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Authors: Margaret Tanner

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She scoured
the newspapers each day, hoping for a miracle. Perhaps there had been a mistake
and Danny wasn’t dead, only wounded, or a prisoner of war.

 
One August morning, a headline caught her eye.
On the seventh of August 1915, un-mounted men from the Australian Light Horse
had charged across a narrow ridge on the Gallipoli peninsula at a place called
the Nek. They suffered heavy casualties, and she worried about Blair.

 

* * *

 

A few days
later, his name appeared on the casualty lists as being wounded in action.
Would Helen now regret having deserted him?
 
Probably not. She was too selfish to think of anyone but herself. Laurie
waited a few days before writing to Uncle Richard who, as it transpired, knew
nothing about Blair's wounds, either.

Was he
badly wounded? She felt wretched and helpless?
 
There would be no dashing young men left soon, only widows and girls
like herself to mourn their fallen heroes, to grieve for the broken bodies and
ruined lives of the shattered soldiers who did return home.

She threw
herself into the war effort now, volunteering at the Red Cross to help pack
parcels for the troops. Most of them contained tobacco, cigarettes, sweets, as
well as needles, thread, safety pins and other articles to make life a little
easier in the trenches.

A letter
from Gallipoli, dated June 1915, had been written before Blair got wounded.

Dear Laurie,

I have received five letters so far. It is good
of you to bother writing, and I am grateful. If you should see Helen, I hope
you will give her my fondest regards.

As you will probably have read in the papers
back home, casualties have been high, and life is rather grim. All our supplies
have to be
brought in
by ship and then organized and
distributed under fire, and the wounded go out the same way.

The noise is unbearable sometimes, but on
the 24th
May, an Armistice was called for about nine hours
to bury the dead, and the silence somehow seemed worse. I sometimes feel this
place is the end of the world. Its rocky cliffs are almost unscaleable in some
places, and one would really have to be a mountain goat to live here
comfortably.

A rather marvelous thing happened the other
day. I was walking along the beach after having a swim in the Aegean,
and I stopped to have a smoke, when
who
should I run
into but one of the chaps I went to school with.
Haven't
seen him in years. He is an Army doctor, so we had quite a long chat and
reminisced about the old days. It is almost uncanny the way one runs into
people here.

I heard of a case the other day where a man lay
wounded on the beach, and he turned his head to find his brother lying right
next to him.

I hope you are keeping well. Yes, it is a good
thing to be involved in the war effort. The parcels you
ladies
send are much appreciated. I will close now.

With best wishes,

Blair Sinclair

How cruel
to think that even now he lay wounded in an army hospital, fighting for his
life, while Helen flitted around Sydney
like an exotic butterfly. If Helen walked through the door at this very moment,
Laurie would be hard pressed not to physically attack her.

Why she
felt so enraged about her cousin’s desertion of Blair remained a mystery. It’s
because I like him. He was a decent man who didn’t deserve to be treated in
such a callous fashion.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Chapter Five

 

Nine months
had passed since Danny’s death. The pain of losing him still festered like an
open wound that would not heal.

One
evening, Laurie arrived home tired and dispirited from spending a whole day
with a young woman who had received word her husband had been killed in action.
She stayed with the widow, helping bathe, feed and generally mind the two small
children while the distraught woman packed a case so they could go and stay
with relatives. She drove the family to the train, which would take them on to
Wangaratta where they would be cared for until their future was decided.

“Laurie,
I've got a letter from the army.” Her father met her at the door of the shop.
Could it be about Danny? She grasped it eagerly, rushing inside to read its
contents by lamplight.

The letter
came from a chaplain attached to the Military
Convalescent Hospital
in Melbourne.
It was dated 4th February 1916.

Dear Miss Cunningham,

I am writing to you regarding Captain Blair
Sinclair, who came to us here after
being invalided
to
Australia from a military
hospital in Egypt.
Your letters
were found
in his personal effects, and I
thought you might care to visit him, as he appears to have no family.

The Captain has quite a serious leg wound,
which is slowly healing.
Unfortunately
he is suffering
from shell shock, also, and seems very confused, and parts of his memory are
blank. The doctors feel this is only a temporary state. I know you are a brave
young woman, reading between the lines I feel this, and I am afraid you will
need all your strength, as tragically he
has also been
blinded
.

Blinded?
Oh, Blair, how awful! Tears welled in her eyes, but she kept on reading.

The doctors can find no real damage to the eyes
themselves, although there is shrapnel embedded in his forehead.

Would you be able to come down to see him, Miss
Cunningham? I think he needs you very badly. A visit from one such as you would
do him no end of good.

I am yours sincerely,

John McNaughton. Chaplain

Poor Blair!
She felt ill. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and there was nothing she could
do to stop them. What did Danny once say? “I would rather be killed than come
back maimed.” She wouldn’t have cared, just so long as he came back to her.

“Dad, read
this.” She waited while her father skimmed through the contents. “They want me
to go down to visit him.”

“Helen is
the one who should go to him. I understood they were engaged.”

“They were
supposed to be, but once Blair left for the war she never even bothered
answering his letters. She's cruel and selfish.”

“Laurie.”

“She called
Danny a lout.” Laurie stamped her foot.

“Danny's
gone, he's not coming back, and you have to resign yourself to the fact. You're
young. You might not believe this now, but you’ll find someone else one day.”

“I'll
always love him,” she vowed fiercely.

“All
right.” Matthew patted her shoulder. “Don’t upset yourself. I think you should
go down and see if you can help Captain Sinclair. You could stay with Richard.
Catch the morning train, there’s no need to write. They'll be happy to have
you.”

“You want
me to go down to Melbourne?”
She couldn’t believe the words coming out of her father’s mouth.

“Yes, you
might be able to help him.”

“I
would?
 
What if Danny comes back? He'd
come here first.”

“Laurie,
Laurie.” He picked up one of her hands and clasped it between his own. “He
won't be back.
 
Like thousands of others,
he's dead. He's gone. Blair Sinclair is alive and wounded. Danny would want you
to help him.”

“You didn't
want me to go down to Melbourne
before. Danny always said you thought he wasn't good enough for me. You
wouldn't let me go to him, yet you’re encouraging me to visit a virtual
stranger.”

“Please,
Laurie. I wasn't desperate before,” his voice broke, and she was shocked into
silence. He looked old and drawn, he eyes sad and fearful. Did he think she
might try to follow Danny to the grave? She had been too engulfed in her own
misery to notice her father’s anguish.

“Dad, I'm
sorry.” She kissed his cheek. “I’ve been selfish, thinking only of my own loss.
All right, I'll go. If I can help Blair, I will.”

 

* * *

 

The train
to Melbourne
was late and Laurie, now she had made up her mind, wanted to be off. She paced
up and down the platform dodging around luggage trolleys, mail bags, milk cans
and an assortment of other items awaiting transportation to other stations
along the line.

“What a
nuisance, Dad. Imagine the train being late today. I hate waiting around.”

“Don't
upset yourself, dear. It will come in due course.” He gave her hand a
reassuring squeeze. “I'm proud of you for going down to Melbourne like this. It's a Christian act.”

After what
seemed like another couple of hours but was in reality only a few minutes, the
train steamed in to the platform.

“Goodbye,
dear, take care.” He followed her into the carriage, so he could put her case
in the overhead luggage rack. “I'm not happy about you traveling alone, but…”

“I'll be
all right.” She smiled. “Hope you can manage the store without me.”

“I'll
survive. In this heat who would want to shop anyway?” He mopped his damp brow
with a white handkerchief.

To please
her father she wore a pretty white frock and a straw hat trimmed with green
ribbon.

“Goodbye,
Dad.” She kissed him three times in quick succession. Then she stepped to the
open window and leaned out, watching him walk up the platform towards her.

“I'll write
as soon as I arrive, don't worry,” she called out. She didn’t stop waving until
the train took a bend in the line and the station disappeared.

She took
off her hat the moment she got seated then glanced around the carriage to see
who the other occupants were. A young woman sat opposite, holding hands with a
soldier. Laurie bit her lip on noticing that one of his sleeves hung empty. He
was not the first soldier she had seen without a limb and wouldn’t be the last,
either. God, why don't you stop this wicked war before it kills or maims all
our young men?

She closed
her eyes for a moment, deliberately forcing out the vision of Danny. I have to
go on living. Dad's right, he's dead. I'm alive, and he wouldn't want me to
mourn forever but I’ll never forget him.

Her
thoughts strayed to Christmas. It had passed without the usual lighthearted
festivities; too many homes had loved ones absent now. To please her father she
had forced herself to attend the annual Christmas Eve dance.

It had been
surprisingly well-patronized considering the circumstances. Most of the young
men of military age wore uniform. The lucky ones were home on leave, but many
familiar faces were missing, some of whom would never be seen again. The agony
of thinking and remembering all the time was slowing driving her mad. She must
get a grip on herself. Look forward instead of backwards all the time. Memories
were cold comfort on the lonely nights when she tossed and turned because she
couldn’t sleep.

Forcing her
thoughts back to the present, she took a book out of her bag and made herself
read every line before she turned the page over. Only the three of them shared
the carriage. Strange how on the two occasions she had caught a train to Melbourne, her carriage
was practically empty.

Would Blair
remember her?
 
Probably not. What had the
Chaplain said, partial amnesia? As for his blindness, she couldn’t bear to even
think about such a terrible occurrence.

“Going to Melbourne on holiday?” The
young woman enquired in a friendly fashion, as if feeling the need to break the
silence hovering between them.

Laurie
started in surprise. “I'm going to Melbourne
to see, um, a friend.
 
He’s in a
convalescent hospital, recovering from wounds he received on Gallipoli.”

“I'm so
sorry,” the other girl said.

The young
soldier took an interest now. “What unit did your friend serve in?”

“The Eighth
Light Horse.”

“Infantry
myself. Copped it in June. I got sent to a convalescent hospital in Melbourne. Perhaps your
friend is in the same one. I heard that a lot of large private homes have been
opened up for this purpose now.”

She
explained where Blair was, and by some strange quirk of fate it was the same
place where the young man had recuperated. They became quite chatty after this.

“I stayed
at a small inexpensive private hotel a short stroll from the hospital while my
husband convalesced,” the young woman said.

Sounded
like a good idea Laurie decided on the spur of the moment. “Could you give me
the address of the hotel?”

On a scrap
of paper, the girl wrote the address and directions on how to find the hotel.

BOOK: Lauren's Dilemma
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