‘To her generation the war was nothing but a bore. Old hat. And that’s the world Clem wanted for her son after all. His greatest challenges would be in sport, examinations, commerce, romance.’
Extract taken from Blasted Things
By Lesley Glaister
Published by Sandstone Press
The infant’s eyes were as black as if night were trapped behind his lids, and when he opened them she feared she’d be consumed. She focused instead on Dennis, his face infused with love, voice thickened by it, as he gazed at her and the baby in her arms.
‘He’s perfect, darling. Sterling job. Well done.’ He kissed her brow, and her lips lifted at the corners as if on strings. Together they regarded the tiny pink face, dark wispy hair, smooth lids shut tight now, pale blinds against the night.
An innocent newborn.
But he was the wrong baby.
She wanted to ask them to take him away and give her the right one. But she could not say it; of course she could not. Instead she pressed a kiss against the queer soft pulsing of his fontanelle.
The wrong baby.
After the Clearing Station had been hit, she, Gwen and Sister Fitch had been transported to a hospital in Boulogne to recover. In the bathroom there, a few days later, Powell’s child, small enough to curl into a walnut shell, had slid away from her onto the white floor. On her knees, she’d watched blood ooze into a gaudy chequered grid between the tiles until Gwen had found her and come to her aid, asking no questions, withholding all judgement, and afterwards, recognising that Clem was fit for nothing, had her packed off home.
And home meant Dennis, innocent of everything, his ring back on her finger, flashing sapphires and diamonds, once his mother’s, once his grandmother’s. Too numb to object, she’d gone along with it, allowed the wedding, allowed this other child to come.
This black-haired boy.
The wrong baby.
From the window of her room in the convalescent home, you could see the empty branches of trees, the colourless sky and the mudbrown flow of the river. Barges sailed across the window during the day. From her pillow she watched the sails, and when the nurses opened the windows to air the room, she could hear clanking and the mew of gulls, and the smell of the river, like a wet animal, padded in to shake its fur.
Dennis brought roses – extortionate in January – stiff, red, scentless. He brought chocolates, hothouse grapes with tight green shiny skins. He was proud, exuberant, normal. He’d slipped paternal love on as easily as an overcoat, and she envied him.
Old Dr Everett had tears in his eyes as he held the baby, his full grey beard spread bib-like over his chest. ‘Violet should be here to see him,’ he murmured. ‘Your image, Dennis, your dead spitting image.’
Harri, red-faced and slapdash, paint in her hair and a twin on each arm, had come and enthused, bestowed wet kisses and a strange green matinee jacket she’d crocheted out of twine.
Once visiting hour was over and a nurse had removed the infant from her arms and drawn the curtains for her afternoon nap, Clem lay startlingly awake, trying not to think but thinking, thinking.
This was a mistake, like having got on the wrong bus and arrived at the wrong destination, only, of course, a million times worse.
She should be in Canada with Powell and the little girl. When she shut her eyes she was there, on a sunlit prairie, watching the child, Aida – marvellous name – toddling, pale-haired, silver eyes so like her father’s. Powell was crouching and holding his hands out to her as she took those first wobbly steps, such a glow of pride on his face!
But no, here she was in a convalescent home on a dank English January afternoon, the wrong baby sleeping in his crib, the wrong man feeling proud. She should be glad, she should be grateful, yes, she was. How lucky to have landed, as Harri put it, on her feet.
After all, her life was perfect now, enviable: married to robust Dennis, not a scar on him – the war seemed barely even to have dented his optimism. He hadn’t volunteered – medicine a reserved occupation, of course – and he had done wonders here, everyone said so, and it was true. He’d supervised the conversion of Middlesham Hall into a military hospital and worked there, while still keeping up the family practice. He was marvellous. She was lucky. And now a healthy son. Lucky. Lucky.
A seagull glided past in a ray of orange, its shadow on the wall. She turned over in bed, feeling the empty fold of belly flesh where the baby had been, and she thought of Powell about whom no one – except Gwen – even knew. What would have been the point of telling them? She’d wondered if, being a doctor, Dennis might have been able to tell what her body had been through: but no.
On the prairie the wind blows and the palominos toss their manes, kick up their heels.
Clem fed the baby when he was presented, gazing down at his stern working face. The chin moved up and down, the cheeks pulsed as he suckled, pulling threads of milk that curled her toes. His eyebrows were rows of invisible stitching, eyelids bruisy, irises gradually resolving from black to smoky damson to chestnut, a little clearer every day. She held her palm beneath his marching feet.
But most of the time she kept her eyes on the book she made a pretence of reading.
‘Mother!’ She jumped. ‘Mother! Whatever do you think you’re doing?’
This nurse was younger than she; only the uniform lent the authority for such impertinence. ‘We should concentrate on baby as we feed him!’ She plucked the book from Clem’s hand, slapping it shut, losing her place. That scarcely mattered, the page had only been a place to rest her eyes. The nurse’s face was pertly cross, complexion smooth under her starched cap. She would have been a child in the war – the few years that separated her from Clem a filthy great gulf of understanding.
‘First baby too!’ she went on, clucking her tongue. ‘Whatever next!’ She lifted the infant from Clem’s arms and held him against her shoulder. ‘Now then, little chap, is your mummy a naughty girl? We’ll have to give her what for!’
Clem’s face twisted in a kind of smile as anger rose in her and fell again like a wave unbroken. This girl did not know. Why should she? To her generation the war was nothing but a bore. Old hat. And that’s the world Clem wanted for her son after all. His greatest challenges would be in sport, examinations, commerce, romance. So she forgave the nurse, but somehow Dennis she could not forgive.
Stop it, stop it, that’s not fair.
Not forgive him for what?
Not being Powell.
Not divining what she’d been through.
Trampling so cheerfully on her grief.
Ramming his great red thing in where it wasn’t wanted.
Not having been to the Front.
Not that he was a coward – was not, was not, was not, was not, was not. He had done wonders.
But still . . . but still.
Blasted Things by Lesley Glaister is published by Sandstone Press, priced £14.99
‘I feel as if my skin were glass, as if you read my thoughts almost before I think them.’