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Nocturne in E

This short story has just won second prize in the Longworth Short Story Competition. It's based on the life of my beloved grandmother, and is dedicated to her.

Nocturne in E


The door opens. The shock of the blue eyes. What blue? Cobalt? Azure? Lapis Lazuli? They tell her story in layers. Her long, gnarled fingers fumble to unclasp the curious metal curlers sprouting from her head. Locks tumble free and bounce - silk, the colour of dappled gold. There is no grey in her hair.

The smell hits you first. Second-hand clothes shop and cheap scent, and some other aroma, fresh, delicate, innocent, struggles to overwhelm their indecorum.

And the flies. Always three drowsy flies circling around the naked bulb hanging from the centre of the ceiling. Beneath it, a vase of many pale sweet peas in perfect bloom and beautifully arranged.

She disappears into the kitchen to make Tea, gathering her silken hair into a soft chignon, singing the hiccuppy Mozart aria she knows will make me giggle. Please God, don’t let it be fried eggs. She sings my favourite line like Joan Sutherland finding herself in a pantomime: ‘The Vengeance of Hell Boils Within My Heart’. My big sisters roll their eyes at each other. They think our grandmother is ‘weird’. They cannot understand why I’ve begged to stay the night here, on my own with her, for so long. And why, when I packed my nightdress and toothbrush that day, I was singing.

As the smell of burnt toast wafts into the room accompanied by the staccato arpeggio ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah’, so high it will surely break the window, I stare down at the plate, the glutinous, uncooked white soaking the toast to soggy, flopping pulp. There is no God. Even the image of the Queen of the Night’s heart boiling in a saucepan can’t make up for this. I am going to be sick. I gulp down tepid milky tea. I notice the encrusted blob of yolk on the tablecloth that has been there for many months, and when she leans down to take my plate, I notice its twin on the front of her blouse which, too, has been there for many months.

She goes to her piano, a cheap upright, scratched and battered and still not completely tuned. I jump to her side. She brushes the grubby cotton of her skirt with a sweep of her hand, and suddenly notices me. She places her palm almost on my cheek, and for the first time I realise there are hairs on my face, the sensation is soft and strangely exciting. ‘Thirteen!’ she says, catching her breath, smiling a frisky wink. Her eyes light up in playful mockery: ‘Now what piece, I wonder, do you want me to play on your birthday?’, knowing, of course, the answer. She pauses, her hands above the keys, a moment of intense stillness which makes me hold my breath, and I see her as she must once have been on a concert stage.

I draw up a chair to sit beside her so I can try to follow the music. But also so I can look at her hands and her eyelashes and the wonder of her. My sisters are giggling. I turn and glare at them, finger to my lips. The first note of Chopin’s ‘Nocturne in E’ cuts my spine to the core. Abandoned to the music, she coaxes form and beauty from deformity and discord. I look at the back of her beautiful neck, then lean forward a little to see her eyes, and I look away, not wanting to see what is there.

I look up at a photograph, the only one in the whole room. A framed photograph on top of the piano. I can’t remember seeing it before.

The young man in uniform is smiling at me, but his head leans towards the young woman beside him, so his smile is for her. She’s giggling at something’s he’s said, her head very slightly tilted back. There are a few flakes of confetti still on her white veil. Their hands are clasped by their sides in a gesture of equality and united front to the world. Friends as well as lovers. So that is what he looked like.

Like the bride, he is too interesting to call beautiful, but his dark eyes must have mesmerised. He looks like a man whom love has taken unawares and can’t quite understand how this woman beside him has turned the world into a completely new place. She is dizzyingly in love. And yet her gaze is firm and steady. She knows she is blessed, that this will be the start of a life well-lived.

I look away, with an ache so unbearable it feels as though something will crack open inside me because I cannot contain it. But my eyes move involuntarily back to the photograph.

Behind them, the high French windows of a country house are open to reveal an opulent chandelier and the front half of a grand piano, its lid raised. A black and white figure is walking into the room, carrying something – a tray? Yes, a maid.

I want her to myself. I want to know. I want my sisters to go away so I can ask her. Ask her. Ask her all the things about her that I do not know, and only half-know. Hear her tell me. Watch her eyes when she tells me. I’m going to burst. I’m going to scream at them to go away, to leave, to let me alone with her so that I can understand why I have this hard line of pain stretched across the top of my chest like a steel bar.

*****


They said it couldn’t be done. The sapphire and diamond necklace said otherwise. She had stood in front of the officious, unyielding face, fighting down anger and tears, after waiting outside in the rain for the doors to open.

Three days running she pleaded for the special pass that would take her to France. She was amazed to discover how much hatred could unfurl from the fist of tension inside her. She couldn’t stop looking at the stubble of jet black wires sticking out of his chin and the sharp bone of his larynx that could barely move, tightly constricted by the stiff collar. She saw a knife slice through flesh and a single bubble of bright vermilion blood brim over the collar. Next morning she handed him a small brown package. He looked inside and stuffed it inside his pocket. She wondered if he knew just how much its contents were worth. He wordlessly gave her an official looking document without looking at her.

On the troop train, feeding the little one, her face hot with embarrassment, sweat sticking her frock to her armpits and crotch, she felt a sudden huge surge wrack her body. The child let out a fierce scream. The soldiers in the carriage tried to distract him. If they wondered what she was doing here, they did not ask. They noted the smart soft wool coat, the glossy hair swept into a soft chignon, and the hands – smooth as alabaster, the nails painted red and perfectly shaped. They noted all this. This colourful, beautiful, richly-dressed woman and her child had invaded their world of brown serge and hard weaponry. On the platform, she had hesitated before stepping up to the train, the loud talk and laughter pounded her temples as the soldiers in the corridor parted to let her through. A sudden quiet. She turned to go back. Freddie wriggled in her arms., frowning. She hugged him close to her. She must take him. She would never forgive herself.

*****


His spine was shot. The bloodied, bandaged knee had no leg below it. The head was whole, the face miraculously unmarred. Eleanor’s first thought was how strange that he looked so unharmed, even stranger that she should be assessing him so dispassionately. And then his eyes in the immobile head turned to her. For one horrifying moment she thought she was going to laugh. The movement reminded her of a ventriloquist’s dummy. Bile ballooned in her stomach. She hadn’t anticipated the shock of this moment. All her thoughts had been on getting here. But there he was, stunned: How? How could she be here?

When she’d stepped inside the tent, the stink, the heat and noise beat her back. She instinctively covered the child’s face with her shawl. She stood transfixed, staring at the ground. Stupidly, she’d never thought of this danger.

But there was his beautiful face. Hitching Freddie onto her hip so she could lean over him, she kissed his cheek, his hair, his lips. Fighting pain, he kissed her back and she was alarmed to feel her body convulsed by a hot tremour of arousal. At last she said his name. Robert.

‘Let me hold him’, he said. ‘He has your eyes’. ‘But he looks more like you’, she said. And thought, Yes. I will wish he didn’t. Robert’s eyes closed into drowsiness.

A nurse, her white apron soiled with patches of fresh blood, streaks of it on her face, crusted bits stuck to the wispy hairs escaping from her cap, caught sight of the visitor and strode angrily towards her. She stopped to watch as the child’s head was held to the dozing soldier’s lips. The noise and stench and broken bodies around her vanished, and for a blessed moment the world seemed normal again. The two young women caught each other’s eyes. This has no meaning.

Robert woke to find Eleanor rocking Freddie to sleep. She was never to forget his smile at that moment. It was always the first image that came into her head whenever she thought of him in the long, long years ahead. Walking into the sea with Freddy’s hand in hers, before coming to her senses and turning back. The second marriage of unlike minds to give a father to her little son, my grandfather who adored her. Who she had tried to love and never could. The miscarriages, the three infant deaths, the surviving child, my Mother, the descent into near-poverty. And widowhood again at the age of forty.

But now Robert was smiling at her, and for one glorious moment, everything was back to the way it was. Laughing and flirting and a future. She wants to scoop up his crippled body and carry him home to a sunlit room with a sumptuous bed, a cosy chair under the cedar tree with a blanket over his lap and read to him his treasured Dickens, and play him his beloved Chopin, and feed him his favourite treacle tart and custard, and little Freddie would run in circles around him and he would never have to go back, and he would live, live, live.

But he is here. She is already imagining the moment she will be sitting here, next to an empty body. There is now, and there is the moment of death. He presses his lips to her hand. She strokes his cheek, and his eyes close against tears. He smiles and says ‘That’s nice’.

She didn’t scream or cry out. She fell into a dark sleep instantly, and found herself slumped across his bandaged stump when the Nurse, carrying Freddy, woke her because she needed the bed.

Outside, an ambulance driver, sunken-eyed with fatigue, was squatting down, mug in hand, staring at the ground, drawing noisily on a cigarette. She heard Freddy’s cries and looked up and gave Eleanor her mug. Something burst inside the woman and her body began to heave with deep sobs. She kept shaking her head muttering over and over:
‘Bits. No stretchers.’
‘Bits. No face.’
‘Blood. No legs.’
‘A toe. A toe.’

*****


It’s dawn. My head’s in her lap, and I’m brushing my cheek across her hand over and over, and I can’t cry and I can’t speak and I’m trying to shout, to let out this rage, rage, rage. And I can’t look up into her eyes because I have unfolded those layers of her life to sorrow’s core. But she takes my head in her hands and gently kisses my brow. She says something very softly – ‘Not alone’? Her folded hands rest in her lap, and I see, beyond her head, framed by the early morning light, that the photograph is gone.

She eases her frail body from the chair and moves towards the source of her solace. From the top of the piano, where the photograph had stood, she takes down a small wooden box. I watch her eyes as she opens the lid, and see that they are not blue.

She takes out a yellowing piece of paper coming apart at the folds, and gives it to me.

THE BATTLE OF THE SOMME, Sunday 1st July 1916. 7.30am – 9.30pm
In fourteen hours:

7.40am – First ten minutes: 80% of the leading battalions, including Robert’s, dead or wounded.

By 9.30pm (approx) - 60,000 dead and wounded (almost half of those who went over the top). Robert’s battalion = 80% killed.

Loved ones:
60,000 x wives, girlfriends, mothers. fathers. daughters, sons, brothers, sisters = rough estimate: Half a million or more.

THE GREAT WAR 1914 –1918
British soldiers died: over 700,000
Total of soldiers died on both sides: over 9 million
Total British casualties: 2 and a half million
Total casualties of all: 32 and a half million

Loved ones:
32 and a half million x wives, girlfriends, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters = rough estimate: 230 million or more.

*****


That evening, my friend and I were out doing nothing much. It was a warm July night, and I think we’d got tired of doing nothing much with the other kids. My friend dared me to get up on a high wall and jump. But I walked off in a huff. She never did any of the dares I gave her. I passed a pub. The door was open and there was laughter and loud talking and singing. A maggoty old boy with some medals dangling from his lapel and beer dribbling down his chin was leaning over some old biddy at the piano. There were four glasses of something all lined up on top of the piano. The old man was singing loudly and out of tune. He swayed to one side, and I saw the tiny shoulders, the swept-up silk hair above the neck.

She was playing ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’.