It was spring when I first laid eyes upon him in that way, this particular way, his oat blonde hair glowing in the sun like honey swept back in a neat wave, trimmed tightly down the gentle slope of his strong neck until it reached the crisp white of his collar. Those deep russet eyes, lowered at their outer corners, flicking between soft faces and lacy dresses; his pearly smile, those delicately carved features of David unbound by stone, had the village girls swarming like hopping finches.
I had seen James Everleigh like one sees a ghost since I was a boy, from the dusky framed window of the bakery at the centre of our village as he passed by. It was as though he was the subject of a painting I could only enter in my most fantastical dreams, subdued in waking life to mere observance. Some days looking up from the dough my father gave me, I half expected to see him clothed in white crowned with a halo, followed by some vast feathered wings, floating across the cobblestones in my windowed work of art. And all the while, I was begging for this portrait of a young man to step forth into my realm; perhaps if I was lucky, I would be offered a chance to be allowed inside the recesses of that frame which had trapped him for so long, to see him in the flesh.
And that lovely spring day was the first time I saw him outside the captivity of his own canvas. The lush sage walls around us, towering oaks speckling light upon the grass, blushes of peonies and hollyhocks, ivory washed tents and trays of silver, tiny china cups and dainty cakes, alabaster suits and stark white gloves: at long last, his painting had consumed me, made me a part of it. And from the moment his eyes locked with mine across the Earl’s garden, my life unfolded into an enchanting, dreamlike haze.
He perfumed the air with the fragrant scent of roses as though he carried some hidden bouquet; the raw freshness of an entire garden somehow embedded itself into his skin. And it was roses all the same which soon guarded us as we sat for hours amid the leafy sanctuary on a fountain, whose lily-padded water rippled in crisp rings while dappled sunbeams sprinkled us with bronze. His gentle voice was warm as day, tender and smiling, quite apart from the ostentatious prattling far beyond the foliage.
It was here when we fell in love.
Like the painter enraptured by the divine subject of his canvas, I fell deep into the depths of his eyes; swept away in the brush strokes of his hair; the earthly, delicate March palette that was James Everleigh. Feathery touches across my fingers linger still, the tap of his knee ebbing at my own, the way our heads drew closer as we laughed until I could feel the soft wisps of his locks brush mine. Steadily we grew quiet, allowing a silence to settle between us like that of a petal floating down.
My lashes fell by the gentle puff of warmth against my cheek; the last thing captured before that moment was nothing but the profound brilliance of a young man and the glow of his enamored face surrounded by a garden which remains to me so vast and enigmatic, I could only think to close my eyes to feel what I simply could not describe. There, far from the village party, I felt the tranquil lips of James Everleigh against mine. And never again was I to forget them.
Days later, I learned the flowery scent anchored to his clothes pursued him from the flower shop at which he was employed. I visited him there, and James came to visit me, quite to my mystified wonder as he deviated from his usual window-framed path and entered the bakery. I felt a sense of privilege to be in his midst. Soon, it was just about every day.
We would often take long walks down the rivering white road, columned with trees woven above our heads to the lake not far from the village. Cascading each other in magnificent splashes of water radiant against the summer sun, we would swim for hours in the water within the arborary refuge, between the banks overflowing with green, the canopies teeming with birdsong. With the water gently lapping at our smooth, glistening chests with so little space between us, our curious hands would explore the other’s skin as if in the dark, breath wavering, captivated by the sheer presence of one another. And presiding above this haven was a tremendous hawthorn, under whose braided trunk James and I sat against, gazing up at the great, verdant branches meandering towards the sky. Here, I would nestle myself under his arm so he could lay kisses to my cheek. Other times we read aloud from books, imagining what it would be like to have a place of our own; even once or twice I wove him a crown of the fresh white blossoms.
This tree became a place of solace for us both, far away from the inescapable confines of provincial society, blind to the threats of ignominy. Here nature forced no such commandments, asked nothing of us, provided shelter from the outside world with God the only witness to my worship of the saint whom I deemed most worthy of my devotion. From the leaves drawn in light, to the dimples in the soft white fabric of James’s shirt, nature itself was magnified the way I picture it would appear before one dies; this amplification to all the details of existence.
Sometimes, I would say, “James, what will happen? As we grow old, how shall we live? Will I be forced to leave you?” for the thought worried me greatly.
And James would always say, “This world brought us together, and it shall not tear us apart. But if it does, I promise I will follow you and in every life, I will love you, again and again, until the world will let me call you mine.” And he would place a kiss upon my temple, the roses instilled within his skin intoxicating me, subduing all uncertainty.
Then the war came.
I remember the world fragmented piece by piece, falling away like brittle and rusted leaves. I felt I clung to James harder then, while slate grey suits turned to rough khaki wool as the beast of war lured young men marked by tall tales to its claws; flashy scales and hell-red eyes, an inferno erupting seven levels down. Flags flapped on every corner, paste stuck the horrid words to every stone and day by day, we watched them all march blind away. James and I vowed at our hawthorn never to join, my slender form encircled by his embrace shrouded by the old tree, vainly hoping nature might keep the beast at bay
It did not.
That November, we were whisked away in carriages packed full of village boys barely outside their schools or their mother’s arms, faces deepened from laughter as incessant as the engine roaring down the tracks. Under a bag I held James’s hand, the passengers all too careless to see as I watched our village shrink further and further behind me.
Then came the camp, the sergeants so severe, driving their lessons deep within our brains, screaming on while the bayonets plunged deep within the burlap, the stultifying marches wearing down the soles of my cumbersome army boots. Our bodies ached each night they grew stronger and leaner. Even the hand of James with which my fingers were intertwined, bridged across the space between our beds at night, felt calloused and rough. And though his body grew hard and sinewy, his mild eyes persisted in their compassion. One could always recognise the kindness still laden in his smile no matter how much of that ardent youth was stripped from us during those habitual, dreary days.
It wasn’t long until those jagged pewter waves embossed with foam thrashed against the sides of the vessel slicing through the sea, England now a distant memory lost somewhere in the phantasmal fog beyond the rails.
And despite knowing of our destination – James was so beautiful then – the way his hair whipped errantly about his face turned towards the bow, the iron sky billowing behind his finely traced, fair silhouette.
As the water gave way to sand, the land dipped to drab fields and tiny stone cottages peppered across the countryside. James and I rocked and swayed with the other boys venturing down the uneven road in the back of the ragged little military motorcar on our way to a camp not far behind the frontlines. It was there when I saw for the first time the devastation ravaging the landscape, torn asunder from the craters impaled into the flesh of the earth, the trees like spindly, black veins jutting up through the mud devoid of all life; my stomach became twisted as another portion of my reality, painted in the works of James and our time in the village in a dizzy spell of green and burning white, succumbed to disillusion. It felt as though my nightmares had bled from my mind, having crept along the barren terrain and consumed all in its path.
No amount of our singing and comradery could account for the horror we could feel rising like the tide, growing closer each night. Not even the bare, knotted tree James and I found ourselves under from time to time could offer the same sort of security as our mighty hawthorn skirting the edge of the corrugated lake, its naked arms powerless to the rain which would pour down upon us. In a feverish yet sweet attempt to recompose familiarity, James and I wrote each other letters which we read aloud to the boys sometimes, saying they were from girls back home. Those nights were always enjoyable around the fire, the men hooting and whistling after we finished, telling us how lucky those girls were to have us.
How different would it be, we wondered, holding each other’s gaze through the whipping flames, if they knew the writers of such things sat across from one another? How happy for us would they be then?
Suddenly, a rhythmic stampede of feet. A long streak of khaki, dotted by ashen, metal olive. To the ears of birds there came songs never heard in this part of nature, untouched by the hands of man and were now echoing down the sombre road like the melody of ghosts.
Oh how my memory muddied like the maze of trenches we lined, backs to the sludgy walls, James’s clammy hand gripping mine all out in the open, bits of dirt already freckled on his cheeks, his pitch brown eyes boring into my own. He said not a word, but I could tell what he was thinking for he squeezed my hand once, then twice. I clenched my jaw, spit becoming thick, my throat made tight as if by a stone. Our helmets softly pinged together in these few beats of stillness.
Then came the solitary whistle, piercing the air with a fearsome shrillness. And in one swift movement, we were clambering up the ladders to the hellacious sounds of rapping guns scything down our lines, the singing shells bulleting through the air and striking down against the black earth in monstrous blows of fiery smoke.
But my ears rang terribly as if I were underwater, drowning in soil and the grey, heavy fumes lurking along the desolate stretch of mud. With my weapon raised, I found nowhere to shoot, the strange fog having engulfed the battlefield and beside me, boys dropped liked flies with a spray of crimson. Everything seemed… slow… and languid, sounds and shouts all muddled together in one eerie, capricious roar. And as I dragged my face to look at James beside me, I saw he was yelling, about what, I didn’t know. Taking his rifle in one hand, he trudged towards me, grabbing clumsily at my side during which I dropped my gun, helplessly trying to make sense of his words.
He yanked up the bag at my side, fumbling for the buttons. Only then, as my eyelids pulled back in horror was I finally able to make sense of one dreaded word.
James crumpled to the ground like a ragdoll, his blood splattering against my discoloured webbing, and I lurched for him, one hand still clutching my tube helmet now sticking to my palm, the other frantically grasping for my love writhing in the mud. I could see the hole in his hand, the wound in his leg, caught in the tail end of machine gun fire. His name escaped in one sharp cry before I too was ripping the mask from his own bag as I began to cough and hack, my eyes growing blurry, my head spinning from fear, his hands still weakly struggling to fit the cloth over my head, and my hands trying to do the same for him. And suddenly, all at once, I collapsed, fainted, shadows beginning to swirl around us.
And a mantling silence consumed me.
I remember waking up to darkness, feeling my eyes open, something soft against my hands and my head. Gradually sounds came back; the gentle voices of women, the murmurs of men. But the blackness sent me into a fit of terror and I began to shout out, shrieking first for James, floundering atop the cushioned surface, until a hand caught my own.
“Victor!” it said breathlessly. It squeezed my hand once, then twice.
“James,” I mumbled, my voice breaking.
Carefully, I took hold of his arm, my feet just grazing the cold, stone floor, and wrapped my heavy arms around him, felt the heat of his chest and his warm breath.
I knew I was alive then, for I could feel hot tears pouring out of my eyes and smearing under whatever cloth was wrapped across my face, the thump of his heart drumming firmly against my ear.
Days later, the two of us were discharged from the hospital all the way back to England, hands guiding me this way and that, but I always knew James was near for I knew his own touch against the small of my back. Of course my family was happy to hear I was home, safe and sound, though blinded. My sight never did return. It was recommended I stay with my aunt, my uncle having died in the Boer War, and was told she would take good care of me. But I wanted nothing more than James.
And so my wish was granted. My family purchased a tiny cottage near the lake for the both of us—minus the innumerable visits from my mother and sister—the almighty hawthorn just visible from the front door, or so James described to me. He described everything to me, from our home to trees, while seasons passed us by. The trickling of rain beading down the windows; the colours of flowers he would bring home from the shop, that scent of roses following him again. And as I grew older, he described more things to me. How London changed, how the world was changing, and how it was remembering the boys who never returned home. But I knew of the things he wasn’t describing to me, too. About the people who stared at me and those like me, marked by the consequences of war, with antipathy as I walked blindly through city streets. About people bloodthirsty for revenge against those who stole their sons… and about the tears in his eyes when we would lay in bed at night, saddened I could no longer see the gorgeousness of life. But with a strangled smile, trying to see the light in all, I would always tell him the world seemed all the more beautiful with him to describe it to me, how love felt all the more powerful when one could not see, for the most profound things in life can only be experienced when closing one’s eyes.
And one spring evening, just before the sun was set, James and I decided to have a walk to our hawthorn tree, as we did less those days in my later age. So I took up my cane in one hand, my other in his, and we walked down that rivering white road columned with trees woven above our heads.
And upon reaching the tree, he helped guide me down to the plush grass beneath those twisting braches now blooming with the fresh white blossoms. I leaned my head against his shoulder so he could press a kiss to my temple.
As I closed my eyes, I wept at the image of his handsome face in my memory, still surrounded by the garden, the one whose light speckled face laughed with me among the roses, whose face I always remembered the same way. The one whose face never changed, the one who never grew old. Whose body I was forced to leave an ocean away.
And as my frail, quivering fingers traveled down his body, tracing over his words from all those years ago embedded deep within the stone set between the aged roots of the old hawthorn winding through the grass, I could feel his soft lips fade from my skin.
“I promise too,” I whispered.
And a mantling silence consumed me.
Alastair F. Brady is an aspiring illustrator and writer of early 20th century fiction for adolescents and adults and has had numerous recognitions for his moving and imaginative pieces of art and literature. Alastair is currently working on a full length novel as well as illustrated young adults’ books. He is also a WWI re-enactor and freelance photographer.
He can be found on Instagram at @alastaircreates.