Song of songs, p.25
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       Song of Songs, p.25

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  This time I surrendered myself willingly to the institution, not wanting to think of the outside world. I wrote to my brothers every week and prayed for their safety, and felt superstitiously that if I spent all my time and energy on my patients then this would somehow keep them safe.

  I did practise my scales in my off-duty periods – I had been doing this every day for so long now that it was as much part of my daily routine as cleaning my teeth – but I did not offer to sing to the men in Hut 33. Whenever the weather was fine I would take my writing case out on to Wandsworth Common and lie on the dusty grass writing long letters to my brothers. I would describe to them the small daily events and jokes of the ward, or relay the odd snippet of gossip that Alice had fed me, together with buttered scones, when I made my occasional visit to Town. I liked to hear how Hugh and Conan were getting on, but I was not much interested in anybody else – still, I thought the twins might be, so I carefully recorded all Alice’s news for them.

  Sometimes when they wrote back it was of trench raids and wiring parties, and I felt sick with apprehension, but more often their letters dwelt on the domestic side of war. When back in their billets they too wrote letters and played cards and ate to the sound of a wind-up gramophone.

  Over the months the officers in their mess and the men in their platoons became personalities to me, so that I could picture the two contrasting subalterns: small dapper Ormsby and tall swashbuckling Gardiner. Ian Ormsby was the soft-spoken son of a solicitor – he had gone straight from school into the army, whereas Frank Gardiner was an American rancher in his thirties, who had been visiting Britain in the summer of 1914. As soon as war broke out he had applied for a temporary commission, swearing he was a Canadian by birth. Now he was serving beside my brothers in the Lancashire and Cheshire Light Infantry – ‘just for the hell of it’, he had told Robbie.

  I also looked forward to hearing more of the sayings of sturdy, lugubrious Sergeant McTavish – a Glaswegian who said he had only joined an English regiment because he had been too drunk at the time to know the difference. McTavish complained all the time about the English, but had only ever been heard to refer to the enemy once. Robbie wrote that a shell had exploded nearby and all the men had ducked except for McTavish, who sat stolidly through the explosion stirring his tea; but when he took his first mouthful his face had gone purple with rage and he had shouted: ‘Bluidy Gairmans have put mud in ma tae – it shouldna be allowed!’ The other men had rocked with laughter, Robbie said, but McTavish had simply stared at them saying, ‘What’s yer joke, mon, what’s yer joke?’ Big steady Sergeant James; small perky Private Jackson; with his friend, the red-eyed Pertwee whose nose quivered like an albino rabbit’s; stocky Lancastrian Corporal Holden with an eye as quick to spot a good estaminet as a sniper’s hideout – these men became known to me from my brothers’ letters, so that I rejoiced when Pertwee’s long-delayed leave came through, and wept when McTavish was carried in dying from a trench raid.

  Several times I woke up in the early morning and found myself wondering when Gerald would be home on leave – and the grief when I realized he would never come again was as sharp as ever. Then I would lie in my narrow cubicle and force the edge of the sheet into my mouth to stifle my sobs, longing for the maid to bang on the door with our jugs of hot water. Pansy’s happy letters were a torment to me, and it was an effort to answer them, but I felt a spurt of anger with Guy when his birthday greetings to me arrived a week early, from Paris. He wrote quite casually that he had had leave, but had not fancied coming back to England. ‘You waste so much time on the journey it’s hardly worth it.’ It was only in a postscript that he had bothered to scribble: ‘Don’t tell Pansy, Helena – there’s no point stirring it up, is there?’ The letter was written on a fine cream notepaper, quite unlike Guy’s normal choice, and when I held it up to my nostrils I could distinguish the scent of orris root – it was only too clear how my brother had spent his time in Paris. I felt so sorry for gentle, trusting Pansy.

  Other VADs went down with poisoned fingers or septic throats, but I seemed immune. They went up West in the evening, and some of them even crept back through the basement windows after the hostel’s door had been locked; I saw them on the wards next morning red-eyed and yawning – but I had no wish to join them. I did not want to find pleasure in trivial amusements now – I was a nun vowed to my convent – at twenty-two my life stretched bleakly ahead of me, an arid desert. As long as my beloved brothers were safe I asked nothing more.

  I came alive for a while in November when the twins came home on leave, Eddie first, then Robbie. I spent every minute I could with them: I dined out, and went to musicals – I would go anywhere they wanted me to: my brothers must have every wish fulfilled. They did not talk much of the fighting, and they looked older – but their faces were not bleak like Guy’s face had been. Eddie said one day, ‘You know, it’s got its ghastly moments, but there’s no doubt this war business is exciting – and you feel as long as you’re with the other fellows you can stand anything.’ He grinned. ‘Cambridge’ll seem very tame when we eventually get back there.’

  At the beginning of December I was transferred to night duty. It was a wrench leaving Hut 33, but I did not mind nights: I almost preferred the upside-down routine. Life was so odd now it seemed only fitting that it should become even odder.

  In the early hours of Christmas morning a man with a suppurating chest wound finally died. His eyes would not close but I remembered Sister Foldus telling us to use wet lint, so I cut two pieces and dampened them and pressed them firmly over his eyelids for a few minutes. As I stood waiting I was aware of a sombre sense of satisfaction – Night Sister was busy, but I knew exactly what to do and how to do it.

  It was only much later, as I trekked over the dark common to the hostel that it struck me how strange it was that I should have spent the night before Christmas laying out a corpse – and not even thought of it as strange. I remembered the tall dark girl who wore three bobbing ostrich feathers in her hair and had almost fainted with horror because she had dared to touch the royal hand with her nose, and suddenly I began to laugh. By the time I got to my cubicle I was crying; the ice around my heart was melting, but I did not want it to go.

  Chapter Ten

  Guy’s son was born at Cadogan Place on Boxing Day. I did not want to see the baby, but in the end I had to go. Pansy was feeding him when I went in – the small dark head was still against her breast, only the round cheeks moving in and out with fierce concentration. Pansy looked up, her tired face glowing. ‘Isn’t he beautiful, Helena?’ I looked at him and felt only relief; he was so obviously Guy’s son and there was no answering tug in my breast. My brother had the son he had wanted, and I was glad.

  Guy came back to England soon after. It was not very clear why, and even Pansy seemed uncertain. Guy himself muttered something about ‘training’, but he was so bad-tempered nobody dared to question him further. The glow died out of Pansy’s eyes, and by the time Guy went glowering back to France at the end of April, Nanny was feeding young Lance from a bottle; Pansy’s milk had dried up because she was pregnant again. I had learnt much in the past year, but I suspected that Pansy had learnt even more.

  My leave was due as soon as Guy had gone back, so I went up to Cheshire and spent the time very quietly at Hatton. It was strange to see men in their blues and not be responsible for their welfare, but Mother had organized a team of local VADs who did just as they were told, so I walked in the park each day and then came back to play and sing in the music room, which had been kept as the family sitting room.

  The week after I got back a letter arrived from Mother – she had come down to Cadogan Place because Conan had been wounded. She wrote that he was recovering quite well – he had been caught in the head by a piece of shrapnel on his way up to the line with a carrying party. That wound had been relatively slight, but the impact had knocked him off the duckboards and he had fallen awkwardly and broken his leg above the ankle. I wanted to
go up and see him at once, but the other VAD on my ward had gone sick and her replacement was a girl from a small Red Cross Hospital in Dorset – she was badly shaken by her first experience of the 6th London, so Sister asked me to stay on duty longer for several days.

  When I eventually arrived at the luxurious private hospital for officers overlooking the Park, the small VAD hovering outside the spotless sink room was doubtful about letting me in to see him. ‘Doctor said, as Lieutenant Finlay is a head wound he should be kept quiet – only relatives are allowed to visit.’

  I said, ‘I am a relative, I’m his cousin.’

  She still seemed uncertain, until a second girl came, and after a whispered consultation she said, ‘Well, since you’re a VAD – I suppose I can take you along to his room.’

  ‘No, Sybell – I’ll take her…’ They wrangled in soft pretty voices; the first girl waved a pink-tipped elegant hand and I wondered how she managed to keep them so well – finally they both decided to take me. After a slight scuffle Sybell reached the door first and flung it open. My cousin was lying back on his bed while a shapely girl with silver-blonde hair bent over him, holding a medicine glass to his lips. Her eyes were fixed on his face, his were riveted on the swelling curve of her bosom.

  Sybell announced, ‘Lieutenant Finlay, your cousin has come to see you.’ Conan’s glance flickered in my direction and he raised a languid hand in greeting. My two escorts stood gazing at him, then Sybell’s friend glanced at me and said, ‘Isn’t it curious – you look much more like him than either of his sisters.’

  I looked over at Conan whose eyes were now fixed again on the full breasts suspended above him and said, very distinctly, ‘Lieutenant Finlay does not have any sisters.’

  There was a chorus of little gasps, and an indignant trio of skirts rustled backwards through the door. Bereft of his entertainment Conan looked across at me: his blue eyes snapped, ‘Thanks, Hellie – thanks a lot!’

  I smiled sweetly at him. ‘You really must introduce me to your sisters some time, dear Cousin.’

  His sudden grin flashed out. ‘Give me a chance, Hellie – I haven’t introduced them to each other yet!’ I began to laugh, and he reached out and seized my hand. ‘Anyway, after the damage you’ve just done the least you can do is give me a cousinly kiss.’ He pulled me towards him and I bent down to put my lips to his cheek, but he was too quick for me and it was his mouth which met mine – before I could move away an arm was clamped round my waist and I was sprawling halfway across the bed in a long, breathless kiss.

  There was a click behind us, and an indignant squeak of ‘His cousin!’ before the door closed again and I was able to break free. Conan began to laugh. ‘That serves you right – that just serves you right!’ With my cheeks on fire I swept to the furthest corner of the room and sat down with my hands primly folded. Conan lay back on his pillows, looking at me, then he grinned again. ‘I’ll tell you something, Hellie – I like kissing you even more than I do my sisters!’ He started to laugh again, and at last I joined in.

  At the end of May, Conan’s father took him back to his estate in Ireland to convalesce, and I began to look forward to the twins’ next leaves – I knew they were due shortly, and opened each envelope with its distinctive black circle with a throb of anticipation. But the news had still not come when, in the middle of June, the hostel housekeeper met me with a telegram. I opened it with shaking hands: ‘Eddie wounded. In 1st London General at Camberwell. Pickering.’

  I rushed upstairs and scrabbled for money, then ran all the way back to the cab rank outside the hospital gates. I sat in the cab, clutching the stitch in my side and gasping for breath, ‘Eddie – please God, don’t let it be too bad.’ All the worst and most mutilating wounds I had ever seen flashed before my eyes and I wanted to scream at the driver to go faster, faster. I jumped down and ran to the porter, waiting impatiently as he consulted his records. ‘Lieutenant Girvan, Miss? B Ward, Officers’ Row, turn right by the X-ray hut…’ I was running again.

  At the entrance to the hut I stopped, very frightened, looking along the rows of beds. A staff nurse came towards me. But I had seen him, and I plunged forward and there was Eddie, lying back smoking, his face quite unmarked, with his left leg strung up in a Balkan beam and his right arm in a sling. He looked like a schoolboy as he grinned up at me. ‘Hello, Big Sis – aren’t I the popular one today! Papa’s only just left.’ My legs were shaking and I collapsed on to a chair, then threw my arms round him and buried my face in his neck. ‘Hey, watch it – I’ll be setting your hair on fire.’ I straightened up, still clutching his uninjured arm. ‘I’m afraid I wasn’t quick enough at the station – got taken to the rival establishment – so you won’t have the pleasure of carrying my bed pan! Still, it is the same side of the river.’

  At last I managed to find my voice. ‘Conan was in Park Lane – it was very luxurious – and he had three terribly pretty VADs waiting on him hand and foot.’

  Eddie snorted. ‘Typical! Still, I’m damn glad to be anywhere, frankly,’ he shuddered. ‘Christ, Hellie, I thought I’d had it! They sent us out on one of those bloody stupid trench raids – crawling about in No-Man’s-Land with blackened faces clutching knobkerries, like a crowd of drunken Irishmen on St Patrick’s night – “Just get out there and capture a couple of the enemy, Girvan.” “Certainly, sir,” I said, my knees knocking like a pair of tap-dancers. “It makes all the difference to know whether we’re being shot at by a Prussian regiment or a Saxon one.” “Of course, sir.” And that was it, poor little Edwin for the big heroics.’ He took another pull at his cigarette.

  ‘What happened, Eddie?’

  ‘Oh, the usual – a flare went up and someone didn’t freeze fast enough so the next minute a load of grenades were being lobbed in our direction. It was like being hit by a bloody steam-hammer. When I came to in a shell hole there was just me and Private Dobson – and he was dead. I was so stunned I kept whispering in his ear – until I realized it wasn’t actually attached to the rest of his body any more. Then I tried to crawl back, but they’d smashed the other ankle as well; I couldn’t get out of the bloody hole – I was as weak as a kitten. So I just lay there, thinking very gloomy thoughts about the dawn – I’ve never been very keen on seeing the dawn, as you know. We’d gone over too late because it’d been moonlight earlier – the whole operation was a botch-up from start to finish – old Pearson didn’t like it above half, but orders are orders, so he had to send us.’ His face was grim. ‘I kept thinking about Robbie, if he’d been in the forward trench he’d have come looking for me – and I cursed the fact that he was in support, then I thought about it a bit more and thanked God he was further back.’ He fell silent.

  At last I asked, ‘But how did you get back, Eddie?’

  He shook himself, then winced with pain. ‘Light me another cigarette, Hellie, and I’ll tell you.’ My hands shook as I struck the match; Eddie inhaled deeply. ‘Well, I lay there, watching the pearly glow in the east, feeling pretty sick, when a voice with a strong Lancashire accent whispers, “Is that you, Mr Girvan, sir?” and there, peering over the lip of the hole, was Sergeant Holden. I thought I was hallucinating, but I managed to yelp, “Yes, but I’m afraid Dobson’s had it.” He says, quite calm, “Then I’d best get you in, sir, it’s a bit chilly out here.” I hissed back, “You’re mad – it’s nearly daylight and I can’t move.” He slid down into the hole and said, “That’s all right, sir, I can carry you.” Hellie, I’ve heard some poetry in my time, and I thought it was pretty smart stuff, but that simple phrase, “I can carry you” – I tell you, Shakespeare never wrote words like that. Then he picked me up and carried me in, just like a baby.’

  I shivered. ‘Didn’t they – didn’t they fire at you?’

  ‘Yes, they did – but Holden assured me they couldn’t see properly, not with the dawn rising behind their trenches, and by that stage I’d have believed him if he’d told me the moon was made of green cheese. Anyway, they missed us, or perhaps the
y let us get away with it – they do sometimes – and there I was back in our trench waiting for the stretcher bearers. Pearson said Corporal Smith had come back in a blue funk so Holden picked him up and shook him like a terrier with a rat until he’d told him more or less where we’d been. Smith insisted that Dobson was dead, but then he admitted he didn’t know about me. So Holden said he’d go out and see what had happened. Little Ormsby offered to have a go, Pearson told me – very decent of him – but Holden said I’d be too heavy for him to manage, whereas he was used to heaving coal around so he’d better do it.’

  ‘Oh Eddie – how kind, how very kind, I’ll write and thank him today.’

  ‘Good idea Hellie, I can’t scribble a thing at the moment. God, was I glad to see him – I’ve always had nightmares about lying out in No-Man’s-Land, ever since we found old Sawley’ – he shuddered – ‘the rats had made a pretty fine mess of him – I only hope he died first.’ I could not speak; I just sat and clutched his arm.

  As soon as I had scribbled a note to Robbie I wrote to Sergeant Holden, and posted both letters before tea. When I saw Papa the next day at Camberwell he said he had written too, and sent a box of Havana cigars. On the third day I managed to get over in the morning. Eddie lay listlessly in his bed; he looked rather feverish and said his leg was hurting a lot. On the fourth day I just sat with him, holding his hand. His pulse was racing, and as I bent over to kiss him goodbye I smelt the sickly scent of decay from his wound. He opened his eyes and said, ‘Hellie – I feel lousy.’

 

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