November 12th, 1918
The war ended yesterday. It should have felt momentous, incredible, should have been an unbelievable relief; it should have felt something. There was a great to-do when it was announced, though it had sort of seemed as though everyone was behaving this way because they felt they ought to. It was all so far away, here. Hibbert had joined in, cheered with the rest of them, tried not to notice the detachment in everyone’s eyes and hoped nobody noticed it in his eyes. Well, eye. That’s rather why he was in hospital in the first place. He’s lost an eye to shrapnel – of course it was an eye, of course it was that eye, because God has a taste for poetic retribution. Or playing silly buggers. Either one.
The war ended yesterday, and today, Hibbert sits at the foot of his hospital bed, wishing he had something to pack. He’s leaving today. The eye has healed up as best as it’s about to, and so has the rest of him. The holes in his memory are starting to fill in, though he wishes they wouldn’t. The nightmares haven’t stopped, because they’re not going to. The same with the tremors. He wishes he had somebody to say goodbye to, but he doesn’t actually know any of the other patients. He was never particularly sociable at the best of times, and he spent most of his time here sobbing into the thin pillow and feeling sorry for himself. He sees clearly now what a coward he was; he’d seen it at the time, and thought he didn’t care, but in this place it’s easy to imagine he could have done better, now that he’s far away from all of it. He should feel glad that it’s all over, and he doesn’t. He didn’t do enough, didn’t try hard enough, wasn’t a hero. He didn’t think any of that mattered, at the time. It probably still doesn’t. Maybe he’s just determined to keep on suffering, keep on hating himself, so his brain has come up with a new reason for him to do so.
It’s nearly time to go. Hibbert takes a last look at the message from his mother, a reply to a letter he only vaguely remembers writing: of course he’s welcome at home, just be sure to send a telegram once he knows when. He frowns at it now as he frowned when he first read it; there was never any of course about it, and that house hasn’t been home for some years, now. But he has nowhere else to go, so he sent the telegram a few days ago and home it shall be. Until he finds a job (if he ever does), until he can afford a house (if he ever can), until he’s able to live on his own (if he ever is). It could be worse, he reflects. It is worse, for a lot of people. Somehow, that doesn’t make him feel any better.
He glances at his watch. It’s time. He gets up, walks stiffly through the halls. Nobody says hello when he passes. Nobody says goodbye. He doesn’t say anything.
He is not the only one being discharged today. There is one other man. A boy, really; he can’t be more than eighteen or nineteen, and Hibbert briefly remembers blue eyes, an easy smile – there was a name, but he can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter anymore. This boy’s eyes are brown, and old in the same way that all their eyes are old, now, even the youngest of them. His mouth is set in a hard line, and he leans heavily on a crutch that’s a little too short for him, which makes him stoop. Neither of them says anything, and nor do they smile; they just nod slightly at each other, a mild acknowledgement. A formality.
The train station is just around the corner, an orderly informs them, so they’ll have to walk – this last part is addressed to the boy with the crutch, apologetically.
“That’s fine,” the boy says, which should sound polite, but his voice is heavy with warning. Don’t you dare mention it, he is saying. Don’t you dare.
The orderly flinches back a little, but the boy’s face is hard as stone. Hibbert makes an effort to smile, but it’s as though he has forgotten how, and he can’t imagine that the eventual effect is very reassuring at all. The orderly opens the door hurriedly, the two step out, and suddenly, Hibbert is out of hospital. Like everything else, it ought to feel like more than it does. Wordlessly, he and the boy begin to trudge to the station.
When they round the corner, the boy says, “Do you have your ticket?”
Hibbert has spent too much time in the hospital to bridle at being treated like a child. He checks his pocket. “Yes,” he says, though his voice comes out faint and slightly hoarse, and he realises that he hadn’t yet spoken all day. He was mute when he went in, and even now that he can speak he often doesn’t unless he has to.
He doesn’t have to now, so he and the boy find the platform and wait for their train – the same one – in silence. The train arrives, and they board in silence. The train is very empty. The two of them just duck into the first compartment they see, sit opposite one another. It is very empty, and very, very quiet. Hibbert looks around – he still isn’t used to the loss of peripheral vision, and hates that he has to turn his head the whole way around to see a little to his right. It is a very ordinary train compartment – the upholstery on the seats is brown and threadbare, but fairly respectable, the windows are mostly clean, somebody has dropped a luggage-label on the floor. He wonders who was in such a hurry to get off the train that they didn’t check they still had their luggage-label. This does not seem to him like a hurrying sort of train.
The silence in the compartment is palpable, now, almost as though it is a physical entity pressing in around them like a heavy eiderdown. Hibbert tries to ignore it, tries to focus on the seemingly-distant sounds of the train itself as it pulls out of the station, the mechanical noises, the scrape of fabric on fabric every time one of them shifts slightly. He doesn’t look at the crutch, and he doesn’t look at the boy. He looks out of the window, watches as trees rush past, then another train, then trees again. He watches as they pull into the next station, and then the next, counting down the stops until he gets off.
“This is ridiculous,” says the boy, loudly. “What’s your name?”
Hibbert is surprised into replying. “Hibbert.”
The boy looks disappointed for a split second. “Cadell.”
Hibbert realises too late that he probably wanted a first name, wanted for a moment to forget who they were and what they had been. It seems too late now. He clears his throat self-consciously. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Is it?” Cadell asks, sharply.
The question throws Hibbert off again. “What?”
“It’s not nice. Nothing about any of this is nice.”
“You’re the one who wanted to talk,” Hibbert snaps, almost accidentally.
Cadell looks taken aback, then ashamed. “Oh, God, I’m sorry. That was – unnecessary of me. I suppose…I think I’m angry. But that isn’t your fault.”
“I…” Hibbert doesn’t really know how to finish the sentence. Eventually, he settles on “I wouldn’t worry about it.”
To Hibbert’s surprise, Cadell smiles. Not a happy smile, more something sardonic and a little sad, but a smile. “About what? Being rude? Being angry? Losing the use of a leg? The possibilities are endless.”
Hibbert manages a huff of laughter in response to that. “I think it might be hypocritical of me to tell you not to worry about your leg. I don’t see how I’ll ever get used to…” he gestures in the direction of his face.
“How did you – ” Cadell begins, then cuts himself off. “Sorry, that’s unnecessary, too.”
“No, it’s all right,” says Hibbert, to his own surprise. “It was shrapnel. It’s ironic, really,” he continues, and immediately regrets it, because they have only just begun to get along, and now he’s going to have to explain what he means.
“Ironic?” Cadell asks, inevitably.
Hibbert takes a deep breath. “I had neuralgia in this eye while I was out there.” He gestures et the eye again, though it’s fairly obvious which one he means. “Pretended to,” he adds, recklessly, because what does he care? If Cadell’s going to hate him for being a coward, he might as well start now. It’s not like they’re ever seeing each other again.
“Pretended to?” Cadell’s voice isn’t as sharp as Hibbert expected.
As steadily as he can, Hibbert replies, “I wanted to go home. I pretended to be sick. It didn’t work.” Then, as an afterthought, “I’m not proud of it.”
Cadell is silent for a few moments. “It took me longer than I care to admit to realise how wrong the whole business was. They came to our school, you know; I joined up the minute I could, just like everyone else. You had to show willing. That was just over a year ago, and I can’t imagine how I was ever so stupid.”
“I never wanted to join. Avoided it as long as I could.”
“You were clever.”
“I’m a coward.” Hibbert has said this so many times in his own mind, to himself, that voicing it should not feel as vulnerable as it does.
Cadell seems to notice the change in him, and adjusts the subject deftly. “Mine was shrapnel too, incidentally. Right through the back of my knee and out the other side, taking most of my kneecap with it.” Cadell’s tone is matter-of-fact, but there’s a tightness underneath it. Then he laughs sheepishly, and it’s the first time he’s seemed his age since they met. “Sorry. Apparently I can’t do small talk anymore.”
He’s smiling, and Hibbert smiles in response, though it isn’t a cheerful subject. “I know how you feel. Conversation seems as difficult as seeing – I only feel half-capable of it.”
Cadell nods. “Hang on, let me try – so, Mr Hibbert, what do you do?”
“At present, Mr Cadell? Very little. I suppose I might try to get a job at a bank, put that Mathematics degree to use.”
“Mathematics degree? From where?”
“Cambridge, as it happens.”
Cadell grins. “In that case, I’m afraid I cannot associate with you any longer.”
“I will be. Ideally. I joined up before I – ” Cadell stops short, as they both remember where they are and why they are here. His grin falters. “In any case, I shall have to go at some time, though I’ll probably have to wait another year before I can apply.”
“What will you study?” Asks Hibbert, surprised to find that he really does want to know.
“English Literature.” Here, Cadell hesitates, looking as though he wants to say something more. It takes a full minute before he admits, somewhat shamefacedly, that he is a poet.
“Why are you embarrassed by that?”
“Because poetry is so often considered the realm of the optimistic, and I cannot at present count myself an optimist, nor can I bear to be perceived as one.”
Hibbert raises an eyebrow – his good eye – at the idea that he might have perceived Cadell as any kind of optimist. “No fear. But what about Sassoon, and Graves, and all of that lot? I don’t call any of that very optimistic.”
Cadell shakes his head. “They’re war poets, I’m not. I’ll never write about the war. Poetry ought to be transcendent.”
“How Wildean of you,” says Hibbert, before he can think better of it.
“I do hope so,” returns Cadell. He holds Hibbert’s eye for a moment, and suddenly there is a new, unspoken understanding between them.
Hibbert is the one to break eye contact first. He glances out of the window. “Ah, your poetry – is it good?” It is a poor question, but the only one that comes to mind.
“Not exceptionally,” says Cadell. “Not yet. But it will be – with a little practice, I can easily be a good poet. And, one day, I will be a great one.”
Hibbert can’t remember the last time he smiled so much in such a short space of time. “And modest, too.”
Cadell holds up a hand. “I never claimed to be that. Besides, a fellow ought to have ambitions, don’t you think?”
Hibbert has never been particularly ambitious. “I suppose so,” he concedes. This whole exchange is surreal to him. He remembers the trenches, talking about trivial things because if you didn’t you’d go mad the whole way, instead of just partly. This isn’t like that. It almost seems like an ordinary conversation, a real one, but for the minor reservation that he barely knows the man to whom he is chatting as though they are, at the very least, friends.
They lapse into a silence somehow both amiable and not. Cadell has an oddly penetrating way of looking at one, when he isn’t talking; his brown eyes seem darker, more knowing – not in the aged way that they all do, now, but something inherent to Cadell himself. Hibbert shifts in his seat, suddenly very conscious of the ways the glass eye doesn’t quite fit in his skull. Cadell notices his discomfort and seems to catch himself. He blinks, deliberately, looks away, looks back, and smiles. It should be self-conscious, but it isn’t; it is open, and friendly, and Hibbert can’t help smiling back.
“What’s home to you, then?” Cadell asks, quite naturally.
“Kettering,” answers Hibbert.
Cadell laughs. “No, I mean – well, I mean who, I suppose. Your family?”
“Oh! My mother.”
“A brother and a sister,” Hibbert says, automatically. Then he realises. Stops short. Blinks hard. “That is – my brother – ”
Cadell takes his meaning. “I’m sorry.”
Hibbert turns his head away. He doesn’t want to talk about Algie. “Celia’s in the fifth form – my sister, she’s still at school, I won’t see her until December. What about you?” The words all come out in one breath, and he doesn’t dare look back at Cadell until he’s finished.
“My parents. I’ve no siblings, it’s just me. I’m sort of dreading it; I’ll have to get all sorts of things straight in my head before we see the Brandons – family friends, practically family themselves, really. I’m supposed to be a sort of brother figure to their little boy, Wyndham – I never minded before, he’s a sharp lad, but he’s so curious. Always wants to know all about everything. He won’t understand why I can’t – well, never mind. His parents will have had a quiet word, I’m sure.” His tone is flippant, but his eyes are shadowed and his knuckles are white.
Hibbert wants to sympathise, wants to share his own fear of going home, seeing the others. The words stick in his throat. Instead, he nods sympathetically. “It’s difficult, with children.”
Cadell nods wearily. “Yes. But that’s all to come, I’m sure it’ll all be fine.” He clearly doesn’t believe a word of it, and now that silence threatens to return. Cadell cuts it off by asking, loudly, “What about other people at home? Is there anyone waiting for you, back in Kettering?” He gives a sideways grin, but it’s hollow. He’s only filling the empty air.
Automatically, almost unconsciously, the lie begins to form in Hibbert’s mind. Yes, there is someone waiting for him; a girl, and she’s pretty, so pretty, he didn’t propose to her before he went because he was afraid of not coming back, and he couldn’t do that to her, couldn’t leave her like that – maybe he’s nervous about seeing her again, worried she won’t love him anymore, now he’s injured and jittery – yes, that’s right, he’s afraid of losing her because she’s special, you see, not like all those other girls he’s had, this one’s different, and pretty, so pretty – “No,” he says. There’s no point in saying anything else.
Cadell nods. “Me neither.”
The silence is deafening. Cadell was right about small talk; it doesn’t seem to help anything.
Hibbert wants to say something, but everything he can think of sounds hopelessly inane, so unbearably trivial he can’t bring himself to voice it. Perhaps it’s better just to stay quiet, perhaps the moment has passed, that brief connection fading. “I was almost a conscientious objector,” he says, hardly knowing what he’s doing.
Cadell looks up. Tilts his head. “Really?” He asks. Hibbert doesn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this quiet interest, the edge of respect in Cadell’s voice.
Hibbert considers taking it back, but he finds that he doesn’t want to. Besides, he’s said it, now. Cadell might as well know the whole story. “I was too much of a coward, in the end.”
One corner of Cadell’s mouth turns up, curious. “I thought the general agreement was that conchies are the worst sort of coward?”
“You and I both know that’s not true.”
“How do you know that I know it?”
“You didn’t break my nose when I told you I tried to get sent home. That’s worse than refusing to go in the first place.”
“If I’d objected, I’d at least have been honest.”
“Are you an honest man, Mr Hibbert?”
“No.” Hibbert doesn’t know why he is doing this, why he feels the need to tell this man these things, things he’s kept hidden for so long even from himself.
Cadell leans forward. “You value honesty, but don’t think yourself honest?” The life has come back into his face, his eyes. This is his element, Hibbert realises. He’s acting as though this is a debate, a philosophical argument. That should rankle, but it doesn’t. It’s almost a relief, reducing a source of perpetual agony to an intellectual exercise.
Almost. “I wanted to think I was – honest. Even when I was pretending to be ill, sometimes I’d worry about it so much I’d make myself believe I really was.”
“That doesn’t sound like a man comfortable with dishonesty to me. Perhaps war makes liars of us all? I’ve certainly seen evidence for it.”
Hibbert shakes his head. He wishes he could agree, blame it all on one thing, but he’s said too much to back out of the responsibility again now. “I was a liar before the war.”
Cadell pauses for a moment, to think. “Everybody lies. I don’t think it’s possible for someone to be completely honest.”
“I’m not saying it is. Only that I lie more than most. My whole life is lies, it always has been.”
“You’d be surprised how many people feel that way,” Cadell says, in a surprisingly gentle voice.
Suddenly, the shield of intellectualism and philosophy falls away, and Hibbert feels tears start to sting in his good eye. He turns to face the window. Cadell says nothing, just leans across the compartment and touches the back of Hibbert’s hand. Hibbert risks a glance at his companion; Cadell is looking at him with those impossibly expressive eyes, the hard set of his face gone and replaced with open concern, with empathy, with understanding. He doesn’t remove his hand, even when Hibbert crumbles and begins to cry right there in the little compartment, in front of a man he barely knows.
They sit like this for what feels like an eternity. Then the train grinds to a halt, and Hibbert makes himself look up. Kettering. He stands, awkwardly, brushing himself down, wiping the tear-tracks from his face. Clears his throat.
“This is my stop,” He says, redundantly.
Cadell stands, wincing as he has to drag himself upwards ungracefully with the help of his crutch. Hibbert doesn’t dare try to assist – Cadell clearly doesn’t want to be treated like an invalid. He sticks his hand out. “It was nice meeting you, Hibbert.”
Hibbert shakes his hand. “You too.” Then, impulsively, “Though, really – it’s Nigel.”
Cadell grins. “Rupert.”
“Nice meeting you, Rupert. Safe journey.”
“You too, Nigel.” The train-whistle sounds. “You’d better go.”
Hibbert gets to the door and hops off the train just in time. As it pulls out, the carriage with Rupert Cadell in it goes past. They wave at each other as the vehicle picks up its speed, and Hibbert feels more human than he has in a long time.