January 6, 1918
When I stepped onto the platform in Dover it was like I’d just awakened from a bad dream. The wind blew long strands of red hair loose from its braid, flapping out from the side of my head like a freedom banner. It took the whole train ride to London before I felt the tension in my chest subside and stopped casting suspicious glances at every traveller who boarded on the stops along the way. After nearly three years of pretending to be someone else, it felt odd to carry identification papers that listed my real name. A wave of fatigue hit me as I allowed myself to relax. I was more exhausted than I realized, living with my guard up almost twenty four hours a day.
I disembarked at Waterloo Station with a single piece of luggage. Underneath a long winter coat belted at the waist I wore a plain, navy blue day frock with a hem that landed at the top of my ankle boots. I entered a taxicab and waited as the driver cranked the engine to life before hopping in the driver’s seat. I peered out of the window from under the brim of my hat. The River Thames ran to the north and eastward, around a bend was the iconic Tower Bridge. I sighed long and hard. London was truly a sight for sore eyes. Hearing English spoken in various accents, and even the smell of coal in the air made me tear up with gratitude. The normality of it all made me, for a few moments, forget about the war. But then, near my modest hotel where I parted ways with the taxicab, I passed a group of British soldiers in full uniform and carrying their kits, chatting about leaving their families as they head to their next tour of duty. My thoughts immediately went to Daniel, who, as far as I knew, remained near the front lines, and I found I had to push them away for the thousandth time.
I had one night to spend in London before heading to my destination of Chesterton in the north, where I’d spend some time with my in-laws at their residence known as Bray Manor. My sudden departure from France was a result of my last mission, which I’d failed at spectacularly.
My superiors, most notably, with Captain Smithwick, had deemed it prudent for me to exit continental Europe for a few weeks. News of aggressive searches being done in occupied France and even Belgium for an Antionette Lafleur or Clarisse Baton had convinced British Intelligence that it was time to reset my identity and let things cool off for a while. I was only too eager to leave, although I did find myself wondering about some of my actions on New Year's Eve. Particularly the bit about me leaving my serving girl disguise under the bed of Generaloberst Albrecht Balsinger. His wife would have been livid when it was discovered and would have assumed that I did indeed have some sort of dalliance with her husband, which she wrongly suspected. I did it mostly out of spite for the way she talked to me that evening, but in retrospect, I wonder if that was what was fuelling such a vigorous search. I pray that no one suffers for my hasty actions.
Once I settled into my hotel room, I visited the dress shop next door and purchased several suitable outfits along with a couple of new hats, preparing to enter my new life which might turn into several weeks.
That night, I slept like the dead. I ordered breakfast to come to my room, and spent several minutes brushing my hair which fell to the middle of my back. Captain Smithwick had been clear~when I returned to Paris, I was to have a new look. What exactly I was to do to procure that “new look” I wasn’t sure. I braided my hair and pinned it into a bun at the base of my neck.
I hired a motorcar, which was waiting for me when I checked out. The fellow seemed reluctant to hand over the keys, and I reassured him that I’d, rather expertly, had driven older, more complicated vehicles in France. He did the gentlemanly thing and cranked the engine for me. I put the machine into gear and tootled off, a flock of pigeons squawked and flew away, seemingly distracting other drivers on the road, as a chorus of honking followed. I reached out my window and squeezed the rubber ball of the brass horn attached there and joined in.
Country driving was a dream, with the familiar pastoral views, green hills dotted with cows and sheep, smoke streaming from a farmhouse chimney, and all of it without the imminent threat of a bomb about to drop on one’s head. Soon Bray Manor came into view. An impressive, sprawling stone structure, the two story, red-roofed manor sat on acres of green, with a pretty little lake to the back. Though it had several chimneys, only two were producing smoke, another sign of rationing and restrictions.
I’d sent a telegram before I departed the continent, so they were aware of my impending arrival. Leaving my bags in the motorcar for the footman to retrieve, I rang the bell. It seemed that no one was going to answer and I wondered if the butler was sleeping on the job. I rang again, and the door was finally opened.
It wasn’t a butler that opened the door, but a slender girl nearly my height, her dark hair in a long braid that rested over her shoulder. I barely recognized her from the child she was the last time I was here. “Felicia?”
“Hello Ginger,” she said. To my astonishment, she wore work overalls, and had her hair tied back under a head scarf. “Pardon me, but I’m just on my way out. I’m a land girl now, you know?” She held out her hands as if to show off the dirt embedded around her nails and hands. “Go on in. You can stay in the same room. I’m afraid we don’t have any staff to assist you.” Her lips stretched into a smile though her grey eyes remained dim. “Only the old cook. I suppose we should be thankful for that.”
Felicia hopped on a bicycle and rode down the long drive. Ginger was certainly aware of the Women’s Land Army which recruited women to do farm work whilst the men were away at war, but surely Felicia was too young to join?
“Georgia!” The dowager Lady Gold’s voice cracked with age. “Do come in and close the door like a civilized person.”
I did as I was told. “Hello, Grandmother,” I said. “It’s so nice to see you.”
“Yes, well next time hopefully you’ll come with my grandson. I’m afraid I don’t have anyone to help you with your things.” She stood with her hands folded at her waist and her eyes drifting over my new frock which I now regretted buying, as it now felt frivolous, indeed. Ambrosia’s defiant look assured me that she wouldn’t offer to help.
“I’m quite fine on my own, thank you.” I resisted telling her about all the ways I had fought for my own survival over the last three years.
“Good. You may join me for tea in an hour,” my grandmother-in-law said.
I nodded in agreement wondering as I hauled my things upstairs, just how much of a rest my time at Bray Manor would be.