Eight o’clock. The light had long surrendered, collapsing unopposed into the west. Tonight we’d seen what Edward and I used to call a dark sunset, the rags of cloud lying like a blindfold across the setting sun.
Edward. Edward and I. Edward, my brother.
I’d seen a lot of dark sunsets since I’d left home five years before — and one very dark dawn.
A chauffeur-driven Bentley passed too close to me, gravel spitting from its tyres like shrapnel. A Daimler followed, and another Bentley, a succession of chauffeur-driven cars streaming past me as I paused by the newly-consecrated war memorial. None of the passengers paid me any attention as I stood in the deep shadow of the cold stone. Nobody stopped. Nobody even saw me as my cold fingers traced the engraved letters. Lt E Masterton.
Edward’s name, still raw on the memorial, carved with pride by a grateful and grieving community.
I shivered and stepped back, remembering him, young, handsome and laughing. Turning away from the slender column, something impelled me, an invisible impulse, a strange force. Destiny, driving me back to the home I thought I’d left for ever.
More cars passed, their headlights careering across the road as they turned into the driveway. Rabbits, picked out, froze in terror under the rhododendrons where they’d thought they were safe. In a gap between arrivals I dodged around the tall gateposts, turning, like the visitors, up the drive with a grim smile. What a surprise they’d have when I crashed the party. I pulled my greatcoat around me and trudged on, my heavy boots crunching on the night time frost.
Even in daylight the curve of the drive and the huge banks of sheltering rhododendrons masked the view of the house. At night the thickets were muffled by darkness so that it was only memory that led me. This was where Edward and I used to play hide-and-seek or pirates or knights-in-armour, playing dead in the long grass or lying silent in the shadows. Then we’d leap up, whooping, laughing, seeing who we could surprise.
Darkness couldn’t erase memory. I half-expected to see him running teasing from me towards the shrubbery; but Edward had been tumbled into a cold grave near Ypres and would never come home again. All they would ever see of the light of their lives would be his ghost.
In the half-light, a real figure rounded the bend ahead of me, dog at his heels, creeping through the shrubbery in search of rabbits or poachers. I smiled and raised a hand.
‘Mr Parkin,’ I said, politely. ‘It’s been a long time.’
The dog uttered a low, siren whine, then bolted. The man, startled, passed a hand over his eyes. ‘Master John!’ he mumbled. ‘Oh God!’ Then he put his head down and broke into the nearest thing to a run that his bad leg would allow — a shambling, stumbling, panic-blinded shuffle which he’d picked up in Flanders. I heard the gas-ridden cough which brought up fear as well as fluid, and I watched him go, a broken wreck of a man.
I hadn’t expected my homecoming to have such an impact.
I emerged from the rhododendrons onto a circular lawn. The drive swept on around its furthest edge where the cars drew up in line and the local gentry stepped out. Light flowed down the steps from the house and the windows blazed with welcome.
Four years in the trenches alters the mind, changes the view, strips a man of the capability to celebrate. But it was November and so this must be a party to celebrate my youngest brother William’s coming of age. At the top of the steps the footman — a young man, new since I left — was opening the door to greet Lord and Lady Marchant and as he did so a burst of laughter and music forced its way out, then faded to nothing on the night air. The doors closed and left silence behind.
I stood for a while in the cold, summoning the courage to go in. More cars drove up, more dinner suits and silk dresses, fur wraps and heirlooms floated elegantly up the steps and into that haunting hall of light. Lords and ladies strolled in laughing as if they belonged there, while I skulked in the shadows, the prodigal son uncertain of my welcome. What would they do when they saw me?
No doubt they would wish I was Edward.
I stood there until the stream of guests slowed, until the chill seeped through my greatcoat and the temptation of warmth and light overpowered me. Reminding myself. I live here, I belong here. After all that I have done I am still the son of the house. After a few moments I almost believed it. No-one can stop me if I choose to go in; no-one can cast me out.
I stepped out of the shelter of the shrubbery and walked towards the steps, striding up their slippery unevenness. My boots left muddy prints on the polished stone. I pushed open the door myself, paused briefly in front of the stiffly formal footman. He didn’t react. He didn’t say: ‘Master John!’ and his face showed nothing at all.
He wasn’t in the war.
Miles, the butler, was in the ante-room, supervising the staff. ‘More drinks in the ballroom, quickly. They’re thirsty in there.’ One of the maids giggled, nervously, and he rounded on her. ‘Show some respect, girl! His Lordship’s on edge tonight.’
‘His Lordship’s been on edge since we heard about Master John,’ muttered one of the girls under her breath, and another shushed her as Mile’s eyes whipped across them to find the offender. I slid past the door of the anteroom and waited in the niche where we used to leave our tennis racquets until the maids came past with their trays, grey-and-white-uniformed and making the soft clucking of a flock of doves. It was easy enough for me to avoid Miles, of whom I’d been so scared as a boy, tucking in behind them and trying to make myself overlooked.
I followed the maids towards the sound of a string quartet from the ballroom but, suddenly too shy, I didn’t go in, hovering instead on the threshold, looking. Candles and the sparkling chandeliers, the whirl of jewel colours: some people, at least, had recovered from the War.
But not me. I was dirty, still in uniform with mud and gravel on my boots; and despite the fires blazing in every room against the frost I was cold, as cold as Edward.
Determined and gracious, my mother moved among the dinner jackets, satins and furs, her black silk skirt rustling like the passing of a ghost along a silent corridor. She wore the family rubies, blood-red at her neck, ears and wrists. William took centre stage, garnering the attention – the last and the least of us, the whey-faced cry-baby whom Edward and I had despised, now accepting congratulations for the accident of making it to eighteen, the achievement of being born too late to die. He was explaining my absence to the feather-headed Fairweather girl. I edged closer to hear him twist the truth, take it out of proportion and try and make it glorious. ‘… won a medal at Vimy, the Military Cross. Saved a dozen lives, the major said. Yes, very proud of him…’
The girl was laughing. I looked around and saw none of my former comrades, no-one of fighting age. This was a coming-together of those who never gone to fight. Death had moved at the edges of their social gatherings these last few years, but none of those present had felt his hand on their shoulder. He had touched their husbands, their brothers and their sons but not them. The ones who had suffered and survived weren’t there. It was too soon. They loitered in the darkness of their homes with their nightmares and their ghosts, their mutilated and missing limbs and scarred faces. They refused to come out in the darkness of November; they left gatherings like this to those who remembered how to live. They had vanquished Death; they survived. They knew, as none of William’s guests knew, how everyday things could so easily be meshed into madness: mud, metal, letters from loved ones, blood, bone.
My father wasn’t in the ballroom but I guessed where he’d be and went straight to his study, a small cosy room in the no-man’s-land between the family quarters and the kitchen. My soft knock at the door went unanswered and so I did what I’d never done in my life, opened it and went in uninvited.
At the sound of the creaking door he looked up. ‘John!’ he whispered, his voice hoarse, dashing his hand across his eyes, not believing. Then he rubbed his eyes again and looked right through me, as if I wasn’t there. As if I’d gone for ever.
He was crying.
‘Father!’ I strode towards him, regardless of my muddy boots on the priceless rug. ‘I’m home. I’ve come to explain.’
He had the telegram from the War Office in front of him. He must have thought of me often, even as William sprang to manhood to take my place. Perhaps he grieved for me even more than for Edward, because I was the one to let him down.
I write with regret to inform you that your son, Captain John Masterton, MC, was today shot at dawn for desertion.
‘Father!’ I said to him again, my voice rendered hoarse by breathlessness, by gratitude for the chance I’d been given to make him understand the truth. ‘I’ve come home to explain. It didn’t happen as they told you. I didn’t desert. I only needed some time to myself, just an hour to stop myself going mad. I want you to believe me. I have to know that you believe I’m no coward!’
He put the telegram back in the desk, got up and began to walk to the door. I stood directly in front of him so that he’d have to stop, have to talk to me, have to understand.
He walked right through me.
I felt him shiver.
Suddenly the close atmosphere of the house smothered me. From the study I ran down the corridor to the kitchen, my passing causing a flutter among the silly kitchen maids who blustered about in their own chaos like a chattering flock of starlings. ‘Who opened the door?’ ‘Why is it so cold in here?’ ‘Someone’s walked over my grave!’
I wrenched the back door open to a chorus of screams then strode out into the darkness. In the kennels the dogs were barking with the sharp, terror-stricken call of the hounds of hell.
I go back, every year, on William’s birthday. The house is open to the public now, sterile and neat, and his grandson has a flat in the west wing. No-one ever sees me, but still when I go into the courtyard the dogs bark. They know I’m here. They know I came home.
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