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 Delhisliced 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.