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Julia stood in the hall at Locke Hill, little feet firm on the black and white tiles. The doormat was crooked. She straightened it.
It was rather a beautiful morning outside. She could – she should – be out on the lawn, admiring the sun in the lilac and smelling the early roses. A cup of tea, perhaps, in the little Sitzplatz Peter had arranged beyond the hornbeam. She must find another name for it. Or a stroll by the stream. Max would want a walk.
She had heard the phone go, and she heard Rose deal with it. Rose was so good – such a blessing to have such a sister-in-law. Cousin. Peter’s cousin. Cousin-in-law. It was a shame she was away so much with her hospital, and lovely when she came back for a visit.
Julia went into the sitting room, hoping to find some tiny aesthetic job that needed doing. All through the war, since Peter had left – five months now! – she had kept it looking nice, in case he should come, because you can’t rely on communications, and he might, you never know, just turn up unannounced, and a woman has to do something. He never had turned up unannounced, but his leaves had been erratic . . .
She went over to admire their wedding photo, silver-framed on the piano. Pretty her, at twenty-four: heavy satin, family lace, and the wide, deep-bosomed neckline of before the war, which suited her so well. Already it looked dreadfully old-fashioned. Her hair was as pale as her dress. She glowed, truly. Like the inside of a seashell. And handsome him, at twenty-seven, tall and happy, trousers flapping round his long legs, in morning dress among his myrmidons in morning dress. No idea of war on their sweet faces. St George’s Hanover Square had been filled with white lilac and orange-blossom and roses – Madame Alfred Carrière – sent up from Locke Hill in baskets. The people in overcoats and caps who had gathered to observe and admire had not been disappointed by Peter and Julia.
They had had no idea that he would be called upon . . .
He hadn’t been called upon. They hadn’t had to call him. He had been only too eager to leave.
Yes, well, we’ve been over that, and agreed to disagree.
Don’t go over it again, Julia – what can you hope to achieve?
But even that thought was by now part of her pointless spiral of punishment, herald to the stupid parade.
You said it was necessary, but it was selfish! True, there had been talk of conscription, but only talk! And no one believed they would dare actually bring it in! And certainly not for married men . . . fathers . . . as you might have been by then . . .
And you said it wouldn’t count if you waited to be conscripted. You wanted to give of your own free will.
And I did understand, darling. I understood that when we married we made a bond, and that what you wanted to give was no longer only yours to give – and I had almost expressed it in a perfect, beautiful, wounding sentence, but it had turned ungraceful at the end . . . and so had I, weeping, snivelling, begging.
Why did you want to leave me?
I didn’t want to leave you. This is not about you and me, darling, it’s about the country. If men are going to fight to defend our country, then it is wrong for me to sit here safely, accepting their protection. I should be with them. That is all.
It had sounded terribly manly. She’d liked it, for a moment. But then the waiting started, and with it the fantasising. He left her alone, and gave her nothing to go on, and in her ear the constant gremlin whispered incessantly: How can you possibly be so ungrateful, so selfish, so wicked? That poor man – think what he is suffering and risking for your sake. How dare you mind?
‘Julia? Darling?’ It was Rose, dark, bright, thin, looking round the door. ‘I’m going into Sidcup. Anything you need?’
My husband, thought Julia, but she said nothing because it would be unkind to say such a thing to a woman like Rose.
Rose knew perfectly well that nobody had ever really expected her to be a wife. She’d only been sent to live with Peter’s family in the hope that someone in Kent might marry her, as no one in Wiltshire would, but the hope was only ever mild. She might have been a little in love with Peter when she was young, but everyone – including Rose herself – recognised her now as a woman without marital or romantic needs. Those who bothered to think about her – including, again, herself – thought her lucky to be so, in this depleting landscape where many girls were likely to be left bereft of their expectations.
Rose had scorned the role circumstances offered her: china-mender, correspondence maintainer, ageing wallflower. Instead, back in 1913, she had joined the Kent VAD. At the first training camp in the summer of 1914, when 170 of them had been available to tend a dragoon who had fallen off his bicycle, and the Herne Common local paper had sent a photographer, Rose had identified a different type of woman that she was able to be. She had enjoyed the cricket matches. She liked sleeping in the round tents, learning how to use a biscuit tin as an oven. She liked her grey cotton dress, her army regulation lawn cap, her linen cuffs and collar, county badge and epaulettes, her white gloves for field work. She had looked at Miss Latham, who had served in the Balkans, and the Marchioness Camden, who visited and spoke so encouragingly. She was touched when the Dragoons’ band appeared to play for them, in gratitude for their kindness to the boy on the bicycle. She liked that when the cadets from New College took part in an ‘engagement’, playing the parts of both the invading Hun and the defending Englishmen, she was capable of putting her training into action so efficiently. She liked the slightly bemused looks Julia gave her.
Rose was quite aware that the real thing would be very different. Mrs Blanchard, who had served as matron to an ambulance column in the Franco-Prussian war, had made that perfectly clear. Despite that – no, because of it – I can do this, Rose had thought. By September 1914 she had been attached to a hospital near Folkestone, and had taken up smoking.
Now, in the doorway, she looked at beautiful Julia in the morning light and pitied her. Though beauty was not Julia’s only quality; it could only be the first thing about her. When she entered a room, nobody thought: There is a generous, determined, kind-looking woman. Her kindness, her determination and her flashes of wit were, in everyday life, dazzled out of view by her rich pale hair, her tiny waist, her glowing skin, the surprise of her dark blue eyes, and the slight dip at the bridge of her straight nose, ‘the imperfection which makes you perfect’, as Peter called it. Few people cared about her better virtues. And as she was an adoring wife, not the type to exploit the male response, what was she supposed to do with it? It was only for Peter, and Peter wasn’t there. In a world increasingly made up of women and old, or sick, or juvenile men, unmanned men, it was of no benefit to her. Indeed, it must be a disadvantage. There are always women ready to hate another woman for her beauty, Rose knew that. She had been included – unwillingly – in enough nasty little conversations behind the backs of pretty women by other plain women who assumed, wrongly, that Rose would share their jealousy as she shared their dull looks.
So Rose pitied Julia for her beauty, or thought she did. But Julia had learnt to love her own beauty, because beauty was her currency, and other people valued it so highly. Each day since Peter had left, after breakfast, she sat on the needlepoint stool by the french windows, morning sun streaming in, and tuned his cello. She made a lovely picture. She had thought about it, and she had laughed at herself for having thought about it. She had considered how most charmingly to cast the cello aside (without causing it damage) in order to run into her husband’s arms when he appeared in the doorway. She had laughed at herself about that too.
She missed him so much. What was the point of doing anything without your husband to do it for? She had tried more public-spirited ways of helping out. She’d launched straight in at Elliman’s when they went over to munitions, gamely pulling on a hideous pair of overalls (‘I honestly, genuinely look like that elephant your uncle Kit sent the pictures of from India,’ she said to Rose) and packing explosives into long, tubular shell cases. She couldn’t stick it. ‘The girls are terribly coarse and vulgar, and they don’t like me, and anyway Peter wouldn’t want me all chemical and yellow.’ She couldn’t be a VAD because ‘Well, my hands . . .’ she said, but she was doing herself a disservice there. It wasn’t vanity. It was a horror of blood, an abrupt, puking horror, which helped nobody, and which she was ashamed to admit to. It was easier to confess to vanity. People expected it of her, anyway. She knew that.
A stint at the Department of Pensions in London ended with a kind reprimand from an elderly civil servant driven to distraction by some truly shambolic filing. Only after these false starts had Julia discovered that her real war work was exactly the same as her peace work: Peter.
It started with making nice things for Peter: sandbags, for example. Beautiful sandbags, of quality canvas, or even linen, and she embroidered his regimental crest in the corner: a wild boar’s head with a crown on, the motto ‘Sic Petit Arcadia’ – ‘thus he reaches heaven’. She saw no irony in it at that early stage. Mostly they were used as pillow cases, and for one general, as a shoebag for his dress shoes.
After that hand-knitted socks, scarves, vests, long-johns; cakes, letters, parcels of cigarettes and chocolate with loving messages on the back of amusing picture postcards, selections of the new gramophone records . . . that lovely recording of E lucevan le stelle, by Leo Szilard, that he loved . . . But she grew bored with doing that because she couldn’t see the results, though his thank-you letters were charming. More importantly, she felt, or perhaps more controllably, things should be nice for Peter when he came home.
Rose did not notice Julia’s inability to be satisfied. ‘You don’t really need to . . . I’m sure he’ll write and let us know when he’s coming,’ Rose would say, from time to time, but really she had more important things on her mind – so what if, after the sandbags, Julia had no faith in the wartime post? (So many letters and telegrams flying this way and that! Who knew where they might not end up? He was perfectly likely to turn up unannounced.) And, anyway, Julia had no faith in anyone else’s understanding of what Peter needed, and Julia had nothing else to do.
And when he had come back after training, his farewell few days before leaving for France, Julia’s joy had been so extreme that there was no room for anything else in the house: for anyone else’s emotions, or for silence, conversation, mutual enquiry, rest, forgiving each other the fights there had been about him joining up in the first place . . . and then he had gone again, and she had returned to plumping the cushions. It took her fifty-three minutes to plump every cushion in the house, if she didn’t hurry.
What Rose didn’t know was that Julia spent every night with the same phrases and memories and resentments and ancient conversations lining up at the end of the bed, waiting to take their turn in tormenting her, and woke every morning in howling loneliness for her husband, her sheets too smooth and her bed too tidy, with a hunger for things to be right just as strong, desperate and justified as that of any scared soldier, any exhausted ambulance driver, any battle-weary medic.
Rose thought Julia appallingly self-conscious, the kind who never got anything done. If she applied half the energy she applies to herself and the house to something useful, think what she’d achieve!She’s just going to disappear in a cloud of lavender water one of these days . . . But Rose wasn’t being entirely fair. Considering that Julia had been bred and trained to be a beautiful wife, and nothing else, she wasn’t doing too badly.
‘No, thank you, darling,’ Julia said. ‘I don’t need anything.’
Purefoy didn’t get up to town. He lay on his bed in his room above the pub, trying not to think about Nadine. Then, when he returned to France, he felt a new fear: that of not be able to do what was required of him. He was willing enough to go back to the front – keen, even, for duty to blast thought from his mind. He just wasn’t sure that he could walk, button his jacket, say good morning. The week in Dover, the officer training, and the look in Burgess’s eye before he left had all uprooted him.
A good officer. A good Second Lieutenant. A good soldier. The machine of which he was part deftly slotted him back. Even at the dock, he felt the required state of mind begin to descend upon him, inexorably, as on every man there. It seemed to him a mass state of mind, like gas, or the all-pervading stale-biscuit smell of damp khaki. It’s there; there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s somehow natural. Now that he had identified it, he found that he could look at it from arm’s length before letting the familiar sick comfort of it sweep over him again. He wanted to approach all of it with clean senses: the trains, the pristine uniforms going out, the dirty ones coming in, the landscapes streaming past the carriage windows, the rattle of window frames, the smooth slopes and low curves of the heavy countryside towards the Somme valley, the contained anxiety of the station at Amiens, the smells of soot and paraffin, the ever-increasing destruction, the lackening trees, the cling of the muddy road to the sole of the boot, the camp, the dark damp culvert that was the entrance to the trench system.
They hadn’t found somewhere else to send him so he was, after all, back with the Paddingtons in the support lines behind Hébuterne. He found Locke in the wallpapered rabbit hole, and sat on a box, and accepted a glass of whisky. Dinner was about to be served. Locke was stepping out to see how the fellows were doing. Purefoy, accompanying him in his faultless new khaki, polished and presented, whistle and revolver, felt an utter fraud.
Ferdinand and Bowells grinned at him like lunatics. Burgess said nothing, gave nothing away. Ainsworth said, ‘Aye, lad, sir’, and shook his hand. Purefoy felt it quite absurd.
That night, hunched over Locke’s small desk, he wrote a letter:
My dear Nadine,
I am sorry that I had leave just now and I could not visit you. I am sorry that I joined up and left without speaking to you and left only that silly letter telling you I was going. I am sorry I sent you that stupid Christmas card. I am sorry I have not been able to write to you, about my life here, so that you could see how I am, and how I do. There’s no excuses, but there’s reasons, and I will try this once to explain it, because very soon I will be back in the thick of it, and unable again to communicate. This is why: out here, I do not exist. That is my protection against all this. The gigantic upheaval, the all-encompassing immensity of what goes on out here, dwarfs the individual to nothingness. There is no room for private welfare, because the common welfare overtakes all. And the horrors? Nat, we have horrors, and the worst horror is that before I came away on leave I no longer saw them. I stopped looking, because seeing doesn’t help, and I didn’t like what I was seeing. Instead, I concentrate, an almost hypnotic state of concentration. It’s as if I am running past everything at a jog, thinking only of where I am going. My self retreats, my focus is narrow. My body does what has to be done.
While I was at Dover last week that condition of mind receded a little, and I thought clearly, as a human being. But such luxuries are not for the Front. This is the last evening when my mind and heart are engaged. I have kept them open in order to be able to say this to you. To tell the truth, I don’t want you to know about this kind of thing. But not telling you seems like a form of death, a death of the heart, or the mind, or the spirit. There are more ways than the physical to die, which I never knew before. I have learnt it this year. I do not care to think what else I shall learn as the war continues. As clearly it must.
We return to the Front Line tomorrow. I am going back under and I will not write again. Pray that I come up again, and my darling be there to help haul me out at the end, if I make it –
Oh, dear I shouldn’t have written that.
Well, fuck it. Fuck it. That’s how I feel.
London, August 1915
The letter, the first since the Christmas card, was sent on by her mother, with a note on the back in swirling, elegant writing: ‘Have you an admirer? Tell all!’
Not likely. Not after the look on your face when you gave me the first letter, the oh-Nat-I’m-just-going-to-war-’bye-then letter. The stupid stupid stupid unkind letter. Not after you said: ‘It’s probably for the best, darling. I know you liked him but you know he’s not the sort of boy . . .’
Oh yes he is the sort of boy, he is EXACTLY the sort of boy. He is THE boy.
Liked. In the past. Thanks for that little extra, Mother.
Followed by the Christmas card which might as well have been from someone’s uncle they hardly knew . . .
Nadine was not able to say, either to her mother or to herself, that her mother was wrong and she was right and Riley was everything, everything he should be. Because he wasn’t. He was – he had somehow turned into – someone to whom she could only write those stupidly cheerful notes. If she could write at all. Was it distance? Was it the fact of words on paper, uncomfortable, unchangeable? Was it whatever had happened that had made him leave so suddenly? Was it whatever was happening out there, which she couldn’t ask about, which he wasn’t writing to her about?
But that moment, in the studio, when he had turned to her, and she had turned, and there was that moment when she had thought, for a second of absolute bewildering thrill, that he was going to kiss her, and he hadn’t but he had put his hand . . . and that moment when they had looked at each other, and then, just then, for that moment . . . wasn’t he everything? Wasn’t it all true, just true, and possible, and true?
Like the Donne . . . eye beams twisting . . .
And Papa had said, There’s nothing you can do about it . . .
And the heart was true, and the heat, in that moment, with his hand on her waist and that big old pinafore, the hyacinth smell, that morning, was a promise. They had made a promise then. They had. They had. That touch, that surge, that look.
The entire autumn, no one mentioned him to her. She had wanted to ask. She had lain in bed wondering who best to ask, going round in circles. And when she had asked, she learnt nothing. Her family had heard nothing from him. Sir Alfred had had only a card when Riley was in training. She had asked Terence, who had rather embarrassedly said, no, he hadn’t heard from the old boy. She had been tempted to visit Mrs Purefoy – she had even got her coat on to go to their house – but having already written for his address she grew embarrassed; overcoming the embarrassment she couldn’t find the street; having found the house she grew embarrassed again at its smallness, so she decided to write after all; and having written she received no reply; and thus ignored she retreated into humiliated confusion and did not know what to do.
During a drawing lesson in the studio she had braved the topic again with Sir Alfred. (Thank God her parents had got over their moment of concern about her studying art, for now at least.) ‘I wonder if there is any news of Riley,’ she said. ‘I suppose he would have written to you. Or his mother.’
‘The Paddingtons are in France, I believe,’ said Sir Alfred. ‘Or perhaps Flanders. If he’d talked to me, I would have put in a word for him with the Artists’ Rifles.’ He turned away, and the broad old back said clearly: Enough. Don’t ask.
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