When I began work on After the War is Over, I thought its narrative would be shared between Charlotte and Edward. I quickly realized, however, that it was meant to be Charlotte’s book, and no other voice could intrude.
Yet there was one part of the story that could only be told by Edward, and that was the lost months he spent as a prisoner of war in a German hospital. I know that after reading Somewhere in France many of you were keen to learn how he came to be captured, what occurred to cause his physical injuries, and why he was not returned to his family at the end of the war. That is why I wrote “Coming Home”—not only to answer these questions but also to give Edward the chance to speak to you directly, in his own voice and from his unique point of view.
I do hope you enjoy this story, and that you come away with a better understanding of Edward and the sorrows he carries with him. As Charlotte observes in After the War is Over, “Sometimes the worst wounds of all [are] invisible to the naked eye,” and this is especially true where Edward is concerned.
“Wake up, please. Wake up. I know you can hear me, Soldier, and I am asking you to wake up, now.”
The voice was gentle but firm. A German voice. Just like the others he’d heard, pulling at the threads of his awareness, dragging him from the sleep he craved. He would ignore this one, too.
It was easier to sleep, to fall headlong into the void. Leave behind the god-awful pain in his head, pounding and pounding, and the tearing agony that clawed unceasingly at his leg. Best to forget. He was done with it, now.
He would sleep.
“Soldier, I know you are listening. Do you know where you are? Nod if you can understand me.”
Damned if he had the faintest idea where they’d taken him. He didn’t recall much of the past few days. The shellfire, of course; there was no escaping that memory. The cries of his men as they fell around him. Rough hands, dragging him through the mud, and an argument that raged above as he stared at their boots, all but insensible, his limbs shaking like a palsied old man.
“Was zum Teufel hast du dir bloß dabei gedacht?”
“Es ist so dunkel. Ich konnte nichts sehen. Ich dachte, es wäre Beck. Seine Uniform ist voller Schlamm.”
“Und was sollen wir jetzt mit ihm machen? Am besten schleifen wir ihn zurück…”
“Oh, verdammt—der Hauptmann ist hier.”
“Was ist los?”
“Meyer hat einen Fehler gemacht, Herr Hauptmann. Dachte er bringt Soldat Beck zurück. Aber es ist ein britischer Offizier.”
“Das sehe ich! Na schön. Die Sanitäter sollen ihn zum Lazarett bringen.”
“Aber Herr Hauptmann…”
“Soll ich ihn abknallen wie einen Hund? Mich so benehmen wie die Hunnen, als die sie uns beschimpfen? Holt die Sanitäter und fertig.”
“What the hell were you thinking?”
“It’s so dark. I couldn’t see. I thought he was Beck. His uniform…it’s covered in mud.”
“What are we supposed to do with him now? Might as well toss him back—”
“Oh, dammit—here’s the captain.”
“What is going on?”
“Captain, Sir. Meyer made a mistake. Thought he was bringing back Private Beck. But it’s a British officer.”
“I can see that. Very well. Have the medics take him back to the aid post.”
“Would you have me put him down like a dog? Behave like the Hun they say we are? Fetch the medics and be done with it.”
He’d fainted when they moved him, and then, once the fever took hold, he couldn’t have said with any certainty when he was awake and when he was hallucinating. He remembered the wagon that had carried him away from the front, the way it stank of blood and shit, and the cold gray sky above. A train, all shunting stops and starts. A room with whitewashed walls and windows set high, nearly under the eaves. Nurses, all in white, or were they nuns?
Most of all he remembered the pain. It never abated, not for an instant, not even when it was so acute that he wept like a child and begged for them to put an end to it. To him.
Once, his mother came and sat by his cot, and enumerated his many failings in excoriating, numbing detail. How he would never amount to anything and it was all for the best that he would soon die and be forgotten.
Charlotte was there, too, and he tried to tell her how sorry he was, how he had done his best and had tried to do his duty. Had tried, but had failed—as he had failed at everything else he had ever done. No matter what he did, he always disappointed her.
She didn’t seem to notice that he couldn’t speak, and simply smiled at him, brushed back his hair, her hand so blessedly cool against his brow.
He blinked, and her face changed into that of a stranger, a much older woman with a weary face, her hair covered by a white veil. She was speaking to someone, her voice soft and sad.
“Das Fieber…eine Wahnvorstellung…ist infiziert…”
“The fever…a hallucination…infected…”
He could understood some of what was being said, but whenever he tried to focus, to concentrate and unravel the tangle of words, the pain returned, cold and scalpel-sharp, to wrap around his skull and silence his thoughts.
They didn’t know who he was; had no notion of his name or even his regiment. His uniform had vanished, along with his identity disks. He belonged nowhere and to no one. Here he might die in peace, and those who loved him would never be the wiser.
Yet he did not die, not even after they took off his leg, an act of mercy meant to save his life. Before he could beg them to leave him be, to let him die, a gauze mask soaked in ether was pressed against his nose and mouth, and when he woke up his leg was gone.
He could still feel his vanished limb, though. So odd to peer down and see only one foot pointing up beneath the blankets, yet be certain that both were there. And, oh God, it still hurt. Still woke him with a burning, itching, feral pain that wore away at his sanity, an implacable tide of suffering that waxed and waned but never retreated.
When would it be done?
When would it all be over?
“Soldier, I promise you that I am not going away. I have decided that I shall sit here and talk in your ear until you respond to me. Will you not open your eyes?”
Edward recognized the voice. Its owner visited him nearly every day, and only ever spoke to him in English.
He turned his head and, for the first time, actually looked at the man. A doctor, he supposed. Likely cut from the same well-meaning cloth as Robbie, bound and determined to save even those who didn’t merit saving.
“Ah—you have been listening. Wonderful. And you understand me, yes? Very well: will you tell me your name? No doubt your family will wish to know that you have not perished. We can furnish your name to the Red Cross; surely you wish—”
That was the last thing he wished. He closed his eyes and turned his head away.
“Think of how they will long to know that you have survived. It is August now; you have been here for many months.”
August. Five months. Not a matter of weeks, as he had thought. He was going to survive, despite everything.
He had been so certain that he would die. And now…what would become of him now? He turned his head to look at the doctor again. Cleared his throat, for it had been an age since he had spoken to anyone. And recited the one fragment of German poetry that he remembered from his days at school:
“Ihr führt ins Leben uns hinein
Ihr laßt den Armen schuldig werden
Dann überlaßt ihr ihn der Pein:
Denn alle Schuld rächt sich auf Erden.”
“You lead us into life,
and allow the wretched to become guilty
and given over to suffering:
for every guilt is revenged on this earth.”
As an apotheosis it was fitting. He would speak no more.
The doctor was back.
“Good afternoon, soldier, although I think it likely you are an officer. Certainly you are a man of refinement. You were able to recite Goethe to me some weeks ago, were you not? Hmm? I do wish you would answer me, for I feel sure you have someone at home waiting for you. A wife? A sweetheart? What about your parents? Without your name I can do nothing.”
Exactly. That was exactly what Edward wished him to do—nothing.
“Will you not think of the agony they are suffering? You have the power to relieve it, yet you do not. It is…what is the word? It is perplexing. Yes, that is it. Perplexing.”
It made perfect sense to Edward. The people who loved him would mourn his death, and then they would get on with their lives. But if he were to return, they would be burdened with him forever—a crippled, shaking, hopeless, useless wreck of a man. Better that they imagine him a brave man who had died while trying to do his duty. He said nothing, resolute as always, and eventually the doctor went away.
After some days, Edward realized he was not coming back. No one spoke to him any more, although the hands that turned and lifted him, washed and soothed, were gentle and kind.
He made a half-assed attempt at starving himself, spitting out the pap they spooned into his mouth, but firm hands held him down and made him drink and swallow. He was their enemy, yet they insisted on keeping him alive. Perhaps they had guessed how he longed for oblivion, and had decided to withhold it as a way of punishing him.
If only one could die simply by wishing it.
He thought it must be late in the year, for the days had grown short and the draft whenever one of the nuns opened a window was chill and sharp. Winter had come again.
He slept. He dreamed of happier days—all gone, gone, all in the past. And then—
The voice was familiar, achingly so, which meant that he was still asleep.
“For the love of God, man. Wake up and look at me properly.” A warm, strong hand clasped his wrist and squeezed tight.
Edward turned his head and opened his eyes. Robbie was crouching next to the cot, tears streaming from his eyes.
“I’ve been…I never thought…it’s been so long,” his friend whispered. “I’d almost given up hope. Just one more day, I told myself.”
He wanted to say something, but he had made a vow to himself. This could change nothing. He shut his eyes, not strong enough to reach up and wipe away his own tears, and waited for his friend to go away.
But Robbie was Robbie, the bravest and most steadfast man Edward had ever known, and was not easily discouraged. Soon he was deep in conversation with one of the French nuns.
“When the enemy retreated, you see, they were left behind,” she explained. “Your friend and a few other men. The doctor who cared for them left excellent notes, though my German is imperfect. I may not fully understand his history.”
“I’m afraid my command of German is a far sight worse than yours, Sister Berthe. May I prevail upon you to go through the notes with me? And may I take the cot next to my friend?”
“But of course. There are only the three men left at the convent now. I do hope you can help him.”
“I will. I’m not going home without him. That I promise you.”
Edward knew he shouldn’t listen, for he had decided he was past caring about all things. And yet…it was so good to hear Robbie, his voice so calm and solid. So certain that he would be able to fix everything.
Hadn’t the man learned anything in his years as a combat surgeon? Didn’t he realize that Edward was broken—not merely wounded, but broken beyond repair by what he had seen and done and had failed to do? It was agony to live like this, and Robbie ought to know it.
“I know you aren’t ready to talk to me, my friend, but I’m ready to talk to you. Let’s try this: do you know where you are? How you got here?”
He would not answer.
“We’re in Rancourt, in Picardy. Not far from Saint-Quentin, and quite a bit farther north than I first thought to look for you. Sister Berthe has shown me the records left behind by Doctor Keller, and she translated the letter he left at the end of his notes. He said he was very sorry he hadn’t been able to discover your identity.”
Doctor Keller. He would search him out, one day, perhaps…
“You were wounded in no man’s land, knocked unconscious, and mistakenly brought back to the German trenches. They were kind enough to ensure you received medical care, and after a few days at a nearby aid station you were sent here, where they had a very small hospital. I suspect the delay in care led to the infection in your leg.
“They amputated your leg just below the knee in April. Below the knee, Edward—that’s the difference between life on your feet and life as an invalid. But you’re quite happy being an invalid, aren’t you? It’s not a bad life, come to think of it. A bit boring, but there are millions of men who’d gladly change places with you.”
It was almost impossible not to speak. How dare Robbie judge him? How dare he presume he understood?
“They signed the Armistice a month ago, and all I’ve done since then is search for you. I’m tired, Edward, and I want to go home. I want to see my mother, and my friends, and most of all I want to see your sister.”
Lilly? Why on earth would he—
“Lilly and I are engaged. I’ll save the how and why for another time, but I love her, I wish to be married to her, and I can’t return home without you. Now that I can see for myself there’s nothing ailing you—nothing, that is, apart from a missing leg and an acute case of self-pity—I can hardly return home on my own. She’d have my guts for garters, to begin with. And then she’d be on the next ferry across the Channel to fetch you back herself.”
It was too much to take in. His dearest friend was in love with Lilly? How could it be? Robbie looked on her as a sister. How could this be?
“I know you’re listening, so here’s what I propose. We get you out of that bed and into a chair, and when you can tolerate that we’ll see about getting you a pair of crutches. And, Edward, if you’re thinking to yourself, ‘there’s no way on earth he’ll get me up on my feet,’ then you’re wrong. Dead wrong.”
Robbie leaned close, his voice hot against Edward’s ear.
“I’ll tell you why you’ll do it. Because—and this is a solemn promise—if you don’t, I’ll bring you home in a pushchair or on a stretcher. Come hell or high water I’ll do it. And then, once Lilly and I are married, I’ll have you come and live with us. ‘Medical reasons,’ I’ll tell your parents.
“Now, the thing is, I don’t have much money. No savings to speak of. I’ll only be able to afford a house in one of the garden suburbs. Romford, most likely. You know how thin the walls are in those places—built with a lick and a prayer, I’ve heard. And that will be a problem, for you at least, because you’re going to have the room next to ours. Your bed will be on one side of the wall, and ours will be on the other. You’ll be able to hear everything.
“And I don’t mind telling you, Edward, that I am very eager to be reunited with your sister. To be married to her. To be alone with her. We’ll probably keep you up at night, but you can catch up on your sleep during the day. I mean, you’re an invalid, after all, so it’s not as if you’ll have anything else to—
“You damned, demented Scots pervert!” The words burst out of Edward in a volcanic torrent, echoing around the high walls of the empty ward. “I’ll kill you. With my bare hands I’ll throttle the life out of you!”
He tried to sit up, to grasp at the arm of the worst traitor to ever call him friend, but was assailed by a wave of crippling dizziness.
“That’s the spirit. Soon you’ll be strong enough to make a proper go of strangling me.”
“Go to hell.”
“Well done! Shall we get you into a chair? Sister Berthe—would you mind?”
The hour that followed was possibly the most unpleasant Edward had ever known. With the assistance of Sister Berthe and several of the other nuns, Robbie manhandled him out of bed and onto a hard and exceedingly uncomfortable wooden chair. Wave after wave of dizziness and nausea assailed him, turning the room on end, making a blur of everything and everyone around him.
If only he’d found a way to kill himself when he’d had a chance. There was no point in trying now, for Robbie would only sew him up again. He was well and truly trapped.
Minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, Robbie encouraged, prodded, and goaded Edward out of bed and onto his feet. After a week, he was able to sit up on his own and swing himself into the chair without any help. His headaches were terrible, but this, Robbie assured him, was a side effect of his having been bedridden for so long.
By Christmas, he was able to stand, and soon after take short walks with the aid of crutches—his Christmas gift from Robbie. “They’re really a present for me,” his friend explained. “The sooner you can use them, the sooner I’ll be home to Lilly. Besides, you’re going to hate them.”
And he did. They were hell on his arms, so bloody heavy he could barely lift them, and made of a rough, unfinished wood that made his soft hands blister and bleed. But Robbie insisted they were better than an ill-fitting prosthetic.
“Once we’re back home I’ll make sure you get a tin leg that fits properly. Soon you’ll be able to walk with only the smallest hitch in your step.”
He didn’t care, not really. As long as he could move about independently, without having to rely on anyone else, he would manage. He would, he supposed, survive. Funny how the thought of it still managed to surprise him.
He felt guilty even admitting to it, but it would be good to see his family and friends again, Lilly most of all. Robbie hadn’t said anything of Helena, not yet; he would have to ask. With any luck his neglected fiancée had given up on him and married someone else. For her sake, he hoped she had.
And what of Charlotte? Had she wept when she’d learned of his fate? Did she ever think of him? Pray for him? So much had been left unfinished, undone, unsaid. He would have to make it right with her, though he hadn’t, quite honestly, the first idea of where to begin.
They said goodbye to Sister Berthe and the other nuns one January morning, so early the moon was still high in the sky. Somehow, Robbie had arranged for a car to take them to the rail station at Saint-Quentin. From there, a train to Boulogne, then the ferry, then another train home to London.
Not until their train was pulling to Victoria station, early that evening, did Edward speak to his friend.
“I’m sorry. For everything. If it hadn’t been for me…”
“If it hadn’t been for you, I’d never have known Lilly. And even if it weren’t for her, I’d have searched for you. I hope you know that.”
“I think you can be happy again. I know you can have a good life, if you decide you want one.”
“I’ll…well, I’ll try.”
“That’s a fine start. Now take my arm and come with me.”
With Robbie’s help, Edward navigated the descent to the platform, set his crutches under his arm, and took a moment to find his bearings. They were the last men to leave the train; he could see straight ahead to the platform’s end.
A woman stood under the light, beyond the barrier, just far enough away that he couldn’t make out her features. Yet he knew her all the same. He swung his crutches forward and began to walk toward her.
He was home.