Copyright Oggbashan November 2013
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.
I was sitting at my small easel, painting yet another watercolour of the Essex countryside. I produce several pictures a week, send them to my dealer in London, and make enough money to add a few luxuries to my bachelor existence. This might be my last one painted outdoors this year, as the autumn colours were fading. The next strong wind would strip the trees.
I might have a problem painting during the winter months. The room I called my studio was piled with completed work. My dealer had refused to take any more of my paintings for the time being. Although they sold, they moved slowly and he had too many. So had I. If someone important noticed me, wrote about me, praised my work. I could dream.
I remembered talking to Jonas Smith, our local blacksmith about his unused barn. It was the old monastery stable, built to last a thousand years, stone-walled and the roof is tiled. It would be far too large for me but if I might be able to persuade other artists to rent space there, we could be a local community of artists. In the short term it would solve my storage problem -- if I could afford it.
I had explained what I might want to the blacksmith. We had walked round to the barn. We opened a small access door in the large main doors. The space inside was enormous but clear, except for a grey painted wooden partition cutting off a third.
"I could sweep the chimneys," he suggested. "They haven't been used for years and there could be birds' nests in them. But this is the soundest building in the village, and on the highest ground except for the church. It has never flooded even when most of the village was awash." "I remember the floods. When was the last major one? 1897? I was in South Africa then."
"Yes, Major Jones. You're right. 1897 was the worst one in living memory. I get worried sometimes about the new houses built on land that flooded then. I was just taking over from my father as the village smith. The worst part was the thirst."
"Yes, thirst. We were surrounded by water, flooded with water, but it was sea water. It got into all the wells and made the water undrinkable. We survived by collecting rainwater. After 1897 many people added tanks to their houses to collect and store rainwater but I think many folk have begun to forget to use them. If it floods again..."
"Let's hope it doesn't."
I admired the massive space, lit by a clerestory. Some of the panes in that were missing and boarded over. Most were still glazed but very dirty. If the missing glass were to be replaced and the existing panes cleaned, it would be well-lit during the day.
"What's beyond there?" I asked, pointing at the grey paint.
"That? The army put a lot of stuff in there in 1917. They were going to use this barn for troops but never did. They offered the contents to me in 1919 for a few pounds. I bought it but that was a mistake. I should have asked them to take it away."
"What did you buy?"
"Tables, chairs, beds, bedding and field rations I think. I haven't looked."
"Tables and chairs could be useful. What are they like?"
"As I said. I haven't looked."
"I suppose so."
Through an unlocked door there was a massive pile of equipment, tons of it. I recognised several items -- a field kitchen, hand-pulled water carts even chemical toilets. The tables and chairs were metal framed. Everything was unused, just dusty. There was enough for several hundred men.
Jonas and I had agreed on a rent for the barn, if I wanted it. I might just be able to afford it. It would be easier if someone else shared the building. I told him that I would let him have a final yes or no by the New Year. If I sold a few more paintings?
I stopped day-dreaming and added more details to the current painting, destined to join the growing pile in my cottage.
I heard faint footsteps on the gravel path that was once the tow path when this part of the river was navigable. They came closer and stopped. I turned round to see who was coming, before returning to paint.
"Hello," she said from behind me. "Do you mind if I watch you for a while?"
"Of course not, Mary," I said. I kept painting. This light wouldn't last much longer and I would have to stop for today.
"I'm not Mary," she replied slowly. "I'm Magda."
"Mary," I repeated. "I knew your parents. They called you Mary. I knew your husband Michael. He was in my regiment. He called you Mary. He was a good man."
"He was, wasn't he? I miss him. But the entire village calls me Magda now."
"I know. It's cruel of them."
"True. In public you call me Mrs Hughes." Mary's voice was sad. "The women call me Magdalene, after the reformed prostitute. But I'm unreformed."
"To me, Mary, you are a woman who has had a hard time. You've lost your parents and your husband. Yet you support yourself and help others, even if you do it discreetly. You're my comrade's widow. Michael Hughes was my friend..."
"...but he died at Passchendale."
I couldn't help a shiver as she spoke that name so lightly. I had lost so many of my men there.
"...and you were a regular officer, Major Jones, in the army by choice. Michael was a corporal, called up to serve and die, whether he wanted to or not."
"So were so many. He did his best for his regiment, for King and Country. You should be proud of him."
"I am. But being proud of him didn't pay the rent nor put food on my table. What I am does far more than that."
"I know. You own your own cottage and have the only inside bathroom in the village, with hot water on tap."
"That's a capital investment for my professional life. I insist that all my customers have a bath first. I think for some of them the attraction of a hot bath is more than their need of me. But you never come."
"No Mary. I didn't die during the War, but I lost the part that..."
"...would interest me? I know. I helped nurse you when you came back. I know your body as well as or better than those of my customers. You weren't aware of me at the time, too full of painkillers to know where you were or who was looking after you. You look much better now."
"Thank you, Mary. Your care of me helped. I knew you had been a voluntary nurse during the War, but I hadn't known you had nursed me."
"Some of the nurses wouldn't touch that area. They were ladies. I wasn't and aren't. I'm a woman."
"A good woman," I insisted.
That made Mary laugh again.
"Tell that to the Mothers' Union -- or the Marines. You must be the only person who thinks I'm 'good'. I know what I am."
Mary came to my shoulder and peered at my painting.
"You're no Constable, are you, Major Jones?"
"Constable? Of course not. But my works sell well enough for me."
"Why have you left that tree out?" Mary pointed across the river.
"Because it would spoil the composition. Like Constable, I paint the view as it should be, not as it is. That tree is too large, in the wrong place, and draws the eye away from the horizon."
"Where you are putting a church steeple that isn't there."
"Why not, Mary? It's our church steeple. The buyer won't know that it's behind me."
"Do you ever paint people?"
"Sometimes, as part of the scenery, but I don't usually do portraits."
"I'd need a model to do nudes, and oils, not watercolour. I can do them. I used to when I was studying Art. But that was a long time ago, before the Boer War. You were a child when I painted my last nude."
"Do nudes sell?"
"Perhaps better than my landscapes, but..."
"You need a model. How about me?"
I put my brush down carefully and turned to face Mary. Up to now she had been a voice at my back or shoulder.
"This wasn't a chance meeting, was it?"
"No, Major Jones, it isn't. I knew that you would be here."
"Why do you want to be a model for a nude painting, Mary?"
"I suppose it is vanity. I know my way of life is going to ruin my looks eventually, but I'd like to be remembered as I was. When I'm old and plain I'd like a picture of me in my prime."
"Why not a photograph?"
"Because a photograph would show me like Cromwell -- warts and all. Not that I have any, but an artist would paint me at my best, like you with this landscape -- emphasising the good parts, omitting or modifying the less good, and producing an image of me as I would like to be seen."
"You've thought about this for some time, haven't you?"
"And why ask me?"
"Because you're the only artist I know, one I trust, and one I respect. You treat me as a person, no, a lady. No one else does. They treat me as the village whore, which I am."
I stood up, leaning on my cane. I had finished work for today. The light had gone.
"Can we go for a walk while we discuss this, Mary? I've been sitting too long."
"Of course, Major Jones."
I packed up my equipment. I could leave it where it was. No one would touch it.
"If I'm considering painting you nude, Mary, I think you had better stop calling me 'Major Jones' and use my Christian name."
"Yes, Alexander," Mary said, bobbing a mock curtsey. "If I can be Mary with you when everyone else calls me Magda, you can be Alexander when everyone else calls you Major Jones."
"Thank you, Mary." I held out the crook of my arm to her.
"No, Alexander, I'm not taking your arm like a lady. I'm going to support you like a nurse. Lean on me."
She came to the side away from my cane, took my arm and rested it across her shoulders. Her arm went around my waist. We started to walk downstream, away from the village.
"Is this OK, Alexander? I don't want you to tire yourself."
Her support was effective. My right leg, normally straining as I walked, was much easier while she steadied me. I wasn't putting much weight on her, but the difference was noticeable.
"Yes, thank you, Mary," I said. "Like this, I feel I could walk for miles."
"Not miles, just to the next river bend. There's a bench there..."
"I know there is."
"Of course. I forgot. You had it put there."
"It reminded me of better times. Or did."
"I even know that. You proposed to your fiancée there."
"She married another while you were in South Africa."
"Yes," I said heavily. "You seem to know a lot about me."
"Michael thought you were a hero. You are, aren't you?"
"A hero? I have a medal that says I was. I don't think I was, or am. I was just in an awkward situation, did my best, and was noticed. Many men did far braver things than I, but weren't seen to do it."
"You underestimate yourself. It wasn't one medal. I know your full service history, your medal citations..." Mary emphasised the plural, "...and what your regiment think of you."
"What can I say? You seem to know everything. Why the interest?"
Mary stopped walking. We had reached the bench. Her face looked at mine, studying it.
"My husband thought the world of you. When he died, you wrote to me. I still have that letter and treasure it. You did more. You arranged for his parents and mine to live rent-free for the rest of their lives. You sorted out the War Office when they were being difficult about my widow's pension. You even sent an allocation of your pay to support me when that pension wasn't being paid. You did that for several of the village's widows. Yet you weren't a rich man. If it wasn't for your paintings you would be nearly as hard up as the rest of the village. You gave from your little to those who had less. And yet you wonder why I'm interested in you? You're the only good man I know, and I know too many of the bad ones."
She kissed my cheek.
"I'm embarrassing you, aren't I?"
"Kissing me doesn't, Mary, but telling me about myself does. I'm a wreck of my former self, old, damaged and just existing. I'm not the gallant Major of the War. That's...I was going to say a couple of years ago but it feels like another life, an eternity ago, with many unpleasant things I'd rather forget. I lost more than my manhood in the War. I lost friends, too many friends. Sometimes I wish I was with them."
Mary's arm tightened around my waist.
"You're not with them. You're here. You're alive. I want you to live."
She paused, kissed me again.
"I need you." She said emphatically.
"YOU need me?" I was startled.
"Yes, Alexander, Major Jones. I need you. Have you any idea how isolated I am in this village? You are the only one who treats me as a person with feelings. You do more. You treat me like a lady. You listen to what I say as if I might say something worthwhile. To the men I'm a sanitary convenience to put their fluids in. To the women I'm a disgrace, a shame, and a constant unspeaking critic of their adequacy.
Worse -- I'm a drain on the family finances. Even the church rejects me. I creep in at the back despite disapproving glares. I daren't go to the altar rail for Communion. I could be publicly rejected because although I have confessed, I live in my sin every day, and will be repeating it tomorrow.
It's getting to me. The venom is constant, day by day. If it isn't words, it's looks, gestures and hatred. I could stand it if the men acknowledged me, or even appreciated what I do for them. They don't. They use me, pay me, and leave me, often without a word of thanks..."
This time I hugged her. I kissed her cheek. A faint smile was marred by a tear or two rolling down her face.
"See, Alexander. You've made me cry. No other man in the village would dare kiss me where we might be seen. But you? You'd do it in the village square if I asked you, wouldn't you?"
"If that's what you wanted, Mary, yes. I would."
"And you say you're not a hero? You're my hero."
Mary guided me to sit down on the bench.
"Yes, Alexander. Mine. My only friend. A friend who would defy the whole village if I asked him to. That sort of friendship is rare indeed."
"I'm sorry that others treat you badly, Mary..."
My words were stopped by a kiss on my mouth. Mary gently placed herself on my lap, avoiding my right leg. She rested against my shoulder.
"I want you, Alexander," she whispered. "I want you for myself. I want to own you, as my..."
She stopped. I looked at her. She seemed frightened to continue.
"Why have you remained a bachelor, Alexander? Your fiancée married more than a decade ago."
"Yes. That hurt, at the time. Afterwards? I knew years beforehand that war was coming. I'd be involved. I didn't want any woman to become my widow."
"But the War's ended."
"And I'm not the man I was. I'm not even a man according to some."
"You're more of a man than many who are whole in body. You can't have children. So what? Many men have the equipment but still can't."
I sighed. So few people saw my injury like that.
"Mary, that loss was painful. It isn't as painful now as my leg is. If I had been a young man when the War started I might have regretted my loss more. I was already past the age of thinking of starting a family. If the losses in the War hadn't been so great I'd have been retired in 1915. The army needed me to stay. I hope I was of some use, more use than I am now. What am I? A journeyman painter who can make a basic living. That's all I have left."
"You might make more by painting nudes, Alexander."
This time I laughed.
"You win, Mary. I'll try to paint you, nude, and make you look as wonderful as I think you are."
"Wonderful as you think I am? Those are not the words of just a friend, are they? I didn't know you thought of me like that. Why do you?"
"You don't know? I would have thought it was obvious, Mary."
"Obvious? What a fool I am. You love me, don't you?"
"Yes, Mary. This ancient crippled fool loves you. It might be ridiculous of me, but I love the finest woman I know. It's pointless, but you brighten up my life every time I see you."
"Pointless! You old fool! It's not pointless! You might be. I don't care. I want you as you are. I want you for my husband to keep for myself, and to keep myself just for him. I'd retire as the village whore tomorrow if you'll have me!"
"Hang up your 'Closed' sign, Mary. Will you marry me?"
Her lips urgently covering mine gave her answer.
We walked back to my painting site wrapped around each other. Mary picked up my equipment and carried it. We stopped in the centre of the village square beside the War Memorial listing so many of my comrades. Mary put my equipment down. She turned to me.
I leant my cane on the steps of the War Memorial, took her in my arms and kissed her. We could feel the distaste from the passing villagers but we didn't care.
The next morning we went hand in hand to see the Vicar. He was startled when we told him that we wanted to marry, and that the first banns should be read next Sunday. He was even more surprised when Mary told him, while holding my hand, that she had already retired as the village whore, and that she would be joining me for Communion at tomorrow's Morning Service.
"A good choice," he spluttered. "The attendance tomorrow will be small. The news will be all over the village by Sunday. It won't be a shock when the Banns are read. I wouldn't want a disturbance in Church."
Silly fool! It will be a real shock to the village. The women will take years to accept Mary as a reformed character, but the men will be angry now. They might not have appreciated Mary for who she was, but they will miss WHAT she was.
We walked to church hand in hand next morning. I was still holding Mary's hand as we approached the altar. I could hear whispering in the congregation as Mary accepted the Eucharist but when we turned round to walk back to our pew we did in complete silence.
The Vicar's short sermon was on the Prodigal Son, and the forgiveness of sinners who had repented and reformed. There didn't seem to be much forgiveness in the assembled villagers. We walked out of church with a large empty space around us, as if we could infect anyone who came too near.
It rained hard during the week. Mary had locked her back door, the former entrance for her customers, and put a sign 'Closed' on it. In her private bedroom, not her place of business, we had made up a roaring fire while I tried to sketch her in the nude. My first few attempts went on that fire as fuel. I was too busy studying Mary as a lover and not being professional enough as an artist.
Each day I arrived after breakfast and left before dark to avoid upsetting the villagers more than they already were. Whenever we went out in the village, alone or together, the disapproval was obvious.
It came to a head on Saturday evening. As usual, I went to the public house for a couple of pints. The place fell silent as I walked in. The landlord looked tense. His wife, serving behind the bar was obviously worried but she pulled my pint and set it on the counter. I paid her and turned to face everyone. Most avoided my eyes, but Simon, the blacksmith's son, put his drink down and strode towards me.
He stood in front of me, his hands on his hips.
"I suppose you are pleased with yourself, Major Jones," he shouted. "You've taken our only..."
"Shall we continue this discussion outside?" I said calmly.
"Outside?" Simon hadn't expected that.
"Outside," I insisted. I walked out. Simon followed me. All the customers followed him and stood in a semi-circle outside the public house.
"If you are going to insult the lady who has agreed to be my wife, Simon, you will need to back your words with actions. Mrs Hughes has retired. What she was, she is no longer."