After our battle, I felt like nothing more than a sandbag with a hole in it, all of the anger and desire to hurt pouring out in a steady stream onto the floor. I felt like crying, too, like taking the same method of release James was, but instead I just lay there feeling empty and watching the shadows of evening creeping across the ceiling.
"You smell of herbs," I whispered.
"I was in the greenhouses," he said, pulling air through his nose in a wet sniff.
I never wanted to get up again. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with my feet in the cobwebs under the sofa, and James quietly sobbing next to me.
I didn't want to have to bury another Cloud Hill man. I didn't want to attempt again and again to leverage jobs out of unwilling employers. I didn't want to have to manage several businesses, an estate, a farm, a manor house and the needs of fifty odd men who were reluctant to venture outside of the safe, secure world I'd created for them while I fought wolves away from the door.
Was it really so safe, so secure, this world I'd created? Was I attempting the impossible, and Montgomery had been the proof?
I didn't know, and all I wanted to do was shut my eyes and never move again.
"Was he so special to you?" James whispered in the spreading darkness.
"He was a poor unfortunate who washed up on my doorstep. I was responsible for him. Of course he was special to me."
"I know what you mean."
He didn't say anything more, but I could hear him struggling to normalise his breathing.
"I. . .I haven't had work for almost two years. You asked me before, had I been working? Not for two years. Not real work anyway. I don't know if that's important now."
I ran the tips of my fingers over the rug again and again in the same pattern, knowing what was coming. Confessions, emotions, realisations. The floodgates were opening, but I wasn't sure I was ready for it just then.
"Olivia . . . I don't know what happened. I came back. Everything was fine. Then, then . . . I got angry. For no reason. Just, out of the blue. I lost my position, in a factory. For getting into a fight with another bloke. I don't even remember what it was about now. Probably nothing. Me mum was crying all the time, saying she didn't know me anymore. Was this what the war had done to me? she kept asking. What could I say? So I left home and went to London. Diversion, you know? Thought if I had something else to put my mind on, I'd not get those rages. Didn't work."
"Stress," I said. "The bombs you were always expecting to hit you never did. In the trenches, you could hang on because you had to. Alone, in normal situations, the fear and anger you pushed down for so long began to work its way to the surface."
I felt as if I was reciting from a book, I'd said those words so many times.
"I can't remember a lot. There are days and weeks I just can't remember. In the trenches, yeah? Like they never happened. Nothing. The only constant thing, the only thing I knew where it came from was that scarf you gave me. The red one. It was always there when I started knowing where I was again."
He paused, and drew a few deep breaths. Did I really want to hear what I was sure was coming next?
"I could've put an end to it all easily enough, sure. Just hop out of the trench and it'd be lights out and pain forgotten. But it kept me going, that scarf. Convinced me there were a lot worse things in the world than some smart arses sending you out to die, and for what?"
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...