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: Fearing the country's morale and resolve, Churchill visits Bristol. Sensing the shift in that weakening morale, Alfred begins to doubt things once again, and call into question the past weeks.
Time stamp: April of 1941.
Notes: Sorry for the delay once again. Someday maybe I can be on a concrete schedule with this fic.
01 | 02 | 03 | 04 | 05 | 06 | 07 | 08 | 09 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Alfred left England that morning only after he’d managed to get England into a bed and find a sling for his broken arm. England did not speak much as he did this, and he didn’t even thank Alfred for all his efforts. Alfred hadn’t really expected him to, anyway, and didn’t really blame him for withholding any thanks. Though he wouldn’t actually say that out loud to England, either. Instead, he maintained a cool silence that matched England’s own.
But that cool silence broke once England sank onto the bed, sighing. “Aren’t your people missing you?”
“Back home?” Alfred asked, taken aback by the question and looking up at England in surprise.
“At the embassy,” England corrected, voice tired and quiet.
“The ambassador knows that I came to find you,” Alfred said after a pause in which he debated not admitting to that. “He won’t worry.”
England looked up at him. He studied Alfred’s face with quiet certainty, and Alfred felt unnerved. And yet he couldn’t look away, because that would be cowardly. So he held England’s gaze steadily, swallowing thickly. Their gazes held tight.
“… Why did you come here?” England asked after a moment.
“To find you?” Alfred asked, brows furrowing as he scrambled to think of an excuse.
But England shook his head, slowly, still watching Alfred. “To my home. Why did you come here?”
“I’ve told you before—”
“And why have you not left yet?” England interrupted, question desperate. He didn’t sound dismissing or disgusted by it, or that he actually wanted Alfred to leave. It was not that kind of question. But, rather, it was one that had obviously weighed on England’s mind for a very long time. He continued to stare up at Alfred, unrelenting, unashamed of such intense staring. “Why do you choose to stay here?”
Alfred found that he didn’t quite have the answer. And he couldn’t think of one fast enough to get England to just stop looking at him. The question weighed on him—Why was he still here at all?
To save some kind of face, Alfred snorted. “It’s just too much bother to navigate the Atlantic right now. I’m not here because I want to be or anything. I think the ambassador still hopes that he can use me to sway public opinion. Joke’s on him, though, ha ha ha…”
His laughter died out as England continued to stare at him. The light touched his face, casting shadow across half his face, and the rest was bruised and scarred and bleeding. Alfred’s throat went dry.
And finally England slanted his eyes away. “Of course. How foolish of me to believe otherwise.”
The words hung in the air, hollow and lethal. Alfred couldn’t begin to parse them.
“… Rest, old man. Staying up this late can’t be good for you.”
A touch of a smile cracked at England’s chapped, split lips. “Hah. You obviously have far too much faith in my sleeping habits as is.”
But he did lie back on the bed, eyes falling shut almost instantly. Alfred watched as he relaxed against the blankets, curling into himself—the fetal position.
“… I’ll come again, if the bombs return,” Alfred said.
Sleepily, England snorted. “Of course they will return. But don’t trouble yourself over something so foolish. You should focus on keeping yourself safe.”
His voice seemed to fade, and Alfred knew it was only a matter of time before England was asleep—he wondered if England would even remember this conversation. Alfred sat down on the edge of the bed, watching him for a long moment, his thoughts still in turmoil over England’s question.
“I’ll come to you if the bombs come,” Alfred promised, and wasn’t quite sure why he was promising it. Perhaps the need to be of use while he was here, if only for something. To be a hero. To be important or needed—and to have actually volunteered for that help. Perhaps that was what it was. Perhaps—
England didn’t answer, just gave a sleepy little hum, eyelids fluttering. Alfred’s thoughts halted. England did not move, save for the steady rise and fall of his chest as he breathed—breathed for another day longer.
He stayed there for a short while after and only after England fell asleep did he leave.
Before stepping out of Number Ten, he murmured, “Hell if I know why—but I’ll find you again.”
Outside, Alfred waded through the desolate London streets in the early afternoon feeling exhausted and drained. His feet felt as heavy as his eyelids. But he could only imagine how drained England must have been then, and how exhausted he must have been throughout the entire night—Alfred had only seen him at the end of it all. Despite his best efforts, Alfred’s thoughts remained on England. And by the time he made it back to the embassy, it was well past lunchtime and even though Alfred was starving, his exhaustion won out over his growling stomach. He collapsed on the couch in Winant’s office and slept for several hours, lulled instantly to sleep by the sound of the man’s working and writing.
He awoke several hours later to the sounds of writing, yet again, and he blinked his eyes open. There was a blanket draped over his shoulders and he curled his fingers around it, cheeks flushing a warm red. The sun was setting outside and Alfred yawned loudly, feeling his jaw crack from the force of the yawn.
“Welcome back,” the ambassador said once he caught Alfred’s eye.
Alfred nodded, and sat up, scratching at his hair and doing his best to work the crick from his neck. The blanket tumbled off his shoulders and folded into his lap. There was a chill on the end and Alfred shivered just a little.
“How is Sir Kirkland?” Winant asked after a moment.
Alfred thought back to the image of England, bloody in the bathtub. Alfred tipped his head back, staring at the ceiling, trying to think of a way to word it without being too complementary to England’s strength without seemingly deprecating the man. He imagined England, body compact and folded into itself, draped in the bathtub with the blood sticking to every corner of his skin and his hair. And then limping his way into the bed, shrugging off Alfred’s arm when he went to help him, stubborn and foolish until the very end. He remembered the way England sank down onto the bed, sighing and his body slumping. He remembered the way England stared after Alfred as Alfred slowly backed out of the room and shut the door behind him.
“He didn’t cry,” was what he settled on.
A touch of a smile lingered in the corners of Winant’s mouth as he lowered his eyes to his file work. He didn’t speak at first, shuffling a few papers. Alfred didn’t speak, staring at the wall moodily, watching the click of a clock as the time progressed. The clicking of the clock was the only sound in the room for a long moment.
“He’s brave,” Alfred decided on, cautiously, side-eying the ambassador in case he started to misconstrue Alfred’s admission. He cleared his throat and hastily added, “Cause. He was just kinda dealing with it—with everything.”
“Did you expect him to?” Winant asked, not unkindly.
“What, to be able to deal?” He thought it over. He shrugged.
“I meant… did you expect him to cry?” the ambassador corrected, voice soft.
Alfred didn’t breathe for a moment. And then he shrugged and stood up, wandering around the room absently. He looked out the window—half-covered in paper to keep the gust out after the windows had been mostly shattered from their frames—and surveyed the damage done to the square. The chaos of the night before seemed a million miles away—tonight, it was deceptively peaceful, as if nothing was amiss.
“He shows the world a face no one has seen before in this war—himself and his people,” Winant said, absently, tapping his pen against a piece of paper before standing to join Alfred at the window, hands tucked behind his back. Alfred looked to him as he joined him, frowning. Winant wasn’t smiling, but he wasn’t quite frowning either. “There’s a spirit, a strength. Bright days and livid nights—it was this way last autumn as well. With this kind of spirit, he calls himself up from despair the spirit of other men… and it is that spirit and example which can overbore any defeatist.”
They lapsed into silence, and before Alfred was aware enough about it, he realized he was nodding his agreement to Winant. But he stopped abruptly, his thoughts spiraling moodily as he looked out at the destroyed square, at the destroyed cityscape beyond, just now fading from his view from the dying sun.
“Americans believe that they are saving the British. And they are. But I believe that they, in turn, are saving America.”
Alfred’s brows furrowed. He gave the ambassador a skeptical look, but Winant only smiled at him.
“I don’t need saving,” Alfred protested, weakly. “I’m not the one falling apart.”
“Perhaps not. Do you believe that the United Kingdom is doomed, Alfred?”
Alfred felt a chill run down his spine. His fists clenched together. He remembered what he’d thought of England before—how he had told himself that he didn’t care that England would, ultimately, fall. He remembered how that changed, for one brief time, when he admitted to himself that he didn’t want it and, that, above all else, England would never fall. He was too stubborn. That time seemed so far away now. How easy it was to say that before he saw England with the bomb wounds across his body, the new scars already tearing across his skin. How easy it was for him to believe that England was invincible, when he didn’t have to see the things that could make him the very opposite.
“… I don’t know,” he said quietly, and hated that he knew it to be the truth.
Two days later, the bombs returned. Alfred heard the humming of the engines, heard the distant explosions. He saw the fire blossoms across desolate parts of London, flattening it and wiping it clean.
“Not as many as tonight,” Winant said. “They must be bombing over cities, too.”
Alfred moved. But before he could grab his coat and run to 10 Downing, Winant touched his shoulder and tugged him away.
“But I—” Alfred protested. I promised—
“Sir Kirkland is with the Prime Minister,” the ambassador said quietly. “They’re keeping an eye on him now. He’ll be cared for. He’s in a bunker at parliament. He’ll be alright down there.”
He squeezed Alfred’s shoulder, encouraging.
Alfred’s brows furrowed and, still gripping his jacket, he looked out the window, watching the bombs blaze to the south. His eyes widened and his heart thudded.
“I know you’re worried, but—”
“I’m not worried,” Alfred insisted, feeling his face heat up. Something lodged in his throat, and it took just a little too long for it to clear so Alfred could speak normally and impassively. He pulled his jacket on. “Besides, I wasn’t gonna go look for England or anything. I was gonna go make sure the people in the streets are okay!”
A bomb blasted, to the south, close and making the floor shake. Alfred stared up at Winant, and Winant looked back at him, not unkindly. He reached out and grabbed his hat, placing it on his head.
“My mistake. I’ll accompany you,” he said.
The two men set out together.
“Yes, it seems the Prime Minister can’t be swayed on this. I agree with the decision, though. After all… In addition to the capital, it seems Manchester, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Plymouth, Liverpool, and Bristol have all suffered damage,” Alfred heard Winant saying to another worker in the embassy. Alfred leaned against the wall, knowing he was eavesdropping but really having nothing else he could do. He clung to the words—he kept his ears strained for any news of England’s condition. He heard Winant sigh. “Six consecutive nights of bombing in Liverpool especially. It’s destroyed nearly half of the city’s docks.”
“But that means—”
“Yes. It reduced the amount of supplies that can be unloaded from incoming ships to just a quarter of the normal tonnage. If the Luftwaffe continues to bomb the country’s ports and the U-boats continue to sink the merchant ships…”
“They’ll all starve,” the other worker whispered.
Alfred felt his blood run cold. Suddenly the embassy felt far too cold. He pulled himself away from the wall, swallowed thickly and licked the suddenly far too dry lips. He shouldn’t be eavesdropping. Listening in to problems wasn’t doing him any good and, in either case, he’d already told himself that he no longer cared.
But before Alfred could make his great escape, the ambassador excused himself from the worker and walked away. Alfred heard the footsteps coming closer but didn’t think to leave until the ambassador entered the room and saw him almost immediately.
“Ah, Alfred,” Winant greeted, looking grave but not denying his country a warm word. “I suppose you’ve heard that.”
“… I guess,” Alfred said, and hated himself for, once again, sounding so petulant. “What’s the Prime Minister’s decision?”
“He’s to visit Bristol,” Winant said. “For morale-building. He’s very concerned about the spirit of those outside London.”
“And I’m to go with him, along with Mr. Harriman,” Winant continued.
“Huh? Why’re you guys going?”
“He seems to get confidence in having us around,” the ambassador said absently, looking off towards the windows at the far wall.
“That’s all?” Alfred asked. “Seems—”
He cut himself off, suddenly feeling too little and petty in the face of these bombed cities and, above all else, the look the ambassador was giving him.
But the ambassador shook his head. “No, you’re right, Alfred. It is also strategic on his part. By having the two Americans with him, he can send a message that, despite everything, the United States stands with England.”
Alfred frowned. “… He wants me to go, too, doesn’t he?”
“I am not going to force you,” Winant said. “You have no obligation so if you’d rather remain here, it’s alright.”
Alfred bit at his lip, and watched the ambassador shift uneasily.
“If you’d like, I could possibly arrange it so that I could stay here with you…”
“You don’t want to go?” Alfred asked, bewildered.
For his part, the ambassador looked almost embarrassed. He turned away and walked towards his desk, and not sensing a dismissal, Alfred followed after him. Alfred watched the ambassador’s tense shoulders as he slowly sank down into his seat and stared down at the file work waiting on his desk. He sat there in a long silence, but Alfred knew to wait. He sank down into a seat in front of Winant’s desk, slouching a little before slumping further, legs outstretched and arms hanging off the chair’s arms.
“It isn’t that I don’t wish to lend my support to the people of Bristol and elsewhere,” Winant said slowly. “It’s only that… the Prime Minister has been… very insistent lately.”
“Oh?” Alfred asked, bewildered.
Winant nodded, grave. “Very insistent upon receiving more aid from the United States.”
He spoke slowly, collecting his words, and very carefully gauging Alfred for his reaction. Alfred, for his part, didn’t really react other than a furrow of his brows.
“He wants your navy to protect the merchant ships carrying the lend-lease aid here. He says that US aid is no good if it never arrives to the British people.”
Alfred’s frown deepened. “That would be as good as a declaration of war, though.”
Winant sighed and closed his eyes. “More than anything else, that’s what the Prime Minister wants. For the United States to join the war.”
Alfred shifted in his chair, forcing his posture into something more presentable and professional. He folded his hands into his lap and studied his squared knuckles for a long moment. “I can’t join the war,” Alfred said, slowly. “I’m… well. You know. I’m neutral. Indifferent.”
“I wonder,” Winant said softly as he flipped through a few papers on his desk, “just how neutral are you, Alfred?” But when Alfred looked up at the ambassador with a start and quickly coloring cheeks, the ambassador merely shook his head as a sign of dismissal. “If you do choose to come to Bristol with us, I suspect the Prime Minister will want to have a word with you. He keeps insisting on more weekend visits from you. He seemed to… very much enjoy your presence last time.”
Alfred made a soft grunting noise, non-committal and embarrassed.
Winant lapsed into silence, understanding the need for it at times and never pressing such things. When Alfred didn’t answer immediately, the ambassador merely resumed looking over his work. He worked in silence, signing a few documents, filing a few others, scratching at something on others still. He seemed content to work diligently for the rest of the afternoon. Alfred, meanwhile, sat in an awkward silence, unable to collect his thoughts. His heart still thundered from Winant’s quiet rebuttal—just how neutral was he?—and his mind scrambled to answer the question. But no matter what the answer was, he couldn’t justify having the navy escort merchant ships. And even if he did, his congress and his military would never allow for such a thing to take place. Churchill’s ambitions were doomed from the start. Churchill’s insistence and desire for more US influence would never come to be. The war would come and go, and the United States would remain as uninvolved as it could. That was that. There was no changing it.
But even so—
“I’ll go,” Alfred said, suddenly.
Winant looked up, staring at Alfred. Alfred stared back, determined, jaw set and shoulders braced.
And then a touch of a smile spread at the corners of Winant’s mouth. “Alright.”
At the train station, Alfred’s eyes found England immediately.
“You look like shit,” Alfred announced as his greeting when he managed to get to England’s side.
England gave him a withering look, heavy bags under his eyes, bruises and cuts on his face, and his arm in a sling. He did look awful, but Alfred had expected as much—and yet seeing England like it so suddenly didn’t quite prepare him. He looked thinner now, his clothes hanging off him like bags. His suit, once tailored perfectly and flawless, was the same drab color as Alfred remembered it being upon their first meeting again, threadbare and carefully stitched together with England’s steady hand. Only now, with the broken arm, Alfred could see the little holes in his clothes that England just couldn’t manage to fix. He was pale, as always, his eyes sunken in and his cheekbones standing out a little more prominently from before.
But he still looked at Alfred with all the defiance and brilliance he could muster, that dogged determination that never seemed to settle in the pit of his stomach. He curled his lip back in distaste and said, “I’m well aware of that fact.”
Alfred almost grinned, manic and desperate for any reason to separate the strange emotions he felt whenever England was nearby—he couldn’t begin to parse it, but he also didn’t want to. He didn’t want to understand everything that was happening, everything that he felt. It would be easier if he could just go home—but that only made him think of England’s question. Why, above all things, did he remain here? The grin was manic, and undoubtedly England noticed, as he was about to say something. Alfred strove to interrupt him but before he could, the Prime Minister was walking up to him, cigar between his lips and a walking stick in hand, and Harriman and Winant trailing behind him.
“Ah, here he is,” Churchill boomed and grabbed Alfred’s hand, shaking it enthusiastically as before.
Alfred, suddenly feeling far too awkward and put out, couldn’t quite summon a reply other than a small nod. Churchill turned his attention towards England, and Alfred watched as England’s expression softened, just a little, upon the Prime Minister’s inquiry after England’s arm.
“I’m quite well, Mister Prime Minister,” England said, voice soft and almost comforting.
Churchill nodded, and then was grabbing at Alfred and tugging him along. “Let us go, let us go. We have several places to go before we make it to Bristol tonight.”
Alfred found himself ushered rather unceremoniously onto the train, followed by the Prime Minister himself, Harriman and Winant, Churchill’s entourage, and finally by England, who climbed onto the train with more grace than a broken, bleeding man should be able to. The party spread out through the Prime Minister’s train, finding places to sit and rest. England sat down beside Alfred, but didn’t seem too pleased by this arrangement.
“It looks like it hurts,” Alfred said after a lengthy silence, the train rumbling its engine and beginning its journey west from London.
England side-eyed him for a moment, and then turned to regard him. He stared at Alfred so long and so intensely, that Alfred began to shift uneasily. But England did not break his eyes away from him, nor did he back down. Alfred, in turn, refused to back down and kept staring at England. He wasn’t quite sure what England was looking for, or, for that matter, just what he was waiting for.
“Why do you care?” England said after a moment.
“I don’t,” Alfred said, quickly, lips tugged down into a frown. “I don’t care. I was just wondering if there was a reason you looked like the living dead.”
England continued to stare at him, a withering glare.
Alfred refused to shrink.
England sighed, closing his eyes, finally, and slumping against his seat. “Of course it hurts.”
Alfred hadn’t really expected that answer, and he felt his back straighten just a little.
They both sat in a long silence until England said, slowly, calculating his words, “My people are dying and even more people have lost their homes. Civilians. Now we are traveling to other places that have lost so many people and so much else. I am tired, I am fatigued, and I am holding on. Any one of our kind would be exhausted in such circumstances.” And then, for half a moment, there was a touch of a smile—but it was just a glimmer and gone so quickly that Alfred doubted it’d ever been there at all. “But I will… we will survive this. My people will survive this. We absolutely… must. Even if it means…”
He trailed off, blinking his eyes a few times, and turning to look out the window. There was nothing to see in the dark, though, except for England’s own reflection—haunted eyes staring back at haunted eyes.
Alfred sat in a moody silence, feeling foolish for having made fun of England. He’d half-expected England to shout at him. But instead this quietly confident England was strange and new, or perhaps a replay of an old memory he’d long since tucked away. In either case, Alfred felt properly chastised without England having to lecture him at all.
They pulled into Bristol just as the bombs started. Alfred watched in shock as England suddenly shuddered, let out a tiny little gasp, and then bent into himself, clutching at his side. Before Alfred could quite comprehend what was happening, Alfred was suddenly grabbed by the shoulders and pulled out of the way as Churchill’s aids, and a few of Churchill’s family, flooded to England’s side, inquiring after him.
Alfred stood in shocked silence, suddenly displaced and unsure how to function. All eyes were on England, and as the train’s lights flickered out as the train found shelter beneath a railway bridge outside the city of Bristol, Alfred felt himself backing away. The world flickered outside the windows, as bombs touched down and the seaport ignited in flames—it was too much like London. The hum of engines filled the air, and Alfred felt too claustrophobic in that single train compartment, everyone shouting at England, inquiring after him—and through it all, England’s voice found Alfred’s ears as England insisted through gritted teeth that he was alright.
Winant touched his shoulder. Alfred, startled a little, turned to look up at him with wide, bewildered eyes. But the ambassador said nothing and merely squeezed his shoulder.
Alfred closed his eyes, clenched them tight, but even if he could not see it, he could hear the sound of bombs crashing down, and the sound of the screams England tried his hardest to muffle.
And he realized, distantly, that twice now he’d broken his promise to find England should the bombs return.
At first light, they drove into the rubble-covered town. Fires were still blazing and the streets were flooded with broken water mains. The residents searched the ruins of buildings for the dead and the wounded.
“Devastation such as I had never thought possible,” Alfred heard one of the men whisper, and he felt his own chest throb and then tighten.
He glanced to England, who had grown substantially more exhausted in the hours he’d been up at night. That haunted look in his eyes was back—
It’s only a matter of time before—
Alfred blinked his eyes a few times, and then moved to stand next to England as the group moved through the streets. Alfred stared out at the wide swath of Bristol wiped clean by the bombs laying waste to the city the night before. His eyes glanced over to England. It wasn’t as destructive as the long attacks on London, but the attack had paid its toll on England.
“Are you okay?” Alfred asked, voice thick despite himself.
England slanted his eyes to stare at him, and then quickly looked away. The hand on his unbroken arm fiddled with the sling of his broken arm, almost self-conscious or perhaps just a nervous habit.
“I’m quite fine,” England muttered. “I have no need for this constant nagging.”
Alfred scoffed, despite himself, and scrambled to say, “I’m just making sure, ya know. I’m not nagging you. If you need to sit down, it’ll probably be better so you won’t scare your people away.”
“There is a reason I am not standing with the Prime Minister,” England said quietly, nodding his head towards where Churchill walked, Harriman and Winant on either side of him. It was true that England was lingering towards the back, occasionally adjusting his sling, looking like hell but, despite it all, keeping his chin held high, his lips thinned into a terse line.
Alfred, once again, felt lectured. He chewed on the inside of his cheek and let out a long breath of air through his nose.
“It’ll be easier if I remain out of sight,” England said calmly. He slanted his eyes up towards Alfred, watching him. “You’re the one that should be seen.”
“Who, me?” Alfred asked, rolling his eyes. As they moved through the streets, it seemed as if England would fall down. Alfred cupped his hand over England’s elbow, ignoring the older nation’s protests, and steadied him before quickly letting his hand fall away. Touching him was strange. It was strange to think that he was still solid beneath all the scars and bleeding wounds. It was strange to think of this man in a setting beyond war—but Alfred could remember them. Fixing holes in his jackets in his sitting parlor all those years ago, cooking for him, returning to him, both of them running along the docks until Alfred was swept up in England—Arthur’s arms. Those were moments that Alfred, despite everything, still remembered.
But Arthur was so far away, and all Alfred saw now was England. England who, despite everything, refused to fall and refused to just lie down. His face was hardened and bruised, his eyes haunted. But he still kept marching on. And, deep down inside, perhaps Alfred was impressed, perhaps Alfred was cheering him on. But as soon as he settled on that thought, Alfred shook his head rapidly and realized, belatedly, that England was talking to him and he’d missed everything he’d said.
England was staring at him, as if expecting an answer.
Alfred scratched at his cheek, and then shoved his hands into his coat pockets, feeling the chill in the air as Churchill’s procession stopped occasionally to speak with the people crowding around them, calling out to him:
“Good old Winnie!”
“You’ll never let us down—that’s a man!”
The faces looking up at Churchill weren’t one of misery and pain—they had left that behind before crowding the streets, spreading the Prime Minister’s presence through word of mouth so that, soon, more and more people were turning corners to find the leader. They rushed towards him.
The day progressed as such. Churchill moved through the city streets, meeting with people and reviewing the Home Guard—stiff at attention but a smile on their faces as the Prime Minister went by. They moved through the city. Churchill stopped to admire the decorations from the last war, a wry smile on his face. They moved through the ARP wardens, the volunteer firemen and, then, finally, to the women.
England watched the people now, ignoring Alfred. And Alfred did not miss the soft look that touched at the corners of his eyes, just barely there, as his expression softened in turn.
Alfred looked away, watched as an elderly woman shook Churchill’s hand, spoke to him for several minutes, and then, embarrassed, said hurriedly: “I am sorry I can’t talk to you any longer. I must go and clean my house.”
And she hurried away, as quickly as an elderly, slightly-injured woman could do. England watched her go, blinking a few times, and sighing, a little shaky.
Alfred glanced at him, but quickly looked away. Selfish or not, he couldn’t give up and feel that sympathy for England. Even if he knew it was a dying battle, surrounded by the proof of all of England’s strength.
He walked from England and stood beside Harriman, who had spent the entire day taking notes on Churchill’s visit. The normally stoic man rarely showed emotion, but as Alfred went to stand near him, he saw the impassioned way he scribbled and when he spoke, he bordered on melodrama as he said, “They have been in the battle, tasted every fire, done their part, proud and unafraid. It is…”
Harriman couldn’t seem to capture just what it was, as he trailed off and let out a loud sigh, before scribbling some more. He nodded curtly to Alfred and left to follow after the Prime Minister. Alfred was fine with this—perhaps walking alone would be better for now. So he walked at his own pace in the entourage of Churchill’s party, thinking to himself and taking in his surroundings.
“He’ll come again, won’t he? But our boys will get him and then the new graves,” one of the women was telling Churchill, tears in her eyes. “We’ll win in the end, won’t we, Mister Prime Minister?”
She spoke with such faith and, yet, at the same time, there was the fatigue in her eyes. That fatigue, sad look that had finally started to leave everyone’s faces before the bombs returned. Alfred could remember—the cautious happiness and the daring of hope. And now it was being squashed down again, and though the people stubbornly held on, stubbornly grasped onto that hope—Alfred could see how quickly it would dwindle, if the nightly raids continued.
Alfred glanced over his shoulder at England, who was looking up at the sky—expression far away, but suggesting his thoughts were along the same lines. It was a clear day. That would mean a clear night, too. That would mean more bombs.
The wind licked at England’s hair, and he didn’t move as Alfred approached him again.
“They have such faith,” England said, quietly, and it was in that moment that Alfred realized that England had tears in his eyes. “It is… a grave responsibility, to have such faith.”
Alfred didn’t say anything, watching England. And in that quiet moment, he realized that even wry and sappy, England was quietly brilliant. He stood in the sunlight, watching the sky, and then slowly shifting his gaze to stare out at his own people, watching them carry on through the dust and rubble, through the shabby clothes and through the monotony and fatigue. Alfred watched England’s expression ripple as he did his best to muffle the tears, now that Alfred was so close by. Part of him wanted to tell England that it was okay to cry, but another part was too taken aback by the fact that England, despite everything, could still cry.
For the first time, Alfred wondered if maybe he was beginning to feel a kinship with England—he could feel the spark of sympathy in his gut upon seeing England’s misty eyes.
And that thought terrified.
“Are you crying?” he asked, his words coming out loud and accusatory—not his intention at all. But he wouldn’t dare take them back. Perhaps it was better, if he seemed unconcerned.
England snapped his attention towards him, glaring. “Shut your mouth, boy, if you know what’s good for you at all.”
Alfred flared up, frowning. “Don’t talk to me—”
“And don’t you dare mock me,” England snapped back.
“I wasn’t!” Alfred protested.
Distantly, he thought it would be easier if he just refused to notice things at all. Being so aware of the world around him was too much hard work. Being so aware of every little change in England was too hard, as well. It was all just too much. They glared at each other, and then, slowly, England turned his face away. He looked back up at the sky.
Alfred looked away, too.
When he looked back again, a few moments later, England was completely dry-eyed, and the change was so resolute that Alfred wondered if he’d ever seen the tears.
But when England spoke, the gentle waver to his voice betrayed him: “I do not know how much longer my people will last. I worry.”
Alfred, taken aback by such honesty, wasn’t quite sure what to say at first.
England glanced up at him. “They can put on the brave face but, in the end, morale is sinking. It is not just the return of the raids… and I know very well the effect of the raids—no one can withstand the bombings indefinitely. Sooner or later, the morale will go. And it is not only that, it is also the misery of everyday life that I fear.”
“What do you mean?” Alfred asked.
England gave him a look that clearly showed just how stupid England thought he was. Alfred colored in shame.
“You have been here for nearly two months now. Shouldn’t you know?” England sighed, slumping a little. “Interrupted transportation, the dust, the worn clothes, the drabness that comes from want of things, no glass for the replacement of windows, stumbling home in the blackout, the shortage of light and fuel.” England shook his head. “Even the most brave-hearted could not withstand such a dreary picture for long.”
“Twenty months of this. Twenty months of war, and the struggle seems evermore unending. Relief is nowhere in sight.”
Churchill’s party was moving now, back towards the train station. It was early afternoon, and time for the Prime Minister to leave. He had been in Bristol for many hours, and as Churchill led the way towards the train station, Alfred glanced over his shoulder to see the flood of people following—hundreds of people following their leader.
“There has to be relief somewhere,” Alfred said, swallowing thickly and realizing, above all things, that he really did want to reassure England. “Everyone says that you’ll win this, that you’ll—”
“I,” England said, quietly, so quietly that Alfred almost missed the words. Perhaps somewhere England realized that Alfred was doing his best to reassure, because his words did not come out harshly, only resigned, “I am bored by talks about the righteousness of my cause and my eventual triumph. What I want are facts indicating how we are to beat the Germans. And yet no one can give me those facts.”
They walked in silence after that, climbing onto the train when they reached it, and setting into the train car. On the back of the train, Churchill stood with Winant and Harriman, waving goodbye to the people of Bristol as the train’s whistle sounded and the train began pulling from the station.
Alfred watched as Churchill covered his face with a newspaper, crying. There was no shame in it, nor in the way that Churchill smiled and praised his people, praised their faith. And cried behind that newspaper.
It’s only a matter of time before England falls—
- An estimated 1,100 Londoners were killed during the April 16th raids (of last chapter), the most devastating night of the Blitz thus far. But it held that distinction for only three days. On April 19th, German bombers hit London again, killing more than 1,200 people. In addition, almost half a million Londoners lost their homes in the two attacks.
- London was not the only city being bombed, either. That spring, as part of an all-out German attempt to sever Britian’s supply lifeline and shut down production of war material, the Luftwaffe blasted the country’s major industrial and port cities: Manchester, Portsmouth, Cardiff, Plymouth, Liverpool, and Bristol. In Liverpool, for example, six consecutive nights of bombing damaged or destroyed over half of the city’s docks, reducing the amount of supplies that could be unloaded from incoming ships to just a quarter of the normal tonnage. The destruction of the port cities, plus the sinking of merchant ships carrying necessary supplies, meant a dire countdown until the British people would run out of food and supplies and starve to death.
- Deeply concerned about the spirit of those living outside London, Churchill spent much of his time in morale-building visit to the bombed cities, often taking Harriman and Winant with him. “He seems to get confidence in having us around,” Harriman wrote to Roosevelt (though his chapter has Winant telling Alfred that). But, as Harriman noted, Churchill had another reason for showing off the USAmericans. Whenever he spoke, he would always introduce the two of Roosevelt’s envoys, as his way to show that the US stood with them all despite the US government’s continued ambivalence towards giving aid despite growing public backing (though entering the war still remained unpopular).
- During the trip to Bristol, Churchill’s train arrived to Bristol in the middle of a heavy raid, the sixth experienced by the busy seaport in the past five months. It destroyed a good portion of the city, from docks to city center.
- When Churchill walked down the streets of Bristol, very familiar in his stout figure, cigar, and walking stick, people flooded to him and spoke with him. News of Churchill’s visit in Bristol spread by word-of-mouth and soon more and more people came to visit him and his entourage. Crows flocked to him, affectionately calling him “Winnie.”
- Churchill’s procession through the city is as accurate as I could make it. Harriman indeed took notes of Churchill’s visit to the city, and he indeed was very emotional about it—noteworthy in that Harriman was traditionally and famously unemotional (being a very successful businessman). According to Harriman’s notes, Churchill visited the Home Guard, complimented the war decorations, visited the ARP wardens, the volunteer firemen, and the women.
- The conversation with the elderly lady who left to clean her house actually did happen. Harriman wrote about it in his notes.
- When the prime minister left Bristol that afternoon of his visit, hundreds of townspeople came to the station to see him off. Watching them wave and cheer as the train pulled away, Churchill shielded his face with a newspaper to hide his tears. Though the line in the chapter is given to England, it was Churchill who said: “They have such faith. It is a grave responsibility.”
- Harriman was so moved by the courage of Bristol, that he sent a substantial cash gift to Clementine Churchill, asking her to forward it to the city’s lord major to help those who had lost their homes. “All this pain and grief… may bring our two countries permanently together and that they may grow to understand each other. Anyhow, whatever happens, we do not feel alone anymore.”
- Despite the hope and faith portrayed in the Bristol visit, for the most part, the country was losing its morale. The home secretary, Herbert Morrison “is worried about the effect of the provincial raids on morale,” Harold Nicolson, the undersecretary of information, wrote in his diary in early May. “He keeps on underlining the fact that people cannot stand this intensive bombing indefinitely and that sooner or later the morale of towns will go.” Although smaller cities like Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Bristol did not experience the nightly pounding that London received, the damage they suffered in raids was far more widespread and devastating than that in the sprawling capital, where there still were vast areas untouched by bombs. The provincial cities also lacked the much greater resources of London: they did not have miles of Underground to serve as makeshift air-raid shelters, nor did they have access to the numbers of rescue and fire personnel or the emergency food, clothing, and other supplies available in the capital. Though England is the one to say it, it was actually Winant’s view that the gradual erosion of morale in the country had as much to do with the misery of everyday life as it did the renewed air raids.
- Again, attributed to England, but it was Harold Nicolson who wrote: “All that the country really wants is some reassurance of how victory is to be achieved. They are bored by talks about the righteousness of our cause and our eventual triumph. What they want are facts indicating how we are to beat the Germans. I have no idea at all how we are to give them those facts.”
- Painfully aware that his country’s only hope was US intervention, Churchill lobbied Winant and Harriman for more aid with an intensity bordering on obsession. Winant began to dread his weekend visit to Chequers, where Churchill would harangue him nonstop and then go off for a nap, leaving a cabinet member or some other top official to continue the argument. After an hour or so, the prime minister would return, refreshed and ready for another go at the weary ambassador. What good were Lend-Lease goods, Churchill repeatedly demanded, if they never made it to Britain? He wanted the US Navy to protect merchant ship convoys, but more than that, he was desperate for the US to enter the war.