By Melissa Kuipers
Somewhere, Alice thought, on this boat there is a woman writing her first letter to the mother she has never lived a day without. There is a woman nursing her baby, looking at his beautiful face and seeing her own resemblance, trying to remember what her husband looks like. There is a baby who will never have memories of his English grandparents. There is a woman in a life boat with a man, telling him to keep quiet, telling him to do what he will with her, remembering the roughness of her husband’s hands on her back, dreading that soon she will have to endure them again.
But most of these war brides, it seemed, had been doing none of these things because they had not been able to hold anything down for the last three days. There was a woman who was five months pregnant who feared she would lose the baby from hours of violently vomiting. There was a woman who felt seasickness is one of the worst things that could ever happen to a person, and she wondered what it meant that her marriage was beginning this way.
There was something about butter, the way it coated her tongue, its softness, which Alice would always associated with Canada. The captain came to each table while they waited to be served their first meal. “Welcome to the Aquitania. I’m Captain Johnson, and I’m honoured to bring you to your new home. Please keep in mind that, due to the constraints of your rationed diet in England, your stomachs are not used to digesting rich food. Enjoy the taste of your food and don’t eat too much. Thank you, and enjoy your meal.” He gave a slight bow and turned to the next table.
The young silly girls squealed when the Red Cross workers began to serve the food. Mary began to cry when they brought out an entire dish of butter. Alice spread over her bread more butter than her family had been allowed over the course of a month.
There were oranges from Florida for dessert. She stole one from the table and put it in her purse. In fact, most her meal she wrapped in napkins and put away for later—two dinner rolls, half of a baked potato, a leg of chicken, half of a raspberry tart. She reasoned that by bed time she would have enough room to finish the chicken before it went bad, but she was still feeling almost sick with fullness by the time the staff walked through the halls calling “lights out!”
She hoped to gain a little weight on the trip over, hoped that after half a year apart, Warren would notice if her face was a little rounder, her thighs a little fuller. Being at sea didn’t bother her, but she had the constant feeling of floating through a middle space, a mass of water where no one had fought, from which no men had left. It made her uneasy, knowing she could walk the perimeter of the ship and not see any land.
The GI’s who took up the first and second floors of the ship ate their meals an hour before the women. Alice’s bunkmate Betsy smiled at one of the GI’s as they went for lunch. He smiled back and said, “Now how are you lovely ladies enjoying being at sea?” Before Betsy could respond one of the wait staff came hurrying over. “Now, sir, let’s be on our way and let the ladies get to their meal,” she said.
“I’ve missed that Canadian friendliness,” said Betsy as they moved slowly towards their table. “That’s the reason there are so many of us on this boat—Canadian soldiers always striking up conversation with everyone they see.”
The young brides would stand at the edge of the balcony and wave down to the soldiers on the floor below. “Please come away from the edge of the boat,” a Red Cross worker would say. “Let the poor men get some rest and don’t bother them any more.” One afternoon as they strolled along the deck, Mary nudged Alice and Betsy and pointed to a lifeboat hanging from a chain at either end, the bottom just at the level of their heads. Alice would not have noticed it had she been walking alone: this one was rocking a little more than the others moving slowly in the wind. They stopped there for a moment, watching the boat, trying to figure out what was going on inside.
Betsy giggled, and Mary scowled. “I have half a mind to go tip it over, drop them into the sea,” she said as they continued to walk. “It’s disgusting. If a woman can’t remain faithful for one week at sea, what was she doing the months or years she was separated from her man?”
How does a man manage to get a girl in a lifeboat with him, Alice wondered? Does he lurk around some quiet hallway late at night when emotions are high and strike up conversation: “You must be homesick, dear. I know what that’s like.” Does he risk missing a meal while walking up and down the stairwells until he finds a girl who looks at him softly, and then tells her he just needs to talk, to unburden his war-weary mind, in secret, where they will whisper sheltered from the cold gust above them, where he will lend her his uniform shirt and sacrifice his bare, toned chest to the ocean wind while he wraps his arm around her to warm her, to hold her, to brush her soft breasts, so long unnoticed? Does he tell her it’s been hard to keep his heart tender against the brutality of battle? That it’s been tough and he’s been changed, but he can still feel deeply, he can still recognize beauty when he sees it? Does she need to know his name? Does it matter that when she is reunited with her husband he will no longer be wearing the only clothing she has ever seen him in, so long as she can have this uniformed man now?
As she walked back from breakfast the morning before disembarkation in Halifax, Alice could smell nail polish and perfume wafting from beneath the doors of the cabins. She pitied the poor seasick girls, but found when she got to her room even her bed-ridden cabin mates were trying to hold it together long enough to turn their yellow cheeks rosy and fatten their pale lips with lipstick. The air in the cabin was full of powder and the scent of stale perfume over the smell of dried vomit. Two girls were pulling brand new nylon stockings out of a package. They pressed the backs of their hands against the stretch of the material and pushed the length of their legs toe-first through the flimsy tunnel. They tugged gently at the seams along the backs of their legs, adjusting the black lines so they ran straight up and under their skirts.
She realized she hadn’t had new tights since before the war. She suddenly longed for the feeling of them, of being closely surrounded by something as fragile and delicate as spiders’ webs. She imagined the thousand tiny strands wrapping around the point of her ankle, the curve of her calf, the fullness of her thigh. The way they pull along the groin, grasp the buttocks. She should have worn tights to her wedding. With so little time to plan, she had borrowed her cousin’s dress. But she should have at least had her own tights. And he should have had to pull them off without creating a single snag. These are the sorts of skills a man should develop before he gets to take anything else off his wife’s body.
Alice watched Betsy deftly powdering her leg. When she caught Alice’s eye, Betsy said, “let me do yours. I have a steady hand.”
She turned Alice backwards by her shoulders and bent down to reach a little under her skirt and drew a vertical line starting at the middle of her thigh. It tickled as she drew the pencil over Alice’s calf and down to her ankle. She paused to sharpen her pencil and then did the other one.
She stood up grinning. “What do you think? We’ll impress everyone waiting for us when we get off the boat. We’ll show them we’re not as poor as they think.”
“Or at least we know how to make due if we are,” sighed Mary.
Alice could not find her one wool coat, a going away present from her aunt. It was a beautiful long navy blue coat, the kind that no one could really afford to buy during the war. The coat had been in a suit bag, and now she was certain some unfortunate woman had snatched it. Still she waited till the other five girls had left the cabin to do one last search for it. There was no trace of it, nothing but napkins full of crumbs and long strands of hair all over the floor.
There were a few others still tugging their luggage through the small cabin doors as she walked down the dim hallway. She heard moaning coming from one of the rooms. She followed the sobs to a cabin door.
Alice knocked on the door. “Hello?”
The voice came closer. “Hello?” it said with a hint of hope.
“Are you stuck?” Alice asked.
“Yes! Can you open the door?”
Alice twisted the handle a few times, leaned against the door and rattled it. “I’m afraid it must be jarred. I can look for someone who can help.”
“Yes!” said the voice. “Please do! Tell them it’s a misunderstanding. Tell them I want to see my husband, that I left everything to be with him.”
“It’s alright—stay calm. I’ll find help soon.” Being stuck in a room after a week at sea would drive anyone batty.
She told the Red Cross worker at the top of the stairs that someone was stuck in room 315. “She seemed quite worried that she won’t get out.”
The gentleman shook his head. “I’m afraid some women are not allowed off the boat,” he said.
Alice squinted up against him. The July light from outside was burning around him. “We can’t have women who have been unfaithful returning to their husbands. Her husband will be notified that she was found fooling around and he may contact her back in England if he wishes.” Then he nodded in agreement with himself and gestured for her to step out through the door.
It was awful, really, to have left all you know only to go back and live with the shame of it all. But she couldn’t see another way. Mary would say, serves them right, all those whores. Pack them up and ship them back.
She knew she was supposed to smile and wave as she walked down the gangplank. The band playing “Here Comes the Bride” and the crowds gathered around waving told her she should. The woman at the bottom of the gangplank in front of her had stopped carelessly with her four children. She held one on each hip and the oldest stood beside her, clinging to her dress with one hand and waving rhythmically with the other while photographers knelt in front of her to get the boat in the background. “She must have jumped on the first soldier that came over!” said a voice behind Alice.
She could see many women with their luggage disappearing into hugs and kisses and becoming one with the crowds of people. But most of them were trotting along slowly in their high heels, moving in a line towards the nearby train station. This was their short moment of fame, this walk from the boat to the train, and she should enjoy it for all it was worth.
Melissa Kuipers grew up on an egg farm in southern Ontario. She taught high school English and creative writing for a few years before becoming envious of her students and deciding to go back to school. She has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto.