Molly always looked the soldiers in the eyes, or eye, in this case.
Private Andrews' injuries were worse than many, not as bad as some. He could still walk, move, and speak. He could still see, at least a little. He had a bandage over his right eye and most of his head. Blood stained the linens and streaked his face; it was a field dressing, not the best. Just enough to get him moving, away from the front to the proper hospital on the coast of Belgium. He waited with a thousand other soldiers for treatment, then to heal enough to take a ship across the Channel and back home. He wouldn't be fighting in any more battles.
An old manor house had been turned into a hospital. The foyer was lined with benches, which were filled with walking wounded: arms, legs, bellies, and heads bandaged; eyes burned out by gas, flesh torn by wire, limbs smashed by shells. So many ways to injure a man. Low murmurs echoed—the drone of distant honeybees, Molly thought. Every now and then a louder groan punctuated, and a nurse would run to see who had made the sound of agony, to help if she could. The hospital didn't have enough doctors and nurses, so the soldiers had to wait their turns. Molly did what she could to help. She had the skills to change a bandage or offer a drink, so she went to each soldier in turn, bearing water and a smile. Mostly, she tried to keep their spirits up. She stayed busy—wanted to stay busy. If she worried about these soldiers, maybe she wouldn't worry so much about Joshua.
Private Andrews sat at the end of a bench, staring at nothing.
"Can I write a letter for you?"
She met his gaze, but he wasn't looking back, not right away. He needed a few moments to focus, to find himself.
"Letter home. I'm writing letters home, for the soldiers. Is there anyone who'd like to know you'll be home soon?"
She had seen too many wounds, too much blood to flinch. Flecks of blood stained her long blue dress and white apron. He stared at her like he expected her to flinch away. She made it her purpose to be a mirror to them. They only knew they were injured, that their faces were bandaged, that they were in pain. Their fears multiplied. She wanted to tell them that they were all right. That they could face the world.
"All right," he said. "Yeah, that'd be all right."
She readied her notebook and pencil. Wrote the date, and waited.
Private Andrews didn't speak.
"What's the matter?" Molly said.
He shrugged a little, stretching his face under the bandage, wincing at pain. "I don't know what to say."
"Well, who are you writing to? Parents? Sister? Sweetheart?"
Again, his gaze faded, unfocused. She was about to speak again when he smiled suddenly. "Sweetheart. Back in Nottingham. Haven't seen her in a year."
"That's hard. So many of the boys have sweethearts waiting for them. But you'll be home soon. You'll see her soon."
"Then I should send her the letter. Tell her I'll be home."
"That's right." Give them hope. Had to be a way to find hope among all this muck and blood. Looking at their damaged faces gave her hope—it was possible to return from the front alive. "What's her name?"
He hesitated a moment, then said, "Nancy. Say, 'Dear Nancy.'"
He spoke, and she wrote.
"Nancy. Been a rough couple of months. Been a rough year, really. Almost didn't come through it. But that's all done now, isn't it? Have to move on, look ahead. That's what they all keep telling me. Have to see what kind of job I can do with only one eye. But you're there waiting for me, eh? It'd be nice to have something to look forward to."
Lots of hopes and dreams, that was what the boys talked about. Been a rough time on the front, but what was the point in dwelling on that. Private Andrews' hopes and dreams were vague, but they were there.
"That's it, I guess," he said finally. "Say, 'All my love, Ned.'"
She wrote his name. "What's she look like?"
"Nancy. What's she look like?"
"Oh—she's a small girl. This high, maybe." He put his hand at the level of her shoulder. "Yellow hair, brown eyes. Smiling. She's happy, always laughing. She works in a shop. A hat shop, on the high street."
"She sounds lovely."
"Yeah." Didn't quite smile. He pressed his lips into an expression filled with pain.
Molly folded the letter in half, and in half again. Tucked it in her pocket—a different pocket than the other letters she'd written that day.
Private Andrews saw the gesture. He said, "You need the address, don't you? You need to know where to send it."
"Yes, if you can tell me."
He didn't say anything. His good eye looked away. "There isn't really a Nancy."
She touched his arm. "I know. Most of the soldiers with wounds on the face, they ask me how they look. If anyone could ever love a man with such a horrible face. If their sweethearts will still love them. You never asked me that."
Just as his smile was filled with pain, so was his short laugh. "Silly, isn't it? Making it all up so you wouldn't think I'm a pathetic sot."
"Private Andrews, you're all right. Maybe you'll find her when you get home. Maybe that's why you made it through the war."
"But tell me," His smile turned sly. "Could a girl ever love a man with a face like this?"
She leaned in close. "I'll tell you a secret. You could have the most perfect face in the world and even then it's not your face she'll be in love with."
"You sure about that?"
She nodded, smiled. Stayed bright, stayed hopeful.
"You have a sweetheart, then? Someone waiting for you back home," he said.
She shook her head.
"Then you don't have a sweetheart."
"I do. But I'm waiting for him. He's on the front. I expect to see him every day, brought in on a stretcher."
She tried to be a mirror for them, to show them hope. This time, he turned the hope back to her.
"He'll walk back to you on his own two legs," Private Andrews said. "Right as rain. You're too pretty to leave alone."
"Thanks. Can I get you anything? Glass of water maybe?"
"No, I'll be all right."
Molly had a few moments after supper before she'd be needed again. Behind one of the tents outside the hospital, among the trunks of medical stores, she found an empty bottle, still with its cork. It was a sense of adventure that made her do it. A sense of justice, maybe. A world of hopelessness became liberating. You could do anything, try anything, because what could go wrong? What did she, or any of them, have to lose? Nothing.
She rolled up the letter to Nancy and stuffed it into the bottle. Sealed the cork. Then she went to the water, out by the piers where the ships came in. As hard as she could, she threw the bottle into the choppy gray waters of the Channel. She didn't see the splash. Only a ripple and it was gone, lost in the waves.
She did it because it seemed a shame just to tear it up and throw it out. Maybe someone would find it. Someone ought to have the letter.
In a month, Molly was on the boat that carried Private Andrews back to England. As always she was there to help the soldiers, make sure they were well, that they kept their injured arms in their slings, that they had crutches for their injured legs. That the blind ones had a set of eyes to lead them off the boat. Molly always smiled, even at the blind ones. They could hear it in her voice when she spoke to them.
The boat arrived in Dover, like something out of a dream. Like they'd traveled from one world to another, from a city of blood back home to a land of green pastures and gray fog.
Molly helped Private Andrews off the gangplank to the dock. He still wore a bandage over his missing eye, but it was clean now. His face was mostly visible, showing scars and stitches on his jaw, cheek, and forehead. His shaggy brown hair made him look younger, somehow.
A crowd waited, old men and women mostly—parents. Some young wives with children, all waiting for glimpses of their sons, husbands, and fathers limping home. Still waiting for her own reunion, Molly always felt a little jealous when she saw them.
Andrews had no one to meet him, so she looked for one of the white-garbed nurses from the army hospital she could transfer her charge to.
"Let's wait here a moment," she said, guiding him to the side of the street while the crowd ebbed and flowed, its noise crashing over them.
In a moment of calm, a woman stepped forward. The fog thinned, the crowd parted, and there she was, walking from the street where carriages and rumbling autos jostled for place. Dressed primly in a gray wool dress, black gloves and simple cap, she was young, fresh-faced, and smiling. Her yellow hair was knotted in a bun at the nape of her neck. When she saw Private Andrews, she stopped and wrung her hands.
"Ned. Hello," she said, and tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. Molly knew that look, her expression of anxious hope and fear. This was the face of a girl meeting her beloved after too long an absence, wondering if he's her beloved still.
Bewildered, Private Andrews stared back at her.
"Nancy?" He said it softly, hesitating. Even softer he murmured, "Just like I pictured her."
But wishing never made it so, Molly had heard that a thousand times. But did it? If you made a wish, tossed a letter in a bottle into the ocean... The girl—the wish—stepped forward, uncertain still, but her smile never faltered.
"You're home safe now, Ned. I'm so glad to see you."
Private Andrews' face, with all its new scars, softened into something full of longing.
"What do I do?" he whispered to Molly.
You fear, you mistrust your eyes, you disbelieve and make the phantom disappear. You hope. The girl was solid, she cast a shadow, and Molly knew that if Ned Andrews turned away from her, her young heart would break.
"Go to her," Molly told him, pressing against his back to force him forward.
He looked at her, seemingly torn, something holding him back. Don't look at me like that, she thought. Don't turn that stark desire to me, I don't want it. Can't have it. Go love Nancy.
"Go," she said again.
"Thank you," he said. "I don't know how, but thank you."
Nancy opened her arms to him, not even noticing the bandages and scars, and he stepped quickly into her embrace. They stood twined arm in arm like every other couple meeting on the dock. Reunited. Perfect.
Molly returned to Belgium on the next ship. On the way, she wrote a letter, this one for herself. Put it in a bottle, sealed the cork. Threw it into the ocean.