Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fleur de Lys Part 8


If you want the old Battalion I know where they are,
I know where they are
I know where they are
If you want the old Battalion I know where they are
They’re hanging on the old barbed wire.
 I’ve seen them, I’ve seen them
Hanging on the old barbed wire
I’ve seen them, I’ve seen them
Hanging on the old barbed wire
I’ve seen them hanging on the old barbed wire.

Water dripped, splashing steadily on his face and hands. Cold and filthy water that stank of decay. Too cold to feel cold. Too cold to move. All he had left was the rhythm, pounding over and over again in time with the pulse in his temple. You must not fall asleep. You must NOT fall asleep.  The reason had long since eluded him but he was aware he was muttering the words aloud as best he could for coughing. He winced on the water, panic increasing as the drips moved over his face, the water level was rising……
The voice was low and familiar.
He came back to himself not in an open field but on a strange, draped bed. Alick, ridiculously clean and in shirt sleeves, out of uniform, was above him, trapping his head against the pillow with one heavy, calloused palm over his forehead.
“Breathe. Come on lad, breathe for Chrissakes.”
He became aware then of the screeches, the most peculiar gasping sounds, and who it was who was making them. Shocked and shamed, he stopped at once, drawing in a deep breath. From the ache in his chest it had been some time since his last one. Almost as an afterthought he began to shiver. He was drenched from head to foot in sweat.
Alick looked down at him for some time, blue eyes, dark and grimly disapproving, then the hand on his forehead released.
“What the hell was that?”
Deverel hauled himself upright. The stiff knee came with him; its throb was so familiar he barely felt it any more. The room was warm from the embers of the fire, still dark through the heavy curtains. With an effort, he found his feet, staggered the first step and grabbed the mantelpiece for support, searching for cigarettes. Alick didn’t move for a moment, then came around the bed, found the packet and lit one for him. Dev drew on it hard, aware of his ridiculously shaking hands.
“Just a dream.”
“Where are you going?” Alick said sharply. “It’s not even four in the morning-“
Deverel didn’t answer. The limp was always horrendous first thing in the morning. It took Alick no effort at all to block his way, his hands heavy and hard as they gripped his upper arms.
“You stop.”
He had no idea. No idea at all. Deverel lifted his arms to wrench them free and heard the low growl he’d heard from Alick more than once before. Like pushing a dog too far, or a horse- the sound sent a quick line of apprehension through him, made him look up to Alick’s dark blue eyes once more. Angry, in a man bigger, heavier- older- than he was. Those hands hadn’t moved on his arms.
“I SAID stop.”
Uncertainty made him stand still. Alick didn’t move for a moment, then jerked him closer and without finesse Alick’s mouth closed over his.
It made things practical and easy.
Deverel pushed him back long enough to pitch the cigarette towards the fire, feeling the usual explosive rush through his body, instantly penetrating the numbness. As though it had been there all along, just unseen and unfelt as everything else was these days, and in one tidal flood it overwhelmed every other sensation there. He was aware of Alick fending his hands back long enough to steer them both back to the bed, of them falling on it with his hands locked on Alick’s stronger, harder body like vices, and that was the end of any coherent thought.

It worked. It always worked.
Alick tore his eyes away from Deverel’s face to the curtains, aware of the first thin light of approaching morning. He had a few minutes left at most before he needed to shave, wash, be prepared for knocks at the door. Trays. Servants.
Deverel lay sprawled, his face turned to the pillow, dead asleep. He always slept afterwards, not his usual restless twitching and stirring but a heavy sleep as though drugged. And Alick was left as he’d always felt in gunbays, against walls, in the silence of the night. Somewhere between grimly satisfied that Dev was once more quieted, and feeling faintly ashamed.
Deverel was no innocent. Alick knew at least one man had preceded him: Dev’s technical knowledge was there and unmistakeable. And Alick had seen enough in France to understand the youngsters who came out to the Front with little to no experience of sex as they had little to no experience of anything else in life at eighteen. Dev’s generation had learnt sex in the same amorphous lump they learned drinking: a mechanical, practical activity taken in doses to numb themselves between duties. They fucked their way dispassionately through brothels in the French towns on leave, standing in lines by the door. The body and the knowledge was there, the drive was there- and sometimes, calling on that drive seemed to blot out whatever else hell was going on inside him.
Alick leaned over, unable to help himself, pushed his fingers through Dev’s dark hair and kissed his forehead, hard and angrily.
He’d seen it so many nights on duty. That tight, frozen look that meant he was near to explosion. That was when he’d follow him, catch him alone, take the appalling risk one more time knowing Dev would be on duty an hour later looking stunned but quiet once more. The breaking point once more postponed.

Mrs Grey had clearly won on the question of the doctor, and Dev didn’t even question her victory when Winton brought the news that morning.
The family doctor was impeccably dressed, elderly, soothing, and Alick doubted whether the War had impinged very much on his notice at all.
He had known Deverel as a child, there were several warm “Perhaps you remember my Lord”s, which Alick saw Dev withdraw away from as if they were insults, and eventually Deverel’s own silence began to affect the doctor’s well mannered chatter. Alick unwrapped the bandages from Deverel’s knee while Deverel lay back on the bed and once more stared at the ceiling, grey eyes unreadable. He’d co operated silently with being undressed: he’d flatly refused to stay in bed until the doctor’s arrival.  
Alick removed the last layer of bandage, folded them and looked across at the doctor’s face as he laid the wound bare. A polite, kindly face above crisply rolled up white shirtsleeves and an immaculate, pearl grey waistcoat.
The man was clearly aghast.
Obviously in his practice of well bred, well monied clients, on his regular routine of treating gout, sore throats and the occasional case of influenza, he rarely saw joints that had been ballistically shattered.
Alick, who had seen plenty and much worse, felt a rising wave of irritation which spilled straight out as Dev continued to gaze upward, detached and oblivious.
“There’s no fragments left in there and there’s no real infection, but it’s not clean nor closing.”

”I’d have thought it was better you shouldn’t be walking on it.” The doctor said mildly. “Gunshot wound, close range was it? Tell me if I hurt you. Was the bullet inside the joint?”
“Only scored the bone. They found the bullet on the carpet.”
“Accident was it?”
“Gun went off in my hand.” Deverel said shortly.
Alick kept his gaze on the bedsheet, aware of his fists clenching.
“It’s setting very stiffly isn’t it? Movement painful?”
“It’s healing. A wound like this is bound to take time. I’ll dress this and then I’ll want a closer look at you my lord.”
Alick saw Dev brace himself at the sight of the Eusol bottle. He clearly knew what to expect. The doctor washed the wound out and dressed it, at least competently. After which he made a gentle and thorough examination of Dev, who endured without comment.
“Run down.” The doctor said when he’d finished. “Malnutrition.”
Dev snorted, shrugging back into his shirt. “In company with half of the British Army.”
“And nerves in a bad way.”
Dev’s head reared but he kept his mouth shut. The doctor rose to his feet, unrolling his sleeves.
“I will of course speak to your parents. You need to make some weight up, make up your strength and the blood you’ve lost. Perhaps one of the spa towns might be best, fresh air and the baths, some good masseurs. I can recommend several atBath or Harrogate . A week or two there would do you the world of good.”
Deverel snorted without commenting.  The doctor shrugged his coat on.
“I would advise you not to walk on that leg at present – or at the least to use a walking stick.”
”Thankyou.” Deverel gripped his hand, gave him the brief nod that with the staff officers in the line used to pass at civil leave taking, and limped towards the sitting room.
Alick followed the doctor into the hallway and shut the door.
“I know the type.” The doctor said serenely, starting down the curving oak stairs. “You can’t tell them anything. I could see him going that way as a child, so like his father.”
Alick resisted the urge to grab him by the collar. “You were told about these dreams he’s having, sir?”
“Oh yes, very common and really not at all surprising considering what he’s been through. I have contact with Cirencester hospital you know, many of the young servicemen treated there suffered just the same their first few days home.”

It’s been months, Alick thought grimly.
They reached the foot of the stairs and the doctor turned, giving him a brisk smile.
“Encourage him to eat well, keep him off that leg, I’ll talk to his Lordship about moving the family to Bath . Plenty of entertainment there for a young man, sea air, the baths would do that knee the world of good.” The doctor gave him a cheerful nod.
“Good morning Cowan.”
Alick watched him stride down the corridor towards the front of the house, pausing as he reached one portrait hung in a long line of many. He looked for a moment, then sighed, not turning back.
“Such a shame. He was such a promising young man, Mr Robert.”
 When he was out of sight, Alick moved slowly down the hallway. The portrait was of a boy in uniform, perhaps in his early twenties. With Dev’s dark hair but softer featured, older, with a kind smile and vivid green eyes.

Water. Rising against his face and lapping delicately towards his mouth and nose. He struggled at the first touch of it against his nostrils but it insinuated itself gradually deeper and deeper, until he was breathing water as well as air, and knowing if he let go that first scream it would drag the muddy stream straight into his lungs –

He woke, jerking violently out of the dream at the touch of Alick’s hand. It took several seconds for the darkness to give way to lamplight and the crackling fire. Worse still, the smell lingered- rotten mud. Sewage. Dev rubbed spasmodically at his mouth and coughed, trying to slow his breathing. Alick looked grim above him. 
“Starch knickers just brought a tray. Get that down before it stews.”

Dev clutched the cup with both hands. His fingers were blued at the tips, he noticed without interest. Alick put a plate within easy reach, holding several buttered scones.
“The housekeeper’s been carrying on about the maids needing to get in here. Starch knickers told me. I’ve said I’d do what’s needed.”
”Who the devil is-?” Dev broke off, thinking. “One of the footmen? James?”
“Aye. The one with the crossed eyes.” Alick was somewhere on the far side of the room, jerking something off a rack by the fire. Dev flinched as he came back, pulling him upright and jerking his shirt off over his head.
“Here. You’re wet through.”
He was soaked to the bone again with sweat. Shivering, he sat still and let Alick scrub him down with the towel, dropping the wet shirt out of reach and helping him into a dry and warmed one.
“So you’ve really taken to him.”

”I’d take a bloody rifle to him.”
That almost raised a smile.
Deverel slipped out from under his hands and limped across to the window. The garden was wet under a grey sky. Two gardeners worked slowly on the beds below.

Alick moved his hands away from the window latch.
“Leave that alone, it’s already bloody freezing in here. You play cards? Or was it against your high and mighty rules?”
Dev sat down on the windowseat, watching him take cards out of a packet on the mantel.
“I was whacked once for playing poker at school. Rob caught us at it.”
”Your brother.”
“I’d have kicked his teeth in.”
”I’d earned it.” Dev shifted, watching Alick deal cards. “He was the head of the house at the time and I was his brother- it was worse BECAUSE I was his brother, I always caught it worse from him. You don’t understand a word of this do you?”
“Schoolmaster in our town only tried hitting me once when I were ten.” Alick said bluntly. “For spending more time up on the cliffs than I did in school. I hit him back and that were it. My dad took me out on the boat the next day.”
Something stirred, a facet of memory long since abandoned. Dev smiled, taking the hand of cards.
“Naturallum expel- no, expellas- furce, tamen something recurret.”
“You may drive nature out with a pitchfork,” Dev translated, “Yet she’ll be constantly running back.”
“Makes sense to me.” Alick dropped a card down between them.
It took steadily more effort to keep his mind on the game. Every few minutes his eyes went vague, he seemed to drift away and it took a word or a touch to bring him back. Eventually Alick put a hand out over Dev’s and shook gently and Dev jumped, stumbling to his feet.
“What? What happened?”
Alick grabbed him to stop him falling, impatient and sympathetic. “You fell asleep. Go to bed for God’s sake. Get some sleep.”
”If I go to bed the last thing I’ll do is sleep.”
Alick watched him, stomach twisting as he began to pace back and forward, arms tightly folded, then lit yet another cigarette. Then opened the door into the hallway and wandered out. For a moment Alick wondered if Dev was still aware he was there, then he said quite irritably,
“Well come on then man, don’t just stand there.”

The house extended back for what seemed like miles. They walked down corridor after corridor, wide and stone floored, or red carpeted, between the endless portraits and statues. One hallway was lined entirely with stuffed heads: stags, bears, one moth eaten lion.
“We used to call this the dead corridor.” Deverel said without expression, nodding at the stags. “Rob and I. The gun room’s there.”
The words alone sent a chill through Alick, but Deverel didn’t open the door. At the end of that corridor was a small, tiled chapel with two stained windows and an altar. Deverel stood in the doorway for a moment, looking around it, then carried on up the stairs, slowly and stiffly. Alick went with him, partly afraid he would fall, partly afraid of the hush of this silent, endless house.
“We don’t own it you know.” Deverel said abruptly, half way up the stairs. “The house. It owns us. We’ve been living here for three hundred years, and every one of us leaves a little mark on the house, but we come and we go and the house goes on. Leaves us almost like ghosts, flickering around it in our little bit of time here. These are the state rooms.”
Alick caught a glance of a musty room, tapestried with huge carved oak furniture and a mighty, canopied bed under a gold embroidered bedspread.
“Charles the second slept in that bed.” Deverel said without expression. “My family were always terribly good at staying in with the current monarch, you could always rely on us to do the right thing of the moment. Daddy still does. You didn’t know did you? Most of what he does is entertain and soften up people the country needs to negotiate with. Ambassadors, minor foreign royalty, government officials, you’d be amazed who you’d bump into at breakfast here. And all done quietly with the absolute seal of good taste. When Rob and I were kids they used to hold the most enormous diplomatic balls here, hundreds of people. I remember us sneaking downstairs and eating canap├ęs in our pyjamas and dancing with whichever women liked children. Daddy always was a soft touch for us, especially Rob. We never got sent back to bed, it used to make Nanny Grey furious.”
It wasn’t hard to think of two little boys, bare foot and tousle headed, slipping quietly past them down these stairs.
“Rob had the same touch.” Deverel said, limping onwards. “Charm itself with everyone. Never lost his temper, never needed to try. He could sit down with someone and have a friendly chat about the weather and by the end of it they’d like him enough to be doing or signing whatever he might ask.”
“You’re going to be bloody knackered, you.” Alick paused on the stairs, watching him turn into another, smaller hallway. As far as he could tell they were on the third floor.
“Dev. Come on, let’s go back now.”
Deverel opened the door leading off the end of the hall. Alick swore quietly and followed him.
The room was large, dust sheeted and cold, and smelled of old books and mothballs. Everything was severely tidy but Alick could see in the late morning gloom through the windows, a scrubbed table and four chairs, a thick hearthrug in front of a wire guarded fire, and a deep rocking chair. A filled bookshelf stood against the other wall, and beyond it, lower shelves full of toys.
Deverel put a hand against the wall for support and stood where he was, not going into the room. Alick gave him a quick look, not sure what he expected to see. Possibly comfort. This should have been for him a safe room holding old and comfortable memories. He’d seen Mrs Grey, he’d seen Dev greet her, he obviously had been deeply fond of her as a child, little though he understood the sense of children being kept at the far end of a house under the care of someone other than their own mam.
He didn’t expect to see that same flash of shame he’d seen in Dev’s face last night when Mrs Grey stood before him. The same look of despairing withdrawal. Of total, shattering alienation.

It took hours to coax him back down the stairs, to try and remember the way back through the network of staircases and corridors, and all the while Dev was silent, his face grey, his eyes entirely somewhere else.
He was sitting on the stairs by one of the large, main corridors, staring unseeingly down into the hall below when an older man, untidily dressed and with soft, grey hair hanging over his forehead, paused at the foot of the stairs and slowly came up. Alick, who had been trying for some time to coax and lift Dev to his feet, stood back, recognising the face as well as the green eyes. His voice was soft and he put a gentle hand on Deverel’s shoulder.
“Hello there. Everything allright old son? You’ll freeze if you roost up here.”
Alick, who’d seen the grey in his face for hours, saw the flush of colour burn across his cheekbones as Dev looked up, blinked and pulled himself hurriedly to his feet.
“I’m allright. Just getting my breath back. Beast of a way to walk with this knee.”

”The doctor said it was healing well.” The older man leaned on the banister and gave Deverel a look that Alick read as anxiety as much as a deep grief. “He said you might be more comfortable in Bath . Do that leg some good. What do you think old fellow, shall we go there for a few weeks? Bit of sea and sand?”

Deverel was already shaking his head, and the animation in his voice was as ghastly as his smile. ”I’d rather be here. Really Daddy. I’d rather just be at home. Peace and quiet.”
It was such a ridiculously weak performance Alick felt his own teeth baring, but it appeared to be working, Lord Standen only smiled faintly and sadly.
“Allright old boy, whatever you think best.” Lord Standen put a hand on Deverel’s shoulder, looking up the stairs. “Where are you headed for? Come down and sit with me for a bit in the library. Mummy will be out until late tonight, I could do with some company-“
“I was going back to my room.” Deverel leaned on the banisters, reaching for Alick’s arm for support. “Not feeling quite the thing yet you see? This grey weather and this wretched knee. Maybe later.”

”Allright old man, whenever you’re ready.” Lord Standen stood back to watch Alick guide his one remaining son up the heavy, carved stairs. “Make sure you keep those rooms warm.”

Since that appeared to be addressed indiscriminately, Alick gave the man a nod, aware of Deverel’s shivering against him and the agony in the older man’s face.
“Yes my lord.”
“Yes my lord.” Deverel mocked him savagely under his breath as they reached the top of the stairs.  “You’re as filthy a liar as I am, Alick. Just as damned and just as corrupted. Think he knows he’s employing a keeper who fucks me quiet when I start to lose it?”
It was the end of Alick’s frayed nerves. He jerked Deverel closer to him, took the arm from around his waist and slapped his backside hard, as he would a tiresome child. One sound, resounding slap that made Deverel jump and his tight jaw drop open, silencing him instantly.
“That’ll do from you. Get upstairs.

He’d said nothing else. Just paced the rest of the evening, back and forward, and that nasty little cough began again. Punctuating his limping walk, interrupting the quiet and indistinct muttering.
Alick banked the fire up, had one try at drawing the curtains which Deverel immediately and violently resisted, and stayed by him, taking a cloth and starting to clean down the woodwork around the windows. It was a job that took some time and gave him something to do other than openly watch Deverel with growing anxiety. Initially he tried to keep him talking. Eventually he hummed and sang softly, wanting to do something that would keep his voice in Deverel’s ears, give him something else other than the muttering to listen to.
It was a coughing fit that forced him nearly to his knees that made Alick drop the cloth and take his arms, steadying him for a moment, then yanking him roughly against his chest and holding him tightly. He was shaking all over, cold and once more wet with sweat. He had one fierce attempt at pulling away, and then when Alick held on, stood there quietly, his eyes closed, his head bent. Alick held him fiercely for a moment, then freed a hand and began to rub his shoulders. Tense. Rigid. Cold. Containing God only knew what.
“That’ll do.” Alick said sharply in his ear. “Bed with you, you’ve had enough. Come on now.”
He had no idea if it was a good sign or bad that Deverel put up no fight.

Lying down, prepared for sleep, his apprehension was painful. Alick locked the outer doors against invasion from the servants, banked the fire up in his bedroom and simply lay down against him. Deverel made no attempt to resist and when Alick put an arm under his shoulders and drew him closer, he turned over and lay without moving against Alick’s side. For some time Alick lay still, aware of Deverel drifting, sinking into sleep, then jerking himself out again. Stirring, then surrendering once more. Eventually he went down and didn’t come up again, the deep steady breathing evened out and Alick let his own breath go in some relief.
He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, or at least only to doze, but he was exhausted himself and he slept deeply.
The first thing to wake him was the shout itself, at a volume he knew, and it appealed directly to all the instincts and reflexes he had trained over the last few years. Without time to guard against it, Alick found himself on his feet, hands searching for a rifle he no longer owned. The next shout was strangled. Alick oriented, his heart thumping.
Deverel was balled up on the bed, his hands raking at his throat. Alick swore and sat down on the side of the bed to grab his wrists, trying to make his voice clear enough to be reassuring.
“Dev. Stop it now, I’ve got you. Come on lad, listen to me. Dev.”
He pulled Deverel upright, held him and rocked, shocked at how cold he was even under the heavy blankets. He was wet to the skin again, the volume of sweat pouring off him was unnatural.
“Come on lad. Come on now, you’re home and you’re safe, it’s all over with. Come on Dev, wake up.”

Deverel made another of those strange, strangled wheezes and choked again as if he was drowning. He was wet enough to make any dream of drowning perfectly rational.
Realisation came like a bolt of lightening.
Choking. Alick remembered the sound so well it made his blood run cold. Coughing, retching, struggling for breath. Except this time there was nothing to bring up.
It was horrifying, and it was painful, and it made his own throat swell. Shakily Alick put his back against the bedhead and pulled Dev down onto his chest, rubbing his back until the convulsive heaves stopped and he just panted, shivering with cold. He wasn’t sure if Deverel was awake until his heard his voice, unsteadily dispassionate.
“Why couldn’t some bastard just have put a bullet in me?”
Was that what you were trying to do in London ?
Alick held him silently, trying unsuccessfully to blot out the memory of Deverel’s face as he aimed the gun down at himself. What are we doing now Dev? Waiting for you to summon up the courage to do it again and properly this time?
“Do you remember the retreat?” he said instead, harshly.
“No.” Deverel said shortly. Alick shook him, once and hard.
“DON’T screw around with me. Do you remember that fucking retreat or not?”
There was a moment’s silence. Dev didn’t move against his chest.
“Some.” He said eventually.
Silence again. Then Deverel’s voice. Softer. His cheek lay against Alick’s ribs, they couldn’t see each other’s faces.
“ Cam heard the rifles. In the south. Meant the line was under attack. Edward sent the order-“
”No he didn’t. You did.” Alick said shortly. And the memory of that run down the line was one of the choicest memories of that twenty four hours.
“I sent the order.” Deverel repeated. “Giles was panicking that we had to leave the wounded. Cam kept telling him they’d be safer, we had no idea what the line would be like behind us.”
”But you knew there was a line.”
”Derelict. About three quarters of a mile back.”
Eerily his voice was strengthening, regaining the resonance of a few months back.
“Abandoned when the line moved on but enough for us to wire ourselves in and reform. The message came from HQ, we formed up and we went.”
Open ground. Narrow pathways of mud between craters, some empty, some filled with water and slime. The racket of the shells and more distantly, the rifles, the air acrid with smoke and red behind them as if the world was on fire. Whistles. Shouts. Sounds of terror.
Alick swallowed and tried to concentrate on Dev’s voice. It was too near and too soon for this, the wounds were still raw.
“Then what?”
“I don’t remember.” Dev said blankly. Alick shook him, once and more gently.
“You do. We went back over the support lines. The three ruined trees and the foundations of the farm house. That was on your map, that was where we lost Cam ’s platoon. We were with Giles, three platoons together.”
“Putney.” Deverel said, almost indignantly. Alick felt his stomach turn over.

”He was ahead of me. I saw him go down.”
We all saw him go down. We all tried.
“The mud was like a bog- he missed his step and it sucked him straight down.” Dev said in disbelief as though he was hearing about it for the first time. “He realised almost at once. He knew Alick. He bloody KNEW.”
Alick closed his eyes, wishing there was some way not to hear. Dev sounded stunned.
“He knew we couldn’t do anything.”
Fifty struggling, panicking men where one big man was up to his neck in mud and slowly sinking out of reach. Deverel bellowing at the top of his lungs for Giles to move the men on and trying to get a rifle out far enough for the man to reach. It was hopeless. They’d all known it was hopeless.
“Then it got too narrow to go safely on together.” Alick said unsteadily. “The shell fire was worst west of us.”
“Giles platoon went ahead.”
”Yes. You moved between the two groups.”
”Giles sent two of his runners with me-“
He said the beginning of the sentence quite calmly, then Alick suddenly felt him jerk free, so hard he bit his tongue. He staggered to his feet and watched Dev throw up into the washstand. Not just once but again and again.
“Barker.” Alick said aloud, wiping his own mouth. “And Tilbury.”
Dev vomited again, so hard there were streaks of blood in the bile. Alick came to life then and went to hold him, nuzzling the back of his neck in silence until, long after he had nothing left to bring up, the racking died away.
~ * ~
Continue on to Part 9 of Fleur de Lys
Copyright Ranger 2010

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