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Authors: Lia Mills


BOOK: Fallen
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Lia Mills

Lia Mills is the author of two previous novels,
Another Alice
Nothing Simple
, and a memoir,
In Your Face
. She lives in Dublin.

For the city

Part One
August 1914

That August was unnatural. We weren't used to so much sunshine, softening the corners and warming the ruddy brick of the terraces and squares 'til they shimmered. It seemed to reach inside my bones the same way. At first I liked the sensation, but there's such a thing as too much heat.

One sweltering afternoon, three weeks after war broke out on the Continent, I arrived at Rutland Square dishevelled and out of sorts after walking across town from Earlsfort Terrace. Our many-paned sash windows gaped wide open on all five floors, like so many mouths gasping for air.

I'd pulled off the pale linen jacket that had tightened beyond endurance across my shoulders as I walked. It was bundled across one arm, its matching hat crumpled in hands that itched to be free of it. Our outer hall, with its high ceiling and limestone floor, could feel like a tomb in winter, but that day I was glad of its chill. I settled the jacket on the back of a chair to air and dropped my hat on to the corner table. I put the flat of a hand to the wall, then cupped it to the nape of my neck for the cold as I went through the double doors to the inner hall.

I heard my mother's voice coming from the breakfast room and assumed whoever else was home would be in there too, drinking one of Lockie's cordials if they were lucky. Our housekeeper could coax refreshment from the tartest of fruit, and I was parched, but I was mad to change out of my damp blouse into something lighter and looser. So I didn't call out to say I was home, but went upstairs instead, tugging my blouse free of the waistband of my skirt and fanning it to make some kind of breeze in the dead air.

At the second landing, I avoided looking at the cheval mirror in the darker, recessed area outside our parents' room. Mother had put it there so that we could see ourselves as we'd appear to others, before we reached the more public parts of the house, below. I barely had a foot on the landing when a shadow moved in the gloom, to my left. I stopped dead, looked at it sideways. The shadow had the shape of a soldier: peaked cap, waisted tunic, jodhpurs. Fine hairs stirred on my arms and spine. I retreated a step and looked around me, to see was I in the right house, though of course I was. There, on the flight below, was the watercolour of Mother and her three sisters as girls, all dressed in white, in their Wicklow garden; there was our worn blue carpet under my feet; there the broken stair rod.

I looked at the tunic again, then up, into a face I knew better than my own. Shadowed by the cap, my twin brother's expression was wary. We stared at each other. Neither of us moved.

I broke first. ‘Liam?'

‘Hello, Katie.'

‘I didn't know you, in that rig-out.' I sat, too hard, on the blanket box at the wall. Pain flared in my bad tooth, then mercifully subsided. ‘Why didn't you say something? You must have heard me coming. You put the heart across me.'

‘I wanted to see how you'd take it, when you saw me.' He took off the daft-looking cap and ran the palm of his hand across the fresh stubble of his hair. An outline of pale, raw skin at its edges looked as though someone had traced a chalk line around his features, to sketch the stranger they'd turned him into.

‘Please tell me you didn't,' I said – but why else would he be wearing the uniform?

The war was all most people were talking about – the war, and whether Irishmen should take England's side against the
Germans, or fight off Carson's Ulstermen if they came south, or not fight at all. We'd been on the brink of getting our own parliament, after a hundred-odd years without one. Now people said we'd likely have to wait. Again. And here was Liam, ready to plunge headlong into the thick of a fight that had nothing to do with us.

‘I told you I was thinking of it.'

‘I didn't think you'd really do it. Not so soon.'

‘Why wait?' He ran his freckled hands down the ugly tunic, with its loud brass buttons and bulky pockets, held out his arms, flexed and then straightened his elbows. The khaki sleeves fell below his wrists.

‘It doesn't even fit you.' I'd the strangest urge to slap his hands back down to his sides and to carry right on beating him, as though that uniform was a dusty old rug hung out on a line to air.

‘Lockie will fix it.'

‘Why, Liam?' This came out harsher than I'd meant. ‘Why would you?'

He flushed. ‘We can't stand idly by while Germany –'

‘Oh, Liam, I've heard that said a million times! What are you, some sort of lackey? Don't you have a mind of your own? All that guff about the rights of small nations – what about us? Are we not a nation too?'

His face shut tight. He straightened, tugged on the ends of the tunic. ‘And is that what passes for original thought, in your head?'

The full force of it hit me then. He would go away. He'd put himself in danger. What on earth had tipped him through the door of a recruiting office to sign an agreement that he would wear their uniform, go wherever they made him go, do whatever they made him do? I couldn't ask, because it was too late, and that was the answer to the other, childish, painful question: why didn't you tell me before you did it?

I'd never, not once, hesitated to say anything to Liam before. Suddenly afraid, I wrapped my arms around myself and held on but I couldn't prevent a shiver. I took a deep breath. ‘When do you leave?'

‘The day after tomorrow.'

‘What will Dad say?'

‘He knows.'

‘But – what about the firm?'

‘He'll hire someone else to do my work.'

‘That's hardly the point.' Dad was so proud when Liam joined the firm – he'd dragged us all down to Arran Quay to have a look at the fresh brass plaque outside the office door:
. We'd barely finished our final examinations, and Liam was mortified, wondering what the clerks would make of it, and he only the most junior of trainees, with more exams ahead. But he settled into the firm as naturally as though he'd been reared in the filing cabinet, Dad said – with a significant look at Matt, who showed no such inclination.

‘What about Isabel?' The girl he thought so much of.

‘I'm seeing her later. And, before you ask, I'll go to Eva on the way.'

Eva, our eldest sister, lived with her husband and small daughter across the river, on Ely Place. Her health was poor, despite all the care and attention her husband Bartley, a surgeon, could come by. If Liam went dressed like that, he'd give her a stroke.

He filched the thought from my head before I could say it: ‘Don't worry, I'll change.' He went into his room and shut the door. The latch clicked like a scold's tongue, made me wish I'd a more generous heart. The silence on the landing was so deep I heard my own pulse tick.

I went into the front bedroom I shared with our other sister, Florrie, and poured myself a glass of water from the jug on
the nightstand. I drank it too fast, waking the nerve in my tooth. Mother had arranged for me to go to our dentist about it later that afternoon – it had been bothering me for days – but I had time to kill before the appointment. I changed out of my stale linen blouse into a loose, cream-coloured lawn tunic and let my hair out, brushed it quickly and twisted it up off my neck again. The weight of it was ridiculous in this weather, like wearing a woollen blanket on my head. I waited for Liam to come out of his room, so I could talk to him. Or, better still, keep my own mouth shut and listen.

Mine was the smaller bed, near the window. Florrie hated any kind of draught, and being six years older she had the choice. I'd have chosen mine anyhow, for the light and the view and the fresh air I could avail of when she wasn't in the room. But even Florrie wouldn't complain about an open window on a day like this.

I sat at the end of my bed and tried to take it in. Liam had signed up to be a soldier. He was going to an actual war, where men were wounded and killed as a matter of course. I couldn't see it. I wished I'd asked him how long the training would last. There must be a decent chance he'd miss the fighting altogether – everyone said it would be over soon.

There was nothing warlike about Liam, never had been, but he was a crack-shot, a gun-club champion, and had a collection of pewter tankards and trophies to prove it. He kept his hunting rifles locked away in a cupboard in the box room, but they'd be no use in a war. Or would they? My stomach flipped. I knew so little about it.

He'd given me an article to read, written by Tom Kettle, who'd taught him Economics when we were in college. Professor Kettle's style was informal. He'd bring his students out to Stephen's Green, to sprawl on the grass and listen – along with anyone else who chanced by – to his eloquence. He had stirring theories about Ireland's brilliant future as an
independent nation among other European nations. It was he who gave Liam his taste for politics, his ambition to go into parliament one day. Now he'd pointed the way to war, and Liam had followed.

I picked up the
Daily News
Liam had given me, folded around an article the professor had written from Belgium, where he happened to be when the war began. It described the anti-German feeling that had swept through the streets of Brussels after the invasion; how the city flowered with the tricolours of Belgium and France, cockades and rosettes in the reds, whites and blues of France and England; he wrote about people in anxious queues at banks and post offices, waiting to withdraw currency they no longer had faith in, the departure of the Red Cross for the Front in commandeered taxis and trade-cars. Liam had underlined the last lines:
War is hell, but it is only a hell of suffering, not a hell of dishonour. And through it, over its flaming coals, Justice must walk, were it on bare feet

Fine words, but it was hard to concentrate, between the heat, the echoes of our argument, my uneasy tooth, and the strain of listening out for him to stir. What I heard instead was Mother's heavy tread on the stairs, her knock on his door, her complaint. ‘What on earth is keeping you so long? Ah, Liam. Put it back on you, for heaven's sake, and come down. We're waiting – we're dying to see you in it.'

I listened to the rustle of her skirt and the creak of the stairs as she went back down again, and wondered who was there with her, waiting. Whoever it was, they'd likely gloat over him, tell him what a fine fellow he was in the uniform. I wouldn't be able to bear it.

It was galling. I wished she'd thrown a few barriers in Liam's path, the way she so often did in mine. My purpose in going to Earlsfort Terrace that day had been to decline the place I'd been offered in the History Department, to study for a higher degree. It would have been easier to write a letter,
but Professor Hayden was not the sort of person who took the easy route herself. She deserved the courtesy of a face-to-face explanation.

The door to the Professor's office was open when I arrived. She was reading at her desk, but she put the book aside and seemed glad to see me, 'til I told her why I'd come.

She took a stub of yellow pencil out from behind her ear and rolled it over and back between her fingers. ‘I don't understand, Miss Crilly. Do you not want the opportunity?'

‘Of course I do.' I fidgeted, like a schoolgirl, in my seat. ‘It's my parents, they won't allow it. I thought I could persuade them. But –'

‘How old are you?'

Her tone drew blood to my face. ‘Twenty-two.'

She stabbed a series of holes in her blotter with the pencil. ‘Can you not reason with them? Are they not proud of you?'

I'd come third in my year, and won a medal for an essay on Wolfe Tone, but this was the absolute last thing likely to make my mother proud, she was as staunch a unionist as you could hope to find. ‘My mother says one degree is bad enough, it's an utter waste of money.'

‘Then why did they send you here at all?'

I looked at her cropped hair and plain clothes. ‘My twin brother wouldn't come unless they let me come too.' In fact, she and Liam had won me the right to study here, between them. As recently as seven years earlier, being a woman, I wouldn't have been admitted to college in the first place. Professor Hayden and her clever friends had fought the larger battles that changed all that.

‘You have a brother.' She looked out the window at the unnaturally blue sky, not a cloud in sight. ‘Let's hope the war ends soon.'

In fact, I had two brothers. Best not to mention Matt, the
youngest, the baby of the house, who was about to sit for repeats of the first-year examinations he had spectacularly failed. He was no advertisement for the benefits of university, his only apparent interests being in its social life and student theatricals. If anything, his carry-on in the last year had stiffened Mother's resolve to stop me going back. ‘Liam studied Law, and Economics,' I said. ‘He's working now, for our father.'

She dropped her pencil. It rolled off the blotter and across the desk, picking up speed. We both watched its progress. She waited, caught it as it fell off the edge. ‘I suppose your mother thinks we've ruined you.'

I tried to smile. ‘Something like that.'

‘Would it help if I spoke to her?'


My conviction seemed to startle her. ‘I can be diplomatic.'

I shook my head. ‘It wouldn't help.'

‘A thing you want is worth fighting for.'

There was nothing I wanted more, but it wasn't that simple, as she must have known. She and my mother were of an age, but they might as well have lived in different centuries, on different continents. I could hardly tell the professor that my mother despised women like her, who campaigned for the franchise.

She dropped the pencil into a chipped cup that held several others and got to her feet. ‘Well. It's a shame. Come and see me if the situation changes.' She walked me to the door, shook my hand and turned back to her desk with what looked like relief.

BOOK: Fallen
9.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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