Some Deaths Before Dyingby Peter Dickinson
For nearly her whole life, through most of the twentieth century, Rachel Matson saw the world through the lens of a camera, and produced stunning photographs that not only captured the moment but hinted at a greater truth. Now the ninety-year-old widow lies paralyzed, in the final stages of a debilitating illness. Yet while Rachel's body may be useless, her spirit… See more details below
For nearly her whole life, through most of the twentieth century, Rachel Matson saw the world through the lens of a camera, and produced stunning photographs that not only captured the moment but hinted at a greater truth. Now the ninety-year-old widow lies paralyzed, in the final stages of a debilitating illness. Yet while Rachel's body may be useless, her spirit remains indomitable, her mind razor sharp, and her eye, the trained eye of an artist, still picks up the most telling details. On a television program that showcases heirlooms, an antique pistol that belonged to her late husband, Colonel Jocelyn Matson, turns up, leaving Rachel bewildered and then profoundly disturbed. How could the prized Ladurie - one of a matched pair of dueling pistols she had given to him to commemorate his return from the horrors of a Japanese POW camp - appear hundreds of miles away in the possession of a stranger? Determined to learn the fate of Jocelyn's gun, Rachel falls back on the one thing left to her - her intellect - and soon begins the painful process of teasing the past from the shadows. What emerges from the vivid shards of her memories is a mesmerizing tale of honor, passion, and betrayal that stretches from colonial India to modern-day England ... a tale of a loving marriage interrupted by war, of a once-proud regiment of soldiers broken by unspeakable cruelty, and of a dashing officer burdened by a lurid secret.
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Cleaned, changed, propped inert on her pillows and now waiting for her breakfast, Rachel studied the rooks.
First she counted the nests. Ten, still, but the two new ones had grown appreciably since last evening. She had known that serious building had been going on, from the particular type of racket the birds had been making almost from first light, beyond the closed curtains. Indeed, she was disappointed to find that an eleventh nest had not been started. It was in the earliest stages, when the half-completed nest didn't already conceal the process, that she had most chance of seeing how it was done.
It was strangely frustrating. Last spring she had lain here, watching until the young leaves hid the almost completed nestsfourteen of them. Her long sight was remarkably good. She could make out the individual twigs as they were carried in. But she still hadn't been able to see how the birds had achieved structures firm enough not just to endure rearing boisterous young but, all bar one, to stay put through the winter. Then, in early spring, with a lot of yelping and squawking and what looked like real fights, four had been destroyed and rebuilt while the rest had been merely refurbished.
How did they do it? Rachel was far from sure that, if one of the nest sites had been at ground level and she had been given a supply of twigs, she could with two deft-fingered hands have woven a nest to withstand twelve months' weather. Yet the birds did it with no more than a beak. She had seldom seen one use a foot for anything other than to grip the tree. And they worked to some kind of plan. Sheremembered, years ago, watching one wrestle a twig off a bush down by the churchyard gate, a good two hundred yards from the copper beech where the nests were. Apparently no other twig in the garden would do. It was like Jocelyn embarking on a bit of carpentry by going to the timber store and sorting through a stack of apparently identical planks for the three that suited him.
And only some nest sites were acceptable. Thirty-two years ago Jocelyn had decided that the big beech behind the stables had to come down. It had developed an extremely handsome bracket fungus, over a yard across by the time of the first frosts, then collapsing into slimy pulp. Rachel had taken a truly satisfying series of photographs of it over several years, until Jocelyn had got a tree expert in to take a look at it. Merulius giganteus it had turned out to be, a relative of dry rot, and the tree had better come down before the next northeasterly toppled it onto the stables.
"What about the rooks?" Rachel had asked.
"There's plenty of other trees," Jocelyn had answered.
But there hadn't been, not in the rooks' eyes. The copper beech had looked entirely suitable, and indeed in some years an outcast pair had built a solitary nest on a particular side branch, but only three more moved in the first spring after the old beech was felled, and another couple the spring after that. Rachel had paid less attention to them in those days, and in many years didn't bother to count the nests, but her impression was that it had taken a surprising time for the numbers to build up to the dozen plus that they had been since she was first confined here, with time to study the nests and wonder how they were made.
No, "wonder" was too feeble a word for the serious effort and attention she put into it, a tactic in her long and steadfast campaign to keep hold of her mind. Almost everything else was gone, the provinces of her body lost for good. Four years ago she had first been aware of the invaders as an awkwardness in standing and walking, with a tendency to stumblemessages received at the centre of government but then for a while just pigeonholed. It had taken her nearly two months to decide that what was happening to her wasn't fairly normal in the elderly, and that she should go to Dr. Cherry about it. A fortnight later she had learned, from a London specialist, the barbarous name of the invaders, and that they were irresistible.
The illness followed its expected course, with the head the last to go. By now parties of the invaders were inside the undefended walls. Though taste still functioned, thank goodness, swallowing was starting to be difficult, as was speechboth varyingly, on some days almost normal, on others a willed effort, extremely tiring. Meanwhile signals persisted in arriving from the abandoned provincesa bit of the bureaucracy still pigheadedly trying to function, but to no purpose because without muscular control, Rachel's sense of her own body was haphazard. If, while her eyes were shut, something touched her hand, she would be aware of the touch, and that it came from her hand, but not which one, nor how it was disposed on the bed. When her lungs went, she would die. (A ventilator? What was the point?) So a few months more, at most.
But until then her mind was hers, untouchable, holy to her, hagia sophia. She was determined to die knowing what was happening to her, and aware and confident of the reality of anything in the field of her remaining perceptions.
This was a decision she had come to while she could still walk with two sticks, play bridge, set the shutter speeds on her cameras, be reasonably amusing company. She had made it on what turned out to be her last visit to her elder sister, then in a home. Tabby had not been felled by anything as specific as Rachel's illness, but, it seemed, by something in her own nature. She had kept a good deal of physical controlmore, Rachel suspected, than she admitted, preferring to be helplessbut she had given in. That afternoon she had seemed delighted by her visitors at first, but within ten minutes had returned to her TV, switching channels every few minutes but seeming to regard all she sawsoaps, advertisements, news bulletins, horse racesas a single series of events in which she herself was taking part, and all of it somehow continuous with the dream from which they had woken her when they arrived.
"She can't be bothered to distinguish," Rachel had said as Flora drove her home. She had heard the distress and disgust in her own voice. Different though they were, Tabby had always mattered to her.
"Oh, Ma, why should she?" Flora had protested. "What's really happening to her is pretty bloody boring. She has much more fun making it up."
This was true, and very much Tabby's style. Make her live in a pigsty, Jocelyn had once said, and she'd show you proudly over it and tell you that the man who came to change her straw was a real sweetie. But Rachel had found such willing acceptance of mental death impossible to bear, and had, there and then, made her vow not to let it happen to her. Better the dreariness of endless real hours than any escape into fantasy. There was no honour in fantasy, no respect, no decency, none at all.
So now she chose one busy nest, watched a bird depart and counted the seconds until its return. Three hundred and seven. Call it five minutes. Had it been searching for the precise twig? Would it now locate it in a preselected position? Not this time. Several trials at different angles . . . but then, ah, back to a lot of pokings and thrashings and flappings which looked like mere frenzy, looked indeed certain to unsettle the whole structure.
The bird's partner, meanwhile, watched tolerantly from a nearby branch. One needed to stay by the nest the whole time, because if both left, neighbours would nip in and steal material.
The thrashings must have been purposeful, because when the bird desisted the partner hopped up, gave a perfunctory tweak to something, and then both birds cawed vigorously for a while before the nest-builder flew off.
As it did so the door opened and Dilys backed in, fuzzy already as she entered and no more than a talking cloud by the time she reached the bed.
"Here's our breakfast then, dearie. Nice scrambled eggs she's done us. That'll put roses in our cheeks. Still comfortable, are we?"
Code, answered by Rachel with a brief smile, also code, meaning no, she didn't believe her pad needed changing yet. It was probably damp already, but it would have to become really sopping before it began to discomfort her.
"There's a good girl," said Dilys, putting the tray down. "I'll just get the coffee going, shall I?"
She crossed the room and returned to a human shape. The sturdy blue pillar was her uniform, the silvery blob was the back of her head, and the white fuzz was her cap. Rachel listened with satisfaction to the sounds of her folding the filter and measuring grounds and water into the coffee maker. She came back, cranked the top section of the bed to a steeper angle, folded the duvet aside, slid her arms under Rachel's shoulders and thighs and effortlessly eased her into a half-sitting position, wedging her into place with bolsters and pillows. She handled the wasted and useless body with gentleness and dexterity, as if it had been fully sensate.
It had at first appalled, but now after two months merely amused Rachel that somebody so skilled in the essentials of her craft should be so inept in how she spoke of themthat awful "we" and the baby talk, and the coyness about physical functions. Dilys dealt with diarrhoea or a suppurating sore in the most matter-of-fact manner, but couldn't bring herself to name them. Jocelyn would have detested her for that, and manifested his dislike in exaggerated politeness. But already Rachel, though never given to instant friendships, liked her better than any of the other nurses who had cared for her in her helplessness. Nursing skills apart, there was not simply a human warmth about Dilys, there was a strong sense that she in her turn liked and respected the real person inside the stupid inert carcase, and thought of her not as the painful leftover of a life, but as a fully human citizen, with human rights and responsibilities and needs. She was supposed to have weekends off, when Pat, the retired midwife in the village, took over; but when on only her third weekend Pat had had the flu, Dilys had stayed on not just willingly but with something like eagerness. Rachel guessed she would rather be nursing.
"Open wide," she said. "There's a good girl. Not too hot for us? Sure?"
Dutifully Rachel masticated, swallowed and opened her mouth for more. The eggy pap was in fact tepid, fluffy with milk, undersalted and overcooked, everything that scrambled eggs ought not to be, but there was no point in complaining to Dilys. Dilys had no leverage in the kitchen. She was employed by the Trust, and her loyalty was to Rachel. Cooks were Flora's concern. This one was new, and would be busy establishing her own rights and territories. She might well react to any complaint from Dilys by sending up even worse meals.
Still, a fuss must be made. It wasn't just that taste was the only physical pleasure remaining, but the making of a successful fuss, the achieving of a result, would be good for morale, a foray from the citadel to prove that Mind could still accomplish something beyond those walls. The coffee maker had been such a victory, and so had the rejection of the microwave. Again, it wasn't only that it was not Dilys's job to prepare meals. It was that if they came up from the kitchen all ready for the microwave, though they would then at least be hot the machine would have no effect on texture or flavour. No, this cook must be made to provide real scrambled eggs.
Rachel ate as much as she could bear to, then a few fingers of toast and marmalade, the toast from a presliced loaf, a disgrace to the household, but the marmalade homemade by Dora Willmott-Wills and brought by her on her last visit. Finally, redeeming everything, hot, strong Java coffee with a little cream and sugar. Incense in the cathedral.
"Bliss," she whispered as Dilys lifted the cup clear.
"There was a shop in Bangor used to smell this way when you walked past," said Dilys, giving Rachel another sip. "Before the war it would've been of course. They had this machine in the window turning the beans over and over, roasting them. Don't know when I last saw one of those."
"How old?" said Rachel.
"Me? Nineteen thirty-three I was born, so I couldn't've been more than five or maybe six. Funny how clear you remember some things and others are all gone. I don't remember my dad at all from those days, not till he was back from the war and we'd got to look after him. I'd've been twelve or more by then, of course. He'd been a Jap POW, dad, and he was never right after. Mrs. Thomas was telling me it was the same with her dad, being a POW, I mean."
The subject had not come up before in their one-sided conversations. Rachel wouldn't herself have mentioned it, and most of Dilys's talk was discreet trivia about patients and families she had worked for.
"Looks like he came through it better than my dad," said Dilys. "Judging by the picture of him."
Rachel made a questioning murmur, misunderstood by Dilys.
"That one on the bureau, I'm talking about," she said. "You must've took it yourself. Show you, shall I?"
She went to the other end of the room, returned and slid Rachel's spectacles into place. The room unblurred. Dilys acquired a face, round, pallid, with soft brown eyes, a rather spread nose and a deep-dimpled chin. Rachel glanced at the photograph unnecessarily, so well did she know it. It had stood on her worktable or desk for almost fifty years.
It was a snapshot only, but as characteristic of Jocelyn as anything that she had ever persuaded him to pose for. Nineteen forty-eight, and the Rover almost new. He'd been adjusting the timingno garage could tune a car to his satisfaction. She'd stalked him, called when she was set. He'd straightened and turned, allowing her to catch him before he'd realised what she was up to. She could read his expression perfectlypride in his machine, confidence in what he'd been doing, mild irritation at the interruptionJocelyn to the life. To the loved life.
"Big man," she whispered. "When he came back, seven stone ten."
"My dad too, he was a skeleton all right, and like I say he never got it back, not really. Looks like Colonel Matson did a bit better for himself."
"Yes," said Rachel, smiling inwardly as she took another sip of coffee. The phrase was so exactly right to describe what he had done.
"Yes, I'm a bit of a mess at the moment," he'd told her, when she'd failed to conceal her horror at the thing that tottered down onto the platform at Matlock and took her in its arms. "You must have got my letter. Told you I'd lost a bit of weight."
"Yes, but . . . oh my darling, what have they done to you?"
"Oh, I'm not so dusty, compared to some of the others. No point in going back into the hospital now that I'm home. I'll sort myself out sooner here, with you."
Rachel learnt later that he had discharged himself directly from the hospital ship, against doctors' orders and in defiance of military discipline.
There had actually been talk of a court-martial. But at Cambi Road reunions veteran after veteran, some of them still half-broken men, had taken her aside to tell her that they wouldn't have made it through, but for the Colonel. By those times he had his weight and strength back, using his own regime of rest and exercise (the rest, of course, much more of an effort of will for a man of his temperament than the exercise) and food from the garden.
"Tell Thwaite to plant a lot of spinach," he'd said.
"You hate spinach."
"Course I do. Filthy stuff, but I'll get it down somehow. And broccoli and cabbage and that kind of muck. Spring greens, whatever they are. I'll make a list."
"I'll need to stand over Mrs. Mears to stop her boiling them to shreds. She must have been trained as a laundrywoman and got into cooking by accident. I'll look in the library for books about growing vegetables."
"See what you can find. There was an M.O. in Singapore with his head screwed on about this sort of stuff. Interesting chap. Won't get anywhere in his trade, of course, with the self-satisfied clowns they've got running it. Don't worry, Ray, we'll do it between us."
He wasn't trying to cheer himself up, or her. He was stating a fact.
They would do it between them. And they had.
The men at the reunions seemed not to envy Jocelyn his return to fitness. One of them, still in his wheelchair, said as much to Rachel once.
"Good to see the Colonel looking so grand. I'd hate to see him stuck in one of these things."
For his part Jocelyn would have preferred to miss out on these meetings. The war was over, and he was in any case almost wholly uninterested in the past. He went, really, because the men wanted him there, but that was something he would have refused to acknowledge. He did it, he said, because he needed to talk to the men and check whether there was any way in which he could help them, write references, arrange job interviews, cajole, bully, plead, argue, on their behalf. "What's the point of having been to a bloody expensive school where they didn't teach you a thing worth knowing if you didn't pick up a bunch of friends in high places whose arms you can twist in a good cause?"
There was no way now that Rachel could explain any of this, so she simply smiled, accepting that Jocelyn had done well to regain his fitness, and sipped her coffee with relish. Before she had finished there was a knock on the door.
"Come in, Mrs. Thomas," Dilys called. "We're just finishing our breakfast."
She stood out of the way as Flora came bustling in, permed, pink cheeked, scarlet lipped, bright eyed.
"Morning, Ma," she said, bending for a peck at Rachel's cheek. She was wearing that boring scent again. Why bother, if you finish up smelling like last year's potpourri?
"How are you this morning, Ma? Sorry about the eggs. You'd have thought somebody who can manage a perfectly respectable faisan normande would have the right idea about scrambled eggs. Da would have dropped them out of the window. And thrown the toast after them. Dick's coming to lunch. He wants to talk to you."
Rachel reacted slowly, though she was well used to her daughter's sudden transitions of subject. No need for a foray about the eggs, then, she'd been thinking with some disappointment.
"Dick?" she whispered.
"That's right. It'll be nice for you to see him, won't it? He says he's been busy. Now, don't be naughty, MaDevon is a long way."
As far, in fact, as the detestable Helen could take him. But busy? Flapdoodle.
"He's got someone to see in York, apparently."
More flapdoodle, and judging by the "apparently" Flora thought so too. M5, M42, M1, A1Matlock wasn't more than a few miles out of his way, but he wanted something all the same. Money, probably. How bad a mess was he in this time?
"All right," she whispered.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This is the type of book that unfolds slowly, but is not boring at all. We learn of secrets from 40 years ago through the eyes of Rachel, her nurse Dilys, and Jenny, who gets involved through a random act on her part. The story is beautifully written, there are surprises throughout, and the ending is satisfying. Peter Dickinson has written many books for teens, but this one is for adult (and young adult) readers.