Song of songs, p.69
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       Song of Songs, p.69

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  ‘Better, Conan – I’m feeling better today.’

  Crossing one elegant grey-trousered knee over the other he drew out his gold cigarette case. ‘Good – but I knew you must be, because they wouldn’t let me past your door when I called before.’ His bright blue eyes watched me as he lit his cigarette. ‘You’ve had a rough time, Hellie.’ He inhaled and blew out a circle of smoke and watched as it rose to the ceiling. Then he looked back at me and said quietly, ‘Hellie, there’s something I must tell you. I’ve never told anyone else except Aunt Ria, but now I must tell you.’ I waited while be blew another perfect ring – but this one wavered and vanished almost at once. He shrugged his shoulders and leant back in the chair. ‘Hellie, do you remember the spring of ’17 – when I came to see you in Rouen?’

  ‘Yes – just before you were shot down.’

  ‘No, Hellie – I wasn’t shot down. They shot at me – even did some damage – but they didn’t shoot me down. I came down of my own accord, on the wrong side of the line. I daresay I could have got back – the machine was still handling – but I didn’t even try. So I landed on the Boche side. I destroyed my papers, set fire to my plane, then I sat on a log in a corner of the field, waiting for their cavalry to come and find me. And only when I heard the jingle of their spurs and saw that cluster of field-grey uniforms did I move – and then it was towards them.’ He fell silent, his eyes looking past me, staring at the blank wall.

  I whispered, ‘I’m glad you did, Conan – I’m glad you did.’

  He gave a sudden snort of laughter and turned to me, his mouth curving. ‘So am I Hellie, so am I – I’ve never regretted it, not for one minute. But it was the act of a coward, for all that. I was at the end of my tether, so I gave up.’

  ‘You weren’t alone – lots of men were ready to give up. Why, even Ben – when they brought him into the hospital after Cambrai – he was ready to give up too.’

  Conan looked at me. ‘But he didn’t, did he? He went back.’

  ‘He had no choice – they sent him back.’

  ‘Maybe – but he didn’t have to go back and fight like a ruddy hero – that was his choice, Hellie.’

  His choice – and I knew now exactly when he had made it; in the crowded YMCA hut at Étaples, sitting at the table with Juno and myself, assuring me: ‘Don’t you worry, Sister, we’ll keep you safe – we’ll hold them back somehow – you’ll see.’ And he had. Conan was speaking again: ‘And you went on to the end, Hellie, too. No one made you, you were a volunteer, but you went on to the end, and beyond. You were braver than I was.’

  ‘But – it wasn’t the same – I was a nurse – in any case, it doesn’t matter now.’

  I could hardly hear his reply. ‘I think it does, Hellie – I think it does.’ I saw him bracing himself, then he told me, ‘Hellie, if I had been with you that night when Robbie when Robbie asked to die – I could not have helped you – I could not have done what you did.’ And as I gazed into his serious blue eyes I knew that he spoke the truth.

  He turned away from me, and his hands shook as he lit another cigarette. When it was drawing he looked up again, then said abruptly, ‘Robbie knew.’

  I repeated, bewildered, ‘Robbie knew? What did Robbie know?’

  ‘He knew how Ben Holden felt about you – Ben told me himself. I’ve seen your husband while you’ve been in here, Hellie – we had a drink together one evening. It was then he told me Robbie had known how he felt – Robbie challenged him point blank.’

  My heart was thudding. ‘Conan, please tell me – what did Robbie say?’

  Conan stood up and began to pace the room, waving his cigarette. ‘Once, when Ben came to see Robbie at Hatton, you were out – and Ben, well he must have asked after you – so Robbie just looked at him and said: “You think a lot of my sister, don’t you, Holden?” And Ben replied, like the perfect sergeant-major he was: “Yes sir – I worship every square inch of the soil she walks on.”’

  ‘And what did Robbie say then?’

  ‘Apparently he said he couldn’t hold out much hope for him – but that he was glad Ben felt as he did. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? What else could he have said?’

  But I remembered Ben’s last visit to Robbie – when Robbie had known he was dying. My brother had sent me with Ben, to walk part of the way to the station with him; he had sent me out with a man he knew cared for me deeply – a man whom Robbie had learnt to trust completely in France; a man who would help me. And again, I remembered my brother’s voice as he held out Eddie’s watch: ‘You take it, Hellie, and see it gets delivered.’ Delivered to Ben, so he would know – and come to me in my need. My brother, my little brother. And you knew that Ben loved me – and told him you were glad.

  Conan spoke sharply. ‘You’re not going to sleep again, are you, Hellie?’

  ‘No – no, I was just thinking. But, Conan, why did Robbie ever ask that question of Ben in the first place? How could he have guessed anything so-so – unlikely?’

  Conan smiled. ‘Why should it be so unlikely that a man should love you, Hellie? After all, you’re very lovable.’ Then he came to the bed and bent over me, and his blue eyes held mine as he said, ‘I love you, Helena.’ But as I watched his face his eyes became bleak and empty and he quickly kissed me on the cheek and left. His kiss had been a cousin’s kiss – but his voice as he had said, ‘I love you’ had not been the voice of a cousin.

  After he had gone I lay in the twilight and wept. Now I was awake again the memories came flooding back – and all the nerves in my body were raw and sensitive. The war had taken my brothers, as it had taken Lance and Hugh and so many, many men; and it had mutilated so many others – even those like Conan and Guy who were physically unmarked, were scarred inside themselves, as I was too. And the wound that Gerald had inflicted was still fresh and gaping – he had been my hero, my ideal – I had loved him with all my being. When I had lost him, I had lived with that loss for the sake of the love which had been – but now I knew there had been no love, only a mocking sham. And that knowledge had scourged my heart once more, causing new injuries that would never heal – I would not love again; my life stretched before me, bleak and hopeless. So I lay in the twilight and wept.

  The nurse rustled in. ‘Dear me, crying again? We won’t let Mr Finlay in, in future, if this is the effect he has on you – and you were so nice and cheery after your husband had been. Come along now, it’s time for your tea. And if you’re a good girl and stop this crying, doctor will let you sit out in the armchair tomorrow – won’t that be nice?’

  When I woke in the morning I felt empty and sad – I did not really want to get up and sit in the armchair but I was too weak to protest, so I let them help me up. When I sat down my legs were trembling with the effort of it – yet I felt a small tremor of satisfaction – I had been in my bed for so long, and now I was out of it at last.

  As Ben came through the door his face lit up, seeing me sitting there in my armchair – and for a moment his open pleasure warmed me, so I held out my hand to him and he came forward and took it – cradling it gently in both of his, touching my skin as though it were made of the most delicate porcelain. His hands were warm and strong so I curled my fingers round his broad ones and smiled up at him – and suddenly he fell down on his knees in front of me and buried his face in my lap. I gently stroked his hair, remembering how I had done the same in the long grey ward at Étaples. I was his wife now and he loved me – but my heart was empty, I would never love again. Poor Ben.

  At last he sat back on his heels, and taking his handkerchief out of his pocket he dried his damp cheeks; then he pulled up a chair and sat down beside me, asking, ‘How are you today, lass?’

  ‘Better, Ben – better.’ And I saw there were still tears in his eyes so I inquired, ‘What will you be doing this afternoon, Ben?’

  He took a deep breath, but his voice was steady as he told me, ‘Foreman said yesterday as how he’d likely put me on Pilley Bob.’

  ‘With Pi
lley Bob – who’s Pilley Bob?’

  He smiled, ‘Nay lass – on it – it’s rail motor to Pilley. They like a passed fireman to fire rail motor, so’s driver can leave him to it when he drives from t’other end. It’s a nice simple job – report at station half an hour afore it’s due to leave, go on shed to get coal, then relieved at end to the minute. You know where you are and when you’re finishing, when you’re on rail motor. But I wouldn’t fancy it all time I’d get bored.’

  I liked to hear him speak – people had spoken to me softly and gently for so long, because I had been an invalid; now it was good to hear a strong loud voice in that high white room. I looked at him – he was the world outside, and for a moment I wanted to reach out and touch it – but then I was frightened and let my eyelids droop once more. He stood up. ‘I’m tiring you lass – I’d best go.’ I felt his hand touch my hair and then heard the door close firmly behind him. The nurses came in soon after. ‘It’s time you were back in bed, my lady.’ I swayed against them as they helped me back under the white covers. The world outside the windows was dark and threatening.

  They got me up regularly now, and one day I walked between them to the bathroom; I was growing stronger. As the days passed, the high bare room began to seem empty and cold. The nurses smiled as they helped me up and made me walk, but theirs were the smiles of professionals; I was their patient so they cared for me, but my body was healing and soon I would not need them – where then could I go?

  My mother came, beautifully groomed as always, her skirts shorter than I had ever seen them; fashions were changing, and she must always be in fashion. Alice was with her and they smoked together, using elegant ebony cigarette holders, talking of house parties and shooting, and of men and women I did not know and did not wish to meet.

  Letty arrived with Papa, having finished her first term at Cambridge – a different Cambridge from that of my brothers: a Cambridge of labs and experiments, lectures and tutorials. She was formidable in her intelligence; my father sat beside her, as always a little bewildered by this cuckoo in his nest. I asked him about Maud and he brightened. ‘She’s a wonderful woman, Helena – a wonderful woman – still riding to hounds like a trooper, you should have seen her last week.’ It was difficult to believe that once I too had been galloping on horseback beside them.

  As they left Letty turned back and came to my chair. ‘Go back to Ainsclough, Helena. There is nothing for you at Hatton now.’ She bent and kissed my cheek and waved as she slipped through the door. A cuckoo, but not an unkind one.

  The nurse came in with her bright smile to escort me along the corridor to the water closet; when we got back she said cheerfully, ‘Why, you’re so much stronger now, my lady, that doctor says you’ll be home for Christmas.’ Her starched skirts rustled as she bustled out. But where was my home? Soon I must leave this empty white world – but where could I go?

  Ben came in the evening and I asked him what he had been doing; I always did now, and he always told me the story of his day. He looked tired, but said he had had an easy shift. ‘We had no booked job, but we had a run out all t’same. We fetched a pug from Horwich Works, brought it back over Withnell and had it screwed down at gasworks by teatime – they’re borrowing ours while theirs gets repaired. Then we caught a lift from gasworks on pick-up and when we got back to shed there were so many spare hands there were nowt to do but send us home.’ I did not understand everything he talked of, but his words and turns of phrase were becoming more familiar now; when he had gone I would try to build a little picture in my mind of him doing the jobs he had told me about; it helped me to get through the long hours in the empty room. This evening, when he had finished his story he rolled up his cap and began to knead it between his big hands, then he said, without looking at me, ‘Your sister – she’s been to see me twice – she’s giving me earache – said I been wrong over – over your money.’

  ‘Robbie and Eddie’s money.’

  ‘Aye – that’s what she called it too. And she said if you’ – he swallowed and then continued in a desperate rush – ‘she said if you ever came back to Ainsclough it mun be used to give you help in th’ouse – seeing as you’d be weak a while yet.’ He watched my face, then gave a wry smile. ‘Besides, I see now as I were foolish – you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse.’ I still did not answer so he said, ‘She’s been telling me I ought to swallow me pride, for your sake – and I been thinking it over, and I reckon – well, I reckon mebbe she’s right.’

  We sat in silence for a long time; then at last I asked, ‘Is there – is there someone in Ainsclough who could come in every day?’

  His head shot up and as I saw the longing blaze out in his eyes I looked away. ‘Aye, I made a few inquiries – there’s Jim Grimshaw’s missus. Jim lost both his legs at Givenchy – he can’t work and they’ve got four young ’uns – it’s not easy to manage on pension. And Mary Grimshaw, she used to be in good service afore she were married, round Bolton way.’

  I stared at the blank bare wall in front of me and whispered, ‘Then – if you think –’

  He jumped to his feet; suddenly he was very big and strong above me. ‘I’ll see her tonight – soon as I get back – I know she’ll be glad to start any time. We’ll pay her a decent wage – a bit above the odds, I reckon her and Jim have earnt it.’

  ‘Yes – Robbie would have wanted that. He used to help men from the regiment who were in difficulties – and he remembered some of them in his will.’ My voice dropped a little on that last word, but as least I could talk of my brother now – to Ben, who had known him so well.

  Ben glanced at me, then looked away. ‘Aye – reckon he would have done – he were a generous officer, your brother – generous with his time as well as his money. When you’ve got yourself sorted out, lass, we’ll have to see if we can carry on same – since I been lucky and kept me health and strength, and can earn a living wage. Which is what we’ll be living on lass, as far as we can. I don’t mind telling you it goes against grain with me that fees of this place are being paid by your dad – I have offered, several times, but he wouldn’t hear of it. And he put it very tactful, I’ll say that for him. Anyroad, what we’re interested in now is getting you out; I’ll speak to Matron tonight and I know Doctor’s in tomorrow – with a bit of luck you’ll be home by weekend.’

  He came towards me, and bent to kiss my mouth – but I turned my face away a little and his lips touched my cheek instead. I sensed his hesitation, then he said gently, ‘Aye – you’ve had a bad time, lass – I know that. Don’t be feared I’ll press you.’ Then he strode out of the door. I lay back in my chair; the decision had been made – it was out of my hands now.

  The doctor was blunt. ‘You’ll need to rest for a long time yet; I’ve questioned your husband and he seems to have made adequate provision – but there’s something else to be considered. I’ve told him you’re barely able to carry yourself yet – you’re certainly not fit to carry a child. He said he understood and that he’d buy another bed and sleep in a separate room – but if you’ve the slightest doubt, if you think he can’t be trusted…’ He looked at me keenly.

  I felt the blood rise into my cheeks, then I murmured, ‘No – I think he can be trusted.’

  The doctor seemed satisfied. ‘Then you can go on Saturday.’

  My mother came the next day. ‘Are you sure you want to go back, Helena?’ Her dark eyes bored into mine.

  ‘It’s all arranged – I’m going on Saturday.’

  She looked at me for a long time. ‘I’ll order the Delaunay-Belleville to take you – it’ll be more comfortable.’

  ‘Thank you, Mother.’ She lit a cigarette and began to talk of Alice. As she got up to go she said, ‘Still, at least there’s still one of my daughters who shows no signs of embroiling herself in some crazy matrimonial escapade – I suppose I should be grateful to Cambridge. Goodbye, Helena.’ She swept out.

  When Ben came after work on Saturday it was already dark. The
nurses dressed me and wrapped me warmly in rugs and helped me out to the car. It was strange to be driving through a town: to see people moving about in front of lighted shop windows, streets bustling and busy because it would soon be Christmas. But beyond Bolton we came on to the open moors – darkness surrounded us and pressed us in and we saw only the beam of the electric lamps on the road ahead. It seemed a long time before we came down the long hill into Ainsclough, through the town centre and up again, to Royds Street. I had left in the warmth of autumn – now it was almost Christmas.

  Barnes opened the door and helped me out; I stood swaying, on ankles whose strength had seeped away during the long weeks in bed. Ben’s arms came round my waist. ‘Lean on me, lass. Shall I carry you in? I’ll take you straight upstairs.’

  ‘Please, Ben.’ I was so tired.

  He swung me up and carried me through the small parlour, up the steep stairs and into the bedroom – the back bedroom. He said gruffly, ‘It’s the same size as front and I thought it ’ud be quieter in here for you – and in any case, there’s knocker-up. Fire’s ready lit – it should be warm enough for you.’

  I whispered, ‘Thank you, Ben,’ and he laid me gently down on the bed.

  He was back very quickly with a cup of tea. ‘You get that inside you, sweetheart. I’ll have to pop down to see the choffer – can’t send a man back on a night like this without a bit of summat to stay him.’

  I lay on the bed and heard the chink of china below; their voices rumbled in turn and I wondered what they were talking about – the battle of Arras, perhaps. Then I heard the muffled revving purr of the motor and the front door closing; the Delaunay-Belleville had gone, back to Hatton.

  Ben came up at once with a tray. ‘Try and take a little of this broth, lass – Mary Grimshaw made it fresh today – it’s right tasty.’ As I swallowed obediently he told me, proudly, ‘Them’s me own taters and carrots in that – from plot.’

  ‘Thank you, Ben – they’re delicious.’ His plain face glowed.

 

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