England, February 1919
The beds were screened off in this corner of the ward, and the shutters half-closed so that the daylight fell in watery bands on the ceilings and walls. Where family portraits had once hung there were now ghostly rectangles, punctured by electric light fittings screwed into the plaster. Outside, the calls of nesting rooks carried across the grounds.
Major Richardson stopped at the first bed, where a man lay, eyes closed. ‘Is he asleep?’
Captain Price opened his file. ‘He had morphine an hour ago, a quarter-gram. He’ll be out for a while yet.’
Richardson leaned closer to the man’s face, squinting through his spectacles at the aftermath of four operations. The bandages had been off for a fortnight but the disfigurement was as bad as ever: the sunken cheek, the taut, shiny brow, the mouth folded into a permanent sneer. He had seen worse – men with no faces at all – but he wished he could have done more. He liked to be sure the lives he saved were worth living.
‘His fiancée, a girl called Eleanor. She came down most days when things were dicey.’
Price remembered her well: pretty, neatly dressed, an expensive-looking bonnet pulled down low over her eyes, as if she were afraid of being recognised. He had escorted her through the ward on her first visit, struck by her obvious unease. He had reassured her that her intended was not in immediate danger, thinking that must account for it, but she hardly seemed to hear him, intent on whatever battle she was fighting with herself.
‘And now?’ Richardson asked.
‘She doesn’t come at all.’ Price lowered his voice. ‘She sent him a letter. In hindsight, we should have intercepted it.’
Richardson frowned. ‘She broke it off ?’ ‘Something about him not playing the game.’
‘Pre-marital abstinence, in a word. She’d heard something about the brothels at the front. Seems his reassurances weren’t enough.’
Richardson shook his head. ‘They wouldn’t be.’ ‘A pretext, you think?’
‘Of course. Look at him.’
Price took in the brutal caricature of what might once have been a hand- some face. He had always hoped that men like this, who had sacrificed so much in the line of duty – the disfigured and maimed – might enjoy some special exemption from further hurt, some special consideration from those who had stayed behind, but human nature had often disappointed him.
‘How did he take it?’
‘He hasn’t said a word, according to the nurses.’ ‘That bad. Any other visitors?’
Price shook his head. ‘He has no immediate family. Parents died when he was a child. I took the liberty of checking with the War Office.’
‘They were killed. Tragic story. Sort of thing that leaves a mark.’
Price would have liked to discuss it further. He had developed an interest in nervous disorders and other conditions that were usually the province of psychiatry. Unfortunately Richardson, the hospital director, rarely had time for theorising.
‘You think he’ll try to end it?’ he said.
Price dug his hands into his pockets. ‘From where he was to where he is now, it’s a long way down. He had quite a war: MC, mentioned in dispatches.’
Richardson’s grunt was non-committal. ‘Suicide requires a plan, and resolution.’
‘Physically. Wouldn’t have come through otherwise. Mentally, only time will tell. With all the morphine, anything could be going through his head. I wonder if he even knows the war’s over.’
At the mention of morphine the patient’s eyelids drifted open. The pupils were starkly pale against his weather-tanned skin.
Richardson straightened up. ‘Colonel, good to see you catching up on your sleep. Don’t let us disturb you.
The man blinked lazily, then turned his head towards the patient in the other bed. A major in the military police, he lay propped up on pillows, mouth half-open, sleeping noiselessly, a saline infusion plumbed into his arm, a sheen of sweat on his brow. He had no legs below the knee. His wheelchair stood beside the bed, his uniform deliberately folded on the seat, ready for use. A nurse was standing over him, taking his pulse.
On the other side of the screens a door opened. A smell of boiled food drifted into the room.
‘You’re making excellent progress, Colonel,’ Richardson said, but his patient’s eyes were already closed.
The major started coughing, a wheeze rising from his chest. The amputations had been carried out in France, after his truck had been hit by a shrapnel round. The field surgeon had been too conservative, leaving a pair of tiny fragments in the left leg. After several months, in which the patient had appeared to recover well, infection had set in. Richardson feared the corrective operation had come too late.
The nurse looked up at him and slowly shook her head.
Price came over. ‘That cough. We should move him, just in case.’
‘He won’t last much longer,’ Richardson said. ‘A few days at most.’
‘All the same . . .’ Price sounded apologetic, but the threat from influenza was real. Most of the other patients would stand no chance in their weakened state. An isolation ward had already been set aside.
‘All right, see to it. First thing in the morning.’ Richardson turned. ‘Damned shame, though. I heard these two fellows got on well. It’s friendship that makes these things bearable, often as not.’
That night the major came round. His fever had abated a little. He felt cool and light-headed. Was he really awake or just dreaming again? In his dreams he had his legs and felt no pain. He dreamed about returning to his wife in Hammersmith, to his office at Scotland Yard. People greeted him with smiles and rounds of drinks. They wanted to hear his stories from the war. The only difficulty was knowing where to begin.
He looked down at the foot of the bed: the blankets lay flat under the dim electric light, nothing where his legs should be. A familiar wave of despair broke over him. He glanced at the wheelchair: it was still there, its heavy iron frame a rebuke to his hopes, his inability to accept and adapt. The only thing missing was his uniform: his cap, tunic and greatcoat, distinguished by the red flashes of the provost marshal’s branch. The uniform reminded him that he was still part of the army, still a person of rank with rights and duties. But they had taken it away. Why had they done that? What did it mean?
He managed to sit up. Beside the next bed someone was dressing. It took a while for him to realise that it was the colonel, the poor devil who had lost half his face to a German grenade. He had only been able to speak for the last few days, but he had been a good listener, never tiring of the major’s old case- histories from before the war.
The colonel was putting on a uniform – but it wasn’t his own uniform. It was the major’s.
‘I say, Colonel? What the devil are you doing? Those are—’
The colonel turned, raising a finger to his lips. He was up to something, some sort of prank. But he had no right to take what wasn’t his.
The major coughed. His lungs were inflamed, raw. Pain racked his chest. ‘Put those back. Damn it, those are . . .’
The colonel was standing over him, his ravaged face silhouetted against the electric bulb. He was holding a pillow in his hands.
‘This’ll help you sleep,’ he said, coming close.
He held the pillow over the major’s face, pressing it down with the weight of his body until the dying man’s arms went slack and he stopped struggling. It only took a couple of minutes. When it was over, he laid the major’s arms neatly by his sides, carefully closed his eyes, straightened the bedcovers and slipped silently out of the ward.