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When I eventually came to I realised that I was alone in the room and I was lying almost horizontally across the bed. My head was pounding and as I raised my hand to it I felt the blood trickling down the side of my face, matting my hair. My shoulders ached and I was vaguely aware of a dull pain in my right knee. Struggling through the haze in front of my eyes to consciousness I eased myself into a sitting position and from the corner of my eye I noticed the envelope. With trembling fingers I ripped it open, recognising Sam’s scrawl covering the sheets.

 

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

 

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars. (~WB Yeats)

 

I had to use somebody else’s words to express myself. If you’re reading this then I know you didn’t agree to my wish and I will know that there is no longer any point in trying to continue. We had some good times once upon a time and I can only hope that you won’t forget me.

 

Always, Sam.

 

In a blind panic I leapt to my feet, ignoring the pounding in my head, and ran from the guest house without pausing to even collect my coat. I ran through the streets of Neuchatel growing increasingly frantic and ignoring the stares of the passing strangers at my appearance. All I knew was that I had to find Sam and stop him from doing something stupid. Eventually I sank to the nearest bench unable to stop my tears.

 

Is everything okay missy, a broad northern accent asked from above me.

I looked up in surprise at hearing another English voice. I… yes… thank you… I stammered.

You don’t look it missy. What’s a nice young girl like you doing on her own in that state in this part of the world?

Long story, I mumbled, jumping to my feet and running off down the street.

 

I don’t know how long I carried on running for until eventually my feet found their way to the lake side. I noticed a large crowd and made my way towards it.

 

What’s going on, I asked to no one in particular.

They’re pulling a body out, one of the men replied to me.

I froze. Sam, I cried, trying to push my way through the crowd.

Where do you think you’re going, another man asked, grabbing my arm to pull me back.

I think it’s my friend, I gasped, struggling to get the words out as I began to laugh at the thought of what I must look like without my coat and my hair bloody and plastered to my face.

 

I don’t remember the next few moments as a coat was gently draped around my shoulders and a whisper went through the crowd. Then there were hands pushing me forwards and a voice asking if I recognised Sam’s still and lifeless form. And then for the second time that day my world went black.

 

Like the touch of rain she was

On a man’s flesh and hair and eyes

When the joy of walking thus

Has taken him by surprise:

 

With the love of the storm he burns,

He sings, he laughs, well I know how,

But forgets when he returns

As I shall never forget her ‘Go Now’.

 

Those two words shut a door

Between me and the blessed rain

That was never shut before

And will not open again.

 

Edward Thomas

 

The ensuing events are somewhat blurred in my memory and now I remain haunted only by vague recollections in no particular order. I hazily remember being wrapped in blankets and being bundled into an ambulance, crying alone in the hospital bed; and I suppose I must have gathered enough of my senses at some point to contact the school as I am vaguely aware of Nancy and Kathie arriving. I remember everyone trying to get me to talk, but I couldn’t, how could I explain what had just happened? Somehow Nancy argued a case for taking me back to the Platz whilst Kathie stayed in Neuchatel to contact Lucy and the rest of the family. The next thing I remember was waking up in an unfamiliar room and becoming vaguely aware of a pounding in my head and then realising that there was a bandage around it.

 

Where am I, I croaked in a voice I barely recognised as my own.

Sharlie? Are you awake?

As things became clearer I recognised the Head’s voice and nodded, wincing at the pain. My head hurts.

I’m not surprised, that’s some bump you’ve got there. I smiled weakly. We were beginning to think you were going to sleep until the end of term.

What day is it?

Monday, you’ve been asleep more or less since Nancy brought you back on Saturday morning.

Oh.

Sharlie, what happened in Neuchatel? I turned my head away. The owner of the guest house phoned up this morning to say she’d found your engagement ring; Kathie’s going to collect it when she gets back at the weekend. The tears began to silently slide down my cheeks. Sharlie?

How can I marry him now? I don’t think I could even be near him.

Miss Annersley reached out and took my hands as I noticed the bandages around my wrists. Does that explain these, she asked gently. And the somewhat impressive bruise on your knee, not to mention the ones across your back, and that crack on your head? She let go of my hands. From what we’ve managed to ascertain about Friday night you’re lucky to not be down with pneumonia, or worse, from running around Neuchatel without your coat.

Sam came to tell me he was dying, I said, choking back a sob. He wanted the chance to be a father… I broke off, shuddering as I remembered his face as he’d thrown me against the wall.

He asked you to do it? I nodded miserably. Sharlie, did he…

I shook my head. Bruises happen when you get thrown around a room like a rag doll. I couldn’t find the strength to fight back; I’m always fighting. Why can’t I just be left to be happy?

 

I burst into angry tears as the events of Friday finally hit me with all their force. Sam was gone, the first man I’d ever fallen in love with, there would now always be an empty space in my life. My thoughts turned to his family, Lucy, how could I ever explain to them what had happened that night? And Colin, where did that leave us now? Miss Annersley helped me to sit up and took me in her arms as I cried angry, bitter tears, clinging to her like a child to its mother. There were times when I only wanted mam; time had clouded the memories of my parents and I now held them as an ideal.

 

Do you think I made the right decision, I asked at length as I pulled away from her. I don’t know what I was looking for, I just needed some approval, a justification. Sam said I was being unreasonable, denying a dying man his final wish.

No, I don’t think you were unreasonable. If you had agreed what would you have ended up with? A loveless and short marriage and possibly an unwanted child on your part, would that be fair on any of you?

I shook my head. Do you think he… he killed himself because of me refusing?

Who’s to say what was going through his head those final moments?

I know the Church says suicide is wrong but I stopped agreeing with that when my Uncle Mike killed himself after the War. He couldn’t cope, you see, living with the nightmares of what he’d gone through fighting. He needed a release from his nightmares and so he took the only solution he could see. People talked of course, they always do, but Aunt Jane stared them all down and eventually the talk stopped. Just another reason why I have such a complicated relationship with the Church and my faith I suppose, I said with a shrug. I do believe, I want to believe but it’s so hard when there’s so much I don’t understand.

Sharlie, there are times when you have to place yourself in God’s hands and let Him show you the way. She paused. I know I’ve always shied away from discussing religion with you; and I don’t deny that it’s largely because your ‘unique’ relationship with your faith puzzles me.

I stared. I’ve always envied the strength of your faith. I don’t want to turn my back on God, I just wish he would allow me to be happy and stay happy.

Who carries you through the hard times?

Oh I know, but… I suppose I’m too scared to place absolute trust in something… I trailed off. You do understand, don’t you?

She nodded. But you are never alone Sharlie, so long as you believe. ‘The eternal God is your dwelling place and underneath are the everlasting arms’, remember?

I blinked back the tears. Those were the words they used at my nan’s funeral. I couldn’t have been more than six but it was the first time I truly felt the strength of faith. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way since

You have to let Him in. I nodded and tried to stifle a yawn, she laughed. You can’t still be tired?

 

I nodded and allowed myself to be tucked in as though I were no older than Samantha and fell into a natural sleep.

 

The next time I awoke Nancy was beside me.

 

Morning sleepyhead, she said with a grin.

I rubbed my eyes. What day is it?

Tuesday, you’ve been asleep for the best part of twenty four hours. You haven’t been moved from here, you’re in the spare room in the Head’s annexe by the way, since I brought you back on Saturday morning.

Oh. I paused. Where’s Kathie?

A serious look crossed Nancy’s face as she helped me sit up. She’s gone back to England with Lucy for the funeral on Thursday.

They blame me, don’t they?

Nancy shook her head resolutely. No Sharlie, of course they don’t. Lucy knew Sam was ill, he’d told her in the first instance and then she got a letter from him on Friday morning. He… Sharlie, he’d written to Lucy and told her… about his plans for you. They understand.

Lucy… she… no wonder she’s been looking so awful of late with all that on top of her thesis.

Oh, Kathie said she’d pick your engagement ring up when she gets back at the weekend – you must be missing it. I felt the tears begin to well up in my eyes. Sharlie?

How can I marry Colin now, I whispered. After… after that, I couldn’t do it.

Why ever not? You didn’t betray Colin, did you?

No, I’m not stupid Nancy.

I know you’re not.

It did cross my mind for a split second that I could, maybe, just maybe… but how could I? I promised myself to Colin but now… just the thought makes my blood run cold.

What did Sam do to you?

Nothing, I said defensively. He pushed me around a bit, trying to get me to agree. So now you know how I got these. I held my hands out, noticing that the dressings had been removed from my wrists leaving the ugly bruising exposed to the harsh light of day.

Nancy ran her fingers along the outlines of the bruises. How could anyone… she began

I shook my head. It wasn’t Sam with me that evening. It was a man driven to desperation. It wasn’t the man I fell in love with when I was sixteen. I don’t think I’ll ever understand and in all honesty I don’t remember much.

Nancy smiled wryly. I had a tough time getting the hospital to agree to discharging you on Saturday. Kathie and I didn’t think you’d want to be there when his family arrived. You were in terrible shock, you know – no one was getting much sense from you. You fell asleep when I got you in the car, I had to carry you in here – lucky you’re a lightweight! I smiled weakly. Seemingly you’ve done nothing but sleep since I got you back here.

I keep thinking maybe it was all a bad dream and eventually I’ll wake up and find out it never happened. You know I haven’t dreamed since Friday?

A guilty expression passed over Nancy’s face. I think you’ve been quite well dosed up to help you sleep. The Head said you fell asleep naturally yesterday morning but then you started having terrible nightmares… she trailed off.

Oh, I don’t remember.

It’s only because we care, she said as my stomach gave a huge rumble. Nancy raised an eyebrow and laughed. Do you want me to go and find you some breakfast?

I frowned. I know I’m hungry but I couldn’t face eating anything.

Just an egg or something? We don’t want you wasting away now.

 

Kathie returned at the weekend but didn’t have anything much to say and for the rest of term she would skirt around the issue saying there was nothing I needed to worry about. I moved back to my own room on the Sunday night, largely to escape the doses I was being given to help me sleep but I knew I needed to face the nightmare some time. They started the first night on my own, terrifying and intense, I felt pinned to the bed in terror as Sam’s angry face loomed before my eyes. I was awoken by a violent shaking from Peggy who I had woken by screaming. I was shaking, haunted by a mocking laugh telling me it was all my fault. Peggy held me in her arms all night as I slept fitfully, part of me too scared to fall asleep and confront the nightmares I knew I would see when I gave in. I spent the rest of term on autopilot only giving half my attention to the goings on at school, the attempted kidnapping of Cecil Maynard and the birth of Biddy’s second son, Jean. Peggy slept curled awkwardly in my chair at night to be there when the nightmares started so there would be someone to hold and comfort me through them.

 

I was glad once the holidays arrived and I had three long weeks to begin to try and put the last few weeks of term behind me. Something compelled me not to go straight back to England even though I knew I had to see Lucy. Instead of going to Berne to catch the Paris train with the others I headed to Geneva to see Anna for a couple of days and then on to Belfort to see Julia before finally arriving in Lyon to visit Sara. I hid the events of the end of term from them but I couldn’t hide the nightmares from Sara. I pushed her away when she asked, refusing to talk about the real reasons behind them and Sara eventually put them down to overwork, and I didn’t argue with her. I hated lying to her but I couldn’t bring myself to relive that fateful evening. Sara introduced me to her boyfriend of the past six months, Pedro Montañez, who she had met at work but asked me not to say anything to Esther and Robert as she hadn’t told them herself yet. I promised I wouldn’t and reluctantly boarded to Paris train on the Monday morning with a view to arriving in London that evening.

 

My initial plan had been to see the Stewarts and then make my way to Oxford to see Lucy but my courage was waning and I headed to Trixie’s to spend a couple of days instead. I outlined the bare facts to her but didn’t expect her to fully understand; besides all I really wanted was to be distracted. Christopher certainly provided that for me; at just shy of two he had entered the age that always captivated me and drove parents to despair. He had discovered a penchant for exploration and I could only smile as I heard Trixie admonish him in the way that I had so often hear Rebecca do to Sarah and Jack. From Trixie’s I went to the Stewarts armed with the research I’d devoted the first half of the previous term to. Professor Stewart asked if I’d reached a decision about the trip to the States in the summer and on a sudden whim I found myself agreeing to go.

 

I left London knowing that I had to go to Oxford but the coward in me found itself buying a ticket to Cambridge and Nicole’s first. I knew deep down that really I was avoiding Liverpool and Colin for as long as I could. My engagement ring lay in its box; I hadn’t found the strength to start wearing it again and I still wasn’t sure where I now stood with Colin. I arrived in Cambridge unusually tired but the journey and made my way to Nicole’s where a shock greeted me when I knocked on the door.

 

Lucy, I said, somewhat startled. I… I didn’t expect to see you here.

No, she replied thoughtfully. I don’t expect you did, I didn’t expect to see you either. You’d best come in.

Why are you here, I asked following her in and leaving my bag and shoes in the hall.

Same reason as you I expect, she replied as we went through to the kitchen and sat down. I’m avoiding going to see my parents.

I was on my way to Oxford, I admitted. But I found myself buying a ticket to Cambridge.

Same here, I went to buy a ticket south to my parents and found myself here.

We need to talk.

What about?

Sam.

No, we don’t. Honestly Sharlie, there’s nothing to discuss. Nobody blames you; he hadn’t been in his right mind these last months with the illness and the treatment and the… she broke off. He was obsessed the last few months with finding someone who would be a mother to his child. I never knew he’d been thinking of you until it was too late – his last letter arrived the morning he died saying he was going to you and if you didn’t agree he would… she stopped. I should be grieving but I can’t. I stared. I’m too angry with him right now for behaving like an absolute idiot. He should have come home and spent his last days with his family, she choked. But that’s Sam all over, never doing what he should. I’ve had time to get used to the thought of him dying, but… she trailed off as the tears spilled over and down her face.

Oh Lucy, I whispered, holding her close to me as she cried. What could I possibly say to her?

I should have told somebody, she said after a while. I should have showed his letters to my parents, to my sister, we should have got him back to England. It all seems so easy looking back on it now.

You couldn’t have known…

It wasn’t Sam those last months. It wasn’t the elder brother I grew up adoring. I’d have done anything for him when we were kids you know. He was always looking out for me, even when we both went away to school he’d do it in the holidays. I was the only girl in the village who never got picked on… he would have made a wonderful father if he’d had the chance… My face crumpled. Oh Sharlie, I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to…

It’s okay, I said, rubbing my eyes. You’re right though, he would have made a wonderful father.

Sharlie, what happened the night he died? Kathie thought there had been some sort of fight because you had a huge gash down the side of your head and some fairly daunting bruising. I moved the hair from the right side of my face to show where the gash was healing and would probably leave a scar. Lucy ran her index finger along it. How?

I fell into a bedside table. There was a bit of a fight, nothing much. He… he just pushed me into the wall a couple of times when I didn’t agree to give him the child he wanted. I broke off, closing my eyes tightly against the sudden flashback. It was all so out of the blue; I hadn’t seen him since my first year in London and letters had been increasingly infrequent.

He never was much of a correspondent my brother.

Where’s Nicole, I asked suddenly.

She took Samantha to the park for a bit; just as well I was here when you arrived then, wasn’t it?

 

Over the next few days Lucy and I shared tears and memories as we talked about Sam. Both she and Nicole commented on the absence of my engagement ring but left it at commenting. Despite Lucy’s assurances I still couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt that still hung over me, that I could have prevented Sam’s suicide and he could have died peacefully with his family.

 

It was with some reluctance that I returned to Liverpool for the final week of the holidays, but I had put it off long enough. I stopped at the shop on my way from the station to Aunt Jane’s to arrange to see Colin later that evening. I arrived back at Aunt Jane’s to find her berating David, from what I could tell, over his latest girlfriend. Much as I wanted to hear what the local gossips had to say about my young cousin I opted to go to Rebecca’s instead and see the children for the afternoon. I’d already told her about Sam’s death but not my role in it so I was treated to her unique brand of sympathy – cuddles with Claire who was a more than willing participant in the scheme. I was still a bag of nerves later, however, when I headed back into the city to meet Colin from the shop. Rupert was away photographing Scottish castles and so we decided to go back to his house where we could talk away from prying ears.

 

Where’s your engagement ring, asked Colin suddenly.

 

It was after dinner and we were sitting together on the settee. I curled in one corner, he sprawled in the other. Over dinner we had exhausted small talk about school and the shop and now we were clearly heading into serious territory.

 

Sorry?

You heard me.

It’s in my coat pocket.

Why haven’t you got it on? I bit my lip and stared at my feet. Sharlie?

I looked up slowly. There’s something I need to tell you. It’s… it’s complicated.

Is it about Lucy’s brother?

Sam, yes.

He shook his head. Suicide, I always think it’s such a waste.

Sam was a dying man.

How… oh, you two used to…

He was my boyfriend for a little while when I was sixteen. He was the first person I fell in love with, if you can call it that given that I didn’t really know what love was then of course.

Not like now?

No.

What did you want to tell me about him?

I was with him before he died and it’s my fault even though Lucy told me not to blame myself.

What do you mean it’s your fault?

I took a deep breath. Sam wanted the chance to be a father… he asked me to… I broke off, feeling the tears start again.

You didn’t?

I shook my head. I couldn’t. It did cross my mind, but I couldn’t. He came to school, asked if I could get away so we went to Neuchatel and found a guest house that didn’t ask questions. Everything was okay at first but then when I said I wouldn’t… He… We… There was a bit of a scuffle. He kept pushing me into the wall to try and get me to agree. In the end he pulled off my ring so that I could stop thinking about you… I broke off as my tears began to fall once more. Colin, don’t please… I whispered as he reached out to me. Nothing happened, in the end I hit my head on a bedside table and knocked myself out. When I cam to Sam was gone. I ran out looking for him, but it was too late.

 

Neither of us spoke for a short time.

 

That doesn’t explain why you’re not wearing the ring now though, Colin said eventually.

I didn’t get it back for another week. I didn’t stop to pick it up when I ran out looking for Sam. I… I collapsed when I saw the body; the next few days are a blur. Nancy took me back to school but I just kept sleeping. The owner of the guest house rang up school to say she’d found my ring and Kathie brought it back after she’d been to England for the funeral. I tried to wear it but it just reminded me too much of what had happened. I don’t expect you to understand Colin.

You’re right, I don’t.

I bit my lip miserably. Maybe I should go.

No, he whispered.

 

Instinctively I crawled into his arms and cried, but there was something missing, my complete trust. In the end we fell asleep that way and I was the first to wake, stretching out my cramped limbs. I knew what I had to do as I slipped from his arms and crossed the room opening the door with its gentle creak. Colin stirred but didn’t wake fully as I went and found my coat and shoes, returning only to leave the box with my engagement ring inside it on the coffee table.

 

Sharlie, wha… murmured Colin sleepily. I said nothing as he sat up rubbing his eyes. Where… he began, breaking off as he caught sight of the box on the table. What’s going on?

I shook my head. I’m sorry. I can’t go through with this. It’s not your fault, it’s absolutely nothing to do with you at all. It’s all me. I just can’t… not after… I really wanted this to work… I broke off.

Let me drive you back into the city at least. It’s six o’clock for goodness sake Sharlie.

The buses run from five, it’s okay.

You can’t leave it like this.

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry too. I really thought… Maybe… maybe one day when you’re over this. Never say never Sharlie. I… I’ll always love you, I’ll always be here for you. I bit my lip, blinking back the tears as I turned and ran, catching his final words. I know you don’t mean it.

 

Once I’d left the Graham house I had no idea where I could go next and found myself suddenly alone in early morning Liverpool. I couldn’t go to Aunt Jane, nor did I feel I could turn to Elizabeth, but somehow my feet found their way to Rebecca’s. The back door was open and I let myself in, not completely sure why I was there.

 

Sharlie! What are you doing here?

 

It was Rebecca. I had never been so glad to see her in all my life and promptly burst into a flood of tears.

 

Sharlie?

It’s all gone so horribly wrong, I sobbed as she took me in her arms.

What has, she asked gently as she stroked my hair.

I’ve broken things off with Colin.

Oh Sharlie, why, she asked as we sat down.

 

I made the effort to control my sobs and poured out the whole story of Sam and Neuchatel and the ensuing events.

 

And there you have it, I whispered as I reached the end of the story. You do understand, don’t you Becca?

Yes, she replied after an awkward silence. You feel that Sam broke your trust and now there’s something missing with Colin.

I nodded. How did you know?

I’m a mother Sharlie. I’ve learned to look for the words unsaid. You could always do it, look just that little bit further than everybody but it’s something I’ve had to learn. It’s easier to read children though, they’re such open books.

Do you ever miss mam?

All the time, and more so since I’ve been a mother myself. I wonder constantly what she’d make of Sarah and Jack and Claire. I often think she’d have made a better grandmother than she did mother. She was too scared with us.

What do you mean scared?

She was scared of change, of anything different to what she knew. I know, I’m scared of what will happen to my own children in the future – everything’s so different from when we were kids. Do you remember what it was like to be Sarah’s age?

I nodded. The future was such a long time away. I yawned.

Tired?

I didn’t sleep much.

You don’t look like you did. Have a nap and I’ll take you back to Aunt Jane’s.

I shook my head. I can’t go back, not after this.

You can’t keep running away Sharlie.

It’s not running away Becca.

She sighed. It is, but if you say it isn’t… you can’t stay here, there isn’t room, you’ll have to go to Eliz. Come on up, I’ll get the kids up and then Sarah and Jack can go out.

What about Philip?

Early shift, he won’t be back until mid afternoon. I’ll wake you at lunchtime.

 

I gratefully crawled into Rebecca’s bed and slept fitfully amidst confused dreams until she woke me.

 

This came whilst you were asleep, she said handing me an envelope. It’s from Colin.

I took it and opened it with shaking hands. Thanks, I mumbled, scanning my eyes over the words.

 

Sharlie,

 

I can’t pretend to understand how you’re feeling. I can’t pretend that I agree with your decision either. I will always love you and I will wait until the day that you feel you can love me again. In the meantime I will leave you with the words that will always remind me of you:

 

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. (~WB Yeats)

 

All my love always, Colin.

 

Rebecca let me cry a little while before handing me a handkerchief and telling me to mop up. Come and have some lunch, she said gently, I’ve been over to Aunt Jane’s and sorted your things so we can go straight to Elizabeth’s when we’ve eaten. I spent the last week of the holidays under Elizabeth’s watchful eye ensuring that I ate and slept at all the correct times. For that week I simply existed, feeling nothing as I drifted along from day to day until once more I found myself waiting for the London train.




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