All Our Yesterdays
by Andrew Klavan
Art by Laurie Harden
A screaming bright madness of noise and fire—then nothing.
Brooks wasn’t afraid after he went over the top. Before, yes. In the moments just before the assault began, the fear was almost unbearable. As he stood there with his boots sunk in the sucking puddle, rifle lifted, bayonet fixed, the rat-infested dung hole of a trench seemed to him transformed: It had become hearth and home and mother all rolled into one. He would have sold his soul to stay there, never mind the filth of it, never mind the endless crump and boom of the shells falling all around him, that noise that he’d thought, just hours before, was going to drive him mad. Now he hungered to curl up and hide here in the dirt and the din and even the madness. He just wanted to go on living, that’s all.
He stared up white-faced at the trench rim. He sensed all the blanched faces of his men around him, staring too. All these weeks, that’s how he’d thought of them: his men, his charges, though he was younger than most of the platoon. Now they were suddenly strangers, each one alone in his feral terror. He couldn’t do a thing for them, nor they for him—not a single thing that would keep a man from becoming a bloated corpse like Moore had or Wilson or a shrieking legless torso like Miller was when they dragged him to the wagon half a week ago. Brooks knew now what they all knew: They would each of them go through this—this assault, this war, this life, this death—in utter solitude.
It occurred to him he ought to pray. Then the sergeant blew the whistle and Brooks led the way up the ladder, screaming.
They were all screaming, all around him. You didn’t think about screaming, you just did. You screamed and you ran. And what he felt then wasn’t fear anymore. Fear was no longer the right word for it. It was just a kind of blank, blind fever of being. He screamed and he ran through acid-black smoke, over a mud-drenched moonscape lit by shellfire, studded with corpses.
Six months before it had been the rolling green countryside of France.
That was all Brooks remembered—running like that, screaming like that; the intensity of feeling. He was told that the concussion from a Jack Johnson shell had sent him flying through the air “like a rag doll.” He was told he’d been found buried in the mud when the assault was over, just his lifted right hand and the center of his face visible. He didn’t remember any of it.
The trip back home to England—that was gone too, except for one cloudy flash of a jostling train ride, which he may only have imagined. He was told they took some shrapnel out of his brain. They laid him on a long cook’s table—so he was told—out under the grand staircase in the main hall because there was a little bathroom there with running water. After that, he spent the next few days going in and out of consciousness, asking the same questions over and over of anyone who happened to be passing by. This, too, he simply did not remember.
His first clear memory was when he awoke out of an absolute darkness that almost seemed like peace. He opened his eyes and saw Jesus Christ ascending into heaven.
He was in Gloucestershire somewhere, as it turned out. In a stately home called Gladwell Grange. Its owner, Lord Farrington, had given it over for use as a hospital, his family’s contribution to the war effort.
Brooks’s bed was one of twelve in a hall decorated with enormous Baroque paintings in the Dutch and Spanish styles. A lion hunt. The rape of the Sabine women. David slaying Goliath. And the Christ ascending, which hung directly across from him. Brooks found the picture soothing somehow. It showed the savior swirling up into heaven like a bright wisp of white smoke, the base world half swallowed in gloom all around him. When Brooks became agitated or fearful, he would focus on it and it sometimes calmed him down.
“Is it a Velázquez?” he asked the doctor.
The doctor’s name was William Haven. He was about sixty. On the short side, but very sturdy, broad-shouldered, with a cool but kind manner and steady hands. He had smooth, handsome features and tidy silver hair, and his face seemed wreathed in a sort of sorrowful wisdom, as if he had seen all and forgiven all. Brooks had liked him on sight.
Sitting beside him, holding his wrist, taking his pulse, the doctor glanced up at the painting as if he hadn’t noticed it before. “I wouldn’t know. You like it?”
“Yes,” said Brooks. “Reminds me of my childhood somehow. I find it steadies me to look at it. It keeps my mind off . . . the other things. The things I saw.”
“Probably for the best,” the doctor said. “No point thinking about all that now.”
While Haven listened to his chest with a stethoscope, Brooks let his eyes range over the hall. The inlaid panels. The flocked wallpaper. The portraits of the Farrington family flanking the Baroque works. Everything about the place made him feel an enormous emptiness inside himself, a painful nostalgia for his boyhood, a yearning for the world as it had been before the war.
“It will never be the same, will it?” he said.
The doctor pulled the stethoscope from his ears. “The house?”
Brooks nodded. “The house. England. The world. It won’t be what it was after this. It can’t be.”
For the first time since they’d met, the doctor seemed to look at him, really look at him, as a person rather than a patient. One corner of Haven’s mouth lifted in what Brooks thought might have been a smile of appreciation. He thought the doctor might have been realizing what he himself had known right away: Despite the difference in their ages, the two of them were kindred spirits.
“No,” the doctor said. “I don’t suppose any of it can be the same. A war will do that. Change things. Some people look forward to it. Clears the air. Like in ‘Maud,’ you know.”
“‘I embrace the purpose of God and the doom assigned,’” said Brooks, and the doctor gave that small smile again. Because Brooks had understood his reference; had quoted the Tennyson from memory; they were kindred spirits.
But then Brooks remembered some of the things he had seen: what the young men looked like lying in the mud between the trenches, the fresh bodies bloated with gas, the older ones sunk into themselves as if they’d been mummified.
“I don’t think it can be,” he said. And when the doctor raised his chin in a question, Brooks looked at the Christ on the wall again and said, “I don’t think it can be ‘the purpose of God.’”
He didn’t tell the doctor about the blackouts, not that visit and not later either. As his health returned and he was able to move about a little, he would sometimes find himself in various rooms of the house or out in the garden in back, and he would not be able to remember how he’d come to be there. It made him sick with fright when it happened the first time. And the second time was even worse, because he’d convinced himself the first time had been a fluke.
He knew he ought to tell the doctor, but he couldn’t work up the nerve. He wasn’t sure what he was afraid of exactly. Maybe that Haven would operate on him again or put him in an institution of some sort. He just kept hoping the blackouts would go away and there’d be no need to bring the subject up.
He didn’t tell the doctor about the rages either. Brooks’s father ran a school in Yorkshire. He had trained his son—as he had trained all his pupils—in a grimly cheerful faux-heroic stoicism. The Victorian ethos and all that: Keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, etc. When Brooks had enlisted, his father clasped him briefly by the shoulders and said, “Good lad.” Brooks answered with a curt nod. That was all. The point was: Brooks was well able to control his emotions, to hide his passions, even at their height. No one could tell when the rages came over him. But they were there, all right.
It would happen without warning, a blaze rising out of the pit of his stomach. The anger would be general and amorphous at first—and then, very quickly, something would draw his attention, some small thing, and he would focus on that with terrible fury. A nurse once dropped a tray, for instance, making a clatter. And Brooks’s heart flared at her. He called her things—only in his mind, silently—but still, they were awful things, words that he had never spoken aloud, not even in the trenches, where they were all lads, cursing together. He wanted to teach the nurse a lesson. Teach her to be a bit more careful. Making all that noise in a sick room. He wanted to punch her in the face, or rip her blouse open and molest her. . . .
These fantasies horrified him. He had never experienced anything like them before. He knew it must be an effect of the shrapnel or the concussion, same as the blackouts were. And again, as with the blackouts, he told himself the rages would go away on their own.
Then one day—one cool September evening—he found himself out in the hills above Moreham, the nearby village. It must’ve been half an hour’s walk at least from the Grange, yet he couldn’t remember a single second of it.
His first reaction was that sickening fear, almost a panic. How had he got here? Why couldn’t he remember? He wanted to turn around and run back to his hospital bed—as if he could erase the fact that he had come to this place at all. But then he looked down the slope at the village, a road lined with cottages of Cotswold stone and shingled roofs, the yellow gaslights burning in their windows. It was a sweet homely scene in the blue dusk. It made the nostalgia flare in him, and he ached painfully for the old days and another England, England as it was. He didn’t want to leave the scene just yet, so he walked down into the village.
He strolled along the road, stealing glances through cottage windows as he went past. The sight of a family at dinner, or gathered in their sitting room, gave him a warm, peaceful feeling. It was women and old men at home mostly, some children. All the young men, of course, were gone.
At the end of the village was a pub, The Chimes, set on a ledge of land above the banks of the river. Brooks went in and ordered a pint. The barmaid—the publican’s daughter—was a surprisingly delicate-looking girl of about eighteen. Brooks found her attractive but very modern-looking, with her raven hair bobbed above her pert birdlike features. Brooks found the gaze of her blue eyes almost mannishly direct.
“You up at the Grange, then?” she asked him. He still had a bandage on one side of his head so it was obvious he was, but Brooks knew she wanted to talk to him because there weren’t any other young men around.
He wanted to talk to her too. “I am. I’m done, they tell me. I won’t be going back.”
She said her name was Nancy—said it in such a way that he knew she wanted him to romance her. Her bold manner made him feel edgy, almost hostile toward her. He thought to himself that girls had been gentler, more reticent and more modest, before the war, and that people in general had been more aware of their social standing. Still, he hid his misgivings and they had a friendly chat while he drank his ale. Then he went out into the night again.
He continued on a little ways past the pub, listening to the burble of the river water and the breeze whispering in the willows that clustered on the banks. He was just about to turn back when he saw a final cottage at a small remove from the others. He glanced through the window and saw Haven there, the doctor, writing at a small roll-top desk.
On impulse, Brooks knocked on the doctor’s door.
“Brooks, is it?” said Haven, startled. “What are you doing out here? And in your shirtsleeves. It won’t do my reputation any good if you come down with pneumonia.”
“It was warmer when I started out,” Brooks said. But the fact was he couldn’t remember when he started. He felt guilty about the lie, but he still couldn’t bring himself to tell the doctor about the blackouts. It would make them real somehow.
The doctor seemed glad to see him and had him in. They sat together in the sitting room, each with a whiskey. The look of the room puzzled Brooks at first. Very prim and Victorian. Plush furniture crowded together, lots of throw pillows on it. Lots of pastoral paintings and pottery hanging on the wall. There was even a framed portrait of the queen in her later years set on the mantel. Brooks would’ve sworn a woman had decorated the place. An older housewife, even a grandmother. But he knew the doctor lived alone.
Haven must have read his thoughts. “I’ve just taken the place for the year,” he said. “I only came down from London to help out at the Grange. The owners are in Yorkshire with their daughter. A sweet old couple.”
“That explains it,” said Brooks with a smile. “I like the feel of it, actually. I do. The old days. I envy you to have lived back then. It was a better time.”
The doctor raised one shoulder, made a face. “One time’s pretty much like any other.”
Brooks gave a little noise of disbelief. “You can’t believe that. The way people are nowadays.” He thought of Nancy at the pub. “Just the way girls are, for instance. You don’t think standards have fallen?”
“You don’t like the ladies in trousers, eh?”
Brooks laughed, but he said, “I don’t. I like the old styles. Some modesty. I like a girl who’s a girl. A lady. Like in Victoria’s time.”
The doctor only shrugged again. “There were ladies then, but there were the other kinds of women too, and plenty of them. Good men and bad men, just like now. That’s what I meant about times being the same, taken altogether.”
“I suppose. You don’t look back with . . . I don’t know: longing? I do, and I wasn’t even there. I was a child when she died,” Brooks said, with a gesture of his glass toward the queen’s portrait.
Haven glanced at her, and then let his eyes linger. “Look back with longing?” he said. “No. No, I don’t. I don’t look back at all, really. Let bygones be bygones, I say. I try never to think about the past.”
But Brooks, more and more these days, found himself thinking of little else. The past. How things used to be. How they were changing and would never be the same. He daydreamed for hours about living in an age of fine manners and high morals, with the women in bustle dresses. And when the rages came over him, he would go into a dark fugue and brood about it. How corrupt the times were now. Radicals and perverts like that Strachey character everywhere. Respect between the classes breaking down, men speaking to their betters as if they were equals. And the way men and women congregated, easy as friends, but not friends because there was always that other-sex element involved. When the rages came over him, Brooks would wonder grimly if he’d even be able to find himself a good girl, a pure girl, when he was ready to settle down.
He visited the doctor’s house often. He tried to get Haven to reminisce about the past. The doctor was always reluctant at first and would plead with him to change the subject, but he would come around if Brooks pressed him hard enough. Sometimes even then, he would try to dampen Brooks’s nostalgia with harsh stories about his days as a doctor in a hospital in London’s East End.
“Terrible poverty,” he said one evening. “Disease.” He shook his head. “Ever see a man die of syphilis? I have. It isn’t pretty. That was part of those days too, remember. You can’t just look at the magazine drawings.”
But Brooks continued to press him. He wanted to hear about other things, good things. He hungered to hear about them. It was as if he wanted peaceful images of the Victorian old days that he could use to cover over and replace the images of what he’d seen in the trenches, at the front.
“Were you ever married?” he asked the doctor once.
“I was, yes. She died young, I’m afraid. In childbed.”
“Thank you. So was I. She was a fine girl.” The doctor hesitated, as if uncertain of what he wanted to say next. But then, in an apparent enthusiasm of affection for his remembered wife, he rose from his chair and said, “Here, I’ll show her to you.”
He got up and went through a door at the far end of the room. The door had always been closed when Brooks was there. As the doctor went through, Brooks caught a glimpse of a four-poster bed in the room beyond. Then Haven shut the door behind him. A minute or two later, he emerged with a small photograph in an old silver frame. He handed the photograph to Brooks, and stood over him while he examined it.
“That was her,” Haven said. “That was my Emma.”
The effect of the picture on Brooks was so powerful, he instinctively hid his reaction to it. If he had conjured from his own imagination some perfect icon of old-fashioned beauty and modesty and goodness to soothe away the front’s images of mutilation and savagery and death, this would have been the figure and the face. Emma was lovely, tall and shapely in a light-colored, floor-length dress, sashed at the waist. Smooth-featured, fair-haired, with the kindest and most sympathetic expression that Brooks thought he had ever seen.
“That was June eighteen eighty-six,” the doctor said. “About a month before our wedding. Almost two years to the day before she . . .”
Brooks did not want to let the picture go or give it back, but he felt if he held onto it another moment he would give himself away, expose the power of his feelings. “I truly am sorry,” he said again, as he returned the photograph to Haven.
Haven glanced down at the picture himself, and Brooks saw all the longing and desire and affection in the doctor’s eyes that he felt in his own heart.
“I suppose that’s why you don’t like to talk about the past,” Brooks said.
“Mm,” Haven murmured. “I suppose so.”
That night, as Brooks walked home through the village, his thoughts were far away—in the past, as he imagined it—and his mind was still full of Haven’s Emma. As he neared The Chimes, he heard a noise coming from the shadows of the willows by the river. A young woman gave a low, sensual, two-note giggle. Jarred out of his distraction, Brooks stopped short and looked toward the sound. All at once, the woman broke out of the dark up ahead of him and stepped out onto the moonlit road. She didn’t notice Brooks standing there, but immediately hurried away. Brooks got a good look at her as she passed beneath the lantern above the pub’s front door: dark-haired, husky, blunt-faced, young.
A moment or two later, a man stepped out from under the same trees. He was a rough-looking tradesman, older than the girl, about forty or so. He paused to light a cigarette, his hands cupped around the match. Brooks saw his face in the glow of the flame. He looked very pleased with himself.
The man ambled back to the pub, and Brooks continued on his way up the road toward the Grange.
Later, it was determined that that was the night of the murder. . . .
# # #
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All Our Yesterdays by Andrew Klavan. Copyright © 2017 with permission of the author.
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