The Chilbury Ladies' Choir(3)

By: Jennifer Ryan

After the grueling service, we grabbed our gas mask boxes and traipsed gloomily through horizontal daggers of icy rain up to Chilbury Manor, a Georgian monstrosity that some past Winthrop brutally erected.

I puffed up the steps to the big door, hoping for a glass of something and a big comfy sofa, but the place was already crammed with damp-smelling mourners and wet umbrellas. It was noisy as King’s Cross, what with the marbled galleried hallway echoing with ladies’ heels and noisy chatter. The Winthrops are an old, wealthy family, and the locals are scavenging toads, all hanging around in case they can get their grubby hands on some of the spoils.

And me? I already have my hand in their pocket, and that makes it my business to keep track of events around here. You see, the Brigadier has already been paying me to keep my mouth shut about his affairs, including that unwanted pregnancy last year, and his nasty son spreading disease around this village faster than you can say “the clap.” This war means opportunity for me. Any midwife worth her salt must realize the potential such a situation can bring, especially with the likes of these smutty gentry who think they’re beyond reproach. They’re easy prey for extortion—twenty here, forty there. It all adds up.

As I entered, my eyes caught a pretty twist of a maid, standing on the stairs to avoid the rush, a tray of sherry glasses balanced on one hand, her long neck elegant but her mouth sour as curd. She came to me with gonorrhea she’d got from Cmdr. Edmund last year, just like half the bleeding village. She told me he’d promised to marry her, promised her money, freedom, love, and then he’d vanished into the Navy as soon as war broke out. I felt sorry for her, so I told her about his other women—the previous maid, the gardener’s wife, the Vicar’s daughter—all with the same condition. I treated them all, and Edmund, too, the disgusting beast. Elsie was the maid’s name. I think she was a bit unsettled that I told her everyone’s secrets, worried about her own, no doubt. But I told her it was because we were friends, her and I.

I smiled at her in a conspiratorial way, and took a glass of sherry from her tray. You never know when these people could come in handy.

I joined the condolence line behind gloomy Mrs. Tilling, nurse, choir member, and deplorable do-gooder. “He will always be remembered a hero,” she was saying with immense feeling. She is so excruciatingly well-meaning it makes me want to plunge her long face into a barrel of ale to perk her up.

“Never should have happened,” snapped Mrs. B., another member of the choir, all upright with traditional upper-class fervor, the insufferable next to the insupportable. Her full name is Mrs. Brampton-Boyd, and it exasperates her that everyone calls her Mrs. B.

As I came to the front, Mrs. Tilling sucked her cheeks in with annoyance. She’s never approved of me. I’ve stepped into her nursing territory, become too close to her village community. She may also have heard about some of my less orthodox practices. Or the payoffs.

“It’s so terribly tragic,” I said in my best voice. “He was taken so young.” Planting a closed-lipped smile on my face, I swiftly moved away to the side, standing alone, people glancing over from time to time to wonder what business I had there.

Just as I was thinking of opening a few doors and having a little nosy around, a hunched goblin of a butler directed me into the drawing room, where I was rather hoping to partake of some upper-class funeral fare but found myself alone in the big, still room.

The distant clang of someone banging out the Moonlight Sonata on a piano clunked uneasily around the ornate ceiling as I ran my fingers over the crusted gold brocade couch. Then I picked up a bronze sculpture of a naked Greek, heavy in my fist like a lethal weapon. The opulence of the room was dazzling, with the floor-length blue silk drapes, the majestic portraits of repulsive forebears, the porcelain statues, the antiquity, the inequity.

I couldn’t help thinking that if I had that sort of cash I’d do a much better job, cheery the place up a bit. It smelled like death, as old as the dead men on the walls, as fusty as the eyes of the disembodied deer watching from the oak-paneled wall, the settle of dust and ashes. I was reminded of the last war, the Great War, when all the money in the world couldn’t buy an escape from mortality. It was the one great leveler. Funny how things went back to normal again so quick—the rich in charge, us struggling below.

I pulled out my packet of fags and lit one, the sinewy smoke meandering into the drapes, making itself at home.

A gruff voice came from behind. “May I have a word?” A hand grasped my elbow, and before I knew it I was being pulled to a door at the back of the room. I turned to see the Brigadier, purple veins livid on his temples—he must have been at the Scotch late last night. He shoved me into a study, thick with male undercurrent, lots of leather chairs and piles of papers and files. The tang of cigars mingled unpleasantly with the dead-dog smell of rank breath.