Authors: LeeAnn Whitaker
“Oh Eleanor, it’s been a difficult day all round.” Sister Mary’s hard exterior softened. “He can have one night, but don’t hold your hopes up he will pull through,” she sighed. “The gas has probably effected his nervous system. Now, get yourself home. I need my nurses on good form in the morning.”
Nell slid the book into her apron pocket as she made her way through the ward. It was something she couldn’t leave behind. She had to read more. Because like Jack needed to relive their short love affair, so did she.
It was a grand red brick stately home, situated just off Farrow lane that Nell returned to every night. When Alistair purchased the house, he made sure the land was ample, and the stables suitable for Nell’s passion for horses. But the only horse in the twelve stall stable, was Alistair’s. There was no time during this war for personal hobbies, and Nell didn’t mind at all. She didn’t want to go out riding for leisure with Alistair, and for that reason she never pushed for her own horse.
The splendid eight bedroom house wasn’t at all overbearing for Nell. She was accustom to fine surroundings, having been raised at the Haughton Estate in Elham, Kent. She grew up in great halls, long corridors, with drafty floors. She was used to being followed by the eyes of old oil paintings that hung upon panelled walls. And fortuitously, both homes remained untouched by the years’ worth of air assaults the country had endured.
The only damage inflicted, was neglect, due to the hard times of the war effort. Fractured plaster and damp walls, caused by the windows being on permanent blackout. The decorative coving upon the ceilings had begun to crumble away. And the lavish wallcoverings in each room, had started to peel around the doorframes and light switches. Nell’s chambers however, showed barely any signs of wear and tear. She kept it pristine. Her expensive cream furniture suite, she would polish daily. Her antique mahogany sleigh bed was dressed in fresh linen every morning. And her walk-in closet was neat and well ordered. It was her safe haven in a dark household.
It was nearly time to go downstairs and Nell was just about ready, wearing Alistair’s favourite dress. He purchased it for her birthday the previous year, and paid a good sum of money for the green silk gown he had custom made to his liking. She coated her lips with a sliver of red, pinned back her wavy hair, and then picked up Jack’s journal, holding it close to her chest. She would rather spend the night alone reading it, but knew she had to spend time with her husband on their fourth wedding anniversary. He would make her pay dearly if she refused.
She made sure the journal was well hidden in her closet; on the top shelf next to her cleaned and pressed aprons. She knew it would never be found in there, as it was very rare Alistair entered her room. You see, it wasn’t the atypical marriage, for they both slept separately. It was one of the conditions she made before they got wed. Relations of the bedroom kind, were to always be in Alistair’s room. That way her personal space would remain untainted. Alistair did think it a strange request, but he required her so greatly that he agreed.
She flicked the switch on her crystal lamp and perched on the stool, staring at her reflection in the ornate framed mirror. It would be difficult tonight, to play the happy wife, when she couldn’t stop thinking of Jack. So, she quickly collected her thoughts, filled her lungs, and made her way out onto the landing.
Alistair had his favourite music playing in the parlour, which crackled through the speaker. Before Nell even entered the room, she could picture him. His predictive behaviour was so consistent, that she knew it off by heart.
His routine varied. He would always, without fail, be home for eight in the evening. He would walk through the door, go to his room to freshen up, then to the parlour for whisky. All the while, Nell would stay out of sight to avoid any light conversation, because she had nothing of importance to say to him. She was not comfortable talking openly with her husband. There were many reasons. For one- he may take offence to her opinion. Or, he would simply be disinterested because his god complex he thought more appealing. All Nell could do, was listen and agree as he blew his own trumpet.
She opened the heavy oak door to see him suited and booted, dressed in his full military attire. He stood before the grand limestone fire surround, sipping his whisky. His harsh cold blue eyes beamed intensely as she entered. He was ogling, and it made her skin crawl.
“Good evening Eleanor.” He placed his glass down on the mantel next to the solid silver carriage clock, and ran his hand over his light blonde hair. “I have arranged a culinary delight for us. So please, sit.” He pulled a chair out from beneath the mahogany table set for two.
She hated every moment of it. He was never normally so courteous. Usually, it was Nell who would have to put the Lieutenant at ease. So, she already knew he wanted much more than just dinner with her. Their marriage was cold and tedious. Formal and unloving. Stale even. She never had any regrets like this with Jack. With Jack, a rainy day would be cheerful. The only regret she did have, was for treating him so badly before he left. But the reasons for this, she never had the chance to reveal. It was the greatest eight weeks of her life. And now she had seen him again, it was thorny for her to be near Alistair. She was scared. Scared he would be able to read her.
“It’s been a horrendous day for us.” He poured Nell a small sherry. “Losses beyond belief.” He released a deep unbothered sigh. “How has your day been; just as exhausting I presume?”
“Yes… it’s been very trying.”
“Well, you are here now. So let us enjoy this bit of normality, and celebrate our anniversary.”
Nell used the silver fork to play with her food, pushing the garden peas to the edge of the china plate. Alistair watched. She could feel his eyes burning her. She couldn’t stomach most of the pheasant, so nibbled at a few small bites, and ate a little of the mashed potato. The tone created by her solemn mood, would only make Alistair question. But she couldn’t exchange dialogue with him, be jovial, or rejoice the four years of abuse she had endured.
Alistair finished his portion, wiped the corners of his mouth with his cloth napkin, and dropped it on the table. He then opened up his jacket to pull out a blue velvet case from his inside pocket.
“I couldn’t resist,” he smiled. “You know how I like to see you in fine things.” He opened the lid to reveal an extravagant gold necklace, with an emerald green oval pendant. “I know times are hard, but I will always find a way to indulge you. Stand up Eleanor,” he ordered.
Nell hated him buying her expensive gifts. She knew what it would lead to; he would require something in return. Her stomach bubbled as she stood, nerves tingling on edge. She couldn’t refuse the gift. She had to do as she was told.
Alistair stood at her back, breathing heavy on her bare shoulder. He lowered the necklace over her head, so the cool metal pendant fell between her breasts. His lusting breath hit the skin on her neck, sending quivers down her spine; not in a good way. He fastened the clasp, and ran his finger slowly up and down her backbone. Nell closed herself off, aiming to find a better place inside her mind.
“It matches your dress.” He wrapped his fingers around her biceps and kneaded with lust. “Do you like it Eleanor?” He kissed below her ear, as that silent fear she was all too used to, twisted inside her gut.
“Yes,” she said in a hushed tone.
Alistair continued to kiss her, over and over. “I would like to see you wearing it with nothing else.”
“I… I’m so tired Alistair.”
He stopped kissing her. “I won’t beg you Eleanor,” he near growled in her ear. “It’s our anniversary.” His cool lips returned to her shoulder.
“I… I can’t,” her whole body cringed.
His lips ceased to caress her skin, and the dread of how he would react immediately occupied her. Suddenly, he spun her around with an aggressive force. Nell gasped in alarm, expecting a blow. He shook her by the arms, and yanked her face to his.
“Alistair please,” she begged.
“Please… please,” he yelled. “What are you trying to do? I deserve your respect. I deserve to have my needs met.”
Nell had a plan. She had to get away from him. And this time she knew it wouldn’t go without receiving punishment. But all she needed, was to get back to her Jack.
“I won’t,” she said firmly, creasing her eyes.
Promptly the back of his hand swung with speed, and landed hard across her face. She stumbled back and fell to the floor as the loud clap reverberated throughout her nervous system. Clutching her cheek, she grimaced, feeling a deep pounding pain inside her head. She wanted to cry, but didn’t. She just stared at his back as he stood holding the mantel, panting angrily. Quickly she rose to her feet, raced out of the room, and upstairs to her quarters, locking herself away in her safe haven.
She dashed to her closet, rose up on her toes, and lifted Jack down from the shelf. With a sniff and a tear falling down her throbbing cheek, she perched on the edge of the bed, and placed the black leather sleeve to her nose. She wanted to smell his scent. To feel the love she had for him back then.
Filling her lungs fully, she opened the cover. Again she read the inscription on the inside. Now she was ready. Ready to be taken away to a time ago, when all she desired was Jack. She turned the page and felt the pull of time, taking her far away from danger.
‘The only thing keeping me going in this damn place is the ability to release you onto these pages Nell. So here’s to page one of us.’
The summer of 1938, had been one of tense rising emotions. The whole country was on the brink of going to war. And I, like my three older brothers, John, Jimmy, and Colin, was ready to pick up the gauntlet and do my bit. They had already gone. Signed up and left in the big fancy parade that passed through Elham village, Kent.
Every civilian turned out to wave off the heroes of our nation. And even though I begged my mum to let me go with them, she wanted me to stay a while longer. The reason soon became clear when the rents collector came, and we were short by half a month’s payment. My poor worn-out mum, couldn’t raise the extra. And my dad, well, he was about as useless as a drunk could be. So it was agreed, without my consent, that I would pay off our debt by working up at the Haughton Estate, tending to the stables. And my first day, just happen to be on my eighteenth birthday.
I didn’t know much of the privileged that lived up there back then. Only that main man was a Brigadier in the Army, who liked to charge those who lived on his land a small fortune to dwell in one of his poky cold farmhouses. And his daughter, Eleanor Haughton, I’d seen only once, the back of her head as she galloped by on her horse. I quickly came to the conclusion, she was completely spoilt and had never worked a day in her life. She wouldn’t know struggle if it hit her in the face with a mallet, or so I thought.
“Okay Son.” Mum wiped her hands on her tatty floral dress, and pinched my cheek. “Make sure you show them what a good worker you are.”
“Mum, I’ll be fine.” I rolled my eyes at my dad, snoring like a wild boar in his chair. “Someone has to do it, and it ain’t going to be that bone idol nitwit.”
“Oh love,” she cooed at me. “Make some girl the perfect husband you will.”
“Who’ll look after you then?” I smiled, pulling on my cap. “Wake that berk up, and tell him to make a start on that ploughing that field.”
My dear old Mum was a saint, and had to put up with a hell of a lot looking after a house full of men. The rowdy wrestling, the filth, and the drunken misadventures of my miserable Dad. It was only I who could see how tiresome she found it. But no matter what, she made sure we had food on the table. I don’t know how she did it sometimes. The things she could do with a few spuds, would blow your mind. ‘All in the seasoning,’ she would say.
I never saw her once take ten minutes for herself. She would potter around the kitchen all day: scrubbing our muddy boots, darning our socks, and wiping things down. It wasn’t surprising she was as skinny as a rake. The woman never sat still.
I left Mum to deal with my comatose Dad (who had been drinking his home brew all night) and made my way across the sun scorched golden fields, watching the grand house come into view. It was so warm that day, and at only seven in the morning. I knew it was going to get a lot warmer, and smellier. Steaming piles horse muck and summer sun- not a great combination.
I arrived at the stables, cap in hand, looking out for the charge hand who was supposed to meet me. I waited on the cobbles a good five minutes, but no one turned up. The brick stable block was at the back of the house, and every one of the six green gates were closed. I could hear movement inside, so I decided to try the side door to see if anyone was in there.
As I opened, I came face to face with a right beauty. A stallion, tan in colour, with a defined muscle tone that would rival the greatest racers. He was huge, with black glossy straight hair that hung down by his muscular neck. And his coat was sleek with a shimmer. He was a magnificent animal.
I held up my hands as his big black eyes checked me out, air shooting from his nostrils. He pounded his front hoof, wary of me, then backed up a step. With a gulp, I hung up my cap on the stall post.
“Whoa boy.” I approached with caution. “You’re a beaut aren’t you boy.”
He wasn’t impressed with me, and began to grunt while slamming down his hoof harder. I hovered my fingers out, when suddenly a dirty hand grabbed my forearm and pulled me back. The automatic reaction was to spin with my fists up, ready to fight.
“You do not stick your hand near that horse, unless you want to lose a finger.”
I dropped my clenched fists, looking at the shortest fella I’d ever meet. Just over four foot he was. He frowned his grey brow, nodding his head.
“You’re the charge?” I asked.
“Yeah, Benny,” he held out his hand and we greeted. “So, you clearly don’t know how to handle a horse.”
I laughed at him. Of course I knew how to handle a horse. We had shires working the farm for years, until Dad flogged them down at the market- all bar one. All for pittance, and all so he could gamble it away down at the Winchester Arms. The only reason no one wanted to take poor old Surge off our hands, was because he was unworkable. Like my dad I guess.
“I know quite a bit,” I replied confidently.
Benny removed his grubby green tweed jacket, and flung it over a large barrel.
“These aren’t your average horses. These are soldiers. And this chap, well, he’s nothing but trouble.”
“What’s his name?”
“Byron, and he belongs to Miss Eleanor.” I smirked. If he did have an attitude problem, that would explain why, I thought.
I admired Byron, and I was sure I could get him to accept me. I thought of myself back then, rather like that bloke from those books, Doctor Dolittle.
“We have five horses,” Benny explained. “The end two are shires, used for the Brigadier’s carriage.”
I angled my body to get a better view of the large stout black shires, eating from a net of hay hung above their stall.
“Then we have Duke here.” Benny stroked a tall grey stallion with white hair. “He’s the Brigadiers horse, and is a good un, aren’t you lad.”
“Who’s this then?” I asked, standing at the stall next to Byron, looking at a young black mare.
“We haven’t a name for her yet,” he replied. “Miss Eleanor purchased her a few days ago at market, and she is yet to decide.”
I held my hand out to the mare. She was much smaller than the other horses, and a lot friendlier. She placed her nose on my hand, and took an inquisitive sniff of me.
“Our job is to muck out, feed, and exercise in the paddock,” Benny said. “Apart from Byron, we clean around him, and Miss Eleanor sees to everything else.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Byron is as cantankerous as they come. Give him an inch and he’ll take a mile, trust me,” Benny huffed. “Only Miss Eleanor can control that beast.”
I always liked a challenge. So I made a bet with myself that morning. By the end of the day, I’d have that horse eating out of the palm of my hand.
The stench laced my nose as I walked Duke back into his stall after mucking out and swilling. It was back breaking work. Work that I was left to do alone while Benny went to put his feet up. I flicked my braces off my shoulders, wiped my sweaty face on a rag, and took my shovel to the mare with no name.
It was then I saw her face. Miss Eleanor flounced toward Byron, wearing riding boots, green trousers, and a baggy white shirt. I thought her pretty. She had nice skin, with long hair that hung over her shoulder in a braid. But I kept my head down and continued on with my work. Poor and posh don’t mingle too well. Rather like chalk and cheese. A rat and a cat, me being the rodent of course.
She entered Byron’s stall as I shovelled manure into the wheelbarrow. She ran her hand up his nose and whispered in his ear. I knew I shouldn’t be looking at her, but I couldn’t help myself. I suppose it was my raging hormones taking a hold of me. She caught me, so I was polite and offered her a smile. But all I received was a look of disgust. She made my giggle to myself in anger.
“I need you to muck out Byron’s stall,” she said in a very demanding tone. “While I take him out for a ride.”
I ignored her and carried on scooping out the muck. Hoity-toity she was, and I didn’t want to speak in case I said something regrettable to her. I did have a tendency to blurt things out and get myself into trouble, especially with the high and mighty.
“Boy, are you listening to me?”
I blew my hair from my face, straightened up my back, and propped against the shovel to see her fierce, but pretty eyes scowling. I knew exactly what she was doing, stamping her authority, making sure I knew who she was, and how small I was. So I decided to go along with it, and have some fun with her.
“Hello Miss,” I said in a feverish manner. “I’m Jack, and of course I will muck out your horse for you.” I grinned a huge dumb smile right at her. “I’m always happy to help.”
She was taken aback, gazing at me confused. She wasn’t sure if I was being sarcastic, or if I was just some village simpleton who always said too much.
“Okay Jack.” She turned back to Byron and slid his saddle over his back.
As she prepared to take Byron out for exercise, I noticed her eyes continually fall on me. I chuckled because I’d obviously affected her in some way, made her feel awkward. It was payback for her snobbish tone with me.
She opened Byron’s stall gate, and slipped his reins over a post so she could secure the buckle of her riding helmet.
I rolled the wheelbarrow to his stall, when Byron began to grunt and clop his hoofs.
“Oh Byron, patience,” Miss Eleanor sighed.
Suddenly, and I don’t know how he did it, his reins came loose and he was free. He darted out of the stable doors like lightening and fled. I dropped my shovel as Miss Eleanor ran after him, holding onto her loose helmet.
“Byron stop,” she yelled.
It was going to be up to me. Having three older brothers chasing me around since I took my first steps, gave me the edge of speed over her. So I ran, and it was only a matter seconds before I passed by Miss Eleanor, and was charging over the rolling fields in the baking sun.
As my legs took huge strides, I watched Byron move. Even though I wanted to catch up with him, I couldn’t help admiring how he galloped with haste. The wind flowing through his mane, and the thunderous sound of his hoofs hitting the ground.
I skid down a mound to find Byron had stopped on his great escape mission, and was looking over into the paddock of a neighbouring farm. It seemed Byron had taken a fancy to a white mare grazing on the long grass.
With caution, I slowly approached from the side so he could see me. He panted and puffed, hoofing the ground to get the attention of his beloved. But she wasn’t having any of it. His head bobbed low, down in the dumps.
“Hey boy, some girls are hard to please.” I held out my hand.
He blew out his lips and dropped his head lower. The poor guy only wanted to say hello to her, and she wouldn’t even lift her head to acknowledge him.
I took a breath and went for it. Creasing my eyes, I gently took hold of his reins. He didn’t snap, recoil, or kick up a fuss. He just stood still and let my hold him willingly.
“What you need to do Byron, is to pretend you don’t care.” I slowly placed my hand on his neck, and gave him a firm supportive pat. “Play hard to get.”
Miss Eleanor bound toward us then stopped. She keeled over, gasping for a breath, unable to speak. I was kind of chuffed with myself. I had saved the day at the Haughton Estate, and took control of the situation easily.
“He’s fine, aren’t you boy,” I scratched his back. “Seems he’s taken a shine to the mare over there.”
Miss Eleanor froze, staring at me with her hands on her hips. She appeared bemused I had gained the trust of her so called grumpy horse.
“Byron, you are a very, very, naughty boy.” She marched right up to me and whipped his reins right out of my hand.
“Well, he’s in love Miss… give him some leeway.”
She pursed her ruby red lips sideways. “You have experience with training horses Jack?”
I felt it come on fast. Being young and in the presence of a pretty girl, it was bound to happen. That cockiness that made my head swell with a stupid arrogance.
“Well Miss, I have a gift with animals.”
She hummed. “Yes, very impressive the way you gained his trust. But he will only ever allow me to ride him, won’t you my darling.”
Sometimes you have to know when to stop before you dig a hole that you can’t get out of. But that was never me. I smiled at her with complete confidence. If she could ride that horse, then so could I.
“Maybe he needs to be exercised differently. Maybe he needs someone who understands the way he thinks and feels,” I said, assured.
“You think you can handle Byron, Jack?”
“Miss, I think I understand Byron more than you know.”
“Well here you go Jack.” She handed me the reins. “You can ride him back to the stables.”
At that point, I was unsure whether my pride had got me into bother. There was a tone in her voice that was calling my bluff. But I wasn’t about to refuse and make myself look like a twit. So I took hold of Byron, placed my foot in the stirrup, and mounted with ease.