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Authors: Robert Edric

Peacetime (28 page)

BOOK: Peacetime
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‘Or perhaps they are better left where they are. Perhaps in a hundred years someone who knows nothing of how they came to be there will uncover them and wonder at their history.' He came to sit closer to Mercer.

Outside, in the yard, Bail was busy clearing a new path through the mounds of salvage.

‘A lot of noise for a man with nothing to do, don't you think?' Jacob said.

‘Perhaps imagining yourself to be busy is as important as actually having something useful to do.'

‘For Bail, perhaps.'

‘Has he heard any more from the bank or the people wanting the land?'

‘Probably. I don't ask and he never tells me.'

Once again, it surprised Mercer to see how all these other small and varied dramas moved inexorably to their own conclusions around his own. He had gone into town with several others to collect a repaired generator. The driver would call for him in an hour. He had suggested to Trinity House that they gave the generator to Bail to repair, but the man to whom he had spoken had laughed at the suggestion and called Bail a joke. Mercer had not persisted.

Jacob had not returned to the tower or the site since his enforced stay there a fortnight earlier. In all likelihood, he was now too weak and too easily exhausted to make the journey on foot, and Mercer regretted this.

‘Tell me,' Jacob said suddenly, looking closely at Mercer. ‘That night, and since – did my talk of my sister embarrass you?'

‘Not at all. It's important for you to be able to talk about what happened, to remember her. She was your sister and you loved her. Why should talk of her embarrass me?'

‘Perhaps because I love her no less now than when she was alive,' Jacob said. ‘No less now than when we were small children playing in our garden together, safe from the world. No less now than when we were in the camps together and I vowed to protect her.'

‘She must have known that you did all you possibly could for her,' Mercer said, uncertain where these remarks were leading.

‘Must she? I still failed her, Mr Mercer, and nothing in the world or in the sum and total knowledge of man can alter that particular fact.
She
never absolved me of that promise;
she
never told me it was forfeit to circumstance.'

Neither of them spoke for several minutes. They listened to Bail moving beneath them. His dogs barked at every sound. It was a duller day than usual, with a cloud-filled sky, and cooler.

‘Perhaps she wasn't
able
to release you from your promise,' Mercer said eventually. ‘Perhaps her belief in it – in you – was the only thing that kept her alive for so long. Perhaps for her to accept your inability in the—'

‘What? Perhaps then I might have felt better about myself and my failure?'

‘I was going to say that it would involve as great an act of faith for her to release you from that vow as it did for you to make it in the first place. Perhaps she did that without telling you, and perhaps both acts were of equal and vital importance. Yours to her, and hers, unspoken, to you.'

For the first time, it occurred to Mercer, he had suggested something to Jacob which Jacob himself had not already considered a thousand times over.

‘You mean she
did
absolve me of that responsibility, my vow to her, but that it was beyond her to say so because she knew how it would make me feel? Because it was not necessary, not after twenty months, to make my failure any more clear or painful to me? Or because by then there was nothing else remaining to bind us together? No humanity, no hope – no idea, even – of the future, only the absolute certainty of our deaths?'

It was a bitter and imperfect explanation, but a perfect understanding, Mercer knew, would remain for ever beyond them.

‘Yes,' he said emphatically, hoping the notion that his sister had absolved him of his responsibility towards her might now take root in Jacob's mind and provide some solace, however brief or illusory. ‘I won't pretend to understand everything that happened,' Mercer went on, taking advantage of Jacob's momentary uncertainty, ‘but I know
you
well enough, I believe, to know that you would have done everything possible for her. And I imagine Anna knew you better than anyone, and so she must certainly have known that you would have done everything in your power – if not to save her in the end, then to make what life remained to her as fulfilling and as hopeful as possible.' It was more than he had intended to say,
but he had been encouraged by Jacob's silence to continue. Normally the man would have stopped him by saying something disparaging, but now he sat in his chair, gripping its arms and with his eyes tightly closed. Mercer decided to say no more until he better understood how much or little of what he had suggested Jacob was able to accept.

‘It sounds trite and unconvincing to say that I would have sacrificed my own life if it had been possible for her to have lived,' Jacob said eventually, his eyes still closed.

‘I daresay that was never an option.'

‘No. The true choices still remaining to us towards the end were considerably starker.'

‘I can imagine.' Again, it was the kind of remark to which Jacob would normally have reacted angrily, but again he said nothing.

‘For ten days before she died, she was in an infirmary. Does that surprise you, that there should be such places? There were several: one for men, one for women, one for children. Even one for those whose sickness meant they needed to be kept in isolation. Everything very efficiently run, real doctors, real nurses, real medicine bottles with real labels on them.'

‘Was it all done for show?'

‘For the Red Cross. Certainly no one else was fooled. How else could all those deaths be explained if no one was ever ill beforehand? Of course, this was not to consider the vast majority of people who were killed immediately upon entering the place, or who were killed shortly afterwards. I daresay that someone somewhere calculated that so many per cent of all deaths in those places were caused by disease and certifiable illnesses.'

‘And the infirmary provided that quota?'

‘Anna and the others like her provided that quota.'

‘And the books appeared balanced.'

‘You cannot imagine what keeping up appearances meant to those people. There was no pretence elsewhere, of course, in other camps, but when they finally understood that the war was lost, then certain concessions were made.' His hands were now white on the arms of the chair. ‘Typhus,' he said. ‘And if that wasn't enough, scarlet fever. Upon our arrival there we had been asked what childhood illnesses and infections we had already suffered. Neither of us could say for certain. We guessed at what we might or might not have had, what might now provide us with some immunity. I was clever then, I still had my wits about me, and I told them that Anna and I had survived everything on their list. Typhus, of course, was not listed. Nor the dysentery which could reduce the weight of an already sick child by two pounds a day. We lived with children who could bend neither their arms nor their legs because of the abscesses and sores on their elbows and knees; children with holes in their cheeks caused by gangrenous rot; others who could scarcely open their eyes or their mouths because of the pain this caused them. For my own part, I was old enough to remember most of what I had already suffered. They had asked us the same at Papenburg, where my mother had been able to answer in greater and more truthful detail. She had seemed almost proud of all I had suffered, as though my survival had been an achievement for which she alone had been responsible. I doubt it ever occurred to her then to wonder why we were being asked such questions.'

‘And Anna?'

‘I was not present when they asked her about Anna.'

‘So when you were asked later …'

‘I lied.'

‘You guessed.'

‘I lied. Of course I lied. I knew then why we were being asked. A child who had already suffered all those ailments was not afterwards going to become a liability. That child would not then grow sick and infect others.'

‘You sought to protect her,' Mercer said.

‘Of course I did. I sought to protect us both with my lies.'

‘And if—'

‘And if I'd been less convincing, or if I myself had been less convinced by my lying, then perhaps I would have been better prepared for the scarlet fever when it came and killed her. What good then were all my lies? What single ounce of good or comfort were they to her then?'

It seemed to Mercer that Jacob asked the same painful and unanswerable question of him every time they met. In truth, of course, he asked it only of himself.

Neither man spoke for several minutes.

Jacob wiped his face and kept a hand over his eyes, breathing heavily as he regained his composure.

Mercer picked up the small glass. ‘What happened to the collector?'

‘He was a wealthy man, so who knows,' Jacob said. ‘He lived alone, he had no close family to consider, no children to try and save alongside himself. There were always tales of whole boatloads and trainloads of people being saved by one means or another, so perhaps he escaped and he, too, lives to this day. Perhaps his priceless collection was all he possessed to lose. Who knows?'

‘Perhaps he survived and returned to gather together what remained of it,' Mercer said.

‘And next you will suggest to me that I myself return to Utrecht and reclaim my own valuable inheritance.'

‘Of course you should,' Mercer said. ‘One day.' He could not imagine why he had not thought before to ask about the business and what Jacob might now retrieve of it for himself. But even as these thoughts ran through his mind, he saw Jacob slowly shaking his head.

‘It would be impossible for me to return,' Jacob said.

‘But it would be a way forward for you. Even if you feel you can never return there because of what the place itself means to you, then you at least deserve some acknowledgement of your rights, compensation, perhaps. There must be justice.'

‘Justice?' Jacob said abruptly, as though it were the only word he had heard. ‘Why? Because without it, or without some fear of it, evil will continue to prosper over good? Too late and too simplistic, Mr Mercer, too late.' He stopped, breathless at having become so agitated. He looked at the glass on the table beside him, and then he picked it up.

Outside, a louder noise than usual suggested where Bail had toppled a mound of scrap.

‘Do you ever talk about any of this with him?' Mercer said.

‘With Bail?' Jacob smiled. ‘Never. You see how I use people to my own ends. Bail, you must understand, serves a different purpose entirely.'

It comforts you to see that there are these other men lost in their own helplessness, rage and despair
, Mercer thought.

‘Is it humanity, do you think?' Jacob said.

‘Sorry?'

‘That prevents
me
from smashing it?' He held up the glass. ‘Is it my humanity – something even
I
cannot deny?'

‘I don't know,' Mercer said honestly. ‘But it would be something worth believing.'

‘To know that I still possessed it?'

Mercer nodded. It was another lie, another excuse – but one in which both men now needed to confess to believe, because without even that uncertain belief, everything else might become suddenly unbearable.

‘“Bona Fide”,' Mercer said, indicating the glass.

‘The man who inscribed it will have thought nothing of it.'

‘You don't know that for certain.'

‘No. But, again, I am more easily convinced one way, and you the other.'

A horn sounded in the yard below, sending the barking dogs into a near-frenzy.

‘I have to go,' Mercer said. ‘Is there anything you need, anything I can do for you?'

Jacob shook his head, and then, unexpectedly, as though he had been saving the remark for this last moment, said, ‘She came and watched me, watched over me.'

‘Who did?'

‘The girl. That day in the dunes. When I was alone, awaiting your return. She knew I was there and she came to me.'

‘What did she say?'

‘I pretended to be asleep. She stood over me and watched me, and even though she believed me to be asleep, she still spoke to me.'

‘Oh.'

‘She told me she felt sorry for me.' He paused and looked directly at Mercer. ‘A child's pity, Mr Mercer – imagine that.'

‘What else?'

‘Nothing. She waited a few minutes longer and
then she went. She brushed the sand off my chest.'

‘You should have pretended to wake and then spoken to her,' Mercer said.

‘I know,' Jacob said. ‘But it was beyond me.'

Below, the driver sounded his horn again.

‘Tell Mathias you came,' Jacob said, breaking his reverie. ‘Tell him to come if he has the time.'

‘He has concerns of his own,' Mercer said, uncertain whether or not Jacob had yet heard of Mathias's unsuccessful application.

‘I know,' Jacob said. He rose and stood at the centre of the small room as Mercer gathered together his few belongings and then left.

34

Mary came to see him the following day. He had not seen her since the incident with her sandals, and he imagined Lynch had forbidden her to come to the tower. He was still at a loss to understand the man's bitterness and his contempt for almost everyone around him. To accept that this behaviour was merely a consequence of his frustration and resentment at being forced to remain there when he would have preferred to be elsewhere seemed too simplistic to Mercer. He far better understood Mary's loyalty to the man, despite her own growing awareness of how she was being used by him. Her feelings for Lynch remained rooted in her childhood, and in her imaginings and expectations during those long and uncertain years of his absence. Mercer also knew that Lynch alone represented to his daughter her most likely way out of the place, and that, despite his own denials and rebuttals, she had attached herself to him in the equally uncertain hope that this might soon happen.

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