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You never dream of dying by Joe 90

© Joe 90

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SHORT STORY (*indicates italics, quoting from Harry's journal)

“How can we do that?”

The November sunbeam, a searchlight tinted with the blues and crimsons of the West window, dapples the crowded aisles, blood-soaking into the rows of military uniforms. The rest of the scene is sepia-tinted with early memory. The cold stonework shrugs back every sound, impervious to the words, gestures and expressions of regret of a nation remembering its dead. Dad’s voice ricochets off the frozen walls.
My order of service sheet had been folded twice before the music arrested my attention. Higgsy at the other end of the pew was working frantically to complete his plane too. We watched with shameless interest as Dad’s emotions erupted in the solemnity of the cathedral service.

“How can we do that?” he shouted again.

The orchestra faltered; the swelling notes tailing away into hard, rigor-mortified silence. Hundreds of faces swung round to gape. Mum stared straight ahead, stone-faced, joining the statues of the great and the good that lined the south transept.

Dad had been jittery from the moment we had been shown our seats. He disliked crowds and became especially restless at heavy-handed reminders of the conflict. It was only mother’s insistence that had worn down his resolve.

“It’ll do you good to see your old regiment again. Get you out of yourself for a while.”

Dad was too tired to scowl. “My old regiment are all over Normandy.”

“Oh Harry, get a grip. For the sake of us all move on. Other people have lost friends, relatives…” Mother adjusted her hair in the hallway mirror. “They can show some respect. Why can’t you?”

“Respect? Is that what you call it?” The ragged edge was back when he spoke. That was what the war had done to Dad’s voice. It had taken the soft gentleness of his speech and replaced it with a serrated harshness. It had taken the patient father and returned an introverted, intolerant wreck back to his wife and nine year-old son. Mother should have had the sense to leave it there. But she had her own obstinacy.

“Yes, respect. To those who have pride in our country. We stood against the Nazis. They would have shipped us all off to their death camps, given time. I’m proud of what we achieved. So should you be.”

I didn’t know then that Dad kept a journal. Not even Mother knew of the clean pages of the railway company ledger he kept in his study which he filled with scribbled shell-bursts from his tormented mind. He bore mother’s reproaches with outward equanimity, but through his sleepless nights the words tore across the pages.

*‘Respect. Pride. Patriotism. Words they feed us like rations. Nobody who was there talks such high-handed verbal vomit.
You break cover from behind the landing ramp and ahead of you is fifty yards of sand. You stumble through the breaking surf and all around you are the whing whing whing of bullets. Why? Who decreed this as a way to settle disputes?
Laurie is running just ahead. He heard someone say it's a good idea to weave from side to side. Less chance of hitting you. Poor sap! Machine gun muzzles move from side to side as well… *

Three hundred pages of the same. Sometimes lucid, almost poetic. Other times rambling and disjointed. The book did not come to light until last week when Dad had the stroke. Mother, tiredness in her eyes, refused to read it once she knew what it was.
“Take it, Edward. Maybe it’ll help you understand him. I never could.” She turns away from the figure on the bed. “And I don’t think he’ll be needing this any more.”

I am about to reply but my wife gets there first.

“Janet, don’t take his cello. He specifically asked for it. You know how much it means to him. At least not right now. See if he recovers a little.”

“I hope it’s not in their way,” mother frets, pushing aside the bulky instrument. It is too near the radiator and Julie catches my glance. Surreptitiously she moves it back as I struggle into the wheelchair.

So the heavy ledger with its fine spidery anguish becomes my possession. Julie wheels me down the corridor. With perfect timing I had slipped a disc earlier that same week he was taken to hospital. Back home, settled in bed on the living room floor which was to be my temporary quarters, I prop the book up on cushions.

*They don’t call it Armistice anymore. All that phoney national pride. Your country needs you, Harry Cornish to fight for us. We’ll move the pins on the map and you can wrap your guts in the barbed wire. Then we’ll march past our memorials banging the drum, and recruit another bunch of fine simpletons to do our dirty work for us.*

After several pages of the same I come close to giving up. Having made his point, Dad continued to make it, over and over again. I could see why mother lost patience with him. Many men lost comrades in the bitter fighting that marked the end of the war with Germany. Our street was lined with wives and mothers whose men folk didn’t return from the conflict. Mum was unlucky too. She got some other man back.

As I was about to close the ledger, the lone sentence catches my eye.

*“How can we do that?”*

I place the heavy book against my knees and close my eyes. I am taking painkillers which rob me of sleep. Periodically drowsiness rushes over me and I cannot fight it. Before I doze off I review that November day, over fifty years ago.

*“How can we do that?”*

Dad stood erect, every muscle in his neck taut. His uniform hangs loosely over his gaunt figure. His beautiful fingers squirm like a can of worms. Four times he cried out before two officials, stumbling over the pairs of feet in the row, seized his arms and bundled him from the building. I heard him yell twice more before he was out of earshot.

Mum and I went to the police station to collect him after the service. Mum was tight-lipped, escaping early to avoid the stares and murmurs from the outraged congregation. Arriving at the police station a young constable was dealing with Dad.

“Charging him? With what?” Mum demanded.

“Breach of the peace, ma’am. Serious business, sounding off in that service the way he did.”

“Oh!” Mum looked ready to cry. Then the door flew open.

“Harry Cornish?” The speaker was the usual desk officer, Sergeant Price. He glanced at Dad, hunched over the table, motionless and spent, then at mum and myself.

“Malcolm. Take a break.” He nodded curtly to the door.

“Just had one sir.”

“Take another, man. Buy some milk or something. I’ll deal with this.”

“I was about to charge him, sir.”

“I know.” Sergeant Price chewed his moustache. “Malcolm, do you know who this is?”

The young officer glanced at the form on the clipboard. “Er…Harold Cornish, sir.”

Sergeant Price’s bulky figure seemed to enlarge to fill the room. I gazed up at the expanse of blue. He took the young officer aside.

“When you’ve seen your battalion bleeding on the beaches of France, lad,” he growled, “and had to fight your way halfway across Europe, then I’ll forgive you for letting your feelings run away with you now and then. Now go and make some tea and leave me to finish this.”

When the door closed behind him, Sergeant Price picked up the half-completed form and tore it into strips. With a flourish he dropped the pieces into the bin.

“Come on Harry.” He placed his arm across Dad’s shoulders. “Let’s get you home.”

He drove us in the police car, refusing my insistent demands to put the sirens on. Delight flooded through me as we passed Higgsy, Jack and Ricky Simmons in the street, watching with open mouths. The car drew up at our front gate.

“Try to keep him out of trouble, Ma’am?” Dad was rocking back and forth at her side.

“Thank you officer.” She said, trying to avoid noticing the twitching curtains up and down the street. He leaned across.

“I haven’t forgotten the sterling job he did on my Fred’s violin. One of the last bits of work he did before…”
He tails off. Dad had been a craftsman once. ‘Cornish Instrument Repairs’ situated within the shadow of Worcester Cathedral attracted musicians for miles around. Harry Cornish was, up until the Second World War, renowned for his meticulous workmanship on stringed instruments of all types. Afterwards his hands shook so much he could hardly hold a chisel. Afterwards he broke down and cried in front of the customer who brought in his son’s viola with the instruction; ‘just give it a good home.’

****

I am awoken by the telephone. I stretch out to lift the receiver but it stops ringing before I get there. I can hear Julie’s voice in the kitchen. A minute later she puts her head round the door.

“Hi, love. Sorry to wake you. We need to go back to the hospital. Can you get yourself up?”

“Yes,” I tell her, “but can you bring his journal along with you? We could be waiting ages and I’ll need something to read.”

We were. Julie leaves me to fetch mother. Dad is breathing normally, but his fingers tremble on the coverlet. I settle myself as comfortably as possible and open the book once more.

“Two invalids together. What a pair!”

I am startled by the interruption. The speaker is Doctor Heera Kapur a female Indian doctor we had met once before when Dad was admitted. Only then she tagged behind a consultant on his rounds. This time she is alone. I start to pull myself up.

“No, please, stay seated.”

I shake her hand, trying to ignore the spasm of pain that shoots through my spine.

“Are you in difficulty?” She flashes me a radiant smile. I shake my head.

“Pain killers will kick in soon. Do you have any more news for me?”

Settling gently on the side of the bed, she inspects Dad’s craggy face. “In good shape isn’t he? How old is he?”

“Born nineteen-ten. Ninety in December. We were hoping he’d last until then.”

She crosses her legs and opens a large envelope. “I understand he was wounded in the war.”

I wonder where this is going. As a child I had been drip fed the bad news. “Your Dad’s been hurt.” It meant little to me. Dad was the man who let me play with his woodworking tools at the back of the shop. Dad was the man smelling of varnish and wood shavings, holding a violin up to the sunlight and peering down the finger board to see if the neck was straight. This gangly, uniformed individual who appeared intermittently during the years of conflict was a comparative stranger. They told me a Panzer had shelled the house his platoon was sheltering in. They dug him out from under the rubble twelve hours later, unconscious and weak through loss of blood. The war finished for him then.

Heera is talking. I force myself to listen.

“He had a brain scan this morning after you left.” She reaches across to the wall and snaps an X-ray picture onto the viewer. “I’m afraid it shows more bleeding since he was admitted.” Her finger traces around the contours of the troubled cauliflower shape that is the sum of Dad’s personality. Then it comes to rest by a dark fleck.

“Did you know he had a piece of metal in his brain?”

I start forward to examine the image closer. The sudden movement makes me wince. “No. That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Perhaps he or your mother knew?”

“No. I’m fairly sure they’d have told me. Is it the cause of the…er…stroke?”

“No.” She unclips the film. “But it must have caused him considerable distress.”

“But…I mean has he been living all these years with that…shrapnel in his head? Why hasn’t anyone picked it up in all this time?”

“Mr Cornish, I should imagine by the scarring on his head he received quite extensive injuries and trauma from the war. There were tens of thousands like him, and the medics treated what they could see. Resources were too scarce to investigate every injury fully. He recovered so they sent him home. Nobody thought to look further.”

I settle back. The wasted figure on the bed has suddenly become a stranger. So the erratic, neurotic man I had to learn to accept was not a product of psychological trauma. The playground taunts from Jack Simmons and his cronies were untrue:

“Your Dad’s chicken. Couldn’t take it. Chick, chick, chick, chick chickeeeen!” Jack flapped his arms and strutted around whilst Will and Rob fell about laughing. Suffocating anger swelled up. I punched him hard in the mouth and he ran home crying.

“Are you okay, Mr Cornish?”

I nod and say the first thing that comes to mind. “What’s the outlook?”

“There isn’t one. With a bleed of that magnitude, he should have died right away. His kidneys shut down in the night. The specialist couldn’t believe he was still with us this morning.”

“Can’t you operate?”

She stands up, the smile a memory. “No. Not on a man of his age. Stay with him; it’s only a matter of time. If you have any other relatives who might need to be informed…”

I appreciate her forthright approach. “No, his brother died twenty years back. His wife should be here soon though. I’ll stay with him until she arrives.”

There is a room nearby, Doctor Kapur tells me. I could install mother there, and they would make Dad as comfortable as they can. I noticed then that she was lingering. She wanted something else, something she was embarrassed to mention. I had seen it hundreds of times with pupils who persisted after the lesson had ended and their classmates had trampled out. Pupils with guilty consciences or big favours to ask.

My turn to smile. “What is it Doctor? What else do you want?”

She blushes. “He played then?” She steals past the patient and runs her fingers down the plastic case that houses Dad’s cello. “This is his cello?”

“Oh yes. It was the one thing that kept him together.” Before the war Dad had played in the city orchestra. A couple of times he had been the leading soloist. That was another thing the war took away. After his return, like Biblical Saul, when the evil spirits tormented him he would reach for the instrument and play for hours; playing away the shaking in his hands, bringing softness into his scarred psyche.

“As a matter of fact I’ve just been reading about it.” I flip the journal open to where I had folded the edge of the page down. “He loved English music, and especially Elgar.”

I find the entry. “You’ll have to read it,” she says. “I can’t follow his writing.”

*I met him!* The spidery script showed more agitation than usual. *If only I had been more aware. I could have told him how much I love his music. Alas I was only seven. So all I can cherish is a memory.
Mother was pregnant with Frank. We were living in Malvern then, and Dad was working in Worcester. Frank was ten days late and mother was getting impatient. ‘Go for a walk,’ was Doctor Green’s advice. He meant a walk around the Winter Gardens or up to St Ann’s Well at the very most. Mother, being mother, took it into her head to walk from North Hill to British Camp. I remember her labouring up the slopes, tugging me along.
Then quite suddenly she stopped, clutching her abdomen. ‘I just need a rest, Harry.’ I helped her to a bench. Her belly was hard under her light dress. She made a few moaning sounds which attracted the attention of a man walking nearby.
‘Can I be of assistance, Madam?’ He was about sixty, dressed in a tweed jacket with a cloth hat and had a huge moustache that twitched when he talked. I remember being fascinated by that moustache. When mother turned and saw him, she forgot about any pain. ‘Sir Edward!’ She cried leaping up. ‘Oh my word, what an honour to meet you!’ She grabbed my arm and straightened my collar. ‘Harry, meet Sir Edward Elgar; stand up straight boy, don’t shuffle like that.’
I was made to solemnly shake hands with the great man. He seemed awkward with me, but with mother he was charming. I recall the great man inspecting her fingers. After a few moments he pronounced: ‘A cellist, I declare.’
‘A slighted cellist!’ Mother replied. ‘When the finest composer alive has written nothing for me to play.’
They talked for ten minutes; I recall Sir Edward waving his stick and saying; ‘music is in the trees, the clouds, the bracken, the hills. All I do is condense it into poor little notes upon a stave.’
Then mother gave another little gasp and Sir Edward insisted she sit back down. ‘Madam, I am forgetting my manners. When you and your son are ready we will help you back down to town. My chauffeur will oblige me by giving you a ride in my car.’
Mother protested, but being the perfect gentleman that he was he insisted. It was just as well, Frank was born that evening.*


Doctor Kapur’s smile seems to fill her face. She gazes at Dad, twitching on the bed. “He met Elgar.” She breathes.

“Is he a favourite?”

“Not top of my list, but certainly high on it. I can manage snatches from his cello concerto.”

“You play?” Now I can guess her reason for lingering. I motion to the instrument. “Be my guest.”

“I was hoping you’d say that. I’ll just go and fetch my sandwiches. I’ll be right back.”


She doesn’t do what some people do; protest that she only plays ‘a little,’ then proceed to dazzle with virtuosity. But as she tunes the old cello, it becomes clear she is very capable indeed. Hampered by my back I can only slump in the reclining chair, close my eyes and listen.

*You never dream of dying.*

I had just been reading those words when Doctor Kapur made her appearance.

She nestles the cello between her legs and plays an upbeat jazzy piece. Now and then she yelps in glee as the strings warm to her touch and the full mellow beauty of the sound emerges. I am choked with compassion for Dad. His head has played unwelcoming host to a sliver of shell-casing from a German factory for these last six decades. No amount of trained psychiatric counselling could alleviate the effect of that jagged fleck. In ninety-sixty he had nearly been committed to a secure institution, but mother had balked at signing the necessary mandate.

*You never dream of dying.*

It’s true. I suffer few nightmares now, but I cannot forget the crushing sense of fear, waking up sweating and yelling. But whatever the peril my childish mind tormented me with, whatever the horror of the moment, I never once visualised my own death.

*When you dream of dying, *he wrote, *that’s your moment to go. Your time’s up.*
In Dad’s head the war rumbles on. No armistice for him. No demob to Blighty. They left him behind with the shell fragment oozing its cruel intentions long after the rest of the explosive had dispersed. Nightmares. Sleep punctuated by earth-heaving explosions, sweet-acrid smell of cordite, dreams of running across the open beach expecting at any second the shock of a bullet in the body. Dreams, but never of his own death.
She is playing something classical now. I close my eyes and sleep engulfs me.

****

“Ed? Are you awake?”

Doctor Kapur has gone; the cello is back in its case. Mother, over by the door looks strained and tired so Julie is over-compensating with forced cheerfulness.

Dad gives a slight gasp.

“Has the Doctor told you about him?”

Julie narrows her eyes. “The fragment.” Her voice is low. “Yes, she told us as we came in. Your mum’s not taking it well.”

Mother is talking to herself, rehearsing her stance in these altered circumstances.
“Harry, how were any of us to know? We could have allowed for it.” She pats her hair snowdrifts back over her scalp. “All those things people said, I could have explained…”

“Harry.” Julie is straightening the bedcover. “You poor old thing.” She turns to mother. “Janet, can you pass me those tissues? There, down by his cello…”

Julie does this with practised ease. She bombards mother with small directions, distracting her anxiety. Once she has her attention, she will question her about something trivial: the whereabouts of the car or house keys or arrangements for tomorrow. Firmly she will force her to address issues over which we still have some residue of control. However, it soon becomes clear it is a losing battle.

“Harry, why didn’t you insist? Those headaches, you should have had them checked out. You buried your head in the sand like you always do.” Mother sniffs and rummages for a tissue. “Why are you hanging on like this? What are you waiting for? Just let go will you, you damned selfish thing. You never think of anyone else, all this time dwelling on your own troubles…”

Julie kisses me quickly. “I’ll take her home,” she whispers. “A long bath and a sleeping pill and she’ll be able to cope tomorrow.”

“Thanks love. Are you coming back later?”

She looks at her watch. “Probably an hour or two. You stay here, I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

*Percy was talking to me. Percy was always talking. We had some krauts pinned down in a burnt out café in the West of the city. Suddenly it is quiet. Percy has stopped talking. He never heard the gunshot. A sniper’s bullet travels faster than the sound, so he was dead before he heard it.*

I flip the leaves. Pages of it, but nothing much about Janet, the shop-girl he met and married in Croydon. Nothing about her desire for a large family, a desire thwarted by my difficult passage into the world. Only one entry about me I could find.

*My son came home today. Janet wanted him named ‘Quentin’ or some such rubbish. In the end I took the child to the register office. *

So to my utter mortification, Edward Elgar Cornish is my name. The irony is I can’t play a note. The musical vein that came through Grandmother and Dad missed me entirely.

Darkness has lit up the city. Through the blinds I can see the floodlit town hall and fountains in the park. Traffic grumbles along the congested roads, red taillights weaving around oncoming headlights. I have just settled myself back in the recliner after a prolonged and painful visit to the toilet. In the muted light I spread the journal open and read on. I am conscious I am hurrying, missing whole pages of anguished war recollections, looking for the nuggets of personal interest. I am conscious too that I am looking for clues, keys that will unlock his tormented enigma.

*“How can we do that?”*

“How is he?”

I jump. I never heard Julie come into the room. I register her question, but I am too absorbed to answer. For one page has yielded results, results of an astonishing kind. A spell is weaving itself out of the scribbled handwriting and drawing me into its magic.

“What are you reading? Can I see?”

“No, you just have to listen to this.” I tell her.

*Have you ever heard something so moving that it gives you a pain between the eyes? A pain that even tears cannot release. I am twelve and it is the August holiday. Mother has left Dad babysitting Frank and taken me to hear the Bournemouth Symphony at a venue somewhere in Plymouth. I watch in fascination as the players reach for their instruments when the conductor points at them. The cellos pluck their strings in unison, providing a plunking bass to the brassy trombones. A tune weaves in and out of my consciousness, sometimes there, then immediately snatched away, teasing me.

‘What’s this piece, mum?’

‘Enigma Variations. Do you like it?’ I sense she is tense, poised at the edge of her seat. I see her swallow over and over again.

‘Mum, are you okay?’
‘Shh! Nimrod. Listen, here it comes.’*

I gaze at Dad. The muscles on his neck are tightly tuned. His fingers twist the bed covers, shivering with tension. Then the penny drops.

“Go and get Doctor Kapur! She’s just passed the door. Ah!” My back protests and I scrabble the painkillers from their bubble pack.

“Here, love. Let me…”

“No, go and get her! Quick before she goes.”

She returns a minute later. “Doctor Kapur, my husband wanted you…”

I wait for the pain to subside. “Heera, please, can you play for him? Like you did earlier.”

“I can come back in twenty minutes…”

“No, now. Please, it will help, I know it will.”

I am afraid her professional training will kick in. I am afraid she will start examining Dad, noting that these are his death spasms. For ten seconds the room is quiet, Doctor Kapur is looking to Julie for guidance, and Julie is nodding, bemused but supportive. ‘Humour him…’ I close my eyes as I hear the clips on the cello case being released and a gentle murmur of the strings.

“What shall I play Mr Cornish?”

*Peace has settled over the concert hall. Not the calm that marks the start of a performance, punctuated by coughs and creaking chairs or the clatter of latecomers. This is sacred quietude, balanced on the edge of one violin; a single soft note, sustained, that banishes all that has gone before. The note opens a window in heaven and in seconds reaches down to lift the melody from the trees, the bracken, the sky; tracing the sweeping profile of his beloved Malvern Hills in its course. Then the deep strings descend to build the granite heart for the swelling theme, wrapping clouds, fields, air currents in its all-embracing desire to tell the story.
Undulating, simple, questioning. How can we do that? How can mortal man summon such beauty yet such cruelty? Mum has tight hold of my hand and her face is flushed, tears coursing down her cheeks. Dad says men don’t cry, but I know this time it is all right. As the music swells, carrying all before it, the pain between my eyes spreads to my throat and chest. I want to cry out, to expel my soul into the music and fly free with the theme.*

Heera has her eyes closed, the bow biting, and the fingers of her left hand driving into the strings: the notes filling out as the theme dominates. Julie is crouched beside Dad, her hand trapped in his drowning grip. I close my eyes once more.

*Woodwind; swirling deep-warmed summer days, autumn leaves and the hiss of falling snow into the narrative. Then flutes trickling the melt waters once more down the coarse-grassed slopes into Spring…
The theme subsides, drawing breath for its majestic grand statement: kettledrums of thunder leading the full orchestra into the music, soaring cumulonimbus into space; expanding greater and yet greater…
Now bigger than the world, bigger than life itself. Always there, present in the space between the stars or in the time enclosing eternity until Elgar condensed it down to poor notes on a page. I shrink before its dignity; reduced to nothing, my mortality seared by this brush with sacredness. There is no being past this experience. I want to let go life… *

“Ed, love!” The pressure on Julie’s hand is easing. “He’s going!”

I throw myself forward from the chair and bend over him, cradling his head in my arms. A skull’s thickness away the last dream is forming, suffocating the endless violence, the harsh crackle of the guns and the strafing, swooping aircraft. It is a mingled dream: - dread at that last step from the brink into the uncharted oblivion, but relief at the final armistice of the machinery of destruction.

*Heaven closes. One chord remains to remind me of what was.*

Doctor Kapur brushes Dad’s eyes with her fingertips, closing the gap. Then she stands up, her head bowed.
She murmurs. “I’ll leave you with him.”

“No, wait. Doctor.” The words congeal in my throat. “It’s yours. Take it please.”

Her eyes flick from me to the cello and back. “No. I couldn’t. Your children would…”

“Heera, we have no children. I can’t play and mother can’t bear the sight of it. Please. I know it'll be going to a good home.”

******

Anticlimax blankets our lives. I try preparing lessons for my final school term before my long awaited retirement, but until the funeral is over, my energy and drive are on hold. Julie is reading the journal, occasionally remarking on something she has seen. Then she gasps.

“Everything okay?”

“Ed, do you know where your Dad got that cello from?”

“No, he never told me anything like that. Why?”

She points to an entry.

* I tried telling her that I no longer repaired instruments, but she showed me a letter from her father. ‘Please ensure that it is refurbished by a true craftsman I recommend, in fact I insist, Harry Cornish undertakes the work.’
Despite frequent reminders, Carice Elgar never collected the instrument. I know now she was instructed not to. Mother must have impressed him deeply.*

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