12. Decent Human Beings

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Malnutrition. Anemia. Various untreated minor injuries, including a cracked finger. A half-cured joint injury in the right shoulder due to overstraining that arm with his crutch. 

James was as healthy as could be expected, given his situation. Once the doctor had had his four o'clock tea, reminisced about father, given me yet another warning about making sure the locks on my bedroom door were in good working order (men are men, my dear, and can never be trusted), he put on his hat and took his leave. 

I was finally able to allow myself to go and talk to James with a clear conscious. Which I did, with a bit too much spring in my step for my own liking. 

I found him sitting on the bench outside the Infirmary, staring off into the woods. He had a tartan blanket draped over his shoulders, and someone had dug out one of the grey Army-issue slippers left over from the war for him. Agatha most likely. 

"Haven't seen this many trees in ages," he said without looking at me as I sat down next to him. "That was one of the things I really liked about this place. The trees."

"Doctor says you're as healthy as can be expected." 

James held up his left hand, showing off the basic splint holding his ring and middle finger together. "A legitimate injury. I thought it was hurting longer than it should have done."

"How did it happen?" 

He remained silent for a few moments before answering, his gaze not leaving the trees. "Had my hand in the till, didn't I? Boss slammed the drawer on it to teach me a lesson. It's seriously interfered with my pick pocketing, as you can well imagine."  

I nodded, accepting the barb. "I'm sorry I said those things. I was trying to get you to see sense."

"I know." 

We silently watched the trees together for a short while. A bird hopped along a branch and then fluttered into the undergrowth. The bench was almost entirely in the shade at this hour and I suddenly understood his need for a blanket. I'd need one myself if I sat out there much longer. 

Perhaps I could crawl under his. 

"So, I shan't be put down by the gamekeeper, then?" he asked with a deep intake of breath. 

"No. . .  you're too healthy for the dinner table." 

I could see the edge of his mouth widen into a smile. I don't know why, but I thought if he were in a good mood, it might be the right moment to soften up a little, too. And so, like a fool, I blurted out, "It's good to see you again." 

He didn't say anything, but his jaw set itself defiantly. 

"Why?" he asked after a longer pause. 

"Why?"

"Yes, why. Why is it good to see me? Unless you're only being polite."   

"Good heavens, James! Do you think I'm made of stone? I'm not indifferent towards you, I never have been." 

"No? Perhaps not. A convenient toy is a pleasure while it lasts. But what genuine concern could you have for an old toy now?" 

He didn't say it sharply, or loudly or even with a wavering note of hurt lacing the words, but he might as well have, nonetheless. 

"I...I'm genuinely concerned about every man who -"

"Of course you are! You're a good woman. Always ready to help those in need. Always ready to ease the pain of others. Of course, you're concerned about me."

He tilted his head up and began scanning the tree tops as if scanning for enemy aircraft. "But you'd be concerned about a dog in the same situation, wouldn't you? Wouldn't want to think the poor thing was suffering without you jumping in and saving it, now would you?" 

I stared at him, my hands going icy where they lay in my lap.  "Would you rather I abandoned you to your fate? Gave up on you? Do you think you meant so little to me?"

"I couldn't have meant much. And you did abandon me."

"What are you talking about? Whenever did I give you the idea that I -" 

"You could have written to me. You could have at least done that. I waited sheer months to hear from you. Nothing. Not a word." 

He still hadn't raised his voice. It was as if he were reading a passage out of a diary written ages before, shaking his head slightly as if at the blinkered ignorance of a more youthful time. It was absolutely infuriating, and I clenched and unclenched my fists in frustration. 

"That's not fair. That's simply not fair! I was always honest with you. I made it very clear that it wasn't forever between us. I never said I would write to you. I never gave you any promises." 

"Sent back into mud and filth to get your head blown off, waiting to hear from someone you thought cared about you, honestly cared, so that you didn't feel so alone and terrified.  I thought you understood that. I thought you understood what alone and terrified felt like."

The shadows were growing thicker and the smell of the woods stronger with the approaching dusk. I was shivering at the same time as hot anger prickled my skin. 

"I'm sure I don't know what you're -"

"There were nights that I honestly didn't care if the trench I was in got shot to smithereens or overrun. To hell with all of us. Let us die in peace! We weren't people anymore. We were things, Olivia, things. To the army, and to all the very, very good people who shed a little bit of kindness on us before sending us back to die."   

I didn't know what to say. What did he want? I had told him the truth! I'd told all of them the truth! How did that make him a, a thing! And did he think I could have stopped his going back to the front? Did he think that had been within my power? 

"Only seeing from your own side, aren't you?" I growled back at him, not able to control my anger. " Well, you just listen to me for a moment! How do you think it is to receive back a packet of letters stamped FALLEN? How many times do you think I could have faced that? Knowing that men I'd tended, seen laughing,  eating and singing, were dead? If I'd written to you, any of you!, how long do you think I could have kept going?! Write to you?  I didn't even read the lists!"

James finally turned his head to look at me. And with the same aggravating calmness he said, "You haven't thought about me for one second in the last five years, have you?" 

"That's not the point."

"I think that is the point. I am grateful for your charity, Olivia, just as much as the next man. But don't you go confusing passion with compassion. They aren't the same thing, are they? I won't be picked up, played with and dropped by you again, just so you can look yourself in the eye every morning and tell yourself you're a decent human being." 

I felt as if I'd been punched and all the air knocked out of me. How dare he judge me like that!

"Well then, if that's how it is, I guess there's nothing left to say, is there?" I stood up and roughly straightened my jacket to leave.   

"There is one thing. What work can I do here?  I heard a few men saying that ploughing'll begin soon, but I think that's out for me. Where can I make myself useful?" 

"I haven't had time to think about that yet."

"Well, take the time. I won't be dependent on your concern, Olivia."

"Yes, you've made that abundantly clear."

"Good. Because I mean it." 

And that's when I stalked off, leaving him alone in the gathering darkness. 



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