Song of songs, p.26
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       Song of Songs, p.26

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  I whispered, ‘It’s just a reaction, old man, you’ll feel better in a day or two.’ He tried to smile and began to shake. When he had stopped, his eyes were closed again. I tiptoed away.

  Matron came to my ward early next morning and said I must go over to the 1st London at once; a cab was waiting at the door. Papa had telegraphed to Mother at Hatton and she had caught the midnight sleeper from Manchester. When I arrived at the hospital Eddie was already delirious; he did not recognize us. They had taken his leg off in the night, but it was too late, he had absorbed too much of the poison. The three of us sat beside his bed until he died.

  I went back with my parents to Cadogan Place. Miss Fisher was waiting in the hallway; she hurried forward, ‘My lady…’ Her voice trailed away.

  My mother’s tone was quite steady and she held her back ramrod straight as she requested, ‘Please lay out full mourning for Lady Helena and myself, Fisher.’

  The maid bowed her head in assent and turned towards the servants’ door. I muttered something to my parents and ran to the stairs and up to my bedroom, where I began to take off my uniform; my hands were trembling so much I could scarcely unfasten the buttons.

  When she had dressed me in the black I had worn for Gerald, Fisher handed me a letter – I had put it in the pocket of my frock that morning at Wandsworth, unopened. It was from Sergeant Holden, saying that he was glad to hear Mr Girvan was going on so well. I sat down at my desk, picked up my pen and began to write.

  Dear Sergeant Holden,

  I am sorry to have to tell you that my brother died this morning.

  It looked very bald, so at last I added:

  He told me how much he had dreaded the possibility of lying wounded and dying in No-Man’s-Land, and thanks to you he did not have to endure that.

  Yours very sincerely,

  Helena Girvan.

  I sat staring at the letter, then I wrote underneath: ‘Thank you for enabling me to be with him at the end.’ I folded the paper and put it into an envelope, then I began to weep for Eddie, for Robbie, and for myself.

  They let Robbie come back on leave. He had been in the support trenches with A Company; he had not even seen Eddie before he was taken down the line. His face was a grey mask. He kept whispering, ‘I knew, I knew – my leg hurt and hurt and then it didn’t hurt any more – there was just nothing – so I knew he’d gone.’

  We took Eddie back to Hatton to be buried. I watched Robbie carry the flag-draped coffin of his brother out of the old grey church at Lostherne. Together with the other khaki-clad pallbearers he lowered it gently into the open grave, then he threw a handful of soil down on to the body.

  ‘…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…’

  I stepped forward and stood close beside him.

  ‘Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all who have died for their country, as this our brother hath…’

  Our brother. We stood shoulder to shoulder as the firing party raised their rifles and the volley crashed out over the grave, and I felt his fingers reach convulsively for mine as the bugle sang its wailing lament over the peaceful hillside – the Last Post, for our brother, our brother who was dead.

  That night as I lay dry-eyed and sleepless I heard the soft click of the door. ‘Hellie?’ My brother’s tall shape came towards me, his shoulders shaking. I went to him with hands outstretched and led him over to my bed. I pulled him in beside me and we lay clasped in each other’s arms and cried ourselves to sleep.

  I went to see him off at Victoria. Robbie said, ‘He was the strong one, Hellie – he always looked after me, all the time. Now he’s gone I don’t know how I can stand it.’

  I looked up at his white face, then I said, ‘Robbie, I’ll be old enough for active service in September – I’ll put my name down the minute I get back. I’ll soon be in France, with you.’

  His face lightened a fraction, then he hugged me very tightly and strode off to the waiting train. I went home and wept.

  Chapter Eleven

  But there was no time to grieve. Two days after I got back to the hospital the great British offensive on the Somme began, and soon the wounded were flooding in. The whole ward stank of the thick yellow pus which poured out as we unwrapped the blood-caked bandages. We probed and delved for pieces of broken bone, then packed the gaping holes, thrust in the draining tubes and quickly bound them up again. In bed after bed men lay desperately ill, and my wrists ached from wringing out fomentations, while the skin on my palms became permanently wrinkled from handling the hot cloths. The rubbish bin in the annex was full to overflowing with reeking dressings and I had to ram my pail down hard on to the filthy mass to empty it. Then I ran back to the bubbling sterilizer, on to the sticky lysol-filled sink to dunk the bloodstained mackintoshes, and out again to the ward where face after face swayed beneath me as I slid my arm below pillow after pillow, and tipped up the feeding cup with the repetitive, meaningless words, ‘Come along now, old man, have a nice drink ... a nice drink ... a nice drink…’

  There were feet that no longer looked like feet, hands that had been torn into shreds, and faces that were only eyes above holes – pathetic, despairing eyes which had to be met with a calm smiling face: ‘Soon have you right, old man – right old man – right old man.’

  When we sat down to our cold meat and pickles each evening there would be another face missing.

  ‘Where’s Elton?’

  ‘On leave – her brother…’

  ‘Andrews?’

  ‘Her fiancé, I believe…’

  In a couple of days they would be back again, tight-lipped and red-eyed as they delved and packed and bandaged.

  Sometimes we gathered in one of the larger bedrooms to drink cocoa and grumble about the rudeness of a staff nurse or the tyranny of a sister or the dreariness of our meals, until one by one we crept yawning back to our beds to fall into a stunned sleep. There was no time to grieve.

  In August the pace began to slacken a little, and we were occasionally sent off duty again. I dragged myself up to Alice’s one afternoon and she poured me cup after cup of tea, and kept refilling my plate as I ate in a daze. I showed her the last pencilled note from Robbie; he was still alive, and so was Guy. As I stood up to go she told me Conan was back in Town, and wanted to look me up one day. I stared at her vaguely. He must have trekked down to Wandsworth shortly after, because there was a note from him, delivered by hand while I was on duty. He asked when I would be free; I crumpled it up and trudged down to my room in the basement. There was no time.

  Two days later, a broad-shouldered officer was hovering by the railings as we came back off duty. He spoke to the VAD in front; she turned and pointed at me. Cap in hand he drawled, ‘Say, are you the Lady Helena Girvan?’ I nodded and a great grin split his sunburnt face. ‘Am I glad to hear that – you’re the fiftieth girl I’ve spoken to – and each one prettier than the last. Your brother Rob said I’d find you here when he waved me goodbye yesterday afternoon – I left him sunning himself in a pretty little village called Vignacourt, way behind the line. The battalion have been pulled out for a rest – he said I must be sure to tell you.’ Relief flooded through me; Robbie would be safe for a while. ‘Now, you just wait here while I call a cab and I’ll take you someplace where you can rest those dainty little feet of yours.’

  ‘But we haven’t been introduced!’

  He thrust out a large hand and seized hold of mine. ‘Frank Gardiner at your service, ma’am. I reckon that’ll do for an introduction – you just come right along now.’

  He was so determined it was easier to follow him than to resist. He sat opposite me in the small restaurant and talked of Robbie and I drank in every word. Then he told me how sorry he had been about Eddie’s death. ‘He was a good buddy – always ready with a laugh and a joke. I’m from the mid-West myself – now a lot of your Limey officers are just bank clerks and such like – they barely know one end of a horse from the other. And stiff! My God, when you clap ’e
m on the back they go and wash their hands. Now your brother, he was a real man, he could ride and he sure knew how to handle a gun.’

  I told him, ‘We hunted from the time we were children, and Eddie shot his first partridge at nine.’ I remembered his pride, and Robbie’s generous delight in his brother’s success – oh God, please keep Robbie safe. I shivered in the warm room and the man opposite leant forward and picked up the wine bottle and held it over my glass. ‘No more, thank you, Mr Gardiner – I don’t have a very good head for alcohol.’

  ‘You should try it – sometimes I reckon it’s the only thing that stands between me and the madhouse.’ His greenish eyes dulled, and we stared at each other bleakly. I saw his hand on the tablecloth tremble and put mine over it; his fingers were strong and warm. He shook himself like a dog coming out of a pond and said, ‘No use feeling sorry for ourselves, Lady Helena – I guess we’ve just gotter make the best of it while we can.’ He leant forward. ‘Let’s you and me paint the town red together, tomorrow night – how about that?’

  I wanted to go, but I hesitated. ‘I’m not off duty until eight – and they lock the doors at ten-thirty, so I’m afraid we’d only manage a very pale pink in that time.’ He threw back his head and laughed. ‘Don’t you believe it – between us we’ll leave London as scarlet as an old-time soldier’s tunic.’

  He escorted me back to the hostel and shook my hand very formally, but his face as he bent over me and whispered ‘Tomorrow!’ had the lean dark profile of a hawk and his eyes gleamed in the light of the dimmed lamp; I felt a mingled rush of apprehension – and excitement.

  The ward was hot and stuffy, the sun beat down mercilessly on the iron roof and the men’s faces shone with sweat. Little Johnnie Lambert lay in his corner bed, slowly wasting away. The bones jutted out of his thin body as I sponged him down and his soft spaniel eyes watched me, helpless and supplicating. After I had tucked the single sheet securely round him I placed my hand against his downy cheek and he smiled and turned his face into my palm and closed his eyes. I stood beside him for a little while, then I heard Staff calling me, so I gently withdrew my hand and pushed the trolley back to the sink room.

  Frank Gardiner was lounging against the hostel railings when I came round the corner. He sprang to attention and called, ‘Hiya, Princess – get your gladrags on and we’ll start painting.’

  I did not want to go now, my head ached, but it was too difficult to refuse, so I quickly got changed, swept my hair up on top of my head and thrust my tired feet into soft kid shoes. As he helped me into the cab he said, ‘We’ll eat first, then go on to a little place I know, where we can dance.’ I tried to protest that I must be back by ten-thirty, but he only laughed, ‘Plenty of time, Princess – plenty of time.’ There was a predatory glint in his eye as he spoke and I felt a momentary flash of panic when he jumped in after me and his big rangy body sat close beside me on the seat. Then the smell of tobacco and shaving soap and healthy male sweat filled the cab and overwhelmed the traces of lysol and iodoform which always lingered in my nostrils, and I breathed in deeply and felt my senses stir. Without thinking I moved closer to him; he grinned ferociously and my breath caught in my throat.

  At dinner I automatically put my hand over my glass again, but he gripped my wrist and lifted it off and poured in more wine. ‘Drink, Princess, drink.’ His greenish eyes mesmerized me so that I picked up the glass with my left hand and drank deeply; his broad fingers still pinned my other hand to the table; his palm was very warm. The wine took away my tiredness, I relaxed, I laughed, and the other diners receded and left me alone with a big square-shouldered man with narrowed green eyes and a wolfish grin. ‘The club first.’ He stood up and I wondered giddily why first? surely the meal had been first – but my head seemed curiously light and my headache had quite vanished, so I laughed as I stood up on legs which had turned to cotton wool and swayed against him. He put his strong arm around my waist and helped me from the restaurant – Mother would have been shocked, but then, Mother was not here. I giggled as Frank Gardiner helped me in to the cab and he laughed with me. In the close intimacy of the cab the male smell of him was utterly desirable and I leant towards him and said, ‘I want to smell you – you smell so nice.’ I knew I must sound ridiculous, but he did not seem to mind – he grinned and pulled me over to him until I was sprawling against his shoulder. I rubbed my cheek against the harsh cloth of his tunic.

  He bent forward, muttering, ‘My bootlace is undone,’ but it was my shoe he was fumbling with and I giggled – fancy not knowing my foot from his! His hand slid up over my ankle and I realized he was stroking my calf, low down where the driver could not see. Dimly I knew I should not let strange American officers stroke my leg, but it did not seem to matter any more.

  The cab drew to a halt and Frank Gardiner slowly withdrew his hand. As the driver called, ‘Here we are, sir,’ and jumped out, strong fingers squeezed my knee. ‘Hey, Princess are you sure you want to go to the club first – ’fore we go home?’

  I nestled against him for a moment – I did not want to go home yet then I slid over to the open door. ‘OK, Lady – you’re in charge.’

  The fresher air outside gave me a little shock, but he was at my elbow, guiding me down some steps. I said stupidly, ‘It’s a cellar – how can we dance in a cellar?’ but he did not answer. In the dim passageway his hand touched my thigh and it was like an electric shock. He stopped and pulled me against him.

  ‘We won’t stay long, Princess – just time for another drink and a dance – then it’s home to bed.’ I smiled up at him drowsily; we were alone in the passage and suddenly he caught me to his chest and bent down to find my lips. His tongue was in my mouth, and I wanted it there – I sucked at the salty taste of him, pressing myself against his body. Then there was the quick tap of high heels and he released me and tugged me on.

  We came into a dark, smoky room; there were only a few lights up in the shadows but they hurt my eyes so I looked down at the table. He called for drinks – the liquid in my glass burnt my throat, but he made me drink it. Then he hauled me to my feet. ‘Time for one dance, Princess, before I take you home.’ He led me on to the tiny floor and pulled me tightly against his chest. It seemed a strange way to dance, but there were so many other couples I supposed it was the only way. We did not seem to move at all – we only swayed backwards and forwards in time to the strong rhythm – and every inch of his hard lean body pressed against mine.

  A girl’s face swam before my eyes – it was painted like a doll: small pearly teeth gleamed as she laughed up at her companion, her curls were very blonde, too blonde. I recognized her for what she was and was vaguely wondering what she was doing here when Frank Gardiner was suddenly wrenched away from me. I stood, swaying, bereft of my support. Gardiner was shouting, ‘Hey – mind your back!’

  A voice replied angrily, ‘What do you think you’re doing with my cousin?’ I recognized it – it was Conan’s. The yellow-haired girl stood, mouth agape, as Conan squared up to the burly American; she reached for my cousin’s arm, but he shook her hand off impatiently.

  Frank Gardiner shouted, ‘She’s my girl for the evening.’ His voice was belligerent; I had to calm things down. But I had to think hard before I spoke and my tongue would scarcely form the words as I said, ‘It’s all right, Conan, Mr Gardiner was just about to take me back to the hostel.’

  Gardiner’s head jerked up. Conan said scornfully, ‘Like hell he was.’

  I repeated, ‘He said he’d take me home.’

  Conan’s dark-blue eyes held mine for a moment; his expression was unreadable, then he breathed, ‘Christ, Hellie – whatever do they teach you at that ruddy hospital – knitting?’ He stepped in front of me. ‘Sorry, chum, but she’s my cousin and I’m taking her home.’

  ‘You Limey bastard – trying to snatch my girl – you with your fucking sneering voice – you think you own the whole bloody world!’ A fist swung out, Conan staggered back against me, the blonde squealed and clut
ched at my arm with long red talons. A space was forming on the crowded dance floor and the two men were circling round each other like a pair of dogs, fists balled – my mind refused to take it in. Then the doormen were elbowing their way through the crowd; one jumped for Gardiner just as the American launched a blow at Conan – Conan leapt aside as it slammed into his cheekbone – straight into the clutches of the other doorman.

  ‘Now now, sir – what’s all this about? We don’t want any trouble, do we?’

  Frank Gardiner was swearing, a monotonous monologue of blasphemy. Conan took several deep breaths, then twisted round to smile at his captor. ‘Just a slight disagreement – this lady is my cousin’ – he jerked his head back to where I sagged behind him, clutching a chair – ‘the colonial gentleman’s language was becoming a trifle – ’ he raised his eyebrows in a rueful grin, ‘so she asked me to escort her home. Perhaps you’d be so good as to call a cab.’ The doorman had released Conan’s right arm and Conan was already feeling for his notecase.

  The man smiled. ‘Hang on to yours, Fred,’ he called to his fellow, then he set Conan free and began to brush down his tunic. ‘No trouble, sir, no trouble at all.’ Conan swung round to me and held out his arm. ‘Helena?’ It was a command, and his blue eyes were hard as he looked at me. For a moment I was frightened; then I obediently put my hand on his sleeve.

  A female voice shrilled out, ‘Con – where are you going – you said you’d give me a good time!’

  He did not even look back. ‘Hard lines, Mona – you’d better try your luck with the New World.’ He thrust me out of the basement.

  In the warm darkness of the cab I began to giggle, helplessly. Conan said, ‘Hellie, you’re tight as a newt.’

  I could not stop giggling. ‘You looked so funny – fighting in the middle of a dance floor.’

  Conan grunted; I could tell he was still annoyed. ‘I’ve got enough on my plate fighting the Germans – I prefer not to have to take on the blokes on our side – especially ones that size.’ He raised his fingers to his face and gingerly touched his cheekbone, and I saw the dark shadow of a bruise.

 

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