Cottage Hospital

The big house was long galleried and secured a courtyard in its centre.  A nymph in a fountain raised its delicate head there, collecting moss in her draperies.  There was a domed clock tower above an arched gateway into the grounds, which was topped by a coquettish weathervane teased by the wind. The panelled corridors held the house memories in its portraits. Heirs had varied from cautious managers of estate timbers to profligate collectors, pleasure seekers who plundered that carefully stored legacy on their Grand Tours.  One Georgian day noble had fulfilled the improbable romantic dream by really marrying, against all counsel, a beautiful gypsy girl. He took offence at her being shunned by the county folk, shut up the big house and left to live elsewhere with his love, who had the last laugh on the gentry by outliving him by a decade as the very well provided for dowager.  Over the years, there were changes in line due to the haphazard fortunes of sons, daughters and inheritance, although you could never have known from the stilted faces in the oil paintings who had experienced what during their tenure.

Down in the kitchen, Winifred lit the range, rousing echoes of all the small maids who had previously knelt here rattling a poker in its grate, barely awake despite the cold and looking forward to their cup of warm, sweet milk which cook would give them once kettles were boiling on it.  But Winifred was the daughter of the house and these were different times. The house was again full of guests but they were staying in the state rooms downstairs, convalescing, if they could, from injuries of body and mind. Otherwise, this was mostly a house of women now; Winifred, mother, her young sister, Nora and the nurses.  Her elder brother, the present heir, was an officer still on the battlefield.

The more able bodied men enjoyed the grounds.  Winifred had been out yesterday, rowing and laughing on the ornamental lake with a man who had lost an eye, still bandaged over but so glad to have the use of his limbs that he couldn’t wait to get out there, exuberant as they went haphazardly about.  A line of men, swinging out together daily to practise on their crutches alongside encouraging staff helping them back to some kind of walking, cheerfully referred to themselves as the ‘Peg Leg Brigade’. The most often expressed feeling was one of gratitude for the unexpected surroundings and a grounded sense that you just had to get on with it.  Whatever future they had to deal with, they were alive, away from battle and young enough to look forward.  

A couple of local women came into the kitchen now, full of bustle to make the men’s breakfasts and Winifred took a tray up to one of the bedrooms, serving as their parlour today, to take hers with her mother and sister.  Her mother had been reluctant about this venture, in case taking in the wounded might somehow put Roger in danger at the Front but the belief that they were only taking in people ‘on the up’ as she put it, squared superstition about tempting fate with the sense of social obligation that Winifred, together with Dr Gilbey, their enlightened medical man, had encouraged her to honour.  Winifred's mother liked to call it 'our little cottage hospital' when explaining it, with a rather ashamed pride in her agreement to it, to her longstanding friends and neighbours, feeling this to be a more acceptable term than the institutional sounding 'convalescent home'.

A recently recovered arrival among the intake, a young pharmacist in civilian life, had offered his services in the makeshift household dispensary. Dr Gilbey was trying Stanley out in a humouring kind of way but Winifred didn’t think that, really, he entirely liked it. Dr Gilbey, just too old to be called up, enjoyed his role as the key male professional, Winifred thought, and so she put his reservations down to a reluctance about Stanley’s potential incursion into this status rather than anything else.

“You keep a tight hold on the house keys, Win”  Dr Gilbey had advised, “and don’t give Stanley a spare to the dispensary.  You’re in charge under me, remember. There’s a lot going on in these men’s minds after a time like that and you’ve all heard them screaming at night.” 

It was true that while daylight hours were active enough with the business of convalescence, there was a palpable difference by night.  Today, Winifred had promised to help people with bandaged hands or lost ones to write letters, one of her regular tasks. When she came downstairs again and picked up the morning post, she felt the familiar fear land but there was no dreaded missive about her brother.  It was with relief, then, that she went through to give the men what post had arrived for them and participate in the small pleasures of their news from home. The thoughts the men allowed themselves to share back drifted through her pen on to paper and often showed her that they would never have encountered a place like this in their own lives, describing the grounds and parkland with as much wonder as if they had found themselves in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  She sat for a while with Bert, who was trying to be solaced by a note sent to say that his sister had just had a baby but was struggling to come to terms with the now mirror visible damage, bandages removed, to his once familiar features, buried in a mess of scarring.

“It won’t be so bad once the swelling has gone down,” Winifred said, understanding this covert distress and offering one of the various platitudes that conversational exchanges fell into because the realities were too hard for either soldier or nurse to attempt to voice but they were words which nonetheless revealed the tender intuition at work between them all.

“Well, it was bad enough to start with, my mug” Bert rejoined jokingly, trying to rally.  “Now then, what kind of daft name has she come up with for the poor scrap?  Always had her notions, Mary” and they passed into easier territory.

After this, Winifred went upstairs again to join her mother and Nora in finishing their costumes for the fancy dress ‘bit of a song and dance’ party they had planned for later on, after a picnic outside for everybody.  Nora was to be a bottle of medicine with ‘Drink Me’ on it, like the one in Alice in Wonderland, with a hat for a cork, while mother and Winifred were to be Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurses.  Most of their efforts had been spent on making Nora’s outfit special.  

They had had other fine weather afternoons when they laid out picnics on the lawns and, if you half closed your eyes and watched people eating, you could almost imagine it was a carefree prewar gathering of young people, still whole limbed and unaware. Today, they had a local photographer coming. The picture that was taken later on that day, like a school photograph in arranged tiers, would show some men seated cross legged, others on chairs behind them and at the back, those standing.  Winifred had postcards of it made by the photographer for the men and so, besides the one which would join the portrait gallery in the panelled corridors, copies would find their way into individual albums, some heads bandaged, a crutch visible at one end of the standing line.

After the costumes were completed with their finishing touches, she went down to the dispensing room with Dr Gilbey’s prescriptive list in her hand.  Stanley was waiting by the locked door, displaying, only through a slight strain of expression, that she was late and that it bothered him. This was due, not to his having a punctilious nature but to an anxiety which easily threatened to get out of hand.  The ordered and strictly timed routines of the home kept at bay the underlying panic born of waiting in suspense, horribly, in the trenches and were particularly essential to Stanley’s equilibrium, as Winifred had realised. This stability was part of creating a recovery environment at the house which Dr Gilbey always emphasised the necessity for.  Stress was rising in Stanley as visibly as the water level in a glass.

“I’m sorry, Stanley,” said Winifred, “I didn’t mean to be late.”

With others, she might have put a hand on their arm as well but Stanley was one of those who was “rather locked in” mentally, as Dr Gilbey described it and she was cautious of doing anything too familiar, or perhaps unexpected.  Trauma ran so deep in the men that a vigilant respect was always required in relating to them because it was impossible to know what could now be damaging to the shattered nerves that were not necessarily exposed in their demeanour.

“It’s all right, Winifred” he answered but added, unable to help it rather than being rude, “ only, we do need to get on.”

“Yes. I’m sorry,” she said again, unlocking the door.  “Let’s get started.”

They worked together in a near silence, concentrated on the task of measuring out the correct doses into papers folded and carefully labelled for the correct recipient, conscientiously going down Dr Gilbey’s list and then making up bandage rolls and salve pots ready for dressings to be changed.  There was a sense of affinity between them when doing the task and in the little conversation they had while about it, touching mildly on what the future might hold for everyone when 'all this' was over.  There was no telling about it they agreed, except for the fact that this war would surely change everything.  A kind of surface tension overlaying their ordinary words together seemed always about to break and spill out into something more meaningful but it never quite did.

It was not, after she and Stanley had finished in the dispensary, a perfect picnic day.  The weathervane, poised for a while in wistful sunshine while they ate outside and fooled about at a few games on the grass before being set up in line for the picture by the photographer, began to spin in a sullen wind which also lifted flaps of hair, caught in that instant by the shutter frame and after the photograph was done, drove them all back inside.  Having returned indoors, some people rested, others helped with getting the dining room ready for the fancy dress ‘midsummer ball’ as they had titled it, although neither word was an accurate description. This created plenty of lively activity and opportunities for flirtatious exchanges between the nurses and the men. Winifred, about to run back up for the room banner she and Nora had made for the occasion, encountered Stanley at the turn of the stairs.  There was another of the moments between them that hovered on the brink of a real exchange but instead, he only asked if he could assist with anything and she said yes, he could help her with the banner. He looked up at it after hammering it into place with a nod of satisfaction that he had done something useful and because, she felt, it was another thing they had done together. Then she left him again to go up and get changed with an excited Nora, who was busily in the midst of everything she could be. 

When she thought about the evening later, Winifred was sure she had seen Stanley mingling with the convivial party group and, as she was taking turns with mother at the piano to play tunes for some dancing and for songs around it, had a clear recollection of him kindly taking the floor with Nora, who, at twelve, was rather on the sidelines of this opportunity for some adult intimacy. It had made Winifred smile to see their quietly serious partnership twirling amongst the costumed dancers, wheelchairs and all, where a madcap jollity was being kept up to overcome physical difficulties between partners.  

When Winifred was saying her own farewells to this house in her later years, she would look at the photograph taken on that afternoon hanging on the gallery wall and pick out Stanley’s face on it, grave in repose amongst the others, some smiling, some not, some caught looking aside rather than to camera.   Winifred remembered it was that night, after a pleasant day and social evening, that with an accumulation of medicines she had never seen him secrete, he had attempted to permanently avoid what might happen to him before the postwar fancied future they had discussed in the dispensary, that of being sent back to the Front because he had not been too physically badly wounded to return to it.  He didn’t die but was found in time by Dr Gilbey on his night round.  

It was Winifred the doctor quietly roused to act secretly with him in the necessities of reviving Stanley and in a pact to get Stanley, with his own agreement, out to a place of safety to avoid him being in danger of prison for attempted suicide, or worse, tried for desertion, by having him certified as insane.  Things were all hushed up because they too would be culpable for giving him access to the dispensary. The asylum would keep him from the Front. Winifred had always wondered if they had done the right thing, even though it seemed the only thing to do then for him but Dr Gilbey would never tell her where Stanley had gone.  It was best, he said, when she raised it, that she didn’t know any more. Stanley would be able to live his life outside again in time, was all that he would say. The links between Winifred and Dr Gilbey, then, were strengthened as the tenuous ones with Stanley vanished. It seemed natural for them to end eventually, as they did, some years later,  in their marriage.

Winifred’s own family’s time at the house passed, too.  Her brother, Roger, who survived the war, lived there later with his wife and children.  It was Roger’s son who passed the now socially defunct and expensive estate to the National Trust, having left it again closed and uninhabited for years but with its collected contents waiting to be enjoyed by later visitors.  Along with the painted portraits, they would browse that photograph of the men in the big house’s convalescent home days and read the letters on display downstairs which some of them had sent afterwards, expressing grateful thanks.  Nobody studying Stanley’s pictured face would be able to tell his story from it, or read what plans lay behind his expression. Winifred was probably the last person to look at it who did.

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