Intermezzo

The piano was unusual. It had lain undisturbed behind boxed cargo. The soiled tarpaulin told of a decade’s neglect. It would have remained undiscovered but for the highlanders’ committed quest for alcohol. Rab Niven lavished attention on it and, from unpromising beginnings, he brought it to life.

‘Gie us The Intermezzo Rab. You ken the wan.’ The small, malformed Glaswegian was a private in the HLI. The audience of mixed Highlanders endorsed the request; everyone’s favourite, from Cavalleria Rusticana. Rab Niven let the silence settle upon the large warehouse. The opening bars were ponderous, soft and slow. Expectancy pulled at them all as Rab raised a tension in the piece. Then the sleight of hand, the flourish on the worn keys. He heard the gasp, the involuntary sob, the catching breath that made him smile in triumph. Over a hundred Scots were lifted to the sun-drenched coast of Sicily. Wondrous heat on sallow skin; a salt tang in the air. Billy stood on the periphery, on his way to town but unable to walk away from the haunting music. Alan and Eck stood hand in hand; in a place more liberal in its beliefs. Far removed from Amiens. Removed from reality, their clasped hands a figment of the music. Stewart felt anew the loss of his brother, and wished he could find a way to approach Black Douglas. A way that would spare his own battered dignity. Palermo or Picardy. A long thousand miles from Pittenweem, Billy thought as he left the compound.

She watched him from the top of the stairs. Nausea curled in the pit of her stomach as she steeled herself for their encounter. It collided with the frisson of lust that shared the same lower abdomen. She frowned at this physical betrayal; weakness when she most needed strength.

‘Billy. Not here,’ she stretched her hands, palms out, holding him at a distance. He was breathless from the stairs, she from first sight of him. ‘Let’s go outside; the covered courtyard.’ She eased past, leaving him to follow. They were not alone in the courtyard and he had pulled her through an open arch at the rear of the cloister. He kissed her. Savage, needy; his lips cold and hard. Her lips blossomed on his and the tension fled. He broke the moist contact, leaning against the wall to search for his cigarettes.

‘Do you want one?’ He presented the packet of fags.

‘Please Billy.’ He lit two cigarettes and passed her one, though he wasn’t at all sure that that had been Marjorie’s request. He drew on his own fag, pulling the sharp settling smoke into his lungs, voice gone high.

‘You’ve seen him then?’ He watched a solitary snowflake, precursor of a new fall. ‘Brodie told me. It must have been upsetting? Seeing him like that. Torn; vulnerable. I’ve seen the compassion you have. It’s one of your most attractive features.’ He turned toward her. ‘And you’re not the only one with a conundrum to solve, your ladyship.’

‘You mean Anne? Brodie Smith’s sister?’ Her attempt at detachment was betrayed by the note of appeal in her question.

‘Perhaps I do, but.. ..maybe I feel some sympathy for Lord Snootie. He’s brave I grant you, and fair according to his lights.’ He snorted, amused by his own sense of confusion. ‘No sooner do I take his measure than he changes my mind again.’ He turned once more to the contemplation of snowflakes. He spoke into the night sky. ‘In all truth.. .. I feel guilty Marjorie. Ashamed of my actions in his eyes and that wee lassie’s back home.’

Marjorie stood in silence. She cupped her right elbow in her left hand, right arm vertical, two fingers around the smoking cigarette. The pose seemed alien to Billy who begged her response.

‘God! How tedious. The heart of a poet in the narrow mind of a presbyterian minister. Jimmy was right. And you don’t have the backbone of your friend Brodie either.’ She gazed at him down the length of a patrician nose. ‘I believe you should leave now, Private Morrison.’ He balled his fists, the urge to hit out welling up inside. And then he relaxed. His smile cut to her core as wordless he walked into the night.

‘I love him – Billy Morrison, God help me.’ She threw it at a deaf, uncomprehending world. She wondered if it were possible to claim her heart belonged to both. It hurt too much to laugh it off and she swallowed down her bitter repast.

Billy was drunk. The speed with which he achieved that state made his mind whirl. The vin plonk helped too, he mused, laughing like an imbecile. The Rue Malmaison was empty. He heard the dull echo of his boots against the cobbles. Entranced by the notion that it resembled his empty heartbeat he stopped. He found himself staring at the darkened facade of the Hotel Victor Hugo.

‘Last Christmas. In there we met. A year ago. Marjorie and that bastard Drummond… and me; a dumb, dirty private soldier. And now we’re all damaged and twisted Anne.’ He spewed. Bile, sharp and acid. Burning his throat, his heart. Scalding the cobbles. ‘Oh Anne, Anne,’ he cried, the prayer lost in the vomit.

****

Alise watched the two officers in the big room opposite. Captain Brune was animated, talkative. He felt comfortable in the company of the young Scots lord. It was Jimmy Drummond’s gift, his ease with people. But she had seen the man without his mask. The diffidence, the horror he saw reflected in the eyes of others. Both of her patients had that mutilated side. She felt perhaps that each warrior guarded the weak, exposed side of the other. She smiled at the allusion, whilst finding some truth in the rationale. As the sky darkened into night, they left the chateau. In the winter months Alise used a pony and trap to journey between work and home at the auberge. A short trip, snow notwithstanding, and on arrival a Dickensian scene. Cheery, festive light spilled across the courtyard, reminding Jimmy there were worse things than a ravaged face.

****

‘You have a healthy appetite for one so …so slim mademoiselle.’ He smiled. A conscious action, no longer a simple reflex. And it saddened her. ‘A misguided observation, Alise,’ his single eye fixed her. ‘Not flattery, I assure you.’

‘I am the daughter of a rich peasant. I don’t stray far from the tree.’ They shared a plate of leeks, boiled and coated in butter. The small dish of mayonnaise had the same rich sheen, and she spread it along the stem of a leek then speared it with her fork. Her own impish smile from shining, buttery lips, reminded him he was still a man. He leaned forward to wipe her mouth with his napkin. Reflex this time. She found his lips under her own; aware of the hard wooden edge of the face-mask. He pulled away, his hand going to the mask, feeling along the inner edge. ‘I’m sorry Jimmy.’ She reached for his hand, drawing it away from the mask.

‘These vegetables. They remind me of how intolerable the lack of colour can be at the Front.’ He split a leek with his knife, probing the vivid green top, immersed in the vitality of colour.

‘You don’t have to return to the War. Norman Barrington is convinced that, with your father’s influence, you could have a posting in England Jimmy.’ Her voice dropped. ‘Think of it. A return to a world full of colour.’

‘Scotland; not England Alise. It’s where all lame and unfashionable highlanders are sent.’ His breathing was heavy and laboured. ‘Do you remember your Shakespeare? Richard the Third, Alise? “Sent into this breathing world scarce half made up. And that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me, as I halt by them.” Do you see.. .. ..’ He saw her compassion. His contrition was born of a belief that he didn’t deserve it. ‘I’m sorry. Self-indulgent clap-trap Alise.’ A nerve shivered as he tried to force a smile.

‘You aren’t your mask, Captain. It doesn’t hide the man Jimmy; just the torn part of an outer facade.’ The smile was warm. ‘I’m a doctor after all. You should heed my advice. No?’

They shared the plump breast of a mallard duck, accompanied by small, crisp sautéd potatoes. Jimmy Drummond escaped the constraints of his mask for a time. The noise of a log dropping to ash in the big fireplace, took him back to the company trench.

‘They are such remarkable people Alise. You would like them. They call themselves the East Neuk Rifles.’ A smile, the first natural reflex. They both recognised it. ‘I have a Sergeant who knows more of leadership than the entire division staff. I have… well, let’s just say I’m blessed with a grand body of men. Men who take care of their brothers. Men who miss their homes, their families; who wouldn’t be anywhere but with their group.’

‘I can see how you might miss them Jimmy. You do them proud when you speak of them so.’ She smiled at her own perception. ‘Perhaps they would understand that you have made your sacrifice, that for you the War is over?’ Jimmy nodded, acknowledging her honest attempt at resolution.

‘This awful war will change everything. Is changing everything. A lot of what I hold dear will be lost, society turned on its head. And what will be the consequence do you think? Will the world be all we hope it will be?’ Alise saw a very different man. Gone the playboy, the bon vivant. Despite his wounded face, the new Lord Elcho was impressive. ‘Probably not, old thing. But it must be better, mustn’t it? Not for the ambitious, petty minded types. The Alastair Airds of this world. But for Jimmy Hughes, and Brodie Smith, and the countless thousands for whom I never spared a second glance.’ The shivering smile again. ‘God, it’s shell-shock Doctor. After-shock maybe?’ He paused, then burst into laughter. Alise heard the desperate edge to it as he said, ‘No. It’s loss of face, Isn’t it?’

Barrington arrived on the morning of Christmas Eve. Jimmy would join his father in Amiens before travelling home on leave. Alise did not believe the rehabilitation complete. They had argued and their last day together had seen a growing distance. The weather had turned to rain. Water dropped from every roof, and ledge, and overhang.

‘Thank you Alise; for everything.’ He shook her hand then seemed reluctant to let go.

‘If they allow you to return to the regiment Jimmy, I would like to see you first?’ It was a question when she was entitled to make it a requirement. They both knew it. He nodded.

‘Yes of course, Doctor.’ On the journey to Amiens, he regretted the formality of his departure.

****

The Highland Division made merry. A few men ventured into town. The rest closed the doors against a cold winter and celebrated the birth of a saviour they no longer believed in.

© franciman 2020
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