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Against the Walls, Against Your Rules, Against Your Skin

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1919

Robert Mallory had ambition, once. Now his only ambition is to breathe without feeling as if he is suffocating. It is not a medical suffocation, the physiological response of the body’s cells to a lack of air. It is a flood, a tide of things that should not be there. It fills the empty parts of him with meaningless senseless noise, chokes him. He stands on a street corner near Victoria Station and at the same time falls back through time and over 180 miles of earth and back into the trenches. He wraps his uncooperative fingers into a fist and feels the pull of the muscles in his arms, as hard and stiff as wood, as stone.

He relives every moment just as it happened, in an instant, and then, and then. When he feels the rain on his face and the pavement beneath his feet he finds that he cannot breathe. There is no time and no place, in the sterile place of his memory. Only things he cannot change.

London is noisy. London has thousands of voices and each one of them, if he listened to it, would tell him a story of loss. There is a trunk under his bed full of notebooks and papers. He doesn’t look at them. He lies awake at night, in his childhood bedroom, and reads The History of the Peloponnesian War. He finds notes in the margins in a neat, certain hand that is no longer his own.

There are half a million women in England who’ll never find a husband and Robert’s parents introduce him to two of them. Marjorie comes to dinner, and Ellen comes to tea. He excuses himself. He rushes out into the hall, leaving sweaty handprints on the wallpaper. He loosens his tie and stares out the window, up at the small grey scrap of sky. He looks at the men and women walking below. How swollen the streets would be if they were crowded with the dead. It is thoughts like these that make his palms sweat and his throat go dry.

“You’re hurting us,” his mother says.

“I know,” Robert says. I’m hurting myself, he thinks but doesn’t say. We are all hurting. They wanted a son they could be proud of, and instead they have this cowed, stuttering wreck. He is too silent. He is not the only one to return feeling like he has been scooped out and sewn back together. He is undeserving of their love, of her love, of everything.

“I’m sorry,” he says, too late, and when he first tries to speak, an invisible hand clamps down in his throat.

He leaves.

 

1920

There is no such thing as ghosts. That’s what Robert tells himself when he wakes up sweating in an attic room in Cumbria. He repeats these words to himself, over and over, and the words are stronger in his head than they feel when he whispers them weakly into the creaking sweating dark. His face is suddenly cold with sweat. He battles with the sheets, sometimes, and whimpers pathetically because he dreams that he has dirt over his face, mud and blood in his mouth. Grit against his teeth.

He sits quietly on the edge of the bed in the early morning light. He’s wide across the shoulders but small and well-contained. Neat, his mother called him when he came home in his uniform. But fear has diminished him. It makes his hands shake and his throat dry.

He likes it here, in his attic room. It contains him. And when the clean morning light comes through the small dirty window he can look out on the grey outbuildings and the rolling green hills, his feet cold against the floor. Life is simple here.

There is history here, too, but it’s the tidy domestic history written in granite and terraced gardens. It is not a history of blood. It doesn’t have a voice.

...

If he stumbles when he teaches, the children do not seem to mind. Rookford is a haven for the lonely and the damaged, an asylum without high walls or fences. They are tucked into bed by dear old Maud, who sometimes seems to look at things that aren’t really there. They are taught English by limping, cowed men, by jolly men prone to sudden screaming rages. They are caned by a Minister who lost three sons, who was dismissed from his previous situation for standing up in front of the entire student body and declaring in a broken, trembling voice that he no longer believed in God, that God was empty and dead. So they never seem to notice the way the words sometimes die in Robert’s throat. They probably pity him, in that half-scared way the young pity the old.

When he cannot trust his voice very far he copies down questions onto the blackboard. In what wars did Henry V. engage? With what politic result? Which way is Marathon from Sparta? How many years was Rome at war with other nations? Their Schoolboy’s History has so much blood spilt within its pages. When they think he isn’t looking, they colour in the illustrated plates with their pencils. The arms used by the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians. Medieval armour. They crowd around the painting in the stairway and cheerfully reenact it, fingers tracing the spurting of blood on their smooth white necks, their small child’s teeth showing in a dumbshow death rictus.

...

The voices crowd around him when he sleeps. When he’s awake, they make his waking seem like dreaming. When he sees a ladder leaning against a wall. When he smells the sharp phosphorus scent of an extinguished match. When he hears unbroken voices singing hymns. When he least expects it and when he does, in London or in the country, they weave their way around him. They settle down at his feet like soggy autumn leaves. He sweats and breathes hard and loosens his collar. He shakes in railway lavatories and behind the outbuildings and in his room.

“Sir, sir, sir,” Barton says, but he has no left eye. The worst part is when he turns around, then Robert can see that there is no back to his head, as well. A hundred times, a thousand times, Robert dreams that Barton speaks to him, the same Barton he watched die facedown in the mud. He scrambled over the body.

“Christ almighty, we’re in the thick of it n—“ Smith says, and that truncated final word echoes in Robert’s skull. That pause stretches on and on, in Robert’s mind. He hears it four, five years later, a never-ending enjambment.

There’s no such thing as ghosts, he tells himself. Only memories, and they can’t hurt you. But of course they can. Memories fester. Memories make simple soldier boys put bullets in their mouth. Memories make promising young men hide away in attic rooms in the country. Memories stop you from living.

 

 

1921

The boys whisper to each other over their porridge. I’ve seen a ghost, they say. He spoke to me in the corridor. His face was white and twisted. I felt his hands, his hands were wet and cold. Maud tuts them. Then Walter Portman goes missing. They find him lying face down outside, his skin too cold for life, his nightgown wet with dew.

“I know you had literary aspirations at one time, Robert.” The headmaster speaks to him gently, as if he’s a son.

“Hardly,” Robert says. Four technically perfect sonnets in literary magazines. They are so cold and remote to him now that he could have written them in his sleep.

“Well,” the headmaster says, “ In any case I’d like you to go up to London and convince Miss Cathcart to come here and investigate the... incident. Maud speaks very highly of her.”

He reads Florence Cathcart’s book on the train. She clings so stubbornly to her principles of science, of empiricism. Ghosts exist where guilt does, she says. Ghosts are nothing but human imagination combined with human regret. Robert stares blindly out of the window and thinks of the men who won’t let him alone. It is so simple for her, he thinks. He has yet to learn of her dead lover, of the old comfortable suits she wears (his), of the cigarette case and lighter she keeps in her pocket like a talisman.

Her certainty irritates him. What are the voices of Barton and Smith, if not things that need to be remembered? After he forgets, what will they be? Pages in a book. Dry numbers copied down by schoolchildren.

London makes the words stick in his throat. Loud noises and crowds bring out a cold sweat at the small of his back. Florence Cathcart, though. She stands before him with dark hair cascading down over her shoulders. She has a gentle, knowing smile and when he tries to convince her to come by mentioning her childhood, something dark comes over her face. A complex woman. She keeps her cigarettes in a silver cigarette holder with another person’s initials on it. She keeps her ghosts in her pockets, he thinks. Where she can touch them, feel them. For what are memories if they’re not ghosts?

...

“Let go,” she says to Robert. “They’re still with you, aren’t they? Let go of them.”

She kisses him in his attic room. She reads the spines of his books and looks over the papers on his desk with a half-smile on her face. Before she leaves for London again she runs her hands softly over the side of his face, her fingers cold in the frigid morning. She’s so intense, possessive, and he wants so badly to be wanted, to be possessed.

After all, she has let go of her own guilt. She risked her life by coming here. She lay in his arms speaking to the empty space by her side, and just for a second he thought he saw a dark-haired boy in the clothes of thirty years ago. So for her, he tries to let go. When the buzzing noise starts in his head, when his heartbeat becomes too noticeable, he goes for long walks in the grounds, the cold air stinging at the back of this throat, his shoes and trouser cuffs heavy with dew.

She sends him letters from London, always full of half-planned articles and rushed salutations. He’s charmed by her, by her forthrightness. She is protective but only in the way another damaged person could be. Careful, because she knows what they’ve both lost.

He sends her long letters in turn, full of lessons he gave. He starts to describe for her the shape of the changing seasons, the way the house looks rearing up in front of a red sunset. The flat featureless hills and the road that weaves through them like a vein. The way the house creaks in the night, familiar, protective.

He does not let her into his life. She comes in. She wants him, and it is so new, so different, to be wanted.

“Oh Robert,” she says to him, wrapped against him in his tiny bachelor’s bed. “You’ve started writing again, don’t you realise that?”

He puts his face into her chest and weeps, and for once he is not ashamed to feel.

...

The pocketknife is the same one he brought back in his pocket from Ardennes. He always uses the same knife, and always does it when his skin is warm and clean from bathing. The sharp smell of alcohol. The bubble in his chest, the white noise in his head. It builds up, you see. The pain is a white hot locus of light that starts in his head but rushes up his back, leaving behind it a cold sweat. And when the pain recedes, he feels nothing.

Later, lying in his narrow bed he feels his leg throb in time with his heart. He thinks of Barton, who never got to be twenty. His cousin Arthur, who will always be twenty-one. Allen, who was never even eighteen.

It isn’t fair that he should live and they should die. But what is fair? Nothing is fair. What right does he have to wish for fairness? He is alive. That should be enough.

It isn’t. Sometimes he feels that if he could solve that problem he would be happy forever. Even if he could lay it out in fourteen stark lines.

 

 

1922

Florence is writing another book. She can’t come down on the weekends to visit him. He writes long, ardent letters, and sends them without shame. This one is not just about fraud and loss and science and rationality, she says. This one is about memory, and echoes. Robert remembers the way she disappeared over the edge of the jetty, as if the water was reaching out to her, as if for a second she welcomed the cold silent pull of it. I rescued you, he thinks as he folds her letters back into their envelopes. Come back to me.

He teaches boys not yet old enough to shave the dates and names of battles. He conducts lessons on battles and rebellions and revolutions. He wonders if these boys realise how close they came to being crushed in the wheels of history.

She comes down from London and he’s still here, waiting in his attic room. She runs her fingers slowly over his chest, his shoulders, his right leg. He flinches when her fingers go there. He can’t help it.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and then, “you’re healing, though... You’ve left it alone.”

“Your hands are cold,” he says by way of an apology, although as usual he feels as if he should be apologising to her.

“Cold hands, warm heart,” she says in a mocking voice. It sounds like something her mother would say, the woman who raised her, not the woman who died here (mousie mousie, he thinks, and wants to forget that, too).

He kisses her, the smooth skin at the base of her collarbone. She guides his hands over the scar on her shoulder.

“I liked the other story,” he says. “The one with the tiger.” God, the maps they both have on their bodies. She kisses him, hard, as if she can’t think any more. Like she wants it to go away.

They fuck deliciously, slowly, and afterwards they lie cramped together in the bed, her cheek to his chest. She puts her lips against his neck and whispers in her low, sure voice.

“What are you thinking of, Mallory?”

“History,” he says, and it’s true.

“I think I’m almost done with this book,” she says, and she gets up to light a cigarette. He loves her energy, the way she switches from subject to subject. She never dwells on anything. If I did, she told him once, I’d go mad.

“Move back to London with me, darling.”

“I don’t know if I...”

She’s tying her hair back, slipping her cigarette case into her pocket. Something changes in her face.

“You hate it there,” she says, her voice soft, careful. “The first time we met, you stuttered more. It was London.”

“It is very crowded there,” Robert says. And that is all he can say.

A new dream. He dreams that he’s standing in the kitchen, feet barefoot and bloody on the stone flags. A man in an evening suit with a narrow face hands him a shotgun and a cartridge. Won’t you flush out our little mousie, the man says? I tried so very hard to make her stay. Robert watches himself break it, slip two shells into the breech. It is so easy. Florence’s father has blood running down the side of his face and his hands. Sometimes his face isn’t there.

Robert wakes up sweating and wrenches open the window. He stands with the cool night air on his chest and smokes too many cigarettes and whispers into the dark. I don’t believe in ghosts, he says. But that isn’t quite true.

The next time she comes down to see him he says, “Marry me.”

...

He gets a job at a school in London, a much better school. But the strangest thing happens. He’s standing giving a lesson on the battle of Waterloo. It’s the most ridiculous thing. He’s writing dates on the board when he realises that he can no longer picture the battle in his head, as he did as a boy. In the space allotted to troop movements and kings and reasons there’s nothing. There’s a buzzing noise in his head. He can’t speak. Twenty-four sixteen-year-olds look at him with polite, puzzled faces. A couple of them giggle into their cupped hands. He goes out into the corridor, loosening his collar, and vomits sour acidic bile in the lavatory. His hands slip on the edge of the porcelain.

It’s the boys calling to each other down the corridors. It’s their voices. God, their voices. The boys he sent to die. The dead boys he walked past. The broken wail he heard once, as he was trying to sleep in the dugout. I hope somebody ends that bloody row, he thought, and either morphine or mercy did. He collects his briefcase from his office and goes home. On the bus his hands shake so much that he drops his cigarette on the floor. He never goes back.

Oh, he could have been more. But what is more, when almost everyone he knows is dead. Half his form at school dead, the other half either burying themselves in cocaine and jazz or working themselves like madmen to exorcise themselves.

Florence knocks on the door of the bathroom and when he doesn’t answer she opens the door. She finds him standing there, naked, starchy towel clamped between his teeth, blood and water running down his leg. He can’t hide.

“Oh God, Robert,” she says. “You promised me.”

“I—“ he says, but he can’t say anything more. I couldn’t stand it, he wants to tell her, but to even give it a name would be an unacceptable defeat.

...

She finds a house in the country and the polite fiction they wordlessly agree on is that it’s so she can have more room for her experiments.

“Robert,” she says, her voice soft and pleading in the dark. “Let me help you. I’ve got money. Don’t go back to work in front of another classroom of boys.”

He wakes up in the middle of the night, sure his heart will pound its way out of his chest. She holds him. She whispers stark truths to him, in the naked darkness. I once thought that the pain would never leave me, she says. It did, it did.

“I love you,” he says. But that is all he can say.

 

 

1925

He sits up late at his typewriter, the ash from his forgotten cigarette an inch long. She rescues it from the ashtray, takes a drag.

“Tell me what it’s about,” Florence says. “Don’t be so bloody superstitious.”

“I can’t tell you yet,” Robert says, but later that evening as they’re lying in bed he tells her, or rather tells the silence around them, that it’s about Barton and the bullet that went through his eye. About Smith and his unfinished life. It’s about all their unfinished lives. It’s for them.

They take a trip into London, the two of them, and although he can feel her watching him carefully, he shows her no sign of his distress. That is locked away inside of him.

“I’ve written a book,” he says to her contact at the publishing company.

“May I ask what it’s about, Mr. Mallory?”

“History,” he says.

As they’re walking out of the office she slips her cold hand into his, smiling her odd, distant, knowing smile. “Are they here with you, Robert? Are they still here?”

“No,” he says, his voice steady for once. “Only us.”