And Darkness Fell
An extract from Christian S. Tait's 2018 novel, set in Lerwick during the First World War, and published by Shetland Library.
Lerwick, 1917. The Jacobson family has already known grief and loss in the war when they welcome back their soldier son Jamie to convalesce. Jamie is suffering greatly from shell-shock. But he also has a secret – an inner darkness that could destroy the family.
On his first day home, he meets Kirsty, the young housemaid who becomes the heroine of the story.
Suddenly a girl backed out of the shed that served as a washhouse. She was carrying a basket of clothes. He tried to focus on her for she was here. Now. She was real. Breathing heavily, she dumped the basket beside a large tin bath on a trestle table. Then she went back into the building. Gradually the world stopped spinning and his panic subsided. After a minute or two, the girl reappeared – this time with two steaming buckets of water, which she poured into the bath. Straightening up, she wiped her brow with the back of her hand. It was then she noticed him.
‘Mercy me, boy!’ she gasped. ‘Du gied me a turn – standin yonder like a ghost.’
He watched as she dried her hands on her apron and crossed the green briskly.
‘Du must be Jamie. Dey telt me du wis comin da-day. Du looks … different.’
She smiled and held her hand out in greeting, but he didn’t respond. So she let it fall by her side.
‘It’s fine to see you,’ she said, rather formally.
He could see she was embarrassed, but did nothing to put her at her ease.
'Du doesna ken me, does du? But dat’s nae wonder. It must be six, no, seeven year fae du ran aff ta Australia.’
She laughed. ‘I was only eight so I suppose A’m changed a lot too!’
‘A’m Kirsty, Ellie Johnson’s lass. Does du mind me noo? I used ta come here wi her when she came to do da washin. Noo A’m dy Mammie’s live-in maid. I started last week.’
He knew she was waiting for him to acknowledge her, but still he said nothing.
'On Mondays I do da washin an on Tuesdays I do da ironin. Dat’s unless Monday’s a day o rain – same as it was yesterday – dan everything’s a day late. Da rest o da week I run errands an help wi da cleanin.’
Her cheeks were flushed now. Bright red. He could see she was disconcerted by his lack of response to her chatter.
‘Du is Jamie, is’n du?’ A note of uncertainty had crept into her voice. His eyes flickered and he gave an almost imperceptible nod.
'My bridder Davie’s been sent hame an aa. He was on da boat last night. Maybe du saa him? He’s lost his legs.’
She waited a second … then rushed on.
‘Dat’s why my Mammie had to stop workin for dy Mammie. She has ta bide hame wi Davie noo, an dat’s why A’m here.’
What possible interest did she think that was to him? Still she prattled on. She was speaking more quickly now. He was making her nervous. He was beginning to enjoy this.
'For such a mornin A’m had! I raise at six an lit da fire under da boiler, dan I ran doon ta da boat ta help Mammie wi Davie’s wheeled chair – I kent she’d never manage ta push it up da closs on her ain – but ean o da neebours wis gotten dere afore me. Folk are sae good-hearted … I made dem a cup o tay, dan I ran aa da wye back here ta get on wi my wark.’
'A’ll better do dat, dan. Get on wi my wark, I mean.’
He lit another fag, took a long drag and blew out a column of smoke. She bent over the bath and began to rub the garments vigorously on the washboard. He studied her coldly, objectively, as if she were an insect pinned out for inspection. After a few minutes she paused, breathing heavily, and eyed him – openly curious.
‘So what’s up wi dee, dan? I dunna see ony wounds.’
‘My chest,’ he said curtly. ‘It was the gas.’
That was as good a story as any and would put an end to her questions. He was tiring of this game.
'Oh,’ she said. ‘It’s a peety it’s no something we can see. Folk respect a wound dey can see. Tak wir Davie, noo. Everybody can see at he’s a hero.’
He could hear the pride in her voice. The knot in his stomach tightened. What did she know about it? There was nothing heroic about getting your legs blown off, screaming in agony and calling for your mother. He’d seen it often enough, could see it clearly now. H shook his head to dislodge the pictures in his mind. He felt the tremor start again…
…‘Come on, Jamie, gie me a hand.’ Kirsty’s words brought him back to the present. All the clothes were back in the basket – a neat pile of twisted cylinders.
'I need clean water for da rinsin.’ She pointed at the bath. ‘You tak wan end an A’ll tak da idder.’
In spite of himself, he gripped the handle.
'Lift on “three”,’ she said, and counted. It was no good. She raised her end, but he hadn’t the strength. The water sloshed over, soaking his feet. He reeled back, cursing. His face grew hot with fury. This girl had humiliated him too. Nobody got off with that. Nobody. He’d find a way to pay her back.
‘Do it yourself, bitch,’ he said in a hard, tight voice. ‘It’s what you’re paid for.’