The Waiting Room

by Rebecca Burns
She did not know how he’d managed it but, ten days after posting the letter, he arrived. She wasn’t even sure if the letter would get through, knowing, expecting, that the troops’ mail would take priority. She’d felt ridiculous, imploring him to come in language she rarely – if ever – used in that way, especially not towards him. Not him. But she wanted him here, though how he could do it she didn’t know. Civilian movements were restricted. And yet, here he was, pushing open the garden gate, straw hat protecting his blonde, almost white hair, from the fearsome midday sun. He carried nothing except for a small bag which he dropped when she threw herself at him, and bread – bread!

She felt, heard his gasp, as she squeezed him and, sort-of-laughing, he pulled her arms from around his neck. “Lizzie, Lizzie. Of course I’d come.”

Tears always made things worse so she blinked them away and wiped her eyes on her sleeve. She wondered what he would make of that, of the casual way she smeared her face along her clothes – she was Lizzie, after all. But she did not want to take out her handkerchief just yet. There were things that needed to be said, first.

“Eddie, how did you do it? Oh, I don’t want to know, I’d feel so guilty. Oh, come in! There’s tea and I might still have a little sugar.”

“Tea would be splendid,” and her brother looked down at their hands, delicately disentangling himself. “If you have butter, the bread is fresh.”

“Butter! Haven’t seen that for weeks. But there’s jam, I think, somewhere.”

There was, a solitary jar at the back of the pantry. She dusted if off and cut them both slices from the loaf Eddie brought, inhaling the scent as she did. The kettle went onto the stove and she gaily added three pinches of tea leaves to the pot, not caring she would miss them later. Her brother was here, her brother was here, he had sailed across the Channel somehow and made it past the fighting – and he should have tea. She sat across from him as he ate.

“Haven’t eaten since Le Havre,” Eddie said. He had grown in the year since she had seen him. Stubble, a foreshadow of the man he was becoming, glinting through when he angled his head. She saw their father when he frowned over the breadknife, carving himself another slice.

“Was everyone well when you left?”

Eddie nodded, mouth full of food. “Mam is bearing up. She’s cleared out Sebastian’s bedroom now. Lottie and I helped her. There are letters, ones he sent home from the Front. I would have brought them for you to read but, you know.”

Lizzie did. She thought of their mother in her white apron, ticking off the days on the almanac, Sebastian’s leave covering several dates in hard, unyielding pencil. A month before he was due to come home, her older brother had caught one and died in a field hospital.

“Mam tells me she’s glad of my chest, keeping me home” and Eddie tapped his sternum. Fierce, rueful scowl. “The rest of the lads from the cricket team joined up. First chance they got.”

“Not us, though,” and Lizzie made a small circle above her left breast in sympathy. “Not that women fight but…you know.”

And Eddie knew, too. “Do you see much around here? Action? There were some bullet holes in the bakery walls when I walked through the village.”

“Really? A farmer, no doubt. Too much wine. We don’t see anything. Hear it, occasionally, if the wind is right.” Last week the church bells had tolled eight times, ringing out the deaths of village men, but she didn’t want to tell him that.

She coughed and moved to the sink, fingers pressed to her mouth. “More tea?” Over the sound of the tap, she spat.

“Mam wanted to know if you have sold any pieces.” Eddie looked around at the easels and the pots of brushes.

“Does she need money?”

“She’s interested, that’s all.”

“A couple, earlier in the year.” Lizzie put the kettle on the stove again. “Not much call for watercolours or garden scenes right now.”

“I should have thought there would be more call than ever,” Eddie said. He looked at her oddly. “Will you paint me, while I’m here?”

“Of course!” Shock at the request and a swelling of pride. He had never asked before. “And how long will you be here?”

“Oh, you know.”

There was something he wanted to say but it caught between his teeth. A clot, she thought – a clot of words. She swallowed the ball in her own mouth, the one that tasted of metal.

“Was it a surprise to get my letter?” and she thought of how her words had spilled out, drowning the letter she wrote home – a letter that had started off as something quite different and quite normal, but became a plea for her brother to come out to her. And here she was, again, speaking in a way that Eddie would not be used to.

But Eddie shrugged, gazing around him. “Not especially so. Mam didn’t read it more than once, not like she did Sebastian’s. Sorry, Lizzie, you know how she was about him. Lottie is teaching now, so there’s enough money coming in – Mam didn’t mind me taking time from the mill and coming to see you.”

Disappointment, and Lizzie was not sure why. Her mother had not missed her. Lizzie had been in France for over a year and her mother had not missed her. She sat down carefully, feeling the damp thud of her heart.

“You’ll be staying for at least a few days,” she said. “I’ll make up my painting room. It’s a bit of a mess, as you’d expect, but there’s a sunroof. It’s the coolest room in the house.”

And then a rack of coughing, bending her forward. The kettle whistled but it could not hide the breathlessness, the wheeze of her chest. Eddie leaned over and tapped her back, cautiously. His arm moved jerkily, fingers barely making contact with her dress.

“I’m all right,” and Lizzie sat up. But there was blood, more than before, and she could not hide it. She pulled out her handkerchief, already soiled, but it was not enough. She covered her face with the teatowel, lying beside the breadknife.

“What is it, Lizzie? Your heart?” Eddie screwed up his face at the stained cloths, delicate maturity not strong enough to hide his distaste. And something else, she could tell – fear?

“It’s nothing.” She went back to the sink and rinsed out her mouth.

“Has it got worse?” Eddie had stood up; the floorboards creaked as he shifted his weight, agitated, like a pendulum. Back and forth, back and forth. She turned to see him press his fingers against his own heart, the one like hers, sloughing blood from chamber to unsealed chamber.

And now was the time to tell him, to say why she had been so desperate for him to come. The walls were yellow with sun and there were flowers on the window-sill; the painter’s eye picked out the beauty of the moment. Her brother would be able to look back to this time, and remember the scent from the bergonias as well as her words, the flare of pollen rounding out his grief.

But Lizzie did not speak and she could not tell him. She could not tell him that she had sold the summer tomatoes rather than pickling them for winter, or that she painted until she was exhausted, filling canvas after canvas until they lined the walls in her studio.  

“I’ve been working hard in the garden,” is what she did say. “Too much, probably. You know about that.”

She sat down again, a glass of water at her elbow. Eddie remained standing, uneaten bread on the plate in front of him. He continued to sway, jaw flexing in time.

“Do you think, sis, that we should have done things differently? More lifting, more running, to strengthen ourselves?”

“I don’t. Remember Mam, those times she had us run up the stairs and we nearly fainted.”

Eddie grimaced. “We were younger then. Children.” Again, the threat of saying more, and he seemed to tip forward, balancing on the edge of something. Then the words came in a rush.

“The war is nearly over, I’m sure. There’s been a turn. I don’t know why I can feel it, but I can. The war is nearly over and I’ve seen nothing of it. I can’t meet my friends in the pub when they come home - can’t sit and listen to them, or fill the silence when they can’t talk.” He paused, breathless. “I’m so ashamed. I keep waiting for a white feather. The forces gather at Le Havre, you know. I saw it for myself. I’m going to join up. There’ll be officers there I can speak to. There might not be a medical.”

Lizzie heard the shock aurally, like a door slamming somewhere, and her throat felt terribly tight. Her brother’s head was a bouncing ball on a string, like the puppet shows they used to see at the beach as youngsters. Every word was thrust forward by his bouncing head, a shunting affirmation that these were his feelings and desires. She could see there was no talking him out of it. He had rehearsed it on the journey down.

“So you aren’t staying long?”

“A day or two,” and Eddie finally sat down, opposite. “And on leave, whenever I can.” His optimism brought a shine to his face.

“I had hoped that you’d stay for longer. It’s peaceful here, Eddie.”

He drummed his fingers on the table, beating out the rhythm of a song that she knew but could not quite place. “I didn’t come for peace. And I can’t do what you do – paint. I’d be bored stiff all day. Don’t be upset, Liz, but this place is like a waiting room.”

His words stung. She had worked hard to create a pretty space, where she could look around at any time and her eye would find a vase, or flowers in a bowl. It was important to make the cottage beautiful. She had wadded the clock with a strip of cloth so it wouldn’t chime. Had probably broken the springs, but she didn’t care.

He must have seen her forlorn face for he reached over and slapped her hand cheerfully. She really did see their father then, in the harrumphing way Eddie tried to move them on, to brush the worry aside. All year she had tried to keep her heart still and smooth but, then, she felt the clean, sharp pound of anger. She looked down at their hands, Eddie’s fingers resting on hers, and imagined his face if she pushed them away.

But, of course, she could not. Her brother was here, her brother was here, he had crossed the water to reach her and he should have tea. And when he rose in the morning, or the morning after – whenever it was – when he rose and put on his clothes, making to leave for the port, she would smile and hold him, and hope it would not be for the last time.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester's "Grassroutes Project", a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop's Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.

© 2015, Rebecca Burns