I lay in bed, unable to sleep, staring up at the darkened ceiling as the events of the day replayed themselves in my mind.
The ticking of the clock on chimneypiece echoed more loudly than usual, although that could have only been my imagination. Shadows of tree branches from outside the window scratched their bony, black fingers soundlessly against the primrose wallpaper of my bedroom and made me think vaguely of storm winds.
The moon was almost full, and we had a clear, crisp night. That meant the night terrors would be worse. Right now, down in the kitchen, vats of tea were being brewed up in anticipation of the stream of ghost-shaken men who would come stumbling across the back lawn in nervous search of light and warmth to calm the unspeakable horrors their dreams had brought.
Thank goodness I wasn't on night duty and could sleep through.
Supper had been a loud, jolly affair as it normally was when the men were in high spirits and a little keyed up. James' sensitivity about his crutch had obviously made the rounds. No one openly blurted out the word stick donkey over the mash and gravy, which I had been fearing. That meant they were still considering how to approach the matter. And it wouldn't take them long to come to a conclusion, of that I was sure.
There would be a fight, a genuine bare-fisted lathering, and soon. There always was.
Who would start it exactly, I had no idea, but I could guess that it would be one of the other amputees. Tiller, Benson or even Rhys-Jones might bravely step up to teach James his first Rabbit Hutch lesson.
Like many of the things the men had devised, it had its cruel side, but it was also terribly therapeutic. Beating another man with your same injury senseless was like beating yourself senseless. It ripped the top soil of self-hatred and loathing away and made it far easier to get to the substance below. New arrivals who had been difficult to deal with at the start suddenly became willing to talk or work seamlessly with the others after having survived a bitter, dramatic punch up.
Sykes had been the only man -- as far as I knew -- to have been exempted from the customary lathering. But Sykes was a Scot and a former infantry training sergeant; he had no time for self pity, and most probably would have won his lathering, in actual fact. Perhaps that was why the men had elected him their unofficial captain. And perhaps why I trusted him just as much as they did.
He had episodes, Sykes did, but they were much different than the outbursts of other men. He would simply stop moving, his muscles grow rigid and he'd sit, eyes wide-open and staring, immobile for the longest time. More than once we'd had to load him into a garden wheelbarrow and cart him in out of the rain before he was soaked to the skin. Catatonia was a terrifying thing to witness if you were unused to it and had rendered Sykes utterly unfit for regular employment.
Rather like every other man here.
No, not Sykes or even Pritchard, who was physically more or less intact, or Cullen who had attacks of hysterical laughing, would give James his lathering. My money was on Tiller or Marston, both proud basket toads. All I hoped was that their wheelchairs would not take damage in the ruckus. Wheelchairs were expensive, and none of the toads were about to be loaded into second-hand Bath chairs like invalids.
I sighed and turned over.
How could I still want James? Was I as lonely as I assumed Agatha thought I was?
I hadn't been to bed with a man for two, three years. Perhaps that was the difficulty. I'd thought it hadn't mattered, when perhaps it very much had done.
Briefly, the image of Tony Farnborough passed through my mind. Nice-looking, nice-mannered Tony. Not surprisingly, a friend of Charlotte's.
"He's no dewdropper," Charlotte had told me, leaning in closely and pointing her cigarette vaguely in his direction as we sat in Frolics sipping our gin and tonics. "Fairly willing, and not a man to tattle out of class. Just catch him reasonably sober and you can make a pleasant afternoon of it. Shall I introduce you?"
Tony. He'd been nothing like James between the sheets. He knew ever so much more what he was about and was only in it for fun. I was an afternoon of indulgence in a enjoyable hobby as far as Tony was concerned. And that had suited me splendidly.
Was it inexcusable to wonder what it would be like with James now? He was a good five years older and certainly wouldn't be as passionate and . . . awed. . . in the way young men often are when granted the chance to caress a naked woman. He'd been so gentle, tender. That was long gone, most likely.
I'd been his first. If that counted for anything anymore. Although, by now, I seriously doubted if I was still his only. Had he visited brothels in Belgium and France? Almost certainly. Had a perfunctory affair with a local, half-starved village girl in trade for cigarettes or tinned meat? Possible.
Well, I would probably never find out, would I? Pointless to even ruminate on the topic.
How long could I keep James here, that was more the question. Did I even want to? He had not asked to come here, nor to stay like the others. I'd dragged him here by the scruff of his neck. For his own good. For my own good.
The image of James' arms, muscled and shapely as they lay along the side of the tub, briefly skittered across my mind. Oh, Olivia, do simply drop it and sleep, will you?
Tony Farnborough was engaged now, but perhaps Charlotte knew of another candidate for me if I really did need a roll in the hay that badly. Perhaps I should ask in a fortnight when we were set to meet for tea. Charlotte would understand. She always did.
The clock continued to tick into the darkness. I tugged at the sheets and pulled them over my shoulders, ordering myself to close my eyes and sleep.
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...