Song of songs, p.40
Song of Songs, p.40Beverley Hughesdon
Papa came to Town for a couple of days to see his new grandson. My father’s hair was sprinkled with grey now, but he was still very upright. He said Mother was busy running the Red Cross Hospital at Hatton, and she hoped I was not ruining my hands. I looked down at them, red and roughened by years of disinfectants and winter chilblains, and I laughed, because there was no point in crying. Then I went upstairs and lay down on my bed and slept, until Nanny roused me with a tray. She sat over me while I ate and then she helped me undress, tucked me up between the fine linen sheets and kissed me goodnight. I slept again.
Ralph Dutton invited me to the theatre one evening during his leave. I sat down beside him in the warm stalls and woke up in the interval with my head on his shoulder. He smiled my apologies away and went to fetch me some coffee, then as the next act started he pulled my head down against his neck in the darkness and I slept until it was time to go home. He joked about it to Robbie next day, calling me a dormouse, and I said lightly, ‘Next time you’d better just invite me out to bed, Ralph,’ and watched in dawning horror as his face crimsoned. But my brother burst out into wheezing laughter, and managed to gasp, ‘You don’t change, do you Hellie? Mouth open and foot straight in it!’ And then Ralph and I began to laugh too.
I met Alice’s new husband. He was tall, but very thin, with sparse grey hair and ever-flickering eyes. I did not like him much, and Alice obviously felt the same way. Letty was living with them – she at least had not changed – going her own way as always, impervious to those around her. She told me she was going to go up to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences and I protested. ‘But Mother will never say “yes”!’
Letty shrugged. ‘Then she can say “no”, can’t she? It won’t make any difference to me, I shall go in any case.’
When I arrived in Boulogne I was sent back to No. 23 again. Aylmer welcomed me warmly to our hut and I chatted to her and Mac and Tilney at supper and felt as if I had never been away. Next morning I was sent to a light surgical ward. The work was easy; few of the men would be permanently disabled and we had all begun to realize that the war was finally drawing to a close, so my patients knew they would probably never have to go back.
At eleven a.m. on the eleventh day of November the bugles sounded and we knew it was over at last. I was with Sister in the bunk, and we turned and looked at each other, then she said flatly, ‘So it’s finished, then,’ and bent down again to her forms. I went back to laying out a fresh dressing tray. Even the men seemed scarcely to realize what had happened; they were as stunned as we were by the ending of the long years of war.
Tilney bought a couple of bottles of wine in Étaples that afternoon, and half a dozen of us crammed into her hut and shared it in the evening. The alcohol made me feel giddy, and when I tried to stand up to leave I swayed and fell back on to the bed. The others all laughed and then Mac said, ‘You’d better stick to cocoa next time, like Aylmer.’ She and Aylmer helped me back to our hut and next morning I felt rather shaky when I woke up.
I felt even more shaky a week later when I read Papa’s letter – he said the Grenadiers had been in action in the first week of November and their casualties had been high. Guy had fought to the bitter end. He had come through unharmed, but I mourned for those other women who had had their loved ones snatched from them even at the moment of victory.
But victory scarcely seemed an appropriate word for us now, because we were in the midst of a camp of dying men. The light surgicals had all been sent home and our ward had become a medical one – Spanish flu had invaded Étaples. More and more men went down with pneumonia, and Sister herself collapsed with the symptoms and had to be warded. There was no replacement – too many other nurses and orderlies were sick – so I soldiered on alone among men who were delirious and incontinent, watching their faces turn the dreaded dusky blue before they died. As I laid out corpse after corpse I thought bitterly that we must have won the war too soon – we had cheated the God of Vengeance, so now He had played His ace.
For the first weeks, while I changed soiled beds and sponged fevered bodies in a desperate attempt to lower their temperatures, I worried about Robbie. As I carried the oxygen to one gasping man, and tried to erect a steam tent round another before going to mix a poultice to slap on a third heaving chest I thought of my brother’s shattered lungs and felt sick with fear.
But then I got a letter from one of the gamekeepers’ cottages in the middle of the woods at Hatton and found I had underestimated my mother. As soon as the number of flu victims had begun to rise she had ordered the chauffeur to disinfect the Delaunay-Belleville, and driven straight down to London. In the teeth of all War Office regulations she had extracted Robbie from his hospital and taken him straight back to Hatton. Robbie said it was the funniest thing, to be lying across the back seat watching Mother’s ramrod back in the front, actually sitting next to the chauffeur. They had driven directly to the cottage and he was installed there with the stern-visaged Fisher to care for him, in a state of total isolation. I was not even allowed to write a reply to him. But he sounded perfectly content, although I could not imagine what he and Fisher said to each other in the long evenings. I put his letter away and went back to my blue-faced men who were drowning in their own sputum.
Very slowly the epidemic began to wane, but it was the middle of March before my papers came through; Tilney and Mac had already left. I laid out my last corpse, washed my hands carefully, then walked over to the mess. For the last night I slept on my low camp bed under coarse army blankets. In the morning I dressed in my uniform for the last time, said goodbye to Aylmer, threw my kit into the back of the waiting ambulance and left the hillside of wooden crosses behind me.
My war had finally ended.
MARCH 1919 to JUNE 1920
I stood on the deck and gazed out over the grey sea at the white cliffs of England coming steadily towards me. My gloved hands gripped the rail and for a moment I looked down at the inverted Vs on my forearm – those two blue chevrons that marked my years of active service. In France I had simply been Nurse Girvan, with a job to do and a role to play. But today, when I took off my uniform for the last time – who would I be then? Lady Helena had been a girl, an ignorant carefree girl, who had obediently gone with her mother to Court and theatre and ballroom, to Ascot, Henley and Ranelagh, and asked for nothing as long as she could laugh with her brothers and daydream of her tall handsome lover.
But my lover was dead now, and through his death he had taken with him my dreams for the future, even as the loss of my brother had overshadowed my memories of the past. Over these years of war I had learned to live only in the present – but the dead were lost for all time. And gone also was my innocence and my faith, because I had learned what should never have been learned, and seen what should never have been seen – and now I would carry that knowledge with me always, as a scar upon my soul.
But when I climbed on to the train to London I forced these gloomy thoughts away from me; I was going home. And Robbie was waiting for me when I arrived, and as his face lit up at the sight of me, my heart sang.
But that evening I listened to the catch in his voice as his damaged lungs laboured to give him breath, and saw how his body was bent, and watched him walk heavily from the dining-room table, like an old man. Then I reminded myself how gravely wounded he had been, how long he had fought for his life – of course he would not recover from such an illness all at once – and after his being an invalid for so many months I could surely rejoice that now he was able to lead a normal life in London. I had so much to be thankful for.
I soon discovered that I need not have worried about my role now – Mother had no such doubts – Lady Helena Girvan must be returned to Society as soon as possible. My uniform was consigned to the dustbin, an off-the-peg outfit was quickly purchased from Selfridges, and then for a week I scarcely saw Robbie while I was subjected to a ceaseless round of dressmakers, milliners and bootmakers. Eve
She was somewhat appeased when, at Bertholle’s, Madame exclaimed enthusiastically about my figure – apparently I had at last come into fashion – straight narrow shapes were decreed by Paris now, ‘And miladi has such a shapely calf and ankle – so important, now that hems have risen.’ I noticed my mother unobtrusively tuck her own thick ankles and heavy calves under the spindly gilt chair, and felt a spurt of mean gratification.
Frocks for day and evening wear were modelled in front of us: Mother and Madame Berthe held earnest discussions on the merits of shining satin charmeuse over clinging silk stockinet, on the benefits of the coat dress versus the suit, on the stability of the new fashion in waistcoats, and the charms of the curious pegtop outline of the latest coats.
We moved on to the Maison Lewis and the parade of hats began: wide-brimmed picture hats; close-fitting toques; the newest fashionable cloche shapes – hats trimmed with ribbon, hats adorned with ostrich feathers, and hats alive with dainty, dancing tassels.
I sat in warm salons breathing in the scented air and remembered how only last week I had walked between beds of coughing, spluttering men, carrying bed pans whose noisome odour my nostrils had long ceased to register. I found myself smiling at the oddness of my transition and Mother, seeing me, said sharply, ‘Helena – it really is time you learnt to take life seriously! Which do you think will look better with that midnight-blue embroidered coat dress – the ivory satin toque or the ruched cream cloche?’
But only when it came to my feet did I feel any interest. I was still luxuriating in the feel of sheer silk stockings clinging to my legs, now so daringly exposed to mid-calf, when the sensation of the glove-like fit of my newly made shoes, so soft and supple and elegantly high-heeled, became a further joy to me.
Parcels and boxes began to arrive at Cadogan Place, and the frown on Mother’s face slowly faded as she sat in my bedroom and instructed Norah, my new maid, to array me in outfit after outfit. I walked and turned and stood before the long mirrors and my sense of unreality deepened, as a fashionable stranger stared back at me, dark-eyed and pale-faced in all her finery. Mother pursed her lips. ‘Luckily painting is quite acceptable in Society these days – besides you’re no longer a young girl. By the way, some mamas are attempting to reinstate chaperonage of their elder daughters – quite ridiculous. Why, Molly Eames has taken Mary back under her wing as if she were just out of the schoolroom – and she smoked like a trooper while she was at Hatton! I have no intention of wasting my time chaperoning you, Helena – I’ve got quite enough to do organizing Letty’s debut – thank God that’ll be the last one. Besides, no doubt you’ll be running about with your brothers, just as you did before the war.’
In my head the words formed an answer – ‘Except that I had another brother then, Mother’ – but I did not speak it; my mother lived in the present, that was her great strength.
And I was glad of my restraint later, when she sent for Fisher and took out of her hands a jewel case and brought it to me. ‘I’ve had these cleaned for you, Helena – you will be able to wear them now.’ And there, sparkling up at me in all its brilliant purity, was the diamond tiara Gerald had given me for my twenty-first birthday. I stood very still, looking at it, until my mother spoke again, her silvery voice almost gruff. ‘He was a brave man, Helena – wear it and be proud of him.’
Reverently I lifted it from its velvet nest and carried it to the mirror. I set it gently on my head and saw the diamonds shine against the darkness of my hair. And my eyes shone below with unshed tears. Mother slipped quietly from the room and I sent Norah away and sat down before my dressing table still wearing Gerald’s tiara, and took his photograph in my hand – and remembered.
I remembered him still, later in that month, as I stood on the balcony of Devonshire House. Robbie was propped against the balustrade at my side, as we watched the Victory Parade of the Household Cavalry and the Guards’ Division. The bands played and crowds cheered as the men who had helped to save us marched tall and proud down the length of Piccadilly. Beside me, Pansy’s cheeks were wet with tears as Guy marched past with the Grenadiers. Nanny held little Lance up higher. ‘Wave to your Papa, dear – your brave Papa.’ The chubby hand waved, and the childish voice called, ‘Papa, Papa!’ For a moment Guy turned, and his eyes looked up to his wife and his son. Pansy clasped my hand as she whispered, ‘I’ve been so lucky, Helena, so terribly, terribly, lucky.’ The tall straight men marching past blurred into one khaki mass, and I gripped the edge of the balcony until my fingers hurt. I felt Robbie’s arm round my shoulders and heard his wheezing breath in my ear. ‘Good old Guy – out at the very beginning, back at the very end.’ Yes, so few of that first army had ever returned, but at least my brother had been among those who had.
Pansy and Guy dined with us that evening at Cadogan Place before driving back to Richmond. They had taken a house there for the summer, since Pansy thought it was more healthy for the children. They left early, and as he kissed me goodbye Guy said cheerily, ‘You must come down and stay with us, Helena, now you’re back.’ As he spoke his eyes turned possessively to Pansy, and his hand touched her shoulder in a small, loving gesture.
Pansy smiled back at him, her eyes adoring, ‘Yes, do, Helena – we’d love to have you.’ But I sensed that they would not. After four children they were at last having their honeymoon. I would go down for tea occasionally, but that would be all; I would not intrude. Besides, it hurt me to see Pansy’s baby on Nanny’s lap – where Gerald’s son should have been.
Alice and her Fred stayed much longer – he was fidgeting to be off, but my sister deliberately ignored all his hints. There was a brittle edge to her voice now, and when she addressed her husband her lovely eyes were hard. I remembered Hugh’s kindly face, and almost hated her – how could she have forgotten him so quickly?
By April the Season was in full swing: the first postwar Season. The whole of Society seemed determined to get back to normal – or more than normal. There was a demented gaiety in the air: everyone danced more frantically, drank more deeply and shrieked more loudly with mirthless, high-pitched laughter. I learned to smoke and began to drink wine again, but as I stood watching the frenzied multitude, I felt like a haggard, gaunt, outsider – a leftover from an earlier era. The men I had danced with were buried in France and Flanders; the girls who had come out with me had children in their nurseries now – I had spent more than four years away at the war, and the world had moved on without me.
I thought longingly of the friends I had made over these last years – surely they would be feeling the same? I wrote to Innes and she invited me down to Oxford for the day. I set off hopefully in the morning, but it was no use. The real world we had shared was the war – and Innes only wanted to forget it. She was kind and polite and introduced me to her college friends over tea: their eyes flickered over my outfit as soon as they saw me, resting for a moment on my too-high hemline before returning to gaze with obvious astonishment at the large ostrich feather on my fashionable picture hat. Decked in my fine plumage I stood out like a bird of paradise among a flock of domestic hens – and we had about as much to say to each other. I sat holding my cup and saucer and listened to them discussing poets and novelists of whose writings I had barely heard, and planning their work for tutorials and lectures I knew nothing of. Innes had her old life now, and I had no place in it.
A couple of weeks later, when I went to see Aylmer, I dressed in one of my prewar skirts, and wore my plainest coat and a toque trimmed only with ribbon. My heart sank when the cab drew up outside
And yet, in a way, it was easier. Aylmer’s mother was firm in addressing me as ‘My lady’, and as she ushered me into the small front parlour she said quite openly, ‘I’ll be the envy of the neighbourhood, entertaining an earl’s daughter to tea. Jean, fetch those scones out of the oven before they burn.’
Aylmer was placidly welcoming, and though we called each other ‘Jean’ and ‘Helena’ rather awkwardly at first, as soon as I asked after her Tom her whole face glowed and she began eagerly to tell me of the wedding plans – it was only a few weeks off now. ‘If it’s not presuming, my lady, we wondered… Mrs Aylmer beamed with pleasure as I told her I would be delighted to come.
I was glad I had made my visit, and as I sat on the train on my way back, I thought of how fortunate Aylmer was, with her Tom, her family, soon, no doubt, her babies – and her faith. I would choose a delicate, costly present, and go to her wedding dressed in the finery appropriate to an earl’s daughter and be talked of later in Laburnum Road – but I could no more become part of Aylmer’s postwar life than I could of Innes’. My class, my upbringing, my very manner, set me clearly and surely apart from them. I felt very lost and alone.
I tried to talk of this to Robbie, but even Robbie had changed. He went out every night as usual, but he had to carry a stick, and a cab was always called to the door. One evening he seemed at a loose end, so I suggested he come with me and Letty to a dance at the Eames’s. He turned on me, his face twisted, and wheezed angrily, ‘What the hell would I do at a dance? It’s as much as I can do to walk to the other side of the Place!’ He pulled himself to his feet and thrust open the door even as I was stammering my apologies. I cursed my careless tongue – but he was so often irritable now, he lost his temper easily, and had no patience.
Song of Songs by Beverley Hughesdon / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes