The street was the common end of Bransome Fields, two rows of parallel bricks, broken only by a line of windows and glistening front steps. The seal of respectability marked solely by the shade of waxed fruit in the window and the depth of the crease in the fall of the drapes behind the heavy sash panes. But on the right hand side, at the end of the row; where the builder had found a spot of land too small for a house yet too big to leave free, there stood a funny little box. A peculiar shaped cottage, with a red painted door and a heavily blackened door knocker, smaller than the rest yet distinct by its shape and its conspicuous lack of waxed adornments.
She stood at the door, tall and slight. Her features hidden by a grey woollen scarf draped loosely over her shoulders. If you were quick or particularly perceptive you could just make out the line of her uniform under her grey woollen overcoat, the royal blue hem line just visible as the bitter evening wind lifted the edge of her coat. Ms Partridge noticed, as did Mrs Brown two doors up, on a row where people neither stood at their doors nor gossiped across back fences, yet visitors were never missed.
Cora Darnell’s energy had utterly departed and she found herself floundering those last few steps. Her flesh was cold and bloodless, limbs limp, trembling and her teeth drummed like the burr of the dentist’s drill. Through a long eternity she watched a large grey spider spinning a web against the arch of the door frame, deftly weaving its legs between the thinnest strands of silver. Cora’s thoughts ran under the threads, interlocking flex of darkness tightening their grip. Standing transfixed by the delicate strands of lacework, she thought of her own trap, undeniably, everlasting, contradictory thoughts of despair. James or Tom, James AND Tom “Oh God what have I done” too quick to follow her thoughts, a voice too quick to write down, she saw the spider draw in its prey, death was swift consuming, terrifying yet consoling. There was no noise. The stillness became insistent; it was deathlike, unyielding, remote, -suffocating her in darkness. Rigid chimes of black echoed in her ears, drowning in a sea of shame; a tearful reproach against a blood red door softly, silently weeping against the twilight coloured embers of the early evening sky.
After a second and slightly more determined rap of the knocker, Cora heard the jangle of keys from behind the door and the spasmodic shuddering of a bolt being pulled back. Mrs Penshaw ushered her in with a swift gesture of her hand and a barely recognisable smile. A scraggy sharp faced women of about fifty or so, dressed all in black except for a faintly blotched apron that hung from her hips like a wooden frame. She gestured Cora towards the kitchen, steamy and overheated it smelt like last night’s tea, cabbage and boiled greens. The women pointed to a small back room that led off the hallway, just beyond the kitchen. In the room was a wooden table, very like the one her parent’s used for potting plants. There were a couple of chairs, a smaller table with a large jug of water, a basin, some scissors and a stack of towels. The older women told Cora to undress and put her things on the chair, then left.
Cora’s mind was sweeping, an inescapable force – a train hurtling, headlong, sweeping into darkness, terror – awe of the unknown. She tasted the fear – bitter, dry, burning at her throat. The stillness deafening, throbbing chest, rising – climbing, clawing at her soul. She unbuttoned her coat. Her fingers fumbled with the buttons. Her fingers too big, not solid like liquid. Tom had been fast, eager, skilful, the buttons of her blouse had almost opened themselves, like her they stretched, gave themselves freely, the material slid from her shoulder, the whisper of his breath undressing her, ghost like breath, godly an angel of desire clawing at her senses. His touch made her shiver, intoxicating, burning, she had run into the flames, not slowly, gingerly wary of the outcome. No she had run, run faster than she ever thought possible, engulfed in the white flamed passion that was eating at her flesh.”Oh God, what have I done”
Mrs Penshaw came back in and immediately asked Cora for the money; she took the brown paper envelope, opened it, hastily scanned the contents and slid it swiftly into her apron pocket. Cora wondered how many other envelopes had lined the heavily mottled pocket. She hesitated at the table, her eyes scanned the faded wallpaper where rows of what looked like stalks of wheat made a criss cross pattern across the walls. She became aware of the silence. A silence only under laid by Mrs Penshaw tinkering with something on a tray across the smallest table. Upstairs she heard a door open then swiftly shut. Life carried on. She heard a cough, the thick tense crackling of apprehension turned her face towards the older woman. “Take some of this, my dear” her northern drawl tinged by a rasping undertone, a soft voice hardened by toil or was it more, alcohol perhaps? Cora reached her hand out for the glass, the mixture, a rich port-wine colour, frothed at the top. she drank it quickly, the bitter tinged liquid slid down her throat, warm, smooth and surprisingly pleasant.
Cora thought of the glass decanter at home, delicate patterns of glass that danced against the red blood flowing within. It was James’s decanter. He was so different to the glass in shape, massy bulbous, so cold, heavy black and metallic, so alien to the beauty of the delicate cut crystal. He hadn’t always been cold. Where eyes were once vivid blue, softly dropping rain dancing patterns in the fountain. Now consumed by the greyness of death. Grief, terror, longing, intangibles that had their own mass. Emotional baggage he couldn’t escape. War was hell, but returning home was harder. The bitter sting of liquid slid through her veins, it didn’t wash the guilt only oiled its grip, clasping clawing devouring her. As the liquid swirled in her stomach she pictured Tom, Gold ripe yellow hair, bare chested, teeth like the bright white rays of the moon. She had wanted to sleep inside his skin, breath his blood and be smothered. She had wanted to taste his spirit, eat from his soul. Sleeping with him had been wrong, she knew that now, but then, the need was too great, the hunger gnawed at her being. He had found her loneliness and made it his own.
The Stillness had become intense, acute, yet held a grim significance. Every moment of inaction counted, as Cora strained her eyes and ears for any hint of light or sound. Mrs Penshaw had her back to her and she could just make out the silhouette of the older women against the darkness, an oil lamp had been lit in the corner by a bare looking dresser and the fire flickered bright whispers of shadow across the walls. Mrs Penshaw turned and Cora could see a sharp looking instrument in her right hand, it was long and thin, like a straightened coat hanger with its hook still intact at the tip. Cora felt her fingers clasp round the edge of the wooden slab, her grip tightened and she could feel her nails burrowing into the soft wooden grain on the underside of the table. The older woman opened Cora’s legs and gestured for her to raise her knees. There was no oral instruction just a faint movement of her eyes and a gesture of her head. Cora’s legs began to tremble and she could hardly muster the strength to stop them physically rocking herself off the table. Mrs Penshaw put her hand across Cora’s stomach and swiftly inserted the cold steel between her legs.
Cora felt a minute of absolute unconsciousness, seconds perhaps minutes. The pain like a gush of water from a crack in a dam, a terrifying all consuming pain. Broader, wider, deeper came the darkness. Speeding silently into the void. The room closed in around her like a veil of black being gathered together. “Am I dead” She could feel an overwhelming terror, a dread so dark no words could describe. Then nothing. Then followed a sound, like the sound of a tolling bell, faint and muffled as though she was hearing through thick swathes of darkness. The noise became louder, more distinct, “Cora, Cora” the faintest whisper became clearer more determined. “Was it Tom”? he had used her name over and over again as they lay in a sea of sun bleached wheat, a carpet of bronze, swimming on a tide of ecstasy she had never known possible.
“It’s done” said Mrs Penshaw as she washed a pair of scissors in the basin of water over near the door. Cora felt the tears burn at her eyes, she tried to focus, the pain from her stomach was intense, her legs felt like jelly and seemed to belong to someone else. The older woman picked up a string tied bundle that was by her feet and placed it under her arm against her hip. She walked towards the door, turning back towards Cora she gestured at the clothes folded neatly across the chair, and left. Cora dressed as quickly as was physically possible given the incredible pain that showed no sign of abating, pulling her stockings back on over her trembling legs she kept looking at the clothes folded carefully on the chair. The royal blue hospital uniform of St Agnes the Redeemer silently cursed at her soul. The healer, protector of life had abandoned all conviction and given way to vanity and self protection. Cora steadied herself against the edge of the makeshift operating table. She gingerly placed one foot then the other into a black leather loafer, hospital issue, comfortable, dependable and thoroughly reliable. Her eyes utterly enthralled by a small gilded frame hanging slightly off centre on the back wall, a hint of delicate summers not long past against the bleakness of the present.
Lucid images of still summer evenings, the grass was golden in the place where the little flowers she studied seemed to be crying heavenwards for her blood. Murmurs of sunlight, speckles of dandelions and deep coloured daisies, murmurs of freedom, of flying like air, of butterflies in summer. She thought of the last time with Tom, the green meadow carpet under her flesh, his touch like fire on sweat fevered skin. Straddled across him, entering her, drawing his blood deep up into her body. Then full she pauses, dreamy, heavy, drowning in fields of green meadows and reluctant goodbyes. The day before James, the day before all hope ceased to be. A man broken by battle, in body and mind. Her instinct said run, to freeze to hide from the burden, but she was a wife, James’s wife.
Cora followed the older woman tentively back through the darkened hall way, the smell of boiled greens still heavy in the air, made her almost wretch as she cradled her stomach, trying to stifle the rising nausea that seemed to be racing at breakneck speed to the back of her throat. The extent of Mrs Penshaw ‘s farewell was brief and in voice not much above a whisper, said the bleeding should start in a few hours and to go home to bed. And that was it. The deed was done, her eternal future sealed by a grey haired stranger and a cold piece of steel.
Before Cora even had time to turn her head she heard the door shut swiftly behind her and heard the shuddering of the heavy bolt being pulled back across the inside. Instinct took over as she wrapped her scarf around her head and tucked it tightly inside her overcoat. Protection not only from the bitter evening chill but also the prying eyes of the anonymous window shadows. Pulling the collar of the overcoat still closer she lowered her head and walked slowly back along Bransome Fields towards the train station and home.
“Oh, God please forgive me” she couldn’t protect herself from her thoughts, thoughts coming fast. Running backwards, and the thoughts kept coming, like pistol fire, just missing getting nearer, she wanted to turn and run, run from herself. A child, gold yellow hair, barefooted, soft plump legs, colour of an autumn moon. Running to the water, tide rising, swallowed by the spray, washed away to nothing. Only nothingness left now, left to wander amongst the living, blowing through the dusty remnants of duty and honour.
When Flight Lieutenant James Darnell was finally released from the RAF Hospital at Uxbridge, he was no more able to bare his disfigured and mutilated body as he had been eight months earlier. Who he was, had died with his crew, splattered to the four corners of that well ploughed field at La Longueville, northern France. He wasn’t living not in any real sense anyway; no movement below the chest, strapped inside a metal chair on wheels, the only remedy able to give any sort of respite to his self loathing was the heady cocktail of alcohol he consumed in copious amounts on a daily basis. His wife Cora, beautiful, timid, sickly naive and duty bound to be the ever present bearer of his drunken rage.
James had thought Cora somewhat different of late, quieter, and distant not quite as attentive as she should be. He would need to sort that out. It seemed to come about around the same time he heard about the suicide of his old Etonian friend Tom Sharpe, walked into the sea at Brighton, fully clothed, mid afternoon one Friday in October. Nobody knew why. He knew Tom had called at the house a few times while he had been overseas but for the life of him he couldn’t work out why Cora had been so affected by the news, after all they hardly knew each other!