beyond the moon
Coldbrook Hall Military Hospital, Sussex, England, August 1916
Footsteps, then a rap at the door. Lying in bed, Robert jumped. Was there really someone there or was he dreaming? He could barely tell any more if he was asleep or awake.
There was a painful swell of yellow-grey light, and he felt his pupils contract. Ah, so he was definitely awake then. The light receded as the door closed behind whoever had come in. A doctor, by the sound of the brisk footfall and confident knock.
‘Good evening, Lieutenant,’ a man said. ‘How are we this evening?’
‘Much the same, sir. I’m sorry, who is this? I’m not awfully good at telling voices apart.’
‘It’s Major Hughes, the neurologist. You’ll find it remarkable how your other senses learn to compensate over time. Some sightless people even come to know when an object is close by, through some extraordinary sixth sense they develop. But of course, we hope things will improve for you before it comes to anything like that.’
More footsteps – and another stab of pain as light spilled into his head again. He screwed his eyes shut. A nurse bade him good evening. He could hear the hiss of the gas lamp on the landing outside. He said, ‘Could you push the door to, please? I find the light painful.’
‘Come now, Mr Lovett, you must get used to the light again eventually,’ the doctor said. ‘How do you expect to regain your sight lying here in the dark? Don’t you want to recover?’
‘More than anything,’ Robert responded fiercely. ‘It’s the only thing I want, to get better and return to France, to my men.’
‘Yes of course, of course,’ the doctor said quickly. ‘You are an officer recommended for the Military Cross. I didn’t mean to imply . . . I beg your pardon; that was tactless of me. Push the door to, please, Sister. Leave it just a little ajar so I can see well enough to examine the lieutenant.’
Robert heard the stethoscope slip from the doctor’s neck. That sound, at least, was familiar.
‘Breathe in . . . and out. Again, please. Good. And hold out your hands in front of you. Still rather unsteady. Sister, would you please undo the lieutenant’s dressing, so I may examine his leg? And how are the headaches at night? Any improvement?’
‘I’m afraid not, sir.’
‘And you’re still troubled by nightmares?’
‘Yes. When I finally manage to fall asleep. Or at least I think I’ve been asleep. I can’t always tell.’
‘It’s important that you try to sleep only at night, to help maintain the distinction between night and day – apart from a good hour’s nap after luncheon. I’m glad to say your wound is looking better, Lieutenant. Very well, I think it best we continue with the same regimen: isolation, rest, a light invalid diet – beef tea, milk, calves foot jelly – and daily massage to your injured leg.’
‘Please, no more jelly. I can’t bear it. And I’m so terribly bored. If I were to be allowed the occasional visitor . . . ’
‘It really is quite the best thing for you. You mustn’t be overtaxed in any way. We may try bromides to help you sleep. And if your sight doesn’t improve in the next few weeks, we may consider faradism to the orbital ridge.’
‘The application of an electrical current. It’s proven successful in some cases of hysterical blindness like yours, where there’s no organic cause for the sight loss.’
‘Then I should like it as soon as possible, sir.’
‘Patience, Mr Lovett; one step at a time. You’ve been through a harrowing experience. One must respect Mother Nature.’
‘Even when her processes are inscrutable? I simply want to be better.’
‘I know. I understand. But I’m afraid it doesn’t work quite like that. We’re not even sure of the mechanism of your sight loss. And as I’ve warned you before, there may be permanent damage; it may be that you won’t ever be able to paint again. You must try to be optimistic, but at the same time prepare yourself for any eventuality. Now I’ll let you get back to your rest. Good evening.’
They left, and the room brimmed with silence and anguish once more. Oh God, would he ever see again – well enough even to wash or feed himself, let alone paint landscapes and still-life pictures? Or would he be shut up forever in this crypt of shadows, wretched, a prisoner in his own body, shirking his duty while the Somme campaign went from bad to worse, neglecting his men, seeping away from the world bit by bit? He couldn’t even see his own face in the mirror. He felt he was turning into a ghost or a spirit – a figment of his own imagination.
He would sacrifice his art, he promised now to whatever gods might be listening, if in return it meant he might see well enough to lead his men once more. That, alone, mattered. Painting belonged to another life – a higher, more rarefied existence, which no longer concerned him. He had fallen a long way from grace; he was a base, primitive creature now.
It began to rain. He liked rain. The patter on the stone terrace outside his room gave a sort of shape back to the world and made it familiar once more. A minute or two later, through the shutters, came the overwhelming scent of rain on grass. He took slow, deep breaths, and for the first time in weeks the commotion in his head seemed to quieten.
Some time later he jerked awake, his arms flailing at the darkness, as if he could somehow claw it away and reveal the world hidden behind it. He choked air back into his lungs and sat up. He was bathed in sweat. The same nightmare; always the same. The world created by his sleeping mind, with its chaotic images and colours, was so much more real than the physical world.
His room was soundless and still. With a shaking hand he felt for the bedstead. There it was, just behind him, solid and cool. Thank God. He put his hand between the metal rails and splayed his fingers across the smooth wall. His head throbbed.
He felt for the little clock they’d given him which allowed the blind to tell the time. It had a glass front which unclasped. He had to open it carefully or the tremor in his hands would cause him to drop it. Very slowly, he opened it and touched his fingers to the little metal hands and the symbolic bumps above them. Just after twenty to three in the morning.
He stumbled out of bed and, on hands and knees, his injured leg throbbing, managed to feel his way over to the far corner of the room. Even though he couldn’t see, he understood that this spot would command a good view of both the door and window. The enemy might come either way.
He wedged himself into the space between the chest of drawers and the armchair. The cabinet reminded him of the one in his mother’s dressing room – solid and heavy, with a scent of beeswax. A good smell. Smells scared him more than anything now – strong ones in particular, which might signify chemicals. The wall at his back was cool and hard. He let its solidity flow into him and gradually his breathing slowed.
He stayed there for a long time, until he felt calmer. Then he managed to haul himself to his feet – and realised that he didn’t have his stick. He staggered forward a few steps, lost his balance then keeled over into the blackness. He landed on his stomach, winding himself. He seemed to be tangled up in a chair. He tried to free himself, but found he was stuck fast.
For the first time since he’d awoken to find himself sightless, he wept – gulping, angry tears like he hadn’t cried since he was a child. Over and over he called out for help, but no one answered, and he lay with his face pressed to the floor, his tears soaking into the wooden boards.
At last, perhaps hours later, he thought he heard a sound below. He called out once more.
‘Hello?’ He heard the taut anguish in his voice. ‘Is there someone there? Please, can you help me? I’ve fallen. Hello?’
Finally, miraculously, he heard a woman’s voice, muffled but distinct: ‘Just a minute, I’m coming!’
He began to cry again, this time with relief.
Sussex Downs April 2017
So that’s it then, she thought, I’m all on my own. Not a soul left in the world I can call family any more. Except for my father, of course – but he doesn’t count.
Louisa’s legs ached from the steep climb up the cliff path, but finally she was at the top. She sat down on the chalky, flinty ground and looked out to sea. And her grandmother’s absence hit her with a blow that seemed to knock all the air from her lungs. She lay back, soft and exposed, a snail without a shell, while the ravens and gulls wheeled endlessly overhead, untethered. Had she been cut free from the earth too? she wondered. What held her in this place now? What held her anywhere?
She reached for the old, familiar wooden box she’d brought with her and took out the bottle inside. P. Aubert & Co. Cognac 1915, the label read. It had been given to some great-great-uncle of Granny’s by his commanding officer at the end of the First World War. As a child it had been one of Louisa’s favourite treasures in their overflowing cottage, along with a pair of faded red silk shoes from Imperial China and a set of children’s encyclopaedias from the 1930s.
Granny had always said the cognac must stay in the sideboard, in the dark. But Louisa had taken it out when her grandmother’s back was turned. To her it looked like liquid gold trapped behind the glass, and she hadn’t been able to conceive what it would be like to drink something so old. She’d always imagined it would be like drinking history itself.
And now the time had come to find out. The day of Granny’s funeral merited a drink, and a bloody good one at that. She uncorked the bottle and took a sip, then lay back to savour it. And discovered that it tasted not of honey, as she’d always expected, but of bitter cloves and pepper. It made her nose sting – and was actually rather disappointing. She took another sip and swallowed with difficulty. It scorched its way down, making her eyes water.
‘Well, here’s to you, Granny.’
She raised the bottle to the sky. For that’s where her grandmother would be. She belonged to the elements now, to this huge blue wing of sky, and the sea, shimmering far below. This was where Louisa felt closest to Granny. Here on the white chalk cliffs of the South Downs, where Granny had brought her the first day she’d moved in to Cliff Cottage. The day of her father’s betrayal.
She lay looking up into the endless blue sky. She felt she could lie here forever and never get up again. Then a raven landed a little way off and began to caw at her.
‘Go away, bird,’ she told it. ‘Leave me alone.’ But she could feel it crouching there, watching her, goading her in her grief. Really, was there no place in the whole world where she might have a bit of peace? Not even up here? Eventually, she shooed it away, then took up the bottle once more and swallowed another mouthful of brandy, then another – and another.
And the more she drank, the better it tasted. No longer bitter, but with notes she hadn’t noticed at first – of oranges and aniseed, and some distant, century-ago summer. And her head grew heavier and heavier, until finally the brandy ceased to taste of anything at all.
She jolted awake. It was very dark, and her head was thick and painful.
Where the bloody hell am I?
She sat up. Her senses pitched and lurched. She realised she was lying out in the open and it was raining. Her heart began to pound. She felt for her handbag but couldn’t find it. Through her drunkenness she could tell that she was wet and cold, without being able to properly feel either sensation. The events of the day jumbled past like a stream of mixed-up jigsaw pieces. She tried desperately to put them into order. The funeral, the cliffs . . . the brandy. Oh God, the brandy.
I’m still on the cliff.
Her heart thumped harder. She must have drunk so much she’d passed out. Her thoughts were so saturated with alcohol it was hard to peel them apart, think of what she ought to do. The rain began to fall harder, and her breath came thick and fast, rising fear sharpening her thoughts. She couldn’t work out which direction she was facing. The cliffs were over two hundred feet high, and she couldn’t make out the light from the Beachy Head lighthouse. That could only mean one thing: fog. The Seven Sisters were notorious for the thick mists that swirled in there off the sea.
She wrapped her arms around herself and rocked back and forth, trying desperately to think of what to do. Where exactly was she even? The rock she’d been leaning against earlier wasn’t there any longer. She must have moved. Think – think! Best to stay where she was – yes, wait for dawn. But it was freezing and pouring with rain and there was no shelter. It had been warm for the time of year when she’d driven down and so she’d left her coat in the car.
Oh God, what an idiot she was! She might die of exposure. She had to find her phone, with its flashlight app. Then she could get back to safety and phone for a taxi. On her hands and knees, she felt around for her bag, experiencing her panic almost as a thing outside of herself. Where was it? Where?
Her fingers touched something smooth. She made a grab for it. But it wasn’t her phone, it was the cognac bottle. It slipped away from her fumbling fingers. She heard it clink across the ground, then nothing. Then, with a stab of horror, she heard a faint smash a long, long way below.
She sat, paralysed with fear. Think! She tried to steady her breathing, her lurching heart. If the bottle had rolled that way, over the cliff, that must mean the way back to the path was behind her. She closed her eyes and sat still, trying to find guidance in the quiet. She pictured what was behind her: the little cafe in the distance, the pub, the tourist information board describing the freak rainstorm on the twenty-first of July 1917, when the famous Anchoress rock arch had fallen into the sea, leaving just a chalk stack behind.
Slowly, still on hands and knees, she turned and began to edge away. Come on, she urged herself, you know these cliffs like your own skin! Yes, this was right. The grass was longer here, and the sound of the waves was behind her now, not in front. Relief flooded through her. She stood up and stepped cautiously forwards, then took another step, and another. Yes. Oh, thank God, this was the way . . .
Then her foot caught, and she tripped, falling flat onto her chest. She slid forwards, downwards, faster and faster. The ground crumbled away beneath her. She tried to grab hold of anything she could: grass, twigs, stones, furze. She felt her fingernails break, the skin on her hands scrape off. But with terrible clarity she knew it was pointless. This wasn’t the way back to the path. It was the edge of the cliff.