"Well - you know more or less what comes next now, I think. You were there too, after all."
"Do you remember me, back then?" Peggy asked, interested.
"I try not to!" Rhyll quipped, and they both laughed. "Well, I stayed in Armiford. It wasn't hard to find rooms there - so many people were vacating theirs, one way or another. And not everyone who'd left came back." A new generation of widowed and spinster landladies, just like Miss Grainger, she thought sadly. "What else happened? Various mistresses got married, your sister included. There was that business with the drains, and off we went to St Briavel's -"
"Did you mind much about that move?" Peggy asked, curious.
"Much, much less. Mostly I was simply glad to be back near the sea - again! - and of course I had almost nothing to keep me in Armiford. And they didn't assume, which helped. They offered me the chance to live in, but I never was a boarding school girl..."
Peggy grinned, and tilted her head thoughtfully. "So that's all of it, really? Nothing else of any note?"
"You." Rhyll looked directly at her, nothing disguised or veiled in humour, and a bolt of electricity shot through her. The shadow of a rather satisfied-looking grin seemed to tug at the corner of her mouth, as though she knew this effect and was really rather pleased with it. Peggy bit her lip and looked away.
"Julian, it turned out, had quite the adventure..."
"'M! I'd wondered what tale he was nearing the end of when I rejoined you two the other day."
Rhyll smiled, a hint of bashful pride creeping across her face now. "He only went and got himself awarded the George Cross. I didn't know before now, which almost certainly means he's somehow found a way to keep it from my mother, too."
"That's funny," Peggy commented. "Oh - not the GC itself; that seems perfectly normal Julian, from all you say - and from what I've seen, too. But that he didn't tell your family. That was half his trouble, wasn't it? Wanting to be able to share things with them."
Rhyll nodded, visibly pleased by Peggy's evident understanding. "I think that accounts for why he never mentioned it, actually. He saved he lives of two of his crew: the ship was torpedoed. Julian was on watch in the engine-room at the time. He at once shut off the engines - and then he remembered two firemen were on watch in the stokehold. The engine-room was in darkness and water was already pouring into it. He groped his way to the watertight door to the stokehold and pulled it open - at grave risk of disastrous flooding, by anyone's guess, but he couldn't not. The two firemen were swept into the engine-room with the inrush of water. One man had a broken arm and injured feet and the other was badly bruised and shaken. Julian tried to hold them both but lost one... So he dragged the other to the escape ladder and helped him up on deck, before going back for the other and practically carrying him to safety, choking in the cordite fumes all the way. I imagine it was all far worse than Julian has really let on, though it sounded bad enough already. He's in love with one of them, you know: quietly, privately, desperately in love with him. He would never dare make anything of it - can you even imagine? - but he was, and is; has been all these years, for they're still dear friends now. I think he just couldn't tell the story and miss that part out."
"That sounds unbearable." Peggy frowned in contemplation. "Not the torpedoing - well, I mean, of course that sounds horrific too, but-"
"Being in love with someone for years on end and never daring to breathe a word of it? It probably is," Rhyll agreed. "I rather think he fancies it as his cross to bear. It might be that his staying in the Navy had to do with that, one way or another. Or, more likely, it's one way of running away and hiding. But that's his lookout, I suppose." She paused. "That's what I've believed all this time, and I've felt so angry at him for it. Silly, really."
"Is it?" Peggy challenged, gently.
"Isn't it? It's hardly my business if he wants to run away - if that's what he's done."
"Maybe it's not about that, though; maybe it's not about him. Maybe it's about you, being brave enough to go where you want and be who you are."
Rhyll turned a considering face on her. "And why would that make me angry?"
"Because it was hard, and because his life was much easier - until it became hard, and then he ran away instead of standing and fighting like you'd always had to do." Peggy felt her tongue loosened by sleepiness, her thoughts crystallised into the deceptive simplicity which tiredness often seems to bring; but perhaps these doubts were unfounded, or otherwise Rhyll was similarly affected, because she gave only a slow nod which said yes, perhaps you're right; I hadn't thought of it like that.
"We could visit Ethel," Peggy suggested tentatively.
They sat in meditative silence for a time. Two glasses stood on the hotel writing-desk, the empty bottle beside them; Rhyll's crumpled cigarette butts lay in the ashtray. The hour on the clock did not bear looking at.
"Tired?" Rhyll asked presently.
"Very," Peggy acknowledged. "I feel rather as thought I might be dreaming, or sleep-walking, or somesuch..."
"Poor old thing!" Rhyll chuckled softly. "I don't wonder you are. But look, we've all of tomorrow just for us. And no morning bell to disturb the peace, either!" She stood up and made for the bathroom, pausing and turning as she reached the door. "Thank you for listening, love. I hadn't known I needed to tell it all, but I'm glad I have. And glad it was you I told."
"I love you," said Peggy simply. "I'm glad to have heard you tell it."
Rhyll's smile widened, and she ducked her head away. Peggy watched her go, still smiling, and a contented warmth coursed through her veins.
Thank you for the comments!
In spite of the deceptive chapter title, this isn't *quite* the very end...
I have cheekily borrowed the story of Julian's GC (including some of the wording used here) from that of Gordon Bastian, which caught my eye at the IWM a few months back and seemed exactly right: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Bastian