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Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, 1942
It was only a song. That was what he thought when she’d put her hat on and gone, leaving the faint smell of fresh apples behind. Nothing but a song; a pretty girl.
But the very least he could say about the best thing to have happened to him in a long time was that she’d stopped him having the dreams.
In the first, he was at the end of a parachute with about three and a half miles between the soles of his feet and the Suffolk countryside. He was screaming because he couldn’t land. He was rushing through the air, a light, insubstantial thing, like thistledown or a dead moth. The bright green grass, so familiar and so dear, swooped toward him, only to jerk away again. Sometimes a woman stood and gaped at him, waving as he floated down, and then was gone on a gust of wind.
In the second dream, he was in his Spitfire again. Jacko’s aircraft was alongside him. At first it felt good up there in the cold, clear sunlight, but then, in a moment of nauseous panic, it felt as if his eyelids had been sewn together, and he could not see.
He told no one. He was one of the lucky ones—about to go home after four months here. There were plenty worse off than him in this place of dark corridors and stifled screams. Every day he heard the rumble of ambulances with new burn victims, picked up from shattered aircraft up and down the east coast.
The ward, an overspill from the hospital, was housed in a long, narrow hut with twenty beds on either side of it, and in the middle a potbellied stove, a table, and a piano with two brass candlesticks arranged festively on top.
The ward smelled of soiled dressings, of bedpans, of dying and living flesh: old men’s smells, although most of the fighter pilots in here were in their early twenties. Stourton, at the end of the ward, who had been flying Hurricanes from North Weald, had been a blind man for two weeks now. His girlfriend came in every day to teach him Braille. Squeak Townsend, the red-faced boy in the next bed with the hearty, unconvincing laugh, was a fighter pilot who’d broken his spine when his parachute had failed, and who’d confessed to Dom a few days ago that he was too nervous to ever want to fly again.
Dom knew he was lucky. He’d been flying a Spitfire at twenty thousand feet over a patchwork of fields when his cockpit was transformed into a blowtorch by the explosion of the petrol tank that sat in front of his instrument panel. His hands and face were burned—typical fighter-pilot injuries, the surgeon said—and in the excruciating moments between the flames and the ground, he’d opened the plane’s canopy, fumbled for the bright green tag that opened his parachute, swooned through space for what felt like an eternity, and finally landed, babbling and screaming, on top of a farmer’s haystack on the Suffolk coast.
Last week, Dr. Kilverton, the jaunty new plastic surgeon who now traveled from hospital to hospital, had come to the Queen Victoria and examined the burn on the right side of his face.
“Beautiful.” Kilverton’s bloodshot eye had peered through a microscope at the point where the new skin graft taken from Dom’s buttock had been patchworked over his burns. “That’ll take about six or seven weeks to heal; then you should be fully operational. Good skin,” he added. “Mediterranean?”
“My mother,” Dom explained through clenched teeth. Kilverton was peeling off old skin at the time, probing the graft. “French.”
Dom wanted him to shut up. It was easier to go inside the pain and not do the cocktail-party stuff.
“Where did you learn to fly? Tilt your head this way, please.” The snub nose loomed toward him.
“Cambridge. The University Air Squadron.”
“Ah, my father was there, too; sounded like jolly good fun.”
Kilverton talked some more about corpuscles and muscle tone and youth still being on his side; he’d repeated how lucky Dom was. “Soon have your old face and your old smile back,” as if a smile was a plastered-on thing.
While he was listening, Dom had that nightmare sensation again of floating above himself, of seeing kind faces below and not being able to reach them. Since the accident, a new person had taken up residence inside the old face, and the old smile. A put-together self who smoked and ate, who joked and was still capable of cynical wisecracks, but who felt essentially dead. Last week, encouraged by the doctors to take his first spin on his motorbike, he’d sat on a grass verge outside the Mucky Duck, on what was supposed to be a red-letter day, and looked at his hand around the beer glass as if it belonged to someone else.
During his first weeks in hospital, now a blur of drips and ambulance rides and acid baths, his sole aim in life had been to not let the side down by blubbing or screaming. Blind at first, he’d managed to quip, “Are you pretty?” to the nurse who’d sat with him in the ambulance that took him away from the smoldering haystack.
Later, in the wards, he made a bargain with himself: he would not deny the physical pain, which was constant, searing, and so bad at times it was almost funny, but emotionally he would own up to nothing. If anyone asked him how he was, he was fine.
It was only in the relative quiet of the night, in the lucid moments when he emerged from the morphine haze, that he thought about the nature of pain. What was it for? How was one to deal with it? Why had he been saved and the others were gone?
And only months later, when his hands had sufficiently healed, had he started to write in the diary his mother had sent him. Reams of stuff about Jacko and Cowbridge, both killed that day. A letter to Jacko’s fiancÉe, Jill, not sent. Letters to his own parents, ditto, warning them that when he was better, he was determined to fly again.
And then the girl.
When she walked into the ward that night, what struck him most was how young she looked: young and spirited and hopeful. From his bed, he drank in every detail of her.
She was wearing a red polka-dot dress, nipped in at the waist, and a black hat with an absurd little veil that was too old for her and made her look a little like a four-year-old who had raided her mother’s dressing-up box. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-two.
He saw a roll of glossy dark hair under her hat. Generous lips, large brown eyes.
She stood next to the piano, close to the trolley that held dressings and rolled bandages. Half imp, half angel. She was smiling as if this was where she wanted to be. A real professional, he thought, trying to keep a cynical distance. A pro.
She explained in her lightly accented voice—Welsh? Italian? Hard to say—that her name was Saba Tarcan, and that she was a last-minute replacement for a torch singer called Janice Sophia. She hoped they wouldn’t be disappointed, and then threw a bold look in Dom’s direction—or so he imagined—as if to say you won’t be.
A fat man in khaki uniform, her accompanist, sat down heavily at the piano, began to play. She listened, swaying slightly; a look of calm settled on her face as she sang about deep purple nights, and flickering stars, and a girl breathing a boy’s name while she sighed.
He’d tried every trick in his book to keep her at arm’s length, but the song came out of the darkness like a wild thing, and her voice was so husky, so sad, and it had been such a long time since he’d desired a woman, that the relief was overwhelming. Through the mist of a memory you wander back to me. So much to conceal now: his fear of being ugly, his shame that he was alive with the others gone. And then he’d felt a wild desire to laugh, for “Deep Purple” was perhaps not the most tactful of songs to sing: many of the men in the ward had purple faces, Gentian violet being the thing they painted over the burn victims after they’d been bathed in tannic acid.
Halfway through the song, she’d looked startled, as if realizing her mistake, but she’d kept on singing, and said nothing by way of apology at the end of it. He approved of that: the last thing any of them needed was sympathy and special songs.
When she’d finished, Dom saw that beads of perspiration had formed on her upper lip and rings of sweat around the arms of her dress. The ward was kept stiflingly hot.
When she sang “I’m in the Mood for Love,” Curtis, ignorant bastard, called out: “Well, you know where to look, my lovely.”
Dom frowned. Saba Tarcan: he said the name to himself.
“Two more songs,” said Staff Nurse Morrison, tapping her watch. “And then it’s night-night time.”
And he was relieved—it was too much. Like eating a ten-course meal after starving for a year.
But Saba Tarcan paid no attention to the big fat nurse, and this he approved of, too. She took off her hat and laid it on the piano, as if to say I shall stay until I’ve finished. She pushed back a tendril of hair from her flushed cheek, talked briefly to the pianist, and took Dom to the edge of what was bearable, as she began to sing, “They Didn’t Believe Me.” The song Annabel had loved, singing it softly to him as they walked one night hand in hand beside the Cam, in the days when he felt he had everything: flying, Cambridge, her, other girls, too. As the tears dashed through the purple dye, he turned his head away, furious and ashamed.
Annabel was considered a catch: a tall, pale, ethereal girl with long, curly fair hair, a sweet smile, and clever parents: her father a High Court judge, her mother a don. She’d come to see him religiously at first, forehead gleaming in the stifling ward, reading to him with nervous glances around her at some of the other freaks.
“I can’t do this, Dom, I’m not strong enough,” she’d said after two weeks. “It’s not you.” She’d swallowed.
“I’m starting to dread it.” She’d glanced at the boy in the bed beside him. The side of his face, grafted with his own skin to his chest, looked like a badly made elephant’s trunk.
“So sorry,” she’d whispered softly, shortly before she left. Her round blue eyes had filled with tears. “Can we stay friends?”
Not the first woman to have bolted out of this terrifying ward, not the last.
“Amazing how potent cheap music is”: the kind of thing he might have said once to excuse the tears. His NoËl Coward imitation had been rather admired at Cambridge. It wasn’t even Annabel so much; it was everything lost, even the foolishly innocent things—perhaps particularly them.
His set, the self-proclaimed “it” boys of their year, had spent days spragged out on sofas, smoking and drinking cheap sherry, elaborately bored and showing off wildly about Charlie Parker, or Pound, or Eliot—anything that amused them. How young they seemed, even at this distance. The first heady days away from home, the steady stream of good-looking undergraduate girls smuggled into their rooms, and they’d had their pick. He’d tried to be fair to Annabel, telling her after her tearful confession that he perfectly understood, didn’t blame her in the slightest, in truth he’d always had the guilty sense that his ardor did not equal hers, that she was not, as people said, “the one.” There’d been so many other girls around, and Cambridge felt like a time when the sun would never stop shining.
Smetheren, whose famously untidy room was opposite his on the quad, had been killed two months ago. Clancy, one of his best friends, also a flying fanatic and among the cleverest men he’d ever met, shot down over France a month before his twenty-second birthday. And Jacko, of course. All changed within a year, and the boy he’d been could never have imagined himself like this: in bed at eight thirty in his pjs, desperately trying not to cry in front of a pretty girl. It was nothing but notes. He bit the inside of his lip to gain control: notes and a few minor chords, some well-chosen words. Only a song.
A clink of bottles, a rumble of wheels. The night medicines were coming around on a trolley. They were stoking up the boiler in the middle of the room, dimming the lights.
“Last one,” she said.
She was wearing her ridiculous little veiled hat again. The pianist had put away his music, so she sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” unaccompanied, her voice strong and clear, her expression intent and focused.
And then she’d walked around the beds to say good night.
Good night to Williams, who had both legs in traction, and to poor blind Billy at the end of the ward, and to Farthingale, who was off to theater tomorrow to have his eyelids sewn back on again. She didn’t seem to mind them, or was that part of the training?
When she got to Dom, Curtis, the bloody idiot, called out: “Go on, love! Give him a night-night kiss.” He’d turned his head away, but she’d leaned toward him, so close he could see the mound of her stomach under the red and white dress. He felt the tickle of her hair. She smelled young and fresh, like apples.
When she kissed his cheek, he’d said to protect himself, “You wouldn’t kiss that if you knew where it came from,” and she’d leaned down again and whispered in his ear, “How do you know that, you silly bugger?”
He’d stayed awake for the next hour thinking about her, his heart in a sort of delighted suspension. Before he went to sleep, he imagined her on the back of his motorbike. It was a summer’s day. They were sitting on a grass verge outside a country inn. They were teasing each other, they were laughing. She was wearing a blue dress, and the sky was just a sky again, not something you fell from screaming.
Posted June 9, 2013
Reviewed by: Robin
Book provided by: Publisher
Review originally posted at Romancing the Book
In Jasmine Nights we find ourselves transported to 1942 during World War II. We are taken on a journey to many different locations during the course of this story. As we go the journey we follow Sabar who is part Turkish (father) and part Welsh (mother) a real stunner with a magical voice; along with Dom who is in the RAF but has been badly burned because his plane was shot down.
Sabar wants to follow her dream but in order to do so she must defy her strict traditionalist father. Her mother who is a frustrated wife wants nothing but peace for her family asking Sabar to adhere to her father’s wishes. Headstrong Sabar leaves to go in search of fulfilling her dreams to sing. While singing in a hospital for those injured in the war we find Dom who is recovering from his burns. Dom to say the least is simply blown away by the grace and beauty of Sabar.
Jasmine Nights is a well written story by Julia Gregson that shows love a love that is founded during the ravages of war. She gives us some historical background that helps in lending credibility to the story along with picturesque descriptions of the many exotic locations along the journey.
The more you read the more intense the story becomes. Very powerful show of the inner working of the heart as it is tugged in all directions showing that the pain we endure is what alters us forming us into the people we become. A strong woman that fights for what she wants. Even knowing that things aren’t always as they seem. With war and love come danger and secrets.
This was a very powerfully written love story with war as a backdrop. Ms. Gregson found a way to keep the drama, action and suspense coming so that you find yourself entranced to the very end. Trying all the while to have the characters stay well rounded while dealing with family, unpredictable assignments, secretive assignments as they fall in love amidst the war. The only problems that I had were that I wished the secondary characters where a little more in depth. I think this story has a strong appeal to all lovers of historical fiction and romance especially during World War II.
Posted December 31, 2012
Gregson narrates a tale focusing on two characters during the North Africa campaign of the Second World War. It is a well-written love story with some historical background on England during the period and especially Cairo and Alexandra during the desert push by Rommel. Not usually one who reads romance, the time and setting peeked my interest. The characters are unusual and well drawn.
Saba, a beautiful but headstrong singer from Wales defies her Turkish father and Welsh mother to strike out on her own. Her father, very traditional, forbids her to sing in public especially when he realizes the affect she has on men in the audience. The mother, herself frustrated in her early marriage, nevertheless pleads with Saba to heed her father. Instead Saba defies them to pursue her dream of singing to the troops. She joins the organization given the task of entertaining the troops and is sent off to Cairo.
Dom, an RAF pilot badly burned in the crash of his Spitfire, is stunned by her poise and beauty when she sings for the injured in a rehabilitation hospital. His fiance had just left him, unable to cope with the disfigurement of his face. Dom is haunted by the terrible death of his best friend in a fiery crash, a friend who he had urged to join the RAF. He feels responsible. But the vision of Saba, leads him to seek her out. He follows her to North Africa where he is transferred in the squadron fighting Rommel.
Their love develops against the backdrop of war; the unpredictability of her assignments and the secretive nature of his.
Posted May 24, 2012
Set during World War II, this story is beautiful in some areas and really sad and hard to take in others. The story centers around Saba Tarcan, who is in her early 20's and is looking forward to a singing career. She lives with her family in Cardiff, Wales and it is certainly not a really interesting place. Saba feels like most of us felt when we had to get away from the hometown and seek greener pastures. As Saba is traveling around Britain, singing for wounded soldiers, she meets Dom Benson, a fighter pilot who was burned badly when his plane crashed. They have started a relationship when she is asked to audition for the Entertaiment National Service Association that sends entertainers to places in Egypt and Turkey to give shows for soldiers who are fighting in the North African desert. Much to her parents dismay, Saba signs up with the Association and, leaving Dom behind, she heads off to perform in Cairo. After a recovery period Dom is again able to fly and, in spite of the dangerous missions, he refuses to be grounded and goes back to combat flying. For her part, Saba is very happy in her chosen profession. Saba is soon contacted by the British Secret Service in the guise of an agent, Mr. Cleeve. Cleeve asks Saba to take part in a secret mission but she will have to conceal her part in the mission from her friends at the Association and Dom too. She is sent off to Istanbul to spy on a very rich Turkish gentleman who is associating with the Germans and doesn't realize that this could be her last gasp because her mission has been kept secret. Saba and Dom meet again but now they argue all the time. Saba refuses to give up entertaining and Dom wants to go up into the wild blue yonder - they never seem to be able to think alike. There is much time to go yet in the war and these two people want to keep working to help out their countrymen. The story is a well-written one that doesn't make the war years seem like some big love story. Bad things happened to good people, just as in real life, and the reader will appreciate the fact that things were not always rosy in Europe and North Africa and all the horrible places where these young people had to work. This is a powerful account of one such couple. Quill Says: Checking into some of the entertainment associations during the war, there were many stories of female entertainers who were asked to be spies. This is a story of one such singer (fictionalized) but sadly, the story holds true in what it was like for these women.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.