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The Singing Will Never Be Done

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Prior was about to start across the water with ammunition when he was himself hit, though it didn't feel like a bullet, more like a blow from something big and hard, a truncheon or a cricket bat, only it knocked him off his feet and he fell, one arm trailing over the edge of the canal.

He tried to turn to crawl back beyond the drainage ditches, knowing it was only a matter of time before he was hit again, but the gas was thick here and he couldn't reach his mask. Banal, simple, repetitive thoughts ran round and round his mind. Balls up. Bloody mad. Oh Christ. There was no pain, more a spreading numbness that left his brain clear.

He saw Kirk die.

He saw Owen die.

He saw -

He felt -

He saw -

And then he ceased to feel.

+

A dull sensation of movement tugged at Prior's muscles and he blinked his eyes reluctantly open. For a moment he thought he had gone blind - then he realised it was just dark. As he squinted, Prior felt the skin of his face tauten and crack like it was with mud or blood, or both.

A tired face peered at him through the gloom.

“Where am I?” Prior said, or tried to say. His lungs felt like they were on fire. He was nauseous and the white hot feeling in his side was, he now realised, pain. Unbelievable pain, like he'd never felt before.

"Please don't try to talk.” The voice was as weary as the face. “You're being taken to a hospital. You've been hurt very badly."

“Take your hands off me," snapped Prior. He had a sense that the man was holding him down and causing the pain in his side, and underneath this was aware of the rolling feeling of a vehicle in motion. Prior felt strongly that all would be better if he could only get out into the air.

“Calm down.”

"I'd be all right if you'd take your hands off me."

The tired man turned his face away and said, “Ben.”

“It's all right,” said another voice, “I've a shot here – give it him.”

Prior had a sense of being in a nightmare, of needing to do something, take some action to get out of it. He wanted to say no, but even words began to slip away from him until at last morphia took him in its arms and held him tight.

+

“I'm not sure I can take much more,” said a woman's voice.

“Oh hush. Apparently it'll all be over any day now,” said another; feeling that they must be talking about the war, Prior snorted, so ridiculous was the thought that it should ever simply stop. Immediately he heard the second voice, older than the other, say, “Well now,” in response.

Prior opened his eyes. He was, it appeared, in an RAMC Base Hospital, being peered at by a rather sardonic-looking nurse. “Fancy seeing you back with us,” she said, and pulled at Prior's eyelids to get a look at his pupils.

“Ugh,” said Prior articulately.

The nurse smiled. “I'm not worried about you,” she said, “you've got a mighty will. Cor, and you weren't half foul to the CO who was holding you together all the way here. Well I said to him, I said, all it is is life in the lad yet, and here you are.”

“Yes,” said Prior.

“I suppose as you've been throwing up for days and nearly bled half to death you could do with a good hot meal.”

The whole conversation was just about unfathomable to Prior, as lost as if he had drifted off in the corner of a quiet, respectable party and woken up to find it had turned itself into an orgy. He shrugged and was surprised to discover that moving at all caused him a great deal of pain.

“Well, you've woken up between mealtimes but I'm sure we can sort something. June, why don't you see about rustling up some soup?”

“Of course,” said the voice from before, younger and quieter, though Prior hadn't been able to turn to see her. Turning, moving - all these things were complex problems for another day.

Prior would later remember little of this time but sleep: in the midst of the noisy ward, with all its roaring and death, a sleep so all-encompassing that it was as if he had never really slept before. He slept for days, unable to bear the pain in his side when awake, eating just enough to keep himself alive. The bullet, mercifully, had gone clean through, but he had already been operated on and would, he was assured, need more and better patching up when back in England.

One day June said, “They're sending you back on the boat tomorrow,” quite casually, while fixing him a cup of tea. Prior felt resigned, half-human, reduced to the sheer physical needs of his body and incapable of real thought. Still, something about this filtered through.

"Home," said Prior, questioningly, like he didn't quite know what it was.

The nurse looked dubious. "Well, to a real hospital," she admonished.

Prior hadn't thought of himself as a bad sailor on the (admittedly limited) previous occasions he'd taken to water, but he spent much of the crossing convinced he would die as his stomach scraped itself clean while his head swum and endlessly swum. The pain in his side was unbearable; every heave of his stomach muscles felt like a fresh stab in the parts of his body that were being held together with, he assumed, tape. By the time a nurse finally reached his makeshift bed, he was shaking from effort and pain.

"You're white as a sheet," she muttered, with a conversational tone that tried and failed to hide the horror in her voice.

She gave him water that he could not keep down and in the end, with a look of quiet desperation, dosed him. Prior took a last look at the hull of the boat, at the still, bored figure of the amputee in the next bed; he supposed that these would be the last things he saw.

What a waste of a life, he thought, and it seemed almost funny to think something, consciously think it, after days that felt like months of simply existing. What a waste of your last moments of consciousness. What a shame, what a shame, what a fucking, fucking...

As simply as that, darkness took him.

For a long time Prior knew nothing, until the sound of gulls. He had a sense that he was in a cellar trying to get out, but he couldn't quite tell where 'out' was, it was so dark. He knew that if he could only find the gulls he would be able to get back to the air.

And then he felt, dreamlike, that he had done it and was on a very hot beach, hotter than he'd ever really stood on in his waking life. For a while he felt that this would be a nice place to stay, except that it was just so hot. He wanted to go into the water but he couldn't work out where it was.

Sometimes he felt he was in the darkness, sometimes on the sand, sometimes nowhere in particular, except that he had a sense of lots of people being behind him, a prickle on the back of his neck, only he couldn't turn around. They were people he knew and wanted to see, but couldn't quite get to; and he seemed to hear Rivers's voice saying, all the time, Turn around. Just turn around.

Prior awoke in a taut, starched white hospital bed to the smell of carbolic and boiled cabbage. Strangely, it was now, in the relative safety of an English hospital with all its unpleasant but familiar smells, that he felt his eyes well up with tears. It had not occurred to him to cry as he lay soaked in blood and canal water waiting for death; not during the long ambulance ride to the field hospital or once during the days-long languor of his stay in that uncomfortable temporary bed; he had not even cried during the long drawn-out misery of the crossing. But now at last tears came.

He did not alert any of the nurses to the fact that he had woken up, instead choosing to lie as still as possible, eyes shut, and wait for his breathing to even out. When he opened his eyes again he realised that some time had passed and he had slept again; dusk was pressing against the windows.

"Please nurse," he said, his voice a rasp.

A dark-eyed girl, leaning over the next bed, turned to look at him. "Good lord," she said, "you're alive. Sister will never believe it."

Prior had found that talking hurt his voice and he was reluctant to do it again; either sensing or expecting this, she poured a glass of water from the jug on his bedside table.

"Can you hold it yourself or would you like me to?"

He felt weaker than in all his adult memory and, not quite able to form words, looked at her appealingly. She lifted his chin and tipped the water gently between his lips.

"There," she said, soothing him as if he were a child, "there now. That's better isn't it? No, don't gulp it - too much and you'll be sick."

He did as instructed, and managed a "Thank you," with his rasp of a voice, though plenty of questions immediately presented themselves with more urgency. Luckily she seemed happy to talk. She was looking at him with an appealing kind of wonder, a charming flush at the base of her neck and attentiveness in those dark eyes; it made him feel a little more alive.

"Do you remember much about getting here? Did you know you had a fever?"

Prior shook his head.

"You came from the boat the day before yesterday but you were burning hot to the touch and wheezing all night long. Sister said you had that influenza everyone's got and you were asthmatic and would probably die. But look at you now." She flashed him a rather sweet smile which he tried and failed to return. "You're over the worst."

A fever? Influenza? Fucking hell, thought Prior, If I survive all this I suppose I'll just go on and live forever.

“You slept through all the celebrations and everything. Sister said how particularly sad it would be for your mother if you died this week, I thought about it all afternoon.”

Prior must have looked lost, because she added, “I suppose you don't know! Did you really not hear us? The war ended yesterday.”

It was as if her voice were coming to him from a vacuum.

Four years. Four years of horror and misery and despair - over.

If it really was, as Prior had insisted just last year, the great test of his generation, nobody could claim that Prior had done any less than his share – physical injury, mental breakdown, a bullet wound... What a collection, he thought wryly, which made him want to laugh, then suddenly he felt he might cry again.

She waited a few moments for him to get himself in order, respectfully silent.

"I should like to write some letters," Prior said at length. His voice was still hoarse, but beginning to sound more like his own already. The nurse all but laughed in his face.

"Tomorrow perhaps. Not now."

He asked her name and she told him it was Mary. He nodded. Already he felt tired again, just from this, and perhaps from the shock of everything. The thought that he had forgotten so much of the last few days disturbed him; he was gently concerned that the blank patches in his memory were caused by no mere fever, but by a visit from his other self. No, Rivers would hate that – by one of his fugue states, then. He smiled wanly at her. If Mary was so keen on his being alive, he couldn't have done anything too awful.

Prior sank into a sleep that was fitful, but better than the flat-out, fevered unconsciousness of recent days. He did not dream of the beach again, but still the voice, that familiar, needling voice: Turn around now, Mister Prior. Come on.

+

When Prior woke again, it was morning on the ward and all the other patients were pleasantly surprised to find him still alive.

"We were sure you was a goner," said a Sergeant in the next bed, cheerful in spite of his missing forearm.

Prior ate a porridge breakfast with the others, ravenous after days of forced fasting; one of the more sympathetic nurses snuck him two bananas from the kitchen for afters. Mary was nowhere to be seen, but then, Prior supposed, she presumably worked nights.

A doctor saw him a little after eleven and congratulated him on his falling temperature.

"I've never had so many people pleased with me just for being alive," said Prior.

Doctor Mackinnon smiled indulgently. “How's the chest?”

“Still a bit tight,” said Prior, who had been distantly aware of it most of the time since coming to. “But I suppose that's to be expected.”

“Right you are. You'll be fine in a few days, I'm sure. Let me know if it gets any worse.”

“I will.”

Before moving on to the next patient, Mackinnon patted Prior awkwardly on the shoulder. "That flu you had is rather nastier than the usual, you know... Who or whatever your lucky stars might be, Mr. Prior, I should thank them if I were you."

'Mister', thought Prior, and in a military hospital of all places. It was then that he remembered the war was over.

The ward, the soldiers in their beds, the November light streaming through the window – how different it all looked, knowing that. No more words, thought Prior, and sank down in his bed.

+

After lunch, he slept until he was woken by Mary, come to change the dressing on his wound.

"How funny to think I nearly died and not of this," he said, watching her snip very precisely through the bandages.

"This didn't help," she said matter-of-factly. Mary didn't like to talk while she worked, tongue sticking out in concentration, but afterwards was happy to linger a few moments and gossip with Prior, to whom she seemed to have taken a shine.

“I was told before I came here that I'd need to have surgery – better stitches done, or something...?”

“Yes, I think that's right,” she said. “You were too weak before, but I heard the doctor say something about the start of next week.”

Mary told him that the sister had been very cross about the state Prior arrived in and felt he should not have been sent back on the boat so early. "She said if she ever met the sister in charge of that field hospital she'd give her a piece of her mind," said Mary, who obviously thought this the height of controversy, with a blush. “Would you like anything before I move on, Mr Prior?"

Prior thought for a moment, then asked for some paper and a pen, to write letters. He supposed it was time to let everyone know he was alive and where he could be found; it also occurred to him that he wasn't as sure of the latter as the former. Mary told him when she brought the stationery that they were in Wiltshire; he'd never been before. What a way to see the world, he thought.

He started two letters to his mother and three to Sarah, not quite able to finish either. 'I am happy to be alive' seemed a natural starting point, but was he? It didn't seem entirely fair to make such bold claims when he hadn't really thought beyond the end of his bed since the Sambre-Oise Canal was taken. So then - 'I am lucky to be alive'. Objectively much safer grounds, but luckiness in a state of affairs still implied happiness in its outcome. 'I have nearly died' seemed too wantonly dramatic.

In the end he gave up the matter entirely and dashed off a note to Rivers that ran simply:

My dear Rivers,
I am alive. No-one more surprised than me though evidently a few of the nurses thought it unlikely. Stuck in bed in Tidworth Hospital, Wiltshire, too tired even to be bored. Can it really all be over? Sorry to hear you are presumably out of a job.
Yours,
Billy Prior

It didn't say nearly half of what needed saying, but it was something, some contact with the outside world. Mary agreed to send it for him. Afterwards, he spent a while engaged in conversation with the armless sergeant, Hall, about how he'd lost it, then read the paper, ate again and eventually slept for about twelve hours. He thought about almost nothing, his state of weakness having reduced him practically to the state of a baby, trusting calmly in the mercy of his carers, regular mealtimes, and sleep.

+

The next day, he was reliably informed, was a Friday. It passed in a blur of already-familiar routine; he felt he had been here some months, though this was entirely untrue.

Somehow or other, Prior failed again to get his letters written. He spent most of the day looking out of the window, wondering when he would be permitted to get up without them worrying he might faint or tear his stitches. His chest felt even more tight and muzzy today than yesterday, without fresh air.

And Saturday was for visitors to the ward.

Having surrendered any thought of being able to face writing Sarah or his mother before he was up and about again, Prior had taken to keeping a kind of diary on the letter paper. He wondered what had happened to his old one; presumably it had long since been reduced to pulp by blood and canal water.

He'd written in spits and spats on Friday night and earlier that morning, mostly rather dull and impersonal things, observations about the nurses and his fellow patients. Half-concerned in case it should be read, Prior had used a mixture of code, hint and symbol to refer to the people around him, which in retrospect tended to be either far too obvious or so oblique that he could barely tell himself what he had meant just yesterday. All in all, it was unsatisfactory, but the only entertainment he really had outside the newspaper - and of course the ever-present spectre of those letters he needed to get written.

Prior settled down to watch the visitors arrive, planning some cheap amusement at their expense for a few hours, writing mean little caricatures of all those reticent civilians. Then he saw a familiar face appear in the doorway, eyes scanning the room which lit up when they landed on him.

"Rivers," he said, stunned. In fact he felt such a rush of unexpected emotion that for a moment he thought he was angry, which was ridiculous. He wanted to get up to greet him, and couldn't, and for the first time found himself really struck by the truth of the situation: that he was injured, he had no idea really how badly; that he was weak; that he had nearly died and had emotionally accepted that death to so great an extent that now he had no idea how to pick up the strands of his life as it had been and create something from them.

Rivers crossed the room and came to stand by his bed. He looked less severe, Prior realised, than he had looked and sounded in Prior's recent dreams – but still rather like a figment of Prior's imagination, too implausible and kind.

"Hello," said Rivers. He was smiling but he looked incredibly tired.

With characteristic grace, Prior opened with, "You look exhausted," then immediately regretted it. Why can't I ever just be kind? Prior wondered. Do I somehow despise it as the easy option? It certainly isn't that.

Rivers laughed. "Yes, well, you don't look at your best yourself."

"I got shot. What's your excuse?"

"Oh I don't know. Interminable conversations with lots of bloody bores who've been shot, I suppose."

They looked at each other for a moment, then started laughing at the same time. Prior had to stop quickly, shocked by the sudden pain of it; was this the first time he had really laughed since being shot?

"It's good to see you, Billy," said Rivers.

Billy, thought Prior. What he said was, "You too. It's very good to see you." He meant it.

By the time the nurses had fussed round, getting Rivers a chair and offering him tea, Prior felt a bit less on the back foot. Still he couldn't keep himself from saying, "I didn't expect to see you. I just mean - I only meant to let you know I was alive, it wasn't..." He groped for the right words. "It didn't occur to me you might trek out all this way."

"It didn't occur to me not to," Rivers said simply, and smiled, and Prior thought, Well that's an end to that.

Rivers touched him very lightly on the arm, so lightly that anyone else might not have noticed, and added, "How are you holding up?"

Prior thought about this for a moment. "I've certainly collected quite a set of war wounds," he said at length.

Rivers raised his eyebrows and waited for Prior to go on; it was funny to realise that here, in all the hubbub of the ward, Rivers's silences held no less power than in all the quiet rooms where they had sat together. Prior shrugged in a manner he had developed that put least strain on the damaged muscles of his abdomen. 

"Bullet wound," he said at length, gesturing to his right side. "One of the lucky ones, I'm told - straight through, no gangrene - but I have to have more surgery early next week so it all-" he faltered, not really understanding these things - "heals properly, I suppose."

Rivers nodded. "Do you remember much about it?"

"Bits and pieces. Anyway, being shot was fine – influenza turned out to be the real problem." Rivers looked a little stunned, which made Prior want to laugh, except that it would hurt, so he didn't. "I got it coming over. Apparently it's rife."

"It is," said Rivers slowly, with a slightly dulled expression, as if thinking back on something. As an afterthought he added, almost to himself, "I'm even luckier to find you alive than I'd realised."

Prior wondered if he knew what he'd just said; the old urge would have been to make bloody sure he knew, but it didn't make itself felt much today. Instead he said, "I'm not convinced luck had much to do with it - if it's going to take more than being shot and gassed and fevered to make me take a hint, I can only assume I sold my soul at some point and forgot about it."

On reflection, Prior felt the fact that he actually had gone round recently doing things he didn't quite hold truck with, and then forgetting about them, rendered this not very funny. Rivers pressed on regardless.

"How's your chest?" he asked. "Influenza and asthma don't generally agree too well, in my experience."

"No, well," Prior had not really ceased to be aware of it for five minutes since waking up here, "I could probably do with some fresh air."

Rivers nodded, then glanced out of the window. "Shall we?" he asked.

"If you can fix it with them," said Prior, meaning the nurses, and leaving silent the concern Rivers must surely be aware of - that Prior would be unable to get far without a wheeled chair, and would need to be pushed. 

Rivers smiled. "I'll see what I can do."

After speaking to the sister, Rivers slipped out for a moment. Ostensibly he wanted to say hello to a friend from medical school who worked at the hospital - but more likely, Prior thought, he correctly surmised that Prior would little appreciate being seen in such a state of weakness and dependency.

It hurt far more than Prior thought possible to be helped from his bed into the wheelchair held out for him; at one point it was so painful that he nearly asked them to stop, and gave up on the whole thing, but of course now that he'd started it seemed silly not to go on. To have felt all that pain for nothing. He was breathless and, he could tell, ashen by the time Rivers came back, though Rivers's expression didn't give much away. He just said, "Well, shall we head off?"

Prior nodded.

The moment they stepped over the threshold, out into the world, was one Prior felt he was likely to remember for some time to come. It wasn't a particularly beautiful day, a little grey and overcast, and it didn't exactly fill him with rapture for England, glorious England. Still - it was green and welcoming and in a funny sort of way it did look like home. Prior took deep breaths and tried to hide the sheer rapture of them. He wasn't sure why.

They went down the path that led away from the front door, towards a small copse. As Prior had no memory of arriving, they had the pleasure of discovering it together. There was a bench near the copse where Rivers could sit while Prior stayed in the chair. Their breath came out in plumes of smoke and there were birds singing. By the time they'd sat down, Prior was a little out of breath from the change of temperature, while Rivers seemed tired from pushing the chair; Prior had an urge to make some joke of it, but the concrete fact of their physical weaknesses was slightly too pronounced to really be funny.

"Thank you," said Prior after a moment, when his breath had come back.

Rivers, evidently so sunk in thought that this hadn't reached him, said, "Do you know, I thought you were dead."

"I'm sorry?"

"I wrote to you - a rather well-measured response, actually, to your slightly testing 'please visit my mother if I die' letter-"

"Yes, sorry about that," said Prior haltingly.

"And anyway, there was some mix-up, you know how it is, and it got sent back to me with a stamp on, 'Killed in Action'."

Prior didn't immediately have anything to say to this.

"I suppose," Rivers continued, "it happens quite often. Anyway, it was rather - and then, getting your letter - well it was unmistakably from you. It gave me quite a turn."

It made Prior blush to think of the casual, unfeeling little letter he had rushed off the other day, for it to turn up suddenly when Rivers had been - what? Grieving for him? He couldn't quite imagine - but a picture came to his mind's eye of Rivers sitting very still in his office while his tea got cold. He couldn't picture a more dramatic reaction than this, but found the image curiously affecting.

With a sudden panic that Rivers could read minds, Prior said lightly, "How awful - to think you were so nearly free of me, and then..."

Rivers was usually responsive to this kind of joke, he thought, but today just gave him an admonishing look, and stared off into the copse.

"I'm sorry - I'm not very..." Prior paused, trying to think of what he wanted to say. "There aren't scores of people much interested in whether I live or die, but when I wrote to you last week I flattered myself you might be one of them. And now, to... I do appreciate - well, you know."

At this angle, Prior could only really see the back of Rivers's head, but enough to see him take his glasses off and sweep a hand across his face. Prior felt a wave of affection and relief, though he wasn't sure quite what he was so relieved about.

"Anyway," said Rivers, turning back to face him with a smile. "I can only hope you wrote to your young lady before she wrote to you."

The bottom dropped out of Prior's stomach. Somehow it hadn't occurred to him that his radio silence might mean Sarah thought he was... And if they had him on a list somewhere, 'Killed in Action', then - well.

"I feel as though I'm only just starting to use my mind again," said Prior slowly, a little disbelievingly. He hoped it would sound like a change of conversational tack; he didn't, in spite of all this soul-bearing, relish the thought of telling Rivers he had not yet written to anyone else, and wasn't sure why. Perhaps he really had, in some secret part of him, hoped that writing to Rivers would make him rush down and visit; certainly he felt already rather better, as though life was more itself again, just for having heard that calm, familiar voice.

"That's not so surprising. You nearly died," said Rivers. "That kind of physical illness does tend to reduce us to our instincts a little."

Prior nodded. "It's strange. I feel I've been - I don't know - just a body, without a mind. Funny to say that to you actually, I always imagined you'd rather like to be a mind without a body."

"Ah. Well I'm sure it would've been half as much fun for you if I had been."

They shared a smile. Even speaking about their time as Doctor and patient in the past tense was something entirely new - it meant that the war and Craiglockhart and all that meant was really behind them. Not entirely meaning to, Prior put something of this thought process into words. "I wonder what happens now," he said.

Rivers looked at him. "What would you like to happen?" When Prior didn't say anything, Rivers continued, "You once told me..."

"What?" asked Prior. Good Lord, he thought, it could be any number of dreadful things.

"Well - that you wanted to go into politics after the war."

Prior had forgotten telling him this at all, had almost forgotten even feeling it - but yes, at Craiglockhart, that was what he had said, what he had felt even before the war. Christ, it all seemed a million years ago now.

"I haven't thought about it for a while," said Prior slowly. "I haven't, for some time, been able to imagine a time when the war was over. Or that - I mean it seemed unlikely after a while that I should survive."

It was only saying it now that Prior realised how absolutely true this was. Rivers was looking at him with profound sympathy and understanding, and Prior felt suddenly that there was nowhere else from which real help might come.

"Only I'm not so sure," he added, "that I'm so very qualified now. A man who not only broke down, but who has large chunks of several weeks of his life missing from his memory..."

Rivers made a dismissive gesture. "I'm sure there's plenty in the Commons with a less respectable history than yours."

"Yes," said Prior. "And - yes. I'm just not so sure it's what I want to do any more. But I haven't a clue what I do want."

They looked at each other, Prior waiting for some answer that, he realised, was not forthcoming. Rivers spread his hands, producing whatever the well-mannered equivalent of a shrug was, and said, "Billy, there's no doubt in my mind that you could turn your hand to any number of things. But what they might be is up to you."

+

As Rivers wheeled him slowly, steadily back towards the ward, Prior said, "I know it's all over, and you've no real reason to be my doctor any more, let alone anything else, but I should like - I should very much like--" He wanted to say, 'to be your friend', but it sounded too trite and too reductive and in any case not a very tempting offer for poor Rivers. "I should like to go on seeing you. Not professionally, I mean not as your patient, just - around."

He could hear but not see the smile in Rivers's voice when he spoke from somewhere behind him. "I could come and visit again next week, if you think you might be bored."

"I'd like that. Thank you. I really would."

+

He started the letter 'Dear Sarah,' and it took him eight minutes of staring at the blank page, after Rivers had departed with all the other visitors, to get to the next line. But once he'd got past that - a deceptively simple 'I'm sorry it has been so long since I last wrote to you...' - the rest of the letter came quite easily.