A Chat With Jennie Marsland
A World War 1 era historical romance
Liam Cochrane no longer belongs. He lost his youth and his brother on the battlefields of Europe. Now he’s home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, trying to dull his pain with liquor and the occasional willing woman. He’s become a stranger in the North End neighbourhood where he grew up.
Alice O’Neill has never belonged. Able to read notes, but not words, she dreams of teaching music – and of Liam, who has held her heart for years and never known. But Liam has shadowy ties in England that he’s revealed to no one, and in that fall of 1917, Halifax is on a collision course with fate. On December 6, a horrific accident of war will devastate the city’s North End. What will be left for Liam and Alice when their world is shattered?
Halifax, Nova Scotia
“K-K-K-Katy, b-beautiful Katy,
You’re the only g-g-g-girl that I adore…”
The three singing sailors lurched along Brunswick Street, trailing liquor fumes in their wake. Liam caught his companion by the waist and pulled her out of the men’s path, into the darkened doorway of a closed pub. One of the three looked over his shoulder with a good-natured leer and snapped off a salute as limp as his wilted uniform. Giggling, Georgie pressed into Liam’s arms, edging him further back into the shadows.
“Liam, my head is spinning. If I have any more to drink I’ll be as tipsy as those three. It’s time to go home.”
She snuggled against him. Her curves fit his hollows to perfection. When Liam bent his head to kiss her, she rose on her toes and tangled her fingers in his hair. A brief, fierce moment later, Georgie rested her head on his shoulder. With her pressed warmly against him, her lips grazing his neck, going home was last on the list of things Liam wanted to do. He tucked a finger under her chin and turned her face up to his.
“You sure you’re ready to call it a night?”
Georgie’s smoky green eyes glowed with invitation while her fingers ran lightly along his spine. “No one will be home. I didn’t say anything about calling it a night.”
She reached for his mouth. She tasted of youth and life, heady and potent as the whiskey in his blood. Liam kissed her again, hard and deep.
“I like the way you think, lady. Let’s go.”
They had a walk ahead of them, all the way from Brunswick Street north to Richmond, but the bootlegged rye they’d shared during their picnic in Point Pleasant Park had loosened up Liam’s bad hip. As for Georgie’s inhibitions, after three evenings together he knew they didn’t need much loosening. Girls like her had been rare in Halifax before the war, but not any longer. Peekaboo blouses and skirts that showed the ankles were only surface ripples on the current of change.
They started north past Citadel Hill, walking hand in hand. At the foot of the slope the squat base of the town clock lay in shadow, but the late sun gilded the face on its round, domed column. Half past eight. A stiff sea breeze snapped the flags that flew from the old fort on the hilltop. Beneath, the grey stone reflected the pink of the twilight sky. Later, fog might roll in off the harbour, but for now the stored heat of buildings and cobbles kept it at bay.
Halifax wore a grim face in the grip of winter, a drab and ghostly one in rain, but on a fine, end-of-summer day like this the city and its people smiled. Even the brick and stone of the industrial waterfront looked brighter and more welcoming, the bustle of wartime business a little less serious. The long evenings drew people out of blacked-out homes and barracks to stroll, socialize and look for trouble, always easily found around the Hill. This part of town catered to the two greatest wants of men just in from the sea, one of which was drink.
They passed another pub, once Liam’s favourite, now locked and shuttered under prohibition. Damn shame, but with the harbour full of ships from all over the world, a man didn’t have to settle for the rotgut served in the ‘blind pigs.’ He’d cultivated his sources since being invalided home. Forgetfulness had its price, but it was priceless.
He avoided the eyes of the people they passed and concentrated on keeping himself and Georgie upright. After six months back in the city, he still hadn’t learned to bear the respectful or pitying glances of strangers. When a thin, graying woman smiled at them and exchanged a sly, suggestive look with her rotund husband, Georgie wrinkled her pretty nose.
“I’d rather be dead than old and stodgy.”
Liam let out a bark of laughter. “Stodgy isn’t in your nature, Georgie.”
She tilted her chin at him. “I hope it isn’t. I don’t like nosy people. Why can’t they mind their own business?”
Liam tightened his arm around her. The busybodies just plain embarrassed him, the more so since he and Georgie weren’t a couple in any way that mattered. She was mercifully sensible about that. He couldn’t resist teasing her.
“If you don’t like nosy people, why are you working for The Herald?”
She glanced up with a coquettish smile. “Because the pay’s half-decent and working for a paper is a lot more interesting than selling nightgowns at Simpsons. Besides, the advertising editor likes me.”
“Are you sure he doesn’t like you too much? Perhaps that’s why he’s hired you on permanently.”
That was why they were celebrating tonight. Georgie arched a carefully-groomed brow. “Jealous, Mr. Cochrane? Perhaps you should be. My boss isn’t an unattractive man.”
Liam thanked God for straightforward women. Georgie flirted with the same frank honesty she applied to everything, and that was all he asked of a woman now – honesty.
“Miss O’Neill, you were born to trouble as the sparks fly upward. If I were smart, I’d stay away from you.”
Emotion flashed in Georgie’s eyes before she dropped her lids. Then she met his gaze with a grin. “Do you disapprove of me?”
Liam considered the question seriously. There’d been a time when he would have thought Georgie very forward, but he no longer felt any need to judge.
“No. Why shouldn’t a girl have her fun? I saw little enough laughter on women’s faces in France.”
Her grin turned mocking. “Why don’t you stay away from me?”
“Look in the mirror, Georgie.” Neat and trim in her new, cornflower-blue skirt and lacy white blouse, she had no reason to wonder why she drew men’s eyes, and Liam knew she was well aware of it. With tension settling in the pit of his stomach, he edged away from her. She held his hand and kept her silence. No one could say Georgie wasn’t perceptive.
Half an hour later they reached Richmond, with Liam’s hip giving him hell. Idiot, why didn’t you get on a tram? You’ll pay for this tomorrow. Thankfully, Georgie had sobered up enough to walk without his support. She kept pace with him as he limped down Russell Street toward her home.
“You should have brought your cane.”
“I didn’t plan on walking home, but we both needed the exercise.” The shrapnel-torn muscles in his left hip might never be much stronger, but coddling them wouldn’t help. His ‘blighty’ had been his ticket out of the trenches. He knew too many others who hadn’t been as lucky. Michael-John –
Don’t. He focused on Georgie to dispel the image of his brother’s dead face. “How’s your head feeling now?”
“Better. It isn’t spinning anymore. Now you know I’m a cheap drunk.”
At the bottom of the hill The Narrows glimmered under a lopsided moon, the sparkling water showing here and there between leafy branches. The maples lining the broad street whispered in the breeze. Let Me Call You Sweetheart drifted from a Victrola on someone’s porch, the tinny melody blended with laughter. It left Liam cold.
Richmond had been a good place to grow up, almost country, with room for gardens and backyard hens, for ball games in summer and shinny in winter. Of course, in the last three years it had changed like everything else. People no longer took notice when a car rattled by, and electric lights glowed from many of the windows. Perhaps that was why it didn’t feel like home anymore.
Liam gathered Georgie in his arms when they reached her family’s rambling white Victorian. He forgot his pain in anticipation of having her on his lap in a darkened room, but there was a problem.
“There’s a light on in the kitchen. Are you sure nobody’s home?”
After a moment of teasing contact she pulled free. “Mother and Dad are in Dartmouth visiting friends for the weekend, and Alice was going out with Stephen Mitchell. She must have left the light on. Come on.”
Liam breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t know Georgie’s family well, and ending the evening with small talk wasn’t what he had in mind. She led the way up the walk, fumbling in her purse for her key. Before she found it, the door opened. She paused with the key in her hand, her back stiff with annoyance.
“Alice, you’re home. I thought you were going out with Stephen tonight.”
Georgie’s voice showed no sign of tipsiness now. Its sharp edge caught Liam by surprise. She’d been so bubbly and easy-going in the time they’d spent together.
Where chestnut-haired, rosy-cheeked Georgie was a study in contrasts, Alice had subtler coloring. Liam hadn’t seen her up close since coming home. She’d never been around when he called for Georgie. He remembered Alice vaguely as a skinny kid, mousy-haired and quiet, not the kind of girl boys noticed, but in the past three years she’d grown into her tall frame. Her yellow linen dress suited her willowy shape, and her hair had darkened to cinnamon, or perhaps it only appeared darker against the pallor of her skin. Liam wondered if she’d been ill. She looked from him to Georgie with amber eyes that seemed too big in her oval face.
Alice reached for the doorjamb as if she needed support. Was she trembling? “I cancelled. Georgie, Carl’s home.”
Georgie dropped her purse and swayed on her feet. For a moment, Liam thought he might have to catch her. She grabbed his hand and got her balance. “What? When?”
Alice darted a look over her shoulder. “About an hour after you left.” Georgie lowered her voice to an angry hiss.
“Why didn’t he give us some warning? If Mother had been home—”
“He said he wrote from Liverpool, that there must have been some mix-up with the letter, but I don’t believe him. It’s like him to decide to surprise us. He never did think before doing anything.” Alice sounded as shocked as she looked. Only now did she appear to notice that Georgie had company. “Liam, I’m sorry. It’s good to see you. Has Georgie told you that Carl was listed as missing in action last fall?”
“Hello, Alice. No, I didn’t know.” Strange. Liam didn’t think Georgie had ever been particularly close to her brother, but he’d have thought she’d mention a thing like that. Then again, he hadn’t asked. By unspoken agreement, they didn’t talk about the war at all.
“We haven’t heard a word from him since. It turns out he was wounded and captured. His shoulder. He says it’s healed well. He managed to escape from a prison camp and he’s upstairs asleep now.”
Color flooded back into Georgie’s face. “What a day. First work, and now this.” She released Liam’s hand. “You’ve been on your feet too long. Come in and sit down, and I’ll make coffee. We could all use some.”
She sounded like herself again, but for Liam, the glow had gone from the evening. He’d never cared for Carl O’Neill, and both of the man’s sisters seemed more taken aback than overjoyed at his return.
“Thanks, but you girls won’t want company tonight.” He kissed Georgie’s cheek and cursed Carl’s timing. “Nice to see you again, Alice. Say hello to Carl for me.” He turned away.
“Alice, lock up, will you?”
Alice stepped aside to let Georgie in, then stood in the doorway while Liam’s form merged with the darkness. A few more uneven steps and he disappeared. She cast a glance up the stairs, closed the door and tiptoed across the creaky hall floor to the front room. Its well-worn Victorian furniture was brightened by a few accents that spoke of the new century. They’d put in electricity last year, and Alice still noticed how the stronger light washed out the muted stripes in the ivory wallpaper. Georgie sat in the overstuffed armchair under the lamp with the drawer of the table beside her open, a pile of paper in her lap.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if that letter’s in here somewhere.” Georgie leafed through the papers without looking up. Alice found a spot between the lumps on the high-backed horsehair sofa under the window.
“It isn’t. I looked after Carl went upstairs.”
Georgie glanced up, eyes full of contempt. “Waste of time.”
Alice forced herself to relax. This was nothing new. “I know a military letter when I see one.”
Georgie ignored her, scanned the envelopes one by one and tossed them on the floor. In the tense silence, Alice stared at the cover of the magazine on the coffee table in front of her. Good Housekeeping. The only one Mother took. To Alice, the title was a meaningless jumble of lines and curves. No one had managed to teach her to read, in spite of countless punishments for lessons left undone and examinations failed.
Georgie sighed, gathered up the mail and crammed it back into the drawer. As always, her temper cooled quickly. “Well, it isn’t here. Drat Carl. There’s no excuse for him coming home on the sly like this. What did he have to say?”
Alice recalled what she could of her awkward conversation with her brother, blurred as it was by shock. “We only talked for a few minutes. He didn’t have much more to say than what I told you outside. He did say not to send for Mother and Dad, to let them have their weekend away.”
“How does he seem?”
“He looks healthy enough, I guess, but tired. Older.” He’d given Alice no time to form any deeper impressions, no time to get an idea what the reckless, disaffected boy she remembered had become, other than a man. She exchanged a glance full of misgivings with Georgie. “You know what the doctor said about Mother back in March. She nearly broke her heart over Carl after he went missing. If he breaks it now—”
“Don’t borrow trouble, Alice.” Georgie leaned over and fussed with the mail, straightening the envelopes before she pushed the drawer closed. “What did you think of Liam?”
For a moment Alice’s head spun as it had when she’d opened the door to Carl, but only for a moment. She’d had a lot of practice at deception.
How many Sunday mornings had she watched the back of Liam’s head and listened to his voice responding through Mass, with no thought of what her penance would be if she confessed it? Secure in the certainty that he’d never notice, she’d woven her adolescent dreams around him and made sure her family got no hint of it. Even on his first Sunday back in Halifax, she’d managed to hide her pain when she saw him in church with his family, twenty pounds thinner than he should have been and leaning heavily on his cane.
He’d have forgotten long ago, but the day she’d quit school Liam had come across her on his way home from the rail yard, at the bottom of Russell, afraid to go home. She’d been crying, and he noticed. And cared enough to ask why.
“Alice, what’s the matter? Has somebody hurt you?”
“No. I just had a really horrible day at school.”
Liam’s brash young face had tightened in a frown. With an awkward, half-guilty movement, he glanced around as if afraid of being seen, then brushed a tear from her cheek. “I had more than a few days like that myself. Don’t let it get to you. Hearing you sing in the choir on Sundays, I don’t think you need to worry too much about math and history.” He’d gently swiped her other cheek to make her smile.
Five years later, Alice’s skin still prickled with the memory of his touch. Had she kept her secret all this time only to give it away by watching him from the door like a lovesick schoolgirl?
“I’d say he’s changed, like Carl. He couldn’t help it. The better question is what do you think of him, Georgie?”
Georgie’s eyes turned thoughtful. “Liam’s a lot of fun when he wants to be, but losing his brother hit him hard.”
A brutal hand seemed to close around Alice’s heart. In her shock over Carl, she’d completely forgotten. Michael-John, the youngest of the three Cochrane boys, had been killed at the Somme last summer. This was the first time she’d spoken to Liam since he got home, and she hadn’t even thought to say ‘I’m sorry.’
“I’m sure it did.”
“He’s learned to like his liquor, and I suspect he’s got a roving eye.” Georgie rose with a sigh. “I’m going to make that coffee. Is there any sugar left?”
“No, we can’t get any till next week.”
After her sister left the room, Alice moved to the piano and let her fingers drift softly across the keys. She couldn’t play much of anything, just some hymns, a few silly ragtime pieces and the occasional snatch of melody she’d composed herself. Tonight she couldn’t play at all, not with so much discord around her – and inside her.
Georgie was falling for Liam. She hid it well, but the signs were plain enough to anyone who really knew her. Carl had come home, with a restless, craving look in his eyes and only a few terse words to say after two years away.
Grow up, Alice. The whole world’s changed. She left the piano, closed the front room door behind her and climbed the stairs to bed.