Read an Excerpt
That spring—the spring of 1950—had been particularly wet.
An area at the bottom of the garden at Hart House flooded, creating a shallow pool through which the crocuses gamely raised their little flounced heads, like cold shivering children in a swimming class. The blond gravel on the garden paths had turned green, each pebble wrapped in a moist transparent blanket of slime, and one could not sit on either of the two cement benches that flanked the river gate without first unhinging the snails and slugs adhered to them.
The excessive moistness of the garden was of no concern to anyone at Hart House except for the new nurse, who had arrived on Thursday, and had attempted, on the two afternoons that were somewhat mild, to sit outside for a moment, away from the sickness and strain in the house. But she found the garden inhospitable, and so had resolved to stay indoors.
She was the nurse, officially at least, only to the old lady, Mrs Hart, who was dying of cancer. Her son, Major Hart, who had been wounded in the war—he seemed to be missing a leg or at least part of one, and moved his entire body with an odd marionette stiffness—did not, officially at least, require a nurse.
Coral Glynn was the third nurse to arrive in as many months; it was unclear what, exactly, had driven her predecessors away, although there was much conjecture on the subject in the town. First it was supposed that the Major was perhaps a Lothario, and had made disreputable advances, although he had never acted that way before—in fact, he had always seemed to hold himself above romance of any kind. Then, when the second nurse, who had been quite old, fled as fleetly, it had been assumed that Mrs Hart was impossibly difficult, since dying people often are, and Edith Hart, even when in the bloom of health, had tried one’s patience. The new nurse—the third—was young again, and was expected to be seen escaping, either from unwanted seduction or abuse, on any given day.
There was one other person in the house besides Coral and Mrs and Major Hart: an elderly woman named Mrs Prence, who acted as cook and housekeeper. Before the war there had been a real cook and a maid, but now all the burdens of the household fell upon Mrs Prence, who bore them with a grudging dutifulness.
Hart House was several miles outside of Harrington, in Leicestershire. It stood upon a slight rise in the water meadows beside the river Tarle, near the edge of the Sap Green Forest. There were no other houses within sight, for the meadows often flooded, and the air was damp and considered bad.
* * *
The night of her first day in the house, Coral came downstairs after putting Mrs Hart to bed to find her son standing in the front hall. The old woman, though very ill, insisted upon continuing the monotonous daily motions of rising and dressing; her bed was made and she was moved to a chaise longue where she napped and fretted, wrapped in a blanket, until she had had her supper, after which she was undressed and washed and put back into bed. This was a complicated endeavour, as it was a high four-poster, onto which she needed to be hoisted, as she could no longer climb the few wooden steps that ordinarily provided access. She refused to sleep in any other bed: she had been born in this bed, she claimed (although in fact she had not), and would die in it, too. Or die getting into it, more likely, Coral thought. So she was unusually exhausted when she descended the stairs—exhausted from the combination of travelling, arriving and settling in, meeting her new patient, hoisting her into the ridiculous bed—and was not happy to see Major Hart waiting at the foot of the stairs, leaning over his cane. She paused at the landing and looked down at him. It appeared as though he was attempting to strike a rakish pose, but the utilitarian purpose of his cane could not be disguised.
“How is Mother?” he asked.
How am I to know? Coral thought. It is too exhausting, what people expect. Of course your mother was not well. I would not be here if she were. And since I have only arrived today there is nothing to which I may compare her health. And why did he say Mother? Why not my mother?
“Your mother is weak,” she said. “And fretful. But stable, I think. I have given her an injection. She should sleep through the night.”
“Is she in great pain?”
“No,” said Coral. “The injection will alleviate any pain.”
“Ah,” he said, as if her answer had been clever. He was looking down at his hands. One clasped the knob of his stick and the other clasped its mate.
A clock chimed somewhere—the house was large and full of chiming or softly bonging clocks—and Coral was suddenly aware of the wind outside, the damp. The house was so far from anything. She shivered.
Major Hart looked up at her as if he had heard her. She stood very still, not wanting to move. She was so tired. She reached out and laid her hand upon the banister. She looked up at the distant coffered ceiling. She thought of how tired she was, and of the little room on the attic floor that had been shown to her, the little room that was now hers, how its narrow bed had not been made, just the bare mattress on the crude iron bedstead, elaborately mapped with ancient stains, the linens stacked at the foot. And why should I expect anything different? she thought. Who in the world should have made the bed? I should be happy the bed is there, the little room there; so many people do not have little rooms, and beds …
“I thought perhaps…” Major Hart began, but faltered.
“Yes?” she said, and she could hear in her voice her exhaustion, her dismissal of him, so she said it again, “Yes?” in a softer way.
“I thought perhaps you might like some brandy—or some tea—before the fire. But perhaps you’re too tired.”
“No,” she said. “Thank you. Some brandy—a little brandy—would be lovely.”
“It’s just that I’m sure it’s been a long day for you,” he said. He took some awkward shuffling steps backwards, opening a space at the bottom of the stairs, and she descended.
“Yes,” she said. She touched her hair and followed him into the dark library, the drapes all drawn, a downcast lamp on the desk and a fire glowing quietly in the grate. He turned his chair around so that it was facing the one that had been drawn up close to the fire, positioned there, she sensed, for herself. He poured some brandy into a glass and held it out to her, and for a moment she didn’t take it, just let it glow there, ambered in the firelight between them. It seemed such a gift.
“Thank you,” she said. “Very kind.”
He said nothing, and she could not make out his expression in the gloom. He had a soft, handsome face and although his hands shook, his face had an utter, almost eerie calm.
“Aren’t you going to have any?” she asked.
He did not answer but poured another glass. He held it towards her, but the fire had shifted, and the liquid remained dark. “Welcome to Hart House,” he said.
Coral touched her little glass neatly to his, and then retracted it, and sipped. It was lovely, burning; it collected her around herself, gave her a centre. She thought that she might weep for a moment—the brandy had that power, too—but she knew enough not to.
They sat in the chairs drawn near to the fire.
“I hope you will be happy here,” he said. “I hope my mother will not be too much of a burden to you.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “She is not a burden at all. No patient is.”
“Yes, I suppose, if you look at it that way,” he said.
She wasn’t sure how to reply, so she said nothing.
“Where do you come from?” he asked.
“Huddlesford,” she said.
“Oh, Huddlesford,” he said.
“The spring is late here,” she said.
“Yes,” he said. “It is always late here.”
“You’re from here?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I grew up in this house.” He looked up at the ceiling and then around the dark room, as if some trace of his long habitation of the house might be apparent. “Do you have family in Huddlesford?”
“No,” she said. “My parents are dead.”
“And there is no one else?”
“I had a brother,” she said. “But he was killed in the war.”
“Where was he?” asked the Major.
“El Alamein,” she said.
“Ah,” he said, “the desert. The first or second battle?”
“The first,” she said. “July sixteenth.”
“I’m sorry you lost him.”
Coral made no reply. The Major looked down into his brandy and sipped it. Then he looked over at Coral.
“Did you nurse in the war?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I was too young.”
“Of course,” he said. “Of course you were. I’m sorry.”
“I would have liked to,” she said.
“For how long, then, have you been nursing?”
“Two years,” said Coral.
“And you always do this kind?”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you always nurse patients in their homes?”
“Yes,” said Coral. “Private nursing. It’s hard to get jobs in hospitals—there are so many nurses from the war.”
“Yes,” he said, “I’d imagine so. Do you like it—private nursing? You are not lonely for home?”
“No,” she said. “This suits me.”
“You go from place to place? Job to job?”
“Yes,” she said.
“And where is home?”
“I have no home,” she said.
“Really? No home at all?”
“No,” she said, and there was something final about this admission, something defeating, as if the lack of a home precluded any further conversation. They attended their brandies. Soon her little glass was empty. She stood. “Thank you for the drink,” she said. “Good night.”
“Good night,” he said.
She put her glass on the mantel and left the room. She climbed the stairs, leaving him below, alone—submerged, it almost seemed—in the dark.
* * *
One fairish afternoon when Mrs Hart was sleeping, Coral went down into the kitchen. Mrs Prence was sitting at the table reading a magazine, but she looked up and watched Coral descend the stairs.
“Good afternoon, Mrs Prence,” Coral said.
“Good afternoon,” said Mrs Prence. She returned her attention to the magazine.
“I was thinking to go out for a little walk,” said Coral. “I wondered if you might suggest a place to go.”
“A walk?” asked Mrs Prence, with some suspicion.
“A little walk,” she said. “Not far. Just to get some fresh air.”
Mrs Prence made an odd noise that made clear her opinion of fresh air.
“There is nowhere to walk?” asked Coral.
“There is the whole world for walking,” Mrs Prence declared.
“I thought perhaps there was somewhere scenic to walk.”
Mrs Prence made the noise again.
“Well,” said Coral, “I suppose if I set out, I shall find something.”
“There is a wood across the river,” admitted Mrs Prence.
Coral, whose pride was injured, did not ask for details.
“If you go out the gate at the bottom of the garden and turn right, and walk along the river, you’ll come to a footbridge. Cross it, and you’ll be in the Sap Green Forest. There is a path. People walk there.”
“Thank you,” said Coral.
* * *
The sky was low; there was either a heavy mist or a light rain—it was hard to discern. But Coral would not be deterred by something as inconsequential as weather. The little pool in the garden had spread and there was barely room to walk around it. Her shoes squelched in the puddling earth. The gate was swollen shut and had to be forced. She wondered how long it had been since it had been opened. The river ran fast and full and lapped avidly at the sides of the little footbridge, and it was almost dark in the woods, and unnaturally quiet. Or naturally quiet. She passed a large copse of holly trees, larger than any she had seen, their metallic leaves glinting cruelly in the dark forest. For a moment she thought she heard someone crying. She paused and realised it was just the weird sawing of the holly leaves, chafing in the wind.
* * *
On the few afternoons when it wasn’t raining and Mrs Hart slept soundly, Coral walked in the Sap Green Forest. She explored the different pathways through the woods, each of which emerged, surprisingly, into a different world: a churchyard, an abandoned aerodrome, the overgrown garden of an old house, the water meadows. The woods were not very large, she realised, but there was nevertheless a feeling of isolation in the centre of them.
One day as she emerged from the woods onto the path that led to Hart House she saw a solitary figure standing on the footbridge. It was a gloomy afternoon, slurring towards darkness, and there was something foreboding about the tall dark figure standing perfectly still on the bridge, like a sentry. Her instinct was to turn around and hasten back into the woods, and wait for the figure to disappear before she returned to the house, but she realised that she had been seen; the figure raised a hand in greeting, and kept his arm raised, as if he were hailing a cab. It was the Major.
Coral looked behind her into the wood, as if there might be a similar figure summoning her from the opposite direction, or as if there might be a figure behind her whom the Major hailed. But there was nothing, no one, just the dark craw of the forest, so she was forced to move forwards and join the Major on the footbridge.
“Hello,” he said as she approached. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Been for a walk in the woods?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said again, as if that were the only word she knew.
“It’s a shame about the weather,” he said. “Such a wet spring. Still, it must be nice for you to get out of the house.”
She was about to say yes again but stopped herself.
He looked at her then—they had both been gazing at the still-swollen water rushing beneath them—and though she felt his gaze, she did not return it, but continued to study the water, as if trying to look through it for something lost at the bottom. After a moment he looked away at the woods she had vacated and said, “I used to know the woods very well as a boy. Walk in them, and play in them. They were much larger then, and wilder. Well, not wild, not wild at all, of course, but they seemed wild to me. A child’s perspective.” He paused, as if she might comment on his memory, but she did not, so he continued. “It’s difficult for me now, to walk in the woods, the ground is so uneven. I do all right with my stick as long as it’s flat. Pathetic, really.” He tapped his cane against the railing on the footbridge.
“What happened?” Coral asked. She looked at his cane, but they both knew she was looking at his legs. He wore green tweed pants and brown leather laced boots. The boots were perfectly polished and the leather looked rich and supple; they were a lovely chestnut colour.
“My injury?” he said.
“Yes,” said Coral. “I wondered, but perhaps it is something about which you do not care to speak.”
“I suppose your being a nurse—”
“Yes?” said Coral.
“I suppose, your being a nurse, these things interest you.”
“Well, no,” said Coral. “I only wondered.”
“Most girls. Well, girls are funny about injuries, aren’t they? Damages. But I suppose nurses aren’t.”
“I only wondered,” Coral repeated, once again apparently betraying the dearth of her vocabulary.
“I damaged my right leg and the left was badly burnt. I wear a brace.”
“You seem to do very well with it,” Coral said.
“As I said, I can manage the straight and narrow, which I suppose is all a man like me is entitled to. Yet I miss the woods. I had a fort in the woods, when I was young, where I played at soldiering. I wonder what’s become of it.”
“I could help you perhaps, if you’d like,” said Coral.
“Help me with what?” asked the Major.
“Help you to walk in the woods.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s impossible. I can’t endure being led about like an invalid.”
“Of course,” said Coral. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, it’s I who am sorry, I assure you.”
Coral said nothing. A cat appeared from beneath the footbridge and sat on the bank, cleaning its paws.
“That’s Pippin,” said the Major. “Mother’s cat. He ran away when she became ill and makes himself scarce. Pippin!” he called, but the cat took no notice. “Animals are odd, aren’t they? They cope so differently from humans.”
“Yes,” said Coral.
“It’s getting dark,” said the Major. “I did not mean to interrupt your walk. You must value your time away from Mother. Like Pippin.”
“Oh, no—” began Coral, but the Major turned and walked back across the bridge, towards the house. Coral waited for him to disappear behind the garden gate before she followed. While she waited, the darkness completed itself.
Copyright © 2012 by Peter Cameron