Thursday, 30 August 2012

Day 30 - 2968 words. Final total 50041 words

‘What have we got in this latest batch?’ The ward orderly looked over the last row of camp beds, each one containing a seriously wounded casualty, stretchered off the field of battle only a few hours ago. He wondered how he had got so familiar with the sight of so many beds, the endless neat rows under canvas, the equally endless labour of looking after so many wounded, of trying to support so many on their journey into death.
‘Cavalry regiment, so I’m told. But I’ve not found an officer among them so far. All the casualties were in a fight with an incendiary bomb, which landed a direct hit on their position. They came off worse. Not a pretty sight.’  The nurse rubbed the back of his wrist over his forehead, and the orderly moved in to pinch out the tension in his shoulders.
‘Don’t, Julian.’ It’s nice, but it doesn’t help. If I crack now, I’ll never get going again. I just have to keep working.’
‘Oh, Sandy. Get some rest. I’ll find someone else. You’ll be no good to anyone if you’re dead on your feet.’
‘Better dead on my feet than this lot dead in bed.’ Sandy moved over to the newest casualties and looked closely at one man, and then at the one in the next bed. He gasped. ‘Julian! Come here! Look – that’s Gabriel, surely?’
Julian looked at the second man instead. ‘No, I think this is Gabriel, but…’
‘Then the other one must be Ernest. There’s no-one else who could be taken for Gabriel’s twin.’
Julian discreetly found Sandy’s hand and held it tightly. ‘With the burns, and the bruising, I can’t tell which is which. Neither’s come in with any identification. Their uniforms were cut off them on the field, because they’d caught fire.’
‘Ernest? Gabriel?’ Sandy tried talking to the two men, but got no response from either. He straightened up. ‘I know the difference between them. This one is nearly dead and that one’s barely alive.’
‘Don’t say that’ said Julian. ‘They might just be able to hear you, even now.’
Sandy shook his head. ‘We’ve seen enough poor souls like this to know the ending of this story, I’m afraid. All I can do is get them some morphine and let them leave us quietly.’
Julian turned away, but then he heard Sandy call him back. ‘He made a noise.’
‘Which one?’
‘This one. Gabriel? Is that you? Listen, Julian.’
Julian heard the faintest noise, but could not make out any words in it. Then he heard a noise the other side of him. ‘This one’s back with us as well. Don’t give up on them, Sandy, please. Give them all you’ve got.’
‘Which is not much. But we’ll try our best.’ Sandy walked off to fetch what kit he had. ‘Be a love, Julian – get us some hot Bovril, or I’m not going to make it through the night either.

In the small hours of the night, Julian was chatting with one of his patients who could not manage to get to sleep. The young Corporal had a large collection of cigarette cards and postcards of various actresses and glamorous girls in bathing costumes, and his conversation consisted almost entirely of inviting Julian to rate each ones attributes.  Julian was being as non-committal as possible, using a variation of ‘I’m sure she’s a lovely girl, but she’s not my type. What do you think of her?’ Finally, the young man fell asleep with his photographic harem still scattered over the blanket. Julian carefully gathered them up and put them back in the tobacco tin that was keeping them safe.
‘Not got a clue, has he?’ said the man in the next bed.
‘What, his taste in women?’ smiled Julian.
‘No, toots – your taste in men.’  The soldier propped himself up on his pillows. ‘Sorry if I’m interfering, poking my nose in. It’s nice to meet – well, one of us, from time to time.’
‘So it is.’ Said Julian. ‘As for our young Cassanova there, well – a lot of folk don’t see what’s in front of them, if they don’t want to. If it doesn’t fit in with their comfortable view of their own little world, they just can’t be doing with it. So, us lot, we don’t exist. He never saw a thing.’ Julian poured the soldier a glass of water. ‘You doing alright?’
‘I’m getting by. I lost – I lost my fella last year just before Christmas. He got pneumonia the daft sod. I always had to look after him, make sure he had his scarf on. Without me there – it was bound to happen.’
‘I’m sorry.’
‘Take it day by day, don’t we.’
‘All we can do.’ Agreed Julian. Just at the edge of his sight, something moved. He turned to look, but could see no one else walking around the ward. Everything was quiet, except for the door swinging loose at the far end. ‘Did you see that?’ he asked.
‘Never saw a thing. Seems all ticketyboo to me.’
‘I’ll just go and check’ said Julian. As he moved through the ward he felt the temperature dropping, or something else was making his skin goosepimple.  Between the rows of beds with the most recent casualties, including Ernest and Julian, there was a figure, standing still. A man in a top hat and cape.
Julian thought to himself that these doctors put on more airs with every day. ‘Can I help?’ he called.
The figure moved, and to Julian’s tired eyes it seemed to grow thin, for Julian could see the night light shining where the heart of the man should be. ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ he said, more forcefully now, quickening his pace down the aisle between the sleeping soldiers. The figure turned to directly face him, and Julian stopped on the spot, for the man had no face, but a swirling mass of dots, like dust particles dancing in the light. As Julian watched, the man stood between the beds of Gabriel and Ernest, and stretched out a hand over each bed.
‘Here! You leave them alone!’ Julian was shouting, not caring how many patients he woke up, or that the nurses in other wards might hear him. In the disturbance of soldiers waking up and calling out, the figure somehow vanished away, like dead leaves in a summer storm. Julian hurried to the place where the man had been standing, and looked at the beds. On the smooth grey blanket of one man was a stain, some kind of liquid seeping through the wool. The stain was unmistakeably in the shape of the letter E.
Julian was soon joined by Sandy, who had been getting an hour’s rest on a vacant bed, and was not best pleased at being woken up. But when he saw the blanket, he swallowed hard. ‘That is very strange. Very odd indeed. Especially because I’ve just signed for this parcel of personal effects…’ Sandy held out a bundle of a coat and other parts of a uniform, blackened with soot and smelling strongly of fuel. ‘Look what he wrote on the label’ said Sandy. Julian looked down to see a luggage label with nothing on it but a beautifully written capital letter E.
‘Who wrote it?’
‘I don’t know who he was, my dear. Some old queen in a cape. And a top hat, did you ever. How’d he get a titfer like that out here?’
‘Sandy – concentrate. What did he look like?’
‘Oh I don’t know. I tell you I must be more done in than I thought. Every time I looked at him all I could see was a sort of a swirl where his face should be…’Sandy tailed off, suddenly uncertain. ‘I wish mystic Mavis was here. She’d have dealt with him.’
Julian bent down to look in the eyes of the man who was now awake, under his initialled blanket. ‘So can we take it that we have a sign that this one is Ernest?’ said Julian, partly to Sandy, and partly in case the mysterious figure was still somehow present.
‘Father’ said the injured man. ‘’Wait for me. Let me join you now.’ But then his eyes closed once more, and although Julian and Sandy spoke his name over and over again, they got no further response.
During a quiet interval in the following night, Sandy took a seat between his two wounded friends  and began to pick apart the bundle of Ernest’s clothes. He felt through what remained of the pockets, and as he patted the seams his fingertip slipped in to the circle of a ring. Using his knife, he cut the coat apart, and extracted the letter that Ernest had written for Effie, and the ill-fated engagement ring, now pitted from the heat and friction. The letter was undamaged, although as Sandy unfolded it, the space between the beds became acrid with the smell of smoke.
When Julian stopped to see how he was getting on, he found Sandy blowing his nose hard and patting Ernest’s blankets. ‘The poor dear boy.’ He said to Julian. ‘I’ve just found a letter in his coat. It’s to a girl called Effie and he’s wanting to get to her and get married as soon as possible.  Look, he’s even bought the ring.’
‘Effie?’ But he had a girlfriend called Effie years ago – when he was eighteen or so.’
‘Oh bless. That makes it worse. They’d finally decided to tie the knot, and then…’
‘Now now. Don’t get emotional in front of the men old chap.’ Said Julian, imitating the crisp tones of one of the doctors.
‘But he tells her how much he loves her. Says he loves her purity and innocence.’
‘Oh deary me.’
Sandy hit Julian with the letter. ‘Where’s your heart gone?’
‘I must have slopped it out with all the other mangled organs and body parts I clear up from this place.’
Sandy stood up to hug him. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.’
‘I know. I’m being melodramatic.’
‘But  - we should send it to her.’
‘If we knew where she lived. There’s no envelope, no address’ pointed out Julian, reading the letter for himself.
‘Aha – but’ said Sandy, suddenly jogging away down the ward. Julian watched him scrabbling about on the desk full of paperwork. ‘The post’s come in, at last! Every letter they can’t find the intended recipient, it comes here, just in case. So…’
‘She might have written back to him. Finished Julian, taking half of the thick pile of letters and scanning the addresses. ‘Yes! Mission objectives achieved. Outstanding deducing skills, young man.’
‘What does she say?’
‘Half a mo, I’m reading it.’
‘You should be reading it to Ernest’ said Sandy.
‘No’ Julian said, slowly. ‘No I don’t think I should…’ Sandy moved round the bed so that he could read over Julian’s shoulder. ‘Oh my dear.’ He breathed. ‘My poor sweet boy.’

‘My dear Ernest’ wrote Effie,
‘I am writing this letter against my own better judgement, because I know that it will destroy all bonds between us, and that is, at the time of writing, more than I can stand to think about.  But I feel I owe you complete honesty, as you have always shown to me, even when we had our differences. When we parted unkindly in your apartment I had no intention that it would be a permanent rift. But the time and the war have come between with us. I do not know if you ever received the letter I wrote in haste, begging you to marry me. Perhaps it was better that you did not receive it, or I would have had to think that your silence for an answer was deliberate. But, my dear Ernest, I could not wait. I found myself in trouble, you see. I thought that you would come to my rescue, that you would forgive me. The sin was not mine. I was attacked, taken by force. But still there is an innocent baby to consider, and I could not face going through life as an unmarried mother, with a fatherless child. And yet, there was something in the encounter with the man who dishonoured me, that I felt, I could not help thinking that I knew him. Perhaps just because I cannot believe a stranger could be so evil, but then again it is worse to think that someone I trusted could so turn against me.
Gabriel – I do not know if he has told you the next chapter of the story, but here, if you will permit me, is my narrative.
I met Gabriel again in London while he was on leave and I was desperately watching the letter box or the telegram boy for word from you. I must own I poured out my troubles to him, because I thought he may know where you were and how you were fairing. Gabriel offered to marry me, and his Father consented so rapidly that I began to think – forgive me but what else could I think – that it was Gabriel who had forced himself upon me under the bridge. I know that you thought I was sweet on him, but it was only because I was enjoying the parties and the dances with all the giddiness of a silly girl. Gabriel does remind me of you, in appearance, but he will never have your nobleness of character, your sincerity and your gentleness.
But although I do not think that we love each other, Gabriel and I are now married, and by the time he returns to me the children will be born. The doctors are sure that I am expecting twins. If one of them is a boy, I will call him Ernest.
Please believe me when I say you are the love of my life, although I must be strong enough to understand that we may never meet again.
Yours, Effie.’
Julian and Sandy, hand in hand, looked from Gabriel to Ernest and back again. There was hardly any sign of life from either young man, except the thinnest of pulses at Gabriel’s throat.
‘Could he have done that?’ mused Sandy, looking down at Gabriel. ‘He always was one for the ladies, even when he should have been at school. But to do that, and to Ernest’s girl?’
‘Doesn’t seem likely.’ Said Julian. ‘Perhaps it was just some half-crazed poor bastard back from the Front. Perhaps it was a stranger, and Gabriel was doing the decent thing. He must have thought Ernest was dead.’
‘Why didn’t Ernest send that letter to Effie? From the look of it, he’s been carrying it round in his coat for weeks. It’s all greasy and thumbed, like he’s been reading it over and over, but never sent it.’
‘It’s a tangled web alright.’ Said Julian. ‘There’s nothing in Gabriel’s possessions that gives a clue? No loving tokens of Effie or… oh, I don’t know.’
‘All they managed to save was his Cavalry Officer’s Field Guide.’  Said Sandy, retrieving it from the tin box under Gabriel’s bed and handing it to Julian. As Julian took the battle scarred little book, Gabriel made a noise. Sandy dropped to his knees and picked up Gabriel’s wrist. ‘He’s going.’ There were just a few more seconds before the pulse fluttering in Gabriel’s throat faded away, and his face grew taut, and then slackened as his head rolled sideways into the pillow.
Sandy stood up again and gently closed Gabriel’s eyes. Julian unfolded the starched sheet from the top of the blanket and laid it over Gabriel’s face, before making a final note on the chart at the end of the bed.
‘Poor Effie’ said Sandy, after a long silence. As he said her name, Ernest took a loud gasping breath, and his fingers contracted, digging into the blanket. Sandy and Julian looked at him, and then at each other. Sandy nodded, and Julian began to unfold the sheet on Ernest’s bed. When Julian had made the final entry on Ernest’s chart, Sandy excused himself for a moment, on the pretext of calling a porter to take the two bodies away.
Julian sat down on the chair between the beds, and flicked through the Cavalry Officer’s Field Guide, to give him something else to think about. Horses seemed so much more straightforward than the messy lives of friends and strangers. On the page dealing with how to shoot an injured horse, Julian read the following note.
‘Gabriel – I have to write what I could not face speaking. We have the same Father. He is Colonel Kerford’s brother, Jay Kerford. He has also been known as Jack the Ripper. I do not, however, want that information to change the love you feel for Colonel and Lady Kerford. Although I know it will. I am the twin that takes after our Father. I am his apprentice. The dark is in me, and it knows me.  I raped Effie, knowing that then she would have to marry me, and that this would cause you and she regret, unhappiness and pain. You are meant to be with her. She is, like you, an angel in this hell on earth. That is why I am taking your place today, if I can. That is why I go forward into death, while I can still choose the place and time to die. Your brother, now and always. Ernest.’
Julian tucked the book under Gabriel’s arm, and walked out of the ward, out of the hospital tent, and over to the edge of the camp where the horses stood quietly in the sunrise. He leaned against the neck of a pony, and let his tears fall unchecked.

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