The train drowsing through colourless towns for three days, Captain Johnny Hughes had re-read Betty’s letters. The condition of their younger sister Frances was deteriorating.
The carriage suddenly pitching into the perfect darkness of a tunnel, Hughes closed his eyes, concentrating on the clattering of the train on track. When daylight resumed, Hughes saw that his old regiment had commandeered the compartment.
The Cheshires were cast in a spluttering half-glow, sprawling over the dingy carriage seats. Playing cards, the soldiers smoked and drank extravagantly. Languishing on their seats, dozens of boots dangled into the aisle.
Sitting opposite, Ronnie Toal was waiting for Hughes to increase his bet: “Cost yer more than that to see me, Hughesy, me old mucker!”
The left side of his face was shattered, stripped to its bone and working sinew; but this seemed of little concern to his old friend, swigging from a stained silver hipflask. “I’m wise to your game, mate.”
Hughes gripped the arm rests of his seat, closing his eyes as the laughter and shouting of the soldiers swelled in his ears like a night-tide.
Hughes dazedly climbed down from the train at Chester. The arrowed iron of the station clock’s flinched to its next calling as he scanned the crowd for his sister, wondering if he would still recognise her. Those heading for the trains looked his way, saluting as they noticed the rank of Hughes’ crumpled uniform.
Clutching the ticket he had been given for his belongings, a tremor ran through the back of his hand, pulsing the small inkblot tattoo. Occupying the window of the derelict tearoom, Hughes’ shot-through reflection rubbed at a smear on its shirt cuff, the dark spreading. He thought of Frances in the hospital, hoping that the doctors had somehow managed to control her convulsions.
Betty’s voice hesitant, she smiled at her brother’s startled expression, at the way he tensed at her touch. “It’s only me, you silly bugger!”
Johnny turned towards his sister, almost lost in their mother’s wool coat. Black hair, pale skin; her cheekbones sharper than he remembered. Bird-bone fingers clutching at air – feeling for something they had once held in the past, which could never be held again. Betty began to cry as she embraced her brother.
At the entrance to the station, an illustrated poster urged citizens to extinguish all light each evening, as a despondent cartoon Hitler seethed from his Luftwaffe cockpit, hovering over a darkened land.
“All fresh today!” Selling daffodils, a girl no more than fourteen watched them hopefully; her large eyes dark-smudged, peering out from a threadbare shawl.
“Remember how Frances could name most of the flowers by the time she was six? She liked daffodils the best.”
Strange to be a paying customer once more, Hughes felt for his wallet as the flower-seller performed an awkward curtsey. An alcove of sandbags, piled high against the station wall, sheltered the girl and her cart.
From across the street, the garbled cry of a newspaperman rose from his headlined pulpit, reeling off the latest from far away French towns.
“Is it close, this place?” Hughes asked.
“Further than you’d think,” Betty said.
They walked on, the mid-morning streets becoming increasingly crowded, the salutes growing in frequency whenever Hughes’ uniform was noticed. The newspaperman removed his flat cap, holding it over the region of his heart, as Betty struggled to keep up with her brother.
“How is Frances? Are her headaches getting any better?” Johnny asked, his anger at the unwanted attention growing.
Betty looked down at the daffodils, as if hoping an answer might present itself there.
“They can’t control the seizures,” she said. “She can only lie there helpless, waiting for the next one.”
“What are the doctors playing at? Are they doing nothing for her?”
“She can barely keep her eyes open now,” Betty continued. “Says it’s so bright in there, even though it’s the gloomiest place. And the noise. Like waves crashing inside her head at night, building and building until she wakes up screaming! God, I hope we can take her home!”
“We’ll get her out of there, Betty. Sounds like they’re doing her more harm than good.”
“Mam won’t even come to visit anymore. Can’t bear to see Frances like that.”
“And how’s Dad? Still under the stairs?”
Betty laughed, “He’s got the wireless in there now – you can hear him muttering over the news bulletins. Mam has to duck down to bring him his dinner in – he’d starve otherwise!”
A rumble of barrels drowned out their voices, as a haggard man stood drinking on the balcony of the Old Boot Inn. His red face a ruin of shot blood vessels, he flicked his hand to his temple automatically at seeing the uniformed Hughes. Raising his pewter tankard in a palsied grip, he failed to prevent the stout from slopping over its sides, staining the pavement like blood.
“Christ, do they even know what they’re saluting? Let’s try this way instead, Betty.” Hughes guided his sister down a nearby side street, away from the Inn and the unwanted attention of its patrons.
On either side, the black and white panelled buildings were huddled shoulder-close, as all sound reduced to their own footsteps rebounding from the cobblestones. The map of their formation torn, a panic of birds split raucously overhead and disappeared.
The narrow street channelled the wind, and within the curdled breeze dead leaves began to dance about them. A familiar voice started in Hughes’ ear: loudly and out of tune, Ronnie Toal began to sing ‘John François’, an old favourite of the Cheshire Regiment whenever on the move.
Hughes turned in a drowsy revolution, stumbling as he scoured the desolate street for the owner of the voice.
“What is it, Johnny?” Betty asked.
Sparing Hughes from having to make an explanation, they became aware of a young girl watching them from the highest step of her townhouse. From between her splayed fingers, a large brown eye monitored their progress.
Hughes remembered Frances at play in the dust of their Birkenhead street, seeing something of her in the girl. Frances’ fierce green eyes shining through the heat haze of that long lost summer’s day; laughing as she’d scraped her clenched fist across the scalp of a headlocked lad, who had clearly pushed his luck with her too far.
“Wait!” The little girl suddenly cried after them, disturbing Hughes from his reverie. They both turned back, startled at the sound, but the girl was no longer sitting on the step.
The narrow street soon rose to join the Roman walls encircling the town, and they passed the remnants of ancient lookout posts; holding-cells concealed within the stone battlements. A tree-covered stream rushed over broken rocks below, exhausting itself in a spume of whitewater. They walked on silently, the path continuing to rise until they found themselves overlooking the sprawl of the racecourse.
“Good God!” Betty cried, surveying the decimated turf beyond the white curved running rail of the track.
Dozens of children now ran where the incendiary bombs had landed a week before. On their hands and knees, they felt for shrapnel concealed in the scorched grass, yelping with delight at any fresh discoveries. A boy’s head appeared from the largest crater, surveying the blasted landscape with one drawn eye. He shouldered the twisted oak branch serving as rifle, aiming it at the closest boy, who instinctively raised his hands in surrender.
“What a mess they’ve made, Johnny!”
“We came on her birthday and she was laughing like a little girl again – remember? When we used to give her the tickle treatment? Like nothing had happened at all.”
“All those games of hide-and-seek she forced us to play. I can’t believe she’s seventeen already. Little Frances. If only I could have come back sooner.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Johnny. She understands why you couldn’t come.”
Deep inside the ill-lit County Mental Hospital, they followed the nurse clad in spectral-white to the matron’s office. The worn and cracked stone corridor curving for so long that it seemed it must have turned back on itself, footsteps from their recent past still resounded. Their breath was visible as the damp from the hospital walls lapped at any exposed skin. Somewhere ahead a long anguished cry rang out, causing Betty to reach out for her brother’s hand.
At the ward door, through its reinforced glass, a man could be seen in the flickering light of a kerosene lamp. He knelt on the tiled floor as if awaiting imminent execution. Eyes closed, head shaven; a Devil’s idea of a grin playing about his lips. His despondent voice began to trigger other unseen patients, in other wards – a unison of agonies rising through the hospital as the corridor’s hesitant light at last failed.
Hughes felt the tremor on the back of his hand resume its beat; alien in the darkness, trembling the skin as he clenched and unclenched the fist. He imagined all of the lost souls from the hospital’s past freeing themselves from the surrounding shadows.
“It doesn’t normally last this long,” the nurse said. “Try not to panic.”
Johnny held Betty close as he felt their unseen watchers closing in, silently praying for them to pass.
Light eventually returned, running all shadow to the periphery of the corridor, dark retreating under the cracks of the ward doors. The cacophony reducing to a solitary sob, Betty trembled as Johnny took her hand in his, rubbing it in an attempt to warm the blood.
The blue tattoo rippled on the back of Hughes’ hand, and he recalled his childhood gang initiation: the red-hot needle snaketoothing the skin, administered by the ten-year-old Ronnie Toal in the corporation yard.
The nurse held open the door of the ward matron’s office; becoming a face at the wired window as they entered, before vanishing back along the corridor.
“Captain Hughes?” The matron asked, not rising from her chair. She allowed her grey eyes to flicker over him briefly, before returning to the notes on her desk. “I’m Nurse Ravenscroft. So sorry for the wait, do sit down. Hello, Elizabeth,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
Betty’s head moved with nervous energy as she sat, almost strangling the daffodils in her lap. Water from their stems pooled at her feet.
“We would like to see Frances, please,” Hughes said, his voice unintentionally harsh, shattering the gathered silence. The ticking of a clock was audible, measuring each stifled moment.
The matron looked up into the high corners of the room, at something pertinent only to her. Finding no answer amongst the patterns formed by the rising damp, she let her eyes drop slowly back to her visitors. “I’m afraid there were complications after Frances’s latest treatment.”
Hughes thought of Frances outside their old home, her nose wrinkling as she’d grinned up at her brother, captured in the sun-dappled glass of the kitchen window.
“There was a final seizure we couldn’t control, though we did all we could. Frances passed away during the night.”
The Tollemache Road boys had already been in awe of her; wary of getting too close, as though she were some exotic creature they might frighten away forever.
The junior nurse reappeared, her wooden tray laden with the obligatory teapot and cups. Weak tea, no milk.
“Can we see her?” asked Hughes. Little Frances, with all my heart, I am sorry for failing you.
“Yes, of course,” Nurse Ravenscroft said. “We saw she did not suffer, I hope you can appreciate that.”
The air raid siren started then, traipsing along the hospital’s desolate corridors, finding the patients in the wards, insisting they should stir; that theirs was life still to be preserved; reaching them in the matron’s office among the tea things.
The competing drones of the siren finally entered the room of their sister. Frances lay in darkness, the shape of her body outlined by the thin hospital sheet; still as she could be, as if important in some childhood game that she should not make a sound. Lying in wait to surprise her brother and her sister one last time.