Fiction

Excerpt from Making Meredith:

train with smoke
Photo by Gabriela Palai on Pexels.com

 

1

Friday, 4 April 1919


The carriage window was too grimed with soot to see through properly, yet Robert stared out, rapt. All the passing fields hypnotised him, how they blurred and shimmered. Everything so green, so glorious, so full of hope. He hadn’t seen grass – trees even – this verdant in a long time.
Slowing, the train rattled up the long incline to Shap Summit. A hiss from the locomotive ahead, and a cloud of black smoke shot past the window. He could smell the combustion – a tarry, mothball aroma that took him back to a time before the war when he used to make this journey with Hugo. He remembered eyeing his brother over the top of his comic, and watching too for the fells outside that would mean they were nearly home.
Somewhere on this hill hung an invisible border. Soon he’d leave behind all traces of the south – the grime of London and the shell that was France – and re-enter his secret kingdom of the north. The tall forests and cold lakes of his childhood, and the tiny, cradled town where he’d been born. It was this same border that bisected his life too – boy from man, innocence from guilt. All that had gone from everything to come.
He clenched his fists and forced his gaze back inside. The compartment was almost empty, the blue seat opposite unoccupied, the racks clear of luggage. Most other passengers had already disembarked – a woman with bayonet-sharp knitting needles at Manchester, two servicemen in tattered greatcoats like his own at Preston – leaving him prey to his thoughts and contemplating his return.
If he twisted his head left he could see another man sitting further along the bench, by the door that led to the corridor. The man frowned at an open copy of The Times and every few minutes glanced at a wristwatch. Not a returning soldier, Robert decided, not even one who’d swapped his uniform for civvies. The man’s waistcoat was too red, his brogues too shiny, his skin too pale.
Uneasily Robert shifted and looked away. The man rasped like he might have a cold. He’d said absolutely nothing. Since Preston – a full hour ago – they’d sat four feet apart and not exchanged a word.
The war was over. Men were slipping back into their old ways, once again conversing with only their own class and wearing their upper lips even more stiffly than before. All of which suited Robert. After a rough Channel crossing, a day kicking his heels at Crystal Palace dispersal camp, and then this long rail journey north, the last thing he wanted to indulge in was idle small-talk. Home loomed, and he hadn’t been back in four years – not since volunteering, not since Gallipoli. Not since Hugo.
His mother would cry when she saw him, and his father – despatcher of ireful missives – would still be angry. He had his father’s arrows of correspondence somewhere, encased in a galvanised tin in turn buried in his case. He kept them as a kind of cilice, knowing their barbed words, and as a talisman too, warding off his guilt.
He shifted in his seat again, thinking of his dead brother, of the homecoming to come. Despite the ravages everywhere else the town would loiter in its pocket of time, untouched by gunfire, shells or rhetoric. The streets still narrow, the houses too close together, the windows and doors too small. Even the front door to his parents’ house would remain gunmetal grey and gridded like a portcullis. He saw himself pulling the bell handle and no one answering, so he’d pull again, and knock and call.
Inevitably it would be his mother – thin, grey-haired, languid – who’d open the door. She might clutch his arm, embrace him – but not for long, afraid his father would judge. Inside the entrance hall would smell of lavender and vinegary polish. The same old long-case clock would lean against the wall, the same three-legged table, the same cracked mirror – nothing updated, everything unchanged.
His mother would shoo him into the front room and fetch tea. Then, like thunder, his father would stir overhead. The scrape of a chair, the thud of boots, the slam of a door, and muttering as the old man tramped downstairs. A pause. A crash, and his father would burst in, nostrils flaring, eyes on fire. He’d shout and pummel the air. A shrapnel of accusations. How Robert had let the family down by being a medic instead of a fighter. How he’d let down his brother too by being human rather than a miracle-worker. This would be his homecoming. No returning hero – a coward. A traitor.
Robert shuddered and looked out through the train window again. Outside the sky had darkened, the air dancing with points of white. Snow – like those times when it had fallen in the trenches, stifling the noise of gunfire and conjuring a magical, momentary peace. Perhaps this snow at the top of Shap was an omen too? One last marker in his long, lonely journey? From here on it would all be downhill, back into the sun-filled valleys of his youth. Perhaps – he could only hope – his father would have mellowed and forgiven him. His homecoming not an ordeal, but a chance to start his life again.
The train clanked and sped up. Up ahead, the locomotive must have already passed the summit and begun its descent. Outside, the snowflakes thinned and stopped. It was still cold though, and Robert shoved his hands into his pockets and pulled his coat tight, his preservation instinct kicking in. It had kept him alive when so many of his compatriots – patients, stretcher-bearers, fellow medics – had perished.
Some days he’d thought about reversing the needle and injecting the morphine into his own arm, a numbing even fatal dose. He could see the pain in everyone he treated, yet they couldn’t see the pain that dwelled in him. How many times had he remonstrated with himself, banging his fists and stamping on the ground, knowing he’d done his best and could do no more? Even now, six months after armistice, his culpabilities sometimes caught up and tripped him over. Only two days ago, as he’d waited in the queue for the ship, a soldier had tapped him on the shoulder and dangled an empty right sleeve in his face.
“Remember me, doc?” the soldier had said. “How I could move me fingers before the operation, but not after? Cos you hacked me bleeding hand off, didn’t you? I was a clerk. Now what am I going to do?”
The train lurched, and Robert pulled out his own hands and stared at them. His fingers were long and thin, bloodless. He’d only done what he had to – cut off an arm, a leg, a hand, to save a life. Yet how would he have managed if it had been him who’d lost his hands? He couldn’t be a surgeon any more, even if he’d wanted to. Nor could he become a general practitioner, as he hoped, in his hometown.
“I do hope you’re not thinking of strangling me?” A low voice cut into his thoughts.
Startled, Robert lowered his hands and turned to the other man.
“No, no, not at all! I must have been daydreaming. I haven’t slept properly in days.”
“Returning home, are you?” The man didn’t smile. His face was starched and hard, and only his eyes seemed to be alive.
“Yes, I am.”
“Penrith? Carlisle?”
“Sort of.” Robert decided not to say too much. There was something odd about the man. Perhaps he was a strangler, waiting until he had his victims alone. “I’ll get a bus at Carlisle. I live further west, in a tiny place. You wouldn’t have heard of it.”
“Try me.”
“It’s south of Dearham.”
“Really?” The man’s eyes glinted. “You don’t look like anyone who’d come from Dearham. They’re all farmers there. I never knew a farmer who stared at his hands.”
Robert flinched. “Like I said, I was daydreaming.”
“You’d better not daydream in Dearham! It’s no place for deadweights.”
“Who are you exactly?” Robert decided the man was impertinent.
“I could ask you the same.”
“Except I asked you first.” He wasn’t going to be intimidated, not after what he’d been through. “I’m quite prepared to tell you who I am, sir, but only once you’ve answered my question and told me who you are! I think that’s how it works between gentlemen. I’m sure the war hasn’t changed that.”
“It’s changed you though, hasn’t it, sonny!” The man stood up, his hands flapping in and out like gills on a fish. “And not for the better. At least when you were in knickerbockers and garters you kept your mouth shut and no one had to listen to your warbling.”
Robert felt his cheeks flush, his neck too. “Excuse me, sir, do I know you?”
“Doesn’t look much like it, does it?” the man sneered. “Whereas I realised straightaway who you were. Dearham indeed! You’re going home to Meredith, aren’t you? That’s where you’re from. Ben Lachlan’s son, God damn you and your family! Thought we’d seen the last of you when you went off to war. But oh no! First, you as good as slaughter your brother, and now you have the gall to come back.”
“Why, how dare you!” Robert rose, incensed. Balancing in the shaking carriage, staring, he realised who the man was. Christopher Cushing, no less, the latest in his abhorrent blood line – a bully and a cheat like his father and grandfather before him. The same family that had feuded with Robert’s for nearly a century, and with the war over was no doubt ready to resume hostilities for another generation.

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