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Authors: Sarita Mandanna

Good Hope Road: A Novel (59 page)

BOOK: Good Hope Road: A Novel
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He places the package on the table. Hefting his backpack on to his shoulders, he turns up the collar of his overcoat and steps out into the rain.

FORTY-THREE

Beacon Hill, Boston

t was entirely too early for the doorbell to be ringing in so diabolical a fashion. Madeleine hurried down the wide curve of stairs, fumbling with the silk tie of her dressing gown. The fundraiser last night had gone on forever before she’d been able to make her excuses and slip away. A few hours of sleep, she thought murderously, that was all she asked.

She could make out the blurred image of a man outside, through the bevelled glass of the door. She yanked it open, her annoyance evaporating when she saw Ellie’s son standing on the stairs.

‘Chris?’ She looked automatically over his shoulders, as if expecting Jim to appear around the corner. ‘What’s wrong? Is Jimmy alright?’ she began, worried, and he nodded.

‘It’s early, I know,’ he said, grinning apologetically. ‘I was headed to Boston for some tools, and Jim had me run this over to you.’

Madeleine looked at the parcel in surprise. ‘What is it, do you know? I’m headed back in a few days anyway – I wasn’t expecting anything.’

He shrugged. ‘He didn’t say. Just that I was to get it to you first thing today. And to take special good care of it on the ride over too, or he’d know the reason why.’

Turning down her offer to come inside – he had a lot to get done before heading back, he explained – he touched his hat to her and bounded whistling down the stoop.

She was barefoot, Madeleine realised. She flexed her red-painted toes absently against the stone, still bemused by the package. Chris started up the engine and the old truck belched and spluttered to life, the neighbour’s dog starting to bark at the unaccustomed racket.

‘You’ve got a guest at the orchard,’ he called, as he backed up. ‘Some Frenchman. A real fancy-pants, Ma said he was.’

‘What? Who?’ Madeleine asked, now thoroughly bewildered, but he was gone, careening down the cobble-stoned streets of the Hill.

She looked baffled at the parcel in her hands, tearing it open as she turned back inside.

It was an old journal; the Major’s, judging from the name on the spine. A spurt of irritation went through her. What was this all about? An encore, after that OHIO article?

‘Who is it, Cookie?’ Professor Scott came down the stairs.

‘Chris. Ellie’s son, from Raydon. It’s nothing,’ she said, reaching up to kiss her father on the cheek.

‘I thought it might be Jim.’

‘When is it
ever
Jim?’ she retorted, and at once regretted the sharpness of her tone. ‘Ellie’s boy,’ she repeated, smiling to soften her words.

She ignored the journal all morning, leaving it lying unopened on her dressing table while she made calls, finalised arrangements for the next evening’s ‘Bundles for Britain’ charity auction and attended to her correspondence. It remained on her mind, though, her gaze repeatedly turning to the telephone in the hallway. Maybe she should call Jim?

Or maybe he could have called her, she thought indignantly, countering herself. Typical, to just send this without so much as notice or explanation. And whoever was this mystery guest? They barely ever had anyone over at the orchard, and here she was gone not three days and there was someone actually staying over?! Couldn’t he have at least called to let her know?

Eventually though, her curiosity got the better of her and she picked up the journal. ‘He could’ve called,’ she thought again to herself.

She flipped through the pages filled with the Major’s small, precise hand, still annoyed, and not really taking in the words at first. Gradually, however, the sentences started to catch her attention. Madeleine ran a hand over the cover of the journal, recalling her father-in-law, a fern stuck in the brim of his hat, breaking into the most ridiculous dance to the tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’. She shook her head, filled with a sudden sadness at the memory. It all seemed so long ago.

She turned a page, another. Settling down on the bed, Madeleine began absorbedly to read:

There come times in a man’s life that change everything. He looks about him afterwards and sees that the leaves have turned, as if in an instant. The river has altered its course, no longer flowing southward or anywhere familiar at all. It is changed, the ripples from hidden trout seeming to flow up-current, the stones in its bed flipped over, exposing pocked bellies so long buried in the mud.

At first, a man is afraid. He keeps count of losses both small and large, tallying the hours spent without sleep, the weeks since he last bathed, the number of friends he has lost. He recalls the life he has left behind, and is fearful of its loss. He waits in his trench, goes over the top when he hears the whistle, and prays, to whatever God will listen, for succour
.

The days mount, however, and he cannot seem to pray any more or believe that there is indeed a God. The dead lie in the open. He sees their filmed-over eyes, the milkiness of their gaze as they stare unblinking into the sun. It seems ridiculous to believe that something alive and human once beat within those mangled bones, and that it was something human, with will and conscience, that did this to them
.

He waits, he goes over the top, he fights. He smells the rot of decomposing bodies on his skin and gradually it dawns on him that the sun will rise and it will set but never will there be an end to this madness. The fear inside him sinks deeper; slowly, it metastasises to ice. In the pit of his stomach and the back of his skull, a barricade against the shells bursting about him in nightmare splendour
.

Ice, cutting him off from everything he once was, from any notion of the future, each moment of the present expanded into an eternity in its stranglehold
.

Eventually, that is all that comes to make sense. A moment, that is all a man has claim to, the space between this breath and the next. A moment, that is all, and it matters no more whether he lives, or dies, or who he once has loved
.

She read all afternoon and into the evening, skipping supper so she could continue uninterrupted. The Major’s words seared into her, his eloquence all the more haunting for his refusal ever to speak of the war after it was over.

The Major had laid bare the horror of all he’d been through in his writing. Madeleine saw the blackened fields, the shattered trenches and the broken-doll sprawl of the dead. War, as it truly was, stripped of the romantic ideals of honour, of glory, of epaulettes and ribboned medals, brought to life, page after page in his journal. She saw the countless rows of men, and boys yet barely men, the innocence knocked so devastatingly from them, she felt the bottomless grief of their mothers.

Madeleine broke down and wept. For the Major, for every fighting soldier, for Freddie, poor dear Freddie, coasting somewhere over the Atlantic, for London and Belgium and the dead at Dunkirk, for all that was pressing down now upon American shores.

Her heart ached as she remembered the Major, sitting day after day before the black mirror. ‘Who did he see in there?’ she’d idly wondered.

How little they’d guessed at the burden he’d carried. Him, and so many like him, chained for ever to the past, the war tainting everything that had followed, all that was yet to come. A dark and poisonous pool, it held up a reflection to them, like looking in smooth, black glass. They had desperately sought redemption, but were haunted by the dead; they finally deemed themselves un deserving, believing that they were damned. Madeleine wept for their families, for all those who loved them, but never could understand.

She didn’t sleep at all that night, grieving for the Major, for Jim, and the father he had been denied. For a young French boy, so needlessly lost, his memory living on in the name of her own son.

As soon as it was light, she headed back to Raydon.

It was early enough that he was still in the barn. Jim paused in his mucking-out of the stables, blue eyes guarded as she entered. She held out the journal.

‘Why?’ she asked unsteadily.

‘Thought you were coming back on Friday,’ he said, sidestepping the question.

She came closer, placed the journal on a ledge. ‘Why did you send it to me?’ she repeated.

A sudden vulnerability in his eyes. ‘I read it all night long,’ he said, haltingly. ‘It was the first time I’ve ever felt like I really knew him. The Major.’ He set down the shovel, trying to articulate the words.

‘Judy. My dog,’ he said abruptly. ‘I told you about her – we gave her away.’ Madeleine nodded, remembering the setter from the photograph of him as a boy, surprised by the change in subject but knowing instinctively that it was important.

‘We were out in the woods, the Major and I. Judy too, she went everywhere I did. About three years old, pretty as a picture, but with some of the puppyhood still in her.’ He paused, remembering. ‘It was a warm day, the sun bright on the river. Judy, she spotted a bird, or maybe it was a squirrel – and took off after it. Flat out, down the ridge and across level ground. Disappearing at times in the underbrush, but the sun was so bright that day, it kept reflecting off of her collar. Leather, with brass and silver studs.’

He paused again, still unaccustomed to opening up the past and finding his way through the words. Madeleine knew better than to prompt him, waiting instead for him to pick up the narrative, which slowly, he did.

‘It made me laugh to see her go. Something so free and unfettered about the way she took off racing . . . I was still laughing as I looked up, at the Major. He wasn’t laughing at all. He was lifting his gun to his shoulder.’

Jim raised his arm, absently mimicking that long-ago motion. ‘He was aiming it straight at her. At Judy. I don’t know whether I shouted out loud or not. I think I did, as I launched myself straight at him. We fell, the both of us, the shot going wide.

‘The Major never spoke of what happened, but he never did go into the woods again after that. All the same, my mother had me give Judy away. It was for her own good, she said. It was what I should do if I loved her.’

‘Jim—’ Madeleine’s eyes began to fill with tears once more, thinking of him, of the boy he’d been, just a young child, so hurt and bewildered. ‘How much you must have hated him for it.’

He smiled, a twisted smile, filled with pain. ‘I tried,’ he said simply. ‘He was my father. I couldn’t. I thought it was because maybe I hadn’t trained her well enough, because she barked so much at times. That somehow it was my fault that he’d raised a gun on my dog.’

Again that smile. ‘You see what he was doing though, don’t you? He was playing out the odds. The odds from that day, in France.’ It wasn’t Judy he was aiming for at all. Like stars it looked, a collar of gold and silver stars, as she took off through the brush. That morning in France, when Henri ran after his dog – all the Major needed to do was to shoot down Gaston, to take aim at that shiny star on the dog’s collar and odds are the Germans would no longer have had a target.

‘I read the journal all night long,’ he said again. He looked at her, blue eyes vulnerable, so exposed. ‘I read it, and all I could think about was how much I wished you were here, by my side.’

She stepped wordlessly into his arms. She had no answers, no longer knew right from wrong. Should America join the war, should they stand aside? She no longer knew. All she did know, with perfect clarity, was that she was grateful.

Grateful for this sun-kissed morning, for each additional day of peace. For these ordinary scents, of hay and earth and wood, and for the feel of her husband’s arms.

‘Are you staying?’ he asked against her hair.

She pulled his shirt free from the waistband of his trousers, running her hands beneath his undershirt, across the smooth, warm skin of his back.

FORTY-FOUR

BOOK: Good Hope Road: A Novel
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