An earthquake in the Philippines. Luzon, clouds of dust obscuring the horizon. Eric switches off the TV and settles back into his chair. Eyes closed. So much tragedy in the countless lives lost every day, and the world around him has changed beyond recognition. He feels increasingly alone in his understanding of the past. So much of it seems made-up. All those documentaries and films about the war. He barely remembers the truth of it anymore. Habbaniya and Alexandria. Ragley Hall, and Alice. Soon, there will be no-one left who remembers any of that.
He wonders what ever happened to her. She’s a faded image now. Blurred around the edges. Just her smile stays bright and alive, all these years later. He never found out the reason why she broke off their engagement. The whole thing got him into quite a bit of trouble. As though something dishonourable had happened. They blamed him, naturally.
‘You must have done something to upset her?’
Standing on Primrose Lane. He’s well-mended. Sprightly enough to flirt with the nurses, and Alice has caught his eye. They’ve walked out together a few times. He will take her back to London. To meet his mother. He’ll start another career when the war is over. They’ll have a boy and a girl. A real gentleman’s family. He can see his whole life spread out in front of him. Then the dust cloud comes out of nowhere. Scouring the road ahead. A glittering harbinger of lust. The teaching of the wind, and his mind is dead. And their lives will change forever.
She keeps silent until they reach Oversley Green, then she breaks into a run, and he runs after her. When they cross the bridge into Alcester, all that people can see is a soldier chasing a young woman. The men stop him. They ask him questions, and he’ll never see her again.
Resigned from her post. Returned to Birmingham. He wanders the streets of the city, hoping to find her. But it’s a pointless task. Birmingham is as big as London, and there must be a hundred Taylors in the directory. He’ll never find out why she ran from him the way she did.
His mates tell him to forget about her. She isn’t right in the head. Sure how can a man really know what a woman is thinking anyway? She must be deranged. To go screaming and running through the town for no good reason. That’s no way for any young woman to behave. You’ll soon get over her.
But he still thinks of her, more than forty years later, as he switches on the TV again. Judas Priest, and the world is different now. People speak a different language.
Another life. The rocks, and the skirt-dancing. Such a fabulous time. The Earl of Yarmouth. He’s in Hobart as Mamzelle Rose. His reprise of the serpentine dance. The heat is deafening, as he sweeps across the stage like a harmattan wind. Gasps from the dress circle, and he twists in a blaze of limelight. He’s sensational in his loose white wrapper and flowing wig of soft brown hair. The audience is enthralled. Buoyed up by applause, and Lady Gormanston comes to his dressing room afterwards. Dowdy in her provincial get-up. Thrilled to meet a ‘bonified’ earl.
His friends think he is a fool to have left England. Australia is a rough and barren place. Full of red-faced women and uncouth men. But it’s for the good of his health, and the truth is he had no choice. Papa insisted.
In Queensland. Sweating like horses in the sugarcane fields. The men frighten him at first. Burly Irishmen with chests like barrels. Dark-skinned labourers from the Loyalty Islands. He finds the heat intoxicating, and the men find him alluring, in his sequins and butterfly wings. As though he’s come from another planet, not just the other side of the world. The women rail against him. How he’s leading the young men astray. How few women there are, to keep a sense of balance. They will drive him out eventually. Back to his Butterfly land, in howls of indignation.
Standing on the road, Alice looks into the past. Where things came unstuck all those years ago. Her granddaughter Lucy drives her up the motorway. Helps her out of the car. She’s a different person now. More sure of herself. But here, more than anywhere, she can see the young woman she once was. Standing on the road, looking into the future. What she saw in the dust cloud had frightened her out of her senses, but how she behaved afterwards was unforgivable.
She’d done him a great injustice. Said nothing when he was stopped by the men in town. She’d left him without a word of explanation.
‘So, when did you live here?’
They’re in a coffee shop on the High Street. The rain is a numb sheet of grey, and the street outside is empty. She stirs her coffee, feeling thankful to be inside, where she can no longer see her younger self running through the town like a mad woman.
‘I was in love with a young man called Eric.’
Lucy looks surprised. Alice hasn’t spoken about Eric to her children or grandchildren, but as you get older, somehow the past becomes more real than the present, and she won’t deny him anymore. She’s done him enough injustice down through the years.
‘He fought in Egypt and Iraq. He was in a terrible state when they brought him back. There was a hospital set up near here, at a place called Ragley Hall.’
‘It must have been traumatic for him?’
‘It was. It was …’
Alice feels the words catch in her throat. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea to talk about him after all? But since her husband died, she’s been thinking about him more and more. Wondering if he’s still alive. He was from London, but she can’t remember exactly which part.
‘Brentford, Barking, Bexley, somewhere like that …’
It’s easier to find people these days. She’s sure that Lucy will track him down.
‘The Warwickshire Yeomanry. He fought in the Second Battle of El Alamein.’
Lucy holds her hand and lets her talk. It’s good to finally talk about him, and she trusts Lucy more than the others.
‘Not a word of this to your mother!’
They’re in the car again, on their way back to Birmingham. Lucy smiles, as she haunches over the steering wheel.
‘Your secret’s safe with me.’
Eric thinks in circles of light. Shadows juxtaposed. There are some images that he manages to hold at bay for a while, until they come flooding back into his mind again. The barracks and the desert. A limb lost and eyes blinded. His mind flees, seeking solace in the darkness. A dust cloud coming along the road. He reaches out to remember, but the memory passes without revealing what is inside.
He wants to be a photographer after the war. He buys a Brownie box and starts working on weddings. Photographing his neighbourhood. Where bombs have ripped out great gaping wounds on the flesh of London. But there is no money in it. He needs to pay the bills and keep a roof over his head. He starts on the buses. The number sixty-five to Kingston and Leatherhead. Crossing the river at Kew Bridge. He finds a kind of life that he can get used to. But he can’t settle. His mind is forever wandering. Searching for that one image. The one that will unlock a memory. The dust approaches, and the world falls silent. He reaches inside the cloud, but his eyes won’t open. A recurring nightmare. He’s blind, and image-denied.
He finds hobbies in later life. The radio and the garden.
‘Who needs a family anyway?’
By the time he stops searching for that one image, it is too late. He’s an old man and love has passed him by. He’s in a waiting room with his jacket on the coat stand. He needs to step outside and try again.
When the cloud comes this time, he’ll stay as still as a dead man. Primrose Lane. Alice is holding his hand, then she shudders and let’s go, as if his touch was red hot. A smouldering piece of debris. They are inside the cloud, and his heart stops completely. He sees a man from another time. Dressed in robes. Eyes on either side of his head, like a goat. His mouth flapping open and shut. Eric walks up to him, and time is lost, as the cloud weaves around them. Then they leave the world, never to return again.
Another life. Fury lashing in waves against the shore. The Earl of Yarmouth once more. In the creaking house, his spirit is restless, and his mind shreds thoughts into pieces of tiny paper. Out in the streets. Washington Square, and Salford Priors. Torquay. Now that he’s dead, he can release a full blast of his anger against the world. Knocking on doors and howling down chimneys. Energy dispelling, ball gowns flapping in the breeze, tiaras dancing in the light of a chandelier. Flashing across decades. The streets full of soldiers. Handsome American men. His past lives merge, and the Hall lies empty.
A dust cloud gathering along the road, and a young couple walking. He clamours around them, screaming in their ears, in an opening between this world and the next. Lying on the grass. A gentleman’s gift. Soft flesh, and his eyes wide open, wanting more. He wraps the road around himself, like his old Aunt’s coat, and steps out into the blinking starlight. Imperious. Dangerous.
She’s not proud of the way she behaved. She’s thinking about it even now, as the family gathers around her bed. Anxious faces peering over the side, and she lets her mind carry off. She can’t focus long enough to understand their questions. All she can do is close her eyes and remember Eric. How vulnerable he was, until he regained his sight. Then strong, as he recovered, and handsome in his uniform, hair brylcreemed back. Bringing her flowers and asking her to keep him company. The other nurses are jealous. Winks and knowing looks. They might go further with him than she has, but Alice wasn’t brought up that way. She wants to do things properly.
Then to see him as a man like that. What she sees in the cloud muddles her. Men being physical with each other. She knows that what she’s seeing isn’t real, but it rouses a fear in her. Like a premonition. She feels Eric holding her hand, even as she sees him with a stranger in the long grass. Their shirts open, belts unbuckled. Tongues darting around.
She lets go of his hand.
‘What’s the matter?’
And the cloud passes, veering off into a field at the end of the road. A cold breeze catches her throat and there are two of him. She sees him on a stage, and in the audience watching. Her skin bristles, as she turns and walks back towards the town. Eric follows, and she feels a presence beside her.
Someone whispers into her ear.
‘We love you so much, Nan!’
As she walks back along the lane towards Alcester, a voice rattles around in her head, saying the most dreadful things. About Eric, and the things he’s done. About the violence in his heart.
Like he’s a monster. Not a man to be stepping out with.
She wants nothing more than to escape from him. She tries not to panic, but when they reach the bridge, she lets go of her fear.
She runs, and she doesn’t look back.
Mauk Donnabháin is a queer, working-class writer from Donegal, Ireland. His work was shortlisted for the Stockholm Writers’ Festival First 5 Pages award in 2023, and he has had short stories shortlisted for The Plaza Prize: Sudden Fiction (2023), and the Colm Tóibín International Short Story award (2020) and longlisted for the Minds Shine Bright competition (2023.) He has had other work published in Profiles Literary Journal, Crannóg 54, The Honest Ulsterman, Untitled: Voices, The Galway Review, and others. He lives in London.