Band of Sisters by Lauren Willig

“One of the ambulance men was telling me that everyone sleeps on deck,” offered Emmie. “He said pushing two deck chairs together makes an adequate sort of bed.”

Kate grabbed two blankets and handed one to Emmie. “Let’s hope it doesn’t rain.”

It did, of course. Not that night, but the next. The ten members of the Smith Unit who had elected to sleep on deck woke to a deluge and wound up taking themselves, dripping and shivering, into the marble-floored entry hall of the ship, huddling together for warmth.

“Have you noticed,” said Miss Cooper in a small voice, hugging her knees to her chest, “that our uniforms smell when they’re wet? They do say the war zone is awfully rainy.”

“I imagine we’ll get used to it,” said Emmie hopefully.

“And it saves us having to wash our hair,” said Kate drily, loosing the tie of her braid to fan out the long, wet strands. Emmie had always envied Kate’s hair, a thick, rich chestnut, not all indistinct and flyaway like hers. Kate’s hair stayed where she put it. “Have you thought of the lunacy of us all, sitting here shivering when we all have perfectly good beds waiting for us below?”

“Yes, but it’s easier to escape from on deck.” Liza struggled to a sitting position, kicking her legs free of her sodden blanket. “You know they say that the most dangerous time is just at dawn when the sea is quiet and the submarines can see us but we can’t see them.”

“Lovely,” said Kate.

“But the ship shouldn’t list quite so quickly because all the portholes are closed,” said Liza importantly, thumping the never-sink vest she was using as a pillow. “So that should give us more time to get to the boats.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” The blanket-wrapped lump that was Maud flopped over. “If you can’t all be quiet we might as well go and smother in our cabins. At least that will be a quick death.”

“Must we talk about death, please?” asked Miss Cooper in a small voice.

“Nobody is dying,” said Emmie soothingly, but it was a lie, of course, and they all knew it. In France, ten days away, six days away, four days away, men were dying by the thousands, dying every day, dying in mud and blood and unimaginable agony. And they were going there. They had chosen to go there. What had made sense on a spring afternoon in Boston made much less sense at four in the morning, huddled under a blanket on the hard floorboards of the deck, listening to the restless pacing of those who couldn’t sleep, waiting for the torpedoes to strike.

Emmie did her best to keep busy. In the mornings, she joined Kate’s French classes, where Liza continued to struggle with subjunctive verbs and Miss Cooper spoke very carefully in her correct but cautious French. Miss Cooper had brought a little paint set with her, and while Emmie couldn’t paint anything more demanding than flowers, and not very interesting flowers at that, she could look and admire, so she admired to the very best of her abilities.

In the afternoons, Emmie stood on the deck, waving her arms about over her head and jumping up and down along with Liza, Maud, Miss Englund, Miss Cooper, and roughly eighty assorted ambulance men, engineers, and YMCA volunteers as the YMCA physical director led them in a series of setting-up exercises designed to get them into fighting shape or at least scare off any inquisitive seagulls.

Miss Dawlish, the kindergarten teacher, could usually be found in the saloon about that time, drinking weak coffee with brown sugar. Emmie made a practice of joining her, still red in the face from calisthenics, to discuss the innovations of the Sloyd method of teaching, of which Emmie knew only a little, but Miss Dawlish was only too happy to enlighten her, her tired face lighting with enthusiasm as she spoke of the education of children through woodwork and handicrafts.

In the evenings, Emmie and Kate shared a table with Miss Cooper, Liza, Maud, and the presidents, respectively, of Andover, Boston College, and Reed College, during which they had lively discussions about the advisability of education for women, and Kate got far too much amusement out of the president of Andover’s insisting on addressing Maud indulgently as “Rosie,” no matter how many times Maud corrected him.

“I can’t stand his ideas,” Kate admitted, “but I do love watching Maud fume.”

“I wish we had a table together as a unit,” said Emmie worriedly, pulling two deck chairs together to make a bed. The chairs themselves weren’t that uncomfortable, but it was always awkward at four in the morning when the chairs were kicked apart so that the decks could be swabbed. She had tried sleeping directly on the deck instead, and had woken up with a mop in her face. “I don’t like that we haven’t got to know each other yet. There are girls I haven’t even spoken to.”