Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 23
Best to Wait

                  

Ghosts. They whispered in corners of the dark rooms, wondering what would happen to them now the house was empty. Tolly felt like a ghost himself, kin to the vaporous wraith clinging to his mother’s chair. Her sewing bag still hung on the arm. Leafy was gone to his brother’s in Huddersfield, leaving a pile of empty bottles in the back yard.

Tolly picked up the lamp and wandered into the front parlour. His mother’s bits and bobs of china sat bereaved on the dresser, left alone to fend for themselves in an uncherished future. Who would dust them now? His father’s picture smiled on into nothingness.

Tolly sat at the piano, placed the lamp on top and lifted the lid. His hands sought chords, comfort, the left hand pressing out a looping slow beat and the right hand finding dissonant, thudding minors that fell like handfuls of earth on to a coffin. The sound moved through the house, into each room in turn.

No father and now no mother. It was a new kind of alone.    

The knock on the door startled him. He went to answer it, registering out of the corner of one eye his mother’s second best hat left on the stand.

Ruth flew into his arms in a tumult of urgency and hair.

‘Oh Tolly!’ The solid warmth of her body slammed into his, her arms went around him and she buried her face in the angle of neck and shoulder. She squeezed, pouring her pulse into him, transfusing love from her soul to his, her buttery scent filling his head. ‘I came as soon as – oh, Tolly!’

He hugged her, overwhelmed. What could he say? He didn’t trust himself to speak.

She released him and stepped back, holding his shoulders and staring. He looked tired. Older, as if age was surveying his face and deciding where to site the first lines. The twist at the corner of his mouth was more pronounced. There were thorns in the hazel eyes, a despairing vexation in his stance. He had changed.

But she loved him the more for it; she wanted to match the change, keep pace with it, adapt to whatever he needed from her. And he so needed her now.

Tolly could feel the love and strength radiating from Ruth like sunshine, but there was some barrier in the way, a film of shadow that had formed over him, a membrane that had interposed itself between him and the world.

He had noticed it at Victoria Station, alighting from the hospital train – God bless Sherlock, swinging him this Blighty – and being suddenly faced with…people. Thousands of them. Bustling civilians in their civilian clothes with their civilian faces and civilian concerns. An alien species. Noisy. Different. He had felt enclosed in a cold bubble that muffled sound and distorted vision but still left him conspicuous and vulnerable.

On the long, stop-start journey north he had experienced a vague surprise – resentment, almost – that the fields had been left uncratered, the buildings undamaged. Millbridge had seemed both familiar and strange, as if redrawn. It was as though he was seeing it through one of the periscopes in the line. Some haze of difference hung over his eyes. There was a distance between him and the people in the streets he had known before France.

Now Ruth stood before him, grey-blue eyes shining and searching, and he felt unable to see her as clearly as he had before the war. His skin prickled.

‘You’re not to worry,’ she said as he led her to the back parlour. ‘It’s all done. Ten tomorrow. The Minister’s been marvellous. So.’

They sat by the range, Ruth taking Tolly’s mother’s chair as if she belonged in it, placing a bag she had brought by its side.

‘Well, you and Harry…’ She gave a smile that started out bright. The bursting of Ben Perry’s body parts flashed up in Tolly’s mind.

‘Harry’s in the pink,’ he said, ‘all in one piece, chasing countesses around this convalescent place we were sent to, furious I got leave. His hearing came back. He sends his love.’

‘We’ve got Johnny Babbitt up at the church hall. When the ambulance came in I nearly died…I thought…but he’s on the mend. You were all together when – ’

‘Yes. A close shave. A coal box, that’s what we call that type of shell.’

‘It must have been terrible…but Corporal Babbitt got you out – and so terribly hurt like that – didn’t he? Quite the hero, who’d have thought it? Florrie’s altogether taken with him, but you know what she’s like.’

‘Got us out? Babbitt? Oh…er, well of course I was out for the count, I can’t really say…strange nobody told us anything…’

‘Anyway you’re home now. God, I’ve missed you. I’m so sorry about your mother.’

‘I – thanks – she was worried about me, and now…’

‘I know, love. I remember when my mother died.’

Died. There it was. The word. The people Tolly knew drifted into his mind, the living lining up on the right and the dead on the left. They were looking at him. He had an image of figures detaching themselves from the living and floating across to the dead side, becoming insubstantial as flesh turned to mist, their lifeless eyes holding his. The living line was thinning out and the dead line was growing more crowded. His mother stood flanked by soldiers.

Ruth leaned to the side and peered into the bag she’d brought, frowning. ‘I haven’t brought much but it’s only for a day or two. I wish it were longer. I wish it were for ever. It will be one day.’

‘I’m not bothering cooking, Lockwood’s will do for breakfast and old Trog’s invited me –’ Ruth was smiling slyly at him ‘– what?’

 ‘It’s not food, it’s my – my unmentionables. You didn’t think I’d let you stay here alone, did you?’

‘Stay here? With me? But we’re not – you can’t – your dad – what will people say? They’ll talk!’

‘Let’s give them something to talk about, then. We’ll be wed soon enough, won’t we? I don’t even see why we have to wait, we can –’

Tolly drew in a breath. Ruth sensed something. Her heart plummeted.

‘Tolly?’

‘It’s…best to wait, Ruth. Until after the war, I mean. We don’t know what’s going to happen, do we?’

‘Why should it make any difference? I can be here, in our own home – our own home, Tolly – waiting for you. Don’t you want that?’

‘Of course I want that. I want nothing more. It’s like a dream to me. But what if I’m killed? Or crippled?’

For the first time in Tolly’s life he saw uncertainty in Ruth’s face, like a cloud crossing the moon. It strengthened his conviction. He couldn’t marry her until it was over, couldn’t turn her into a widow, or a cripple’s nursemaid. He couldn’t begin to describe to her what it was like in France, what it was that had driven Captain Miles out of his mind. Ruth had always been the certain one, and he the more unsure of the two, but he was sure in this. The dead in his mind stared. Come to us, they whispered.

‘You could be a widow.’

‘I wouldn’t be the only one.’ 

‘It’s a miracle I’m sitting here now.’

‘And I thank God for it.’

‘It’s…oh…you don’t understand.’

She folded her arms and leaned back. His face was strained, the eyes pricked with pain. Perhaps it wasn’t the time to talk about it, with him just back from the Front and his mother lying cold at Adshead’s.

‘No Tolly, I don’t understand. All I understand is I want us to be wed, and I thought you wanted it too –’

‘I do, Ruth, I want it more than anything in the world, please believe me.’

‘– but if you want to wait, Tolly, we will. I’ll wait for you for as long as I have to. Just tell me one thing.’

‘What?’

‘That’s your real reason for wanting to wait? It’s not something else, something to do with me – or somebody else?’

‘God, Ruth, no! Never!’

‘You’re sure?’

‘I swear it. I love you Ruth, more than – ’

‘All right then. I love you too. Do you want me to stay?’

‘Yes. Yes, I do.’

‘Then I will. Now come here with you, you great daft apeth.’

Later they lay in bed, the ghost-scent of Tolly’s mother – starch and loneliness – still in the sheets. The night sealed Millbridge in silent blackness. Ruth stared into the dark, fighting away a whisper in the back of her mind: What was happening to him?

 

 

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