GEORGE tried not to cry out when he heard the rap at the door. He was hiding under the bedclothes, a pillow wedged either side of his head. He was in one of the spare rooms, where he’d had the bed made up. Even so, he could still hear the steady tramp of feet along the corridor. It was always worse in the afternoons, he’d noticed.
Why wouldn’t they leave him alone, those blurry ghosts from the trenches? Endlessly they moved through the house, gazing around them like zombies, unaware that death had already claimed them, not realising that they were trapped in Purgatory as a punishment for the part they’d played in that awful conflict. And they weren’t just English victims, either. George had distinctly caught the mumble of foreign tongues – some German ones, even!
Early on, when George had first become conscious of their presence, he found that they, by contrast, were totally unaware of his existence. He could walk straight through them. They were like wraiths, shadows, dispersing at his approach. He had also thought they were everywhere (after discovering some in his personal water closet), but had later located a few boltholes, of which this bedroom was one. And, apart from the occasional rattle, or rap – the sort of thing you might hear at spiritualist gatherings – they left him alone.
He still could not believe, though, that the rest of the family were deaf to this marauding army. Then again, most of the time the family also seemed oblivious to the servants’ presence. Lying there, George recalled the time when, as children, they were all bouncing up and down on this very bed, deliberately taunting the maid who was trying to change the sheets. He winced at the memory, but then he too forgot the poor woman as he recalled bouncing alongside his brothers and sisters, especially those that were no longer with them, like big brother Thomas.
George – “Baby” to his siblings – had been the youngest of ten children, so had been particularly pampered. His childhood had been one, long, idyllic summer: of boating, cricket, and parties – endless parties. In those days the house was always full of life. There was music and games, carriages queuing outside and servants forever bustling around. He recalled running up and down the long gallery, weaving his way through the guests standing around in their finery, and, much to their amusement, being chased by that favourite brother of his.
Poor Tommy, who, had he lived, would now be the 7th Viscount. But, tragically, he had bought it at the Battle of Loos in 1915, where George himself had been wounded. They all told George he was the lucky one, but it certainly didn’t feel that way now, living on in this mausoleum, with only these ghosts surrounding him.
That wasn’t quite fair: his two older sisters and one brother, Arthur, were also living there and looked after him as best they could. They were very proud of their Baby, who had himself been awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. For George himself, though, the whole military exercise now seemed a futile disaster. Life in the trenches had changed him profoundly, making him aware for the first time of the lives of your ordinary Tommy (he gave a rare smile, suddenly conscious of that democratic link).
All those undernourished men who’d served under him. He could see them now, grinning at him through a fug of cigarette smoke, their smiles honest but disquieting with those mouths gaping like neglected graveyards, all decay and broken stumps.
Only Wilfred Owen’s poetry, which had just been published, gave George any succour these days, inspiring him, too, to try to write about those dark experiences. He was told it could be therapeutic. But the rhythms of his verse, he found, were continually disrupted by the hordes trooping through his family home – and especially in the afternoons.
In the trenches, by contrast, the afternoons had generally been the most peaceful time, the period before the dreaded “stand to” at dusk, when attacks were imminent. Nights, too, were a frenzy of activity: digging new trenches, repairing the barbed wire. Even now, George could not rest at nights. He would wander the house, checking its defences, auditing their supplies.
He knew the family thought him barmy – “shell shocked”, as they termed it. But it still perplexed him that none of them could hear the relentless tread of these walking dead. Perhaps it was only after you yourself had been so close to death that you became attuned to these souls in Limbo. He was thankful, nevertheless, that he was at least intact in body, unlike so many of his surviving friends, disfigured beyond recognition: Bertie Carter-Wallace with his prosthetic nose; Charles Carruthers, the entire right half of his face blown off.
George often felt ashamed for being so self-centred. “Pull yourself together,” Arthur was always telling him. “Occupy yourself!” But what hadn’t he tried? Gardening, basket-weaving, painting, pottery, writing… How many nursing homes had he been in, trying to find something to settle those “nerves” of his? Medication, recreational activities, rest cures – it was all such a waste of time.
Just then, there was another thump at the door, and this, like a starter’s pistol, seemed to galvanise George. He stood up, resolute. During the war, he had occasionally seen others react in this way. In those days, he had been the spectator, watching, astonished, as a lone soldier, of his own volition, would suddenly decide to go over the top.
Somewhat deferentially, the local newspaper simply recorded that twenty-four-year-old George Moreton-Crumby, a decorated war veteran, had accidentally fallen from a third-storey window at the family’s stately home.
Some forty years later, the same paper would report that the family’s magnificent home had been gifted to the National Trust by its last surviving member, Arthur Reginald Moreton-Crumby. And, as part of their tour, visitors to the property would have the spot in the courtyard pointed out where George had plunged to his death in 1920. Those more psychically inclined would claim that they could still detect the aura of his unhappy spirit.
As for Baby’s favoured room, it was not open to visitors. Some, attracted precisely because of the room’s dark past, were disappointed, and the occasional tourist, going by, couldn’t resist trying the door, rattling the handle or rapping on the panelling, frustrated at the family’s stipulation that this room should remain forever closed, in order that their dear brother might, finally, rest in peace.