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Authors: Louisa Young

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The Heroes' Welcome

BOOK: The Heroes' Welcome
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LOUISA YOUNG
The Heroes’ Welcome

 

 

Dedication

RJL
RIP

‘Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel when they catch sight of the land … only a few escape, swimming and struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore, their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy as they plant their feet on solid ground again, spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze, that her white arms, embracing his neck, would never for a moment let him go …’

from
The
Odyssey
,

trs Fagles

‘I knew that I was more than the something which had been looking out all that day upon the visible earth and thinking and speaking and tasting friendship. Somewhere – close at hand in that rosy thicket or far off beyond the ribs of sunset – I was gathered up with an immortal company, where I and poet and lover and flower and cloud and star were equals, as all the little leaves were equal ruffling before the gusts, or sleeping and carved out of the silentness. And in that company I learned that I am something which no fortune can touch, whether I be soon to die or long years away. Things will happen which will trample and pierce, but I shall go on, something that is here and there like the wind, something unconquerable, something not to be separated from the dark earth and the light sky, a strong citizen of infinity and eternity. The confidence and ease had become a deep joy; I knew that I could not do without the Infinite, nor the Infinite without me.’

‘The Stile’

from
Light and Twilight
,

by Edward Thomas

‘It has taken some ten years for my blood to recover.’

from
Goodbye to All That

by Robert Graves

Table of Contents

Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Epigraph

Part One: 1919

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Part Two: 1919

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Part Three: 1927

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Also by Louisa Young

Copyright

About the Publisher

Part One
1919
Chapter One

London, March 1919

Riley Purefoy did not think very much about the war. He didn’t have to. It was part of him. If others mentioned it …

… but then they didn’t: neither the other old soldiers, who had, most of them, realised very quickly that nobody wanted to hear what they might have to say, nor the civilians, who drifted away at the same rate as the soldiers fell silent.

Phrases and scraps, from time to time, slithered back at him. There was a taste in his throat sometimes, unidentified. There was an insistent image of bits of coughed-up gassed lung on the floor of an ambulance, which brought with it the necessity of standing still for a moment. There were moments still, a year and a half after he had stumbled off the battlefield, when the silence confused him as dry land confuses a sailor’s legs. There was Peter Locke’s voice, saying: ‘Then you’re in charge, old boy.’ This last stuck with him, because he knew that however unlikely it seemed, this remained largely true. He was in charge.

Despite his physical damage, Riley was well equipped: a sturdy young man, clear-eyed. So as the months went by, when he did think of war, he thought more of future war, and how to prevent it; of the future children, and how to keep them safe from it, or of the future of his fellow wounded, and how to improve it. He saw people look at him with pity and doubt. He registered the small (or large) involuntary gasps that his scarred face provoked. When a taxi driver drove off because he couldn’t understand what Riley was saying, Riley did his best to conjure sympathy for the man’s embarrassment over natural fucking anger at this continued humiliation.

He was quite aware that not many people thought he’d add up to much, poor fellow. But if he learnt anything from being shot to bits and patched up again, it was this: now is a good time to do what you want.

*

Riley Purefoy and Nadine Waveney married under a daftly beautiful wave of London blossom cresting over a city that had been at war for so long that it didn’t know what to do with itself. On the wall of the register office a sign read: ‘No Confetti – Defence of the Realm Act’. The flying blossom storm took no notice of that, dizzying eddies of it on the spring breeze, and mad sugar-pink drifts accumulating against the damp Chelsea kerbstones. Nadine, still so skinny she wasn’t having her monthlies, wore Riley’s vest under Julia Locke’s utterly out-of-date wedding dress from before the war, taken in. Riley was in uniform. Peter Locke, Riley’s former CO, tall, courteous and almost sober, was best man. Peter’s cousin Rose was maid of honour, in white gloves, and his son Tom, flaxen-haired symbol of innocence and possibility, was the pageboy. No one else was there. Tom’s mother, Julia, had picked early white lilac and given it to Rose to bring up from Locke Hill, but she didn’t come herself. She was not well enough, or perhaps just embarrassed. It had only been a few months since her own crisis. It had only been a few months since everything.

Afterwards, they went to the pub across the road where, it turned out, Peter had earlier deposited two bottles of Krug ’04, acquired he didn’t care to say how. Rose was in the dark green tweed suit that she’d worn to Peter and Julia’s wedding (though she thought she wouldn’t mention that), and confessed to a small thrill of shame to be in a pub. It was a beautiful ceremony and a happy day. Any fear that anyone might have had for the future of the marriage, its precipitous start, the battered souls of the bride and groom, lay unmentioned. It was a great time for not mentioning. No one wanted to remind anyone of anything. As though anyone had forgotten.

*

The bride and groom were to spend the wedding night at Peter’s mother’s house in Chester Square, where the tall handsome rooms were still draped with dustsheets and the chandeliers swathed in pale holland, because the old lady still didn’t dare come down from Scotland.

They had not kissed. How could they? Through the long quiet winter of 1918–19 at Locke Hill, Nadine (so jumpy and tender, crop-headed) and he (damaged) had taken long walks with their arms around each other, spent long days curled up together on the chintz sofa, and failed over and over to go to bed at all, because they could not go to bed together, and did not want to part. They had paused, like bulbs underground in winter, immobilised, and reverted to a kind of reinvented virginity, as if their tumultuous romance had never been consummated during the unfettered years of war.

That the war was over, and things were to be different, was the largest truth in the house. The next was that nobody – apart from Rose – had much idea of what happened now. But for Riley and Nadine, one immediate shift was that the sexual liberties allowed by the possibility of imminent death had disappeared like a midsummer night’s dream. Their reborn chastity happened passively and without comment between them. This had seemed to each of them at the time a form of safety, but by their wedding night Riley had become hideously aware of it, and also of the fact that he did not know what his new wife was thinking on the subject. He recalled the letter she had sent him in 1915: ‘Riley, don’t you ever ever ever again not tell me what is going on with you …’ But saintly woman though she was – in fact
because
of her saintliness – he could not – and he was aware of the irony here – find the words.

Riley brought with him to Chester Square various accoutrements: his etched brass drinking straw made from a shell casing, a gift from Jarvis at the Queen’s Hospital Facial Injuries Unit; a rubber thing with a bulb, for squirting and rinsing; small sponges on sticks, for cleaning; mouthwashes of alcohol and peppermint. His pellets of morphine, carried with him in a little yellow tin which used to hold record-player needles, everywhere, always, just in case
. In case of what?
he thought.
In case someone shoots my jaw off again?

Riley’s mouth had for so long been the territory first of bloody destruction, then of its complex rebuilding by surgery and medical men, that he had trouble seeing it as his at all. Eating was still difficult, and took a long time. Trying to chew was difficult, trying to swallow, trying not to choke, trying not to dribble, even though he couldn’t always tell that he was dribbling because his nerve endings could not be relied on to know where they were. Trying to cough, or stop coughing. Learning to live with somewhat undisciplined saliva and phlegm – though that had improved a lot, thank Christ – and to accept that even when he had learnt to live with it, other people would always find it disgusting. Learning to accept when Nadine passed him a handkerchief. Learning to accept endless generosity and inventiveness with soups and coddled eggs and milk puddings, fools and mousses and shape from Mrs Joyce, the cook:
baby food
,
he’d thought, then
get over it,
and he was getting over it
.
He still did not care to eat with others. The embarrassment of some strangers, the inappropriate concern of others, Nadine’s careful developed calmness, all exhausted him, but worse in its way was his own requirement of himself that he calmly ignore the food that started bit by bit to reappear as the privations of rationing faded away – fragrant Sunday joints, the clean crunchy salads, the chokable pies, the sweet smells of potatoes frying in butter, chicken roasting, bread baking. At times he was afraid of his own breath, of stagnant saliva, of deadened unresponsive lips, of his medicalised mouth in the normal world. He would clean it fanatically; and he would lapse into silence, sometimes, for several days, knowing that speaking was exercising, and he should do it, as he should eat. At times, during the winter, after their reunion and before their wedding, he had not known what he had to offer her.

The rooms at Chester Square were graceful and quiet. Rose, tall kind Rose who had nursed him at the Queen’s, had set up a decanter of whisky and some cold supper in the drawing room.

‘Have a sandwich,’ he said to Nadine.
Egg and cress
,
he thought.
Rose made them specially because they’re soft.
He knew it was courtesy and affection, but in his longing for normality he couldn’t help feeling it as controlling, as singling him out …
Oh it’s not the kindness of Rose’s response that singles you out, Riley. It’s the damage itself.
He was so grateful. He was getting tired of being grateful. But he was grateful.

Nadine, perched on the corner of a sofa half unfurled from its covering, took a little white triangle. He knew she didn’t like eating in front of him either, though he pretended he didn’t, hoping that she would get over it. It was another thing he had to be gracious about. They each drank a little whisky, and were silent. He was terribly happy. Look at her! With her yellow eyes and her sideways smile. But—

It is our wedding night. But—

He couldn’t – didn’t want to – put it into words. Oh the irony! If he could speak clearly, there would be no need to say anything!
If my mouth was normal, I wouldn’t have to speak, I could just … act …
He looked at her, and in his mind his look became a caress, a touch, an invitation, a demand … how could he follow up such a look? How could she respond to it? He looked away.

Nadine, as nervous as him, stood suddenly, and said, ‘Well!’ cheerfully, smiled at him, and started for the door. He stood too, wondering whether he would follow, or wait. He didn’t know. He went out into the hall and as she reached the landing she looked back at him, and said, briskly, ‘It doesn’t matter, you know.’

He, who knew her so well, did not know what she meant by it.
It doesn’t matter? Of course it bloody matters.

She was off, almost scurrying, into the bedroom. So he went up, and stood in the doorway. She was further round, out of view, putting on a nightgown – a new one.

Then he was in the bathroom, trying to clean his mouth without disgusting illustrative noise, and his thoughts flooded in:
We should have talked of it. I should have kissed her before this. I should have prepared – myself – her
… But how could he kiss her? He had tried it out, on his own arm, like a youth. His lips had lain there, incompetent. He could not kiss her – not her mouth, her breast, nor any part of her. He could remember kissing her. It tormented him.

BOOK: The Heroes' Welcome
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