Bee sat in the dingy café with a cup of slopped coffee in front of her and read the sign on the other side of the road for the hundredth time in the last forty-eight hours. The sign said: MOTORISTS. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM USING YOUR HORN. THIS IS A HOSPITAL. It was only seven o’clock in the morning, but the café opened at six, and there was always at least one other customer having a meal as she sat there. She did not notice them. She just sat with a cup of coffee in front of her and stared at the hospital wall opposite. She was an old inhabitant of the café by now. “Better go out and have a meal,” they would say kindly, and she would cross the road and sit for a little with a cup of coffee in front of her and then go back again.
Her life had narrowed down to this pendulum existence between the hospital and café. She found it difficult to remember a past, and quite impossible to visualise a future. There was only the “now,” a dreary half-world of grey misery. Last night they had given her a cot in one of the sisters’ rooms, and the night before that she had spent in the hospital waiting-room. There were two phrases that they used to her, and they were as sickeningly familiar as the sign on their wall: “No, no change,” they would say, or, “Better go out and get a meal.”
The slatternly girl came and pushed a fresh cup of coffee in front of her and took away the one she had. “That one’s cold,” said the slatternly girl, “and you haven’t even touched it.” The fresh cup was slopped over, too. She was grateful to the slatternly girl but felt outraged by her sympathy. She was enjoying the vicarious drama of her presence in the café, and its implications.
MOTORISTS. PLEASE REFRAIN FROM USING—— She must stop reading that thing. Must look at something else. The blue checked pattern of the plastic tablecloth, perhaps. One, two, three, four, five, six —— Oh, no. Not counting things.
The door opened and Dr. Spence came in, his red hair tumbled and his chin unshaved. He said “Coffee!” to the girl, and slid into the seat beside her.
“Well?” she said.
“No. But there are better indications. I mean, of a chance of his regaining consciousness, not necessarily of — his living.”
“We know about the skull fracture, but there are no means of telling what other injuries there may be.”
“You oughtn’t to be living on cups of coffee. That’s all you’ve been having, isn’t it?”
“She hasn’t been having that,” said the slatternly girl, putting down his full cup. “She just sits and looks at them.”
A wave of weary anger rose in her at the slatternly girl’s appropriation of her concerns.
“Better let me take you downtown and give you a meal.”
“No. No, thank you.”
“The Angel is only a mile away, and you can rest properly there and ——”
“No. No, I can’t go as far away as that. I’ll drink this cup. It’s nice and hot.”
Spence gulped down his coffee and paid for it. He hesitated a moment as if reluctant to leave her. “I have to go back to Clare now. You know I shouldn’t leave him if he wasn’t in good hands, don’t you? They’ll do more for him than I ever could.”
“You’ve done wonders for all of us,” she said. “I shall never forget it.”
Now that she had begun drinking the coffee she went on drinking it, and did not look up when the door opened again. It would not be another message from the hospital already, and nothing had any importance for her that was not a message from the hospital. She was surprised when George Peck sat down beside her.
“Spence told me I should find you here.”
“George!” she said. “What are you doing in Westover at this hour of the morning?”
“I have come to bring you comfort that Simon is dead.”
He took something from an envelope and laid it in front of her on the table. It was weatherworn but recognisable. It was a slender black stylograph with a decoration consisting of a thin yellow spiral.
She looked at it a long time without touching it, then looked up at the Rector.
“Then they have found — it?”
“Yes. It was there. Do you want to talk about it here? Wouldn’t you prefer to go back to the hospital?”
“What difference does it make? They are both just places where one waits.”
“Coffee?” said the slatternly girl, appearing at George’s shoulder.
“No; no, thank you.”
“What — what is there? I mean, what — what is left? What did they find?”
“Just bones, my dear. A skeleton. Under three feet of leaf mould. And some shreds of cloth.”
“And his pen?”
“That was separate,” he said carefully.
“You mean, it — had been — that it had been thrown down after?”
“Not necessarily, but — probably.”
“I don’t know whether you will find it comforting or not — I think it is — but the police surgeon is of the opinion that he was not alive — or perhaps it would be more accurate to say not conscious — when he ——”
“When he was thrown over,” Bee said for him.
“Yes. The nature of the skull injury, I understand, leads him to that conclusion.”
“Yes. Yes, I am glad, of course. He probably knew nothing about it. Just ended quite happy on a summer afternoon.”
“There were some small objects in the cloth. Things that he probably had in his trousers pockets. But the police have kept these. Colonel Smollett gave me this,” he picked up the stylograph and put it back in its envelope, “and asked me to show it you so that you might identify it. What news from the hospital? Spence was driving away when I saw him.”
“None. He is not conscious.”
“I blame myself greatly for that, you know,” the Rector said. “If I had listened with understanding he would not have been driven to this sub rosa proceeding, to that crazy night-time search.”
“George, we must do something to find out who he is.”
“But I understand that the orphanage ——”
“Oh, I know. They made the usual inquiries. But I don’t suppose they were very persistent ones. We could do much better, surely.”
“Starting from the pre-supposition that he has Ashby blood in him?”
“Yes. I can’t believe that a resemblance like that could exist without it. The coincidence would be too great.”
“Very well, my dear. Do you want it put in hand — now?”
“Yes. Especially now. Time may be precious.”
“I’ll speak to Colonel Smollett about it. He’ll know how to go about it. I talked to him about the inquest, and he thinks it may be possible to manage without your appearing. Nancy told me to ask you if you would like her to come in to Westover to be with you, or if it would only worry you to have someone around.”
“Dear Nan. Say it is easier alone, will you? But thank her. Tell her to stand by Eleanor, rather. It must he dreadful for Nell, having to toil with unimportant things in the stables.”
“I think it must be a soothing thing to have to devote oneself to the routine demands of the animal world.”
“Did you break the news to her, as you promised? The news that Brat was not Patrick?”
“Yes. I dreaded it, Bee, I confess frankly. You had given me one of the hardest tasks of my life. She was still fresh from the shock of knowing that Simon had been killed. I dreaded it. But the event was surprising.”
“What did she do?”
“She kissed me.”
The door opened, and a probationer, flushed and young and pretty, and looking in her lilac print and spreading white linen like a visitor from another world, stood in the dim opening. She saw Bee and came over to her.
“Are you Miss Ashby, please?”
“Yes?” said Bee, half rising.
“Miss Beatrice Ashby? Oh, that’s nice. Your nephew is conscious now, but he doesn’t recognise anyone or where he is; he just keeps talking about someone called Bee, and we thought it might be you. So Sister sent me across to see if I could find you. I’m sorry to interrupt you, and you haven’t finished your coffee, have you, but you see ——”
“Yes, yes,” said Bee, already at the door.
“He may be quieter, you see, if you are there,” the probationer said, following her out. “They often are, when someone they know is there, even if they don’t actually recognise them. It’s funny. It’s as if they could see them through their skin. I’ve noticed it often. They’ll say, Eileen? — or whoever it is. And Eileen says, Yes. And then they’re quiet for a bit. But if anyone else says yes, nine times out of ten they’re not fooled at all, and get restless and fractious. It’s very strange.”
What really was strange was to hear that steady stream of words from the lips of the normally silent Brat. For a day and a night and a day again she sat by his bed and listened to that restless torrent of talk. “Bee?” he would say, just as the little probationer had recounted to her. And she would say: “Yes, I’m here,” and he would go back reassured to whatever world he was wandering in.
His most constant belief was that this was the time he had broken his leg, and this the same hospital; and he was torn with anxiety about it. “I’ll be able to ride again, won’t I? There’s nothing really wrong with my leg, is there? They won’t take it off, will they?”
“No,” she would say, “everything is all right.”
And once, when he was quieter: “Are you very angry with me, Bee?”
“No, I’m not angry with you. Go to sleep.”
The world went on outside the hospital; ships arrived in Southampton Water, inquests were held, bodies were consigned to the earth, but for Bee the world had narrowed to the room where Brat was and her cot in the Sister’s room.
On Wednesday morning Charles Ashby arrived at the hospital, padding lightly down the polished corridors on his large noiseless feet. Bee went down to receive him and took him up to Brat’s room. He had hugged her as he used to when she was a little girl, and she felt warm and comforted.
“Dear Uncle Charles. I’m so glad you were fifteen years younger than Father, or you wouldn’t be here to be a comfort to us all.”
“The great point in being fifteen years younger than your brother is that you don’t have to wear his cast-offs,” Charles said.
“He’s asleep just now,” she said, pausing outside Brat’s room, “so you’ll be very quiet, won’t you?”
Charles took one look at the young face with the slack jaw, the blue shadows under the closed eyes, and the grey haze of stubble, and said: “Walter.”
“His name is Brat.”
“I know. I wasn’t addressing him. I was merely pointing out the resemblance to Walter. That is exactly what Walter used to look like, at his age, when he had a hangover.”
Bee came nearer and looked. “Walter’s son?”
“I don’t see any resemblance, somehow. He doesn’t look like anyone but himself, now.”
“You never saw Walter sleeping it off.” He looked at the boy a little longer. “A better face than Walter’s, though. A good face.” He followed her into the corridor. “I hear you all liked him.”
“We loved him,” she said.
“Well, it’s all very sad, very sad. Who was his accomplice, do you know?”
“Someone in America.”
“Yes, so George Peck told me. But who would that be? Who went to America from Clare?”
“The Willett family went to Canada. And they had daughters. It was a woman, you know. Perhaps they finished up in the States.”
“If it was a woman I’ll eat my hat.”
“I feel that way too.”
“Do you? Good girl. You’re an admirably intelligent woman, Bee. Nice-looking, too. What are we going to do about the boy? For the future, I mean.”
“We don’t know yet if he has a future,” she said.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01