Excerpt: Henry, The Gaoler

Excerpt: Henry, The Gaoler

Book 2: Serenity House

Somerset. September, 1918


The recruitment posters lied. I went to war, but doing my duty for King and country didn’t make me a man.

War shattered me.

The death and horror seeped into my soul and each and every day it tore a sliver from me. Days mounted into months and then years, until only an empty husk remained. Now death shadowed my every step. Like loose hay down the back of my shirt, no matter how much I wriggled or squirmed, I could not free myself of its constant presence.

Even in this truck, death surrounded me. It wheezed in the chest of the man slumped over his knees on the bench next to me. It reflected in the blank gaze of the soldier opposite me. It reeked in the foetid rot coming from the bandages on the man stretched out on the floor at our feet.

One man I avoided looking at; one place my gaze could not settle. An officer on the stretcher with the best spot, lengthways behind the cab. Straps kept him secure and stopped him rolling with each rattle and shake of the truck’s rickety suspension. His chest rose and fell with regular breaths. If you cast a quick glance, you would wonder what was wrong with him. The only clue was the thin line of drool trickling down one side of his face.

Sir Jeffrey. Our colonel. Once we followed his command, and now he hung suspended between life and death because of shrapnel to the head. A wound he received because I am a coward. Because yet again I froze on the battlefield and he ran to push me out of the way of an incoming artillery shell.

The truck lurched and shuddered to a stop like a dog shaking water from its coat. The motor stilled and doors banged as the driver climbed out. I drew a deep breath and dug my fingernails into my palms to still the shaking in my body. I didn’t want to face them or their condemnation. The sideways looks asking why should I have survived and not Sir Jeffrey? Why did the fates let the worthless boy walk away and not the noble knight?

Light flashed through the interior, and I winced as it burned my eyes. The driver had thrown up the canvas that kept us enclosed. Warm, stifling air rushed out to mingle with the fresher air beyond. Hints of horse and fresh cut hay wafted in and for a moment, just the briefest moment, I relished finally coming home.

Then shrieks and cries pierced my skull and I drove my nails deeper into my flesh. The driver dropped the tailgate and hopped in.

“Come on lad, let’s get him out.” He walked to Sir Jeffrey and started untying his stretcher from the loops holding it secure.

By some army mix up, or act of God, I had been assigned as Sir Jeffrey’s personal orderly and allowed to return home to England with him. My act of cowardice on the Western Front rewarded with an early discharge. My fingers trembled as I untied the rope and took one end of the stretcher. We rested him on the floor while the driver jumped down.

Step by step, I edged closer to my doom. Would they scream accusations or simply tell me to get out? My brain seized up; I couldn’t do it. Better to stay here, inside the truck, huddled in a dark corner like the rat I was. Then Sir Jeffrey started to slide as the driver pulled his stretcher out. I either did nothing and let him drop to the ground or at least pretended to be a man, and picked up my end of the load.

My hands curled around the smooth wooden handles. I could do this for Sir Jeffrey and for my best friend—Ella. Beyond the truck, eerie familiarity beckoned. The comfort of home washed over me from the soft grey stone of the house to the wooden slates of the stables. A comfort I didn’t deserve. How could the farm have remained unchanged? It seemed as though the past four years had never happened and I had only stepped away for a matter of hours.

But time had wrought a change. A young woman stepped forward and I barely saw the girl I left behind. She had grown far taller, her limbs shredded of fat but with the curve of muscle from hard labour. Blonde hair cut off short with ragged edges as though she did it in a hurry with a knife and no mirror. But her eyes were the same, grey turning hazel and they shone with tears.

“Hello, Henry.” Ella wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into a tight hug.

I stiffened. Hugs had become foreign to me and I didn’t know what to do. Did she not see my damage? How could she bear to touch me? I held my breath until she let me go. Her brow wrinkled as she held me at arm’s length and frowned before turning to stare at her father, quiet as a corpse and unmoved by his homecoming.

Ella leaned down and placed a kiss on her father’s forehead. A single tear landed on his chest. Ella laid a hand over her father’s heart, as though reassuring herself his organ still beat in his motionless body. Then she was wrenched out of the way and thrown to one side.

Lady Jeffrey screeched and threw herself over Sir Jeffrey. Ella stood like a soldier at attention, her back rigid as her step-mother hogged the limelight with hysterics. Trying to ignore the drama, I searched my memory of before and put names to faces. Alice had also grown taller and filled out a now curvaceous figure. Dark hair peeked from under her cap. She stood by the kitchen door and watched as her hands twisted and wrung her apron. Magda and Stewart stood nearby. Those two were unchanged, as though time’s caress only weathered the stone with a few more creases. That left two other young women. Both bore haughty, bored looks as though events were no concern of theirs. They would be Louise and Charlotte, Sir Jeffrey’s step-daughters.

After a few uncomfortable moments Lady Jeffrey righted herself and glared at the driver. “What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s catatonic, ma’am.” Ella stepped forward at last and laid a protective hand on her father’s torso. “It was all in the letter from the War Office.”

Ma’am? Since when had Ella called her step-mother ma’am?

“I assumed they were simply exaggerating. When will he get up?” She turned her narrowed gaze on the driver.

The staunch soldier who had seen enemy action swallowed compulsively under her intense stare. “Doctors don’t know. He might be like this for the rest of his life or he might recover given enough time.”

“What?” Elizabeth infused a certain amount of outrage into one syllable. As though her husband planned to laze about for decades just to annoy her.

“And what about that one?” She waved a hand in my direction, as though she couldn’t quite place who I was or why I was there. Like an unexpected load of manure dropped on the front lawn.

“He doesn’t speak,” the driver said. He cast a sly look in my direction and then tapped the side of his head. He mouthed the next words, but I had heard them often enough to know their shape on the lips of others. Lad’s not right in the head.

“Do the doctors know why Henry has lost his voice?” Ella flashed me a smile, an unspoken apology in her gaze for talking about me in such a fashion. Not that it mattered. I had grown accustomed to it since my vocal cords did what I could not and deserted some eighteen months previously.

“Doctors call it shellshock, something to do with the percussion from the artillery fire.” The driver shrugged, as though it were some made up thing for malingerers.

Lady Jeffrey blew out a snort and rolled her eyes. “Just what we need in our most perilous hour. Two additional vegetables to tend when we so desperately need extra hands out in the fields.”

Ella swung around and glared. “Neither condition is permanent; they simply need time to recover. I’m sure Henry is every bit as capable of performing his chores as when he left. Does it really make much difference if he cannot talk while ploughing the fields? Now, shall we make father comfortable in his room?”

Stewart stepped forward and grabbed my shoulder. He shook me gently while meeting my gaze. “You did good lad, and don’t let anyone tell you different. They weren’t there, they don’t know.”

I dropped my gaze to my boots. There was nothing good about either me or my deeds. If I had done my duty, Sir Jeffrey would have jumped from the truck and strode across the courtyard, full of life and yelling for his girls. Instead, we carried him inside and up the stairs to his room.

Then I helped the driver roll up the stretcher and he disappeared with a salute. Lady Jeffrey refused to enter the room, declaring the situation too traumatic and herself in danger of swooning. Gathering her daughters to her, she headed for the downstairs parlour.

Ella laid a hand on my arm and peered into my face. “Why don’t you go to your room and take some time to yourself? Magda and I will look after father now. Then you can join us in the kitchen for a cup of tea when you are ready.”

I scurried from the house like a rat abandoning a sinking ship. My feet barely slowed as I trotted across the compacted dirt of the courtyard to the barn. A small stairway at the back led to the hayloft on one side and my tiny room on the other. I never minded being out there. At night the shuffle and snorts of the horses below kept me from feeling alone. You are either the sort of person who lives and breathes the warm smell of horses or not. Nothing smelt sweeter to me. Cossimo stuck his head over a stall as I passed and I leaned against his muzzle. All horses smelt different. The piebald cob had the best scent, followed by Ella’s mare.

Upstairs, I cracked open the door to find my room unchanged from the day I donned a uniform and closed it behind me. Unchanged but not untouched. It wasn’t a room shut up for four years. The floor was swept, the air fresh and the bed made with clean linen. Someone had looked after my scant possessions in my absence.

My drawings were still pinned to the walls. I papered this space with my sketches, drawn on any paper or scrap on hand at the time. In one a ten-year-old Ella leaned out of an apple tree, a missile in her hand. Another drawing showed the day we all went swimming by the old mill. Pictures of happier times, hastily drawn with pencil or charcoal to capture a perfect moment.

Next to my bed on the freshly waxed wooden cabinet sat a faded blue tin yo-yo along with a vase containing sprigs of rosemary, for remembrance. I had not been forgotten. My knees buckled and I sat on the bed, my head in my hands as I tried to hold back the sobs. Home. I had finally come home.

An hour later, having wrestled my fractured emotions under control, I slipped in the kitchen door and took a seat at the pine table. Magda placed a cup of tea in front of me and kissed my cheek.

“Welcome home, love, we missed you ever so much.” Her eyes shone with unshed tears and she turned her back and wiped her face with the corner of her apron.

I told my face to smile but the message didn’t reach through the faulty telegraph cables in my mind. One side of my lips quirked; it’s all I managed. Thankfully they didn’t bombard me with questions, which would have been pointless anyway without a voice to answer.

The door to the corridor opened and Ella appeared. She carried a small pad and a pencil that she placed on the table next to me. “In case there is something you want to say, you can write it down. Otherwise nothing has changed and we women will just talk around you.”

Magda prepared dinner on the coal range. The contents of a pot sizzled as the contents heated, fed by the wood below. Next to it, on another hot plate, sat the kettle. The water inside began to boil and a thin stream of steam escaped from the spout. Soon a high-pitched whistle filled the air.

Officers blow their whistles to give the signal to go over the top.

I shut my eyes, but all I heard was the whistle giving the command to climb out of the trenches and rush toward death. The walls of the kitchen undulated and pressed in on me. I drew a ragged breath and then held it, hoping no one noticed. I couldn’t sit there any longer; my head spun and soon would explode. I needed to get out. Picking up the pencil, I scratched out a quick message and left it on the table.

Going for a ride on Cossimo.

I staggered across the courtyard, my mind focused on the barn door as the world dissolved into black and the ground fell from under my feet.