Authors: LeeAnn Whitaker
Nell kissed the last page of Jack’s journal then lowered it down onto her lap. He said he had no regrets, well that was far from the truth for her.
No one was aware other than her, about how difficult it was being brought up in a strict military home. If her mother had survived the childbirth, maybe things would have been a lot different. It was as though the night Nell was born, a part of the Brigadier died also. The part that would look at her as a Daughter, and not just some soldier beneath his roof.
In such a big house, Nell often craved some kind of parental bond, or an encouraging word. She was often lonely, and had a tendency to keep her thoughts locked away inside in fear of disappointing her father. Still to this day, she would deal with her problems privately.
It wasn’t that the Brigadier was abusive like Alistair, but more lacking in the ability to love. He would set out clear rules, and if rules were not followed, then punishment was handed out. He knew how Nell loved to ride, it was her only escape, and he would take that privilege away from her. He had a look, and it was simple for her to read. If his left brow lifted higher than the right, then he was angry. It was the only way that Nell could tell if he was upset with her. He would never yell, scream, or shout. He would remain heartlessly calm. There were strict bedtime hours, morning hours, and dress-codes implemented at the Haughton Estate, and Nell always abided by them- until Jack.
Nell tried to understand her father’s cold ways. She would make excuses for his insensitivity. The Brigadier and her mother, Sarah, were childhood sweethearts and married at the age of eighteen. Nell would often sit by the grand piano at the Haughton Estate, looking at the shrine of wonderful pictures. Her mother was so beautiful, and her father so happy. She never got to know the man in those photographs. All she knew of him was distance and order. She even thought her father blamed her partially for his wife’s passing, and that guilt grew inside Nell over the years.
The Brigadier even went as far as to personally pick out Alistair Jenkins as a potential future husband for Nell. When Nell reached fifteen years of age, he invited the Jenkins family to stay at the estate every summer. Alistair’s Father was a Coronel and Chief, and both officers had known each other for many years. They would partake in hunting expeditions and clay pigeon shooting on the grounds, while encouraging Nell to take Alistair out riding on a Sunday afternoon. But she would always find a way to lose him; she knew the area too well. Nevertheless, after every brush-off she gave him, Alistair would still try hard to gage her affections. From flowers- to sweet-talk- to compliments. But Nell’s heart remained frozen to the idea. The only one ever able to thaw it, was Jack.
Nell did want to scream the truth out when Jack beat Alistair black and blue that day, she really did. But she had to hold her tongue, for there was a bigger picture behind the coldness she displayed toward him. That night they spent together, they were seen by Alistair. And he had no problem reporting his findings to her father. It was the first time Nell saw her father really lose his temper. He forbid her from seeing Jack again. Told her that if she didn’t obey his demands, the Montgomery’s would lose their home, and he would make sure they were not welcome anywhere in Elham. He would personally see to it that Jack’s life was made very difficult. Knowing that her father never made empty threats, she felt she had no choice but to push Jack away at the time.
When Benny told Nell, Jack had signed up to serve in the war and would be departing that very day, she was devastated. The thought of not seeing him again outweighed all her father’s warnings. So she charged through the village on her mare to get to Elham train station as fast as she could.
She never said a word to him on that train, because her emotions were so painfully high. She thought it would be the last time she would kiss, touch, or see Jack. It was a hellish farewell that haunted her for years.
Months later, and after crying out every tear possible over him, Alistair (who had been made a Lieutenant, thanks to her father) proposed in a room full of dignitaries. She said yes. The reason wasn’t love. It was duty. They were married in a manner befitting royalty, and the Brigadier couldn’t have been more thrilled. Her father had absolutely no idea of Alistair’s abuse toward her. Nell, like always, was concerned about his feelings more than her own safety. So she lived with her mistakes in a loveless abusive relationship, she never had the strength to escape from. And now with that flame burning hot inside her for Jack again, she had never been so scared- or confused. If Jack did wake and saw her, it would be disastrous for them both.
Nell thought she had managed to avoid an encounter with Alistair that morning. She was dressed in her bright white pinafore with her hair pinned back, ready for work before the birds began to tweet in the trees outside her window. But she hadn’t. He was waiting for her in the cigarette smoke filled parlour, sat in his brown shiny leather armchair holding a cup of tea. Her heart dropped a few beats as she tried not to flinch backward at the sight of him. But it was an automatic reaction she had no control over.
His polished military boots squeaked as he stood up to greet her. He dropped the butt end of his cigarette into the china teacup, and set it down onto the table.
“Good morning Eleanor,” he said, with an observing eye aimed.
“Good morning,” she replied, rummaging through her green handbag to avoid eye contact.
She pulled out her lipstick. She couldn’t understand why he had not left yet. Usually by 6am, he would be on his way to the basecamp located on the coast. More so now with the many ships returning home each day. But not this morning, and Nell was more than apprehensive for the reasons why.
He strode toward her as she dabbed the peach colour on her lips before the gold oval mirror on the wall. He was in the reflection, right behind her. She dropped the lipstick back into her bag, and stayed perfectly still with her head low, waiting for either his love or hate.
“Eleanor.” He placed his hand on her chin and moved her face to his.
Every muscle in her body stiffened at his touch as he studied her cheek. She was expecting another blow; it was quite possible. He had always been unpredictable that way. His blue eyes stared down at her, then thankfully he released her chin.
“I am sorry about my behaviour last evening,” he said. “It was a very tiresome day. Will you forgive me?”
It wasn’t the first apology Nell had heard, and she knew he never meant a word. What she also knew is that she had to accept it.
“It’s fine,” she smiled nervously.
“Good.” He grinned as though everything was now hunky-dory, then kissed her cheek. “I will be back home around eight this evening.” He picked up his cap, brushed down the green felt fabric, and then placed it over his sleek hair. “More coverage on that cheek if you will.” He marched by the frosted glass panel door to leave Nell looking at her bruised cheek in the mirror.
Nell rushed through the doors of the ward, precisely fifteen minutes late. It was noisy and hectic today, with three new wounded soldiers impatiently waiting to be directed to a rare empty bed. As she quickly strode toward the cloakroom, she noticed Jack’s bed was surrounded by three nurses and Dr Stanton. Her eyes grew large and mouth dropped opened in panic. She let out tiny shallow breaths, praying she wouldn’t be seen. Jack was now awake, sitting upright with no bandage over his eyes.
Nell’s view flit in all directions, but kept falling back onto him like the attraction of a magnet. This was bad. This could turn into a calamity at any moment she thought. Unsure on what to do, she spun so he wouldn’t see her, clumsily dropping her handbag on the floor. As she bent down to retrieve it, she came face to face with Sister Mary’s patent black shoes. And so her calamity began.
Slowly, she straightened up and nervously brought her handbag into her belly. Sister Mary’s cross pupils were pinpointed, sharp, and the ray of them made Nell sigh out loud. She knew an altercation with the Sister could draw the attention of Jack. So she swiftly made sure that all Jack could see was her back.
“I’m sorry Sister Mary,” she bit down on her lip.
“Well don’t just stand there gormless,” Sister Mary yapped. “Get a move on… beds one to nine need changing, then you can see to Jack’s eyes.”
Nell began to mumble breathlessly, with a blushing heat rapidly rushing beneath her skin.
“Sister, I was thinking… that maybe ward three would benefit from my assistance today.”
Sister Mary’s already lined forehead, lined even more. “Ward three,” she snarled. “Is fine. This is your post, and you will do well not to slack from it.” Her harsh tone made Nell step back.
“Sorry Sister Mary,” Nell began to shame.
“And when you see to Jack, just be careful what you say to him.”
“He was quite the handful last night, and had to be sedated after waking up screaming,” she explained. “He has regained vision, but he has had a small trauma to the back of his head.” She peered at Jack over Nell’s shoulder. “Can’t remember anything other than a few months ago. The doctor thinks it is more likely stress related,” she hummed. “So no dillydallying Eleanor,” she ordered before her shoes clopped away.
Nell bravely turned to Jack, full of worry. She didn’t want face him after all these years, but she wouldn’t wish such an awful ailment on anyone- let alone Jack.
Nell had gone to great efforts to leave Jack for as long as possible. She made all the beds, one to nine, and was now serving the men tea and biscuits. This was her favourite time of the day, normally. She loved to chat to the men, try and lighten the atmosphere as Teresa did her friendly flirting. But now she couldn’t escape him. She had served everyone, and left poor Jack out. She took a deep breath and glanced across to him. His expression was vacant and depressed. She couldn’t put it off any longer, so she poured him a cup, stirred in two sugars (the way she remembered he liked it) and bravely approached his bed.
“Jack,” she said softly, but he didn’t respond. “I’ve made you a cup of tea… you look like you have a sweet tooth, so there’s two heaped spoons in there for you.”
Nell placed the teacup down on the bedside table, noting the redness around his eyes. It was much better than it was, but could still do with a clean. The task she had been putting off all morning.
With a kidney dish full of boiled water, a handful of swabs, and some antiseptic ointment, Nell stood before Jack’s worn black soaks. She peered down at his big naked toe poking out of the fabric.
“Jack, your eyes sure look like they could do with a clean.” She walked to the side of the bed and placed the dish on the bedside table. “If you don’t mind of course.” She perched on the edge of the mattress, and almost instantly his eyes hit hers.
She found her view stuck to him, and it was impossible for her not to melt from within. His beautiful dark brown eyes that used to send her wild as a teen, still had the same effect. His dark unruly hair she used to toy with. And his lips, pink, and in need of her kiss. She was blushing like a beacon with so many passions coming back to her. There was a doubt, that maybe he would recognise her. But now, she could see what an empty man he was. He didn’t recognise her at all.
“Go ahead,” he said in a sombre tone as he turned away.
Nell coughed lightly to release all that tight tension. If she continued to flare up around him in such a way, she might give something away. Or, he would probably just think her peculiar. Nonetheless, she had to remain professional.
She softly dabbed at the flaky blisters and hit a raw spot. He winced, bolted upright, and grabbed her wrist, firm. He gazed at her with a puzzled frown. Nell gasped out nearly knocking the dish over.
“Have we met before?”
“No Jack,” Nell lied, wiggling her hand against his hold.
He released his grip and closed his eyes remorsefully. “I’m so, so sorry.” He gulped down his Adams apple. “My head is all messed up, and… and…”
“It’s okay Jack.” Nell grew upset, and accidently let a tear fall out of her eye.
“Hey,” he shuffled up on his pillows. “Look, I am really sorry.”
Promptly she calmed herself, and offered him a half-smile. “It’s understandable Jack. You’ve been through hell’s fire,” she said with a sigh. “All these men have. You’ll recover before you know it.”
Nell tidied up the swabs and opted not to use the ointment. She wanted to get away from him in case she burst into tears.
“And you’re right,” he said in a more cheery tone. “I’m going to stop whining like a baby. Jeez, I’m still here, and we’re winning the war. I should be grateful. On top of the world,” he roared a little too loud.
It was all right there for her to see. The eighteen year old youth in him coming to the surface. The carefree, positive, the funny side, tugging on all her heartstrings.
“Again, I’m sorry… head injury.” He shrugged his shoulders with pursed lips. “Mood swings,” he grinned sweetly.
“Right, I’ve done.” Nell stood quickly, picking up the dish and teacup from the bedside table.
“Thank you,” he called after her as she made a swift escape.
It was so hard for Nell. His presence made her feel young all over again. How could she go on when she knew the truth; keeping his identity from him, lying to herself?
Nell spent her lunchbreak alone in the green tiled bathroom, trying to figure out what to do next. The twenty minutes she had to eat, was being spent weeping erratically. That was until Teresa burst through the door looking for her. Nell held a paper towel under her eyelid and sniffed.
“Nell, let me see what he did to you,” she angrily gestured her fingers at Nell’s reflection.
Nell let the towel drop to show the tiny blue bruise on her cheekbone that her tears had exposed. It wasn’t as in your face as some of the bruises she had received off Alistair. It was small; the size of a ha’penny.
“You’re a mess and have been all morning Nell,” Teresa rubbed Nell’s arm. “You need a place to stay, my door is always open for you.” Nell thought it very sweet, so much so she began to sob again. “Stop it Nell… god I’m sorry, but you husband is a nasty piece of work.” She pulled Nell into her arms, “Now stop crying, and I’ll fix your face.”
Teresa paid close attention to Nell’s panda eyes, and made sure the bruise was well covered. Nell looked in the mirror and frowned. Her lashes were coated with way too much mascara for her liking. She turned to Teresa, pouting.
“Oh stop being picky, you know I don’t do small,” Teresa giggled. “Okay, Jack’s bed needs changing, and then I have an appointment with Corporal Dean Walters. Bed-bath duty,” her lashes fluttered.
Nell let out a lengthy breath. She had just stop crying over Jack, and now she had to go back out there again. Even though she wanted to do her bit for the country, she was beginning to seriously consider walking out of the doors. It was Alistair that insisted she work at All Angels. He heard that the Major General’s wife was volunteering, and wanted to boast to his superiors. All for show of course. The wife of the Lieutenant and an angel of mercy.
Nell arched over the sink and began to chomp apprehensively on her lip.
“Okay girl, spit it out,” Teresa said. “What’s going on?”
“Will you do Jack’s bed without me?”
“Do you have the hots for Jack Nell?” she squealed.
“Please, you have to.”
“Not until you tell me,” she pushed.
“His name is Jack Montgomery, and he’s the Jack I told you about,” Nell admitted.
Teresa’s eyes bulged. “Oh my god. This is good, you can fill in the blanks for him.”
“Alistair for one, and I told you we didn’t part well… please Teresa,” Nell pleaded, pressing her hands together desperately.
“Fine, I’ll keep my mouth shut, but I don’t like it,” she huffed. “And you’re still going to help me with that bed.”
“Thanks,” Nell breathed out in relief.
“You do know Jack pulled two men out of the line of fire,” Teresa gossiped. “Came out from nowhere three miles away from his own squadron, and helped a group of men surrounded. He’d kick Alistair’s backside good and proper.”
“Teresa, please stop.” Nothing was going to change Nell’s mind about keeping quiet. It was for the best all round.
“Well, you better prepare yourself Nell,” she tutted. “He may have lost his mind, but you can’t stop fate. Of all the places, he ends up here on this ward, where you work,” she hummed. “Some things you can’t pretend don’t exist, and this is one of them.”