Extract from ‘The War Letters’,
This is a small extract from a series of mini stories I wrote called ‘The War Letters’; seeing as though it’s 11.11.11, I thought it would be a good piece to start with. I submitted the full set of stories to the Electric Reads Young Writers competition, where it was chosen to be published in the full anthology. If you like this, and want to know what happens next, then you can buy the anthology here. Lest We Forget.
The General’s bamboo hut was wallpapered floor to ceiling with photographs of beautiful women; women from Players magazine; women he’d known at Oxford; women from the cabaret here in Imphal. He was followed by the eyes of a thousand women, judging his every decision. Each and every photo was a reincarnation of Emilia, and each spoke with her familiar, condescending tone. They should have been back hours ago. Were you even paying attention? How much have you had to drink today? He returned his attention to the paper on the desk. Dear Emilia. He tapped the page with his pen, wishing that somehow the ink would magically arrange itself into the right thing to say. To his left a photograph of Emilia stood erect in its frame, watching him cautiously.
He picked up the picture. Her expression was stern as always and she sat in the acceptable fashion, one ankle crossed behind the other, her shoes just visible under the lace trimmings of her Sunday dress. General Cowan remembered, so vividly, the day the photograph was taken. Even the sepia tinge couldn’t make him forget the awful marigold yellow of that dress. Emilia’s mother had bought it as an engagement present; he remembered her trying it on and coming down the grand staircase, dressed head-to-toe in sunshine yellow; he remembered the way that her hand had delicately stroked the oak banister and the way she had held herself bolt upright, as if she was balancing a water-trough on her head. She had looked so incredibly graceful and striking that for a moment Cowan had imagined her as a faerie queen, dressed in dandelions and floating down the hallway and back into the drawing room. He had thought he was the luckiest man in the world.
That was before they were married. Before she had grown tired of him and his dinner parties; before she had taken to spending all day in the gazebo at the end of the east gardens, looking longingly across the lake as if begging the wind to come and save her. She missed her life in the colonies, he knew that, but instead of helping her he had chosen to gamble and drink her dowry away. If she was his Titania, he had clipped her faerie wings a long time ago. She felt trapped in his house. Maybe she had known the moment she had received that dress; maybe that was when her smile had faded forever. He couldn’t even remember.
He pinched the bridge of his nose hard between his thumb and forefinger and tried not to think about the pile of unopened letters in his draw. He squeezed his eyes shut in the hopes of shaking the image from his mind, but found it was impossible. He slid open the drawer of his desk and stared at the letters sat stubbornly inside, waiting to be read. He reached for the topmost envelope, his index finger caressing the curl of the C in ‘Cowan’. Emilia hadn’t put his first name in the address. She was the only one in this post-war world that knew his true identity; his family’s secret shame.
“Sir, they’re back! The Lieutenant needs to speak with you urgently.”
Cowan’s second in command, Harris, had appeared. Cowan did not turn round to face the captain, instead choosing to keep tracing the ‘C’. His finger copied the crescent moon shape over and over again.
“Sir? They need you. Shall I tell them you’re busy?”
With that, General Cowan’s finger stopped dead. He abruptly closed the drawer and picked up the piece of paper from his desk.
“No, Harris. I’m quite ready. And do me a favour, would you? Get rid of this rubbish, there’s a good fellow.”
Cowan’s head had stayed firmly in his hands for the last twenty minutes. He could feel the sweat building between his hands and his face; the familiar, itchy sensation that usually drove him mad. He began to wonder if he could stay like this forever, curled up in the foetal position in his chair, blocking out the noise of the wild rainforest and equally raucous men outside his hut.
It was these noises that brought him back to reality. He sat very still for a moment, weighing his options and trying to calm his breathing, but the shock was too strong – he needed a drink.
Cowan walked across to the cabinet at the far end of his hut and took out an unopened bottle of Tullamore. He rolled the bottle between his hands, savouring the gold of the liquid. Then he picked up a glass tumbler, which was upside down on the cabinet and, in doing so, he saw through the thick, magnifying base, a Bhamo Fighting Spider.
The men had all been briefed on the local wildlife during training. Cowan remembered looking for nesting patterns in enclosed spaces such as tree trunks and trying to differentiate the round, white eggs sacs from those of the helpfully named yellow sac spider, which were infinitely more hazardous. Thinking now, he even remembered learning about how the silk of the Bhamo was more sticky than most spiders’, so that they could cleverly conceal their eggs in more unusual nesting spots, such as the waxy underside of jungle leaves. He recognised the blue patches down its back which shone in the light like an oil slick. It looked up at him through the glass with its two large, front eyes giving it the impression of shock. The third and fourth eyes acted peripherally on the sides of the spider’s head, looking out for any flanking threats. The thick pincers on its head looked furry and soft; although Cowan was sure he’d get a nasty bite if he tried to stroke them.
The arachnid wasn’t as dangerous as it looked, however. Cowan remembered that it had a desire to kill every other male spider it came across, but was uninterested in any other animal – including humans. The General smiled; he always admired a good fighting spirit. This spider, however, would be the fiercest fighter of its species: it was a Mother. Along the bottom of the glass hung the row upon row of those sticky white eggs sacs; he guessed the only reason he could see them at all was because of the magnifying properties of the glass. But he could see them: he could see how symmetrical the spaces were between each egg and how perfectly round each sac was. The wonder of nature had taken him by surprise; despite living essentially in a jungle, the General rarely left his hut, constantly mapping out offenses and planning covert operations. Calm washed over him now as he left behind the events of the day to watch the thing; it reminded him of training, and the feeling of excitement and anticipation.
Cowan squinted and tried to count how many tiny fighters would be born from this one spider’s platoon, but there were far too many. Lines of tiny, unborn soldiers lined up ready for battle. These were creatures born to fight, forced into a dangerous vocation in which there was no room for error. Anything but victory meant a quick death in the jungle.
He felt a sudden fury at the spider and her eggs. It was only a matter of time before her whole operation was rumbled; before a destructive man with a bitter temperament peered through the window and saw the sleeping soldiers lying in wait. Cowan picked up the tumbler and hurled it hard against the bamboo wall, watching it shatter into a thousand pieces of spider and glass.
July 5th 1942
I trust you are well? And I can only trust, of course. You’re silence offers no reassurances, and I have only the English papers to provide any information. But I still write, as I am certain that if you had died, I would have at least had a telegram telling me so. Even your death would give me some news.
It is not that I am angry as such: rather I am frustrated. I know that our marriage has not been perfect, but surely if any good is to come out of this war it is to illustrate the importance of never giving up. All around me, people are reconciling their differences and pulling together for the war effort. Mrs Goth has started a knitting club for all the society women which even Nancy Jessop attends, despite that nasty business over the village decorations some years back.
After waiting months for a response from you, Jane suggested that I take my mind off the war in Burma and concentrate on the one here at home. When I venture into the village with Mavis, I see them: the men with missing limbs, missing skin, missing memories.
At first, it was ghastly: it made me realise for the first time that it was not only me that had been affected by this war. When I returned to our large, empty home one evening I realised that there was something I could do for the war effort – something that could help not only the injured sons and brothers of the village but also could help myself.
I have decided to turn our home into a rehabilitation centre for injured soldiers. I say I, but Jane should really take all the credit, as she is the one with medical training. She has been volunteering as a nurse for the Red Cross, and was able to put me in touch with all the right people. It has afforded the opportunity to do some good and once again the house is filled with noise. It is just like when we first got married, but also entirely different – the conversation still centres around politics and culture, but these conversations cross class thresholds. Just the other day, I overheard Private Williams talking with Sergeant Kelp about the merits of the Futurist Manifesto. Imagine! A Private and a senior officer, chatting avidly about foreign politics. And do you remember Henry Jenkins? The lawyer’s son that inherited Mr Lomas’s estate? He’s ended up here too. Nothing too serious, just a small shrapnel wound to the knee and he’s hoping to be redeployed before the war is through.
Anyway, it turns out that he is the most talented painter. One morning soon after he arrived I found him sat on the edge of his bed struggling into his dressing gown, trying to manoeuvre himself into his wheelchair. When I asked him what he was doing, he said he needed to collect some personal effects from his house right away. After a few minutes of arguing, he calmed down enough to confide in me that he was an artist, and felt that having his paints near to him would speed along his recovery. As his estate is not too far, I arranged to have them picked up immediately.
Well, it has been the most marvellous medicine: Henry has turned the house into an art school. Once the other patients saw his work, they were as taken as I was. Henry has kindly started to teach the men and nurses alike to paint; Doctor Harrow calls it ‘art therapy’. Henry really is a fascinating man; he often keeps me up talking long after my bed shift finishes. You and he are worlds apart, but I think you would like him. He has the fire I remember in you in your youth.
It’s the first time in my life I have felt important, and I’m not afraid to admit that to you now. I want to make this work, Nicklaus. The time apart has done me good – I have found my true calling. But this is a marriage of two halves. Please, please write me back soon. I miss you, darling.
© Melissa Welliver, 2015