Abby Fraser gripped the railing of the New Delhi and lifted her chin to defy the solitary expanse of sea. She refused to believe a wife needed an invitation to join her husband. The war was over at last. Nick and she were married, and it was about time he remembered that.
One of the Queen Alexandra nurses escorting the Indian troops home stood beside Abby. With a rustle of starched cotton, Laine Harkness leaned over and whispered in her ear. “Why do you look like you’re headed for the Black Hole of Calcutta and not about to have a passionate reunion with the love of your life?”
Abby ran a hand down her linen skirt and watched the blue line of shore draw closer. What could she possibly say? Instead of replying she cuddled her little son, Cam, nearer to her side. In less than an hour he’d meet his father for the first time. Had she been foolish not to wait for an answer from Nick? So few letters from him in four years.
“I know you’re American,” Laine went on, “but I assure you, the only thing to be afraid of in this part of the British Empire is the wife of your husband’s commanding officer.” She shuddered with drama and grinned maliciously. “Once you’re settled in your shady little army cantonment, the old battle-axe will whip you into shape in no time. Then you’ll be quite the proper memsahib. It’s them that run the colony for us Brits. Don’t you think for a minute it’s the Viceroy or our army—it’s the average colonel’s wife.”
Abby crinkled her nose as she smiled. “You win. Is this better?”
“Much better. You were altogether too peaked for meeting your handsome lieutenant.”
The New Delhi sliced her way through the narrows of Kolaba Point, and the familiar scent of Bombay reached out to Abby. Laine was right. No sense worrying. Tucking a strand of hair into her chignon, she savored a tantalizing whiff of overripe fruit, roses, marigolds and cloves, mingled with the acrid smell of dust. She lifted Cam up and snuggled her face into his neck, but he wiggled in her arms. At three years old he was heavy, much too big to be carried.
On the deck below, Indian soldiers stood with their British officers waiting to disembark. Yanking on her arm, Cam laughed and pointed to the tugboat pushing the ship into her berth, and Abby laughed with him. She felt six years old again. Like the troops, she was home. So close. In a few minutes she could touch her birthplace, so much brighter and warmer than Aunt Doreen’s dismal mansion in upstate New York or her father’s retirement manor in the Yorkshire Dales.
As soon as the liner stopped, it was as though an oven door dropped open, and hot air rushed in. On the quay, a kaleidoscope of color and humanity dazzled Abby’s eyes—Hindu women in saris of every hue, hot pinks, ochre yellows, lime greens. Parsee women wore their skirts of equally brilliant shades, their black hair ornamented with lace and gold. People balanced immense bundles on their heads. Bengali clerks rushed here and there, wearing yards of white muslin and Hindu caps, while other men wore turbans or solar topis. On the dock, uniformed soldiers joined the throng. So many people. She’d forgotten that claustrophobic feeling, the teeming press of millions. But she loved it all.
She hugged Cam and scanned the crowds of people on the quayside for Nick’s lean face and startling blue eyes. He’d be down there waiting for her, wouldn’t he? Her gaze stopped.
There he was. Her pulse pounded.
A tall soldier wearing his tan uniform, epaulets at his shoulder, his cap on his head, peered upwards at the passengers lining the ship’s railing. She could barely catch her breath as she waved. Cam, not seeing who she waved at, threw out his small hand, pumped it up and down, and laughed.
Nick looked up and waved. Her wide smile dimmed, and her hand went still. It wasn’t Nick. Someone farther along the ship’s railing sent an answering wave to the stranger on the quay.
Abby steadied her breath and swung her gaze over the crowd. Where was he? In addition to her letter announcing she was coming, she’d telegrammed Nick with her itinerary before she left Southampton. She’d sent another telegram and checked twice with the purser when they stopped at the Port of Aden days ago, and still there’d been no message from him.
“See you soon . . . goodbye . . . Christmas . . . take care of yourself,” the nurses said between hugs as they crowded toward the gangway. But Laine remained at Abby’s side.
“Please, Laine, go with the others. You’ve been wonderful, but Nick will be here.”
“You don’t know that for sure.” Laine’s practiced look was that of a nurse hating to give bad news. “You can’t fool me with that Yankee stoicism of yours. The whole voyage out, you’ve tried to hide your concerns.”
“Oh, all right.” Laine grew gruff as she relented, tucking a dark strand of hair under her nursing veil. “I’m always sticking my nose in where I shouldn’t. Occupational hazard.”
Abby took Laine’s arm and shook it. “Don’t be silly. I don’t know what I’d have done those first days of the voyage if you hadn’t taken pity on me till I got my sea legs. We’ll see each other on the train later anyway.” She gave the nursing matron a firm hug.
Laine joined the nurses, but Abby didn’t watch them leave the ship. She arched her neck to look into the sea of faces below. Sunlight glinted off the tin roofs at the quay and bounced off the ground. She squinted like a cat soaking up its rays and, taking a deep breath, moved toward the gangway.
A half hour later she carried Cam on her hip and walked out of the blistering customs shed. A hired bearer followed with their baggage.
The warm breeze loosened tendrils of hair at the base of her neck, and she blew from the side of her mouth to free a strand clinging to her cheek. Too bad she couldn’t tie it back in a plait like she used to. But as the wife of a British officer the time had come for chignons, silk stockings, and serving tea with cucumber sandwiches in flower-laden gardens. Time at last to be a proper memsahib. Her insides skittered. Time at last to be a wife.Please, Nick, where are you?
The crowd thinned, and her fixed smile began to slip. She kissed Cam on his grime-streaked cheek. Her little boy made up for everything. He had Nick’s deep blue eyes, the right one slightly more narrow than the left so it always seemed one side of his face grinned in mischief. Without the help of the single photograph she had of her husband she doubted she’d have remembered his features. The echo of his voice faded long ago. Had that happened during the first year of the war? Or the second? But they’d only known each other those few weeks in England before he’d shipped out to India.
Coldness seeped into her veins. Was it possible she’d disappeared from Nick’s thoughts? She roused herself. If that indeed had happened, she’d fight it. She’d win back their brief flash of love and turn it into something to last a lifetime.
“Won’t be long, honey,” she said to Cam, more to bolster herself. Nick would be here. Of course he would.
“I’m thirsty, Mama.” Cam fussed, but she didn’t have the heart to scold him.
Over his complaints came the reed-like notes of a lute, the backdrop to thousands of voices, calling out, bartering, chattering. Overlaying the odor of burning cow dung patties hung the pungency of blossoms. Dust and spices clouded the air. Horns beeped and trolley cars rattled past. Wooden axles on bullock carts squeaked, counterbalanced by the tinkling of bells. It all smelled and sounded like home, except there was no sign of her husband.
“Mrs. Abigail Fraser,” boomed a voice with a Cockney accent. “Paging Mrs. Abigail Fraser.”
Abby whirled around to wave to a burly English sergeant.
The soldier presented her with a telegram. “Here you are, madam. May I hold the boy for you?”
Entranced by the soldier’s uniform, Cam went to him willingly while she held the envelope for a long moment before tearing it open to read:
Sorry STOP Away on Business STOP Meet your train in Amritsar STOP Nick STOP
All noise ceased and a buzzing filled her head, leaving her only marginally aware of the sergeant returning Cam to her arms and leaving. She blinked and raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sharp colors and white sunshine.
The last of the passengers moved away, and a swarm of children with extended bellies called out to her, “Maa maa, maa maa,” all stretching out small hands to grab her skirt.
“I’m sorry.” She gave them a few annas from her bag. “I’m sorry I don’t have any more.” She wasn’t sure if the moisture blurring her eyes was for Nick not meeting them or for these poor children as young as Cam begging for their food. Most of the children wandered off when the coins were gone, but a few stayed at her knee gazing up at her. A lump grew in Abby’s throat as she caressed one little girl’s head, but even this tiny one fled when a stench came close, gagging Abby.
A wild-eyed sadhu with three bars of sandalwood paste scoring his forehead strolled toward her. With Cam in her arms and her back to the luggage cart, she had nowhere to turn. Ash covered the sadhu’s emaciated body and long, matted hair. She tried to catch his eye, but his gaze—dead-looking—bore through her as though she weren’t there.
She offered him a few coins, but he swerved and glided past her. She shook her head. For a moment she was back in Albany, unseen by those who were supposed to love her.
Geoff Richards’ throat thickened as he and his risaldar-major, Muhammad Khan, mingled with the troops on the quayside. His men stood with their usual spit and polish as the ranks were dismissed. Like him, their joy to be back on Indian soil shone from their eyes, but their smiles couldn’t quite cover the shadows there. Only a fraction of them were coming home. He could still envision every one of his men who used to ride out with him on parade. That was before they left India for European shores. And paid a terrible price for the British Empire. If the Indian people didn’t hate them . . . perhaps they should.
The familiar shaking began in his right hand.
Geoff clenched it into a fist behind his back and stopped to talk to a few soldiers lingering outside the customs shed. “Will any of you chaps from Rawalpindi have a chance this year at the Christmas polo tournament?”
A Sikh jemadar squared his shoulders, his eyes glinting black with his grin. “Yes, sahib, your regiment will not be able to keep up with us in a polo chukka. I can guarantee it.”
“Right. I’ll take that as a warning, Kanvar. We’ll see you at the tournament in Lahore.”
Geoff clapped the young Sikh on the arm.
Dhyan Singh stood on the outskirts of the group. Both he and his brother had served in Geoff’s regiment while in France. Geoff moved toward the soldier, but the memory of Dhyan’s brother, dying in his arms, pulled Geoff back to the nightmare of the trenches. He locked his hands behind his back, clenching his fist in an attempt to still the tremor. Dear God, I failed them . . . brought only one son home to his mother and father.
He managed a smile. “Ah, Jemadar Singh, how many chukkas will you play when you get home? You must be terribly rusty, old man.”
Dhyan grinned. He, too, acted like a man recently come back to life. “Sahib, I am sure I will have no trouble playing at least ten. If my brother, Manjit, were here today, he would say you would be having many, many troubles playing even two or three.”
The men’s laughter roared, and Geoff leaned toward his risaldar-major. “Khan, did you hear that? I think I’ve been advised to stick to cricket. Seems rumors are about, my polo days are on the wane.”
His grin matched that of the men. It was good to talk about something that didn’t mean the choice between life and death. But his laughter stopped.
Cam Fraser and his mother stood not far from him. He’d know the child anywhere, having played marbles and shuffleboard with him a number of times on the voyage. Other than a nod and exchanging the time of day, he’d hardly spoken to Cam’s mother. Why were they still here? According to ship’s gossip, Lieutenant Fraser was to meet them. But here she was, balancing the boy on her hip, and with her free hand brushed her chestnut colored hair from her face. And no husband in sight. The trace of fear in her eyes was belied by her clamped mouth that silently said I can look after myself.
Of course she could. He’d leave her to it. His own plans were set, and he began to follow his men, but it was too late.
The boy saw him and squirmed free of his mother’s arms, shooting off like a missile to him. Geoff swept the child up, feeling the warm little body and wiry arms and legs wrap around him. Cam rested his head against Geoff’s chest. The sensation of the child’s curls under Geoff’s chin brought a shiver of feeling he’d thought long dead and buried.
Geoff’s voice quavered as he took steps in the direction of the boy’s mother. “Chin up, old man. There’s a good soldier.”
Sunlight blinded Abby. Against its rays the silhouette of a soldier with the lean lines of a cavalry man scooped Cam up. Her little boy wound his arms around the man’s neck, and she put her hand to her mouth. So many nights these past few years she’d urged sleep to come, imagining this scene at the pier.
As the man walked toward her she made out his clean-shaven features under the peaked military cap. Major Richards, who’d befriended Cam on the ship, carried her son back to her. It wasn’t Nick enfolding his son close.
“Mrs. Fraser,” Geoff said when he reached her.
She turned to the major a smile she didn’t feel. “With the two of you such good pals I think it’s about time you called me Abby.” She forced a lighter tone. “I was thinking those suffragettes back home might have something, marching about quite pleased with their self-reliance.”
The major’s stony look melted into puzzlement, then his gray eyes began to dance. “I can imagine you marching about with a placard in your hands. For a good cause, of course.”
“But of course.” In spite of Nick’s absence, her smile deepened. “My husband’s not able to meet us, so I was about to hire a—”
She couldn’t finish her sentence. As the major turned toward the street, the sun set afire the twisted, burgundy scar that traveled from his temple to his cheekbone. She fumbled for the word that escaped her.
“Rickshaw,” he finished for her. “If you’ll allow me, I’ll see you to the train station. Going that way myself. And you’re right, the little CO and I are great friends.”
He sent a pointed glance at Cam.
She laughed. “Oh, I see. I hadn’t realized he’d been given a recent promotion.”
“I’m meeting a friend, Miriam, at Victoria Station. We arranged to meet and travel at least some of the time together. She runs a medical clinic in Amritsar, where you’re going.” His mouth grew tender.
She darted a look up at him. What sort of woman made the ever-so-proper major’s heart flutter? Her own insides did a somersault. Did the same kind of love wait for her from Nick?
Within minutes a driver loaded their luggage onto a tonga. They climbed into a separate rickshaw and joined the hundreds of other tongas, bicycles, carts, trams, and cars. With the pier behind them they headed for the station.
“Unfortunate your husband was unable to meet you,” Geoff said, never taking his eyes from the passing streets. “India’s not safe for a woman and child traveling alone.”
“I’m aware of that, Major. I was born here.”
“But not raised here.”
Abby lifted her chin. “I may be a bit of a mixture—American mother, British father—but India is my home.”
His eyes twinkled as he dipped his head, conceding defeat. “Everyone onboard wondered how you as a civilian got passage with demobilizing troops, until we realized who your father was. I imagine the general’s name pulled strings for you.”
“Maybe,” Abby drew the word out. Her adrenalin surged, remembering the stuffy war department offices in London. “Let’s just say I made a few social calls to friends of my late father.”
“Many would call General Mackenzie Hughes a pillar of the British Raj. You must take after him. Most young woman would have collapsed into tears being stranded at the pier.”
“You forget, Major, I am coming home.”
His chuckle reverberated from deep within him. “I do keep forgetting. You’re an old India hand. How old were you when you left?”
“I was a wise old memsahib of six when I first left these shores.” She tucked a strand of hair under her straw boater hat and, catching his eye, laughed out loud.
“Ah, yes . . . a memsahib. “He sat back, and all amusement left his face. His tone bordered on dryness. “I daresay you’ve forgotten all that entails. No fear, the wife of your husband’s colonel—your burra-memsahib—will be only too pleased to instruct you on the protocols of being a proper memsahib.”
Their shared laughter had disappeared as if snatched by the flock of green parrots swooping over their heads. But as though he remembered his manners, the major lifted Cam onto his knee, his well-oiled Sam Browne belt creaking as he did. The man and the boy immersed themselves in conversation. Interspersed with Cam’s piping voice she caught the hint of a Northumberland burr in Geoff Richards’ speech. His crisp, English school accent must be a learned one, like Nick’s.
She had enough of an ear to recognize her husband had worked hard to gain that polished manner of speaking, but she knew next to nothing of Nick’s youth. Six weeks wasn’t long enough to know a man.
Bombay’s traffic bustled past. Her fingers itched to pull out the telegram she’d folded into her bag at the pier. But there was no need. The words were stamped on her mind. Nick hadn’t said much, but at least he’d acknowledged they were coming. She had to cling to that, to keep believing they’d become a real family, given time. Perhaps have more children. Cam would have brothers and sisters, a houseful of them . . . and love. Not the existence she’d had growing up in Albany under the disinterested eye of her mother’s only sister.
She’d waited four years. The train trip would take three days. Only three more days, and all she longed for would be waiting for her in Amritsar.
I hope I have intrigued you enough that you'll want to read on.