An Excerpt from Unmasked by Lucy Corkhill
Set during and after World War I, Unmasked is the story of two rival farmhand brothers, Arthur and Billy, the destructive woman they become entangled with, and the suffragist, Isobel, who hopes to save Arthur and his young daughter before family hostilities spiral out of control.
This excerpt from the second part of the book, set in 1920, features two main characters, Arthur Eldridge and Isobel Garside, when Arthur first comes to stay at Isobel’s guest house in London. Because of injuries sustained in the war, Arthur wears a tin mask to cover his facial disfigurement and has a prosthetic arm.
Arthur was becoming accustomed to Mrs. Garside’s bedtime rituals. At first, the creaking and tapping had disorientated him, had made him sit bolt upright in the bed. Now, he found it strangely comforting to hear her go about her business. The top stair whispering under her weight three times; the wall in the corridor: tap, tap, tap, tap, four times; her bedroom door handle turned in its socket five times. Then, through the thin wall between their bedrooms, the sound of water splashing back into a basin; six times. He imagined her standing just a few feet away, the cold water like a punishment on her exposed skin. The quiet murmur of her voice as she began her prayers had become a welcome analgesic. He was rarely awake for the ritual shaking of the sheets. Mrs. Garside’s tapping was the secret rhythm of the house, and the house offered back its own creaks and moans as its inhabitants settled into sleep.
He was grateful for these sounds easing him into slumber. Silence alarmed him. For all his time at the Front, when the noise of the shells ripping the earth and its men had become a part of him – a vibration in his rib cage, a chattering of his teeth, a quivering of his brain in its watery confines – he had yearned for silence. Silence like a clean white bed. Yielding, forgiving. But he was surprised by the enormity of it when it arrived, like a sinister parcel delivered anonymously to his door. The sounds of war had permeated his flesh; silence tuned his ears to the internal explosions. You could take the man from the battlefield. You couldn’t, it seemed, take the battlefield from the man.
He was torn from sleep by a sensation of falling. He had been dreaming of foetid pools of mud, bodies floating, swollen faces purple and brown. His nightshirt choked his throat but his fingers were shaking too much to undo the buttons. He ripped the sweat-soaked fabric from his body, then lay shivering in his underwear. The thin sheet felt cold to the touch. He looked around the room, trying to fix on a reassuring landmark, but the darkness imbued the familiar forms with menace. His dressing gown, innocuous in the daylight, seemed to him to be a dead man slumped on the chair. His reflection in the mirrored wardrobe beside the bed was that of a ghost, fluid as water. I must be rational, he thought. I must think good thoughts. The idea of Rosa smiling back at him from his sketchpad was soothing and he was half out of bed on his way to retrieve it from the wardrobe when he noticed a slice of yellow light moving under his door. The door handle turned, as if by itself.
As the door swung open, a woman dressed in a white nightdress stood framed in the doorway. Her face was in darkness.
‘Mrs. Garside?’ he managed, scrabbling at the sheet to cover his bare torso. With the sheet pulled across him, his fingers fumbled for matches on the bedside table. Lighting a match had become an embarrassing struggle with one hand, and was only occasionally successful, even with the prosthetic. His fingers brushed against his mask and he thought, too late, about putting it on. The prosthetic was lying on the floor by the bed. The woman turned to pick up an oil lamp from the hall table and, as she lifted it, the light flooded her features.
‘Mrs. Garside,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry, you frightened me. Are you alright?’
He stood up with the sheet held against him, wishing that he was not in a state of undress in front of a lady. His face ached with exposure.
‘I’m so sorry, Mrs. Garside, I’m not wearing my mask.’
She came towards him swiftly, putting the lamp on the bedside table. They stood a few inches apart. His breath sucked loudly through the mangle of his cheek. She looked wild; her hair unkempt and with such a beseeching look in her eyes he asked again, ‘are you alright?’
‘Hold me,’ she said. Her tone was authoritative but her eyes were pooling with tears. He stepped towards her and she leaned against him, the sheet bunching awkwardly between them. The stump of his right arm rested against her rib cage and he put his left arm around her, so that his hand sat lightly in the middle of her back. He could feel the lumps of her spine moving with her breath beneath her nightdress. They stood stiffly together, her arms about his waist and her neck twisted so that her cheek, feverishly hot, was against his chest. She began to cry immediately, as if this was what she had come here to do. He thought of Rosa, of whether this would count as infidelity. When the other lads had visited the whore houses in France – lewd with tales of what these Gallic crones would do for an extra bit of rum – he had stayed back at the decimated villages, talking to the farmers and tending the horses. He had shown one dispossessed farmer his picture of Rosa and the lock of her hair. The man had sucked air through his few remaining teeth and let it out again like a moan, before patting Arthur on his shoulder with a claw-like hand. Though they could not speak the same language, Arthur felt as if a commonality that transcended speech had passed between them.
The bedroom was bitterly cold, he could see goose-pimples across the back of Mrs. Garside’s neck. Her crying was even and steady, but not loud. He let his hand move up her back and stroke the back of her head, wondering how long they would stand here for. Outside, he could hear a motorcar making its aggressive way down the street, some late night revellers perhaps. He guessed it must be after midnight.
As suddenly as she had started crying, she stopped. She carefully disengaged herself from him and, stepping back, gave him a little nod. He held the sheet to his body as she picked up the oil lamp and walked quickly to the door.
‘Goodnight Mr. Eldridge,’ she said, before closing the door behind her.
He put his hand to the hot wet place on his chest where her cheek had rested. On the street outside his window, the motorcar was back. He could hear the gay trill of women’s voices calling out goodbyes and then a man’s deep laugh. Mrs. Garside’s bedroom door opened and closed several times, but he did not count. He put on his damp nightshirt and lay on the bed, waiting for sleep to come.
In the morning, he stalled as long as he could, wondering what might greet him when he arrived down to breakfast, dreading, but half expecting, Mrs Garside asking him to leave to protect her modesty. But his fear was unfounded, or at least delayed, by the arrival of a noisy family of guests. They were sitting at his table by the window and had drawn up another of the embroidered chairs so that all four of them could sit together. He paused, experiencing a momentary sting that Mrs. Garside hadn’t informed them that it was his table, before smiling at his own foolishness and sitting in the corner by the bookcase. ‘Good morning,’ the parents said loudly – too loudly – as he inflected his head toward them. The two children, a dark-haired boy and girl, were bickering about who would sleep in which bed. He sensed the parents glance at one another as he shook out his napkin.
Mrs. Garside entered the room with her serving girl, carrying four breakfasts which were duly distributed around the family. The food was, as always, artfully arranged to disguise its scarcity. She looked up as he was straightening his cutlery and their eyes met.
‘Ah, Mr. Eldridge, I didn’t know you were up. I’ll prepare your breakfast now.’ Her level gaze betrayed nothing but he noticed her clasped hands twitch as she gave travel advice to the new guests. As she left the room, she tapped lightly on the wall with the fingers of her right hand three times.
She had given the family the large top floor bedroom above his own. When he returned to his room after breakfast, he heard the serving girl dragging beds around and then the heavy thump of cases making their way up the stairs. ‘Good day, sir,’ the rotund father said when Arthur passed him later in the corridor. ‘Are you off out to enjoy this fine weather?’
‘Yes,’ said Arthur, smiling. To enjoy this fine weather and to see my fine wife.
The little girl, who was carrying a pink rabbit toy, looked up at Arthur and let out a squeal, pressing herself against her father’s leg. ‘Now, Amy, that is no way to behave,’ he heard the father remonstrating as he made his way along the hallway. Melancholic music drifted from the drawing room; Mrs. Garside’s restless fingers finding their outlet on polished piano keys. He opened the front door and pulled it shut softly behind him.
The day was blinding after the stuffy darkness of Mrs. Garside’s house. The street was wide and lined on both sides by pavements and a boulevard of grey-trunked sycamore trees. On the opposite side of the road to the houses lay the green opulence of a park in springtime. Behind black railings, people were picnicking, their summer clothes pale against the grass. The leaves of the trees shifted in the breeze, letting arrows of sunlight dart skittishly across the street. Fat clouds moved purposefully across a blue sky. A portly man behind a news stand yodelled out the day’s headlines as a baker’s boy clattered by on an unwieldy bicycle, its front basket laden with loaves wrapped in paper, the sweet smell of fresh bread following in his wake. Young boys scuttled along intent on their errands, ducking and weaving their way past the slow strollers. A group of ladies swinging parasols walked on the other side of the street, their heads bent to catch the latest gossip. People stepped back as a dog streaked past, its plump owner breaking into an ungainly trot.
At the end of the street, Arthur turned right into a road busy with horse-drawn and motorised traffic. At the intersection between streets, he saw a clean-shaven young soldier sitting on a bench with a pretty girl. Her gloved hand was clasped in his and Arthur saw a smile lift her cheeks. Arthur found himself quickening his step, anticipation fizzing through him.
He had more than enough time to walk. His route took him past the grand hotels he had previously only seen lit up at night. Now, he saw bellboys weighed down with expensive suitcases. A gaggle of perfumed women dressed in extravagant furs brushed past him as if he were invisible. ‘Excuse me, old chap,’ said a pompous gentleman who winked at him, his monocle glinting. Arthur stared at their backs, the women tittering amongst themselves. Everything about them seemed obscene, gratuitous. But he mustn’t allow this train of thought to upset his fragile optimism. What was it Phillipson had said? People want to forget, Arthur. We’re a constant reminder. And who, after all, wanted to remember? Hadn’t he himself, in his darker hours, begged some long-forsaken deity to wipe his mind clean? And it was Phillipson who had told him how lucky they were. Lucky, yes. I am lucky, Arthur thought to himself. I am here, walking these streets, alive. I am on my way to see my wife again. I will finally get to meet my child. Soon, very soon, we will be together.
It had been surprisingly easy to find Rosa’s mother. She still worked at the Red Lion, where men drank in dark corners and hired rooms for dubious purposes and the women they paid, their faces lurid with make-up, stood chatting behind the bar. Rosa had told him about her mother, had even shown him some of the marks inflicted on her creamy skin through acts of maternal discipline. She had said more than once that she was better off with Mr. Donaghue who, whilst strict, had rarely resorted to violence. He recognised Mrs. Donaghue immediately, though her back was turned to him. Her hair was a faded daguerreotype version of Rosa’s, rusty tresses piled up on her head like a courtesan’s. When she turned, he was surprised to see how haggard she looked; the hair was like a trick somehow. She didn’t seem to trust him but judging by the people she had dealings with, trust was extraneous to her. She gave him the information he wanted willingly enough, but not without asking who wanted it. ‘Her husband,’ Arthur said, meeting her narrow gaze head on. She had laughed at him then, revealing a mouth almost devoid of teeth. Pity he was used to – laughter he was not. But it hadn’t mattered; he had taken down Rosa’s address, hastily scribbled in the back of his notebook, and written to Rosa that night, in his room at Mrs. Garside’s. It took several attempts, but he decided in the end to keep his letter short and to the point, not least because he was still struggling to master writing with his left hand. Rosa’s reply came to Mrs. Garside’s house a few days later. She, too, had opted for brevity: ‘Meet me under the clock at Paddington station 12.30 Saturday. We need to talk. Rosa.’
Rosa Rosa Rosa. Girl of his dreams, flame-haired goddess.
She had the sun behind her as she came toward him, alone. It seemed to him that the crowds dispersed to let her through, under the great arced dome of Paddington station. He knew it was her because of the way she walked, but her silhouette was wider than he remembered. She still had that funny half-limp ‘on account of Da’s horse throwin’ me off as a child’. High above her a flock of pigeons rose up in unison, their noisy wings like splayed fans. He was flooded with memories of her sitting on the hay bales, all crooked teeth and knobbly knees. Letting him peep up her skirt, where red hair winked between white thighs. He thought of the photograph he carried in the pocket of his uniform as protection on the battlefields. The lock of hair, the scrap of nightdress fabric: talismans that had saved him from death.
He thought perhaps he should run towards her, put his arms around her, say; ‘sorry sorry sorry, I’m back, I’m with you now’. He had imagined this scene so many times it was lodged like a bullet in his brain: navigating the contours of her cheeks with his fingers, drawing her face to his and tasting the raw plumpness of her mouth, feeling those crooked teeth with his tongue. Now he was living it, he felt paralysed. In his mind, he had cried out with love and relief, but now he was silent. When she stood before him, he could not move. Back at Mrs. Garside’s, he had tried to hide the straps of the mask beneath his hair – had even grinned at himself in the mirror as if he were performing a fine trick – but he saw her quick eyes take it all in. She narrowed them, flint-thin.
‘Alright Arthur,’ she said. ‘We thought you was dead.’