The accident with Harry’s old grey Fergie tractor might have gone unnoticed in the small village but for the earwigging of a certain Widow Jessop. The population of Helensville was the hub of her gossiping life.
Harry was a hero of sorts, even though he’d only saved himself and the collie dog. May Jessop, hospital domestic and tea lady, overheard Harry telling the story to the nurse in the little cottage hospital. May had no qualms about confidentiality. She’d have worked for nothing given the choice of first hand gossip or paying the bills on time.
‘So, Cecilia,’ she said to her lifelong friend. ‘I’ve never heard him speak more than a grunt before, and there he was talking like one of those actors on stage, you know where they talk for ages about nothing?’
‘Monologue,’ Cecilia answered, unusually short of words.
‘Yes, chatting away like they were old friends. It’s the drugs, you hear some funny things when they’re coming out of anaesthetic. It’s like a truth serum. Nurse Mason, little upstart, sat on the bed. On the bed! Well, they get in trouble for that you know. So, Harry is running off at the mouth, telling her about the dog. Now I don’t put much store in people who have dogs,’ she paused, looking at the growling Chihuahua on Miss Cecilia Johnsons lap. ‘It’s like they can’t make proper relationships with people.’
‘Harry Wiley is a loner,’ said Cecilia, shrugging off the familiar insult. ‘Has been ever since his brother died.’
‘Well, this was about the dog more than anything. The tractor overturned on a hill and rolled on top of the dog. So Harry lifted the side up and the dog crawled out. Its leg was injured but it was still walking on it. You see, the tractor was so heavy and unbalanced that Harry lost his grip and the wheel, the big one on the back, landed fair across the top of his left leg. Said he heard it snap!’
May was warming up now, and once she started a story Cecilia knew it’d take a bomb to stop her.
‘So, he’s crying out for help, but he was in the back paddock so of course no-one heard him. Said he passed out and came round a few times. Next thing he knows Charlie Alsop is there with his own tractor and oh boy, when the wheel was lifted off, all the blood rushed to the break and there was a pool of it. Swimming in it according to Charlie. I heard Charlie telling Sophie Mink in the cafeteria. Any way Charlie tied his belt around Harry’s leg. Nearly lost his duds! Harry apologized for swearing even through the pain!’
‘How did Charlie know Harry was in trouble?’ Cecilia felt there was something missing in the re-telling.
‘Well, you’ll never believe it! That dog went to Charlie’s farm, to where he was working and just barked until Charlie followed him. Just like Lassie!’
‘Harry’s collie is black and white, not like lassie at all!’ said Cecilia, a stickler for facts.
May didn’t stop to argue. She had a story to tell.
‘He told Nurse Mason that his brother George died of a broken leg in the War,’ said May.
‘Yes, his brother did die in the war, they were in the same Platoon, in Palestine, in 1948,’ said Cecilia.
‘How could you know that Cessie?’
‘I take notice,’ she said simply. ‘I listen and I remember dates and places, that’s all,’ she said. ‘And, well, Richard Willis told me.’
‘Why would anyone tell you anything?’
‘Yes, well Harry’s brother did die of a broken leg!’ Cecilia was assertive for a change. She was on winning ground here. ‘I know what happened because Richard wrote to me, he was there too. You remember, Richard Harris from the hills outside town,’ said Cecilia.
‘Oh, I never believed you got a letter from him at all! You just made it up because all the rest of us girls had boyfriends – except you,’ scoffed May.
Indignant, Cecilia went hunting for the letter. Mumbling and groping through a sideboard drawer, she came up with a small stack of letters, tied with blue ribbon. She rifled through them and pulled one out. She sat down on the edge of the lounge and read aloud.
‘Dearest Cessie, I have sad news to tell you. Our dear friend George was wounded in action and won’t be returning home. His left leg was too damaged by the accident and he passed away quietly. Harry is fit and well and we will be home by boat with the next Platoon to be discharged. It is a terrible thing for dear George to pass away when one week later the war has come to an end. With fondness, Richard.’
Cecilia stopped reading to wipe her nose.
‘So you see, May, Richard did write to me! And he signed it with ‘fondness.’ That means something for sure,’ she sighed remembering the handsome boy, some thirty years ago.
‘Ha, so what happened when Richard came back? In a month he’d married that whiny Louise Sawyer! Blonde and buxom and up the duff, and not half a brain between her ears!’ huffed May.
‘Remember how George loved the farm and Harry wanted to get out and go to the city? Odd how Harry ended up on the farm. Maybe it’s a twin thing where he just took over for his brother?’
‘There wasn’t a funeral for George was there?’ asked May.
‘No, no. I thought it was odd at the time of George and Richard returning, but the family must have held a service somewhere else.’
Thoughtful now, Cecilia weighed in.
‘What if, I know this sounds ridiculous, but what if George was still alive?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Cessie! Richard said George was dead in the letter.’
‘But no-one here saw his body, or his grave. It doesn’t make sense that a little dog could find Charlie working in the middle of a paddock miles away and get him to go to Harry’s rescue in another paddock in the middle of nowhere. I suspect it was another human who went for help.’
May looked thoughtfully at her lifelong friend. Cecilia was not one for exaggeration. Was there something to this mystery? Concentrating hard, she recalled more of the discussion at the hospital between Harry and the nurse.
‘You have a compound fracture of your left leg. It will take longer to heal than a simple fracture.’ The nurse held a treatment chart and was reading the doctors instructions. ‘Have you someone at home to look after you? You will need several weeks of rest to recuperate.’
‘Oh yes, Sister, I’ll be fine. I have help on hand.’ Harry was firm. ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘So, yes you’re right, he did say he had help.’
‘What does it mean? Do you think George is alive?’
‘And living at the farm!’ said May. ‘It was George who helped Harry get the tractor off, with help from their neighbour Charlie Alsop!’
Cecilia poured sweet sherry for them both.
‘I know it’s not six pm yet, but I think we can do with this.’
* * * * *
‘Get down, here, hide with me,’ ordered May, her dress pulling against her ample backside as she crouched behind the stone fence. ‘We only need a peek, if he’s there we’ll just leave them to it.’
‘No, they might need our help,’ said Cecilia, slim and very comfortable in her velour olive green track suit. Keen as she was to sort the truth she was also worried about the consequences if they got caught snooping.
‘What would keep a grown man inside a house for so many years?’ May pondered.
Just then a door slammed and there was what looked like the back of Harry, walking to the chook pen with a dish of scraps. And not a hint of a wobble in his gait. The women looked at each other, nodded decisively and went around the fence, through a back gate and peered into the house.
‘There! There he is,’ hissed May. ‘We were right, look he’s got his foot up.’
‘There are two men here, are you sure it’s Harry inside? Could it be Harry outside?’
The tap on Mays shoulder was firm, insistent. She turned, flushed red and stammered … ‘We, we wanted to see, to see …’
‘Inside now, whoever you are!’
Ordered like that the women complied as they were frog marched into the lounge room where to all intents Harry sat with his leg elevated.
May looked from one to the other. Identical twins, and she wasn’t sure who was who. The Harry on the couch spoke first.
‘May Jessop, trust it to be you who finds us out! I suppose now you’ll be telling everyone in town about this.’ He was defeated, head hanging, rubbing his face. He looked at his brother. ‘What do you want to do?’ he asked him.
As May studied the two men she could see the resemblance but also something different about them. The standing brother was thinner, with a gaunt face and was that scarring around his neck? Was that a burn? She looked more closely, and saw the same damage across the back of his hands. They were crippled by the scarring that drew the skin tight across the knuckles so he couldn’t completely open his hands. And there, as he turned, she saw the same scarring travelling across the back of his shoulders under his low necked T-shirt. Bright pink, shiny scars.
For once in her life May was speechless. Shocked, she sank heavily into an armchair. Cecilia as usual sat on the arm. She held May’s hand.
The man standing then sat in the remaining armchair, making a triangle with the low table between them. They were all watching and looking around at each other. The silence in the room was only broken by the breath they each took in and out. They were wordless for some time.
‘Who are you?’ Thin Harry asked, looking at Cecilia.
She introduced herself, voice squeaking and looking to May for support. May took over.
‘Well, you lot involved us when Richard Willis singled Cessie out to send the letter notifying us of George’s death … Well which one of you is George anyway?’
She had rightly guessed George was the scarred man.
‘We can leave now if you like. Lips sealed,’ said May.
‘You’re the town gossip, even I know that!’ said the real Harry.
‘Or you could tell us what happened,’ said Cecilia, softly looking George in the eye.
The men looked at each other. Nodded. Harry started off.
‘George was really badly burned by mustard gas and I was told he’d not survive. I had to leave him in Palestine. I came back with Richard and told everyone George didn’t make it, which was the truth as I knew it then.’
‘Yeah, it was nearly a year later that Harry got my letter. I was on my way home!’
‘You’ve heard of shell shock, right?’ Harry asked the ladies.
‘Oh yes,’ said May. ‘I’ve seen some things up at the hospital.’
‘Isn’t that something soldiers never recover from?’ asked Cecilia. ‘Is that what happened to you, George?’
‘Yes, as well as being a cripple from the scars.’ He held out his hands. ‘I couldn’t bear to face people so I’ve hidden out here the whole time. Only Doc Newsome comes to see me here, and of course Charlie Alsop knows.’
Harry was surprised at George opening up like that, both brothers hardly ever spoke except to each other and never to strangers.
‘I had some reason to stay here secretly, but I’m not sure what it was now. I’d been afraid of ridicule I suppose,’ he said quietly, rubbing his scarred shoulders with crossed arms as if to warm himself.
‘You’ll get none of that from us, will he May? We’re proud of your efforts in the War. Both of you. We’ll keep your secret, but I think it’s a shame you’ve missed out on so much.’
The women said their goodbyes and left. They hesitated outside. May put her ear to the door.
‘Well, mate, maybe it’s time to start afresh. That Cecilia seems a lovely woman. Married is she?’ asked George.
‘Ha, ha, you’re back from the dead alright!’ laughed his brother.
Cecilia smiled all the way home.