Paris, 28 October 1916
The nightclub was packed with revellers. The air was stale, a cocktail of cigarette smoke, alcohol and sweat combined with the faint but distinctive smell of the trenches which clung to the uniforms of the soldiers huddled round the tiny tables. Hostesses, like exotic birds in their revealing evening gowns and garish make-up, laughed coquettishly and smiled ceaselessly as they worked the room. Glasses were emptied and refilled at an alarming rate as everyone sought that ultimate of prizes, oblivion. The atmosphere was one of frenetic gaiety laced with desperation. A stranger entering would be forgiven for thinking that this was a party to celebrate the end of the world.
On a tiny podium, an exotic dancer clad only in a jewelled headdress and a transparent tunic was doing her dubious best to impersonate the infamous Mata Hari. Ribald cheers and cat calls accompanied her every gyration. Seated alone at the back of the room, Captain Robbie Carmichael of the Argyllshire Battalion, Argyll and Southern Highlanders, squinted down at the letter in his hand.
My Dear Alex, my wound has finally healed and I go back on active duty in two days. In your last missive, you begged me to use whatever influence I have to effect your transfer from Egypt to join me in the trenches of the Western Front. I cannot, WILL NOT, do as you ask. You are my only brother, squirt. Our parents have only two sons. With the odds stacked against me, you must see that it is your duty, not to come here to die, but to stay where you are and to fight to survive.
You have to stop thinking of me as a hero, Alex. I’M NOT!!! Being wounded in the line of fire isn’t honourable or brave, and it’s certainly not glorious. Getting hit means one is careless or unlucky. Despite what we officers write in those hateful letters to the families of our men, death is rarely either quick or painless and it is NEVER heroic. This war must be won, and it will be, but the cost is an obscene waste of life – there’s hardly a lad left from Glen Massan in my company who hasn’t been killed or wounded. Alex, forget what they told you in that school of ours. War doesn’t bring out the best in men, but the worst. We are not noble brothers in arms but savages who will do anything to survive. Please, I beg of you, forget this business of a transfer, and concentrate on staying safe. Your brother, Robbie.
Robbie tore the letter into tiny pieces and stuffed them into his tunic pocket. Alex was just nineteen, and despite having seen very limited action in Gallipoli, his letters showed him to be still the naively-patriotic boy not long out of school. Robbie himself had no illusions left about mankind. He found he could not bear to destroy his brother’s. The war would do that soon enough.
Picking up the bottle of red wine, he emptied the last of it into his glass. He hadn’t ever intended to send the letter, had written is as a form of catharsis. Bloody stupid idea! All it had done was reinforce the reality of what he would have to face again in two days. It was late, he was exhausted, but he was not nearly drunk enough to go back to his digs, not nearly drunk enough to sleep. The nagging headache which had been his constant companion since waking up in the field hospital several weeks before, was concentrated behind his eyes tonight. The scar throbbed. A thin, angry red line beneath his newly-grown hair, it ran from his temple to the base of his skull, a memento of the shrapnel which had almost killed him, and the reason for his sojourn in the French capital. Convalescence. As if any of them would ever truly recover from this conflict.
Robbie stretched out his long legs and drained his glass in a single gulp, at the same time raising his hand to summon the waiter. ‘La même chose,’ he said, and once more declined the man’s offer to send the bottle over with une petite copine. In the time he had taken to drink the first bottle, several of the club’s so-called jolies filles had offered to sit with him, despite the fact that he’d ostentatiously placed his hat on the only other seat. Like almost everyone in Paris, the nightclub hostesses were on the make, vultures who fed off the war, leaching on the fervour of soldiers who hadn’t seen anything remotely jolie for months. Though he would concede that they provided a much-needed service, it was not one of which he wished to avail himself. The old, carefree Robbie had enjoyed sex and female company enormously. The Robbie which the war had created shunned it as he shunned almost every other human contact which was not strictly necessary.
The dancer had finished her performance, and was now drinking champagne and laughing wildly with a group of admirers. Robbie leaned back in his seat, surveying the room with a jaundiced eye. The pain stabbed behind his eyes, as if someone were turning a white-hot skewer around and around in his brain. Another glass of wine, even another bottle, would make no difference. He would not sleep, and the headache would only get worse. He was trying to summon up the energy to cancel his order when he saw her.
She was standing at the end of the polished zinc bar. Tall, for a woman, her face unmistakably French in some indefinable way, it was the blankness of her expression as she stared sightlessly across the room which caught his attention. She was beautiful. Glossy black hair cut fashionably short, tucked back behind her ears to show a classic profile, high wide cheek bones, a very Gallic nose. Her brows were dark, finely arched above deep set eyes which looked like two black pools in the shadowy light of the club. Pale skin which drew his attention back to her mouth. Full, sensuous and pink, it was a mouth made for laughter, though she looked as if she did as much of that as he did. A mouth also made for kissing. Robbie smiled bitterly. Working here, as she undoubtedly did, he bet she did a great deal of that. For the right price.
Her gown was dark blue, draped softly over her breasts in the style of a Roman tunic, revealing just enough of her throat to make a man want to see more. Robbie was surprised to discover that there were some parts of him not quite so moribund as he had imagined. Beneath the gown he imagined her lush body, soft, creamy flesh to sink into, to envelop his own battle-hardened and scarred shell. She would smell of summer, of flowers, of that delightful sweet spiciness that was so peculiarly female. She would not smell of mud or despair.
He groaned. To the dull ache in his head was now added the throb in his groin. Across the room, the woman was staring at him, her mind dragged back from whatever dark place she had been inhabiting, alerted no doubt by the intensity of his gaze. He willed himself to look away, but he could not, though he regretted it immediately when he saw her take the tray from his waiter containing the fresh bottle, threading her way through the crowds towards him.
‘Your wine, Monsieur Capitaine.’
She spoke in English. He replied in French. ‘I already told the waiter I’m not interested in company.’
‘You flatter yourself, Monsieur, I am not offering that kind of company. I think you have drunk too much, perhaps.’
‘Correction. I’ve not drunk nearly enough.’
‘I suspect there will ever be enough for someone like you.’
Which chimed so accurately with what he’d been thinking himself that Robbie stared. Close up, her skin had a surprising freshness. The paleness he had taken for powder was natural. The pink of her lips seemed natural too. ‘I’m sure there are plenty of other men here who will be more than happy to pay for your services,’ he said.
‘You are mistaken, Monsieur Capitaine, I do not provide the kind of services the other girls offer. I work here, yes, but as a waitress only. Monsieur le Patron is from my home town and I needed the job. He’s short-staffed as most of the waiters have gone off to fight. What are you doing here?’
‘Getting drunk. Or I would be, if you would give me that bottle. Why didn’t you let the other waiter bring it over?’
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Why were you staring at me?’
‘I don’t know.’ He glared at her, not because he wanted her to leave, but because now that she was here, he desperately wanted her to stay. ‘For heaven’s sake, since you are here, please sit down,’ he said, snatching his cap from the chair.
She hesitated. ‘I am sorry, I should not have – I can’t think why I – I should go.’
Robbie cast a look over at the patron. ‘Will you get into trouble?’
‘I’ve finished my shift.’ She put the tray down on the table and took the seat he had pushed towards her. ‘My time is my own.’
‘Then use it to save me from myself by sharing this bottle, Mademoiselle,’ Robbie said, pouring the wine, ‘if you are in no rush to go home?’
She shook her head, offering him a small smile. ‘It has been a long night, I confess I would very much like a glass of wine, and I am in no hurry.’
Robbie eyed the club’s animated patrons sardonically. ‘Then you’re the only person in this city who is not.’ He lifted his glass. ‘Santé, Mademoiselle.’
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