Very little was said during the hour and a half journey back to Cloud Hill. Brooks concentrated on the road and I contemplated the landscape while fretting silently to myself and gnawing on my thumb.
Clumps of trees were just starting to unfurl their leaves for summer, and we passed a number of farmers sitting high on their tractors or following along next to their sleek, stout horses as the ploughs combed through the winter-hardened earth behind them. The sun had come out, and there was little trace left of the morning rain. That made for much easier motoring.
Oh, damn! The ledgers!
I'd utterly forgotten to go back to E.D. Robinson's and now I would have to wait until next time I was in town to buy them. Or order some from that frightful woman, Mrs Tanner, at the village shop.
The thought of having to face Mrs Tanner's censorious looks and the nauseating smell of her burnt creamed turnips wafting into the shop from behind the blanket curtain was enough to send me straight out the door again. Young woman alone with so many men, her eyes said, don't have to tell me what goes on up there. I wasn't born yesterday. Frightful beast.
I looked into the back seat. James had fallen asleep before we left London, a sandwich and a cup of tea scrounged from Charlotte's cook in his belly.
I was relieved he was sleeping, quite frankly. I still felt rather confused about what I was doing. I was of two minds about this now after my chat with Charlotte. Or, perhaps more properly said, of two hearts.
I cared for each and every man at Cloud Hill, but none of them had ever shared my bed as James had. And yet James had wanted to walk away from me. He had asked me to forget him. Forget our affair. Is that what he truly wanted?
We had parted as friends five years ago when it came time for him to return to the front. It had been clear to both of us that our affair wasn't the kind marriages were made of. Or had I simply assumed that? Had he somehow secretly pinned his heart on our relationship continuing? Or was all his reticence traceable back to the damnable stigmas former Tommies faced integrating back into society?
I didn't know, and no amount of chewing on my thumbs was going to tell me.
As much as I loved London, coming back home felt like running into the open, outstretched arms of family. It was always a treat turning onto the long lane, passing by the grove of elms and the folly of a ruined Greek temple grandmother Ellen had had erected simply to be picturesque. From there, one then whizzed by the flower beds and herb greenhouses up to the wide, circular gravel forecourt of Cloud Hill Manor.
Agatha must have heard us approaching, as she had already come out in smock and apron to greet us. I shook my head as we rattled to a stop at the front steps.
"Nothing much to carry, Agatha! But a package nonetheless."
Agatha came down the steps and we peered together into the back of the car at the drab, dark lump that was a sleeping James.
"Ah. A man," she said, in the same tone she would have used to express an opinion on the weather.
That's what I so love about Agatha. You could never go by her impassive words, only by her actions. And they spoke volumes.
"We'll need a bath heated and to get him fed, shaved and into new clothes. Most likely in that order," I said, unbuttoning my wrap.
"And de-louse him while you're at it," piped in Brooks as he came around the nose of the car. "I'm going to have a right devil of a time airing the stink of him out of the car, I just know it. Here's to hoping I don't have to strip the upholstery!"
Agatha snorted. "Says the man who gets his tea from Cook with horse manure and pig slop caked to his boots."
Brooks giggled and a glimmer of mirth flashed in Agatha's sharp, blue eyes. They'd been teasing each other like that for decades. I was sure neither one of them was able to imagine life without it.
"As quickly as you can, Agatha, please. He's not in a good state."
She nodded and returned into the house. Brooks unlatched the back door of the car, reached in and pulled out James' crutch.
"C'mon, wake up, lieutenant! We've arrived. Time to --"
I don't know how it happened. There was a cry and both men were suddenly on the ground fighting with each other.
James was still partially in the car, his long arms landing blow after blow on Brooks who was pinned under him.
"Calm down! There's no danger here! Just calm down, friend!"
Dodging the flying arms and legs, I threw myself into the fray by thrusting my arm under James' throat and putting him in a choking headlock.
The manoeuvre was only partially successful.
James was thrashing about in such a blind rage that I was forced to grab hunks of his dirty, matted hair and pull as hard as I could to dislodge him fully from the car. As emaciated as he was, he still weighed a fair amount, and I could hear some piece of clothing rip as I tugged him forward. His or mine, I didn't know.
Once I had him entirely on the ground, I pinned one of his flailing arms down with my right knee and lay all my weight on him. Keeping my arm locked around his neck, I began the soothing talk -- admittedly through gritted teeth as he was still bucking and struggling hard -- that I'd learnt through so many years of experience. "Quiet! Quiet! That's it. You're safe, James. You're safe. Quiet now."
Brooks, who had managed by that time to roll clear, pinned James' other arm down and eventually he stopped struggling and lay calm, face down in the gravel, panting.
And that's how Agatha and two of the men alerted by the commotion found us, in a heap of arms and legs on the ground in the forecourt.
I don't know who was more startled by that. Them, or me.
YOU ARE READING
England 1921. For fifty handicapped veterans left without home or job after WW1, the only person standing between them and utter destitution is Olivia Altringham. Lacking sufficient funds and a support network, Olivia has managed to keep her vetera...