Series: Axis Powers Hetalia
Characters: Arthur (England), Alfred (USA), major historical figures (and the occasional unnamed citizens and mentions of other nations)
Pairing: Eventual Arthur/Alfred
Rating: PG-13 overall (for language, violence, and war)
Warning: This is a WWII fic and deals with a lot of historical detail, most specifically the Blitz and the US build-up to entering the war. So general warnings for that. Note also that the opinions of characters are not necessarily those of the author's.
Summary: Before the victory of the allies, before the United States of America joined the war, before Lend-Lease, before everything — there were just two nations, two men, who just refused to meet halfway until it was forced upon them.
Summary for this chapter: Two weeks pass, and Alfred is still counting down the days. It isn't until Winant forces him out that Alfred finally acknowledges what he's been avoiding for weeks.
Time stamp: March of 1941.
Notes: The next few updates for this are going to be massively slow because my senior thesis is going to be due in the next couple of weeks. Sorry in advance, and for those of you sticking around for this fic - thank you for your continued support.
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The next day, Winant was off to the embassy in the early morning, doing his work and what he was sent to do. Alfred didn’t have work—he was here for no discernable reason, except to be used as a means to touch the bleeding hearts of his people, no matter how few there may be. It was nothing short of frustrating, and tried as he might, Alfred couldn’t keep his mind from wandering to things he’d rather not think about. While, at the same time, he was left completely unable to do anything to keep his mind off things. Waking up in a place that wasn’t his home didn’t do much for Alfred’s mood—how he longed to go back home, to be with his people, to be away from the smells and sights of war. If it can even be called war, he thought, There are only civilians here.
It’s only a matter of time before—
He derailed his thoughts, rolled over on his bed and pulled the duvet up to his ears. But his heart was pounding, and he couldn’t fall back to sleep. He sighed, and rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling moodily. He blinked a few times, felt his heart clench, and then tried to think about something mediocre, something that didn’t have an emotional train wreck hiding in the wings.
Nothing came to him. It was extremely hard to think of nothing.
Pulling himself from bed, Alfred dressed and prepared for what was shaping up to be a very long day. Even the birdsong outside his window didn’t sound familiar. Everything was foreign. Everything was far away—disconnected, disconcerted. He didn’t belong here, he would never belong here again—
He’d never belonged here. Nothing was what it was supposed to be. There was nothing that could convince him, nothing that could soothe the burning ache in the pit of his gut. Even the bits and pieces he did recognize about this place—the square—were different and unlike anything he knew. There was nothing that he could hold onto.
There was nothing he could get back.
Despite the emotional turmoil so early in the morning, Alfred was thankful for the day alone. It was enough for him to collect his thoughts, readjust (or adjust for the first time) to such a strange, different place with the ghosts and shadows of things he may have once recognized. He was hardly one to chase a shadow, though; never again.
It was early morning and Alfred went out walking, just for the hope of clearing his head, keeping his chin up because he would be damned if he let any of England’s people see him as anything less than confident. Once he’d left the square, things turned substantially less familiar and pretty. London was an ugly place to look at, he thought—
Destroyed buildings, blasted out windows, gutted streets. He could remember the London of his youth, if he wanted to, and he didn’t want to rememebr—but it never looked like this. Boarded up windows, destroyed windows. Lines leading to nowhere, Londoners standing in line for the sake of standing in line, for the sake of maybe getting an onion. Or something. Anything. Anything that could abate the gnawing hunger, the bitter cold.
“You really are falling apart, old man,” he said absently to himself, turning his face away from the boarded up windows, in the off-chance he’d catch his reflection in a small glimmer of shattered glass. He didn’t want to know what his expression looked like.
Alfred pulled out his carton of cigarettes, pressed his mouth to the sticks of tobacco until one stuck to his dry lip. He bit it between his teeth, almost chewed it to bits before he caught himself doing it and stopped at once. He frowned, eyes flickering as he lit a match and lit the cigarette. The end burned and a sliver of smoke curled as Alfred inhaled sharply. He breathed out, a highway of smoke filtering around his head before drifting away to nothing. The sky above was a very sad looking grey. He smoked the cigarette as he walked until he reached the filter and let it fall to the ground, crushing it beneath his heel.
It was a cold day in March, though the clouds above didn’t suggest rain. Alfred hid in his coat and walked against the breeze drifting through the streets of London, his shoulders hunched up near his ears, his body bent over himself. The people around him seemed colder, though, their jackets thin and threadbare. Their eyes stared at him as he passed, their eyes on his second cigarette.
Why am I even here? It’s not like it’ll do anyone any good for me to be here. It’s not like England wants me here because of anything beyond politics, he thought as he walked, his eyes watering when a particularly blustery wind swept through the cold street and he shivered inside his jacket. He ducked his head, rubbing vigorously at his eyes with cold, red fingers. He sniffed, and curled further into his jacket. Why don’t I just go back? It’s not going to make any difference and I don’t want to see England, either, anyway.
His ears were red from the cold and the wind, and they kept ringing. He could hear the ringing in his ears, the words he tried so desperately to avoid hearing in his own mind. Though, if asked the reason why he didn’t want to hear it, he wouldn’t have been able to say why. Those words, they rang out, loud and bitter and clear—
England is gone.
He watched the skeletons of people walking down the street—they looked so cold, so desolate. It was only a matter of time before they fell, only a matter of time before—
England is gone.
Alfred bumped into someone. “Uh—sorry.”
The man looked up, eyes on his cigarette before meeting his gaze and offering that tight-lipped smile that Alfred always associated with England’s own smiles.
“It’s quite alright,” he said, “No harm done.”
And with that, he turned away and kept walking, never looking back. Alfred watched him go, his body feeling too cold.
Being in England again, after so long, was too strange, too horrible. Alfred looked away from the man’s retreating frame—too kind, somehow, too proud. These people weren’t skeletons, though their faces were gaunt and pale, their bodies thin and nimble. They were living, breathing people—England’s people. And like England, they were not falling into the dirt and dying as the bombs fell—
He remembered Murrow’s broadcasts. They kept going, they kept living, they did everything they could. Despite the weak layers of clothing, the dwindling supplies and the inflation, they were alive.
It was too strange, to be here. Alfred felt far too exposed, far too used to comfort and silence, to fireworks in the summer and bright city lights that never went out, buildings that scraped the sky, lands that remained unscarred, unburdened by foreign invaders. The hum of airplanes did not strike fear into his people’s hearts, but rather caused them elation, waving their boys home from a job well done.
England was everything he did not want to see, everything he wished he could ignore. He wanted to back away, wanted to fly away, leave, leave, leave. He remembered England, he remembered London—from the visits of his youth. A young child, clinging to England’s coattails, meeting the royal family, staring at the streets from a carriage window, listening to the unfamiliar calls in the night but know the familiar feeling of England holding him in his arms until he stopped crying from nightmares. He remembered England, he remembered London—from the visit, the single visit, after the Revolution. That single visit when he’d promised never to return again. He hadn’t seen England then, because he had refused to see Alfred. But his people had made their opinions loud and clear: their disdain when they discerned his accent, their condescending and dismissive behavior as they turned their backs on him—
He hadn’t wanted to know them. He hated them. He hated them all so much, despised everything they had put him through. Tyrants. Aristocrats. They couldn’t understand what it was like to live on his soil—
He’d never wanted to come back. He’d never wanted to know England again, never wanted to see the place England called home, see the place that always took England away from Alfred as a child. Never again.
And yet here he was, and the look in England’s eyes the day before, at the press conference, still haunted his thoughts, a look he saw reflected in the people’s eyes:
Prideful, hopeful, fading. Fading away slowly and refusing to believe it—
Alfred had absolutely no idea where he was. London was too different for him to even begin to comprehend. Even if London hadn’t changed drastically since the times he’d visited, Alfred would probably have had a hard time figuring out the streets, or where to go to get back to his apartment. And he didn’t want to stop and ask for directions. He didn’t want to have to talk to England’s people, have them hear his accent and look at him with the same disdain they had centuries before—or worse, look at him with that hope, as if he was there to save them personally.
The bombs hadn’t fallen the night before, and apparently they hadn’t in a while—that was good. It was bad enough being stuck in London, and even worse if he had to put up with the Blitz. It was enough listening to the radio broadcasts. That was enough for him. It wasn’t as if he cared about—
Screams. Sirens. The whistle of bombs. Explosions. More screams. Rumbling, shattering, crushing.
—And in any case, he didn’t plan to stay for long. The boat across the Atlantic was rather long at times, especially with the U-boat situation, and he hated the ride over. But, he reasoned, it was always nicer to come home than to leave home. The ride back to his continent would pass quickly, if he knew he would be safe at home at the end of the journey, and he would never have to leave again.
Break his isolation, Winant had said. Yeah, right.
“If anything,” Alfred muttered to himself, kicking at a pebble. It skirted across the road before falling into the gutter. “This has only convinced me that isolation is the way to go—if this is the world outside, I have no intention in involving myself with Europe again.”
Sirens. Screams. Bombs. Explosions. England is gone, England is gone, England is gone—it’s only a matter of time before it falls—
Alfred kicked at another rock, though this time with far too much force. It soared through the air before crashing into an already half-broken window. The building was abandoned, so no one noticed it, but Alfred cringed and looked around guiltily. He stuffed his hands into his pockets, burrowed his chin into the collar of his jacket and wished the cold away, wished he was back home where the weather was already getting better—no rain included.
“Fuck!” he shouted, and no one was around to cringe at the unruly display. “I don’t want to be here!”
He stared glumly at the ground, and then sighed, turning around and walking back the way he’d come, in search of someone he could ask for directions. He wandered for about twenty minutes before he found a man sitting on a bench. He approached him, hesitated, and then stood in front of him. The man looked up, tipped his hat—he looked far too tired, just like everyone else on this soggy island.
“Hi. Uh. Can you tell me the way back to Grosvenor Square?” Alfred asked, cheeks red from embarrassment more than the cold. He tried to speak quickly, so that maybe the man wouldn’t pick up on his accent.
The man stared at him for a long moment, and then asked, “You work for the embassy?”
“… Yeah,” Alfred said, shifting slightly and crossing his arms. Right. Even if the man didn’t notice the accent, he’d notice where he was headed.
“Ah,” the man said, and somehow that was enough to say anything. When he smiled up at Alfred, it was much kinder than he’d ever seen from an Englishman, at least directed at him. Not since—
The man tipped his hat again, standing, and taking Alfred’s hand. Alfred almost reeled back, unsure what to make of such a display. He swallowed thickly. The man shook his hand, smiling kindly.
“Um—” Alfred began.
“I’m sorry that you have to be here when we’re far from our prime,” the man said, with a gracious nod of his head, “but thank you for being here, young man. We have quite a bit of hope in Mister Winant.”
“… I know,” Alfred said quietly, and pried his hand back, cradling it against his chest a moment before letting it drop down to his side. He stuffed his hands into his pockets, to prevent any other random display of appreciation that involved touching.
The man’s smile turned awkward, obviously sensing Alfred’s hesitation and discomfort. He cleared his throat, took a step back, and quickly told Alfred the way back to Grosvenor Square.
“Sorry,” Alfred said, and didn’t know what he was apologizing for—
Sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I’m neutral. I can’t help you. I won’t help you. I’m supposed to hate you, you and your country. I want to leave. I don’t care what happens to you—yeah, it’s horrible that you’re starving, that you’re being bombed, that you are the last country standing in Europe against the Nazis. But I can’t do anything, I won’t do anything—
The ringing in his ears wouldn’t stop.
It’s only a matter of time—
He clenched his eyes shut.
Bombs. Sirens. Screams.
The man tipped his hat. “Good luck to you. Getting home and—for everything you’re to do while you’re here.”
And the man walked off after that, not looking back at Alfred. Alfred stayed in the park, standing there, dumbfounded. How could it be so much more different now? The condescension, the hated, the dismissal—
Well, obviously, because they were trying to woo him. They needed him.
But they couldn’t take him. Never again. He was not to be used and then thrown away, he was not going to throw away the innocent lives of his people, sacrifice for them on something that didn’t even affect him.
“Ah, Alfred,” Winant said, looking up as Alfred slammed his way into the apartment and sank onto the couch, head in his hands. Winant hesitated. “… Are you alright?”
Alfred just shook his head. Of course he couldn’t tell the ambassador how much he hated London, how much he hated the people, how much he—
How much he was trying to convince himself of that hatred.
“I just need to rest for a while,” Alfred said. “Are you staying here for the night, ambassador?”
“Yes, I’m still unpacking,” Winant said.
Alfred nodded and stretched out on the couch, making himself comfortable and closing his eyes. “I just need to be near one of my people.”
Winant nodded, and went about his business, not speaking with Alfred unless Alfred reached out to him. Occasionally, whenever Winant passed, Alfred would reach out his hand, and touch the ambassador’s hand or his shirtsleeve. Winant always seemed startled by the touch, awkward, almost endearingly so, but he did not shrug Alfred away. Instead, he’d stand patiently, in case Alfred wished to speak. But all Alfred wanted was to touch, even briefly, the humming blood and song of an American—his people. His. No one else’s. The nation stayed silent, his mind reeling at one hundred miles a minute, thoughts floating in and out and whizzing past, flickering like a slideshow behind his closed eyelids.
“How have you enjoyed London so far, Alfred?” Winant asked, the next day, adjusting his cufflinks as he looked at himself in the mirror.
Alfred watched him, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. He shrugged his shoulders, noncommittal. He knew his ambassador’s opinions on England, and knew that Alfred’s true thoughts would upset him—
He decided on a more diplomatic approach: “It’s alright.”
Winant smiled a wan smile. “Oh?”
Alfred sighed. “I don’t understand what you hope to accomplish by my being here, ambassador. Whatever it is, it isn’t going to work.”
The ambassador didn’t say anything for a long moment. Cufflinks and sleeves well adjusted, he fiddled with the lapels of his jacket. Alfred sighed, sensing his ambassador’s distress, and stepped forward, adjusting his suit jacket and dusting off the shoulders for him. Winant smiled gratefully, and Alfred watched his face in the reflection.
“It’s bound to be interesting, dinner with the prime minister,” Winant said, as if resuming a conversation they’d been having all along. Winant studied himself in the mirror. “And his family, of course.”
“I’m sure you’ll have a swell time,” Alfred agreed, keeping his eyes down.
The ambassador turned around, dropping his hands to his side. “… Won’t you come, as well?”
Alfred automatically shook his head—dinner with the prime minister meant that England might be there. Guaranteed that Churchill would be there, and that was someone he would rather avoid, for as long as possible.
“Naw,” he said, “You’ll be a hit all on your own. Have you read what the press is saying about you?”
Winant’s ears turned red and he looked away. “The Prime Minister would be very pleased to meet you, Alfred.”
“Of course he would,” Alfred said, walking away towards the window. He looked out over the square and the sky beyond. “Because he wants to use me, obviously.”
“Alfred…” Winant began.
But Alfred was too quick for him: “Don’t go on about how it’s some great thing, me being here. I hate it here, and you know I do. I’m already counting down the days until I can go home. They just want to use me, because I’m all they have left. And they’ll woo me and compliment me, as if there’s no bad blood between us—and I can’t stand it. I don’t want to be used.”
“No one is—”
Alfred took advantage of the ambassador’s slow way of thinking and collecting his words, suddenly rambling, almost shouting. “London is ugly. This entire place—I never wanted to come back here. I have absolutely no intention of joining the war, and even when we do give them aid, all they can whine about is how they should be getting more instead of being grateful! All those people out there in London—they look at me as if I should be bending over backwards to give them something when they aren’t my problem! My first and only priority is my people!”
He turned around to glare at Winant. The man stared at him calmly, his face tight and closed off. Alfred sucked in a sharp breath.
“I’m—” Alfred began, and choked—wasn’t sure why he did it—“I won’t change my mind on this. I represent what my people think, and this is how it is.”
Winant continued to stare at him, and Alfred met his gaze defiantly. Then, slowly, Winant let out a small, soft sigh, and turned away. He left the apartment without a word, off to have dinner with the prime minister and his family (and probably England, too).
“Fuck!” Alfred shouted, and kicked over a chair—
He hadn’t meant to upset the ambassador. Not him. He was the only one he had, here. But Winant had to be upset over those words. It had to be the case, and the spike of guilt twisted in his gut. Frowning, he picked up the chair and set it right before sinking into it, resting his head in his hands, palms flat against his face. He muttered curses to himself. Why couldn’t anyone understand?
Even if he helped them, they would still hate him, still look down on him. They only looked at him now with such hope because they wanted his help. And the more he refused, the more they hated him. The more he gave, the more they wanted. It made Alfred’s heart twist—he was stuck between feeling like a boy and feeling like a man. But he was a nation, he was not a human. His first priority would always be his own people, and his feelings in the matter didn’t matter in the least—he was merely the embodiment of what others thought, felt, and executed. The world changed, but he stayed the same—
And no one knew him.
He inhaled sharply, hated how his breath rattled in a way that suggested upset. He was fine. He was fine.
He straightened and looked out the window again. He saw Adams’ house, from so long ago, with its blown-out windows. His bottom lip quivered, and for a silent moment, in the dark, he mourned for all the people he’d loved and lost centuries ago.
He stood up from the chair, grabbed his jacket from the hook near the door, and marched outside. He climbed up the stairs of the embassy until he reached the roof. It was a clear night—beautiful, at least for him. For Londoners, a clear night was probably a night of peril, for clear skies meant easier targets for bombers. But there was no hum of airplane engines and no fires or bombs blasting in the distance. There was only calm, sweet peace.
The stars were out. Alfred stared at them, kept his eyes wide open so he could see them. Without his glasses, they would have been nothing but blurred dots, but with them he could see them perfectly, trace the constellations by heart. Stars to travel by, stars to travel home by. There were so many, so easy to see with all the lights in London extinguished. Alfred licked his dry lips.
He was a question to the world, and had no idea how to answer. It seemed he was always looking for a landing place—perhaps they were all looking for a place to land. The night breeze wafted through his hair and Alfred sighed, closing his eyes, letting himself absorb into everything England was giving him—a clear, beautiful sky, a peaceful night, a soft, comforting wind. His heart shivered and he sank down to his knees, hands pressed to the roof of the embassy.
“What do I do?” he whispered, opening his eyes, still staring up at the stars that twinkled back at him.
A landing place. All he wanted was a place to land, a place to belong, a place where it wouldn’t matter if he changed or stayed the same—
No one knew him.
“I want to go home,” he said—home, his landing place. Surely that was the only place he could fly to, come back to, long for. His first and only priority was his people.
Being here was too painful. It surfaced memories he’d rather forget, made him think and feel things he wanted to forget. Made him hope for something different—
The reception Winant received from the governmental officials, from the people, from the press—perhaps they were different from when Alfred had come here years ago, but the sentiment was still the same. They were separated by an ocean, they were bitter and angry and hated each other. Alfred thrived on the belief that they were the same in that respect—that his feelings for England were mutual. Hatred, indifference, dismissal.
“He doesn’t want to see me, either,” Alfred whispered. England hadn’t even looked at him the day he’d arrived, hadn’t asked after him or approached him. “He wants something from me, but he won’t even speak to me.”
This was the way it should stay—with neither looking at one another, both orbiting the other in silence. If England so desperately needed his help, he should come to Alfred himself.
The stars shifted across the sky as the hours progressed. Alfred stayed on the roof, lying on his back, and telling himself all the reasons why he hated England.
It wouldn’t stop ringing in his ears. And he wasn’t sure if he wanted to believe it was true or not—wasn’t sure if he knew that everything he was telling himself was true.
England is gone. It’s only a matter of time…
In a moment, everything could be gone. In a moment, the sky could open up and he could be bombed again and again. In a moment, England could truly be gone.
Alfred’s entire body shook—it was cold, he told himself, it was getting so cold—and in an instant his bravado evaporated. He felt it shatter, felt it fall away like shards of shrapnel, like columns of buildings falling to the ground—
He curled into himself, unsure what to do, and even worse—unsure what to think.
“You’ve been here for two weeks now,” Winant said, pulling the blanket off from Alfred’s prone body. Alfred curled into himself, stuffing his head under the pillow. “You haven’t met with anyone, but that changes today. You’re coming with me to the luncheon.”
“… ‘Dun wanna,” Alfred mumbled under the pillow and recognized that he was being petulant, felt very much like a child being scolded by a parent (and god, how he hated that), but doing nothing to remedy the situation. He groped around blindly for his blanket, but the ambassador held it tightly in his hands and Alfred eventually gave up with a sigh, peeking out from under the pillow.
The ambassador was dressed for the luncheon, suit pressed and hair flat. He frowned down at Alfred, and it was clear that he had something he wanted to say but wouldn’t. Alfred was okay with this, and rolled away onto his side, blowing a puff of air up through his bangs so they fluttered against his forehead.
“Will England be there?” Alfred asked, staring at the wall.
“With the prime minister, yes,” Winant said. “You don’t have to speak with them if you don’t wish to—”
“I don’t want to talk to them,” Alfred interrupted.
“—But I’d still like for you to come, my country.”
Alfred sighed and rolled onto his back, pursing his lips and almost pouting. Then he sat up, tugging on the sleeves of his pajama top. “Fine,” he finally relented, “But I’m not going to like it one bit.”
Mollified, the ambassador left the young country to prepare for the luncheon. Cursing under his breath, Alfred rolled out of bed and threw the discarded blanket back onto the mattress. The last few weeks had been boring—two weeks, and nothing to do. At least he wasn’t getting bombed, he supposed. But he didn’t want to talk with the locals, didn’t want to talk with the governmental officials—it meant that all he had for company was Winant and the others at the embassy, but even they were there to work for Britain so it usually led to topics Alfred wished to avoid. Communication between Britain and the states was difficult, with the U-boats sinking merchant ships—letters took months to arrive, if they arrived at all. And wires from the president were few and far between. Alfred wasn’t concerned, but he wished he could get hold of his boss so he could try and sway him to let him come home. Being here was too painful, though Alfred would never admit to it—
He wanted to go home. He was going to stay neutral, and nothing that the ambassador or England’s government did would convince him otherwise.
He dressed, adjusting his tie with an irritable sigh before exiting his bedroom. Winant was sitting at Alfred’s table, reading the newspaper, and looked up when Alfred emerged. With a smile, Winant ushered Alfred to the door and together they traveled to London’s Savoy Hotel, for the luncheon. The Pilgrim Society, a group created for the one purpose of creating stronger Anglo-American ties, was holding the luncheon in Winant’s honor. Alfred found it laughable, but did not voice the opinion—there was no way that the two of them could ever have closer ties again, not after his revolution. The revolution had changed everything—Alfred hated England, and he knew that the feeling had to be mutual. Otherwise, wouldn’t England have sought him out two weeks ago, when he’d first arrived here? And their history after the revolution—they never met again until the Great War, and even then it was as tentative allies. The wars, the treaties, the negotiations—England never came to any of them.
Alfred walked behind Winant as they entered the hotel, following the line of guests, the front of the line led by the Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself. Winant moved slowly, his head bowed slightly in reverence for those present, threading his way through the packed ballroom. They moved towards the head table, where Churchill was seating himself and the Earl of Derby had already seated. Alfred’s eyes scanned the crowd—and there he was, at the end of the table, as far away from Alfred as could be possible. England.
Alfred nearly froze, nearly tripped over his own feet—that same jolt he’d felt before, at Winant’s press conference two weeks ago, returned to him. He had to jerk his face away, couldn’t look England in the eye. England still wasn’t even looking at him, anyway. His eyes were on his prime minister, hands folded on the table before him, back straight, face tired, gaunt, and haunted. Just when Alfred though maybe he could forget the look in England’s eyes, he saw that look again.
He absolutely refused to think that England was falling apart.
He refused to believe that. There was no way that the great British Empire could actually run out of funds, be unable to create a military power strong enough to hold onto a tiny, insignificant island. And yet, they still demanded all this aid. They had lend-lease, they had the old US destroyers from the Great War—what more could they need?
Alfred seated himself at the back of the room—he couldn’t and wouldn’t sit at the head table with Winant. He lingered in the back of the room, moody. It wasn’t that he was so cruel that he didn’t want to help at all—but he didn’t want to be part of another European war. He wanted to protect his people, let them be unharmed at home. He couldn’t justify sending his boys into war, and the president shared that belief. He would remain neutral, and do what he could within that boundary. That was all they could expect of him.
He ate his food in silence, rarely looking up from his plate. There would only be a few people here who would know who he was—for the others, he would simply be a morose, rude boy from the states. And he was fine with them thinking that—a stupid Yank, that’s all he was to anyone.
The luncheon was nearing its end when Alfred finally looked up from his plate, only because he loud scraping of a chair made him think that finally the torture was over and he could go back to his apartment (not home). But it was Churchill, rising to his feet and turning towards the ambassador.
There was no doubt in Alfred’s mind, nor anyone else’s, that the prime minister intended to make Winant his ally, to woo him and attempt to woo the United States in turn. Alfred felt his face coloring.
“Mister Winant,” Churchill rumbled, his voice booming and his words carrying throughout the ballroom and, undoubtedly, through the radio waves of the BBC. “You come to us at a grand turning point in the world’s history. We rejoice to have you with us in these days of storm and trial because, in you, we have a friend and a faithful comrade—”
The prime minister continued to speak but Alfred had to look away, forcing himself not to cringe. He felt his body shivering, and for half a moment, Alfred wanted to look over to England, and resisted. He didn’t want to know how England thought about this—didn’t want to see the thoughts and feelings of England’s people reflected in his haunted eyes, see that glimmer of hope that Alfred would not be able to return. Or, worse, did not want to see the underlying scorn, the underlying condescension, the underlying bitterness as he begged for help. Alfred wanted nothing to do with the great British Empire. He wanted, and would always want, to go back home and return to himself.
He desperately needed a cigarette.
Churchill was nearing the end of his speech, and the man declared, voice loud and recapturing Alfred’s attentions: “You, Mister Ambassador, share our purpose. You’ll share our dangers. You’ll share our interests. You shall share our secrets. And the day will come when the British Empire and the United States will share together,” and here he paused, sweeping his eyes around the room, capturing Alfred’s eyes, before returning his attention back to the ambassador, “the crown of victory!”
The audience erupted into cheers and Alfred felt the cold dread sink into his bones, freezing him to the spot. Slowly, so slowly, he dared to glance away from the prime minister, down the length of the table, try to see England’s expression. England was staring up at his prime minister, hands still folded, expression a perfect stony slate. There had once been a time that Alfred might have been able to read England’s expressions, to understand him—but that time would never return. Alfred distantly wondered if the country even knew that Alfred was there—he hadn’t looked at him once. It was as if he was pretending he did not exist.
And now it was Winant’s time to respond to the prime minister. He saw Winant’s throat tighten and his adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, and then slowly rose to his feet, tightly clutching the pages of his speech. He looked out over the audience, moving his weight from foot to foot, rather like a small boy saying a piece at his first party. Alfred wished he could touch the man’s shoulder, give him some kind of support—his ambassador, to the core of it, was incredibly shy and did not do well with public speaking. Sometimes he would pause for a full minute trying to think of his words, and for many people, listening to him at first was extraordinarily difficult and painful. But Alfred knew that he would pick it up, that because this was something he was passionate about, he would be able to succeed—
There was a long pause. Then, quietly, hesitantly, Winant began to speak. Unlike Churchill, he was not a good speaker. He read and not too well, every word, looking down at his shaking pieces of paper. But his words were more than oratory—they were a declaration of faith.
“America,” Winant said and Alfred snapped his head up for a moment, feeling his back stiffen, until he realized the man was not addressing him, “has finally shaken off its lethargy and gone into action. With its labor and resources, it will provide the tools—the ships, the planes, the guns, the ammunition, and the food—for all those here and everywhere who defend with their lives freedom’s frontiers.”
Alfred shifted uneasily, sitting in that ballroom, Winant speaking about him, of him—pledging his support and allegiance to Britain, even though Alfred had made it clear from the beginning that he would have to remain neutral. He’d already done so much—he’d bent his laws for England, and that was all he could stand to do.
“I am not here,” Winant said, “to praise my own country for its laggard help.”
Alfred colored in shame.
“I am here to pay tribute to the resoluteness and courage of Britain and its citizens,” he said, and glanced up very briefly from his script to nod to Churchill, and, behind him, England, watching Winant with an expression Alfred would never be able to place. Winant continued, “Today, it is the honor and destiny of the British people to man the bridgehead of humanity’s hopes. It is your privilege to stand against ruthless and powerful dictators who would destroy the lessons of two thousand years of history. It is your destiny to say to them: ‘Here you shall not pass.’”
Winant cleared his throat a few times, seeing to be picking up momentum. His pauses were not as long, not as excruciating. Though he was not a good orator, his words struck at his audience. Alfred watched the change go through them—the start, with them cringing and looking uncomfortable, and now with them leaning forward, all their eyes on Winant.
But here, Winant paused, his eyes sweeping the room. He looked straight at Alfred, and Alfred could not look away, his eyes wide as Winant, his voice growing stronger, his back straighter, never took his eyes from Alfred as he declared: “The lost years are gone. The road ahead is hard. A new spirit is abroad. Free people are again cooperating to win a free world, and no tyranny can frustrate their hopes.” He paused, just briefly, and continued, “The allies, with the help of God, shall build a citadel of freedom so strong that force may never again seek its destruction.”
Goosebumps sprang along Alfred’s skin and his mouth fell open, as if to shout out to Winant. But soon all his thoughts were drowned out as the entire audience rose to their feet, a standing ovation for a man who, shyly, gave the others a small, lopsided smile. The cheering and clapping did not dissipate and only continued. Alfred stood, too, clapping and smiling up at his ambassador, though he could feel his entire body shaking—
The lost years are gone.
Alfred swallowed around the thick knot in his throat and looked away towards England. England stood, clapping, his expression almost gentle as he gazed up at the ambassador.
I want to talk to him.
The thought struck him like a bomb to the gut and he almost staggered backwards. He swayed slightly, still shaking. He did not sit down until his hands began to hum from the force of his claps. He sat alone at his table, swallowing thickly, processing this thought—
I want to talk with him.
His eyes stayed on England. His mouth felt far too dry, there were words rotting away on the inside of him, things he would never be able to say or want to say or could possibly say. He had to look away from England, but soon enough his eyes returned to him, as if caught in his gravity, caught in his orbit.
“Who exactly did you write that speech for?” Alfred asked as they made it back to the embassy.
Winant gave him a little smile. “For the people who need to hear it most. Goodnight, Alfred.”
“… Goodnight,” Alfred murmured as the ambassador entered his apartment and closed the door behind him. Alfred sighed, and moved back towards his own apartment, his frown deeply etched on his face.
He wouldn’t sleep at all that night. He could only think.
- John Adams said of the British: “The only sure way of bringing about a healthy relationship between the two countries is for Englishmen to clear their minds of the notion that we are always to be treated as a kind of inferior and deported Englishman.” Anti-American sentiment ran rampant in England immediately following the revolution, and anti-British sentiment flourished in the US from the revolution well up to WWII. Mutual hatred, how wonderful.
- In direct contrast to how the Adams were treated, by 1941, Gil Winant was no longer in a position of scorned paravenu, but rather was a crucial figurehead to ensure the continued existence of England as a free country. Winant, therefore, was not only welcomed but actively “wooed” by the king (featured last chapter), governmental leaders (especially Winston Churchill), and the press (also featured last chapter and alluded to here).
- The dinner at the Churchills, which Alfred does not attend, was a crucial time for Winant. Up until that point, he had no idea how Churchill would treat him. Churchill is notoriously known for his “bulldog-like belligerence”, but at the dinner he was in a rather conciliatory mood. Throughout the dinner, he and Winant discussed the latest problems between their country’s relations. They never became super close, however (as William Averell Harriman will be the American to have the closest relationship to Churchill, and ultimately through that friendship, Churchill will start to shield Winant away from the ordeals and thoughts regarding the war and the country and rather seek advice from Harriman; it’s actually a bit of a myth, facilitated by Churchill’s own memories, that Churchill and Roosevelt were ever that close—their personalities and ideals clashed far too much, it was truly Harriman who had Churchill’s confidence).
- Lend-Lease began March 1941 after the United States reformatted its laws regarding helping countries in foreign wars.
- The destroyers-for-bases deal is only thinly alluded to here, but I’ll still put in a note about it. In England’s continuing quest to get US aid, the US agreed to sell to England destroyers from WWI, about six months prior to the timestamp of this chapter. Although the UK had received the destroyers, its government had not yet formally agreed to one provision of the quid pro quo—the lease of bases in British colonies in the Caribbean. Resentment of the deal in Whitehall, the House of Commons, and the colonies themselves had been too overwhelming. Additionally, when they received the destroyers from the US, they were worthless for their fight—old, outdated, and barely floatable.
- Luncheon actually happened! London’s Savoy Hotel. Winant followed Churchill and the Earl of Derby to the head table. The occasion was a gala luncheon in Winant’s honor, sponsored by the Pilgrim Society, an organization aimed at promoting closer Anglo-American relations. Seated before the ambassador, Churchill and Lord Derby, who was president of the group, was the elite of the British government and business worlds—virtually all the cabinet, as well as the country’s leading military figures, industrialist and news paper editors and publishers. Winant was, as mentioned multiple times before, a very popular guy, ha ha.
- Churchill and Winant’s speeches are both transcribed here word-for-word, as closely as I could manage to get in into the narrative.