Picking up the threads
‘This is to certify that Temporary Surgeon Lieutenant Stephen E Bull M.B. RN will be demobilised from His Majesty’s Naval Service with effect from 25th March 1919. He will be entitled to wear uniform for one month from the above date and upon occasions authorised by the Regulations.’
Signed by a rubber stamp. A meagre receipt for his years spent on the hospital trains, keeping the wounded alive on the slow five hundred mile journey to Edinburgh.
Dr Stephen Edmund Bull’s steps rang strangely on the platform at Dover Marine as he walked along the length of the train towards the First Class carriages. For the first time in four years the place was still. The stretchers were gone, the crutches, the nightmare daisy-chains of the gas-blinded, orderlies shouting and waving. Screams, laughter, the rumbling grind of steel-shod wooden wheels, the solemn bellowing of steam engines, all silent now except in Edmund Bull’s head. Heaving his bag into a vacant compartment, he took a seat by the window, facing away from the engine and towards the sea.
The train began, at first imperceptibly, to move, lurching briefly over the points, the engine puffing vigorously as it built up speed, its pale grey smoke plume wafting down across the window. Edmund relaxed, let his head fall back against the seat. Now with the Armistice signed he could return to the Bethnal Green surgery, doing what he could to counter the ravages of tuberculosis in one of London’s most crowded slums. From the wounds of war to the lesions of minute bacilli, slow, silent, persistent, lethal. He reached absently for his hip flask.
The war had seemed endless. Trains of wounded seeping through the land like spilled blood, lists of today’s dead, the lies, the hopes. The dead were dead, but for many who lived it would have been better had they died. At least for their wives, and for the girls who could not now reject their damaged heroes.
There is an end to everything, Edmund assured himself. An end to waiting on wind-blown platforms for trains that never came, an end to dawn goodbyes in cold hotel rooms.
No more of that, Edmund promised himself. He was going home to Oona. To Oona’s pale blue eyes and tumbling auburn hair, her small light frame never still; a girl born to dance. He wondered who there was left now to dance with. The world had become populated by strangers on passage out of life and into the War. In her letters Oona had penned perceptive portraits of her friends and they had seemed a decent crowd. But she had complained that the men never stayed in town long enough to get to know. To the front, to the sea, she had never known where; dance today, gone tomorrow. Though Oona had told him that she worked for the Foreign Office, it was still unclear to Edmund as to just what it was she had been doing.
They had met when they could, although Edmund’s leaves were erratic. One grey morning the previous November, when his train was stopped at a station, he had seen Oona almost within reach in a carriage at the other platform. Scarcely had their eyes met than both trains began to move, his north, hers south. He had watched her, pressed against the window, the palms of her hands pale on the glass, her mouth open, sliding slowly away from him.
* * *
In the taxi Edmund imagined whisking Oona off her feet and into the bedroom the moment he came through the door. But it was practicality, not passion, that in the event framed their reunion. Edmund’s luggage, a surprising amount of it, had followed him from the station in a second taxi, and had to be carried up to Oona’s third floor flat, the men had to be made tea and tipped, the landlady placated. Then the ladies from the flats below came up to view Edmund and welcome him home. Propriety demanded more tea, and the exchange of pleasantries, so it was a full hour and a half before Edmund and Oona could collapse, first each into the other’s arms, and then onto the sofa.
‘I booked a table at the Gavroche, Edmund, rather than cook. Unless you are too tired?’
‘No, no, I’m recovering. When for?’
‘Then we have an hour.’ Edmund stood, and swung Oona giggling over his shoulder.
‘Once aboard the the lugger and you’re mine!’ He growled, carefully manoeuvring her through the doorway.
* * *
During the meal Edmund looked at Oona and Oona looked at Edmund. It was enough, almost.
‘We’ll need somewhere to live,’ he said.
‘I thought Kensington,’ said Oona. ‘There are some good flats there, with so many not coming home.’
Edmund had known them. He had been their ferryman.
‘Kensington? It’s too pricey, and too far from the clinic. I think somewhere like Ilford would be more suitable.’
‘But Edmund, surely you’re not going back to that clinic! You’re an officer, a Naval officer, with so much experience now. Surely you can find a smart practice in a decent neighbourhood?’
‘My dear, you know perfectly well why I’m going back there. It’s where I’m needed. Anyway, it makes no difference to you, you’ll be at home looking after all those children we’re going to have. We’ll need a decent sized house and we can’t afford Kensington.’
Children. Yes, thought Oona, children. While Edmund had been away a wondrous web had woven itself in her imagination, a deep and glowing panorama of their new life; dinner parties, conversation, theatre. And, of course, children. A tapestry rescued from the ruins, restored with love and hope. Though she would miss her work, and the people she worked with. Out of habit her eyes scanned the restaurant; waiters, couples, many of the men still in uniform, unlike Edmund.
‘I bumped into Harry the other day, Oona. He’s such a pudding, It’s hard to believe you’re his sister.’ She failed to respond. Edmund felt piqued, and following her gaze noted a tall greying man in a colonel’s uniform, who lifted his head, as if returning Oona’s look.
‘Sorry darling, miles away, Harry, you said?’
Edmund poured the last of the wine into his glass.
‘I’m having lunch with him at his club tomorrow. He wants to talk about something, seemed rather solemn.’
As their taxi rumbled through the cobbled streets they held each other close, the joggling of the cobbles merging each into the other, their hands intent on exploration. It had been a long time.
‘Not here, Edmund, we’ll be arrested, and we’re nearly home. Wait!’
Edmund groaned. ‘I’m so tired and so alive and God I love you so much!’
Their taxi turned the final corner and Oona recalled the times she had come home to this gas-lit street. Mostly alone. Now never to be alone again.
The taxi drew up, Oona waited in the chill air while Edmund paid. As they walked up the steps to the door there was a distance between them that only minutes earlier had not been there. There was time, she thought, we have been too much apart, too used to saying goodbye. The door closed, but there was more night within the house than in the street, with one dim gas jet to light the hall and stairs.
The flat was cold, so they went straight to bed with a hot cocoa.
Edmund topped his up with whisky.
Oona paused. ‘Just a drop.’
‘Edmund, are you sure about going back to the clinic?’
Edmund stared at the dark ceiling. ‘The slums are still there, and there will be thousands of widows on ridiculous tiny pensions trying to raise families. All this talk about homes fit for heroes is a damned lie, nothing will be done. I can’t just turn my back, Oona.’
‘Oh,’ she sighed. Her tapestry had seemed so colourful, so perfect, and now he was ripping it with his holy sword, his chill virtue, even when she held it out in both hands crying please this is ours don’t do this. Don’t do this to me.
‘Trust me, ‘ he whispered.
Edmund’s body was warm against hers under the sheets, the bedside lamp lit his face like a fire. Such a strong face, muscular, with kind eyes. Laughing eyes. He was looking at her with tenderness, and … oh, Oona realised, condescension. I’m just a woman. Even if he loves me, I’m still the weaker vessel.
Yet even the weakest vessel holds a little power, Oona mused as she turned off the light and reached out to him.
* * *
The next day Edmund was to visit the clinic to discuss his return to duty, and then take lunch at Harry’s club.
‘I hope he doesn’t jaw for too long. I’ll be back for dinner, anyway.’
Oona prepared a pie. However late Edmund might be, it would still be hot.
At five Oona made a pot of tea, thinking he might come and she could say ‘I’ve just made tea!’ but he did not come.
Night fell, and she thought of having a sherry but did not, they could have one together. She lit the gas fire.
When Edmund finally came up the stairs well after nine Oona was so relieved that she did not notice at once that he was unsteady on his feet. It was only when she came to kiss him that she realised he had been drinking. Edmund fumbled mutely at his pie.
‘What did Harry have to say?’ asked Oona.
‘Family stuff,’ Edmund muttered, his head lowered over the plate. ‘I think we should move out of town. Tomorrow we’ll look at a place we might live.’
No, thought Oona, this cannot be. But said nothing.
* * *
The day was cold and bright, ideal for viewing elegant suburban villas. Edmund became almost enthusiastic as he pointed out to a bemused Oona the advantages of living a modest train ride from the city, but with shops and services ready to hand.
‘And the air is clean, Oona, no yellow fogs, much better for the children, and there’s Epping Forest nearby. We’ll take a walk there after lunch’.
Resisting the lure of the inns on the High Road, Edmund took Oona to a sunny tea shop.
‘I’m sure we could be happy here Oona, don’t you? We should begin to behave like a proper married couple now I’m back. You must settle down to being a wife, and soon a mother, I hope. I know it will be quite different from your life in Town but you’ll get used to it.’
Oona looked into Edmund’s eyes, as if she could see past the sea grey into his thoughts. She had already resigned herself to this, and what she had seen today made it all so much easier to imagine. But it was Edmund who was strained, hiding his feelings. She would have to wait.
The forest. Leaf-mould muffled their footsteps as they wandered between the dappled trees. So quiet, Oona thought, so still. They were alone but she felt watched.
‘Why are we here, Edmund? Why now? It’s to do with Harry isn’t it? You’ve been terribly odd since you met him.’
Edmund kicked at the leaves, looked past her. ‘People are saying things.’
‘You’ve been seen. Late at night. Getting into taxis. With men.’
She could hear the fury, compressed like steam.
‘No. Not men, just a friend. I need friends.’
‘Men?’ He looked up, moving closer to her, staring.
‘Just friends, Edmund, really. I can’t help it if some of my friends aren’t women.’
‘More than one, then.’
‘Only one I was ever in a taxi with. It was raining, and he offered.’
‘You were seen more than once.’
‘It rained a lot last winter.’
‘Oh come on!’ he yelled, grabbing her by the shoulders and throwing her against a tree. ‘Just friends?’ He pulled her forward and slammed her against the tree again, harder. Tiny points of light floated before Oona’s eyes. His strength both frightened and thrilled her. She wanted to run and she needed to surrender. She could feel tears coming. She lifted her hands to his face.
Edmund let go and turned away. Oona trembled. There was nowhere to run and her surrender was spurned. All the words she wanted to give him were stuck inside, jammed up together.
‘It didn’t …’ she managed. Mean anything. It had, but he would never understand.
Edmund had his hip flask out, and he too was shaking.
‘I will take a suitable house here,’ he said over his shoulder, his voice quavering. ‘Meanwhile you will stay with my mother in Kettering.’
He turned and looked her in the eyes. ‘I should never have left you alone. I should have known what you’d get up to. I was a fool. I won’t let it happen again.’
Edmund turned abruptly, hiding his face. ‘Come.’
Oona started towards him. Would he take her arm? Her hand? Understanding if not forgiveness? But he walked off, as if she could follow or not as she chose. There, she was behind him, in his shadow, under his hand, the contrite errant wife.
Oona followed him along the dusk-lit path. She would have drawn quietly alongside him but the path was too narrow. Later perhaps. He would need her, she would reach him, touch him again, gently pick up a few of the threads.