Lesfic author Jae has set up a fun reading challenge game for 2018: Lesbian Book Bingo. It's your basic genre/trope-based bingo card to encourage people to read a variety of books in 2018 and win a chance for prizes. I was invited to participate by donating some prizes and having one of my books listed in the Suggested Reading Lists. Here's the topic card for those who might want to participate, but follow the link to Jae's site to register and to participate in the topic-specific blogs (more chances at prizes!) and discussions.
Now, I don't know how many books I'll be reading that fit the bingo squares -- I barely read two dozen novels in a year as it is, and not all of them have lesbian characters. But just because I'm an overachiever and love a writing challenge, I'll be playing along by writing a short bit of fiction for each of the themes. And just to make it even more challenging, they'll all be part of a very loosely connected overall story, which of course will have a historic setting. I'll do my best not to go too far down the research rabbit holes because I do have other things I should be writing! But here's my first installment, for the "Women in Uniform" theme.
Follow the Drum (Lesbian Book Bingo: Women in Uniform)
Rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat. The rattle of drums had been the sound of my daydreams since I was a girl, walking to the marketplace with my mother beside the market wagon. From where we sold cabbages and onions at the edge of the cobbled square, I could just see down Heerenstraat to where the soldiers drilled in formation in the yard before the barracks. The bright flash of their coats, blue, green, and red, caught the eye and the sharp staccato of the snares called a promise of adventure waiting just a few steps out of reach.
If it had only been the local regiment marching and training, it wouldn't have stirred my blood, but the chance of where Zendoorn stood among the roads and between the great lords meant there were always troops coming and going. They settled into the barracks for a week or two, made a great show of their colors, drank their fill in the taverns, and then one morning the drums would call them away. I remember seeing one company, with the drummer boys out front beating the march, and the banners flying, and the men in their bright coats stepping in time as one as they set out on the road toward Antwerp and maybe even farther on to France. In that moment, my heart grew wings and beat in my breast to follow.
Mother boxed my ears and said, “Don’t you go mooning after soldiers like your cousin Greta!” Greta got nothing from her soldier love but a swelling belly and a lifetime of following the drum, washing and cooking for the soldiers. It wasn’t the soldiers themselves I yearned for but that promise the drums gave of somewhere to go, something to do, someone to be. Rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat.
When it was time for me to go out into service and save up some money for a dowry, or maybe to set myself up in trade, I got my fill of soldiers carrying beer for Mevrouw Trijn at De Leeuw. Oh, not my “fill” the same way Greta did! But the shine on the tinsel tarnished a bit seeing them up close, day after day, drinking and gambling their wages away, or spending their last coin on a night with one of the other girls who wasn’t as nice about it as I was. Trijn didn’t mind if the girls made a bit extra that way, but she didn’t require it either. The soldiers were men like any others. They marched in to town and soon they’d march out again. Most of them weren’t going anywhere but a foreign battlefield and weren’t going to be anyone but the farmer’s sons and runaway prentices they’d started as. But at least they’d have their chance, which was more than I’d have.
You got to know them, even as short a time as they were in town. Old Joost reminded me of my uncle with his tales and funny stories. Boastful Corneelijs talked big about what a hero he’d been in battle, but always had a word of encouragement for the new boys frightened at the thought of facing the guns. And then there was Martijn. I liked Martijn as soon as I brought the drinks around because he was quiet, and stopped his friends from trying to get a feel beneath my skirts, and when the others were telling rude jokes to try to get me to blush he only looked sideways at me with a crooked smile as if to say, “Never mind them, they’re just little boys.” Which was funny because he was shorter and scrawnier than the rest of them, without even a bit of hair on his lip yet. He was dark, like maybe his grandfather had been a Moor, and he had the most beautiful eyes. I liked him right off, but it felt sisterly, not like how the other girls talked about their sweethearts.
Martijn and his friends were there late into the evening, but he didn’t join in when they brought out the dice and cards. “Careful with my money,” he said, and I could understand that, though the other soldiers ragged on him horribly about it. Most soldiers spent as if they didn’t have a tomorrow. Well, and lots of them didn’t, so maybe I shouldn’t blame them. But it meant Martijn ended up sitting by himself and in a quiet moment I sat beside him and asked where he was from and who his people were. He didn’t really answer, but we talked about places he’d seen. He’d been as far away as Cologne, and once had even crossed the channel to England. He thought maybe he’d go for a sailor and see the Indies when the fighting was over. Maybe I was foolish, but I told him about how the drums made me feel, and how I’d always envied the soldiers marching away to see the world. He didn’t tease me for it, not even a bit. “But that’s for men,” I said with a sigh. “Not for the likes of me.”
It was a mistake to get friendly because the next day the word went round that Martijn’s company would be marching out on the morrow. No use in liking someone when you’ll never see them again. Martijn and his friends came back to De Leeuw that night. Most of them wanted what soldiers usually want before they leave: to get drunk and spend some time with a woman. I didn’t care for that sort of sport so I kept myself mostly in the kitchen, but as some of the girls slipped off to the upstairs rooms there was nothing for it but to carry the tankards around.
One of Martijn’s friends called out, “Hey boy! There’s your sweetheart!” and pushed him toward me so I barely kept from spilling beer over the both of us.
“Sorry,” he muttered and his face flushed even darker than before.
“Hey Martijn! We took up a collection to see you taken care of!” The man slapped a small handful of coins on the table as I set the tankards down. “You’ll see our friend treated right, won’t you Lena?”
I was used to turning matters aside with a few joking words, but it was Martijn they kept after. That wasn’t right. A man’s a man even if he doesn’t fall in bed with every woman he sees. Martijn took me aside and stared at the floor like he was ashamed while he asked quietly, “If you were to…well, you wouldn’t have to do anything? Just let them think we…”
I thought about my reputation, which wasn’t so big a thing as it might be. And I thought about the small pile of coins sitting on the table. But mostly I thought about Martijn and how he’d be marching away in the morning and wishing I could do that too. And I took him by the hand and scooped up the coins in my fist and pasted on a grin for his companions as I pulled him off toward the stairs.
When I’d closed and barred the door we both stood there feeling silly. There wasn’t anywhere to sit but on the bed and I didn’t want to do that in case he got the wrong idea.
“I’m sorry,” Martijn said. “They don’t really mean anything by it. It’s only that I have something of a reputation.”
“For being polite to women?” I said sharply. And then because it wasn’t his fault, I asked, “Have you never had a sweetheart?”
He gave me that crooked grin again. “A time or two. It’s…Lena, would you keep my secret if I told you?”
I frowned at him. What sort of secret could he mean?
“It’s only…I was thinking. Because of what you said about watching the soldiers march away to see the world."
“Women don’t do that.”
“Some of us do.”
I stared at Martijn for a long time trying to make sense of what he’d said. While I was staring at him, he shrugged off his blue uniform coat and started unbuttoning the brass buttons on his waistcoat. And just when I was finding my tongue to protest that I hadn’t changed my mind about bedding him, he…she pulled open her shirt to expose the small, round, pale brown bosoms underneath.
“Some of us wanted to see the world badly enough. We wanted to make better wages than we could doing sewing or cooking. It’s not an easy life, but the chance is there to seize if you dare to reach for it.”
Maybe it was what she said about daring to reach for it. Maybe it was not quite trusting my eyes. Maybe it was finally understanding that warmth that crept into the other girls’ voices. I reached out my hand to feel the softness that had lain hidden under the blue uniform. Martijn gave a little gasp and leaned against my palm so that I could feel the bud of her nipple harden.
“I have had a sweetheart a time or two,” she said with that crooked smile. “And they never had anything to complain about.”
By the time we came back down into the common room, only two of Martijn’s companions were still waiting for her. They gave a hoot of laughter and clapped her on the back, telling her it was long past time to get back to the barracks. Martijn came back to whisper in my ear one more time. “That should keep my disguise safe for a while. Having a close companion will keep it safer. Meet me in the lane behind the barracks before dawn. I’ll put your money to good use.”
There were a few long, cold minutes that next morning when I thought I’d been cozened. When I thought Martijn had taken my savings and left me with nothing but a kiss. Then a shadow slipped around the corner carrying a bundle of clothing. Martijn helped me dress in the unfamiliar garments quickly.
“There’ll be time enough to learn marching and all the rest. Having a uniform will be enough for now. Just keep close to me. I told the recruiting officer I’d look out for you and he made me promise to see you learned quickly.”
“I’ll learn quickly enough,” I told her.
And when the drums sounded out their rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, there was one more soldier in a blue coat with brass buttons marching away down the road. A soldier with somewhere to go, something to do, someone to be.