Ministering angels, that is, not the biblically-robed, winged variety to be found in stained glass windows. Care-giving nurses. Here is chapter two of my new novel Christobel, the heartrending story of two nurses separated by a century, which I’m serialising here. If after dipping into this you’d like to begin reading from the beginning, please go to the previous blog, Angels in the family.
An hour later they were back in the drawing room with coffee and the remains of the white, dinner-accompanying wine (there had been four bottles; Mick never stinted on alcohol), replete after Pam’s lasagne. She would normally have taken herself off to her flat after clearing everything away and tidying up, but this evening she stayed with the company. She didn’t see as much of her other grandson and his slightly exotic (well, foreign) girlfriend as she would have liked, so she meant to take full advantage of their visit. And secretly, although she would never have admitted it openly, quiet, considerate Chris was her favourite. It wasn’t that she didn’t love Mick too, but he could sometimes be a handful, especially when his friends from the band descended upon the house. There was little tranquillity then, and there certainly hadn’t been the previous Christmas, and she had been happy to keep well out of their way.
And for Pam, it was a pleasant change for there to be a subject of conversation other than Mick’s music, although she did like Leah, the latest girlfriend. She had more about her than the usual ones, the groupies, who briefly attached themselves to him.
The talk was back on Chris’s imminent move to Germany.
‘Yes,’ Pam said wistfully, ‘your mother would have liked the idea of you moving to Europe, Chris. She’d have been all for you seeing the world, being such a rolling stone herself.’
The contented grin left Chris’s face. He suddenly looked sombre. ‘Yeah, poor Mum. It’ll be, what, nine years next week since we lost her, won’t it. Nine years already.’
‘Yes, I know. Time flies.’ Pam agreed. She asked Frieda, ‘Has Chris told you about Jade, his mother, my daughter, dear?’
Frieda glanced sideways at Chris, beside her on the Chesterfield, as if mutely asking permission to join in. ‘Er, yes. It was a terrible thing. I am so sorry.’
Leah looked at Pam, puzzled, questioning. It seemed she hadn’t had the tragic story from Mick too. But if she was hoping for elucidation, none came; instead there was an abrupt change of subject. ‘It’s nice to see the nursing tradition being carried on in the family, anyway,’ Pam said, her face brightening, as if a cloud had passed over.
Now Chris was perplexed. ‘Oh? Who else is there, Gran?’
Pam smiled. ‘Oh, no one in recent times. Not for a very long time, actually. There was your great-great-granny, my grandma, on our side of the family. In fact she had the same name as you too. Well, the female form of it. One of them, anyway. Christobel, her name was. She nursed in the First World War.’
Chris was all attention now. ‘Really? I didn’t know I had an ancestor who did that.’
‘Yes. And there’s something else. She was with Edith Cavell.’
Leah asked, ‘Who’s that?’
Pam cautiously shifted her attention to Frieda again, reluctant to explain, wondering if she had put another foot in it. ‘She was a nurse – well, the matron of a nurse training school in Belgium – who helped wounded soldiers and others who were simply stranded in occupied territory escape to Holland. She became a British heroine.’
‘Oh really?’ Leah said. ‘That’s fascinating.’
‘Yes, isn’t it? But it’s a long time ago now’, she added hastily. ‘Nearly a hundred years. Things have moved on. We don’t have cruel, stupid wars in Europe any more. We’re more civilised now.’
‘Yes, we are,’ Frieda agreed. If she was annoyed by the war reference, she wasn’t showing it.
Pam passed quickly on, onto safer ground. ‘As a matter of fact, Chris, Christobel kept a diary. It’s been passed down the family and I’ve got it now. It’s one of my really treasured possessions. Would you like to read it?’
‘Oh yes, Gran, I certainly would! Have you got it here then?’
‘Yes, I have. Well, it couldn’t be anywhere else. I don’t have any other place. Mick’s home is my home, now. At least I hope it is,’ she added, directing the rhetorical question in Mick’s direction.
‘That’s right, Pam,’ Mick reassured. ‘It is. For as long as you want. Even when you get really old and creaky and past being housekeeper for me. You know that.’
‘Thank you darling. Yes, I do really,’ Pam said; her eyes soft with gratitude. She turned back to Chris, resuming the conversation. ‘Yes, it really is interesting, because it’s from so long ago. Things were so different then. Reading it is like being transported back all those years. And it does get very dramatic when she talks about her time with Edith Cavell. It’s more like an historical novel than someone’s diary, really.’
‘It sounds wonderful’, Chris enthused. I can’t believe an ancestor of mine actually wrote their journal. It’s almost as good as an autobiography.’
‘It is,’ Pam said. ‘I’ll go and fetch it now, before I forget.’
The two couples chatted, Frieda and Leah doing most of the talking as their respective boyfriends looked on, until Pam returned bearing a clear plastic folder containing several dog-eared, ancient-looking notebooks. She handed them to Chris.
‘Here you are. You’ll find they’re labelled by year, beginning in 1895, when she was sixteen. I wish she’d begun writing earlier, when she was a child; that would have been really fascinating, reading about a Victorian childhood. But never mind. I suppose she just didn’t decide to keep a diary until she was into her teens.’
The evening wore pleasantly on, until Pam declared herself ready for bed, before showing Chris and Frieda their sleeping quarters: one of the splendidly raftered bedrooms. The visitors returned to the drawing room for a final coffee made by Leah (although Mick was still on alcohol, which Chris declined). When it was finished, Chris theatrically yawned and said they were ready for sleep too, otherwise, he knew, Mick would have kept them up all night talking in slurred enthusiasm about his music. But they wanted to be alone together, wanted to make the most of Frieda’s visit. And Chris wanted to dip into Christobel’s diary too.
They lay together in embrace after making love, sated, coming down, heart rates slowing but not ready to settle to sleep, talking for a while, as they always did. Frieda murmured, ‘I like your grandmother. She is really nice. Quite like mine was, in some ways.’
‘Yes, she is.’ Chris agreed. ‘We’re lucky to have her, really.’
‘Mm. Do you think of her as a substitute mother? I suspect she sees herself in that role.’
‘Yeah, well she has been, to some extent, these last few years. During the early years after Mum died, anyway. I was only twenty when we lost her and Mick only seventeen. We both relied on her a lot, both emotionally and practically. Certainly practically in Mick’s case. In fact, I think we were always closer to her than Mum – I was, anyway. Sometimes you are closer to a grandparent than a parent, so they say. I certainly think I was. To be quite honest, Mum wasn’t always very good at parenting skills, so Gran was the one I often turned to; the one I could go to for support, could talk to.’
‘That is sad. I think I am very lucky with my parents then. Poor you! Well, poor both of you, of course.’
‘Mm. I’m not saying she was bad; nothing like that. And I suppose she did her best. She was just a rather troubled lady. Perhaps because her childhood was quite unsettled. I believe Gran wasn’t very lucky with her relationships with men. Apparently she divorced Mum’s father when she – Mum, I mean – was quite small, and then her relationship with the man she left him for ended after a few years too, while Mum was still at school. So she lacked a reliable father-figure and perhaps discipline in her formative years really, and as a result of that, probably, was quite a difficult child, so Gran has told me.’
‘It sounds as though your mother did not have a very stable early family environment. She can’t be blamed for being a little disturbed,’ Frieda said.
‘Yes, that’s right. And she had relationship difficulties too, I think. She didn’t stay with any one man very long.’
‘Was she married? – do you mind if I ask?’
Chris shifted uncomfortably, embarrassed. ‘No, I don’t mind. No, she wasn’t. And as a matter of fact . . . well actually, Mick and I are from different fathers.’
‘Oh, I see . . .’
‘Yeah. Are you shocked? It’s not surprising that we’re so different, I suppose. We haven’t that much in common genetically, really. Less than usual, anyway.’
Frieda laughed rather mirthlessly. ‘No, you are not exactly – how do you say? – “two peas in a pod”, is it? That explains it then.’
‘No, we certainly aren’t. Although we get on fine together. And yes, that’s the right expression.’
They lapsed into silence, broken after a minute or two by Chris. ‘Gran hasn’t said this, but I suspect Mum actually had real mental health problems.’
‘Why do you think that?’
‘Well, people who commit suicide by drug overdose often have. She certainly had depression, according to Gran. That was the verdict at the inquest, anyway. Extreme clinical depression exacerbated by drug taking. Or perhaps the one directly caused the other, but which way round, we’ll never know now.’
‘Poor woman,’ Frieda said. ‘That is a terrible waste of a life.’
‘Yes, it was,’ Chris sighed. ‘If only she’d confided in us; told us how she was feeling. She surely could have got psychiatric help. But she didn’t. She bottled it up. So we didn’t know. I should have recognised the signs, I suppose. I’m supposed to be a health professional, for God’s sake.’
Frieda found Chris’s hand and squeezed it. ‘It must have been a terrible time for you. And perhaps she kept her symptoms well hidden?’
‘It was. And yes, perhaps she did. She was a bit prone to erratic behaviour; we were used to it so I suppose we just accepted it as normal. Normal for Mum, at any rate.’
‘Mm; and now it seems to be feeding through into your brother’s behaviour a bit, doesn’t it? I sense that. It sounds as though he perhaps is quite like your mother.’
Chris chuckled too. ‘Yeah, less-than-perfect family life tends to reverberate down through the generations, like a vicious cycle, I suppose. I think it did affect Mick, much more than me. He’s a bit of a wild boy now, in some ways. Doing drugs and everything. Whereas I’m not really like Mum at all. I’m more . . . placid, really. Perhaps I get my personality more from my biological dad, whoever he was. He and Mum parted when I was eighteen months old, apparently, so obviously, I’ve no real memory of him.’
Frieda squeezed his hand. ‘Well, you seem to be perfectly well-balanced, liebling, in spite of your family background. Sorry; I mean you are perfectly well-balanced. I haven’t noticed any weird behaviour!’
‘You are welcome.’
They fell silent again. Then Frieda said, ‘It was very interesting what your grandmother – Pam – was saying about your ancestor also being a nurse.’
‘Yes, wasn’t it? I’d no idea nursing was in the family.’
‘She seemed a little embarrassed to be speaking about the First World War.’
‘Yeah, I think she was. She was probably thinking of your feelings though; afraid you might be offended, because you’re . . . you know.’
‘Well, she need not be. My country has had a lot of years to come to terms with its horrible past and deal with its shame, and it was a very long time ago now.’
‘Yes, it was. It’s really difficult to think of our countries being bitter enemies twice in the twentieth century, isn’t it? For people of our generation anyway, because we’ve had no experience of the second war even, never mind the first.’
‘Mm; it is. It feels as though Europe has always been at peace, but our grandparents – or certainly our great-grandparents – can remember a time when it was not. All that suffering seems so insane and cruel and . . . barbaric, now.’
‘It certainly does. Although actually, Britain needn’t feel too smug about its past either. We did some pretty terrible things too, in the name of Empire. And the slave trade didn’t exactly cover us in glory. All those poor people treated like cattle.’
‘No, I suppose not.’
Chris moved his hand to Frieda’s smooth thigh; gave an affectionate squeeze. ‘That reminds me. Shall we have a look at Great-Great-Granny Christobel’s diary? Or do you want to go to sleep?’
‘Ooh, yes. I’d like to see it. You might have to help me understand the writing though.’
Chris switched on the bedside light, got out of bed and padded across to the pile of notebooks on the chest of drawers. He looked through them, searching for the chronologically first; brought it back to bed. It was certainly ancient-looking: a marble paper-covered, rather dog-eared volume with a pasted-on label that declared in neat loopy copperplate written with faded brown ink:
The Journal of Christobel Farley
1895 – 1900
They settled themselves comfortably sitting against the padded buttoned headboard, Chris determinedly ignoring Frieda’s bare chest. He opened the book carefully, unsure of the degree of its durability. The flyleaf contained a delicate watercolour rendition of wild flowers, quite expertly painted, and there was similar adornment on the title page, which repeated, now in serifed capitals:
1895 – 1900
Frieda snuggled into Chris’s armpit, moving his arm around her, and they began to read.