She lies still as she can, and breathes, "Hush, love, please."
He grunts in reply, too occupied in himself, in making the springs jangle, making the bed frame creak and the bedhead tap the wall. His body slithers on hers in a film of sweat. She hears the old man step out of his trousers and the huff as he bends down to pick them up. She can feel the neighbours in the rooms either side, can almost hear them breathe. She misses Edna Street, she often does. Things were more solid there.
William is done. He presses his face into her neck, and kisses her. It's ticklish. After a moment, he pushes off her, and gets up and pulls on his shirt and goes to the window and lights up a cigarette, and pulls the sash up high. He sits on the windowsill, holding the cigarette outside, out of courtesy.
She tugs the sheet up to her shoulders and watches him, the soft creases of his shirt, the lean muscle of his naked legs. The way he leans down to the gap to blow the smoke out into the night. At moments like this, he seems so foreign to her, almost unknowable. Like a fox met on the turn of a lane - encountered for a moment, and then gone.
He looks round at her. Grins. She swallows down the fear, and smiles back.
HMS Goliath, Grand Harbour, Malta April 14, 1915
The post comes in as William is scrubbing up after the forenoon watch. He's bone tired, his back burning, his palms raw, and what he really should do is eat something, slump into his hammock, read her letter, sleep. But he has shovelled coal and slept and eaten, turn and turn about, for days, and now there is a whole new island out there. A whole new country. He has dug his way here through mountains of coal.
As he climbs up from the mess, daylight dazzles him; he crosses the deck half blinded, stunned by sun and noise. Coal thunders into the hold, crates swing, ropes creak under the strain, gulls wheel and cry. He reaches the far rail and he leans there, and looks down and down the curving flank of the ship into the giddy depths, coloured flares swimming across his vision, and he breathes in the unfamiliar air, the smell of harbour water, coal, drains, bread and oranges, deal, the dusty smell of hemp. He sucks it in.
Excerpted from The Undertow by Jo Baker. Copyright © 2012 by Jo Baker. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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