PART 5 CONCLUDES OUR GRIPPING WW2 MINI SERIAL
The Spanish flu brings more suffering – but Alice hopes that her Captain may yet return safe…
Alice watched as Flora Murray scanned the ward.
“How many from the village?”
Alice met the doctor’s gaze. “Five. Does anyone know what this is yet?” she asked.
Flora shook her head.
“A flu of sorts, though we have never known the like before. It seems so unjust. Barely was there time to celebrate the ending of the war and then this; another foe.”
“And those best equipped to fight the flu appear most at risk,” Alice observed.
“It was the same in London. Some survive like you and I, while others perish. Who can know God’s plan?” Flora continued. “Although goodness knows, my faith in the fact there is a plan has been sorely tested these past few years.
“Has there been any word of your young man?”
“Not as yet,” Alice answered.
Once off duty, Alice opened her journal.
Does God have a plan for us all, I wonder? I had thought another chance at happiness was within my grasp. But as the days without Matthew have turned into weeks and the weeks into months since the war ended and still no word comes, I am beginning to think I am destined to be alone after all.
A generation of young men have been lost on the fields of Flanders. Is Matthew among them, I wonder? How arbitrary it seems that the strike of a clock at eleven could halt hostilities that had raged only moments before.
Was Matthew on the wrong side of that clock? Or has the flu claimed him – or might it be that, away from Downgate, he has had a change of heart and no longer sees me as…
Alice gazed out of the window at the falling snow, unable to finish the sentence.
A knock lifted her from her thoughts.
“Someone to see you, Matron. He’s waiting in the hall,” Nurse Edwards said.
She was no more than a child in a uniform; so depleted were their ranks from this terrible flu.
“Did he give you a name?” Alice asked.
“No, Matron. Shall I go and enquire?”
Alice’s heart thumped.
“No need. I’ll go.”
She took a moment to gather herself; anything to keep from rushing to the hall only to discover someone other than Matthew waiting for her. While joyous anticipation remained, hope stood firm alongside it.
She crossed her fingers as she descended the stairs.
The sight of a pair of broad shoulders caused her heart to lift but then the head of sandy hair sent it plunging once more. Not Matthew, then – not this time.
“May I help you?”
“I wanted to say hello.” The man turned to face her with a smile.
Alice stopped, astonished. “Freddie?”
He opened his arms to her and Alice embraced him. Easing back, she studied his face.
The reconstructive surgery had been a triumph. Nose and lips had been restored. The skin still looked raw and uneven, but the changes were remarkable.
“What do you think?”
“I think you look amazing.”
“I was told they did wonderful things, Alice, and they do. I never thought…” His voice cracked.
Alice squeezed his arm. “Come into the office.”
She brewed a pot of tea while Freddie spoke of Doctor Gillies and his team.
“I’m no longer a patient but I work there now, helping out. Every day I see miracles. It really is the most inspiring place.”
Alice poured the tea.
“I had given up on finding a sweetheart. After all, who would want someone like me?” Freddie sipped at his tea.
Alice watched and marvelled, recalling all too well how he had had to be fed through a tube when at Downgate.
“And yet I am to be married,” Freddie declared. “Her name is Nancy. She works as a nurse at the hospital.”
“It is why I am here. We’d like you to join us for the wedding in June.”
“I’d be delighted.”
Freddie smiled. “Without your care and kindness, I’m not sure I would have lived long enough to make it to Doctor Gillies’ hospital, let alone met Nancy and fallen in love. I owe you so much.”
“I was just doing my duty.”
Freddie shook his head. “We both know you did much more than that.” He smiled. “And how about you and the captain?”
“You were very discreet, but we could all tell you were sweet on one another.” Freddie winked.
“I haven’t heard from Matthew since the war ended.”
“Now I understand why you looked so disappointed to find me standing in the hallway,” Freddie said.
“Did I? I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need to apologise.”
They passed a pleasant hour together before Freddie rose to leave.
“Until the summertime, then,” he said, kissing her cheek.
“Yes – until then.”
By early summer, the patients were all but gone. Alice, jagged with tiredness and the emotional strain of it all, was desperate for the respite.
As she watched the orderlies helping the last of the patients into ambulances to take them to the nearby county hospital, she was reminded of the early days of the war when an endless stream of vehicles had come up the circular drive.
“Back where it all started,” Sir Thomas remarked.
“Yes,” Alice murmured.
“Duty finally discharged,” he said as they waved off the last transport. “May I say, it has been an honour to fight this war alongside you, Alice.”
He held out a hand. Alice shook it warmly.
“It has been an honour for me too, Sir.”
“What’s next for you, my dear?”
“I shall stay awhile with my mother before I make other plans.”
Sir Thomas nodded. “The Lady Mary and I would be delighted if you would keep in touch.”
“I shall, Sir.”
An hour later, with the linen folded and stacked, Alice stood at the open doorway. The sun beckoned her outside and she stepped on to the terrace.
The gardens were in full flower and delightful, but Alice found herself meandering listlessly, every step weighed down by bittersweet memories of Matthew. Their bench near the lavender bushes left her feeling so heartsore she could barely look upon it.
Realising there was no solace to be found in the beauty all around her, she turned instead towards the gravel drive.
At the end of the drive, two stone pillars stood sentinel either side of the cast iron gates. Alice could see Sir Thomas’s car and a horse and cart in the lane. An altercation of some kind was taking place.
As Alice continued to watch, she realised it was not an altercation but rather a reunion.
Sir Thomas returned to his car and the horse and cart continued along the lane. A man was left, suitcase in hand, standing between the stone pillars.
Alice watched as he moved to one side, raising a hand to wave at Sir Thomas’s now departing car.
Then he turned and Alice halted abruptly.
The bright sun was angled towards her, while the entrance to the drive was dappled in shade from the overhanging trees. She lifted her hand to shield her eyes as her heart leapt into her mouth.
Every time she had thought it might be, it had turned out not to be him, she reminded herself. But this time… this time, just maybe…
She was too far away to be sure. Casting decorum aside, Alice lifted her skirts and began to run.
The man turned in response to her cry. She watched as the suitcase tumbled from his hand.
“Alice?” She thought she caught her name on the breeze.
Alice gasped. Could it be him, at last?
As the man began to run towards her, she was quick to notice his awkward gait. It had taken so long, but finally her prayers had been answered.
As they embraced, he lifted her from the ground and kissed her.
“I can hardly believe you are here,” she said when, at last, he set her down. She touched his face. He looked younger – as if, now the torment of war was over, he could finally relax.
“I have much to tell you,” he said. “And you I, I imagine. But first, let me retrieve my case lest someone run over it.”
Alice laughed and linked her arm through his.
“We shall go together,” she declared. “I am not minded to let you stray too far in case you are a mirage conjured by my overwrought mind.”
He stroked her cheek.
“There is no need. I can assure you I am flesh and blood, my dear.
“Why not wait for me instead at our bench beside the lavender bushes? I have so often pictured you there.”
“Very well. Do not be long.”
The bench was as it had been before, but everything else was now different. The memories that had jabbed at Alice, sharp and painful, were joyful once again.
Impatience knotted and unknotted her hands as she waited for him. When at last he appeared, his limp was more pronounced after the long walk. She rose to go to him.
“Sit, please,” he said.
She settled once more and soon he was beside her, hugging her to him and kissing her.
Any lingering doubts that he was a mere vision were swiftly dispelled. No vision could kiss with such passion nor caress with such tenderness.
“Are you well?” she asked.
“Ever the nurse, my dear? I am very well. And you?”
“Yes. How is your leg?”
“I have the occasional pain.” He shrugged. “Pleased to say I don’t need the blasted stick any longer.”
“And the rest of you?”
“The rest of me?” He regarded her with amusement. “The rest of me is very well. Although all the better for seeing you.”
Suddenly, inexplicably shy, she searched his face for some clue as to what he might say next. Despite their passionate reunion, hope and fear still battled within her, neither daring to vanquish the other.
She was far from sure she could endure another heart-sickening blow.
And then she remembered Matthew’s words about how it had been wrong of him to kill feeling to survive when in the trenches, and she knew she must find it in her heart to be brave. Facing down her demons was the only way not just to survive, but to thrive.
“Why did you not write?” she asked.
“I did. but my letters were not sent.”
“What happened?” she breathed.
“When the war ended, I headed home. I wished to waste no time in seeing my father to tell him of my new plans.
“I started to feel unwell on the journey and by the time I had reached home…”
Matthew nodded. “I was very sick.”
Alice reached for his hand.
“Liv nursed me back to health and as soon as I was able, I asked for pen and paper. I wrote so many letters, my love.
“It was only later that I discovered Liv had never posted a single one.”
“Fear, mostly. I told her about you, you see. She professed to be happy for me but…” He shook his head. “It was cruel of her and you must have suffered terribly by my silence, but I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive her as I have tried to to.”
“I will,” Alice said.
“The flu swept through my father’s house, knocking down one member of the family after another. In his weak state, my father was taken swiftly.
“Liv told me the flu was in the district before I returned, so I may comfort myself that it was not my return that caused him to succumb.
“With my father gone, Violet and I went to petition her father to reconsider the deal that had been struck when we were but children. I am glad to say he took pity upon us and released us from the pact, giving his blessing for Violet to marry her sweetheart instead.”
Alice listened with rapt attention.
“My sister was also free to marry her true love, our farm manager, John.
“As a wedding gift, Violet and her father bestowed upon them the land our grandfather had gambled away, so all was made good in the end.
“On the night of her marriage, Liv finally told me the truth about my letters to you. I had, until that moment, feared your lack of reply meant you had changed your mind. Now I knew that was not the case. Rather, you might believe it was I who had changed mine.
“And so I left that very night to travel here to set the record straight.”
Alice thought of the hopes and dreams she had shared with her journal since Matthew’s departure. How distant and hopeless they had seemed on the dark, lonely nights she had endured after the letters had stopped.
Now she knew those hopes and dreams had been matched by his own. A situation that even that morning she would have disparaged to protect her fragile heart. Yet, it was true!
She held him, her emotions scattered like ninepins at her feet.
“And what of you, dear Alice?” he asked, his arm around her shoulders. “Tell me of life at Downgate.”
She sobered. Where to begin?
“Has it been that awful?” he asked.
“Ghastly,” she admitted. “No sooner had the flow of soldiers eased than our beds were taken up by the residents of Downgate, both the village and the house. Nurse O’Brien was one of the first to fall.”
Matthew pressed a kiss to her temple.
“It was such a shock but then the blows rained down one upon another as this terrible disease took us all in its grip.
“Those days were the most bewildering I have ever known. I can well recall the tear-stained faces of Sir Thomas and Lady Mary as they held Thomas Junior as he died. No family was spared; there was so little I could do to assist. It was wretched.
“By the time we lost Edward Jackson, I was almost devoid of tears. Does one have a store of tears for a lifetime, do you think? For there were times, these past months, when I thought I may have cried all mine.”
Matthew held her against him.
“My darling, I cannot imagine how awful it has been for you to lose so many friends.”
“Talking of friends, however, there is some good news. I saw Freddie in January. Doctor Gillies and his team have done wonders. He is to be married next month.”
“I am glad. No one deserves happiness more than that young man.”
Matthew circled his thumb over the back of Alice’s hand. “And so, thoughts turn to the future. Tell me, what do you hope for, Alice?”
“You may think it fanciful, but I would like to train as a doctor. When we lost Doctor Jackson, a woman, Flora Murray, was sent in his place. It was a sign of the times. So many male doctors had been lost that the only new doctors available to tend the sick were female ones. She was an inspiration to me.”
“I do not think it fanciful at all. Indeed, I think it rather splendid.”
“I am glad. And you, my dear?”
“On the way here, I forged a plan. I hope that with the aid of a mortgage, Sir Thomas might permit me to buy the woodsman’s cottage and enough acreage beyond the edge of the woodland to grow crops and, in time, build a house.”
“The woodsman’s cottage? So far from your family?” Alice said, dismayed.
“My family has managed quite well without me these past years. Whereas your family, I believe, are close by Downgate. As for the cottage, you might recall how I told you what a perfect home it would make?”
Alice raised her eyebrows.
“And I well remember saying I could not see you drawing water from a well.”
He chuckled. “That is true, but it will serve me well enough until I can build a new house… for us.” He gathered her hands in his. “If you will have it, of course, and me along with it.
“I could think of nothing better.”
He bent his head to hers.
“Darling Alice, you were all I could think of in France. It was you who kept me sane during the last months of fighting.
“It was you I saw in my delirium when the flu had me in its clutches and it was you who kept me strong when I was weak.
“When I arrived at Downgate, I thought my life was over.
“You gave me back my spirit, indeed, my very soul. Appearing like an angel at my bedside, you restored my faith. You were a miracle; my miracle.
“Which is why, Alice, dearest, I can promise you that you will find no greater champion of your heart than I. For I love you, completely and utterly, and I always will.”
He knelt before her.
“Which is why I stopped in Oxford on my way here to pick this up.” He took a ring from his pocket.
“My darling Alice,” he said. “Would you do me the honour of becoming my wife?”
Overcome, Alice found it difficult to speak.
When at last she found her voice, she said, “A thousand times, yes, my love.”
Our My Weekly Favourites series of lovely short fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.