Authors: Marguerite Kaye
Justin clinked his glass to hers. ‘To stopping the clock.’ An odd phrase, but he understood what she meant: the constant race, the urge to keep going and going, because to stop would be too painful, and would mean looking over your shoulder – no, he never did that. He wasn’t absolutely sure he wanted to do it now, but he did know he wanted to hear Vera’s story. This brittle, beautiful woman, who partied until dawn because she could not sleep, who lived such a shallow, empty life, because she was hollow. He wanted to know what had scooped her out. He wanted to understand what made her. He wanted to know if the emptiness around which that lovely shell existed was the same emptiness he harboured.
She had finished her wine in one long swallow. He did the same. The bottle had probably cost the equivalent of a week’s pay in a shipyard, but it had about as much effect on him as a glass of tepid water. Vera stared into the fire. He waited, angling himself so he could see her face without distracting her, though when she spoke, she turned directly towards him.
‘I didn’t know Dexter before the War,’ she said, ‘but I gather he’s always been quite the
‘We both were, before the War. Even when I took up my commission, I was based near London. We kicked up a lot of dust.’
Vera raised her delicately-arched brows. ‘You! Really?’
Justin shrugged. ‘What were you like, before?’
‘Oh, I was a good girl, I told you that.’
‘And yet now everyone thinks you’re a very bad girl. Even though you’re not.’
‘My good man, I’m sitting in the Dream Suite of the Chatsfield completely naked having just been screwed silly not once but twice,’ she drawled, ‘I rather think I’ve earned my reputation.’
He kissed her on her luscious lips. ‘I am hoping to persuade you to be a very bad girl indeed, by the end of the night, but you’re prevaricating.’
She sighed, and rolled her eyes. ‘I know, it’s a habit that’s very difficult to break. Where was I?’
Vera frowned down at her nails. ‘You know what he got out of our little charade. The world is a very cruel place to men like Dexter. It wasn’t that long ago that poor Mr Wilde was incarcerated for the “love that dare not speak its name”.’ Vera shuddered.
‘It’s a bloody disgrace. As if they haven’t suffered enough,’ Justin said bitterly. ‘To emerge from the trenches with any human spirit left at all is a miracle.’
‘You’re right, and that’s the big difference between Dexter and I. We both know that life can be snatched away without a moment’s notice, and we both act as if we’re determined to extract every ounce of enjoyment out of it before it does. But there, you see, is the rub. Dexter does enjoy it, while I – I am determined only to keep going.’ Vera grimaced. ‘So now that he no longer needs me as his poppet, I’ll have to find another role to play.’
‘Can’t you simply be yourself?’
‘Who is the real me? I could see you wondering that downstairs, and so was I. Do you know the real you?’ Vera pressed his hand, lifting it fleetingly to his lips. ‘I thought not.’ She sighed again. ‘I’m not telling this very well. I don’t know how to tell it.’
‘Start with the facts. Tell me about before.’
‘Before.’ She did not need to ask him what he meant. She was examining her hands again. They were shaking. She clasped them tightly together, bracing herself. When she looked up again, her face was set. ‘Before the War, I had long hair, and I wore my skirts long and kept my skin fresh. I was married in 1913, when I was twenty-one, the same age my mother had been when she married my father. Adrian, my husband’s name was. He was nice, just like me, and we were very much in love. Then the War came, and because Adrian was such a nice, reliable chap who loved his country, he joined up straightaway, and he was given a commission and he changed, as they all did, I expect. When he came home he was still nice, but it was like talking to a stranger, and I couldn’t reach him, and I worried that it was my fault, that I didn’t love him enough, because I hadn’t missed him as much as I thought I would, but really it was the War’s fault. And then…’
She broke off. When he would have touched her, she pushed him away. ‘No, let me finish.’ She had picked the polish from two of her nails. Now she started on a third. ‘And then, Adrian was killed. At the Somme. July 1916. He was shot in the head. Died instantly, didn’t suffer, they told us, but they told everyone that, I’m sure. He was twenty-six. I was twenty-four. We’d been married three years. I hadn’t seen him for eight months. I thought – for a while, I really did think that I would die too.’
‘God Vera, I am so sorry.’
Once again, he made to take her in his arms, but she pushed him roughly away. ‘No. Please don’t or I won’t finish, and I would like to. I had a – I suppose you would call it a breakdown. I went to pieces. I simply went to pieces. I drank. I took morphine. One of my friends gave it to me. She was a VAD. I would have taken anything that stopped me thinking, to be honest. My mother took away the pills the doctor prescribed to help me sleep. She was probably right to. I would probably have used them. So selfish. It was utterly pathetic of me and so completely selfish, I am beyond ashamed.’
‘Vera, for heaven’s sake…’
‘No. Don’t make excuses. I loved him, and he died, and I had every right to be unhappy, but not to – to try to destroy myself, and to cause so much grief to my family. I think my mother feared for my sanity. It was my friend, the VAD, who finally helped me pull myself together. She lost her fiancé. She was devastated, but she kept going, albeit with a little chemical aid. Looking at her coping made me see how ridiculously, shamefully weak I was being, and so self-indulgent when what I ought to do was get up out of my bed and make myself useful.’ Vera smiled a bitter little smile. ‘So I did what all good girls of my class did, and I became a VAD too.’
Justin was so shocked by what she had told him, by the strength of the parallels between them, he wondered fleetingly if she had made it up. But why should she? Besides, no-one knew. None of his friends. His father – no, his father would never tell.
‘Which hospital,’ he asked, not that it mattered, unless she knew someone – but why would she talk about him? She didn’t know him. In the grand scheme of things, his was hardly a remarkable case. She told him. ‘You must have brightened up the wards just by being there,’ Justin said.
It was an inane remark, uttered to buy him time. Vera’s lip curled. ‘Oh, obviously,’ she sneered, ‘I floated from bed to bed, flirting and smiling and expecting everyone else to do the work.’
‘I didn’t mean that. I know they wouldn’t tolerate such a thing for a moment.’
‘Do you? You’re right, as it happens, though I don’t know how you – oh, but I forgot, you were injured. Which hospital were you in? Wouldn’t it have done you good, to have a pretty face to talk to once in a while?’
‘I wasn’t really interested in flirting.’
She took his hand, curling and uncurling his fingers around hers. ‘No? Some men aren’t. They want to talk about their children, their wives, their mothers, even. All they need is a sympathetic ear. I could do that too. But some of them, especially the ones that have been horribly mutilated, it does them good to flirt. What happened to you, Justin? You don’t have any scars.’
‘Buried deep,’ he said tightly, trying not to panic. ‘We’re talking about you, not me. Did the matron make you miserable?’
‘Oh no, I did that all by myself.’ Vera said. ‘I worked ridiculous hours cleaning floors and washing sheets and every other disgusting task they threw at me, because I was doing my bit and I had a hell of a guilty conscience to drive me. But I also – I did, I flirted. Because it seemed the least I could do, you see, and it meant nothing to me. It was then I discovered that I have the kind of face and the kind of body men like. They look at me and they think about sex. You’ll think it’s strange that I didn’t know that before, when I was married, but it was different with Adrian. He loved me. He respected me. I was his wife, not his tart. I was never anyone’s tart, not really, but I played up to it on the wards, because it made the men laugh, and it made the nurses despise me, and I felt I didn’t deserve any better because – well, because I didn’t.’
Justin swore, but Vera shrugged, and gave a brittle little laugh. ‘Darling, there’s no need to get all het up on my behalf, I’d found my metier. So when the war was over, and they said thank you very much but we’re done with you now, off you go back to your old life, I carried on. I didn’t have a life to go back to, you see. I went from useful to useless in the space of a few weeks. But I could flirt, and I learned how to party, and both were a thousand miles from the person I’d been before. Though of course I never learned to
as they say, but I met Dexter before that could become a problem, and – and there you have it. Here I am.’
‘Still playing the part. Running to keep ahead and not looking back,’ Justin said.
‘I – yes. I suppose that is it, though I had rather thought what I was doing was living in the moment. How did you know?’
‘I recognise a kindred spirit,’ Justin said slowly. ‘It’s what I do myself.’
Vera nodded, as if she had already seen this. ‘Do you want to tell me?’
‘Yes.’ He hadn’t planned it. He hadn’t thought it through – how to say it, what to say – none of it, but he did want to tell her. As she’d poured out her own obviously pent-up emotions, his own feelings seemed to swell inside him, to become too big to contain. It was like the lifting of a curtain, what she told him, as if she had invited him backstage to see the workings behind the perfect façade, and so much of what she said resonated. Too much for him to remain silent. ‘I’ve never told anyone,’ Justin said.
Her hand was still in his, their fingers entwined. ‘I’m not anyone,’ she said. ‘This isn’t anywhere. What happens in the Dream Suite stays right here, remember? Tell me. Maybe the clock will stop.’
‘Did it work for you?’
She could simply have nodded, but she didn’t. She bent her head, staring down at their twined hands, running the thumb of her other hand over his knuckles, frowning. ‘I don’t know,’ she said finally. ‘I can look over my shoulder though, and see it was a long time ago. It seems much further away. As if maybe it happened to someone else. A little. It’s a start, don’t you think?’
Justin closed his eyes. Vera studied him in the shadowed light. He looked older, sadder. She wanted to wipe the heavy frown from his brow. She wanted to make whatever it was that caused it go away. It was so strange, so utterly bizarre really, that she could be sitting here, quite naked, quite exposed in every sense, with this man who until a few hours ago she had never met. This sense of complete intimacy could not possibly be real, but it was such a relief.
No, relief didn’t really cut the mustard. She hadn’t realised how much effort it was to keep herself together. To let go like this, to allow herself to unravel just a little bit, was something she hadn’t known she needed.
She couldn’t help leaning over to push the fall of his hair from his brow. She couldn’t help kissing that downturned mouth of his as she did so. He opened his eyes, and he did smile faintly. Her breasts grazed his chest, setting up the beginnings of desire. She wanted him again. If she kissed him again, she had no doubt he’d want her too. But not yet. First, she wanted for him what she had. Relief. Not peace of mind, but respite. She shuffled away from him, back to holding just his hand. ‘Tell me,’ she said.
So he did. Not all of it. It was not possible to tell all of it, she knew that, but he told her enough to allow her to imagine the rest. From the commission he had taken on so lightly because it was what was expected of him, to the first shock of the reality of war in the early years, and on. Rising inexorably through the ranks simply by surviving. The weight of responsibility that fell on him as a result. The slow build of resentment and horror that he had to work so hard to repress simply to survive.
‘You didn’t think about it,’ Justin said. ‘You just got through each day in whatever way you could. You did what you could, but what you could became less and less, and questioning any of it simply out of the question. I shouldn’t be here, not after so long at the front line. It’s a miracle against the odds that I am. Towards the end, that’s all I could think about. The odds. Beating the odds. I never thought I would.’
‘But you did.’
‘I did.’ He was sweating. His hand was clammy. ‘I made it, but after…’ He licked his lips. His chest heaved. ‘There was man in my platoon, he was up on a charge. He’d been with me from the start. The kind of man who is a bloody good soldier, but a bloody nightmare otherwise. Always breaking rules. Deliberately. Anything and everything he could flout, he would. It was a point of honour with him, to show up all those damned ridiculous regulations for what they were. The men worshipped him. I admired the stupid sod, though of course it wouldn’t have done to let him know that,’ Justin said bitterly. ‘Not good for morale, for an officer to encourage the men to have a laugh at the army’s expense.’
‘Even when the army is laughable,’ Vera said.
‘Especially not then,’ Justin agreed. ‘It was worse because we were both regulars, Connolly and I. To cut a long story short, he was up on a charge, striking an officer, and by that time his record was so appalling they decided to make an example of him with a Court Martial. He had a wife, two children, and he hadn’t been home for nearly two years. They were going to send him to prison. I – I went berserk.’
‘I’m not surprised.’
‘No.’ Justin’s face was ashen, his voice shaking. ‘I mean really berserk. With a gun. I don’t know if I’d have fired it. It took three men to get it off me. Connolly got eighteen months and a dishonourable discharge, while I…’
‘You went to jail?’
‘No. ‘I was a commissioned officer,’ Justin said with a sneer. ‘They put it down to stress, and packed me off to Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland.’
‘I’ve heard of that place. They did wonderful things for men with shell shock.’ Vera frowned. ‘But you didn’t have that.’