When Sarah Denny needs a friend, Mollie Maynard is there to help. Between them, they uncover the secrets long buried in Tristan Denny's past.
Originally published on the CBB.
Ste Therese's House Characters:
Tea and Militancy
02 Jun 2011 Updated:
24 Jun 2011
1. Chapter 1 by Finn
2. Chapter 2 by Finn
3. Dream 1 by Finn
4. Chapter 3 by Finn
5. Chapter 4 by Finn
6. Chapter 5 by Finn
7. Chapter 6 by Finn
8. Dream 2 by Finn
9. Chapter 7 by Finn
10. Dream 3 by Finn
11. Chapter 8 by Finn
12. Chapter 9 by Finn
13. Chapter 10 by Finn
14. Chapter 11 by Finn
15. Chapter 12 by Finn
16. Chapter 13 by Finn
17. Chapter 14 by Finn
18. Chapter 15 by Finn
19. Chapter 16 by Finn
20. Chapter 17 by Finn
21. Chapter 18 by Finn
22. Chapter 19 by Finn
23. Chapter 20 by Finn
24. Chapter 21 by Finn
25. Chapter 22 by Finn
26. Chapter 23 by Finn
27. Chapter 24 by Finn
28. Chapter 25 by Finn
29. Chapter 26 by Finn
30. Chapter 27 by Finn
31. Chapter 28 by Finn
32. Chapter 29 by Finn
33. Chapter 30 by Finn
34. Chapter 31 by Finn
35. Chapter 32 by Finn
36. Chapter 33 by Finn
37. Dream 4 by Finn
38. Chapter 34 by Finn
39. Chapter 35 by Finn
40. Chapter 36 by Finn
41. Chapter 37 by Finn
42. Chapter 38 by Finn
43. Chapter 39 by Finn
44. Chapter 40 by Finn
45. Chapter 41 by Finn
46. Chapter 42 by Finn
47. Chapter 43 by Finn
48. Chapter 44 by Finn
49. Chapter 45 by Finn
50. Chapter 46 by Finn
51. Chapter 47 by Finn
52. Chapter 48 by Finn
53. Chapter 49 by Finn
54. Chapter 50 by Finn
55. Chapter 51 by Finn
56. Chapter 52 by Finn
57. Chapter 53 by Finn
58. Chapter 54 by Finn
59. Chapter 55 by Finn
The voice sounded a long way away. Or perhaps it was a long way away. He couldn’t be sure any more. All his certainties had long evaporated.
Was it really him they were calling for? He wasn’t even certain of that.
Often he felt that Tristan had died out there too, and that he was some changeling, a pale imitation sent back in his stead. They hadn’t noticed yet, but sooner or later they were bound to spot that he wasn’t their brother, their son.
“Oh for pity’s sake...TRISTAN! Where are you?”
He sighed. The girl that was probably Sarah was coming for him. Sooner or later she would find him, and the game of charades would begin again. Sometimes he played well, and managed to behave as they expected. He could tell, because they would both smile and the sadness would briefly disappear from their eyes. Mostly, though, he got it wrong, and they would sigh, and wouldn’t look at each other.
He didn’t care too much. He just wanted to be left alone.
There was a rustle, and Sarah’s face appeared, followed by the rest of Sarah. She wasn’t as thin as him – it was hard for her to squeeze through the gap. He might have smiled at the sight, if he could remember how.
“Mother says, will you come in to lunch?” she asked. She waited for a response, but not hopefully, because she had not received one in the two months since he had come home. Or was it two years? Or five? Ten? He couldn't recall. Besides, he had forgotten what she had said, so he stared at her blankly until she went away again. He thought he heard a sob as she ran off down the garden, but what did the sobs of one girl matter? At night he heard the sobs of a whole regiment.
Was she really his sister?
Sometimes, he wanted to scream at them. When they wanted him to do something, say something, and grew angry when he did not, he wanted to scream, scream and never stop screaming. When that happened, he would take himself away from them, no matter what they were doing. He knew that this embarrassed his mother. She had stopped having guests round now, because she couldn’t trust her own son to behave.
She didn’t know how bad it could be.
He blinked. It was dark. Had he been there all day? He couldn’t remember. Had he eaten? He was hungry, so he dragged himself back to the house and into the pantry. He looked at the shelves, and recognised an apple, but after two bites it became sawdust in his mouth, so he put it down and sought refuge in his (no, their) bedroom. He sat on the bed and drew his knees up, rocking back and forth, endeavouring to stay awake. To sleep was to dream, and to dream was truly terrible.
In the night, he heard his mother crying, and his sister going in to comfort her. He might have cried himself, if there had been any tears left to cry. As it was, he fell asleep, and dreamed of mud, and of bodies, and of being crushed by tanks, and he awoke, as ever, with a yell. Moments later (or was it hours?) his sister appeared at the door, and for a moment he almost reached for her, but then he turned away and after a few minutes she went away and left him alone.
He stared at the wall. Poor Sarah, he thought, absently. Poor Mother. They did not deserve this.
Mollie Maynard was enjoying a rare afternoon of freedom, and she was making the most of it. The May sun was blazing down on the Tiern valley, and Mollie had bagged herself an outside table at the Kron Prinz Karl, near enough to the school in case she should be needed, but far enough away to allow her some peace and quiet. She sat beneath the huge umbrella that shaded the table, a jug of lemonade before her, and felt herself thoroughly content with the world.
She had been gazing up the valley towards the Mondscheinspitz, but she glanced back towards the lake path and caught sight of Sally Denny, red-faced with the heat, heading back towards the Villa Adalbert. She hailed her gladly, for she was fond of the young Italian mistress, though she did not know her especially well.
Miss Denny looked around, grinned, and waved, and then trotted over to greet the maths mistress. Mollie gestured at the seat beside her with her lemonade glass.
“Come and sit with me and have some lemonade. You look like you could do with it!” she added, as Sally came up, mopping her scarlet face with her handkerchief and panting in the afternoon sun.
“Couldn’t I just!” she exclaimed. “Isn’t it a scorcher? I thought a short walk would do me good, but it’s made me all hot and bothered instead!”
Mollie laughed, pouring her a glass. “You poor old thing! Have some of this, it’ll soon put you to rights.”
Sally accepted the glass gratefully, and flopped back into a chair, flapping her hat at her face.
“Is it always this hot in summer?” she demanded, and Mollie laughed at her indignant expression.
“Well, I’m no expert, but we certainly had some warm days last year,” she said, sipping from her own icy glass.
“It’s alright for you,” the Italian mistress grumbled, scowling at her companion. “You’re so light and slim, I doubt you feel the heat at all! Whereas I...” She gestured at her short, sturdy frame, and chuckled. “You’ve no notion of how I suffer! I tell you, I’ll be very glad when we’ve moved up to the cool air of the Sonnalpe.”
“Oh, of course,” Mollie said, “How is your brother now?”
“Better,” said Sally, a shadow passing over her face briefly. “Much better – for the present. But I shall be glad to get him up into the clearer air. He really has no idea about looking after himself, you know, so it shall be a great relief to have doctors on hand to be strict with him! I should never have left him alone in England for so long. If he’d had someone to look after him, perhaps he wouldn’t be as ill as he is now.”
“You can’t know that,” said Mollie, soothingly. “It might have been just as bad. You can’t blame yourself.”
“Oh I don’t, not really,” said Sally. “I know who to blame! I just wish I’d been more careful. Still,” she said decisively, “we’re here now, and that’s the main thing. Tell me about your holidays, my dear! I’m all agog to hear news of England – I’ve no idea when I shall be getting back myself, for as you know, I’m not exactly enamoured of the prospect of crossing the Channel!”
Mollie laughed, remembering Sally’s terror of the previous term, when the school had been flooded. A sea crossing was certainly not something the mistress would enjoy. They chattered about holidays, and England, and school, and the newly-formed guide company, and Mollie found herself delighting in the company of the straightforward and resourceful young woman, who clearly had a lot to bear, with her brother’s ill health, and who in spite of it all maintained a cheerful and lively outlook on life, finding joy and humour in the remotest of places. She was already able to laugh at her panic during the floods of the previous term, joking about her fears with such wit that before long they were both wiping away tears of laughter.
“Mind you,” she said when she had controlled her wild gurgles, "that’s something I’d rather not go through again, thank you. I really was terrified.”
“How long have you been afraid of water?” asked Mollie, suddenly curious.
“Oh,” she said, airily, “ages, my dear, ever since I was cast adrift in a little dinghy, aged seven, with no sail, no oars, no rudder and no way to get to shore. It took them three hours to get me back to land, and since that day, I have never voluntarily got into a boat unless there was absolutely no other way I could travel.” She shuddered. “Ugh! It was frightful! I can still remember it so vividly - it's like it was yesterday.”
“How on earth were you cast adrift?” cried Mollie, half-laughing again.
Sally’s face darkened.
“It was my brother,” she said, quietly. She was silent for a moment, the cloud still across her face, and then with an almost imperceptible effort she pulled herself together and smiled. Mollie, unable to imagine what had caused such a reaction, smiled uncertainly back, and was about to make a joke about Sally’s brother when that self-same fellow appeared around a bend in the lake path, a somewhat bemused expression on his face which cleared as he spied his sister sitting outside the hotel.
“There you are!” he exclaimed, sounding relieved. “I was beginning to wonder.”
“I am sorry, Mr Denny,” Mollie called out, “but I’m afraid I detained your sister with lemonade and gossip. I do hope you can forgive me!”
He bowed to her, smiling broadly. “How could I refuse forgiveness to such a charming maiden as yourself, Miss Maynard?” he said elegantly, and she giggled in spite of herself. “But I rather meant that I did not even know that Sarah was out walking to be so detained. How long have you been gone, my dear?” he questioned his sister.
“Oh, not quite an hour,” she replied, adding with a sudden snort of laughter, “I did say I would be gone as long when I put my head around your door to say I was going out!”
He looked at her blankly, confusion in his eyes. “You did?”
Miss Maynard struggled to keep herself from giggling along with his sister, who replied, “Yes - you remember, when you wished me a pleasant walk?”
Mr Denny frowned. “This I do not remember,” he complained.
“Mind like a sieve!” stated Sally, cheerfully, as she hopped up from her seat and hooked her arm through his. “Well, thank you for the lemonade and the chat, Mollie. We shall have to repeat this soon.”
“I should like that very much,” returned Mollie, and she watched as brother and sister went off, arm in arm.
They seem very close, she mused. I wonder if they have any other family, or if it’s just them?
However, she knew that such ponderings would get her nowhere, and judging by the sun she would soon be due back. She drained her glass, picked up her hat and wandered slowly back to the Chalet.
The tanks rolled ponderously forward towards the lines, lurching and jolting over the puckered wasteland, their tracks chucking up mud, barbed wire, and the odd body part. He watched them come, grey lumps of steel, rolling onwards, and he turned to run, and stumbled. The wire wrapped around his leg, the barbs tangling in his flesh and ripping it apart; and all the while the tanks came on, solemn and unstoppable, relentlessly crushing all in their way. Their tracks were inches from him; he could hear the cracking of his ankles as the tank pressed on, on, up, up, snapping his bones and splintering his ribs, crushing his cries...
He choked awake. It was dark. He gasped for air, sat up in bed, and then he remembered.
He could have cried, if there had been tears to cry.
It was dark. He assumed it was night.
It was also raining.
When it rained hard, the rain drummed on the windowpanes and it sounded like rain hitting corrugated iron sheets, so when it rained hard he left his room and sat at the top of the stairs, in the way, until Mother snapped at him, and then he retreated to the bottom of the stairs and sat in the corner, hugging his knees. She liked that even less, and would usually let him go back onto the stairs again. Sometimes Sarah would sit beside him for a while, but tonight she didn’t, presumably because it was night time and she was asleep in bed. He sat alone in the dark, with a blanket, which wasn’t as bad as lying in bed listening to the rain hitting the corrugated iron sheets of the dugout.
He tried to think about something, anything, but the thoughts slipped away from him like the eels they had tried to catch with their hands, bare-legged in the lake water, hot sun beating down onto their browned skin. Those happy children were long gone, some further than others. He tried to remember them but couldn’t, so he gave up the memory and leaned against the wall.
Suddenly, he felt something, someone, looming out of the darkness. It looked down at him accusingly. “Where are those children?" it demanded, its voice shaking the house. "Where have they gone? What have you done to them?”
He shrank back before the anger, trying to hide behind the blanket. I’m sorry, he cried, silently. I did it, it was me, it was my fault. I should have looked after them.
Later that day, he looked out of the window. Sarah was at the gate, talking to a friend. He heard her laughter, an unfamiliar sound.
The rain had stopped.
Today had been his birthday, or at least, in former years it had been Tristan’s birthday. At least, he thought it was. He had slept for most of the day, and hadn’t dreamed much. He wasn’t sure what time it was, or what day it was, but he thought it was Tristan’s birthday.
There had been no celebration. They didn’t celebrate the birthdays of dead people in this house. There was a birthday in December that they didn’t celebrate any longer, and last month there had been a birthday that had been pointedly missed. Now it was his turn, and there was nothing.
I am not alive, he thought. I am not he, he is not I. He is dead.
Sarah’s friend waved at him. Why was she waving? What a silly girl, he thought, and forgot about her. He looked at Sarah, who did not wave to him.
I am not here, he thought. He is not here. We do not celebrate the birthdays of dead people in this house.
He is not here, he signalled to Sarah. He is dead.
But Sarah did not understand, so he turned away.
I’m sorry. He is dead. I did it. I’m sorry.
The next time Mollie Maynard saw Sally Denny, she was looking tired and there were shadows under her eyes, but she brushed it aside as airily as ever.
“It’s nothing, my dear,” she assured Mollie when she questioned her. “I just had a disturbed night, that’s all.”
“Oh dear,” said the maths mistress. “Did something wake you?”
“Oh, it was my...er, just my brother, having a bad dream,” Sally explained, seemingly caught off guard. “He gave a shout and woke me up too, you see, and I always feel a bit heartless if I don’t knock on the door and check he’s alright.”
“Always?” Mollie thought, wondering about Sally’s choice of words.
Aloud she asked, “Does he often have nightmares, then?”
Sally flushed slightly. “Oh, only occasionally,” she said, evasively. “Well, we all do, don’t we?”
Mollie did not, but she seldom dreamed in any fashion, for she was not especially imaginative. Still, she saw no reason to doubt the elder woman’s words, and she let it pass and moved onto a more pleasant topic of conversation.
When Sally’s brother came to take the singing lessons a little later that afternoon, Mollie could see no trace of tiredness about him. Quite the contrary – he was full of his usual vigorous energy, a character trait that brother and sister generally shared, and the singing of the girls that day was especially lively. He gave Mollie a courteous greeting in the hallway as he was leaving, and then turned back just as he was about to leave and called to her.
“I almost forgot,” he said apologetically, “but my sister wanted me to give you this.” He handed her a note, and as Mollie took it he added, “I believe she wishes you to come for Kaffee with her one afternoon this week.”
“Oh, how kind,” said Mollie. “Please tell her that I shall certainly come, but I shall have to check which day. I’ll write and let her know.”
He bowed to her, smilingly, bade her a good afternoon, and disappeared homewards.
What was a memory? What was a dream? Which memories were dreams; which dreams memories? Was this the dream – would he wake any minute and find himself back there? He half-hoped so – if it were a dream, perhaps they wouldn’t be dead.
Not that he was certain that he was dead, any more. A few days ago (or was it a few weeks?) he had been convinced of it but since that day, doubt had crept in.
Sarah and Mother seemed to think he was alive. Maybe he was.
But if he were alive, why did it feel like he was in hell? He was going to hell; he was convinced of that – no-one could end up in heaven after what he had done.
His thoughts shied away from that, slipping around the edge of it like water on glass. He lay back, exhausted, and shut his eyes.
He didn’t want to go back, not really.
In the afternoon, Sarah came into his (their) bedroom, carrying a bowl of hot water and his razor. He was still on the bed, and he watched as she put them down on the washstand and picked up his towel. Then she turned to face him.
“It’s about time we got that beard off your face,” she said, briskly. “It doesn’t suit you, my lamb.”
He stared up at her.
“Come on, Tristan,” she pleaded. “You’ll feel heaps better after, I know you will.”
Who could know anything like that? he wondered, marvelling at her certainty.
Then she planted both hands on her hips and snapped,
“Tristan Denny, you sit up right now!”
Anger in Sarah? How strange. Even stranger was the fact that he was obeying her, levering himself up so that he was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at her mutely. Her eyes, he noted, filled with tears momentarily, and her lips trembled a little, but she blinked firmly and managed a smile.
“Thank you,” she said, softly, sitting down in his chair, facing him. “Now are you going to shave yourself, or shall I do it for you?”
She did it, in the end. He tried, but his movements were so slow and his hands trembled so much that she took the razor from him and with swift, tender motions removed the two months’ (or was it two years’?) growth of hair from his face, rinsing the razor clean in the hot water. She was so near – she was touching him, but it didn’t matter. It was...strange. He felt traces of something he had not felt in months (years?), something he had forgotten (or had he dreamed it?) – it was not painful, it was...
She took the towel, wiped his face clean, and patted his cheek lightly.
“There,” she said, with a tremulous smile, “much better.” She chuckled a little. “Now I have a brother who looks less like a caveman!”
He didn’t understand; humour escaped him, but he could see that she was happy. He found that he wanted her to be happy more often.
Suddenly she dropped the towel and flung her arms about his neck, clinging to him so that he could hear her heartbeat.
Her heart beats. She is alive.
Am I alive too?
Moments later she let go and quickly gathered up the shaving things and hurried out. He lay back and stared upwards.
Outside the door he heard Mother saying quietly, excitedly,
“Did he do it?” and Sarah replied, in the same low, vibrant tone,
“No, but he let me. And he responded to me, Mother! He sat up when I asked him to! I believe we’ve broken through to him at last!”
He stared at the ceiling. Broken through, had they, with hot water and soap? What silly, silly women. Did they think it would be all over by Christmas?
Mollie Maynard caught up with the singing master two days later as he was about to leave; he had his hat in his hand, and flourished it at her as she came hurrying up.
“Hullo, Mr Denny!” she exclaimed. “Forgive me using you as a messenger, but could you let your sister know that I can come over tomorrow? I have an hour or so spare then, you see – quite enough for Kaffee.”
“Certainly I shall tell her,” he smiled. “Just let me write it down lest I forget.” He put his hat down to search for a pen and some paper, and scribbled a short note to remind himself. Mollie watched, smiling, and then said,
“And I shall look forward to learning more about your exploits with the boat!”
He looked at her, an eyebrow raised, and she added, “You know, when you set your sister adrift and she was floating helplessly for three hours before being rescued.”
She expected him to laugh, but he darkened suddenly, much as Sally had the other day, and said, vaguely,
“Oh, but that was not me.”
She hesitated, unsure of what he meant, but he folded his note, pushed it into his pocket and, giving her a brief nod rather than the usual bow, strode out of the school.
When he returned twenty minutes later to collect his hat, his merry mood was back and Mollie saw him swinging down the path with almost a dancing step. He caught sight of her at the window, and swept off his hat in an elaborate bow to her – presumably, she supposed, to make up for his earlier abrupt exit.
What a very strange man he is, she thought, amused, and hurried off downstairs to bid the girls to ready themselves for a walk.
Dirt flew, spraying into the trench. Tin-hatted soldiers cowered; some prayed, some wept. One was trying to finish his letter home – did he fear it was his last chance? Shrapnel scattered across them, peppering them with hot metal, and soldiers shrieked as the razor shards struck flesh and shattered bone. The air was thick with the sharp smell of ammunition, of scorching metal and burning skin, and with the heavier stink of human waste – the stench of fear – when terror took control of men’s bodies and voided them as they crouched in the mud.
Huddled together in one corner, sandwiched between sandbags, two soldiers were singing; not one of the usual soldier songs but an old Elizabethan motet. Hand gripping hand, voices almost inaudible above the din, they sang together, fighting fear with music.
Then came another crash, louder than any other, flinging mud and dirt into his face and ringing in the ears long after it had passed. The ground shook; sandbags tumbled.
He stared wildly around. Dazed, confused; shapes, dancing movements, flashes of light resolved into explosions, fires, running soldiers. Someone grabbed him by the shoulders, hauled him up, and dragged him along, stumbling, to safety. He was dropped to the floor; he could hear nothing, saw only the filthy duckboards on which he was lying. Struggled up, looked around him, frantically. Here, there, soldiers everywhere, wounded, weeping, bleeding; yet nowhere could he spy the one that had sung with him.
He put his head down in the mud again, and tried to cry.
When Mollie arrived for Kaffee at the Villa Adalbert the following afternoon, she found her hosts in the middle of a pantomime: Sally was standing by the stairs, looking faintly amused, while her brother walked back and forth between the Speisesaal and the staircase, pausing at random intervals on the way, frowning with confusion and gesticulating with his hands.
As she came up the conversation was running thus:
“Maybe it was...no, no.”
“No, not that. What was it?”
“What was what, pet?”
“Oh, I wish I could remember...”
There was a pause as she arrived, and Sally turned to greet her with a grin.
“He’s forgotten something,” she explained, sotto voce.
“Ah,” returned Mollie, in similarly hushed tones. “Any idea what?”
“Not the foggiest,” whispered his sister, as Mr. Denny returned along his trajectory to stand before them.
“It’s gone,” he announced. “I have no idea what it might have been, and it has gone.”
“Well, it can’t have been that important,” observed his sister cheerfully, patting his arm.
“No,” he agreed, brightening up. “Good afternoon, Miss Maynard. You are here for Kaffee? Well, I hope that you both have a pleasant afternoon.”
“Oh, are you not joining us?” asked Mollie, embarrassed to feel slightly relieved that the eccentric singing master was apparently not planning to attend.
“No,” his sister answered, firmly. “You are going to rest, aren’t you, my dear?” she said, with a threatening tone in her voice.
Her brother raised his hands in a gesture of submission. “I am going to rest,” he parroted, teasingly, then bent and gave his sister a kiss, which she returned. “Good afternoon, Miss Maynard. Enjoy your Kaffee!”
With that, he bounded off up the stairs, and Mollie turned to Sally with a giggle.
“What a palaver!” Sally said, wiping her forehead in mock-exhaustion.
“Does he often run about like that when he’s forgotten something?” asked Mollie.
“Oh, always!” said Sally, and burst out laughing, the maths mistress joining her. “Oh, but he’s so funny, though, the way his mind works – or doesn’t, most of the time! He’s always been that way. He used to dream for hours, and he’d say the funniest things when he came out of them. I tell you, Mollie, I’ve never been able to keep up with him. I need a translator! Maybe I should give up on Modern Languages and just try to learn to understand my brother!”
Mollie laughed as they walked into the Speisesaal. “It sounds like it can be hard work sometimes,” she observed, as they sat at a little window table looking out onto the lake.
Sally shook her head, wearily. “It is, quite a lot of the time,” she grinned.
“Doesn’t it ever bother you, having to look after him.” asked Mollie, intrigued, but Sally shook her head vigorously.
“What, bother me to look after my brother? Not in the slightest. He needs careful looking after, and, really, I’m the best person to do it. And I am not going to begrudge a moment of my time spent looking after him, not one moment. He’s all I have, and I nearly lost him once. I’ve no mind to do it again.”
She looked quite fierce as she sat there, her eyes turned away from Mollie, staring out over the lake. Then she shook her head slightly and turned back to the table.
“All the same, I wish he weren’t so forgetful,” she said, the exasperated note returning to her voice. “But it’s not the same for everything, of course. If it’s music, or related to music, he’s as sharp as ever you like! But ask him to pay the same attention to something he doesn’t care about, and you might as well be asking a…a cat to sing the national anthem!”
Mollie gurgled with laughter at this quaint turn of phrase. “He does seem most forgetful,” she observed. “Why, the other day when I mentioned you telling me about your getting stranded on that boat, he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about!”
Sally frowned at her. “What do you mean?” she queried, warily.
“Well,” said Mollie, “you said it was he that had set you adrift, but he denied all knowledge of it – said it wasn’t him.”
“Oh!” Sally looked relieved. “I’m sorry, Mollie. I suppose I wasn’t really very clear. It’s a little difficult, for me, you see. I mean, we don’t talk about him much. Or at all, really,” she explained, confusedly. “And I launch into these stories at times and then I remember, but by then it’s too late. It wasn’t Tristan that I meant, you see, when I said my brother had set me adrift. It wasn’t him at all, you see, it was Eddie. My other brother.”
He opened his eyes, or tried to. When no light appeared, he reached up and touched where his eyes should have been, and found gauze bandages.
He levered himself upright in the darkness, and tried to call out, but his cry of, “Hello? Nurse?” emerged from his throat as an almost soundless croak. He tried again, but to his growing horror his voice would not work.
Hot silence all around him; sweaty blackness and hollow loneliness pressed in on all sides. He tugged the bandages gently, then tore at them, whimpering with terror as the pressure around him increased, until finally he glimpsed shapes in the darkness. So he wasn’t blind, at least.
He staggered upright and found himself in a corridor, obscure and formless and endless. He struggled along it, hands groping along the walls to balance himself. He was searching, desperately, searching for something important, and as he did so, shapes began to loom at him out of the shadows, stretching out to trip him and to snatch at him. He broke into a run, gasping, frantic, trying to scream, until he fell, headlong...
He was sitting in the parlour with Sarah, who was pretending to read. She did not turn any pages, and kept glancing at him over the top of the book. He hated her for it, but couldn’t remember how to stop her.
People always wanted things from you, he remembered. If he thought back to before, he could remember how much of life was spent trying not to upset people, trying to fit in, to obey.
But he had forgotten the rules. They had gone, along with so much else.
He wasn’t sure he could still read. When he looked at a page, the words tended to blur, and he forgot what they meant, or how the sentence had started.
He could hear the upstairs floorboards creaking as they settled, and in the kitchen a tap was dripping.
He realised that he couldn’t remember where Mother was.
He wondered idly if his thoughts would always be this disordered. Surely it should be possible to remember things from one minute to the next, to link thoughts together. Or would time forever now proceed in this random manner, with hours that passed in the blink of an eye and with minutes that stretched indefinitely?
The silence was beginning to swell and fill the space around them and within them, and Sarah was still flicking glances his way every few minutes. He could not move, he could not speak – the mere thought of such an effort was draining him as he sat – and yet he could not stand to stay, with Sarah looking at him and with the threatening silence squatting upon their backs.
But how did one break the silence?
He wished he could remember.
The sun was beating the grass into submission, toasting it to a pale yellow and shrivelling the weeds in their cracks between the stones. He felt it, absently, burning at his skin. He was outside, where birdsong made silence impossible. He couldn’t remember how he had got here, but he did remember the overturned rocking chair, and Sarah’s choked-back tears. Was it something he had done?
He wished he could remember.
He lay on his back and stared into blue heavens. There were no clouds passing across the sky, and therefore time had frozen. He didn’t mind that. Sometimes it helped him remember.
On such a day...
On such a day as this, they would have...together, they would have...
The very moment that breakfast was over, two boys hurtled out of the house and raced down towards the boathouse, clutching packets of sandwiches under their arms and ignoring the indignant cries of the young girl whom they had left behind. Hurling their packages into the bows of the boat, the elder hopped in while the younger busied himself with releasing the little dinghy from her moorings, throwing himself aboard at the last moment as his brother propelled her out of the boathouse and onto the lake proper. Sails were run up the mast, and the younger settled himself in the bows with the jibsheet, while the elder took the mainsheet and tiller, guiding the small craft expertly out into the wide waters. What would they be today? Sometimes they fought with Red Indians, sometimes they were Eskimos fishing through ice, even in the heat of the summer. Occasionally the rudder would be snared by a great Amazonian water snake or the tentacles of a giant squid, and then the boys would dive in and do battle with the great monsters, fighting them off with agile skill. They would head to land, where they would become pioneers striking out into uncharted territories, or pirates hiding their stolen booty.
Sometimes they were soldiers, heading off to war.
Those long summer days, which burned them nut-brown and strengthened muscle and sinew, which saw them returning late and to a thorough scolding, night after night, those long summer days stretched ahead of him now, aching, empty, terrifying. He did not know whether he could stand it.
So long, so hot...
He found his way to the boathouse, and pulling at the door felt like tugging at the edges of a half-healed wound; it was stiff and unyielding, and he felt something deep, something painful, as he broke through the rust and swollen wood and stumbled over the threshold.
There she was, old Blackbird, just as they had left her, the last time they had taken her out. How long ago? Had he touched her last?
He did not touch her. He did not go near her. He skirted round the edge of her, trying to forget things like he is dead.
There was a sound in the doorway, and there was Sarah, keeping her distance from Blackbird as she always had done, but watching him carefully from the threshold, her eyes worried. He remembered that he had caused her pain earlier that day, and felt suddenly sorry for it. He went towards her, stood in front of her, and her eyes brightened and she took his arm, quickly, drawing him with her away from the boat and towards the house.
He let her lead him. He did not mind; in fact, he realised that he was glad to see her. And when she paused, briefly, to open the gate, he lifted an arm and put it around her shoulders.
Their eyes met, properly, for the first time in a long while. Sarah smiled at him.
He almost smiled back.
Mollie started at this revelation. “Oh!” she exclaimed. “I’m sorry, I’d no idea you’ve another brother.”
“Why should you?” said Sally, wearily. “It’s not as if I’ve ever mentioned him.” She raised stricken eyes to meet Mollie’s. “He fell at Passchendaele, you see. We don’t talk about him much.”
Her gaze drifted towards the lake. “Actually, we don’t talk about him at all,” she sighed.
Mollie hesitated, unsure of what to say. “I’m sorry,” seemed too trite, too simple, and yet what else could one say? Fortunately Sally solved her dilemma by turning back with a shaky laugh and saying,
“But yes, it was Eddie that was the cause of all my watery woes. I don’t think he meant to, but he let me loose when I was just learning how to sail, and that was the end of that! I’ve never willingly got into a boat again.”
Mollie smiled along with her. Her mind was racing and at least a dozen questions were thronging in her mind, but she was conscious of Sally’s pained expression when she had mentioned the dead brother, and did not want to upset her further. Finally she asked, somewhat hesitantly,
“What was he like, your brother?”
The speed at which Sally seized on the question startled Mollie. Her face lit up with delight and fond reminiscence, as she said,
“Oh, he was such fun. He was one of those people that everyone loves. He had such a tremendous lot of friends! When we...when the news got out, the letters, my word, the letters we received! We simply could not believe it – heaps of them, from fellow soldiers, school chums, his university friends, his friends and his colleagues in London – we even had one from his professor at Cambridge! People we had never met, writing to tell us how much he had meant to them, and how much they missed him. I think that they gave my mother a lot of strength. Parents aren’t supposed to have favourites, but they do, don’t they? And Eddie was Mother’s favourite. He was everything a mother could want from her son – clever, friendly, kind, popular, and successful, too. He had just finished his law degree, you know, and had a place in a London firm waiting for him for when he got back. Mother was devastated when we got the telegram. And when the second one came, when Tristan was missing in action...”
She broke off, and bit her lip, a haunted expression creeping into her face. Mollie reached across the table and took Sally’s hand, squeezing it slightly, and the elder woman looked up and smiled gratefully.
“It was horrible,” she said. “Simply horrible. Waiting and not knowing, not even daring to hope...”
Her voice trailed away, but Mollie nodded sympathetically. “It sounds ghastly,” she agreed. “I remember when Bob, my older brother, was away. We didn’t really understand, we young ones, but it was clear there was something wrong. The house became so quiet. They tried to hide their worry, Mother and Father, but they couldn’t fool us. We knew there was something up. It was a bad time.”
She paused, and Sally nodded fervently. Mollie shook herself a little, and said, brightly, “Well, let’s hope there is never another war like it.”
“I’ll drink to that!” cried Sally, raising her coffee cup and smiling faintly. Mollie grinned, and chinked her cup against Sally’s, and they both drank and then turned their heads to gaze out of the window down to the lake. Sally’s eyes were distant and sorrowful; Mollie found herself wondering about Eddie, and about Sally’s younger brother, the one she called Mr Denny, and this new revelation that he had presumably fought in the Great War – hadn’t Sally said “Missing in action”? Perhaps that made a few things clearer, though Mollie could not imagine him in army uniform – his choice of clothing now was most eccentric, to say the least, and that was without mentioning his long, wild hair. Very much the antithesis of orderly, regulated army dress, she should have thought.
Sally, still gazing down to the water, broke the little silence that had fallen by saying, sadly, “Eddie would have loved it here. He was very fond of sailing – he would have enjoyed exploring the Tiernsee.”
Mollie was about to open her mouth and ask another question about him, when a slight shadow fell on the table and she looked up to find Mr Denny was standing beside them. He looked pale, and more tired than he had before he had gone to rest.
Sally, shaken out of her usual composure, gaped at him for a moment, and cried, “Tristan! I thought you were resting!”
If she sounded somewhat guilty and embarrassed, he did not seem to notice as he shook his head, wearily. “I tried,” he said, “but, alas, without notable success, and I did not like to remain upstairs alone so I have come down to you.”
Brother and sister shared an understanding look, which Mollie noted, and Sally said, “Well, sit down with us and have some coffee. You don’t mind, do you, Mollie?”
“Not in the least,” said Mollie, but as he sat down with them she observed in his eyes a slightly strained, haunted look similar to the earlier one in Sally’s eyes, and she remembered the significant look that had passed between the siblings; and while the conversation drifted along new lines, she found herself becoming very thoughtful indeed.
Sometimes, just after he woke up, there would be a moment of blissful calm, during which he forgot everything and just felt, with unusual clarity, everything around him – the sheets on the bed, the fresh morning air and the happy birdsong outside his window. It could last for seconds before awareness returned, and the chill numbness crept back in.
That was the very worst part of the day.
He shut his eyes again.
When Sarah came into his room and said that she was going into town and asked him if he wanted to come with her, his first impulse was to decline the invitation, but just recently he had managed to look her in the eye several more times, and she had responded so happily that he felt strangely unwilling to refuse her. Besides, he was growing to hate his (their) room. He looked at her for a long moment, because he was trying to move his limbs, and eventually, just as she was turning to go without him, he struggled slowly to his feet and followed her through the door. She smiled at him, pleased, and helped him put on his jacket and tie his shoes.
Their progress was halting, but Sarah kept pace with his faltering steps. The birds were piping their little tunes and the day was cloudy. It was almost pleasant. He let Sarah slip her arm through his and even looked her in the eye again, but joined together their progress was even more stumbling and awkward, and she laughed and let go, and then took his hand instead. She tried to make him look at her again, but he kept his eyes fixed on the ground. They were getting further away from home, and he was growing uncomfortable.
On their way towards town, they ran into Willie Greenfield and his sisters. Willie limped badly, for he had lost a leg in the war and had a wooden prop where flesh once had been. Julia, darkly pretty, was hanging onto his arm, glowing with pride in her brave, strong brother, while little Betsy, who was not so little now, who had grown up in the last four years, came skipping girlishly along behind them. Sarah gazed at Julia and Betsy with envy in her brown eyes, for they had got almost all of their brother back, while she had only one brother left, and there was not much left of him.
Willie hailed them both with great energy, and lurched towards them cheerily, leaning on sister Julia’s arm. His keen eyes were on him, sweeping up and down, examining him closely. He looked away from that firm gaze, looked away from everything, away out to the lake; he heard Willie speak to Sarah, and heard her reply. Julia added a third voice. He did not join in, kept his head turned aside; he wanted to run away from them all, down to the lakeside, but held himself back. His hand was still in Sarah’s; he would have had to take her with him if he had run, and she did not like lakes.
His eyes flicked back to them, and he saw Betsy eyeing him from behind her brother. He realised they were all watching him, covertly, even Sarah, and he disliked it. Then Willie asked him something. He did not listen to the question, but stared blankly back at him, and saw in Willie’s eyes understanding, and...was it compassion?
He tugged Sarah’s hand and she extricated them and they went on their way, but as they left he heard Betsy say, “What’s wrong with Tristan?”
Julia replied, “He’s gone loopy, of course.”
But Willie said, “Don’t be cruel, Jules. Tristan must have had a bad time of it. Some chaps got it worse than others. It wasn’t fun and games out there, you know.”
"Well, you didn't go funny," Julia said. “I know loopy when I see it, and he’s loopy.”
Betsy said, “He certainly looked funny – all blank and weird. I’ve never seen anyone look like that before,” and Julia said, “Tristan’s always been odd though, he’s weird through and through. Is it really any wonder that the war’s sent him mad?” and Willie said, sharply, “Shut up, both of you.”
Then they were out of earshot, and Sarah was crying. He couldn’t stand it and broke away from her and ran, ran into the woods that flanked the road and onwards, away from them all, and all the while her wail of “Tristan!” trailed after him, insubstantial as the breeze.
Evening. He had crept in late, and slipped up to his (their) room before anyone saw. But now it was raining, so he was back on the stairs again. Mother was going back and forth in the hallway, and she kept casting glances at him; sad, scornful glances. A man, a grown man, frightened of the rain, my son, the coward who runs away from the rain, my son, the brave soldier, who is too scared to speak, afraid of the rain and of his own voice, who runs away from his old friends and leaves his sister crying in the road. What a shame, she seemed to say. What a shame that it should be him they sent back. Why couldn’t it have been him? He would never behave like that. He was a proper man.
He hid his face in his arms, ashamed. Mother’s accusing voice followed him upstairs. He was a brave soldier, she mocked him. He wouldn’t have gone mad.
I know, he thought. I know. He was always braver. I’m sorry. It was my fault. I didn’t mean to do it. I’m sorry. Just let me rest now. Please, just a little peace.
Mollie visited Sally Denny several times in the following weeks, but the conversation had remained firmly restricted to more banal and cheerful subjects and at no point had they returned to the subject of Sally’s brother. Mollie, who though wildly curious had refrained from asking anything herself, hoping that Sally would come to it in her own time, had begun to think she would never learn anything further. However, this week they had arranged to meet at the Kron Prinz Karl for a change of scene, and as they took a table in the Speisesaal , Mollie noted that Sally was tense and fidgety, quite unlike her usual self. The reason became clear, as once their order had been taken, she faced Mollie and said, abruptly.
“Our chat the other week, it’s had me thinking. Mollie, do you mind if I talk to you about...about him, about my brother? It’s been so long since I...Mother never wanted to talk about it, and if ever I mention him to Tristan he pretends not to hear me and changes the subject. They were so close, of course, Tristan and...and Eddie. I think he wants to forget. I feel like I’m forgetting him myself. I hadn’t even spoken his name for years, until I told you about him. But I don’t want to forget him. Do you mind, my dear? I need to speak about him, just a little.”
Mollie shook her head, her curiosity piqued and her heart touched by this little rambling speech. “Of course,” she said. “Talk away. What do you want to tell me about him?”
Sally paused, looked away, shook her head nervously. “I don’t really know!” she admitted. “There is so much to say that I don’t know where to start.”
“Well then,” said Mollie, remembering their earlier conversation, “what if I ask some questions about him? That should get us started and we’ll see how it goes.”
Sally nodded her agreement, and Mollie picked through the questions she had been wanting to ask ever since she first heard of this other brother, and began with a simple one.
“What did he look like? Was he like Mr Denny?”
“Oh, not at all,” cried Sally, amused. “No, nothing like. Much more like me. Eddie and I were very similar – Tristan was always the odd one. No, Eddie wasn’t like him at all. He was shorter, for one thing, and...well-built, I suppose. Chunky. Very tough. He played rugby for his college at Cambridge.”
“Very impressive!” said Mollie admiringly, and Sally smiled her pride.
“Yes, he was always good at sports, but rugby was his passion. He joined up with his rugby mates, in one of those horrendous Pals battalions. Not that he was forced, though – he volunteered quite willingly, so I’ve heard, though he was always such a peaceful soul. He hated violence, never got into fights – he was always the one to stop them whenever they started. He used to say that a man only used his fists if his mouth was lacking in wit and his heart in love.” Her eyes were wistful. “He got that from Dad. Well, what else can you expect from a parson’s son? But he certainly had wit and love enough.”
“What on earth did your father say, then, when he heard he was going to war?” asked Mollie, intrigued.
Sally laughed hollowly. “He never knew. He died...oh, about five or six years before the war. Thank goodness he never lived to see it. He would have been horrified to see his sons going off to war.” She paused. “Mother was horrified, of course. She did all she could to talk him out of it. And then when Tristan said that if Eddie was joining up he was going too...Mother was furious! He was too young! But he was tall, and no-one ever questioned him, and he got to join Eddie in his battalion.”
“Goodness,” said Mollie. “Did that really happen? How wrong it all seems! And you and your poor mother, left alone back here in England – how terrible for you both.”
“It was rotten, my dear,” said Sally. “Poor Mother. The strain she suffered – I think it helped her to her early grave, you know, she suffered so much. But where Eddie went, Tristan went – in war as in life. Well like I said, they were always so close, and Tristan wasn’t going to let Eddie head off into danger alone. Oh,” she cried, “how I wish they hadn’t gone. But it’s too late now. Poor boys. My poor, poor boys.” Her voice trailed off, and she stared down at her plate.
He awoke, suddenly, from a blissfully dreamless sleep. The warm air was heavy on him. All quiet in the house. It was daylight, but no-one stirred. He flung back the bedclothes, struggling to breathe, alarmed by the silence.
He could hear bells. Churchbells.
Of course! It must be Sunday. They would be at church.
He hadn’t been to church since...for quite a time. Church seemed empty, now, futile. Besides, Mother never took him; he was too mad to leave the house. The walk into town had proved that much.
But it was Dad’s place. Well, it had been. Dad was dead, and so was he, and so was he, maybe; all the men, all ghosts together. When he was a boy he had thought Dad’s ghost was still there, in the church, drifting in and out of vestry and pulpit, coaxing spiritual notes from the organ, hovering in the choir stalls, delivering misty sermons to silent pews in the dead of night. When he was a boy he had wanted to go to church in the night, to see if Dad really were there, but he wouldn’t let him. “Dad’s dead,” he’d said. “Let him be, Tris.”
Well, now he was dead too. And so was he, possibly. He thought about Dad’s spirit some more. It might be nice, he thought, to go to church, to see another ghost, to talk to him in ghost-tongue – especially now he could no longer manage human language. He got out of bed and pulled on clothes, any clothes, and scuffled downstairs and out of the house. There was no-one to stop him from going. There was no-one there at all.
Mollie saw a tear drip onto Sally’s plate, and fished in her pocket and offered a handkerchief, which was gratefully accepted.
“Don’t mind if I cry, dear,” Sally said, mopping her eyes. “It may have been ten years ago but it’s still...still there, if you know what I mean. I’ll carry on in a moment. Ask me another question.”
Caught unawares, Mollie asked the first question that came to mind. “What is Eddie short for? Edward?”
“No,” said Sally. “Edgar. Mother’s choice,” she added.
“What an interesting selection of names your family have!” observed Mollie.
“Yes,” said Sally, “it is rather a mix, isn’t it? Mother chose names for Eddie and me, but when Tristan came along, Dad pointed out that she’d had her way twice and that it wasn’t really fair, so she gave in and Dad got his way, and he ended up as ‘Tristan’. He loved Wagner, Dad did, and Tristan was his favourite. I’m just lucky Mother put her foot down over me, otherwise I might have ended up as Isolde!”
Mollie stifled a giggle at that, for the name did not suit Sally one bit. “Thank heavens for that,” she said, attempting seriousness, and Sally nodded vigorously.
“I count myself very fortunate,” she intoned solemnly, and they caught each other’s eyes and burst out laughing.
When their laughter abated, they fell silent for a time, both gazing out of the window. It was another glorious day and the meadow between the hotel and the lake path was covered in marguerites and heartsease, violet gentians and little red poppies, their tall heads nodding in the breeze. The sun glinted off the lake surface in brilliant white streaks, and they could hear the voices of children as they went running along the lakeside. Sally regarded them with a wistful melancholy. She murmured something that Mollie did not catch, and sighed heavily.
“The last time I saw him, the weather was like this,” she said. “Beautiful May sunshine, scarcely a cloud in the sky. He took Blackbird – our boat – out.” She gave a silent, mocking, snort of laughter. “For the last time. Not that he knew, of course. He was different, that time,” she continued. “He was darker, quieter. And so sad. I remember when we went to church – I saw the tears in his eyes as we were singing the hymns. It was so odd, to see my big brother crying, and crying in church.” She hesitated. “Do you know, Mollie, I believe he was scared. No, I’m sure of it. I think he was terrified. When he said goodbye to us, he clung to me like...like it was the last time...”
She broke off and her head dropped into her hands and she curled over, her shoulders shaking with sudden, desperate sobs. Mollie jumped up, alarmed, and hurried round the table to comfort her, putting an arm around her shoulders and stroking her hair as Sally leaned on her, weeping broken-heartedly, murmuring that it was alright, don’t cry sweetheart, it will be alright...
After a time, Sally took some deep breaths and sat up again, trying earnestly to pull herself together. She smiled wanly at Mollie, then looked ruefully at the crumpled handkerchief she was clutching in damp hands.
“I seem to have soggied this up rather,” she observed, and gave a shaky sort of laugh, her breath still catching a little. “I am sorry.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Mollie, smiling reassuringly at her and giving her shoulders a little shake. “Keep it. For now, at least,” she added, seeing Sally about to protest.
The elder woman smiled gratefully, and folded it into her pocket, before running both hands over her face and hair, and breathing deeply.
“I must look a mess,” she said. “Where are the Splasheries? I shall go and wash my face and tidy up a bit, I think.”
Mollie pointed her in the right direction, and while Sally disappeared to tidy herself, she settled up with Herr Braun. The hotel proprietor was naturally concerned about Sally, but she fended off his enquiries with some innocuous remarks, and by the time that Sally had returned, looking considerably better for having freshened up, he was quite satisfied and had left to attend to other customers. Sally herself was inclined to be rather embarrassed for having caused a scene, but since the Speisesaal had been mostly empty, with the majority of customers sitting outside in the lovely sunshine, Mollie was able to reassure her.
As they were parting ways, Sally turned back to her.
“I’m sorry to have acted the fool today, Mollie, but I tell you, I feel heaps better already, just from talking about him that little bit. Do you think you and I could talk about him...about Eddie again some time? It’s really...well, it’s been hard but...I need to, you see.”
“Of course,” Mollie said warmly, and then suddenly she embraced Sally, and held her close. “Any time you need, day or night, just come to me and I’ll be there,” she said.
Sally hugged her back, tightly, and as they drew apart she smiled at Mollie gratefully.
“Thank you,” she whispered, then turned and hurried off towards the Villa Adalbert.
The church was not far, but it took him a few minutes to get there. He was tired with the effort and stopped to lean on the gate to the churchyard, where Dad and he had sat many times, the warm summer breezes ruffling their hair and the scent of jasmine and rose sweetly embracing them. He leaned against the worn wooden gate and stared at the church as though seeing it for the first time. Dad’s home, as he’d thought of it for so long. He remembered past Sundays, Dad in the pulpit, sermonising; Sarah and him fidgeting in the pews (he could always see them; he sat almost facing them, and he would make faces at him to put him off the notes); the wheezy old organ, which was forever being mended and yet still rasped and hissed through the hymns each week; the little mice carved into the choir stalls, which he had imagined scurrying around the pews after dark, all swapping places before they settled down in time for morning.
Children’s thoughts. He shook them out of his head, gathered himself together, and walked along the path to the church door.
Should he knock? No, not on his own father’s door, surely.
Muffled voices struggled through the heavy wood. He pressed an ear to the door, then a hand; he pushed against it, it yielded, and he stepped through.
Mollie ran into Sally in the school a couple of days later, and the Italian mistress was her usual cheery self, unruffled by the latest doings of the Middles, which she recounted to Mollie and Mademoiselle Lepattre with great amusement, though she avowed that she would "gladly wring their little necks” if they persisted in such cheekiness. However, when Mademoiselle left to attend to her next class, Sally became suddenly hesitant, fidgeting a little, before she finally asked,
“If you think you can manage it, would you come round to the hotel on Saturday next week? Tristan is running down to Innsbruck for the day,” she added, “so we should have the run of the place in the afternoon. If you’re free…if you think you can…I mean...I’d like to talk about Eddie again, you see.”
Mollie agreed enthusiastically. She was growing very fond of the little Italian mistress, and she saw how badly she needed to talk. Not only that, but she had her own share of human curiosity, and was intrigued to find out more about Sally’s past. They agreed to meet at two, and Mr Denny would not return until six at the earliest, so they would have plenty of time to talk. Sally was keen not to concern her brother too greatly, especially as he had observed that she had been crying when she had returned from Kaffee at the Kron Prinz Karl.
“He can be very perceptive at times,” remarked his sister to Mollie, “and he’s fiercely protective of me, though you wouldn’t think it to look at him! He was everso worried when I came back all red-eyed last week, and he’ll only worry more if he sees me upset again. And somehow, he always knows when I’m lying!”
“Well, then, you shouldn’t be telling lies!” teased Mollie, wagging a reproving finger at her as they parted company, and Sally gave the maths mistress an rueful grin as she went on her way.
Music! Voices upraised in song…glorious harmonies – the drifting rise and fall of chords and phrases, and he remembered the names of the chords, dominant, tonic, subdominant, mediant, the intervals, fifths and thirds, sixths and his own favourite, tritones – and the cadences! Perfect, imperfect, the familiar plagal. The memories surged within him – the motet: it was Bruckner, he recalled – and he slumped against the wall, shocked to the core. This was from Before! Here was meaning; here was memory.
He shut his eyes, his whole self tingling with it, from his feet through and up to his scalp, hairs standing on end, all over his skin – he shivered as it rushed into his head and he felt himself leave his earthly body behind as he fell into it; he sank down into it and was buoyed up with elation as, emotions soaring, he was swept away by the flood.
Then he felt it coming: a cadence, an imminent finality, and then it was over and though he clung to it the last chord died away, and with that ending he fell forward and found his feet on the ground, and stumbled, clutching at the wall.
Someone began to speak, but all he felt was loss – the absence of music was met with a longing in him akin to pain, sharp and deep; now he had found it, how could he exist without it?
He lurched to the door and hurled himself out of the church, regardless of the stares of those around him, and dashed home and to his bedroom. He curled up on the bed and in his head the motet played again and again, and he gripped it tightly and shut his eyes to keep it there; and as it played, and as he listened, he felt his mind begin to click once more, tantalising, tangled memories, twitching, stirring, shifting - and he began to recall things, things half-long-forgotten, half-almost-remembered...
Sarah had put a rose in a glass on his table. When he awoke, the air was perfumed and sweet. He had not dreamed last night, and the day was cooler than the previous weeks (months?) had been, and as he lay in bed it took him a lot longer to remember. And when he did, peace did not fade immediately but clung to him, fighting the best efforts of memory, and it used Bruckner as its shield.
He found he could turn his mind from his madness more easily – he diverted his attention to those floating chords, the gentle harmonies and the drifting shape of the piece. He found it easier to think, actually think – not clearly, perhaps, but coherently, for the first time since... the thoughts linked together in a pattern, a chain of thoughts, all connected to each other. He wanted to sing. He wanted music again. He wanted Bruckner, and now the other names were coming back to him: Bach, Purcell, Handel, Fauré, Gibbons, Parry, Elgar...so many names he was now recalling! Incredible! And the most prized of all, he could remember them now: Palestrina, Monteverdi, Byrd, Tallis.
That motet – the motet by Bruckner – the man who was so close to God that his music touched heaven, or so they said. He remembered it well - he had sung it as a treble, and then again as a tenor, when his voice had settled. He remembered the motet resounding in the cathedral at one of his last Evensongs. And then he began to remember other motets, other anthems, Te Deums and Magnificats, psalms and hymns, and he remembered the canon’s quavering tenor as he tried to sing the responses, sporadically wandering off key and being dragged back by the choir. He remembered singing the collects once, when the precentor was ill, and exulting in the echoes of his voice ringing back from the cathedral roof. He remembered the cheeky races around the cloister with the other choristers, and the beating they had received from Mr Morrison when he caught them at it...
This was him – this was from Before. These were his memories. He remembered...he remembered everything. He sang through the motet in his mind, first as a treble, now as a tenor. What joy from this! What simple joy!
Oh, he wanted to sing again!
He wondered if he ever would. For the first time, he wondered how badly his lungs had been damaged. At the time, he hadn’t worried about that – he hadn’t wanted to think about music ever again, but now...Perhaps he should have someone look at them, and tell him what they thought? Perhaps he should just try to sing, and see what happened?
But if he were to sing again, he would have to try speaking first.
His mind baulked at that, and the chill settled over his heart again, and he turned his face to the wall. But as the day wore on, and he lay there without sleeping, just thinking, turning ideas over and over, feeling the music inside him, with Mother and Sarah drifting to and fro past the door, occasionally pausing, hesitating just outside, before moving on again, he began to find that he was less fearful of words – spoken words – than he had been. He began to think that speaking again might not be as bad as he’d feared, just as long as he could stick to his own words, as long as he didn’t have to say those other words, words that answered questions he did not want to hear.
Words that answered questions like, “How did he die?”.
At two in the afternoon, Mollie arrived at the Villa Adalbert, and found Sally lounging at a table outside, shaded from the sun by a huge parasol. She jumped up as Mollie appeared, and invited her into the hotel.
“I thought we could go to my room,” she said, leading Mollie up the stairs, “since Kaffee won’t be til four and the salon is rather...public.”
She led the way to a door halfway along the corridor, and into a large, light room that was a curious mixture of organised and chaotic; the bed was neatly made and the writing desk clear of clutter, but there were books everywhere, and heaped near a second door in the far wall was a large pile of music, leaning at a precarious angle.
Sally swept an armful of sewing off a chair, dumping it on the bed, and waved Mollie towards it, while she removed a small pile off books from another chair and perched on it herself.
“Organised chaos!” she grinned. “If you think this is bad, you should see next-door.” She waved a hand towards the second door which Mollie guessed must connect with her brother’s room. “Well, since we’re comfy, would you like some tea?”
Mollie assented, and she went out to order tea. In the meantime, Mollie got up and wandered around the room. There was very little of personal significance in there, just a few photographs on the writing desk: a portrait of a woman, very like Sally but with a more severe expression, dressed in a plain dress with tightly pinned-back hair; and another of the same woman, but much younger and in wedding finery, seated on a chair with a man in frockcoat and clerical collar, who looked so strikingly like Mr Denny that Mollie smiled involuntarily, standing behind her. These must have been their parents, she thought, looking closer, noticing that despite the conventions of the time, the woman – Mrs Denny – could not quite conceal her smile, and neither, for that matter, could her new husband.
And there was a third photograph, a snapshot, propped up against the portrait photos. It was small and indistinct, but showed three children sitting in a row on a fallen-down tree: two boys in shorts and a small girl with her hair in two thick plaits. She took it to the window and squinted more closely at it.
“Yes, that’s us,” said a voice behind her, and she gave a violent start and turned to see Sally standing there, her eyes twinkling. She came closer and peered at the photograph in Mollie’s hand.
“That’s me, of course,” she said, pointing. “I would have been about ten, I think – I remember that Dad took this photograph. That’s Tristan,” indicating the small skinny boy perched on the end of the log, “aged around seven, I’m guessing. And that’s Eddie,” she added, pointing at the final figure, a stocky lad looking straight at the camera, grinning with cheerful confidence. “He was about twelve.”
Mollie took the photograph and stared down at the little grey-and-white figure. “What a devil he looks!” she said, grinning down at the little cheeky face. Sally smiled faintly, and then said, “Let me show you something else.”
She went to the writing desk and unlocked the drawer, and withdrew a folding photograph frame. She unhooked the latch and brought it over to the window. Mollie came over and Sally opened the frame to show two pictures.
“I don’t often open this,” she said.
Mollie craned over, eagerly. The photographs showed two young men in army uniforms. She had to stifle a laugh as she recognised Mr Denny, for he looked so funny – still a boy, with cropped hair, standing stiffly and looking so very uncomfortable in his ill-fitting uniform and cap. And on the other leaf...
“Not handsome, is he?” said Sally, softly, gazing down at the image of her brother.
“No, I suppose not,” replied Mollie, truthfully, and added, “But he is charming.”
Sally smiled warmly. “Yes, he is that. He always was.”
She sighed, and put the frame down on the table. “I wish I knew what happened,” she said.
Mollie looked round at her. “Do you not? Does your brother...I mean Mr Denny, not know?”
Sally sighed again. “He may do, but he’s not telling. He’s never mentioned it.”
“What, not ever?” demanded Mollie, too surprised for accurate grammar.
“Not ever,” stated Sally, emphatically, as she threw herself down in one of the chairs. “You know, it’s always surprised me, that. I thought...well, I don’t know, but I should have thought that talking about it – just mentioning it...well, it might have helped, I don’t know. But he never ever mentions the war, or Eddie, and he most certainly does not discuss what happened to our brother that day he died.”
“I suppose it must have been pretty horrible,” suggested Mollie. “Maybe he just wants to forget it.”
“That’s the conclusion I came to, my dear,” agreed Sally. “I can’t help but think it must have been very unpleasant indeed. I asked him once or twice, early on, how Eddie died, but he...well, he would get very upset, so I stopped asking.”
“Do you know anything about it at all?” asked Mollie.
“Only that he was shot in the head,” said Sally. “Their friend, the young man that brought Tristan home, told me that much. He was in their platoon, but he wasn’t there when it happened, so that’s all he knew. He did think that Tristan was there, though.” She broke off, and then the words came out in a rush.
“Oh Mollie, it was awful when we got him back. He had been so ill, and he was stick-thin and pale and weak, and he wouldn’t look you in the eye, he just kept looking away, anywhere but at people.”
“What had happened to him?” asked Mollie.
“Gas,” said Sally, shortly. “He got pneumonia from it and was very ill, and then one of those awful fevers that always hang around hospitals got him just as he was recovering and nearly finished him off. And...well, it wasn’t just that.”
She paused. “I wonder if I should talk about this,” she muttered, more to herself than to Mollie. “I don’t know that it would be fair...but then, you know him, and you know he’s a bit...well, very odd in his ways. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to explain it a bit.”
Mother and Sarah did it with such ease. Why couldn’t he?
He floated through the days, buoyed up by memories of music. But the music was not invincible. He still remembered, and trying to forget again wearied him terribly. Night-time was hell. He came out into the house more, but still he could not make himself look Mother in the eye, and he still hadn’t smiled at Sarah.
He wanted to. He wanted to smile, but he had forgotten how. And he still could not talk.
He had tried talking to her, to Sarah, but though he remembered the words he could not shape them, and it took such a long time that she had gone before he even opened his mouth. So he had tried talking to himself, quietly, while they were out, but the sounds would not come and he was frightened that he really had hurt himself and would never speak again and would never sing, and he got angry and threw things, screaming and shouting in silent despair. He had even stopped yelling himself awake from his nightmares.
There must be something wrong.
Instead, he turned to music. He could not sing, but perhaps he might still play. One day, when Mother was out and Sarah had popped round to a neighbour’s, he came out of his room, crept downstairs and approached the drawing room piano. It sat there, solidly wooden, unmoveable; he slid onto the piano stool and lifted the lid.
A thought struck him: could he still read music? He glanced around, panic-stricken, and saw a pile of music. He seized the top copy. It was Chopin, and it refused to resolve itself into music before his eyes. He laid it down again, heavy-hearted, and turned back to the keyboard.
Well, no-one said that he had to play written music. He was perfectly capable of creating his own.
He struck a key and jumped, startled at how loud the sound was. But Mother and Sarah were not here – no-one appeared at the door, so he turned back and struck the key again. A above middle C. It wasn’t really so loud, once you got used to it. He played an A minor arpeggio, and then inverted it, then broke the chord up and played it in various ways. His left hand joined in, in contrary motion, rolling the chord around, and then he switched to the dominant and then lost himself in the harmonies – there was no real melody, just a gentle unfolding of chord after chord, now wistful, now warm, now triumphant – here was sound that he was making, here he was saying something, not with words but with music! This surge of feeling, this was...it was something he had not felt for...for too long, this was...gladness, this was joy! This was...
A movement, in the corner of his eye. There was Sarah, in the doorway, staring at him. He froze, and she backed away and turned towards the kitchen, and seizing the moment he raced upstairs and hid himself. But later on he heard music drifting up from downstairs, and went to see, and it was Sarah, playing the Chopin that earlier he hadn’t been able to read. He came up behind her and read over her shoulder and, to his amazement, the music suddenly made sense; he watched her hands move and read the notes and he understood. He read, and watched her and listened, and it was beautiful. She swept along to a jubilant finale and then turned to him with a broad grin and, without thinking, he smiled delightedly back.
He saw tears well in her eyes, but they held little interest for him. He turned back to the music.
Sally got up, paced to the window and back, her hands balled into fists and clenched together. Mollie wondered at her agitation, and at what she was about to disclose; she seemed all of a sudden to be very tense. She turned apologetic eyes on Mollie, and returned to her seat opposite.
“I’m sorry. I’m telling all of this in the wrong order and it’s confusing me,” she complained, but there was no twinkle of humour in her eyes. “Do you know, I’ve been over and over it all in my mind, and yet when it comes to telling someone else about it all I get flustered and start in the wrong place. The thing is, I’m worried about Tristan...or am I? Am I more worried for myself?” she questioned, vaguely. “I suppose I’m beginning to realise that he’s not going to go back to how he used to be, and I don’t know what I’m going to do about it. Oh heavens!” she exclaimed in frustration, raising her clenched fists to the sides of her head and leaning back, “I'm really not making sense at all, am I?”
Mollie smiled, shaking her head in agreement, and Sally gave her a tired look in return.
“I’m sorry, my dear. It’s just that...well, what with me being in Italy for the last four years and Tristan being at the Royal College of Music before that, we’ve not lived together for ages, not since...well, since he came home.”
She stood up again and went to the window, leaning on the sill with both hands and gazing over the green valley.
“I suppose I hoped that he would come back cured,” she said quietly. “But now I know that’s very unlikely. He’s not going to change now.”
Her voice grew wistful, and when she turned back Mollie saw her eyes were glistening slightly.
“I just miss the old Tristan,” she said. She cleared her throat, a tight little sound, and Mollie, frowning, asked,
“What did you mean, ‘come back cured’?”
Sally looked at her, confused, and then said,
“Oh! I meant when he went to the RCM. Music seemed to make such a difference to him, you see – a huge improvement, and I think I hoped that constant music would turn him back into the brother I lost. But he just came back...well, like he is, completely eccentric and wholeheartedly obsessed with music, music and nothing else. So much more than before.”
She really was telling the story backwards, thought Mollie, who was feeling utterly perplexed.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but you’ve lost me. Do you mean to tell me your brother wasn’t always like he is now?”
Sally nodded. “Precisely that,” she agreed. “I’m sorry, I’m still not making myself clear, am I? Let me start at the beginning.”
He would sit at the piano for hours on end, sometimes not playing a single note. At other times he played what was in his mind, but it was taut, unpleasant music, full of tritones and close intervals, unresolved, disjointed, unrepentant. Mother hated it and sighed a lot to make him stop, but Sarah let him be, so he played when Mother was out. She put music before him, Mozart or Bach or Haydn, but he ignored her offerings. He was weak-willed, dull-witted – he could not persuade someone else’s music to say what he wanted to say. There had been a time, he remembered, when that had been possible. Not any longer. He left the Bach to Sarah, and played his strident head-music.
When he was away from the piano, it was the same as ever. Inside he felt hollowness and sometimes it was as if he could not see, even when he strained his eyes open wide. The days were tortuous and he avoided Mother, afraid of what she wanted from him. He hid in the garden and tried not to think. At night he dreamed of his face, and woke up sweating. He often wondered whether the tears would come.
(They never did.)
When he woke in the night, sometimes he would slip out of bed and across the landing, and into Sarah’s room. The sound of her breathing crept into him, calmed him. He would go right in and sit at the foot of her bed, tucking his feet under him and leaning against the wall, listening to her sleep.
She is alive.
Sometimes he would still be there in the morning, curled up at the foot of her bed, soundly asleep. He would wake at dawn, the light startling him, or else Sarah would shake him awake, with an amused sparkle in her eyes. He knew she was pleased to see him. When she smiled at him, warmth stole into his heart and often he smiled back, especially in the mornings when she woke up him and he hadn’t had time to remember yet.
He liked those mornings. Sometimes, when he remembered to wish, he wished they could last longer.
Sally took a breath, and began.
“You know how my brother is…well, a bit disconnected?” She raised her eyebrows, a wry smile on her face, and Mollie nodded, grinning. “Well, he has always been like that, to a degree, even when he was a child, but the war…it did something to him. When he was younger he was always off in a dream, or else in a world of music, but he used to be more…grounded, I suppose. He and Eddie used to go off sailing together, morning til night, or else we three would all go climbing, or swimming, or we played games. Eddie was always good at sport – I think I told you that before – but so was Tristan. He was quite a runner – well, he always had the height, and he was quite the cricketer – he was in the first XI at school. He loved history, and Latin and Greek, and…well, what I’m trying to say is that while he loved music, he was interested in lots of other things at the same time. Not like now. There was a point where music took over as his chief obsession, and that was...the war.
“Now, I want you to understand that whatever else my brother is, he is not a coward. Goodness knows, I’ve the medals to prove it! But when he came home after he was injured and after...after Eddie died, he was...well, it’s hard to describe it. He was ill. Very ill. But not in body... he was ill in...in his mind. I suppose ‘absent’ is probably the best word for it. He was there, but he wasn’t there, inside. You looked into his eyes and...nothing – that is, if you could look into his eyes. He wouldn’t look at anyone, you see, he kept turning away from us, he wouldn’t have anyone near him. He just shut us out – or maybe he was shut out from us, I don’t know. I’ve never really understood it. When his friend brought him back, I ran to the door – I ran to hug him, but he just stepped right past us and went upstairs. His friend tried to explain...he said that a lot of them had it, this 'shellshock' as he called it, but I didn't really take it in then...it wasn't until later that I really...really grasped what it meant.
"But when I went upstairs after Tristan, I found that he had got into bed, fully dressed, even with his boots on. He wouldn’t let me take them off.”
Her voice faltered, but she cleared her throat and blinked several times.
‘It...’ her voice cracked again, and she swallowed hard, and took a sip of tea, ‘it was like that for months. He didn’t talk, he didn’t look at anyone, he didn’t come to meals, he just wouldn’t respond. He went his own way – he mostly slept or...well, he was in bed, or he was hiding in the garden or down by the lake. It was as if we weren’t there. I remember talking to him, trying to see any spark of...acknowledgment, understanding – eventually I was just looking for recognition, whether he realised who we were or where he was. Nothing. There was just nothing in his eyes. Have you ever looked into someone’s eyes and seen only blankness?” she asked, and Mollie shook her head. “I saw it in my grandmother,” Sally continued, “when she was very, very old and bedridden – she started to forget names, and then she forgot who we all were, and eventually she stopped responding at all, and then...well, she died not long after. But...well, you do expect it, in the elderly. But I never thought to see it in my little brother’s eyes.”
She shuddered and took a deep breath. “I couldn’t stand it, but what could we do? We had to keep hoping. And it was worse for Mother. She...wasn’t an understanding lady. She tried, but she never really understood Tristan, even when he was small and used to wander off for hours or just sit daydreaming. She never understood his music, either, and it bothered her. I think she wanted to understand him, but he wasn’t...well, wasn’t the usual sort of child. Eddie was the model of a son, you see – he was clever, sporty, musical and he had lots of friends and was always getting into scrapes – healthy boy scrapes, as Mother would say. Tristan was alright – he was interested in lots of things, but most of the time he wasn’t quite all there – you always got the sense that a part of him was elsewhere, even when we were all playing together. I’d see Mother looking at him sometimes as though she didn’t know who or what he was. She’d say to Dad, “Where did we get him from?” and Dad would just smile.”
She paused, and picked up her teacup again but didn’t drink, just cradled it in her hands. Mollie sat, rapt and attentive, her own tea forgotten. After a moment, Sally carried on.
“Anyway, he was like that for months on end – blank, absent, vacant, call it what you will. We thought he would never get better. Oh, and his temper. That was the only time he seemed alive, but it was terrifying. He would be sitting still, and then suddenly he would just snap...he threw things, or broke them – once I was reading and he got up, snatched my book from me and hurled it across the room, and then knocked his chair over and just walked out. But he never spoke a word, not even in his worst rages. The only sounds I ever heard him make were in the early days after his return and he woke in the night, screaming from a nightmare. I always went in to him,” she said, sounding tired. “I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone...not that he ever responded,” she said, bitterly.
“Mother and I, we thought it was permanent. We thought we’d have to put him in an asylum or something. Poor Mother, the shame was almost enough to kill her. She was so ill, poor thing, and she missed Eddie so...well, we both did,” she added, her voice tired and weary.
She paused, and the silence that descended was uncomfortable. Mollie remembered herself enough to pour some more tea, and she reached for Sally’s cup. As she took it from the elder woman, she caught her hand and squeezed it gently, silently, and tears welled up in Sally’s eyes as she squeezed back. She pulled her hand away, and sniffed, fumbling about for her handkerchief.
“I’m sorry,” she said when she had recovered herself. “It is taking rather a lot out of me, I’m afraid, and you being kind isn’t helping! I never did know how to respond to kindness – I’m one of the grinning and bearing it types, you see.” She ran her hands over her face and took a deep breath. “Ouf. I shall be a limp rag this evening. I hope Tristan doesn’t notice,” she added, anxiously. “It would be a nuisance if he started asking questions.”
She took her teacup from Mollie, and settled back in her seat. “Now, where was I? Oh yes, I remember what I was going to tell you – about when it all changed.”
Ave, ave verum corpus
Natum de Maria virgine
Sarah was playing. He was sitting near her and inside he was singing the words.
He was happy.
She turned and smiled at him when it was over, and offered it to him, but he shied away from her and the piece, so she played some Schumann instead and he listened.
They would spend hours - days? - like this, whiling the time away. He was happy while they made music together, and after Sarah played he found he didn't want to play his own music any more. He was quite content to listen to her.
He still played his music. Just not after Bach, or Mozart. It was shield-music, it kept him safe. He was happy.
Mother called Sarah to help with...he did not hear, did not listen, but she went. He sat down at the piano, touched the keys, but he did not play. He was happy to sit here with the music, listening, remembering...
He sat for a time. She did not come back, and the spell was lifting. The silence, the absence frightened him. He needed music...sound, music...Mozart.
He wondered if it was Sarah's magic alone, or if he could make this calm settle on them too. The music lay nearby. He picked it up. He looked at it for a long time. Then he shut his eyes.
He could read it, now, but could he make it be what it was meant to be?
He was almost afraid of trying.
But if he did not try...
He took a deep breath, and opened his eyes.
He hid in the garden for the rest of the day, so they couldn’t find him.
He had tried. It sounded wrong. It was harsh, jarring – it did not sound like Mozart.
Then he struck a wrong note, and then another, and it was all over.
He curled up and rocked back and forth, and felt his heart beating. His breath came in ragged gasps and he gripped his head, pulled at his hair, and all the while the bright sunlight pushed its way through the leaves. Over and over, minute by minute, endless and achingly slow, and he hid himself away; and he remembered it again, he saw it all, heard it all, and he tried to pray for quiet but he had forgotten the words.
He might have hoped for tears, but he knew by now that there were no tears to cry.
Sally had been about to go on, but abruptly she hesitated, suddenly uneasy. Her cheeks flushed red and her eyes took on an anxious look.
“Oh dear. I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t told you all of this. This whole subject is...it’s very difficult to understand. It’s rather shameful, really, and my poor brother puts up with enough mockery from other people as it is.” Her lips set in a firm line, and Mollie suspected that this was something she had fought against before. “I hope you won’t...well, think any worse of him for it. It wouldn’t be fair...he wouldn’t like it if he knew I’d talked about it...but I have to you see, and...”
She broke off and rubbed her temples fretfully. Mollie leaned forward.
“I won’t,” she said quietly. “I promise I won’t think badly of him. I told you, didn’t I, that my own brother was a soldier too? I know what you mean about it changing people. Bob wasn’t as bad as all that, but he was different too when he came back. He was quieter, milder. Didn’t like trouble. I understand. Don’t stop – go on. Tell me what happened.”
Sally smiled gratefully, and pushed back some strands of her hair that had worked loose, tucking them behind her ears.
“Thank you, my dear,” she said, still with a nervous tone in her voice. “It’s...well, Tristan has never had it easy. He doesn’t help himself, of course, but I worry – my goodness, I do worry about him.”
Mollie smiled sympathetically, and Sally collected herself for a moment before continuing her tale.
“He started looking at us – well, at me mostly. Only now and then, but eventually it was a bad day if I didn’t get some eye contact from him. For ages there wasn’t very much behind those stares – but d’you know, blank looks were better than nothing. Otherwise he was so...unresponsive.
“Well, it carried on like that for quite a while, like I said. Months, probably. And then one day,” she paused, and then shook her head and grinned, “he suddenly turned up in church – and oh Mollie, he was...” and she hesitated again, and Mollie could see she had changed her mind about what she was going to say, for she settled for, “Well, he was still not well.
"We didn’t want to cause a scene,” she continued, “so we couldn’t go and fetch him – we were right up at the front and besides, the choir was singing the anthem, but when it was over, well, he had vanished. We found him back at home in bed, where he should have been all along.
“And after that, he’d changed. I remember it distinctly. The day before he’d been giving me the usual blank stares, and then on the Monday...” She was thoughtful for a moment. “It was like he’d woken up,” she mused. “He was still...well, he wasn’t very responsive, but he looked at me and sometimes...sometimes I thought there was a ghost of a smile in his eyes.”
Her eyes took on a preoccupied look, and she paused again before she continued.
“He wasn’t like that with Mother – she wouldn’t believe me when I said that I thought there was some...meaning in his eyes now. So it was just me and him. I’ll tell you something funny,” she said, “it felt like it was a bit of a game. You know, the sort you play when you’re kids, trying to pass messages without the grown ups noticing? It was just like that. We would give each other significant looks over the dinner table, and it was something we shared, just us two. And he was much calmer. Then one day I found him playing the piano!” she said, her voice rising in memory of her surprise. “Who would have thought it? It was the first bit of purposeful communication we’d had from him since he came back. It wasn’t music, not sheet music, it was improvised, but it was wonderful for all that. Very, very odd music. Very...discordant, full of broken melodies and horrible startling intervals – and then sometimes it was so gentle and peaceful. I thought it was delightful. It was like hearing him talk, you see, and I was desperate to hear him talk. Besides, there was something gripping about that music, in spite of it being all disjointed and unpleasant at times. It was peculiar, but brilliant.
“But our mother didn't like it. I think it was too uncomfortable...well, it wasn't pleasant, like I said, but I just like to hear him. She didn't. So every day I would try to encourage him to play written music. He refused, but he sat with me while I played,” she said, and her face softened in a smile. “Those times...they were lovely. I felt happy when we sat there together. And he started smiling too, so it must have worked. Do you know, we hadn’t touched that piano since he’d come home? We thought he needed peace and quiet, and it turned out he needed music instead. If only we’d played it sooner,” she sighed, a little sadly, “who knows when he might have recovered?”
“Well, like I said, I tried to get him to play something like Bach or Schubert, but it never worked – until one day, I came downstairs and there he was, playing Mozart - Ave verum corpus, as I recall. And then – well, I almost fell over where I stood, because all of a sudden, he was humming along."
It drew him back.
Restless and withdrawn, he had drifted through the week, avoiding Sarah, avoiding Mother...bruised and sore, his sense of connection had slipped and he lay on his bed for hours. His sleep was littered with fretful dreams and he twitched awake, skittish and alert.
But it drew him back.
He tried again. It went wrong, but it drew him back again, so he tried again, and again, and again and then...
He had it.
Ave, ave verum corpus
He sang softly in his mind, vere passum, immolatum in cruce...and it was beautiful. So beautiful that when he reached Cuius latus he felt he could not stand it, he would burst, it was too great, he had to dull its power. And he found the way to do it.
His voice, humming in his throat, was shaky and weak, sputtering off pitch almost continually.
But it was there - barely, but it was there.
And anyway, he thought, I can always try again.
Mollie found herself smiling broadly at this revelation. How typical of Mr. Denny, she thought, to be singing before he did anything else. She said as much to Sally, who grinned back, her merry eyes twinkling.
"I know," she said. "Just like my brother. I tell you, Mollie, it was a miracle to hear him, even just humming. He didn't speak for quite a long time, but eventually we got there, and he was talking again. Very sporadically, at first. It was so long between when he first spoke and the next time...I was on tenterhooks...just...waiting. I began to think I'd imagined it all! And then of course it was so strange when he had started talking - he'd been silent for so many months that...well, I think we'd forgotten how to talk to each other at all. But we got there, eventually."
Mollie sat back in her chair and puffed her cheeks out, blowing the air out between pursed lips.
"It sounds exhausting," she observed. "And you say it took what, a year or so?" Sally nodded. "Was it just you and your mother, all that time?"
"Oh yes," affirmed Sally. "She didn't want outsiders involved - it was a private family matter! I took him out to town once and she tore strips off me when I got back - we'd run into some neighbours, you see, and...well, Tristan was still not very well at that point." She frowned. "With hindsight, it was foolish," she said. "But I didn't know any better at the time. I thought a walk might do him good..." She broke off again, pensive.
In the silence that followed, they both looked out of the window. The Briesau chalets were scattered before them and beyond was the lake, gleaming blue-grey in the evening sunlight that slanted down from the sky, flinging the mountains into sharp relief, the orange tint flushing the valley and changing the familiar landscape to something vivid and surreal, dramatic shadows stark upon the hillsides. It was an eerie sight, and even the unimaginative Mollie felt disquieted.
"Looks like a storm coming up," she observed, shivering a little. "Of course, it isn't, but it has that same quality of light." Sally nodded absently, and got up and went to the writing desk, picking up the photograph of her brothers again. In the growing gloom merry birdsong heralded the evening, and in the distance came the shriek of the whistle from the Spartz train. Sally sighed, put her photograph down and fiddled with the things on her desk - straightening her jotter, replacing her pen into its box, running a finger along the edge of a pile of papers, neatening them up.
"Tristan has always felt guilty," she said, abruptly, "for...for being affected that way. I know what he thinks. He thinks Mother was ashamed of him, that she wished it had been Eddie that survived rather than him. He's half-right, of course," she said, turning back, her eyes unhappy. "Eddie was one of those sons that any mother could be proud of. But Tristan was always...well, aloof is an unkind word, but it's almost what I mean - he didn't mean to be absent-minded and disconnected, it wasn't unpleasantness. It was just the way he was. And with a brother like Eddie, there was no need for him to be that perfect son. He could just be whatever he liked. And Dad encouraged him, of course, they were both dreamers, vague, artistic, other-worldly - you know. But he and Eddie - they were so wildly different," she finished.
And you stuck in the middle, Mollie thought, though she did not voice it. She sat there thoughtfully, letting the silence fall between them again, watching Sally and wondering at the worry in her eyes, the tight set of her lips.
She said, "You look as if you're blaming yourself for all of this."
Sally looked at her, gaped at her, then blinked quickly and frowned a little.
"Do I?" she asked, unnecessarily, and continued, "I don't mean to. I mean, I don't really blame myself. I...well, I haven't done anything. But I couldn't stop it. I wanted to, I really wanted to. When Eddie was here that last time, I wanted to stop him from going back. I think letting him go was...was the hardest thing I've ever done." Her voice cracked again and she swallowed hard, blinking rapidly, but when Mollie reached out to her she stepped away, walked to the window, and Mollie sat back and watched her with sad eyes. "I wish...I wish I could change it all. I suppose...I felt helpless, all through the war and for quite a time after it - because Tristan wasn't better for a long time, you know, Mollie. It was a very long time before he was back to something approaching his old self and even then...well, like I said - I doubt he'll ever be the same brother that went away."
Then she broke, and the tears began to flow, surging hot and sudden and angry, lost, desperate.
"God, I want that brother back," she gasped, as Mollie rushed to embrace her. They were so distracted that they never heard footsteps down the corridor or movement in the next room until the door was flung open, and the electric light blazed on, and they both turned in horror to see Tristan Denny standing on the threshold, the smile on his face freezing into incomprehension as he took in the scene before him.
Belgium, winter 1917
Two doctors strolled down the long ward, pausing by each bed, casting an eye on the more troublesome cases, for there were some here that had just come down from isolation and who were causing their carers a few worries. They paced along the row of beds until they reached one such new arrival, lying eyes closed, pale-faced and hollow-cheeked, his breathing slow and shallow.
One picked up his notes and flicked through them rapidly, eyebrows raised.
“Mustard gas, pneumonia, not to mention probable shellshock...poor old bugger. No wonder he’s looking so wan. Better see if we can’t get some flesh back onto those bones.”
“Not much chance of us doing that,” observed his colleague, looking over his shoulder. “See, he’s being shipped off home before too long.”
“Probably the best thing for him,” said the first. “He won’t be going back to the Front for a long time, if I’m any judge – possibly not at all. I say, is he the one that got the MM?”
“Could be,” said his colleague, replacing the chart. “I’m not the one to ask, old man. Try one of the nurses. They’re always good for the gossip.”
They went off down the ward, chuckling together.
He watched them come; he felt them go. He turned his face away, and remembered.
Light, swinging overhead, bouncing in and out of view. Grey light, daylight, bright quiet swaying sky; it hurt his eyes and he screwed them closed, surprised. He had not thought to wake to see another day.
A face loomed over him, round and cheerful, blocking out the light. It said,
"Don't worry, Tommy! We'll soon have you safe."
The face vanished. He lay silent, while they stretchered him home, and turned his face from the cold grey sky.
A casualty clearing station: he was stripped, plunged, scrubbed, sponged, soused, oiled and dried. The streams of hot water scalded his skin; or was that the gas? He did not know; he flopped down into the dirt and gazed around him. Nearby an ambulance was unloading a screaming soldier – his leg was half-off and the horror of the injury had robbed him of his wits. His banshee wail shrieked out, slicing through the men, chasing its own echoes, while the doctors raced to his aid.
He could not find it in him to care. He was almost glad when the man died; except that he had forgotten what glad was.
His eyes were itching. He wanted to cry, but there were no tears left. He turned his face away, and stared at the distant horizon. Not much longer now.
A train: he was jolted from side to side in his bunk; it might have rocked him to sleep but it hurt so, and he twitched with pain, flinching as his skin began to blister and gasping as the stinging swelled in his throat, choking it closed. He was crying now, quietly, trying not to moan like the soldier below him whose arm had been shattered at the elbow and who was weeping for his mother. His eyes were swollen shut, so there were not many tears, but sobs tugged at his throat and he could think of little but the pain, and that other pain, of which he could not, dared not, think.
He turned his face to the wall and struggled for breath and struggled for tears, fought with the memories and with what he was. Not much longer now.
And here he was, improbably alive. He cursed inside himself, but he had little strength. He heard the laughter of men, the chatter of the nurses; he seethed at their unthinking happiness.
Soon he would be home. Perhaps he would find some peace there.
Not much longer now.
Flanders, spring 1917
He sat shivering, his feet tucked under a damp sandbag and his body folded almost in half, trying to keep the warmth in and the moisture out. It was a moment of blissful calm – the shelling had stopped twenty minutes ago and so far, it hadn’t resumed. He curled in on himself and was drifting off into a doze when suddenly he was startled awake by a cry of,
“Ah, Sgt. Denny, just the man. Catch!”
He jerked his head up, then ducked and caught by reflex the packet that was hurled at him. Moments later Eddie flopped down opposite him, one hand proffering a cup of tea. He seized it eagerly.
“Tea! Edgar Denny, you are a good, good man. I’ll recommend you for promotion.”
His brother smiled. “If you want any further excuse for nepotism, just wait ‘til you see what’s in that packet you’ve got clutched in your grubby mitts,” he said, eyes twinkling.
He looked down and gave a most undignified yelp when he found two flat biscuits nestled inside the paper. “Shortbread?” he gasped. “Where the hell did you get this?”
“If you don’t ask, Sarge, I won’t lie to you,” said his brother, and he laughed and threw one of the biscuits to Eddie.
“We’re alright here, aren’t we,” Eddie asked, glancing around.
He looked keenly at his brother, stared into his nervous eyes. “Of course we are,” he said, reassuringly. “He’s been chucking them over a bit but they aren’t getting back to us yet. We can always move back if they start coming over again.” He reached out, and mock-punched his brother’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Ed.”
“I’m not worried,” said his brother sharply, before relaxing a little and settling back against the sandbags. They sat in companionable silence, savouring the biscuits and letting the tea warm their chilly hands.
“I’m tempted to boil my socks.”
Eddie looked at him, blankly.
“What?” he said.
“Well they’re wet anyway,” he observed. “If I boil them, at least they’ll be warm and wet, rather than cold and wet like they are now.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow. “Well don’t go using my mess-tins to do it in, or sergeant or no sergeant, I’ll tan your bloody hide,” he stated grimly, before cracking a grin. He grinned back and closed his eyes, enjoying the silence.
“Peaceful, isn’t it?” he said eventually.
“Mm,” was the response.
“Funny how your idea of heaven changes.”
“How do you mean?” asked his brother.
“Well, before all this,” he gestured expansively at their cramped surroundings, “heaven for me was a warm...well, a reasonably warm cathedral – you know, warm enough to still be able to feel your toes by the end of the service, and it was Stanford in G, an anthem by Tallis or Byrd, O Sacrum Convivium maybe, or Justorum animae, a decent set of preces and responses, with me singing the collects,” he broke off and grinned, eyes twinkling. “And now, here we are, knee deep in mud, with our guts fighting an inner war with themselves and our toes falling off from the damp, and heaven has become a hot cup of tea and a piece of shortbread.”
Eddie laughed hollowly. “You’re lucky, Tris,” he said. “You’ve got a sweet and simple view of the world. I bet you that the moment you’re home you’ll be back to saying that Tallis is heaven, before you’ve even had a night in a warm, dry bed.”
He smiled, but before he could reply there was a sudden shock in the ground and a loud blast of noise. A shell had gone off in the trench in front of theirs. There were screams, shrieks of pain, and a spray of dirt was flung over them.
He scowled at his mug, now half-filled with soil.
“Damn it!” he cried. “Bloody bastard Jerries – I’d half a mug left in there!”
“Never mind that,” cried Eddie anxiously, scrambling up to a half-crouch. “We're right in the firing line!”
“Steady on, old chap!” he exclaimed. "He won't hit us. Come on, Eddie, sit down, there's a good chap."
Eddie swayed on his feet, then suddenly he reeled to a corner of the trench and hunched over, his body heaving as he vomited. He frowned, worriedly.
“Eddie?” he asked, half-rising, but his brother waved a hand at him and then turned to give him a shaky grin.
“I’m alright, I’m alright,” he said. “Must have been the stew I had last night. I’m fine now.”
He poured some water into his mug, and passed it to his brother, who accepted it gratefully, and put his worry aside. After all, what was one bout of sickness to trouble over? As he himself had pointed out, it was very much the common lot out here.
There was a frozen moment: Tristan Denny stared in amazement at the two women and they gaped back in horror, clutching at each other like terrified children. Then he came quickly forward, anxiety etched into his face, and stretched a hand out to his sister but she, with an inarticulate cry, twisted her body away from him and slipped out of Mollie’s grasp, pulling herself away towards the window.
Her brother threw up his hands.
“What is this?” he cried, looking to Mollie Maynard for enlightenment. “What is wrong? Sarah,” he called to his sister, “what has happened? Tell me!”
She stood, her back turned to him, shaking with sobs, and Mollie felt her heart break to see the confusion and worry on his face. He tried to approach his sister again, but she waved frantic hands at him, forbidding him to come closer, and he gave up in despair and turned back to Mollie.
“Miss Maynard,” he said, “you surely know what has happened here. Please tell me, for I am at a loss to understand. What has caused my dear Sarah such distress? Is someone dead – a relative of ours?”
The apt choice of words took her by surprise, and Mollie felt herself colour violently, and in horror she saw his eyes light up in sudden comprehension and cursed under her breath that she had not been able to hide the truth; but it was too late, for he understood why she blushed and he turned to his sister, his face flushed with anger, and cried,
“So! You feel it right to burden others with our family matters! Sarah, how could you! What business is it of Miss Maynard’s that you feel it fitting to tell her of our private tragedy?”
His sister gasped as if she had been struck, and her own colour grew angry as she choked down her tears and replied, hotly,
“Well, since you never see it fit to talk about it, is it any surprise that I turned elsewhere?”
He looked horror-struck at that, and gaped at his sister, before blurting out,
“But whyever would you wish to talk about it?”
“What?!” cried his sister. “Why do I wish to talk about our brother? Why in Heaven’s name do you not want to talk about him?”
They stared at each other, mutely; he lost for words, she breathless with anger. Mollie felt that it was her moment to intervene.
“I think,” she began quietly, “that it is time that you talked to each other, properly. I shall go now, so you may have some peace. I am sorry,” she added, turning to Mr Denny, “if it seems that I have intruded upon private family affairs. I only wished to ease Sally’s...Sarah’s mind, as I could see she was troubled. I hope you can forgive my interference. I shall leave you now, but,” she said, turning to Sally, “as I said before, I’m always there if you need to call on me.”
She went swiftly over to Sally and embraced her. The older woman clung briefly to her, before relinquishing her grasp, and Mollie turned to leave. She paused briefly as she passed Mr. Denny and laid a hand momentarily on his arm. Their eyes met, his troubled, hers full of sympathy; and then she turned from him and walked from the room, leaving them alone.
She walked slowly along the corridor and down the wide staircase. In the entrance hall, she caught one of the maidservants who was hurrying past, and said,
“Fräulein Denny has a headache, and she and Herr Denny may not be able to come down for Abendessen,” she informed the maid. “If they do not, would you be so good as to send up a tray of cold collation or something, in case she is feeling better later?”
The maid bobbed her assent, and Mollie made her way out of the Villa Adalbert. Once on the lake path she paused and looked up at the window on the first floor. She had done all she could. They must find their own way from here.
Mozart, he had decided, was quite simple. How he had felt unable to play it, he could not understand. It really was quite plain. The melody was sweet, the emphasis lay here and here, the chords progressed neatly, and really, that was all there was to it. It was beautiful; simple music and simple words, a perfect match.
He loved the words. So much so that as he played the tune and hummed along for the third or fourth time, he began to sing.
Cuius latus perforatum
Unda fluxit et sanguine
He surprised himself so much that he almost stopped, but he faltered only briefly, and sang through to the end of the song, and turned back to the beginning. He sang it through again, his voice wavering on the first Ave but gathering strength as he progressed through the piece, revelling once more in the richness of the cuius latus and the deep notes of sanguine, and glorying in the final in mortis examine.
He disliked that it was over, and began again, but the music was interrupted by a great crash, and he turned, indignant, to see Sarah standing over the remains of the tea-tray, her mouth gaping open like those of the dead fish in the fishmonger’s window; and she looked so funny that he laughed out loud. That made her gape some more, and then she laughed too, and then she was laughing and crying all at once, springing over the broken crockery and dancing towards him, flinging her arms around him, and he laughed again as he hugged her back, and delighted to hear his voice low in his chest, rich and warm and clear.
He did not understand his sister’s exuberance, but he did not mind it; he was glad to see her so happy, and he was glad for his voice, though he found that already he could no longer remember what it had been like, being unable to sing. Mother was glad too, when Sarah told her of it, though she was disapproving of the broken crockery and asked that if he were going to surprise everyone like that again would he kindly do it out of range of breakable items, please.
He did not say anything to Mother when she spoke to him, but he smiled at her, and then, overcome with shyness, turned tail and fled upstairs, and hid for the rest of the afternoon.
Flanders, summer 1917
Someone was shaking him. He opened his eyes and sat bolt upright very suddenly, almost upsetting the tea his brother was holding. Eddie jumped back swiftly, a disapproving frown on his face.
“Steady on, Tris,” he complained. “And here’s me bringing you this out of kindness!”
"Sorry," he yawned, rubbing his hair sleepily. Eddie set the mug down nearby and sat down beside him, pulling a letter from his pocket and setting back to read.
He yawned again, struggling to wake up; he picked up the mug of tea, and glanced over at his brother.
“Interesting letter?” he enquired.
“Only to me,” said his brother briefly, turning away slightly.
He grinned inwardly, and drank some tea.
“Thanks for this,” he said, waving the mug. There was silence from Eddie. He added, “My dream last night involved tea.”
“Oh yes?” responded his brother, absently, engrossed in his letter.
“Yes,” he said. “I gave Clem a teabag, and then I asked her to marry me.”
His brother looked up from his letter, frowning. “Clem?”
“Clemency Brown – you remember. Quaker girl, lives along towards Black Beck.”
“Oh yes,” his brother said, with growing enthusiasm. “Pretty girl, brown hair, big, um...eyes. That the one? And you asked her to marry you, you say?” He looked at him, brown eyes twinkling. “Anything you want to tell me, little brother?”
“I gave her a teabag and asked her to marry me,” he corrected him. “and she was more excited about the tea than about the proposal. And no,” he added firmly, “there is nothing I wish to tell you.”
Eddie grinned, eyes sparkling. “Which, of course, doesn’t mean there’s nothing to tell. I’m going to have to start checking your letters,” he affirmed, pushing himself upright, “to make sure nothing arrives for you addressed in a fair female hand. Can’t have my little brother’s virtue corrupted, now.” He winked at him and stepped swiftly out of range of his fists, so he contented himself with muttering, “Idiot,” at his departing back, before retreating behind his tea.
Later they were playing cards, and the rain was drumming onto the corrugated iron sheeting of the dugout; the noise was so deafening that Evans, who was banker, was barely able to make himself heard.
Eddie was enjoying himself, his eyes glowing with pleasure. He liked to gamble, these days, though none of them had much to bet with; Preston, for instance, had just staked his mess-tins on his current hand. He himself was worn out, and making only a desultory effort to play. The sound of rain was exhausting him; it was almost as bad as the continual bombardment of the last three days. He would have liked some peace, some time to sleep and, more, time to sit and think. His nerves were exhausted; he wasn’t sure how much longer he could go on.
He was pleased to see the strained look had gone from Eddie’s face, though. He had been anxious about him for the last few weeks.
He remembered when they had left home. Sarah, pale and tired-looking, had put on a brave face for them, though he had heard her crying during the night. Mother had been white and drawn, her dark eyes full of worry, as she embraced first him, then Eddie. She had held Eddie tightly and said to him, in a trembling voice, “Do be careful, won’t you?”. He, full of fifteen-year-old brazen confidence, had said, “Don’t worry, Mother – I’ll look after Eddie!” and they had all laughed at him.
But he had meant it, and he had been keeping a close eye on his brother. He was glad Eddie was going on leave shortly, though it would be lonely without him. But at least he could send something home for Mother and Sarah, and he would write each of them a long letter for his brother to take home. And maybe...yes, maybe he would send Clem a teabag! She wouldn’t understand, of course, but it would amuse her, and it would give Eddie something else to think about, which would take his mind off other matters. Yes, that was what he would do.
He was brought back to himself by a triumphant shout, and woke from his reverie to find that Eddie had won the pot, including Preston’s mess tins; the latter was already negotiating terms to obtain use of them while Eddie was on leave, but he knew that before the evening was over, Eddie would probably have lost the lot three times over. Still, it made him happy, and for that he was glad.
He excused himself from the game and curled himself up in a corner and tried to rest, in spite of the rain. If it carries on like this, he thought, we’ll be flooded out before long. What a terrible summer we’re having.
As the door swung closed behind Mollie Maynard, brother and sister stared at each other across the room. Mollie’s parting words had dissipated some of their anger, but they were both still lost for words. They stared at each other, unwilling to go onwards, unable to go back.
Eventually Sally broke the tension by looking away and searching for her handkerchief, for the tears drying on her face were beginning to itch. Unable to find her own, she saw a movement in the corner of her eye and glanced up to see her brother holding one out to her. She took it and forced a quick, tight smile. He did not smile back. His eyes were angry, as angry as she had ever seen them, and he was very pale.
“I didn’t want to turn to someone else, you know,” she told him. “I wanted to talk to you. But you just wouldn’t talk.”
She looked such a pitiable object, standing there scrubbing her eyes with his handkerchief, that he felt his heart go to her, but he wasn’t ready to forgive, not yet. He walked over to the window instead, looking out unseeing into the valley.
“Why Miss Maynard?” he asked, eventually.
“What?” she said, unsteadily.
“Well, it is not as though she is a particular friend of yours. Why did you talk to her?”
“Perhaps that made it easier,” she said, thoughtfully. “Besides, one doesn’t wait until one becomes close friends with someone before sharing something like this. Sometimes it is the sharing that brings you closer to someone.”
“Mm,” was the response from the window. A silence fell between them, somewhat less tense than the previous one. Even still, Sally grew anxious and began to fidget with the handkerchief in her hands.
“This is stupid,” she said, firmly. “Mollie is right – we need to talk.”
“You mean that you need to talk,” contradicted her brother, turning away from the window and flinging himself into one of the chairs.
“I need you to talk,” she corrected him, coming round to sit in the chair opposite him. “And I think you may need to talk as well.”
“Nonsense,” he muttered, not looking at her.
“Tristan,” she reached out and touched his knee, “you still have nightmares even now. Oh don’t pretend,” she said, as he turned his face away, “I’ve heard you in the night, I’ve seen how tired you are some mornings. It’s been ten years, and still…”
“I know that it has been ten years,” he interrupted, sharply. “You do not need to remind me.”
Sally sighed inwardly. “I know,” she continued, patiently, “but what I mean is, it has been ten years that we have not talked about it and still it is disturbing you and nothing seems to have helped. Surely you can see that something has to change?”
He looked up at her, and she shrank back a little before the cold hostility in his eyes.
“And you think that it will all be soothed away by talking?” he snarled. “Well I can tell you now, Sarah, there is only one thing that can help me forget, and that is music, and if you think that anything can be more effective then…well, you are more foolish than I ever thought possible.”
“I am not trying to get you to forget!” she replied, hotly. “I am trying to suggest that forgetting is not the answer! I’m asking you to remember.”
“Oh, I know what you are asking of me!” he snapped, angrily. “You say you wish to help me, you pretend that this is all to make me feel better,” he spat the words, “but all you want is one thing. You want to ask me about him.”
“And can’t you see that I need to?” cried his sister. “Tristan, we both lost a brother there, and only you know what happened. I have spent ten years trying to forget him, trying to get used to living without him and I don’t know what happened in those years that you were gone! Can you imagine what that feels like?”
“I imagine,” Tristan said coolly, “that it is not as bad as knowing what happened.”
“How can you say that?” Sally demanded, furiously.
“Because I know what happened!” he growled angrily. “What do you want me to say, Sarah? Do you want me to tell you what happened to me? How can I? How can you begin to understand...”
“It’s not just that!” she interrupted him sharply. “It’s...it’s Eddie. I know nothing about what happened to either of you out there. You won’t talk about it. Eddie can’t tell me. I have no notion of what it must have been like; I don’t know what you faced, how you suffered, I don’t know how Eddie...I don’t know how Eddie died.” Her brother winced at that and turned his face away, but she persisted, “Tristan, please! Can’t you see that I have to know at least some of this?”
Her brother sighed deeply, and looked up at her with cold anger written in his face. “Very well, Sarah,” he snarled, his voice rising in anger. “Since you seem so anxious, let me tell you about my life in the trenches. It was cold. It was wet. Quite often it was very, very loud, and there were a lot of explosions and considerable amounts of hot sharp metal flying around us. There was mud, mud on and in everything, mud up to our knees – oh, and the rats. Shall I tell you about the rats? Some of them were the size of small dogs. When we had very little food, we used to throw rocks at the damned things and stab them with our bayonets, and we would roast them and eat them, and then we would all get dysentery.”
She sat back, shocked at his words, and at hearing him swear, but he disregarded her white face and pressed on furiously, leaning aggressively forward, eyes fixed on hers, his voice growing vicious.
“We would sit and listened to shells falling, and we were glad that other men were the ones screaming. And when we attacked, we were like savages. We shot men and we stabbed them and we killed them – ordinary men, just like us, except that they just happened to be on the wrong side of the wire. We tried not to make friends with our own lot, because they tended to die. We – all of us, our dear brother included – were scared witless, every hour of every day, and half the night as well.”
He broke off and took a shaky breath, then rose abruptly from his seat.
“No. I will not continue with this,” he said, furiously. “I have had a long day and I am tired, and I did not expect to come home to find myself the subject of an inquisition. I am going to bed now.”
He crossed to the door, turned and said, frostily,
“I shall see you in the morning.”
The door closed firmly behind him.
Sally stared at the closed door for several minutes before her vision began to blur and then, almost against her will, she began to weep.
Later, as she was undressing for bed, she could hear her brother’s footsteps passing back and forth across his room. He had been silent earlier, but she had known he was not asleep, and she was worrying about him. Wrapping her dressing gown around her, she went across to the door and raised a hand to knock, but then she hesitated, before letting it fall silently. What was the use? He would not talk now. She sighed, and re-crossed the room and got into bed instead, switching out the light.
That was that, she supposed. He would not talk to her. Or perhaps he could not talk.
She mused about it until she fell into a fitful doze, tossing and turning fretfully, and every time she awoke she could see a thin sliver of light underneath their connecting door. It worried her, and she shifted restlessly. Somewhere around two o’clock, the light went out, and she breathed a sigh of relief, turned over and fell properly asleep at last.
He could sing! He had spent the last few weeks practising, recalling and rehearsing old techniques, and he had been overjoyed to discover that, after everything he had been through, he still had a voice left. Oh, it needed refining, it required training and practice to bring it back to its old standard, but he knew now that that was a matter of time and effort. He had plenty of the former and was willing – no, eager – to put in the latter, and so there was only one thing lacking; someone to guide him. Now that he was sure he still had a voice, he had plans for it, exciting plans, but he would value an expert opinion before he put them into practice. There was a man in Lancaster whom his father had regarded very highly - in fact, he was the one who had first suggested that he be auditioned for the cathedral school. Perhaps he might be a suitable tutor, at least for the time being.
He tried to ignore the fact that he had still not spoken a word, and that he would need to if he were to arrange training, not to mention for his future plans. The idea of speech was still so alarming to him that he could not contemplate it, not yet. Singing was...safe, somehow. It was controlled, defined; the words were written down, one could not depart from them. Nothing was left to chance with singing – no-one could ask him to sing other words, to utter anything other than that which was printed on the page. No. Somehow he would manage without speech. Later he might consider the possibility, but for now he had to conserve his strength, to practice his singing.
He practised as often as he could, whenever they weren't around to hear, and when they were he went out, down to the lake, and rehearsed there instead. He was so devoted to his project that he barely noticed the summer bleeding into autumn, the sun’s golden beams glinting off bronzed leaves and the light nip of chill in the air. It insulated him, too, from the memories that touched them all, Mother and Sarah as well, as the nights drew in and August crept close to September; it cushioned and protected him so much that he wondered at the two tearstained faces that he surprised in the drawing room one cool, sunny afternoon.
When he remembered, late in the day, he could not imagine how he had forgotten. He shut himself off for the rest of the evening, riddled with guilt (for his forgetfulness and more), and he woke in the night, screaming.
They plunged through the mud, staggering forward, falling into craters, snarling in barbed wire, lurching ever onwards. The formless landscape alarmed him; he saw ghosts, wisps of mist drifting towards him, shapeless and twisting, stretching towards him with grim glee, reaching, reaching...
He stabbed out, shrieking, and his bayonet stuck fast; stumbling, he fumbled for a firmer grip, tugging his gun frantically to free it from the embracing grasp, and as he did the fog cleared and he saw a man, doubled over, clutching at his middle, and he watched as the man wrenched the bayonet free, and he raised a ghastly, blood-streaked face, and it was him...
He awoke with a gasp, and choked in the blackness, flinging back the bedclothes and scrabbling for the lamp. Alone in the half-light, he sat and shivered until the night-fears died away, and he dared to sleep once more.
At breakfast there was a surprise for everyone. He had a letter.
He was as startled as anyone. He had written his own letter in his clearest hand and sent it off more than a week ago, and had begun to despair of ever receiving a response. But now, at last, a reply.
He saw Mother and Sarah exchange intrigued glances, and Sarah even plucked up the courage to ask him who it was from, but he did not respond. He rested a hand on it all through the meal, guarding it, and once breakfast was over he retreated to his garden hiding place to read it.
His father’s old friend was delighted to hear from him, and would be even more delighted to hear him sing and offer what suggestions and guidance he could. Would he perhaps be able to come to Lancaster? If he were to write and suggest a day and time that they could meet, he would be more than willing to see him.
He perceived the slight note of surprise in the letter, but it was not important. He would see him! An outside assessment of his voice was just what he needed, before he could do anything further. He was thrilled, elated; he could not sit still, and he did not want to return to the house, so he went down to the lake and spent the morning wandering up and down the shore, flinging pebbles at the little wavelets and trying to remember how to skim them, though his concentration was weak and he kept bouncing up in excitement at his letter, his letter!
However, by lunchtime doubt had begun to creep in. His former worries began to resurface; particularly the knowledge that he must begin speaking before he could progress with training. And there was another thing; he had not interacted with, or indeed even seen anyone other than Mother and Sarah since…for a long time. He had no idea what to do, what to say, how to deal with someone new. Throughout lunch he fretted, and picked at his food, and when Mother passed comment on this and questioned him about it he grew angry and left the table without finishing the meal.
He spent the early afternoon in his room, thinking hard. He wanted to sing, that was clear. No, want was not strong enough; he needed it, he ached to make music once again, he longed for that joy, that glorious euphoria that came with performing, but it could not happen by singing alone. He had to be able to talk.
He considered carefully. Why was he so afraid of talking?
because they will ask questions.
But there was nothing to fear, not really. It was just a matter of…of controlling the communication. Surely it was possible to only say what one wanted to say? No-one could force you to reveal secrets, things you never wanted known? Could they?
He wasn't sure. But if he were to sing, he had to talk. Really, he had no choice.
Flanders, summer 1917
Groans in the pre-dawn light.
‘Can’t we just lie-to for a change, sarge?’
‘Tell you what, Pearson, we’ll prop you the right way up on the fire step and you can sleep for a bit longer, how does that sound?’
‘Oh, delightful sarge,’ came the response, heavy with sarcasm. ‘I’ve always fancied death by firing-squad.’
‘Well, get up then,’ he ordered, using his boot on the recumbent soldier, ‘and stop bloody whinging.’
He slipped carefully along the trench in the half-light and found his brother already in position on the fire step, his face pale and tired. He fixed his bayonet and mounted the step beside him.
‘How are you, Eddie?’ he asked quietly, his eyes fixed on No Man’s Land, searching for any sign of a raiding party. His brother likewise kept his head firmly forward as he answered, wearily,
‘I’m bloody standing to and it’s not bloody dawn yet, how do you think I bloody am?’
He chuckled. ‘I hesitate to enquire further,’ he said, in mock-pompous tones, 'lest your language should cause me to blush.'
Eddie did not respond. He risked a glance at his brother. Leave had done him good; he had come back with colour in his cheeks and a renewed determination. But that had begun to fade, already, and Eddie was tired, washed out, and jumpier than ever. And so was he, for that matter. He had missed several targets in the last week, through slips of concentration. The tension of front-line duty was getting to him, he realised. He was glad their tour was over tomorrow; they all needed a rest. Keep on going, he thought, one day at a time. That was the way to think about this war.
They stood in silence for half an hour before the bombardment started. They both flinched as a shell exploded in the enemy trenches just a few hundred yards away from them. The enemy guns began returning fire almost immediately and shells came hammering down, rocking the ground, and then the machine guns to the right of them burst into chattering life, scattering their bullets with a sharp rattling across the enemy lines.
An explosion, louder than all before, shook them where they stood, and they staggered into one another on the fire step. As he lurched sideways he caught a glimpse of the spray of mud and fragments of boards exploding outwards less than a hundred yards away. A direct hit! He hesitated, uncertain, but then came the yelled command to hold their positions, so he turned back, and glanced over at his brother.
Who wasn’t there.
He whirled around, frantically, searching, and saw him down in the trench, staggering backwards, reeling wildly.
‘Eddie!’, he cried, but his brother did not respond – he was cowering against the wall of the trench and there was a wild look in his eyes, like an animal cornered. Was he injured?
He leapt down from the step himself, seized him, looked him over. Thank goodness! no blood. But Christ! What had happened to him? One thing he knew, they couldn’t stay here. It was defying an order, they could both be shot! He dragged his brother back onto the fire step, hauled him down to a crouch out of harm's way, and struck him hard across the face.
‘Eddie!’ he yelled above the noise of the bombardment. ‘Stop it! You'll get yourself killed, you idiot!’ He grabbed his shoulders and shook his brother roughly, and was relieved to see the wild look go out of his eyes. Eddie shook his head as if to clear it, and his eyes focussed on him again.
‘The noise,’ he stammered, ‘the noise...I’m sorry...it stunned me for a moment.’
‘That’s alright,’ he said soothingly, carefully not noticing the fact that his brother wouldn’t meet his eye. ‘Better now? Good. In that case, we’d better get back on duty, old man.’
Eddie nodded, and they stood up carefully and resumed their positions, though Eddie shook like a leaf and he was feeling pretty sick himself. He cast glances down towards where they’d taken the hit, but could only see as far as the corner of the trench. At one point, Eddie looked across at him and asked,
‘How many, do you reckon?’
But he could only shrug, and pretend not to notice the tears that fell from his brother’s eyes as he rested his cheek on his gun, and stared out on the twisted landscape of No Man’s Land.
What could he do?
He had sat, and thought, and turned the matter over and over in his mind, and he could see that he was right. If he were to sing (and that was non-negotiable – he had to sing), then he had to talk. The idea scared him. Here and now, he could control his communication easily, but when he started talking again, things would be harder. He would be asked difficult questions. And there would be expectations of him, especially from Mother. However, he reasoned, he would face all that when the time came. Perhaps, after speaking for a while, he would learn how to deflect them politely. Until then...well, he had to stop thinking about it. Music came first, above his own personal comfort, and if he had to talk to make music, he had to talk. And when better to start than now?
It took some rehearsal, but eventually he had it.
He went down to tea with firmness of purpose, and on entering the dining room he took a deep breath, and then gave voice to the phrase he had practised over and over in his room, in his head, then whispering, and finally out loud, that September afternoon.
“May I have a cup of tea, Sarah?”
There was a clatter from Sarah, as she fumbled with the tray and then she turned on him, eyes wide with amazement. Mother, however, seated at her customary place, reading, said absently, automatically,
“And what do you say, dear?”
He flushed crimson how could he have forgotten his manners?
“Please,” he added, but Mother had realised now and raised her head in astonishment, staring at him wide-eyed just as Sarah was, and he took a step back, frightened by their eyes fixed on him and his legs wanted to run but he fought with the panic and stood there before them, terrified and defiant.
And then a yelp from Sarah shattered the tension, and they all looked and saw the milk jug spilling milk all over the table. She had knocked it over when he had spoken but had been so startled, staring at him, that she hadn’t noticed. She caught it and righted it, and darted out in search of a cloth, and he was alone with Mother who was looking at him, a faint smile trembling about her lips.
“Tristan, dear, what did I tell you about not being startling near crockery?”
“S...sorry,” he whispered, struggling to speak now, his face even redder. This is too much...why did I do it? Talking makes everything so much more complicated!
But Mother was smiling properly now, and there was a light in her eyes and a humour in her voice that had been absent for a long time, as she said,
“Well, I think that, perhaps, this once, I can forgive you.”
He looked up into her eyes, warily, and saw the expression in them, and his fears died away. She was joking! She rose, and came around the table, and pulled him into her arms for the first time since...he wanted to bury his face in her shoulder as he had done years ago, but he was too tall now, so he rubbed his head against hers instead and she hugged him tightly and then released him but held onto his arms, looking up into his face.
“You’re nothing but bones,” she complained cheerfully as Sarah came back in with the cloth. She came to stand beside Mother, and looked up at him too, and they were both smiling at him so broadly, what could he do but smile back?
Sarah did not know what to do. Usually on a Sunday she and her brother would breakfast early and then go over to the Chalet to join their little morning service. Today, however, the day had started badly. She had woken late and worn out from her sleepless night, and had dithered over washing and dressing; she knew her brother was probably still angry with her and equally she knew she was merely trying to delay their meeting for as long as possible. She was irritated at herself for that, and resolved to finish her morning preparations more promptly.
But when she was finally ready, and went to knock upon her brother’s door, there was no answer. She tried the door; it was unlocked, but the room was empty, the bedclothes flung back and everything in disorder. His Sunday suit was hanging in its usual place, and she puzzled over that, and over where he might be. Perhaps he had gone down without her.
However, he was not in the Speisesaal either, so she made a quick meal of it and hurried back upstairs, but once there, she found herself unsure of what she should do. She was ready to go to the service, but she must wait for Tristan to return if they were to go together. She was loath to leave their rooms in case he did return – after all, it wasn’t unknown for him to lose track of time – but on the other hand, if he had gone for a walk and had ended up near the school, it would be pointless for him to return and fetch her, so perhaps he would be waiting for her at the service. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened, and he was an early riser and did not sleep well at the best of times – after a disturbed night he was often up and about very early indeed. Perhaps he had grown bored of waiting for her to wake and had gone out in the meantime.
But was he intending to return here, or meet her there? And if she went to the service and he was not there, what would she would say to them all? Then again, if she didn’t go, Mollie might get worried about her; after all, she had seen how angry Tristan had been last night, and Sarah felt she could not stand Mollie thinking the worst should she not appear.
Perhaps she had better go, just to show her face, reassure her. If Tristan wasn’t there, she could probably make an excuse for him. That was one of the benefits of an eccentric brother, she reflected as she donned her Sunday hat and checked her reflection in the mirror – people always believed the excuses you made for them.
She realised, as she walked along the path to the Chalet, that she was determinedly avoiding thinking about the conversation they had had last night. She was very good at it, she reflected with a grimace; it was one of her skills. Don’t think about it, just carry on going. She wondered when she had first learned it. Maybe she had always known how. It was possible to forget a great deal. She thought of her own heavy burden of guilt which she had carried around with her for so many years, and sighed. Forgetting was all very well, but she needed forgiveness. And to forgive.
Prayer, perhaps, would be the solution. She hoped so, indeed.
Tristan did not materialise at the service, and when she returned to the hotel he was not there, either. She sat down to some mending, but though the peace of the service had soothed her heart a little, her anxiety for her brother gradually increased until she could not settle. Distracted by her worry and by the emotions of last night, which were weighing heavily upon her, she found herself unable to sit still, and paced up and down, over to the window and back, until she was so frustrated that she hurried out of the hotel and went up the valley towards Geisalm, hoping to see some sign of Tristan there. He did not appear, to her dismay, and since she did not wish to walk in the direction of the school, she went over to Seespitz and back, desperately trying to spot her brother, returning unsuccessful. Worn out from the previous night, her lack of sleep and with fretting over her brother, she sat down on her bed and, curling up with her head on her pillow, collapsed into exhausted, hopeless tears.
It was not until evening, with light falling and her tears dried out, that she heard the door of the next room click open. She leapt up in a moment, ready to rush to the door, but she restrained herself and held back, waiting for him to come to her.
He did so almost a minute later, opening the connecting door and standing framed in the light, a dreamy, peaceful, distant look on his face, quite at odds with the anger of last night. She, aware of her tear-stained and harried appearance and the strain of the last few hours, was almost angry with him for being so serene. He, being him, did not notice her upset; he merely looked at her vaguely, absently, as though he had forgotten who she was.
She could think of nothing to say but, “You weren’t at the service this morning.”
“I communed with gods other than our Lord today,” he said mildly, still regarding her with that absent air. “I spoke with the spirits of the mountain and the woods, the nymphs and sprites, and the divine Muses. I sat down with Pan and Apollo, and I prayed to merciful Hebe.’
She looked back at him and, not for the first time, saw not her brother but the changeling creature that had come back instead of him, the disconnected, dreamy being that could not survive the harshness of the real world. She felt a dull ache inside her and bit her lip to stop the tears welling up again.
“What did you pray for?” she asked.
He looked at her, sadness in his dark eyes.
“Forgiveness,” he said, heavily. “And to forget.”
“Well you managed the last,” she burst out in frustration. “You forgot to tell me where you were going and when you would be back.”
His eyebrows rose and his eyes widened. “I did not think of that,” he mused.
His mild response riled her more than anything, and she boiled over into exasperation. “No,” she snapped, “you never do, do you, Tristan? Here’s me going frantic all day with worrying about you, and you’re meandering around the hillside dreaming on about Muses and gods that no longer exist! What have you been doing all day? How could you just leave me here alone, especially after last night! What were you thinking?”
There was no answer from her brother. His eyes were focussed now, and she saw pain and sorrow deep within them and she realised that despite his calm demeanour, he was no less angry or unhappy than he had been when he had left that morning. He, for his part, saw her red-stained eyes now, and concern passed across his face, and sadness, and a great weariness; she could almost feel it herself. He did not approach her; he turned slightly, made a gesture of helplessness. He was tired out, so weary – she knew, oh she knew, as she always did – she had watched her brother, this stranger, for so many years, getting to know him again, trying to swallow that sick misery that came with knowing he would always be like this, that there was no chance of improvement. Her eyes burned with unshed tears, for him, her poor Tristan, who had hidden those terrible days away and buried them in music; though not deeply, for here he was with tired eyes, the pain so close to the surface, and he still had those nightmares, more than he let on to her, she suspected, because that was the thing about Tristan – he wanted to be left alone. He had enrolled in the Royal College of Music without telling anyone, he had gone off to London and left her behind, he had been unfazed when she suddenly moved to Italy and failed to return for a whole year, and now he was here with her, and she with him, and still he kept that distance – his thoughts were his, he set up music as a barrier between him and anyone else who tried to approach him, he fended people off with his eccentric ways and his odd use of language, he placed himself apart from other people – was it deliberate? She knew him well enough to know that he probably did believe a lot of what he said, but his manner of saying it, his absolute devotion to music, his refusal to give way in any aspect of his life, preserved that distance between him and others. It stopped communication. It stopped questions.
But the thing about Tristan was, he always got away with it. And if he did not want to talk about the war, then he wouldn’t, and she would never have what she needed from him. He was tired of it all, but she was even more tired, weary, angry; she couldn’t give up, she could not let go of this, it was her first chance in years to find out what had happened and she was not, she was never going to let it pass. She swallowed her distress and faced him determinedly.
He saw her expression, and all the serenity that had possessed him evaporated, and he stood, his shoulders down, his eyes full of pain and resentment, and he sighed a little and whispered,
She felt so cruel, to stand there before her brother who had suffered so much and demand this of him, but she could not turn back now. She nodded her head, and he shut his eyes and said, exhaustedly,
“Then must it be tonight?”
She considered. One more day. Perhaps...it would be kinder to give him time. It would not be easy, she knew, and it was better to be prepared. She knew, deep down, that she was shutting it off again, Not Thinking About It, but she found herself shaking her head, anyway, and then instantly regretted it but it was too late, for the relief in his eyes was vast and she could not, simply could not hurt him again. She blinked away the tears, and tried to smile instead.
She stood there in front of him, so sad, so brave, and he wanted to reach out to her, to comfort her, to talk to her but he could not, for he knew what would happen if he did.
So he turned away from his sister, turned and walked away, feeling a traitor with every step, and shut himself away from her for fear of what he might say. And when he heard her crying later on in the night, muffling her sobs so she would not disturb him, he could hardly stand it.
Stopping himself from going in to comfort her was one of the hardest things he had ever done.
The night had been brittle, fractured, an unsettling, irregular staccato rhythm which drained, rather than refreshed, the soul. Tristan, awakening at his usual hour with eyes heavy from lack of sleep, groaned and turned over again, wishing heartily that he did not have to rise yet.
But there was Sarah, moving around quietly next door, and the chatter of the guests who had risen early floated through his window, and then he remembered that there was a rehearsal that afternoon and, what with everything that had happened that weekend, he had not prepared for it, nor had he made copies of the pieces he had purchased in Innsbruck, which lay on his desk, untouched since the night he had brought them back with him, the night he had found Sarah and Miss Maynard together, talking about...about...
He frowned as he heard a tap at his door. Sarah, of course. He lay still and did not answer, hoping she would go away, but she entered anyway and crossed the room to stand beside him, looking down at what she assumed to be his sleeping form. But instead of shaking him awake, as he expected her to, she perched beside him on the bed, reached out tentatively and gently smoothed the hair back from his face, stroking it with a soft hand.
The gesture surprised him, and he opened his eyes and was startled at the tender expression on her face, the loving smile she gave him, even after everything. He gazed up at her, puzzled; he could never, would never understand her emotions, the way she could change from one to another so swiftly, hiding all traces of sorrow behind a cheerful smile. He was still snarled up inside, confused and frightened of this talking. He could not conceal it, nor did she expect him to, but he felt he ought to try, so he made himself smile back, and without a word spoken she bent and kissed his forehead, then left the room quietly.
Confused but strangely warmed by the encounter, he sat up, forcing his thoughts to his rehearsal, the pieces that needed practising before the concert and the new works which he planned to introduce to his young choir. Good music for high voice choirs could be a challenge to find, and he was very pleased with the new Vivaldi pieces he had traced; and there were other songs he had brought back that he planned to arrange himself. That would be the morning's task, he decided.
Thinking about music, he felt his soul begin to untangle and his body relax a little, and he arose from bed with an increased vigour, planning his rehearsal even as he dressed. After Frühstuck, he opened his packet and took out the new music, sat down at his desk, and began to work.
“Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.” He hummed the song, and smiled to himself as he sat making meticulous copies of the new music. How right Purcell had been!
He was out again! She could scarcely believe it. She had gone out for a walk after her Italian conversation class while Tristan was at his rehearsal, and had come back late for Kaffee, expecting to find him waiting for her, and was surprised to discover his room empty and a note lying on her desk. She picked it up.
Dining with Anserl in Spärtz. Expect I will return late. Do not wait for me.
She tossed it down again with a scornful laugh, though her heart sank within her. How typical this all was! He was avoiding her, just as he had avoided her after the war, pretending not to hear her questions and walking away when the conversation moved in a certain direction. She wondered if she would ever get anything out of him.
Well, if he was going out, then why should she remain at home waiting for him? She may have to dine alone, but she did not need to take Kaffee alone as well.
She snatched up her hat again and swept out.
The rehearsal proved distracting, but only while it lasted. As he walked home, Tristan Denny found his mind turning back to his worries, and he paused beside the lake, gazing out over its waters. It was a magnificent lake, perfect for sailing – and the wind was just right, too. He frowned slightly. It had been many years since he had thought about sailing. His mind turned to old Blackbird, poor old deserted Blackbird. He had scuppered her in late autumn mists, when he had taken her on her final voyage. Willie had helped him, poor Willie Greenfield, who had loved Eddie like a brother and who had wept as they stove in old Blackbird’s planks and sent her to the bottom of the lake. He had not wept; he had not shed a tear since that awful day when he had watched his brother’s body tumble down and crumple to the earth. He rather thought he had forgotten how to cry.
As he stood at the lakeside, hands sunk deep into pockets, he was startled out of his reverie by a loud and merry cry of greeting; he turned and was confronted by the great bear-like bulk of Herr Anserl, the school’s irascible piano master. Despite being so close to him, Anserl nonetheless hailed him with a hearty cry better suited to a quarterdeck than a lakeside path.
“Ah! Herr Denny! How goes it, my brother?”
Impervious though the old music master could be, still he could not miss how the younger man flinched to hear his words.
“How then,” he said gruffly, frowning so that his bushy eyebrows met and tangled together, “something upsets you. This is unusual. Tell me, what has happened to pain you?”
Tristan sighed, looking away, and with a grim expression replied, ‘I regret, it is not something about which I can talk.’
The piano master frowned even further at this, and looked at his colleague suspiciously.
“There is something dark here,” he observed. “Why is my brother…ah!” he interrupted himself, seeing Tristan recoil once more from the word. “But it is the word ‘brother’ that upsets you! Why, my friend? What has happened to your brother?”
A simple deduction and not surprising; but the remark, innocently made, was so painful to Tristan that he almost took pleasure in snapping,
“He is dead.”
Herr Anserl looked solemn. “Ach, lieber Gott! I am sorry to hear this, my friend. When did it happen?”
He shut his eyes, hesitating, conscious of the cruelty in his last remark. “It...was many years ago,” he confessed.
“Many years ago?” cried the music master in consternation. “Why then does his death cause you distress now?”
“Should it not?” said Tristan scornfully. “He was my brother!”
Anserl frowned at him. “No, my friend, this is not enough. There is something more, something you are keeping back. Will you not tell your friend? Perhaps I can be of some use to you.”
He swallowed hard. “It is…it is hard to explain,” he began. “The war…it was…”
He trailed off, but Anserl was nodding in understanding.
“Ah, the war. He was killed then?”
He nodded dumbly.
“And you were there?”
He started and opened his eyes wide, unbelieving. Anserl wagged a finger at him.
“Ahaha! You think me a foolish old man, but I see many things – more than you think, my friend. I look into your eyes when you say ‘war’, and I see them say ‘old soldier’.”
He was dumb; he could not think what to say. Anserl looked at him for a moment, then came to a decision.
“It is my view that I should hear the story, and that you should also tell me why it is that after so many years this death comes to haunt you once more. But a lake path is not the place for such a conversation. Will you come with me now, and we shall dine at my home in Spärtz, and I shall hear your story?”
He was astonished to find himself nodding, and Herr Anserl smiled hugely and clapped him on the shoulder.
“Good! This is the wise choice. Then let us go.”
They set off, but as they passed the Villa Adalbert a thought struck him.
“One moment,” he said, and hastened up to his sister’s room. She was not there, so he hurriedly scribbled her a note.
Dining with Anserl in Spärtz. Expect I will return late. Do not wait for me.
He paused, then turned the note over and wrote on the other side,
I promise we shall talk soon – tomorrow.
He hesitated again, then beneath that he added,
All my love.
He turned the note back over again and put it where she would see it. Then he went through to his room, caught up his coat in case it grew colder later on, and hastened back downstairs again, to where Herr Anserl awaited him.
Shattered woodland; the ghastly rags of branches hung limply down, wrecked by the constant barrage of artillery. The ragged treetops danced brokenly in the faint breeze, and low in the sky, casting the trees blackly into skeletal silhouettes, drifted fair Diana’s standard, the pale moon.
He hoped the goddess was watching over them that night, for they were out on the hunt. The order had come through: there was a network of German trenches in the woods to the east of the British lines which had become increasingly troublesome over the last few weeks. They were to be eliminated.
A surprise attack - a night attack. The patrol was split into two sections; Lieutenant Frankland was leading one and they were ranged down the slope a short way in the distance, creeping round to the right. He, gods help him, was in charge of the other party, and they were slithering up the hillside to the crest of the ridge, just twenty yards from the enemy trench. A word, a cough, a trip or a stumble, and all would be over, before it had even begun.
The feeling inside before a raid was always the same; a sick, tingly sensation swooping in the stomach and a burning pain higher up, where the gorge rose and flamed in the chest; a panicky flutter at the back of the throat, and a chilly numbness in fingers and feet. He had fallen victim to a blinding headache, too, just about his left eye. It had settled in about three weeks ago and fluctuated in severity; yesterday it had merely been a niggling little ache but today the pain was so intense, he wondered whether his head were about to split in two. He wished more than ever that he were at home, with Mother and Sarah to look after him.
Eddie was beside him, his jaw firm. He had helped them to plan this raid with grim efficiency; sometimes his brother showed a spark of military genius, and they planned to implement a suggestion of his, should they have the chance. Now they were resting just below the ridge, no more than a couple of yards from the edge of the trench. The smell of pipe smoke drifted up to them – at least one sentry on duty, though probably none too alert. He waited; behind him, men fingered their hatchets, checked their bayonets, hefted trench clubs. They must not attack too soon and lose the element of surprise for Frankland's mob. He tensed, glanced at Eddie, who looked dispassionately back at him; the business-like way in which his brother was behaving chilled him to the core, but there was no time to worry about that, for now he could hear something, something audible only to a careful listener, but his ears were sharp and he had heard a twig snap, down the slope to his right. Frankland was in position. The time had come. He turned, nodded at the men, and then,
And they poured over the lip of the trench, flooded down into its dark depths and into Pandemonium.
In the darkness, he cannot tell who is an enemy; bodies loom out of the darkness, swaying towards him with blades and fists; a bayonet stabs towards his chest but he swerves and slices low with his own blade; he hits flesh, but not deeply for the man tears away from him, swearing violently. The smell of killing is heavy upon him; he swings at another body and turns, trying to see what the men are doing. They have caught the Germans sleeping, and the fight is short – already German soldiers are backing away, dropping weapons, but now there are bullets zinging in from around the corner of the trench; through the moonlit gloom he sees Eddie and a group of others peel away and scramble out of the trench, running off into the gloomy woodland. He must fight through, and so he presses on, slithering on duckboards wet with blood, fighting around the corner of the trench and driving men back. The butchers’ sound of slicing meat, of blades entering flesh, the crunch of a skull crushed with a trench club, or smashed with a rifle butt, the screams of the injured – he knows these sounds; he drives onwards, shouting hoarsely and the men are following, thrusting their way through, killing, stabbing, maiming; here are more men – a huge German sergeant who sizes up the skinny boy before him and grins, stepping forward...his heart is in his throat; hand-to-hand fighting is not his skill, he is a sharpshooter, a sniper, but here comes the large sergeant lunging with his bayonet and he steps back and parries frantically...and with a roar men erupt into the trench from the other end and join the fight and the sergeant turns, confused by the fresh assault and he takes his chance and stabs, twists, stabs, and the man is down, falling into the bloody mess of his guts, and he looks up to see Eddie grimly disembowelling another man, and then hands are thrust skywards; the Germans are surrounded, it is over, but Eddie has not stopped – his bayonet is pressed against the throat of a German private, who lowers his weapon - but Eddie ignores him and thrusts the bayonet home, and then watches dispassionately as the private crumples to the floor, clutching his throat, his last breaths bursting out in bloody bubbles. And now he looks up at him and, standing to attention, reports,
“Trench is secure, sergeant.”
He nods, dumbly, and instructs that the remaining Germans be taken prisoner. And then he walks through a dream-world of mists, in the direction of Lt. Frankland, in the direction from which Eddie and his men have come, and he walks through a scene of slaughter; sentries shot at point blank range, brains splattered on the trench walls; sleeping German soldiers stabbed through to their mattresses, their bedding soaked with blood; several have had their skulls smashed in and the shattered mass of bone, blood and brain might have turned his stomach were he not used to such sights – as it is he swallows hard and looks away, anywhere but the carnage around him, he walks through the section, towards Lt. Frankland, and he remembers that many of the dead around him were not holding weapons, and he wonders why so many had to be killed, and he thinks back to the German private who was surrendering, and he wonders how many more...
As they returned to the lines, he stopped his brother and said,
“Eddie, a word?”
His brother gave him an unreadable look and halted beside him. He took a deep breath, and plunged in.
“Was it really necessary to kill that German private? It looked to me as if he were surrendering.”
The eyes Eddie turned on him were cold as two chips of ice, and he said, in the same dispassionate way as he had watched the boy die,
“Isn’t that what we’re here for? To kill Jerries?”
“But, Eddie, there are rules!”
“Damn your rules,” his brother growled. “I’m not going to get worked up about one less Jerry shooting at us, and I’m not sure why you are, Tris. Or are you going yellow?”
He looked at him coldly. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he replied curtly. “There are rules of combat, and we abide by them. You don’t kill a man who is putting his weapon down, you take him as a prisoner.”
His brother gave him an icy stare. “If you’re quite finished lecturing me?”
He turned and began to walk away, but he called him back.
“Eddie! Come back!”
His brother continued walking, and, fired with indignant anger, he pulled rank for the first time in his life.
“Eddie! Stop right there! That is an order, Private!”
Eddie stopped, and turned, and in the pre-dawn light he could see his brother’s face was flushed with fury and his eyes were hard stones in his face. But he was just as livid; he came down to meet him, and spoke angrily.
“Don’t ever pull a stunt like that again, Eddie. If you do, I swear, I will report it. The rules are there for a reason, and you are man enough to forgive a kid who's done no more wrong than to be born in the wrong country. Or have you forgotten what our father taught us?”
Eddie spat into the mud. "The good parson," he jeered. "It was easy for him to talk of forgiveness - he never saw scores of his comrades dying. Kids like that kill kids like you, and men like me, every day, and they don't deserve to live, because if they do, they'll just go on shooting at us and one day, Tristan, it'll be you that gets in the way of the bullet! So bollocks to what Dad said. He never saw a war, so how could he possibly understand?"
He stared at his brother, amazed. It was him that usually flew off the handle, not Eddie. He reached out a hand but Eddie stood stiffly to attention; he had not forgotten that his little brother had pulled rank on him and he resisted his advances, saying baldly,
"May I be dismissed, sergeant?"
Ignoring the sarcasm of the last word, he nodded a dismissal, and then he watched his brother trudge downhill back to front line duty. He glanced up to the ridge, where a small party was holding the captured trenches, and sighed.
He really had no idea what to do now.
Anserl listened. It was quite alarming at first, to have such an attentive audience, but then he found himself talking – slowly, haltingly, with a little prompting here and there, the story came out. If he shied away and refused to give details on some incidents, Anserl was not inquisitive – he simply sat and listened, without asking questions. He seemed to have an instinct for when to speak, and when to remain silent. Tristan thanked him in his mind for such tact, giving him the time to tell his story. He wished that Sarah could have taken the same approach.
And so he talked of the brother he had loved: of his humour, his merry nature, his daring, his intelligence, his fine soldiery, the waste of a life; the waste of so many lives...he did not mention how he had changed in those last few weeks, that swift efficiency marked by a frightening lack of the humour which had been part of him all his life, which had served him all through the war. He did not speak of the hardness about him that forbade intimacy, that had chilled him to the bone; these things he did not mention. He talked only of the brother he had loved, not the stranger who had died.
But he could not speak his name; and he could not talk about that day.
“He was hit by a sniper,” he explained, briefly, and frowned – it was true, but deep inside he knew it was not the truth, and his guts twisted in anger and misery and Anserl, looking at him closely, changed the subject.
Whenever it became difficult, they turned to more general things, and he surprised himself by recalling some amusing anecdotes of their experiences, such as the time he had awoken to find himself being used as a card table by his brother and their mates. They had laughed over that, and other stories - laughed! He would have thought that impossible; he felt sure that, with Sarah, it would be.
The discussion came back to Sarah, in the end, and he could not conceal his fury from his friend.
“Why she had to speak, I do not know,” he fumed. “She tried to speak before, but she accepted that I could not, but now she is insistent! I am so angry with her – so very angry. I have spent ten years forgetting, and now she...she brings it all back, forces me to think on it again. If only...if only she had not spoken.”
“She perhaps wishes some comfort from it,” suggested Anserl gently.
“Then I can give her none,” replied Tristan, tersely. “He died badly. I cannot deny it. If she wishes for comfort, then truly it is kinder that she never know. If she knew the truth...”
He broke off. Anserl seemed about to say something, but Tristan spoke again before he could, with bitterness in his voice,
“It is not just his death. It is what happened after. She will want to know, Anserl – I know she will. And...I cannot...”
He broke off again, his eyes closed. He gritted his teeth, fighting the sick ache that had resurfaced suddenly in his chest - how it felt to hate oneself! He coughed tightly, trying to swallow against the pain at the back of his throat and hoping that Anserl would not notice, but opening his eyes again, he saw the blue eyes opposite giving him a sharp, perceptive look. He shook his head and, shutting the pain off, regained control of himself and tried to laugh.
“It is impossible,” he said, very quietly.
Herr Anserl was deep in thought for a minute, then he looked up at his friend.
“You have no father?” he asked.
Tristan shook his head. “He died when I was still small.”
“Then if you will permit, since the role of brother is an uncomfortable one, I will play the father for a while, and counsel you. Listen to me, my boy, and believe that I give sound advice. If you keep your silence now, then nothing changes. But your good sister, she will resent it, will she not? She will be angry with you for concealing the truth, and she will have no peace until you tell her what she wishes to know. She is a good woman, my friend,” he said, leaning forward earnestly, “and she does not deserve such sorrow.”
He made an unhappy gesture. “I know,” he said, in helpless tones, “but what can I do? She wishes for comfort – I cannot offer her comfort! The truth of what happened...I do not know that I can be that honest,” he confessed miserably, grimacing.
“You must be,” replied Anserl, decidedly. “It is my view that honesty is the only course. It may not be easy, but it is wise. Or will you have this coming between you for the rest of your lives? No, my son, you must talk to her. You English!” he cried, with a disgusted wave of the hand, “you shut these things away when they would be better brought out into the open. You must talk. Yes, talk!” he boomed, startling Tristan. “Go home now, talk to your good sister. It is the only right thing to do. You have spoken of your dear brother once, now – this next time will be easier, nicht wahr? Go now, my brother,” and his eyes twinkled at Tristan, who did not flinch from the word, “go now to thy sister and make amends.”
On his way back to Briesau, he thought over what the old music master had said. Anserl’s advice troubled him. He did not want to talk – he wanted only to forget, and for Sarah to forget. The dreams were growing more real and it terrified him. He was eternally grateful that he could not remember much about that time, when he was not long home, when his sleep had been broken night after night after night by dreams so vivid that they were probably memories, but he could recall enough to know that he did not want to return there. And now here was Sarah wanting to talk about it...about him, and now she had asked him those questions and how could he answer? And what would happen if he did?
Curse that fateful Saturday and the gossiping of women! In one evening he had been robbed of that precarious certainty of the last seven years, the walls he had built so carefully around him, and now he felt as if the earth were fragmenting, thin finger-like cracks snapping open and stretching out towards him, beckoning, and that he could at any moment be swallowed up, engulfed by the great void of the past. The present was where he lived! Nothing from the past interested him. He could not stand the idea of reliving the past...he could not understand why Sarah felt this burning desire to know...
Oh, this was too much! Sarah was everything to him – she was the one that was always there. He could not bear to lose her over this. If only she would stop being so unreasonable! If only she realised what she was asking him to do, if only she knew what it meant to him...
He wanted to walk, to walk away, to walk down deep into the lake and never resurface. But this, he knew with sudden clarity, was not something he could do, not any longer. He had been walking away for seven years, and had ended up back where he started. The only thing he could do now, the only...responsible course was to go back, back to Sarah, who had waited patiently for those seven years.
He had thought to protect her by not telling, but he knew full well that he had been protecting himself as well. And once she knew...how could she still love him, once she knew the truth? No, it was not possible. She would hate him, just as he hated himself...he would lose her – but if Anserl was right, he would lose her anyway, whether he spoke the truth or not, and he had not told Anserl the worst of it. He grew angry, angry and desperate, and he stood at the edge of the lake, the night breeze teasing his hair into a thousand tangles, and tried to breathe deeply. He hated to lose his temper, and had spent much of the last seven years developing his renowned patience, but this, this was different. The anger was mixed up with loathing, of himself, then and now, of what had happened, what he had seen, what he had done, and now with the terror he felt at the idea of losing his sister. Pain rattled up through his chest and he felt the familiar burning pain at the back of his eyes, but he knew from long experience that there would be no relief to come. He had not shed a single tear in seven years, not since he...
But there was nothing he could do. He felt sick, and tangled up, and in no fit state to return to the hotel – but he could not stay here all night. With a sigh that seemed to rise up from his very soul, he turned his back on the lake and looked up towards the hotels, glittering brightly in the dusky gloom, and slowly, slowly, he walked back to the hotel, back to Sarah, back home.
Perhaps it had been too soon.
It had been almost two months since that day that he had managed to speak – he had a sounder grasp of the passage of time, now – and yet he had only spoken perhaps half a dozen times since; at least until this week, when with a growing confidence he had managed a conversation with Sarah; and he was beginning to feel less stupid about forming sentences, even though they sometimes didn’t make sense and he was forced to rephrase them. In fact, in the last couple of days he had succeeded in answering most of the questions that they had put to him, and had even volunteered some comments of his own. But that was tricky, for now the questions were coming thick and fast and if he didn’t answer they looked at him. And every day he was terrified that they would start to ask the other questions. He realised how difficult it was going to be, to disregard them. He felt overwhelmed; speaking was still difficult and they pressed him and pushed him until he wanted to scream and run. He tried taking himself off again, but now when he came back they asked where he had been, what he had done - he felt powerless to resist. And if they asked…those questions? Impossible – he could not answer. Sarah had already tried to ask him one of those, but he wasn’t ready to talk about that, so he had ignored her and walked away. He hoped she hadn’t minded. But it was getting harder to not answer. What was he to do?
He was beginning to feel that he should never have started it.
He went out that evening, after a hard day of talking, and clambered up the rocks beside the lake, gazing down from their height into the water’s grey depths. He was despairing, he knew. He had so much to learn, so much to remember – this life was complicated, you had to be careful in all sorts of places, adjust yourself according to those around you. He found it so frustrating.
Why can't I just be me?
Life shouldn’t be as difficult as this, he thought, watching the waves lapping up against the rocks, washing in, washing out, over and over – it made him feel dreamy to watch it; he relaxed a little, and the awful pressure lifted slightly. If only he could stay here forever! He knew that as soon as he turned back to the house, the anxiety would return, the struggles to understand, the disappointment when he got it wrong - he was not sure how much more of it he could take. It was too soon. Or was it? Perhaps it would always be this way. Perhaps he would never again understand these conventions, the little politenesses, the smiles that hid lies and the ‘No’ that meant ‘Yes’. And how could he tell them not to ask, not to say these other things, the things that upset him? How could he begin to understand what upset other people, when they, with all their experience, did not know what hurt him?
No, he thought to himself, I do not think I shall ever understand other people.
And if I cannot, what is left for me?
He gazed down into the lake, his beloved dark waters that made a music all of their own. How easy it would be to slide down into those grey ripples and swim out, never to return. No more rules, no more polite conversation, no more struggling to understand what people meant when they smiled. Just peaceful, endless rest.
He shut his eyes, and listened to the lake. Its music seeped into him, and he found it translating itself into a melody, drifting and melancholy, sweeping out across the water and coming back to him as a wistful echo. He seized on it, held it and stored it away. He would remember it, and write it down, but that would come later. Now he sat, eyes still closed, and listened, and felt the load in his heart lighten. He opened his eyes, looked out over the water. The sun was setting; long white splashes rippled across the lake and the cloud rims blazed scarlet, crimson tendrils stretching finger-like across the sky. Everything was covered in an eerie golden light, and the mountains, swathed in shadows, were pink-tinged against the evening sky. The music in his mind raced out to meet this glory and swelled with it, and he felt his eyes pricking slightly and his whole self breathing.
He changed his mind. He scrambled down from the rocks and stood on the shore; he looked out over the lake, smiled, and said to himself, ‘Not today.’ He breathed deeply, shutting his eyes, then, opening them again, he turned and walked away, towards the path to the house, towards home.
Besides, he was to have his first singing lesson next week. He couldn’t miss that.
Sarah lay awake, staring angrily at the ceiling. She was partly angry at herself and partly at her brother, who was probably, she felt, lying awake in a similar mood in his own room. It had been late by the time he had returned, and in such foul spirits that when she had upbraided him for going back on his promises and returning late, too late to talk with her, he had grown quite angry and had cursed her for nagging and had banged his door, reappearing shortly to enquire as to whether she had in fact read his note? And when she said she had, he had scowled and said that though he had planned to speak with her on the morrow he had come in tonight fully intending to give her some answers there and then – but that now he did not much feel like doing so, thank you, and so goodnight.
As soon as he had retired to his room, she had of course rushed across the room and retrieved the note from the wastepaper basket, where she had crumpled and flung it irritably on returning from Kaffee at the Chalet. Only this time, as she unfolded it and smoothed it out, she saw what was scribbled on the other side.
How like her brother to do nothing simply, she fumed to herself. Now she was angry with him for being so useless, and with herself for flying off the handle so easily – not something she was apt to do very often, but the events of the last few days had sorely tried her, and whose doing was that? she grumbled to herself, before grudgingly acknowledging her own part in it. And she felt guilty as well, for useless though Tristan was, in this instance he had meant well and it was not entirely his fault if she had jumped to conclusions.
And so she went to bed, angry, guilty, and feeling thoroughly miserable. She was half-tempted to go through to her brother’s room and have it out with him there and then, and it was only the thought of the other guests that held her back. Instead, she thumped her head into her pillow and stared upwards, moodily contemplating the ceiling and wondering whether she would sleep at all tonight. But finally, she rolled over and, switching off her lamp, fell into doze and, eventually, sleep came.
He had lain awake long, staring into darkness, with the memories crowding in and the room's heat oppressing him - tossing and turning, he thought he would never sleep this night.
But he did.
They were on the march.
Continuous rain for several weeks made the going extraordinarily unpleasant. They squelched through mud knee-deep and puddles that reached to the waist. He was so tired that he could barely see, sunk into misery so deep that he had forgotten how to think, how to dream, just marched onwards, onwards, onwards.
Alongside him were his brother soldiers, trudging through the mucky sludge, identical in their weariness with sloping shoulders and glazed eyes. They had not even the energy to despair. Onwards they marched, tramping through thick mud, onwards and ever onwards...
Damn this war, he thought.
He stepped into something strange, something soft and yielding, quite unlike the mud’s clinging embrace. He looked down and saw the uniform. It was not mud that he was knee deep in, but a soldier’s rotting corpse. Frantically he tugged his leg out, his stomach lurching, and greenish liquid flesh oozed over his boot. It was too much, and he reeled out of the line, staggering wildly away from this waste of a man, his revolted guts rolling ferociously and he jerked suddenly awake, fighting with the dream-that-was-a-memory, feeling weak all over. The heat in the bedroom was oppressive and the memory came back to him, the horror, the disgust, it repulsed him, sickened him...
His stomach heaved, and he hurled himself out of bed, stumbled into the bathroom and threw up, helplessly, shuddering with fear and revulsion. Damn this all, he thought as he propped himself against the wall and coughed, trembling from head to toe. Damn it all.
It was all her fault.
He struggled violently, opened his eyes, and panicked. The night had been filled with hazy, insubstantial terrors, the ghosts of fear, but the morning light brought panic unknown to the night and the world of dreams, for here, the ghosts were real.
He flung himself backwards, away from the wall and out of the bed, fighting with the blankets, staggering to his feet and throwing himself out of the room. He reeled onto the landing and met Sarah face to face, her arms full of linen, but he thrust past her and down, down, away from that dark, suffocating room.
He was curled on the sofa in the parlour, his feet drawn up and his arms around his legs, staring hollowly at the floor, when he heard her come in, and he felt her uncurl his fingers from each other and he looked up to see what she wanted. She was offering him some tea. He took it, and she draped his dressing gown around him and sat down next to him, huddled close but not touching, waiting.
After minutes (hours?) he sipped some tea. It sank into him, soothed him. He took a breath and tried to speak. He had been silent for a long time, and had trouble with the words; Sarah crept closer to hear him.
“S…sorry,” he whispered. “I…I…” he took a breath. “I could not…could not stay in there another minute.”
His voice died away, but Sarah understood.
“Nightmares?” she breathed.
He nodded wordlessly, unwilling to correct her. She hugged him and rested her cheek on his shoulder. Gradually he felt himself calming. The day was a terrifying place, but there were some people who could make it better.
A moment later Mother came in, looking for Sarah, and the alarm and anxiety that crept into her face at seeing him once more like this, bedraggled, white-faced and hollow-eyed, made him panic all over again. Sarah, however, jumped into action like the soldier she was, calming Mother immediately by saying,
“It’s alright, Ma. Tristan just had a nightmare. He’s feeling alright now, aren’t you, Tristan?”
He nodded, and then sensing that would not be enough, added in his cracked voice,
“I’m just tired.”
He even managed a smile, faint and wavering though it was. Sarah, sensing with that wonderful instinct of hers what was bothering him, murmured to Mother,
“But I think he doesn’t want to go back upstairs.”
They both looked at him, and mutely he shook his head. Mother nodded, her lips a thin, sad line, but she seemed reassured to have heard him speak again, for she tried to smile as well and said,
“Well, perhaps it would be best if you rested for a while. Sarah will fetch some blankets and you can have a little sleep down here. It's quite warm enough with the fire, and I’m sure my church ladies will not mind meeting in the dining room for once.”
Sarah nodded cheerfully and bounced up from the sofa. He looked at them both, then shrugged and nodded listlessly, disinclined to move. Sarah went out and returned with a pillow and a couple of blankets which she bundled around him, then she and Mother left him to curl up and doze.
And doze he did, right up until mid-morning, when the door to the parlour opened and he was roused by the sound. To his surprise, it was Betsy Greenfield that poked her head round the door.
“Oh, sorry Tristan,” she said in surprise. “Didn’t realise you were in here – Anne sent me straight through. I was looking for Sarah.”
He blinked his eyes to try and wake up, looking around for his sister.
“I’m not sure,” he murmured quietly. “Is she not upstairs? Or perhaps…” he twisted round to look through the window to the garden, but could not see out, so he turned back and shrugged an apology. “I do not know.”
But Betsy had come into the room now and was advancing towards him. He withdrew a little, wary.
“Why are you down here?” she asked. “Are you ill?”
He shook his head, then changed his mind and nodded.
“Tired,” he clarified.
She gave him a funny look, part confusion, part sympathy. “Willie still gets like that sometimes,” she remarked, and came to sit down on the other sofa. “Shall I stay and keep you company? Willie usually likes it if I do for him, when he’s tired.”
He did not really want her company, but could not think of how to say so damn these conventions of politeness! so he nodded acquiescence and she sat down with him and proceeded to talk about…things, matters of no importance, in which he had little interest: the weather, village gossip, the controversy over the church flower rota. But he found himself listening, and responding to her idle chatter, and he felt himself warming inside, the blank chill of the unsettled night slowly shrinking until it was a mere pinprick inside him. He pricked up his ears over the church choir gossip, for Betsy, with her sweet soprano, was a member of the choir, not to mention a stalwart of the local music circle, and they spoke of choir matters for a while and she told him they were lacking in good male voices and that he should think about coming back…before remembering why he had come home in the first place and apologising profusely, blushing to the roots of her hair. He did not tell her his secret, but soothed her embarrassment and learned to his secret delight that the choir was also lacking good direction currently, for the previous organist had moved on and the new one, while a reasonable musician, was no choral director. It was a shame, said Betsy, that after his father had spent so long building up the choir, even though it was only a tiny local affair, it should be about to collapse through apathy. If only someone could take it on…
Funny, he thought, but talking to a stranger…well, an outsider, for the first time since…it had been surprisingly easy. Perhaps it was that she had woken him from sleep, or perhaps, just maybe, against all the odds, he was getting better.
Betsy and he were almost of an age. She had been fond of him, before; he had noticed that, and had teased him. He had ignored him, back then; he had had no interest in the girl. Now it was unimportant. But he was interested to hear about the choir. And when she had bade him farewell and scurried off home, he felt strangely enlivened. He had managed a proper conversation with someone that wasn’t Sarah or Mother! He hadn’t made any mistakes, or if he had they had not been important ones for Betsy would surely have paused, glanced at him, commented? It felt as though it had made sense; in fact, he was sure it had. She had been enthusiastic, especially when they had talked about music. She had smiled at his eagerness when they had discussed the choir. And they hadn’t just talked about music. He did talk about music a lot, to Sarah, but he did understand that not everyone wanted to talk about it all the time – Sarah frequently told him as much! – so he was trying his hardest to talk about other things as well. And he had managed it! He felt a proud sense of achievement, and suddenly he found he was no longer scared of talking to outsiders.
What blessed fortune had brought Betsy Greenfield his way! One more obstacle overcome. Truly, nothing could hold him back. Finally it was happening. He was getting better!
Sarah awoke quite suddenly. She groped for the light and looked blearily at her clock – four o'clock in the morning. What was it?
The answer came in the form of a disturbance next door – a door banged sharply open and there were running footsteps. Her brother. She struggled with her dressing gown, and crossed to his room, then, hearing the sounds from the bathroom she hurried to the doorway and found her brother leaning forward and retching, one hand propping him against the wall, the other clutching his hair out of the way. As she entered, he stood shakily back and turning, gave her a dark, angry look, before he bent over the sink, splashing his face with water and cupping some in his hands to drink.
“Tristan,” she cried urgently, “what is it? Are you ill?”
She came over to him, anxious and afraid, but he turned on her and she shrank back in horror at the fury in his eyes. “Ill?” he snarled at her aggressively. “If I am ill, then it is at your hand. This is your fault! Why could you not let it rest?”
“What?” she gasped, breathless with shock.
“You…you started this talk, this unburdening of souls and now - it is coming back! The dreams - they are worse, they are like...like they were...God!" His speech was frenzied. "I do not want to return there!" He leaned against the sink, head down; he was almost crying, and she could see now that he was shaking, not with fever, but with terror.
"I do not wish to return there," he repeated, more quietly, more desperately. "I do not wish to become...what I was. I cannot - it is too terrible...the...things we did...the things I did." He looked up, into the mirror that hung over the basin, and shrank away from his reflection.
"Tristan," she said, struggling, trying to reassure, "it was a war. Things are different in wartime!"
"How would you know?" he cried, turning on her angrily. "How could you ever know? Sarah, if you knew...what we were reduced to...you...you don't even imagine it, do you? Can you imagine these hands," and he raised his hands, his slender, gentle, musical hands, and held them before her, "can you imagine them killing, Sarah? But they did. Fifty-four men directly, and God knows how many others besides. Fifty-four men," he repeated, brandishing his hands at her. "Yes, I kept a count," he said, looking at her face. "I was proud! The blood of fifty-four men on my hands, my hands alone, and I was proud." There was disgust in his voice. "How can that ever be forgiven?"
She could not answer; her voice was stuck, and he nodded briefly and lowered his hands, looking hard at her. "Do you see - I have to forget! All of this talk, it is coming back, Sarah, and I shall go mad, and all because you cannot leave it alone!" He waved his hands, his murderous hands, in a gesture of despair. "Is there to be no peace for me?”
“Tristan,” she whispered, holding out her hands, “I...I don’t know what...I didn’t mean...I just wanted to know...”
“Yes, you wanted to know, and look what you have caused!” he growled. "You wrest these confidences from me, and at the same time, you drive me half-mad, mad with remembering the smell of burning flesh, the sounds of screaming men, the sight of rotting corpses hanging just out of reach, the helplessness and the fear…the terror...” Sarah backed away and he stepped back too, away from her, swallowing hard and looking at her with such an expression in his eyes that she realised she had never felt such distance between them.
He kept a count...
He leaned back against the wall. “He understood, though,” he said, exhaustedly. “Men grown animals - he knew what we had become. We changed, out there, we fought and killed like frightened beasts, and we became beast-like, and we will never be the same again. How do we deserve to live? Yet we do, many of us, we live on, despite everything - we choose to live. But he...he understood – he knew there was only one way to truly escape what we had done.”
She found herself growing cold. “What was that?” she whispered. “What do you mean?”
Tristan shut his eyes, his face bleak.
"Death," he replied.
The room was quiet. She hardly dared breathe; she waited for him to speak.
“I’m sorry,” he said, at last. “I’m sorry...” and paused. She leaned on the wall and stared at him until he looked up at her.
“I thought to protect you, Sarah – I could not tell the truth – what would you think? And Mother! But now you have demanded it of me and though you will hate me for it, how can I refuse?”
He took a deep breath. “Eddie was killed by a German sniper, but not the way you think. It was...he was desperate, lonely...I knew it, but I didn’t think on it – I ignored it. I was angry with him! I failed...I failed to realise – and so it happened. And I let him do it.”
He hung his head, and his voice was strangled with shame and guilt as he said,
“Eddie...he chose death. I let our brother take his own life.”
The words hit her like a blow to the solar plexus; she gasped in a breath and let it out again, holding firmly on to the wall. Her knees were weak; she swayed a little, and her hand went up involuntarily to her mouth. Then with a sudden clarity she remembered that they were in a bathroom, hardly the place to be discuss such...such matters - she took another deep breath, and another, and looked at her brother who was barely a metre away, his face stricken, watching her.
'Are you feeling better now?' she asked, and was surprised at how steady her voice was.
He stared at her, incredulous, and she added,
'The sickness...', and his brow cleared and he answered,
'Yes. Yes, I am. But...'
She reached out and took his hand and held on, for a moment, before saying,
'Then we had better...go back to my room...I think...'
But he was nodding, and when her feet seemed to falter he took her arm and led her out, and then she found that she was shaking and she clung onto his strong hand and his arm went round her, and then her legs weren't able to support her any longer and she almost fell, but that he managed to steer her to a chair before she could, and then she folded over and covered her face with her hands, rocking in silent grief for Eddie, poor Eddie, so lonely in the last days, so lonely in his death - but she found she could not cry, though the pain inside her swelled until she felt she must burst, must crack in two, anything other than living in this agony.
Her hands were gently uncurled and her face cupped in warm hands and tilted upwards and she looked up at Tristan's blurred face - she could not clear her eyes - but she felt him press a glass of something into her hand; she took it automatically and gasped as she swallowed - neat brandy! It robbed her of her wits for a moment, then she coughed, and coughed again and found that she could focus once more, and before her was the anxious, grief-stricken face of her brother and all she could say was,
'Tell me what happened.'
And so he told her.
'He had been...strange for some time. It was as though he had squeezed out every last drop of humanity in him. He became the perfect soldier. Efficient, uncaring, brutal. They gave him a medal for it. And then one day he was back to his usual self, except that he was...so melancholy. He talked about the future, whether we deserved one, we soldiers – Christ! I had no idea...no idea at all, what he was planning...I left him! I went to get some tea...'
It was incredible how someone could hide themselves away in this foul, cramped place, he thought as he hunted high and low (figuratively, of course - go too high and your head would be blown to shreds) for his brother, before finally running him to ground. He was tucked into a corner of a low part of the trench, one of the parts you couldn't stand up straight in, for fear of snipers, and he was hunched over, the shallow sides ineffectively shielding him from the rain, writing a letter. He looked up as Tristan arrived, and his eyes were distant, preoccupied; they promised little time for his brother.
He ignored the warning, however, and sat down beside him.
'There you are! And what have you been up to? Who are you writing to - home?' He craned to see, but Eddie jerked the paper away from him and tucked it into his pocket protectively.
'No,' he replied curtly, and then softened a little and tried to smile at his brother. 'It's not important.'
'Well, come and have some tea, then, if it's not important,' he offered. 'We've got a brew going. It'll do you some good! Put the colour back into your wan cheeks!' He tried to pinch one, but Eddie pulled away again and snapped,
'I'm alright, thanks.'
'Come on, Ed,' he said, suddenly serious. 'You can't skulk here all day. Come and join us. You look dead tired.'
'Can't,' replied his brother, then relented. 'Maybe later. I need to finish this first.' He waved the letter.
'You prefer writing to fair females to tea with us? Suit yourself,' he said, amiably, preparing to leave, but suddenly his brother caught his arm.
'Wait, Tris, hold on a sec. Stay with me for a moment.'
He sat back down obligingly, and waited while his brother sat with eyes closed. He looked like a man drawing on his last reserves of strength. Finally he turned, and looked his brother in the eye.
'Doesn't it bother you?' he demanded abruptly.
'Doesn't what bother me?'
Eddie waved a hand expansively, indicating their mud-filled surroundings.
'This,' he said, 'all this. The mud, the stench, the death, the killing, the sheer...futility of it all. Doesn't it bother you?'
'Of course it does!' he exclaimed, astonished. 'Honestly, Eddie, do you think I have no soul? Of course it upsets me. Quite frankly, I'd be happy to lose a limb...well, an unimportant limb, if it would get me back home for the rest of the war. But...well, it's what we have to do - it's what we signed up to do.'
He looked closely at his brother. His eyes were ringed with dark shadows that said he had not been sleeping, and they were filled with a melancholy that seemed to emanate from somewhere deep within him. He frowned, concerned. This wasn't like Eddie. Mind you, it wasn't like the strange automaton that seemed to have replaced his brother for the last few weeks either, and dark and miserable though he seemed now, it was still an improvement.
Eddie sighed, deeply and painfully.
'The men we've killed...they're just like us, you know? Some of them, they're such kids.' He turned to look at him, and he realised Eddie was still playing the older brother, in spite of everything. He felt a stab of annoyance at this, and then he paused, and frowned with sudden recollection.
'Is it the attack last week? Where you killed...where you killed that young soldier? Is that what's bothering you?' He felt a wave of relief. 'Ok, so it may not have been your proudest moment,' he smiled wanly at his brother, who did not smile back, 'but this is war, and we have to react as our instinct tells us - and sometimes we get it wrong. You made a mistake - so have countless others. It doesn't matter. Forget it, Eddie.'
His brother sat, with blank, miserable eyes, and he began to wonder at his persistent melancholy.
'Are you worried about me, what I think?' He smiled reassuringly. 'I forgive you, Eddie. It was a mistake - an error of judgment, but we all make them.'
'It isn't that,' his brother said hoarsely, and he looked at him sharply. 'It's all the rest of it. It's us, Tris. What we have done. What we've been proud of doing. We have killed our fellow human beings, in the name of...well, God knows, any more. How can we ever be men again? How can we be husbands, fathers? What will you say when your son asks you what you did in the war? How can I ever teach my children right and wrong when I have done this? I'm to be a solicitor! How can I ever profess to be obedient to the laws when I've been out here flouting them - and proudly!' He sat back, and saw his brother looking at him, wide-eyed. He sighed, and then smiled, a faint echo of his old grin.
'Sorry,' he said. 'You're right, you know - I am tired. You go and get tea started, Tris. I'll be along in a minute.'
He began to stand up, uncertain after his brother's outburst.
'Are you sure?' he questioned, but Eddie waved him away.
'Yes, yes! Go! I'm going to finish my letter first, then...then I'll be along. Go on. I'll be fine by myself.'
'If you're sure...'
He began to walk away at the half-crouch one had to use in this part of the trench, when a chunk of mud caught him on the elbow and he turned to see his brother smiling at him.
'You've been a good brother, Tristan,' he called.
He grinned back at him, and slithered back along the trench.
He didn't think about those last words for about ten minutes, so he didn't notice how odd they sounded. And when he did he dropped what he was doing and turned and walked, at first, and then broke into a lurching sort of run, stumbling bent-backed through the trench until he rounded the corner...
And saw Eddie tucking his letter away into a flap of his pack. He slowed and breathed again, a deep sigh of relief, which froze in his throat as Eddie turned around, and stood up.
Their eyes met for a split second, and he saw Eddie's widen just before the bullet smashed through his skull and tore off the front of his face. His body fell.
He fell too, down onto his knees, his lungs suddenly empty, wishing unseen what he knew he had seen, praying that if he closed his eyes the shattered head he had seen fall would lift itself, repaired and whole. And then he cried his brother's name, and crawled to his body, and he turned him over and cradled him, and saw the muddy, fleshy pulp where Eddie's face had been, and through his shattered skull the grey gruel of his brain, and he knew that it was over.
"Sarah," he called gently through the wooden door, "do you have a comb?"
Sarah opened the door to her bedroom and scowled at him.
"You surely have a comb of your own!" she objected, but he waved his hands in a gesture of helplessness.
"A comb of my own I may have, but where it is, I know not - and since Christmas is shortly to start I haven't the time to search for it, so may I please, my dear, borrow yours?"
She grumbled at him, but handed it over, remarking that if perhaps he cut his hair at some point soon it might not be so necessary for him to borrow other people's equipment.
"And bring it back!" she called out to him as he wandered back to his room. "I'll need it myself in a moment!"
He hummed happily to himself as he teased the tangles out of his long-ish hair. Tonight's party was the Start Of Christmas. It had been a tradition of Mother's for as long as he could remember to invite their neighbours round on the weekend before Christmas for dinner, songs and some general festive cheer. But when the war started she had abandoned the tradition, and it was only now, four years later, that she had decided to resume it - and she was consequently, of course, in a state of high nervous tension. He himself was quite relaxed. The invitations had gone out, the food - not much of it, but good quality - had been purchased and prepared, and now the day of the affair had arrived and he was looking forward to it. There would be carols, of course, and he was particularly pleased about that, but he was also eagerly anticipating company. His wariness of speaking seemed to have faded altogether, and he was more enthusiastic to talk to people, to anybody, than he had ever been before. If he had stopped to think about it, it would have surprised him - as it was, he was merely excitable, and was driving his mother and sister almost to distraction with his boundless energy.
The afternoon had been devoted to clearing out the drawing and dining rooms, and once that was completed, he and Sarah had decorated the house while Mother went and fussed over the food preparations. By late afternoon he was to be found at the piano, playing carols and Christmas songs, arranging and rearranging them over and over until Mother came up behind him, leaned over and closed the lid of the piano almost onto his fingers, saying,
"There will be plenty of time for that later, my lad. Go and change! Our guests will be here in next to no time."
Reluctantly he went and dressed himself in smart attire - and it was then that he discovered his comb was missing. Having solved that particular crisis and after combing his hair into something approaching order, he tossed Sarah's comb onto his bed and went downstairs to the drawing room, where Mother took one look at him and said,
"Tristan, go and put on a tie."
He shuddered something tight around his neck
"I do not wish to," he answered her.
Mother frowned in her turn.
"Well, I wish you to," she replied sternly. "And it is hardly good form for you to appear without one. Go and put one on."
He grew stubborn, and remained where he was. Mother became angry.
"Disobedient as well? This is no good, my boy." She turned to look at him, and sighed. "Please do as I ask, and go and put on a tie." She turned away from him.
Sarah appeared in the doorway, brandishing the comb and glowering at him.
"What did I say about...?" she began but she saw his expression and, sensing danger, came over to him.
"What is it?" she hissed.
"I do not wish to wear a tie!" he returned, frowning something wrapped around his throat...it was too much like...like what had happened back then...He grimaced helplessly at his sister and she frowned and tugged at his arm.
"Come on, Tristan," she said, and then murmured so that only he could hear, "For heaven's sake, don't be difficult!" And then, more gently, "Please, Tristan, do it for Mum, go on. Don't be difficult tonight."
So he went with her, reluctantly, and stood in resentful silence as she fastened him strangled him into his tie. She looked up at his miserable face and tutted.
"Oh for goodness' sake, cheer up!" she exclaimed. "It's a tie, not a noose! You can take it off later."
And he did, after dinner when the singing started, and with great relief - he hated things close about his throat. He took some deep breaths as soon as he was free, and stowed the hated neckwear down the back of the sofa so that no-one would be able to put him back into it. Then he turned his attention, gratefully, to the music.
The singing was magical. They had a few communal songs, and as so many of the church choir were there the sweet harmonies rang around the room. Then Mother called on him to sing a solo. There were a few surprised murmurs around the room but he stepped forward quite cheerfully and with Sarah to accompany him, he sang Pearsall's arrangement of In Dulce Jubilo; and then, by popular request, they gave the Coventry Carol and finished with the lovely French song Un flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle, which made several of the ladies smile at one another and whisper "How charming!". With the hated tie gone and being free to sing, he relaxed, and when Betsy Greenfield caught his eye and gave him the thumbs up, he beamed a wide smile at her and, when he had finished singing, came over to sit beside her.
"Your voice is better!" she exclaimed in a whisper. "You kept that under your hat!" And he grinned at her and then laughed, laughed for the joy of singing, the joy of making music - and she laughed too.
After that, Sarah played for several more group carols, and then people began to drift away to talk, or play parlour games; but the choir gathered around the piano, and they sang, and they let him direct them in a variety of carols and festive folk songs, and they had a wonderful time singing and inventing harmonies, making music, and Betsy was smiling at him and he felt happy, so happy...
And now it was New Year, and they were all cheerful and merry once more, toasting to peace, joy and good fortune for 1919. Even Sarah, who had been a little peaky that day, was in good spirits, and her cough had vanished (with the help of the wine!). They sang again, the three of them together; they sang merry songs, folk songs, Christmas carols (for, as Mother pointed out, it wasn't quite Epiphany yet so it was alright) and everything else in between, and they laughed and joked, and drew near to each other.
He was warm, and happy, and he put one arm around his mother and the other around his sister and held them both close. How he loved them!
Sarah sat back, and took a deep breath. Tristan was ashen-faced, sitting on the floor now, not looking at her. He seemed to have receded into himself – he was lost to her. His eyes stared into the depths of memory; they cried silently, without tears. She wanted to reach out to him but she could not move, she could only look at him and ache. Her eyes were heavy and her shoulders sagged and her head ached; her heart felt as though it were caught between the Cyanean Rocks – the vice-like pressure would not release and she could do nothing; she sat, arms clutched around her middle, and waited, and tried to remember how to breathe.
Eventually the grasping pain around her chest lessened enough for her to gasp,
“All this time…”
His head jerked up, sharply, and the agony welled up into her throat to look into his eyes, his dark, pain-filled, shattered eyes.
“I could not speak!” he exclaimed, and then he screwed his eyes shut and sank his head into his hands and made a sound that was almost a sob.
His fingers tugged at his hair, and she tumbled from her chair to her knees and pulled him into her arms – she could not bear to see her baby brother hurting so – but he pushed away and drew himself back, his face turned aside, refusing her gaze. A new look had come into his eyes – misery, yes, but something stronger, a disgust, a loathing – but not for her, this was something else, something deeper, more personal…
Oh God, what now?
“It is…I am…it is…more than that,” he confessed, his voice desperate.
His head went down once more, his face hidden by his hair, and there was that curious, choked sound again, that dry sob.
“It was…what I did…after…”
He sat in the bottom of the trench, staring at the floor. Dimly he heard the whistle, but it was for a different lot – poor buggers, he thought idly, as he sat there, empty and dull.
That’s me – empty and dull. He was the one with all the life, he was the one they all came to, he was the one...he should have lived. Why wasn’t it me?
He cried inside his head, cried, ‘I’m sorry, Eddie – why was it you? It should have been me.’
He remembered the letter in his pocket, the one he had taken from Eddie's pack. I should have known! He's been writing to her all year...how did I not realise? What he said...
A thought crept into his mind. You never noticed. It’s been staring you in the face, and you never even noticed. He’s dead, and it’s your fault, and what will Mother and Sarah say? Why couldn’t you just think! You don’t deserve to live.
He hit his head against the sandbags behind him, trying to beat the thought out of his head. It was my fault. It was. If only I hadn’t been so stupid! I should have thought. If only I could swap – if only! Why did it have to be him?
Another thought slid insidiously into place. It doesn’t just have to be him. It could be you, too. It should have been you in the first place, but it could be you now.
That’s right, he thought. I could. It’s not hard.
He cried out again, ‘Oh Eddie, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It was my fault! Oh God, I’m sorry! He’s dead, and it was my fault. I don’t deserve to live. I don’t deserve to be the one left behind.’
And he looked down at the gun lying in his lap.
He looked up again, and his eyes were blank.
“I was a coward,” he stated.
She gaped at him in amazement.
“But Tristan, your medal!” she cried, but he gave a cold, harsh laugh and shook his head.
“I did not deserve that.”
“But your bravery – saving that corporal – they said you might have been killed!”
He laughed hollowly.
“Do you know what I did, Sarah, for them to give me that piece of gaudy ribbon? All I did…was try to save my brother. But he was already dead." He stared at the floor.
She was lost; she stared at him, and then said,
“I don’t understand.”
He looked up at her again, his eyes black.
“No,” he replied. “Of course you do not.”
Belgium, winter 1917
The doctors had gone. He stared at the wall, and remembered.
Mother and Sarah would have the telegram by now. He felt a dull stab of pain whenever he thought of them, and a sharper jolt of guilt, and he turned himself furiously to the grim business of being a soldier.
But it was not easy when one was troubled by spirits.
Sometimes as he glanced sideways he saw him standing beside him, arms at the ready, smiling that playful smile of his. Once he turned to him and winked, and he grinned back, painfully. But then he was gone, insubstantial as the mists that clung to the woodland in the early autumn dawns, and the grief hit him hard and he was blinded by tears, and he thought if only someone could reach into him and tear out his soul, for he would never have another day’s rest for as long as he lived...
And then the day, the final day – a bombardment, heavy fire – mortars! Raining down upon them - oh, the terror! And the shell, the shell that screamed down and shattered one of the big guns into a myriad blistering fragments, hurling debris into the air around them, and the ground which gave way and tipped him sideways, and the shriek…the sudden shriek of fear and pain…the shriek which came from the heap of earth where the gun had stood…
And he had flung himself upon the heap and torn at the earth, scrabbled with his bare hands, with his gun, with a scorching piece of shell casing, heedless of the mortars falling around him and of the shrapnel that whirred startlingly near, unaware that he was alone, that his comrades had taken shelter and were watching him with incredulous amazement, dug and scratched and tore until he saw an arm, and then a head, miraculously whole, and he had hauled and tugged and out came Ryan…
And he had said, “Where is Eddie?”
And Ryan, his foot ripped to shreds by the blast, opened his eyes wide in amazement and answered, in a hoarse, agonised cry,
“Denny, what the hell are you on about? He’s dead!”
His hand twisted in the blanket. He shut his eyes, but the shock of the words made him gasp and over came one of the nurses, soothing and gentle, to check on him.
How could they be so tender? He did not deserve it.
He lay stiff, resistant, until she went away, and when she was gone he turned his face to the wall, and ached with remembrance, and wished he could cry.
The credit and honour for the deed described above should go to Gunner T. H. Fryer, who in 1916 performed a very similar act of gallantry, as his MM citation indicates:
Fryer, T. H., 40929, Gunner, Y/29th Trench Mortar Battery.
Somme, 1916 - During the operations on the night 7th/8th May, Y29 Trench Mortar battery was heavily shelled. Shortly before midnight No. 1 emplacement was wrecked, the mortar smashed, the Sergeant in charge was killed, and a badly wounded corporal was buried beneath the debris. Gunner Fryer, though badly shaken, proceeded unaided to dig out the corporal whilst the bombardment was in progress and got him safely under cover ( M. M. immediate 10/8/16)
He spoke, and she listened. She had never heard the story before, but try as she might she could see no cowardice in it. She said as much, and he gave a humourless laugh.
"No gallantry either," he responded. "I only did it because...because I thought I could save him.”
He hesitated, and drew his arms around his knees. His eyes stared into the void; she wanted to reach for him but her arms would not move.
“And when I realised he was not my brother, I turned away from him and walked. That was the end of it, you see. It was all gone...I could not think any longer...and so I walked...”
He paused again, and added, "There it is, you see. Perhaps now you will believe."
"What?" She was confused; he was not making sense. "I don't see, not at all. What are you talking about? Where did you walk?”
He took a while to answer and when he did, his voice seemed to come from a long way away, and it was haunted by grim ghosts.
“Right out there...I walked...I walked away...right out...I...walked out...into No Man’s Land...”
Walking, stumbling, staggering, fumbling, scrambling, tumbling, crawling
Twisted shapes: mud wire metal bits of men. Shards of mist drift and wisp aside – blasts of shells striking breaking earth into clods and spitting metal brittle and hot, shot flies past sharp, and sweet, fleeting death, Seth, Hades, shades rising all around, soundless and hollow, trailing, following,
Sinking, drowning, on and ever on, forwards lads, forwards unto the jaws of death. By the gods I will leave this battlefield dead, as dead his battered skull
Shattered by bullets that’s how I shall die.
Yes, by God, I shall die.
Reeling, falling back, struck! – pain blossoming like the rose on his shoulder – blood sacrifice –
He fell, half-conscious…
The mists swirled above him and he hovered, drifting, shapes shifting before his eyes, and in came death, he could hear the banshee wail and death’s sharp rattle, and the mist began to thicken and drenched him, and he lay, praying for no help, no salvation, and he shut his eyes and died.
He realised, quite unexpectedly, that he was glad to be alive.
Immediately after the clock had struck midnight, and he and Sarah and Mother had drunk their toasts to the new year ahead, he had slipped out and in direct contravention of Mother's rules was sitting on a small ledge on the roof just above his bedroom window, gazing out at the stars. The night was clear, and consequently freezing, but he thought nothing of that; the old year was dying, but a new one was springing into life and suddenly, unexpectedly, he found that he was glad to be a part of that, glad to share in the rebirth, glad to be alive.
The New Year; the time of double-headed Janus, looking back at the old and forward to the new. He sat with the god and looked with him. He thought back as far as he dared. He suppressed as much of that time as he could, but still he found himself thinking of old friends, old comrades, dead and alive. He sent a brief prayer up to those that were beyond the reach of man, and then turned aside, for that was as much thought as he dared give them. But he thought of the peace that at long last had come upon them all, and hoped that the rest had survived and lived to see that day, to see the Christmas just past, to sit on their own roofs this New Year and look out at the year that was gone, and to think about the year to come. And then he thought about the happier things; the music he had learned to love again, the sweet joy in hearing Byrd, Beethoven, Bruckner...and the rest! And his recovering voice - what a miracle that was. He was grateful beyond measure for that, and for his family. He smiled at the thought of them, and felt warm inside. And slowly his thoughts turned to the future; to his singing lessons, his flute, which he had taken up again, and to his other plans - he had agreed to take on the choir rehearsals in the new year - and then there was his voice. Once it was strong enough, he wanted to take proper training and to find out what he could do with it in the future, whether it was performing or teaching. It was all down to him, after all. He was the man of the house now, and he had to take some responsibility for his family, to provide for them in the only way that he could. It was what he would have done. He had let him down badly before; he could not do so again.
A cry of, "Tristan...Tristan? Where are you?" interrupted his thoughts, and he heard the sound of his bedroom door opening. He stuck his head over the ledge and moments later Sarah was staring up at him. He grinned at her.
"Oh, there you are!" she exclaimed in relief. "Come on down, you must be freezing!"
But he shook his head.
"Come up and join me," he invited her. "Come and view the stars with me."
She gave an exasperated shake of the head, but duly hauled herself out of the window and caught his hand as he helped her scramble up to the ledge. She sank down next to him and dusted her skirt down. Then she looked around her, and her eyes grew wide.
"You were right to call me up," she said. "It's spectacular! Just look at all those stars!"
He was looking at her, so he didn't answer, but he did see her shiver.
"Chilly, though," she added, and he put an arm around her and she shuffled over into his warmth.
"What are you doing up here, apart from stargazing?" she enquired after a moment.
"Thinking," he responded.
He paused, considering her question. "The future," he replied, eventually.
She tilted her head up to look at him, and smiled reassuringly.
"You know we'll always take care of you, Mother and me?" she said warmly. He frowned a little at her words.
"But I must take care of you also," he objected, and she added, hastily, "Oh yes, yes, of course..."
But he smiled at her suddenly, his momentary indignation forgotten.
"We shall look after each other," he beamed, and she returned his smile with relief, and nodded.
"Yes," she answered. "Yes, we shall!"
He gave her shoulders a squeeze, and turned his gaze once more to the stars. Sarah edged closer to him.
"I remember," she said, "when we were little, how we used to climb up here and stargaze." She laughed. "Back in the old days, when this ledge could fit all three of us!"
His arm stiffened around her, and he swallowed hard and corrected her, gently,
"We are but two."
"We were three once," she protested, and he let his arm fall from her shoulders.
"It is cold," he said, his voice stiff. "Perhaps we should return to the house."
She glanced up at him, sighed a little, and leaned against his shoulder.
"It's not that cold," she said, and she tugged his arm close around her.
He stopped speaking, and sank back, exhausted, with a throbbing head and a stomach sick with self-loathing. He had told all, now. He waited for his sister to shrink from him, to back away, to reject him, but she just looked at him. She was frowning - she did not comprehend! He sighed, and snapped tiredly,
‘Oh Sarah, do you not understand? I was trying to get myself killed!"
But still she stared at him, wordless, and he averted his gaze, rubbed his temples, wrapped his arms around himself. Silence crept between them; it became stifling, overwhelming, he felt breathless - why would she not speak? The pressure grew unbearable, and so he spoke again.
"That day, when I walked out…I thought I would be shot. But I failed even to do that right."
He hid his face behind his hands so she wouldn't have to see him, but still she said nothing and now he was fearful; the loathing he had expected did not show yet on her face but it would, it would come. If only she would speak! He wanted her to speak, wanted to provoke her, to make her react, respond; he spoke again, harshly, savagely.
‘So there you are. I was a coward, and I failed to die, and then I went mad, and…’
Startled, he raised his head from his hands. Her face was dark, tense, grief-filled, but gentle; he feared what she might say, but she surprised him by reaching out and taking his hand, and then the other, and she held them both and forced him to look at her as she repeated,
‘You’re wrong. Tristan, how could you ever think you’re a coward? You…I don’t care why you did it, you saved that man’s life, you did your best, and you…do you really think that other men weren’t affected in the same way? Honestly, Tristan, if you knew…’
She broke off and bit her lip. He waited, breathless, for her to convince him...
‘I’ll tell you something I know to be true,' she said finally. 'When I was in Italy, I met…well, I knew a young man, a man who’d joined up in 1915. He wasn’t much older than me and he'd been a prize-winning boxer in his university days, and he was tough and strong and ready-for-anything…or so he thought. And then came Caporetto. His regiment was decimated. He was only slightly injured – but he never went back, and do you know why? Because he couldn’t stand it any longer. He panicked, he had nightmares, he couldn't go outside…he used to jump whenever people let off fireworks, for heaven’s sake – he still does!’
Yes...of course. He remembered feeling the same himself - he remembered starting and ducking when a car backfired, his friends' faces when he did so and their teasing remarks...he nodded and she gripped his hands tighter in hers and it was such a relief that she had not pulled away from him that he thought he might cry, if only he could find the tears...
He blinked, and looked at her properly. She was pale and exhausted; her eyes had dark shadows beneath them. Her face...he saw the lines around her eyes and mouth, and his eyes strayed up to her hair and noticed the grey threads in among the brown.
She has suffered too.
'If you are a coward, Tristan, then so are...oh, countless others. Now, I suppose that it's possible that there are thousands and thousands of cowards walking our streets, or perhaps, just maybe, you're wrong.'
He shook his head mutinously.
'They did not try to...to...' he could not say the words, he was still ashamed, but she knew what he meant and she clutched his hands tighter and shuffled her knees so that she was closer to him.
'I...' she hesitated. 'I can't pretend I'm not shocked. I am. I...I can't believe you would...would leave us...I'm so glad you didn't manage it.' Her voice cracked as she said the last sentence.
If I had, she would be all alone now.
'But,' she began again, and her voice quavered, 'I...I think I understand.'
Her eyes found his, and he realised that she did understand. He hung his head.
'I did some terrible things,' he said, his voice filled with shame.
She looked at him closely. 'Isn't that what Eddie said to you?'
'Yes,' he replied, hesitantly.
'And what did you say to him?'
'That it was a war? That you were soldiers, that this was what you'd signed up to do? That it was what you had to do?'
He was silent.
'What do you want me to say, Tristan? That you should stop living? What good would that do anyone?'
'I don't know!'
He pulled his hands away from hers, buried his face in his them. They were silent for a while, and then he felt her touch the back of his hand, and he opened his eyes again and looked into her brown eyes.
'I forgive you, Tristan,' she said, unexpectedly. 'Quite frankly, I don't care how many men you killed, or that you feel like a coward, or that you weren't able to help Eddie...you are what matters to me. You're the only brother I have left, now, and I love you. I'm sorry...' Her voice took on a new tone, darker, self-reproaching. 'I'm sorry I wasn't much help...before. I mean, when I went away. I'm sorry we drifted apart. I wish...I wish I'd stayed around...'
The tears sprang up in her eyes and she turned away, but he touched her cheek and brought her back to him.
'No,' he said. 'Do not be sorry.'
'But I am,' she replied, her voice strained with tears. 'If I had stayed, then perhaps...'
He shook his head.
'You tell me not to blame myself, then accuse yourself in the selfsame breath,' he said, and was surprised to hear a note of humour in his voice. Sarah sniffed, and then smiled, and then flung her arms around her brother. He buried his face in her hair.
Somewhere near his left shoulder, he heard her speak.
'This isn't a magic cure.'
'What?' he asked, puzzled.
'Talking,' came the answer. 'It's not a magic cure. What we've talked about...I need to think, Tristan. I don't feel better, not at all. I wonder...if I ever will...'
He hugged her closer. Finally she begins to understand.
'That is why...you see...' he replied. 'That is why...I feared such pain for you, my dearest, that I...I could not speak. But...' he swallowed guiltily, 'now I see that you have suffered anyway...I wish...I wonder if, had I spoken sooner...but...'
'We'll never know,' said his sister, quietly, curled up close to him with her head on his shoulder. 'But we are here now.'
He said nothing, but sat there with her as the night faded and the dawn-light began to edge around the curtains, and held her in his arms as, quietly, gently, she began to cry.
Midsummer: the birds were out in full force, serenading them. It was still early morning - their last morning.
Sarah stood at the gate and watched as her brother enthusiastically got in the way of the men who were helping them to pack up and move their things. They were taking very little with them; their books and music, their clothes, sundry personal effects, and the piano. The rest was staying – all the furniture she had grown up with, the bed she had slept in ever since she was old enough to sleep in a bed, the huge wardrobe that her parents had been given as a wedding present, even Dad’s old rocking chair – all was to remain behind. The house had been sold with the furnishings and fittings, and so she was bidding a last goodbye to her old home, to her old life, and turning her face to the new life that awaited her in a new city. A fresh start; but it did not come easily. The times had been hard, very hard. She tried not to think back on the past year, for it was so painful, but she could not help the turn of her thoughts and she struggled with tears as she remembered.
Christmas had been…so magical, so wonderful, so close – the last time they would be close. Because then had come the new year, and with it, the ‘flu.
She had caught it first and she had never been so ill, her fever rising to such a height that she had been caught up in wild hallucinations, fantasizing strange creatures and frightening images by day and by night. Then when she recovered, she had found Tristan on the verge of being measured for his winding sheet; he had caught the 'flu from her and, still weak from his pneumonia of last year, it had almost finished him. But he had clung on to life, his body stubbornly refusing to die, as it had refused to die a year ago, and between them, Sarah and Mother had pulled him through the crisis.
Then Mother had caught it, and had died.
She pressed her lips together to stop them trembling. During Tristan’s…illness of the last year, she had found such reserves of strength, from goodness only knew where! But those reserves were now depleted, exhausted, and she had spent most of the winter crying, and struggling to keep house and manage their money, and watching helplessly as her brother withdrew from her, into his world of music – singing, directing the choir, composing – and she was powerless to intervene, to draw him out, for she barely knew who she was from one day to the next.
Her greatest help had been Julia Greenfield; a bleak Julia she was, and pale, and now it was she that regarded Sarah with envy, for Sarah still had a brother left to her. Poor Willie, tough, battered old Willie, Eddie’s great friend, whom the Germans had failed to kill, who had been laid low by ‘flu and who had died of it. No more saucy grins from his sister, for her mother had died too and now she had a grief-stricken father and her little sister Betsy, left weak and feeble after her illness, to look after. And so she and Sarah had leaned on each other, had cried at each other, had worked together and, somehow, had borne each other through the cold, black winter.
And then, just over a month ago. Tristan had vanished to London for a few days and on his return had announced quite calmly that he would be taking up a place at the Royal College of Music in September, and would thus be moving to London.
She considered arguing with him, or at least raging at him for not discussing it with her, but that took so much energy, and she had so little, that she had simply nodded and gone back to her work, and only later had she paused to consider the practical options. Either she could go to London with her brother, to an unknown home and an uncertain future, or she could stay here, in this half-village, full of memories of people that had lived and were now dead, in this big, empty house with her mother’s ghost half-hidden around every corner, alone, here, with nothing to do and no hopes for the future.
There had been no contest. She was going to London. What she would do once they were there, she did not know. She was not even sure she would stay in London, once Tristan was settled at the RCM. After all, he would bury himself in his music and she was not sure she would be allowed to share in it, or even if she wanted to. In truth, she felt as if she no longer really knew her brother. He had changed, especially in the last year – no longer was he that silent, restless, distracted boy with hollow cheeks and wandering, terrified eyes; but he was so much changed that now she barely recognised her madcap, teasing, tear-away little brother in this determined, eccentric, single-minded young man, so fixed on his pursuit of music, so ill-equipped to manage in the normal world. And she had changed, too. Gone were the romantic notions of her youth; she had seen too much to continue believing in those. Ever-present was her burden of guilt, her responsibility for what had happened to them. She had fallen ill first – she had brought that sickness to their house, and not only that, but she had sat out on the roof with her brother into the cold night even though she had been feeling unwell all day. She should have known better; she should have taken more care. If she had…but it was too late. She knew that her mother’s death lay squarely on her shoulders, and she knew she could never atone for it, that she must learn to live with it.
She looked back up at the house. She could not go back in, not any more. She could not bear to see it, the things that were no longer theirs, her childhood, parcelled up and priced and tagged and passed on. Her room, her bedroom which had been hers since her childhood, where she had grown up, had played, had learned, had lived; she could not stand to look at it again...the place where she had carved her initials into the skirting board, the loose panel where she would conceal her secret treasures, the little cupboard where her brothers used to hide themselves, to jump out and scare her…it was all gone now, it was over, finished. She had turned her back on the past and she had to move on, to stop looking over her shoulder. She must go onwards, to London.
Her brother emerged from the house, blinking in the sunlight, pulling his long hair back out of his eyes, and waved at her. She waved back, but did not go over to join him, and he ducked back inside. He was excited about the move. He wanted to make a break, he had said, to start afresh in a new place where they knew no-one, and where no-one knew them. Music was the one constant in his life, and he was glad to be leaving here, to be getting closer to the one thing that gave his life meaning. She understood. She could see how the place made him feel. He had not grieved openly for Mother, but she was sure that he had felt her death as keenly as she herself had. It was time to move on.
There was so much he hadn’t told her, so much she wondered about. She felt in her pocket and her hand closed on the box of medals that she had rescued from his desk. He had meant to leave it behind, she knew, and she wondered about that. She wished she could ask him, ask him about what he and Eddie had done to be thus honoured, and ask him why he wanted to throw them away, to leave them behind, to forget. But she knew she could not - he deflected such questions and nothing would convince him to hear them. She wished that something would bridge that gap. She wondered if they would ever again manage that easy closeness of their childhood.
Maybe, in the future...
All she could do was go forward, and keep hoping. And maybe, one day, she would find some answers.
The hot July sun was glowing golden in the sky, bathing the valley with its summer warmth, and the flower garden of the Chalet School was bright with fresh beauty, marguerites and gentians, and red poppies nodding in the breeze. But there was not much time to enjoy its glories; the staff and girls were busy hurrying to and fro, making everything ready, for it was the last day of term and the girls were preparing to give a folk-festival to entertain the parents and such locals and visitors as wished to attend. There would be dancing, folk tales and some of the traditional songs Mr Denny had been teaching them, from all of the countries represented at the school. The girls were looking forward to it, and there was an excited buzz about the place.
Mollie Maynard had been helping Marjorie Durrant to set up the ‘stage’ for the last hour, but now she was briefly free and was watching the rest of the preparations. Currently she was observing Mr Denny and Miss Durrant debating how best to position the choir, a task involving much gesticulation from both parties. She chuckled to herself as she watched, glad that it was not her responsibility.
“What a lovely day,” said a quiet voice at her elbow, making her jump. She turned to see Sally Denny standing there, looking pale and tired but resolute. She smiled at Mollie, and Mollie returned the smile.
“The concert should be fun, shouldn’t it?” she replied. “I’m looking forward to hearing the songs your brother has been rehearsing – the snatches I’ve heard from the hall have been tantalising!”
Sally nodded and smiled briefly. Mollie gave her a concerned look. The Tuesday after that Saturday, Sally’s brother had telephoned the school in the morning, excusing them both from their lessons for a few days. When they had returned they had both been rather subdued, and Sally was still ghost-pale, her usually ready smile oddly forced. Mollie had been worried about her friend but hadn’t liked to intrude, so she had waited for Sally to come to her, but the elder woman had kept her distance. But Mollie was not prepared to leave it at that, especially not with the summer vacation that would part them for almost two months hard upon them, and so she turned now to her friend and asked, solicitously,
“How are you, my dear?”
Sally paused, not looking at her.
“Oh,” she answered. “I’m well enough.”
“Really?” asked Mollie. "You've not been yourself since...well, since last we talked...and if you don't mind my saying so, you're looking very tired."
“Mm,” was the vague response.
Mollie hesitated. “You and your brother…you…”
Sally glanced up, and gave a wry smile as she answered the unspoken question.
“Oh, we’ve talked.”
“Yes, we did talk…”
And now there are quite a lot of silences, she thought, though she did not voice it. Mollie looked at her enquiringly, but she shook her head.
“Oh…I can’t…I…it’s difficult.”
“Oh, of course!” Mollie exclaimed. “I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to pry.”
“It’s just…I wanted to be sure you’re…well, you’re alright.”
Sally smiled at her, more warmly this time.
“Oh, I will be,” she replied, “I will be.”
Mollie looked at her searchingly. "Good," she said at last, and smiled back.
They fell silent, watching as Tristan demonstrated something to Miss Durrant in rather elaborate pantomime. They both grinned involuntarily, and Sally remarked,
“Tristan is certainly in his element.”
And indeed he was, she thought to herself – he looked more natural than he had done since their dreadful night-time conversation. She looked at Mollie, who was giggling again at Tristan's antics, and wondered how much to tell her friend.
She certainly did not intend to tell her of how, that night of revelations, she had leaned on Tristan and cried, quietly, cried until the world grew distant, unreal, until she had felt herself being shaken gently and had awoken to find that, exhausted by the force of her emotions, she had fallen asleep against her brother. The poor, sweet dear, he had helped her up and half-carried her to her bed, and he had pulled the plumeau close about her so tenderly. Even as sleep clouded over her once again, she had reached out and seized his hand.
“I love you,” she had murmured, her eyes drifting closed though she struggled to keep them open.
There was no response at first, but then she had felt him smooth her hair back from her face, and his lips had pressed softly against her forehead for a brief moment.
“And I you,” she had heard, dimly, and then her grip on his hand had loosened and her swollen eyelids had fallen across her eyes as sleep came to claim her.
And she would not tell Mollie, either, of how she was finding it all so hard, how she had realised that she looked at her brother in a different way, now. Of course she still loved him, nothing would change that, but she had discovered another side to his character that she had never really known. It was…disconcerting. He saw how she felt and it was unsettling him; he was alternately clinging close to her and warily keeping his distance, afraid of her reactions – he still didn’t trust her not to hate him, however much she tried to reassure him, for he was so steeped in his own guilt that despite her assurances he assumed she must blame him too. She hoped she could convince him otherwise, but how long would it take? After all, this had all been left unspoken for nine years – and she was not sure that she could ever repair the damage.
In their close moments, however, they had managed to talk – not about the war, that was too much to expect, but about the past, their childhood, their brother; their reminiscences had made them laugh and had made her cry, too. Tristan, of course, did not cry, but instead of disappearing as he would have done only a month ago, he stayed with her while she wept and held her hand, or slipped an arm about her shoulders. A small thing, but it made all the difference. It was strange, she reflected, but they were growing closer to one another in a way she had not anticipated.
But they still had a long way to go.
So she smiled now to see her brother so enthusiastic – back to his usual self, she thought with relief, and it was a relief, however much he was irritating Miss Durrant. The two of them had been so quiet for the last couple of weeks – she had found that old wounds freshly opened took a long while to heal again, while her brother had been troubled by his nightmares and went about looking white-faced and weary. Their mutual lassitude had not gone unnoticed among their colleagues; Mollie, she knew, had done her best to allay suspicions but there was still some speculation and she gave thanks for the imminent holidays, giving them time to themselves, time to rest and recover, to restore themselves to something approaching normality.
With apt timing, Mollie broke in on her thoughts, asking,
“What are you doing for the summer?”
Sarah hesitated. “I’m going to Belgium...to Ypres,” she replied, eventually. “I’m going to find my brother’s grave – he must have been buried under his name, so I should be able to find it. I will find it, if it takes me all summer,” she stated firmly.
“Will your…will Mr Denny go with you?”
“I think so. He hasn’t said anything about it yet, but I think...I think he will come. I hope he does. We need it. And then...well, we’ll have the summer.”
She paused, and looked up at the sky.
“We’ll get there, Mollie,” she said, finally. “We’ll get there. And, Mollie, I want to thank you.” She glanced across at her friend who looked a little flummoxed.
“But I did nothing!” she exclaimed.
Sarah shut her eyes, her head still tilted upwards towards the sun.
"You were there, when no-one else was," she replied, keeping her voice light. "You listened when I needed you to, and you...you made us talk to one another, Tristan and me. I..." she hesitated and looked down, swallowing carefully. "I can't pretend it has been easy, but it was necessary. We are...we are struggling now, but one day, one day we'll look back on this and we'll be grateful."
She looked across at Mollie, whose eyes were filled with questions.
"I'll tell you about it one day, Mollie," she promised. "But as for now...well, Eddie may have died, but we live, and he lives on in our memories and always will do, even when we grow old. And we will remember him. And as for the rest...well, we will manage. Really. We will be alright."
She tilted her head back again, and felt the rays of the sun warming her cheeks. What a joy, to be alive on a morning like this!
"We will be alright," she repeated. "We'll be just fine."
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