Song of songs, p.65
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       Song of Songs, p.65

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  The first weeks I had still fostered a faint hope in the corner of my mind – I searched my underwear as I came near my time. Perhaps God would relent, perhaps I might still escape. But each day my drawers showed only the white stains of his seed; the red blood did not appear. And my breasts, which had always been so small, became fuller and heavier, my nipples grew and darkened, and I felt my womb pressing on my bladder – so I knew God had not relented, and hope died.

  So now I needed Gerald more and more; he became my refuge, my hiding place. It was not enough simply to remember him – especially not down in the parlour where he was a stern soldier. Upstairs I took out my other picture of him, smiling at me, in his morning suit – not Major Lord Staveley now, but Gerald, my lover. But I did not want him to see this picture of the intimate, private Gerald, so I took my treasure into the back bedroom, where he never came. Opening a trunk, I took out a thick soft blanket and a pillow, then pulled the boxes into a square to make a small shelter, where I could be safe and unobserved, building a little nest for myself in which I could dream. Because memories were not enough now – my memories only led to the war, and the terrible blankness it had brought. So I followed my memories just to the moment when he put his ring on my finger, and then I transmuted them into dreams. And in my dreams there was no war: Franz Ferdinand and his duehess were safely buried and forgotten; the Kaiser continued to strut before his parading soldiers – but only in Berlin; and the Belgians went contentedly about their daily business in the picturesque little town of Ypres; the world was at peace.

  And so my wedding day came, as planned – my real wedding day, to Gerald. I stood before the altar beside his tall, handsome figure – and for once I was beautiful, because he loved me. We journeyed to Munich and stayed in the Regina Palace Hotel on Maximilian Platz – with its sixty bathrooms and its palm house – and visited Frau Reinmar and Franzl – Franzl still with two hands and the smile of friendship on his face. We went to Elsa Gehring’s studio – and Gerald praised her for my singing – then we visited the opera every night – and perhaps, one afternoon, if the weather was kind, we skated again on the frozen meadows beyond the Englischer Garten. And then we came back, to Bessingdon – to our home.

  I had never seen Bessingdon, and now I was glad because I could imagine it exactly as I wanted it to be, golden and glowing in the afternoon sun as it welcomed us home. The tenants cheering us from the station, the indoor staff lined up in the hall – all were there; so too was Moira Staveley, but she was a shadowy figure in the background, for I was mistress now.

  I pictured my bedchamber, with silver brocade hangings, and walls of the palest blue – a cool, gracious room. And there, at one side, was the door which led to Gerald’s dressing room, with his bedroom beyond. I would glance at it shyly, my heart fluttering at the thought of him there, asleep. Sometimes there would be a gentle tap on that door, and I would call out to come in, my breathing quickening, and he would enter and walk towards me, elegant in his silk dressing gown. He would bend over me as I lay waiting in the wide bed, his low voice asking. ‘Are you asleep, Helena?’ And I would whisper back, ‘No, Gerald, not yet.’ Still he would stand beside me, until I felt the gentle touch of his fingertips on my cheek. ‘Then, Helena, may I join you for a little while?’ ‘Yes Gerald – please do.’ And my face would be suffused with blushes in the darkness as he slipped gracefully under the covers beside me.

  But try as I might I could imagine no further – for my experience in this house overshadowed that dream. Gerald would never have roughly thrust up my nightdress and prised my thighs apart – and I, I would never have turned to him with that terrible driving insistence in my belly – no, because I loved Gerald, so it would have been quite different. But I knew that afterwards he would have kissed me very gently, then whispered goodnight and left me there to dream. And in my dreams I was always cool and clean and fresh-smelling – my belly was never damp with his sweat nor my thighs sticky with his seed – Gerald, my pure true lover.

  But sometimes my dreams were dangerous. There was a day when a boy came to tell me Ben Holden would be late – so I knew I had hours for myself. I turned off the gas and ran up the stairs, as excited as a girl going to her lover – I was a girl going to her lover. I curled up in my nest and gave myself to my dreams – but I dreamt too long, and one night Gerald’s face changed, and his hands became harder, and he loomed over the bed and there was no gentle touch on my cheek, instead he seized me and used me, violently – and then left me without a word; and I lay sobbing and broken. I was still trembling when I heard the latch of the door downstairs. I stumbled to my feet and ran down, and my husband was there in the kitchen, hanging up his working jacket. ‘Have you been having a lie down? Good girl.’ Then he turned and saw my face. ‘Lass, you look as if you seen a ghost – happen you’ve had a nightmare.’

  ‘Yes – yes – a nightmare!’

  ‘Poor little lass.’ His large dirty hand reached out to stroke my cheek, and this time I did not flinch away; his voice dropped. ‘Never mind, sweetheart, I’m home now.’

  ‘Yes – yes, you’re home.’

  ‘You sit down in a chair, I’ll not be a minute in bath, then I’ll give you a hand dishing up tea.’

  After that I learnt to ration my dreams as I walked on the terrace at Bessingdon, with Gerald, and sang in the drawing room after dinner, to Gerald; and rode in the park, beside Gerald. But then, one day, I knew I ought not to be going on horseback any longer, and when he asked, smiling, ‘Will you ride with me this morning, Helena?’ I shook my head and blushed: ‘No, Gerald – I shall not be riding now, for a while.’ And I saw the joy in his face as he came to me and his lips brushed my cheek. ‘Helena, my dear – you have made me so happy, so very, very happy.’ And that evening he would come to my room, still in his evening suit. ‘I’ve come to say goodnight, my dear – because now…’ I would smile back in understanding and gratitude. ‘Thank you, my dearest – goodnight, Gerald.’ And I would lie in the cool darkness, with his child below my heart.

  When I uncurled my cramped limbs I was weeping; but I had to go downstairs and peel the potatoes and shell the peas and prepare the fish – for my husband.

  June had ended, July came, and now the peas that I cooked were from his plot – from those plants whose tiny tendrils I had watched him train up the sticks so long ago. Each day he brought in more of his growing, and I cooked them for him, hot and sweating as I bent over the stove in the stuffy kitchen.

  At the end of August he began to talk of taking a week’s holiday in the autumn; he wrote to a farm in Yorkshire, I was not sure where because I did not listen. But I would go with him, because I needed him more now – my womb was becoming more urgent as it filled. Yet he had become hesitant – sometimes he asked, ‘Do you think, lass…?’ But the scent of his strong body next to me was past bearing and I beat at his shoulders with my balled fists and pressed my belly desperately against him, until he responded and took me – and then I was satisfied, for a while.

  One day he called me upstairs, and I saw he was in the back bedroom – I hurried up in a panic, but he was nowhere near my sanctuary. He waved his hand at the piled-up boxes. ‘Look, lass – I’d best get some of this clutter cleared out – we’ll need space soon, with child coming.’

  I stared at him like a small animal at bay. ‘How did you guess?’

  He touched my hand diffidently. ‘Lass, you’ve come to me every night, so I know you’ve not bled since day we were wed.’ The silly rhyme rang through me: ‘not bled since the day we were wed, not bled since the day we were wed.’ I held myself very still. ‘I reckon you must have fallen that evening when we come back from Ada’s first time – you been different since – looking inward all time.’ He straightened his back from the trunk he was inspecting and told me, ‘You mun go to doctor’s soon.’ Vehemently I shook my head. Not yet, not yet – he might tell me it was true.

  I followed him listlessly downstairs, stumbling on the last step; he swung
quickly round and reached up to steady me. ‘And another thing, lass – you shouldn’t be wearing them shoes – you might catch your heel and fall, it’s that steep round here. I’ll buy you some more.’ I took no notice of his words: they were my shoes; I ate the food he earned and slept in the bed he had bought – but I would not wear shoes he had paid for.

  So I cooked and cleaned and washed and shopped – and each day I retreated into the solace of my dreams, and each night I used his strong body in the bed upstairs, while my breasts became fuller and my body swelled – and by now, September was half over. It was a Tuesday when I heard the brisk rat-tat at the door – so I thought it was the rent man. I picked up the money left ready under the clock and walked slowly through the parlour and opened the front door – and there, on the step, was Conan.

  Chapter Eight

  ‘Hello, Hellie – can I come in?’ I stepped back and he walked through the lobby and into the parlour, elegant and handsome in an immaculately tailored suit fashioned from the finest grey cloth. He balanced his cane across one of the bentwood chairs, peeled off his gloves and slipped them inside his hat. ‘No, Hellie – it’s not a ghost; it really is me. China’s a big place, you know – a very big place; messages take a long time arriving – but I came as soon as I could.’

  I said dully, ‘You’re too late.’

  ‘Poor old Hellie.’ He came over and took me in his arms, and I wept hopelessly on his fine grey shoulder. He smelt of cigars and expensive shaving soap.

  After a while, when my sobs had slowed, he put me away from him a little. ‘Let’s have a look at you.’ I stood before him as his blue eyes slowly travelled over my tear-stained cheeks, then he leant forward and kissed me lightly on the lips before leading me to the armchair. He pulled the other chair up close to me and sat down in it himself.

  I held out my left hand and repeated, ‘You’re too late.’

  ‘Yes, I know, Aunt Ria told me. But it’s not too late – I’ve got a motor outside, we could scarper in it now – your mother wouldn’t give us away.’

  As I looked at him, longing overwhelmed me; then I felt the new heaviness in my breasts and shook my head. ‘I’m – I’m carrying his child.’

  Conan raised his eyebrows and smiled. ‘Then you’d better bring the child along too.’ I wanted so much to go – oh, how I longed to go. He sat watching me. ‘It’s up to you, Hellie – I’m offering you a way out. I’m not bothered about the child, I’ve fathered enough bastards on other men in my time – I can hardly object if your Ben Holden does the same to me.’

  I wished he had not used that word; my child was not a bastard – Ben Holden was my legal husband. My cousin stood up and went to look at the photographs on the piano; he picked one up and brought it back to me. ‘Is this him – who are those nippers?’

  ‘His nephews and his niece – that is, his great-nephews and his great-niece.’ I looked at the picture as Conan held it out to me: Ben was smiling as he held the toddler on his lap – and the other two children leant against him so confidingly; I remembered them all running to greet him at Ivy’s. Conan put it back, then picked up the other photo of Ben, in his sergeant-major’s uniform.

  He studied it for a while, then said, ‘He looks a decent enough chap.’

  ‘He is a decent enough chap.’

  ‘Then what’s wrong, Hellie?’ I shrugged my shoulders. As he returned Ben’s photo I saw him pause in front of the piano, and his eyes narrowed. Then he came back to the empty hearth, propped one elbow up on the mantleshelf and said casually, ‘You’re not still mooning over Gerald, are you?’

  My whole body went rigid. My eyes dropped to the shining black toecap next to the fender; I could not answer.

  ‘Hellie – it’s five years now, more than five years!’

  I threw my head back and cried, ‘He told me, he told me there would never be another woman – and now, look at me now.’ I put my hand to my belly, despairingly. ‘I’ve betrayed him.’

  ‘For God’s sake, Hellie, be reasonable – I could have had you myself half a dozen times since then.’

  I put my head in my hands. ‘But you didn’t.’

  ‘No – well, I’m inclined to think I was a bloody fool – the only time I’ve ever behaved with decency and restraint, and then some other so-and-so jumped in instead. Still, that’s life. Are you coming with me now, or not?’

  I wanted to, how I wanted to – but Ben Holden’s face smiled out of the frame on the piano, holding a child on his lap – just as I held his child in my womb. His child.

  I stood at the crossroads and looked at Conan: my cousin, my almost brother, companion of my childhood – whom I loved, whom I had always loved. Then my eyes turned against their will to the pictured face of Ben Holden: whom I did not love, but who loved me, and who was my legal husband – and who had told his sister, just before our wedding, how much he was looking forward to having a family of his own. I wrestled with myself for a long time, but I knew I could not take his child away from him – he deserved better of me than that. And his child was lodged in my body, so my body would have to stay here, in Ainsclough.

  My head was so heavy that I could barely move it, but I managed to shake it at last.

  ‘Well, it’s your decision, Hellie.’

  ‘Yes, it’s my decision.’

  He took out a cigarette and lit it. ‘Poor old Robbie – it was hard lines for him, after coming back at the end.’

  ‘Yes, it was.’

  ‘Letty told me how he never got over that wound – so the bloody Germans killed him after all.’

  I said, ‘No, I killed him.’

  Conan’s jaw dropped; he took the cigarette out of his mouth and stared at me. ‘The wound infected his lungs – they were rotting, he was dying – but it was I who killed him. He knew it would be very painful, and he had suffered so much already, so he asked the doctor – but the doctor didn’t get there in time, so I injected him with a lethal dose of morphia – it was I who killed him.’

  ‘Good God, Hellie – I – I didn’t know.’ His face was appalled.

  ‘Nobody knows, except the doctor – and Ben, of course.’

  ‘And Ben, of course,’ he echoed me. ‘Why Ben, of course?’

  It was a relief to talk, I had not talked for so long. ‘After – after it happened, I was going to kill myself – it seemed the only thing to do. But Robbie had asked me to give Eddie’s watch to Ben – Ben was the sergeant who…’

  Conan nodded. ‘Yes, I know – Letty told me.’

  ‘So I came here first – and I said something – referring to what had happened when we were in the hospital together – there was a boy, then – so he guessed, and he stopped me.’

  Conan was still looking at me as if he had never seen me before. ‘And how did he stop you?’

  ‘He made me drunk.’

  Conan’s blue eyes sharpened. ‘Is that when…?’

  I understood and butted in quickly, ‘No, Ben would never have done that. That was – he was trying to help me and – it was my fault.’

  Conan stared at me for a long time. ‘So you gave Robbie an overdose – Robbie, your own brother.’

  ‘Yes – I killed Robbie. There was no one else to do it, you see.’

  Conan sat down, and kept looking at me. Then at last he said softly, ‘Poor old Hellie, poor little Hellie.’

  I stood up stiffly, my legs were cramped. ‘I’ll put the kettle on and make you a cup of tea.’

  When I came back Conan was prowling round the small room, looking very tall and slim. ‘Look here, Hellie – when does your Ben come home?’

  I glanced at the clock. ‘In an hour or so. That is, if he’s not called out for a longer turn – he’s a passed fireman, you see.’

  Conan said, ‘Oh,’ then raised his cup. When he put it down again he told me, ‘I’ll wait and meet him – I’m on my way up to Scotland for a few days, then I was thinking of heading for Norway, to join Sam Killearn’s fishing party – but there’s no rush, I
can stay overnight on the way.’

  ‘You don’t have to wait for him.’

  ‘Hellie, I’m not leaving here until I’ve seen the kind of man you’re married to. Aunt Ria hates him, Letty likes him: I want to make up my own mind.’ He drained his cup and then said, his voice light, ‘Have you heard – Juno’s running a chicken farm in Cornwall, together with that fluffy-haired blonde female, Ogden’s youngest daughter. Letty appears to have the gravest suspicions – she’s very precocious, your sister – I don’t know what on earth she reads.’

  I exclaimed, ‘Oh, but Juno wouldn’t…’ Then my voice tailed off.

  Conan caught my eye and laughed. ‘Exactly! And I tried to kiss that Ogden girl once in the conservatory – just to keep in practice – and she jumped back like a startled rabbit - it’s not a reaction I usually encounter.’

  I smiled a little. ‘No, it wouldn’t be.’

  Then he began to tell me about my family. My parents were leaving Hatton at the end of the week and going to the Eames’ shooting lodge in Yorkshire; Mother was annoyed because Letty had announced she intended going up to Cambridge early instead of accompanying them. He told me Alice was in Mentone – she was reported to be very bored with her Fred, and had been knocking around with Jimmy Danesford again. He retailed more gossip and I listened gratefully – I had never realized before what a beautiful voice my cousin had.

  Ben’s heavy boots pounded on the cobbles outside, then he came in in his baggy, grimy overall and collariess striped shirt. Conan jumped to his feet in one quick, lithe movement. ‘Holden, old man, I’m so glad to meet you. I’m Hellie’s cousin, Conan Finlay.’ He held out his hand.

  Ben shook it firmly. ‘How do.’ He glanced at me. ‘How ’ave you been today, lass?’ I did not reply.

  Conan continued smoothly, ‘Hellie and I have just been having a good old gossip – I hope you don’t mind my dropping in like this without any warning?’

 

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