacks or the way that the clouds lit up, some nights, with the red glow of far-away bombs. It was just life, but sometimes…it hurt so much.
With a sigh she entered the little shop*, welcomed by the tinkle of bells on the door and the pungent, earthy scent of dried lavender and thyme.
“Hello, Mrs. Belmont,” called Elinor to the plump old lady at the counter. “Mum wanted me to run in and see if you’d got the tea in yet?”
“Why, Elinor, darling! I haven’t seen you in ages! You’re always so busy with the school and your piano students, you don’t come round here much anymore. What ‘ave you been doing these days, my dear?”
“Oh…school- and piano-teaching, mostly. Mum’s got so many sewing commissions that she can’t attend to them all, so I have been doing some of that in my spare time. How are you, Mrs. Belmont? Have you heard from your nephew lately?”
“Well, that’s very nice, dear. No…no, I haven’t, and I’ve really been quite worried sick over it. You see, he’s with an airborne division and they don’t get much chance to write home, or send letters when they do write them. But still, it has been…well, but bless you, I’m sure you know how it is. Well, my dear, you’re in luck…the tea just arrived this morning.”
Quietly smiling her thanks, Elinor drew five ration booklets from her purse and looked them over. Though the Pooles kept a small vegetable garden, a gnarled apple tree, and a few chickens on their property, they relied on the village store for the bulk items which they could not grow themselves.
“I’ll have a bit of the stew meat, Mrs. Belmont,” she said at last, peering into the dimly-lit glass case, “a few rashers of bacon and a package of tea. I don’t suppose…” she continued hesitantly, “there are any letters for me?”
Out of the depths of the case, Elinor could vaguely hear Mrs. Belmont’s high-pitched voice babbling something indistinctly.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Belmont, I can’t quite…” she began, before she realized that the woman was merely commenting on the scarcity of bacon in these times.
“…and if the meat ration gets much worse,” she heard a little more clearly, “I just don’t know how I’m going to make it for him anymore, and you know, it is Mr. Belmont’s favorite dish, it really is. Now, about the letter, I don’t believe you have got any, dear…were you expecting one?”
“Oh…not really. That is, yes, but—”
“Wait a moment!” Mrs. Belmont suddenly emerged from the case, pink and breathless. “Now that you mention it, I think I might just…wait here, Elinor.”
And as the good old lady bustled into the back room where the village post office resided, Elinor tried to calm the surging waves of emotion that suddenly shook her slight frame. It took her by storm and the hardened wall she had erected during the last month around her own heart crumbled in its tide.
“Here it is, lovey! From Mr. E. N. Hayne…so that’s how it is, is it? I never knew you had a beau, but then you never were one to talk about your private affairs in public. North Africa, eh? Well, that’s a long way off, to be sure…”
But the woman’s good-natured teasing echoed emptily in Elinor’s ears. Silently she paid for her items and silently she gathered them up.
“Home already, love?” Rosamund looked up from the plaid wool she was pinning with a smile.
“It’s Wednesday – half-holiday. Where are Jack and Polly? I thought they would be playing in the yard, it’s so nice today.”
“Oh, that’s right. I forgot today was a Wednesday.” The sewing machine began to rattle away busily again. “Jack and Polly…Derek took them down to the beach to see the fishing boats.”
Elinor leaned across the table to plant a kiss on her mother’s softly graying hair. “Are you sure that’s all right, Mum? Derek is…well, he’s not exactly…”
“He’s seventeen, Elinor. I let you take Ian and Derek when you were just ten and they were five and four.”
“I suppose. It seems different somehow. I suppose I always forget how old he is really is; or maybe I just feel so much older that in order to flatter myself at all, Derek must be a child in comparison.” Her eyes melted into a silent sigh. “But Ian…whenever I try, I always seem to remember him as such a little thing…I think to me he will always be a baby. Even though he was six when he…oh, Mum, I’m sorry.”
“For what, Elinor? It isn’t wrong for us to speak of him.” And through the unshed tears that deepened her mother’s brown eyes, Elinor saw a pure, subtle joy. “It is beautiful…beautiful to know that Ian and your father stand face to face with their Master.” Pins leaped across the rug as the fabric slipped to the floor unnoticed.
“I wish I could feel that sort of peace, Mum. You…you always seem so confident. So…strong.” She paused, uncertain of how to continue. “I had a letter from Ethan today. I have it here, if you would like to read it,” and she offered the open page.
Their eyes connected for a fleeting moment and Rosamund read the answer to her unasked question in her daughter’s face and she shook her head. “I trust you. Both of you.” And the moment remained unbroken. “How is he?”
“All right, I think. It is hard to tell. He writes that he misses our cooking and that his company is a rough lot, but close and very loyal. He was grazed on the shoulder at El Agheila – he says it wasn’t serious. He also said…” Elinor halted again and dropped her eyes. “…he said that he lies awake, nights, and wonders how many men he killed and how many of them went to…went to hell. And he wonders what it will all do to him, even…even if he gets through it alive…
Rosamund reached out and squeezed Elinor’s hand. “Elinor,” she began. But the back door slammed open and Derek and the children came in, laughing heartily over something Jack had said. And whatever encouragement she was going to offer was drowned by the children’s excited voices.
*There really is a general store in Winchelsea called “The Little Shop.”