Fiction

A letter from a girl called Elsie

JOHN WATSON January 1 1951
Fiction

A letter from a girl called Elsie

JOHN WATSON January 1 1951

COME IN.” 

The door opened and the young man came slowly into the room. The doctor looked hard at him, then glanced at his appointment book. Bernard Howell. A queer fish, this one. In 20 years of practice the doctor had never run across a man so young in quite this state.

And he was worse; more sleepless nights—you could tell by the pallor of the cheeks, the hot brilliance of the eyes.

“Afternoon, doctor. Not late, am I?”

No quaver in the voice, anyway. So far so good. Well, the hysterics would come later, when the probing began to go deep.

“Not more than a minute or two. Can’t ask for better than that.”

They mentioned the weather, Russia, the Bomb. 

“Well,” the doctor ventured, “are you feeling any better?”

“No, not a bit. Worse, if anything. No reflection on you, of course. We can’t expect miracles yet, can we?”

“My dear boy, we can’t expect miracles—ever. Anyway, we’ve only just begun.”

“Of course, I know. Funny, it seems so long ago that I came here the first time.”

“It always does. You see, you’ve done a lot of talking since then, relived a good part of your life. No wonder it seems long.”

“The trouble is, I’ve started to—to waver. You know, before I got here I’d almost decided not to come at all. Beginning to be afraid, I guess. Nothing worse than being afraid of yourself, is there?” He was being deliberately calm.

“Same routine as before, I suppose? Relax and talk . . . tell the whole truth and nothing but ...” 

“That’s about it. Whenever you’re ready.”

The doctor got up and pulled the curtains across the window.

THE WHOLE truth. What a terrible thing to ask of a man. Has that ever occurred to you, doctor? No, I suppose not. Mephistopheles bargaining for the souls of men. But you’ve not got a bargain this time, doctor. Shoddy merchandise. What’ll you give for one soul, slightly used, a bit tarnished around the edges?”

“I might give you peace of mind, Howell, if you’re prepared to—”

“Peace of mind! Do you think you can? Do you really believe that you, a common pill-pusher, a—. I’m sorry. I apologize. I shouldn’t have said that.' It’s only that I’m so . . . what’s that? Say whatever I like? Yes, of course. Yes, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? The therapy of confession.

“Well, let’s get on with it. Where did we leave off? Oh yes, I remember. I was telling you about my first job in the bank, and the awful mess I made of it. Must have made me seem like a bit of a fool. Tell me, do I strike you as being . . . Well, never mind. I’m afraid today may be even worse. To tell you the truth, I’ve been dreading this, but I must be honest, mustn’t I? No point in paying you fees if I’m not prepared to be honest. But it’s not easy, doctor —it’s not easy at all. I know it, won’t be today. You see, today I’ve got to tell you the Story of Murchison’s Letter.

“Seems to call out for capital letters, doesn’t it? No pun intended, doctor. No pun intended . . .”

HOW difficult it is to start a story. It’s so hard to know where any story beings.

This one, I suppose, really began on the 27th of July, 1942. On that memorable day it was a Monday, I remember, and stifling hot I did a very curious thing; a curious thing for me, that is, though. Heaven knows, plenty of other young men were doing it. On the 27th of July I joined the Army.

I wish I could be perfectly sure that I was being honest when I try to tell you why I did it. I was never what you could call “patriotic”; quite the reverse, in fact. I admit I did genuinely hate the Germans, especially for the way they treated people like me— people who were a little different from the herd. But that wasn’t the real reason, I know that. There was something else, some reason more cogent and compelling. You see, in spite of my little eccentricities—which I confess I used to cultivate pretty carefully — there were times when I actually yearned to be more like other people. I thought if I could be more like them, they might learn to accept me. I might even make some friends.

I used to try to copy other people— people whose success or popularity I envied—but it never quite came off. More often than not I made a fool of myself and in the end I just had to admit that I really wasn’t quite like other people.

The trouble was, you see, that other people couldn’t seem to understand why I wasn’t like them. I could never make them see that my friendship was something worth having from their point of view. They used to laugh at me when I tried to tell them things I thought they should have known. They used to laugh at me as if I were no better than they were.

Of course I hated the army, every soul-destroying minute of it. The stupid, senseless discipline; the incessant bullying and badgering from blockheads who didn’t have half my brains. But I stuck it out. I worked hard and I kept my mouth shut, because I knew what I wanted. From my first day in the Army I knew I had to have a commission. Nothing else would do. I had the brains and the education, and I knew a couple of people who could be counted on to pull the proper strings. I used them all and in the end it worked.

I think I made a pretty capable officer. I looked after my men— though none of them appreciated how much I did for them—I did what my superiors told me and I behaved like a gentleman in the mess. I did all the things I ought to have done and none of the things I ought not; and I didn’t make a single friend. They wouldn’t be my friends—not one of them would. Wallowing in their sodden mediocrity they scorned every offer of friendship I made them. And behind my back they used to laugh at me. They nicknamed me “The Genius” and they used to laugh . . . my God, how they used to laugh . . .

I’m sorry. I shouldn’t get worked up like that. You must think I’m very stupid. I’m not really, though; just sensitive more sensitive than I ought to be. No, no thanks. I’m all right now. I’d better get on.

I got to England eventually. Not till ’44 but in plenty of time for D-day. But then I escaped that, too. I got a job instructing at an Army school, so I missed the blood-bath. I can’t truthfully say I was sorry; too many of the men I knew finished up on those windy beaches.

It wasn’t until the winter, the last winter of the War, that they sent me over. Scraping the bottom of the barrel, I suppose. But there I was at last, with a platoon of my own and a real job to do. It should have been a pretty thrilling experience; for anyone else it would have been, I guess, but not for me.

You see, by this time the others were all “old sweats” and I was a raw recruit. And, worst of all, I was—I was just myself. One thing I know for sure, doctor—hell itself won’t be any worse than the first two weeks I spent in Holland.

And then I met Murchison and everything was different.

I remember I was sitting in my billet, reading a book. We were leaving for the front that night and I was feeling lonely and afraid. It was cold and I was shivering and sweating at the same time. Outside it was snowing; a dirty, sodden snow that caked on the windowpanes and made the room darker and more gloomy than ever.

It was deathly quiet, even the outdoor noises muffled by the snow —a perfect setting for Murchison’s dramatic entrance. He kicked the door open—he was carrying a kit-bag in each hand—and came stumbling in like a drunken sailor. He put his kit-bags down and came straight over to me, holding out his hand.

“You’re Howell, aren’t you?” he said. “My name’s Murchison.”

I don’t know how he knew my name. Someone must have told him I was in the billet. Of course I knew who he was; everyone knew about Murchison. He’d got a flesh wound in the shoulder a month or two before and everyone said the regiment wasn’t the same without him. Out of hospital and back on his feet, he’d written to the C.O., and the Old Man had done everything he could to get him back. We couldn’t win the war without Murchison; that was the legend. Now he was back and everything was going to be all right.

Usually I hate the kind of people who come barging in on you when you’re alone and trying to pull yourself together for something important; but there was a quality about Murchison— I can’t describe it, a sort of rock-bottom genuineness—that took me off guard and made me suddenly feel at ease.

It was ... it was almost as if he were glad to know me. Sounds queer, doesn’t it, doctor, but it meant a lot to me.

I got up from the bed and said, “I’ve heard a lot about you. Welcome back.”

It was a trite sort of thing to say and it didn’t sound like me. Yet for some reason I didn’t regret having said it. He pulled out a grubby pack of cigarettes and offered me one. I took it and gave him a light. He blew out a great cloud of smoke and said, “Well, here’s to war!” He grinned at me and winked. Again, for some reason, I seemed to like him for it.

I’ll never understand why Murchison became my friend. You could hardly imagine two men with less in common. You know the sort of person I am. Well, Murchison was everything that I am not. He was good-looking, lithe, magnificently built. And he was perennially happy. Everything in life was good to him and he enjoyed every minute of it. Even in the most sordid circumstances his joy in living was unquenchable. He laughed triumphantly, fought ferociously and drank with tremendous gusto. And yet he became my friend.

I never tried to understand it, and perhaps that was just as well. I accepted his friendship and he accepted me, just as I was. He taught me a thousand tricks of the trade and he never criticized me for not being the kind of man he was.

It made an enormous difference, having Murchison on my side. Of course I was just the same, as awkward and unsoldierly as ever, but some of Murchison’s popularity, some of his own personal glory, seemed to descend on me—because I was his friend. Suddenly life became supportable. Murchison used to laugh uproariously at some of the stupid things I did but, oddly enough, it never irritated me. He was always laughing, and there was so much sheer joy in his laughter that he made me want to share it.

For three weeks we’d been in the line. A holding role, not very exciting but nerve-racking and uncomfortable. There were long nights in the outposts, patrols that went way back in the enemy’s lines. I think we were all feeling jittery when they pulled us out for a rest. I know I was—more than the others, I suppose.

We were billeted in a village; a clump of ugly houses with empty windows and shattered roofs. The British had shelled it to pieces when they advanced across the dikes and there’d been a bloody battle for it, too. A company of Hitler Youth had held it, held it for three days against the British tanks, holed up in cellars and outhouses. Teen-aged kids dying where they stood when their bullets ran out. Some of them had got away, of course, and there were ugly rumors of snipers in the fields. The night after we moved in one of our men had wandered off alone down a side road. They found him next day with a bullet through his head.

MY MEN had a house to themselves and I’d got hold of a little room off the kitchen, a sort of scullery, for my own use. It had a window that was patched with cardboard and a door that flapped drunkenly on its twisted hinges. But it was my room: it meant that I could get in and out without going through the men’s quarters, and I could be alone. Not that I didn’t like the company of the men, but still, there were times when you had to get away by yourself, away from everyone. It was on the third night that it happened. We’d got our liquor ration that day and the mess was wild. After supper the Auxiliary Services bloke set up a projector to show a movie, but I couldn’t face it, so I went back to my room and lay down. It was cool and quiet in the room and I fell asleep. I’ve no idea how long I slept. Not very long, I suppose, for it was still halflight when I woke up; just light enough for me to see the figure standing by the footboard of my bed. It was a German soldier. He had on a sniper’s camouflage suit and a peaked cap pulled down over his eyes. In his hand he had a Luger pistol, pointed straight at my head.

I’ve always wondered how I would act when I knew I was going to die. I knew it then. The blue-eyed boy with death in his heart had stolen in to see what he could find in the deserted house. And he had found me alone.

The silence was so heavy you could feel it. There wasn’t even a voice in the distance to remind me that there were other people in the world . . . people who would still be alive and drinking, shouting and laughing . . . after the bullet from the Luger had split my skull . . .

The muzzle moved a fraction of an inch upward. I heard the scream before I knew I’d uttered it. It rose, shrill and piercing like a siren. I felt my throat ache with the agony of the sound, as I waited for the roar and flame of the pistol and the shattering pain of the bullet.

And then, above the long thin wail of my own scream, I heard the laughter. A great drunken roar of laughter from a dozen throats . . . howling and hooting with derision.

I wrenched myself around and buried my head in the pillow to shut out the sound of it. The sweat was running down my back and I was sobbing. Slowly the laughter died away and once again the whole world was silent . . .

How easy it must have been for them. The camouflage suits, the visored caps were lying around everywhere; half a dozen of them had Lugers, captured or looted. The liquor ration, the hilarity of the mess, and the poor fool who wouldn’t stay for the show but crept off by himself, to be alone. It was so simple for one of them to dress up in the German uniform, creep into the house and stand there, silhouetted against the open door. The light was just exactly right: enough to see the figure, not enough to recognize the face.

The face—? Of course I wanted to know—I had to know! I stormed at them, cajoled and wheedled, even laughed about it and pretended to share the joke. I tried every way I could to make them tell me but none of them would say a word. They just grinned and walked away, or patted me condescendingly on the back and told me to forget it. Even the company commander, who was a good-hearted fool, cautioned me to “be a sport”; after all, it was only a joke!

I was sure I could get it out of Murchison, if he knew. He was my friend, my only friend. He wouldn’t refuse to tell me. But I never even saw him. The C. O. packed him off to Brussels on a scrounging raid before I had a chance to talk to him alone.

So I decided to forget it, as everyone else had done. I did, too, pretty well . . . except sometimes, lying on my bunk at night, I’d hear the sound of laughing . . . peals of drunken laughter . . . trying to send me mad . . .

All right. I’m all right now. Sorry, doctor, I shouldn’t have let myself get out of hand like that. What’s that? Call it a day? No. No, please, let me go on. If I don’t finish it now I don’t think I ever will.

Where was I? Oh yes, the letter. Murchison’s letter in the skinny blue envelope that crackled like a fire in my pocket . . .

I’ve told you how wonderfully I got on with Murchison, how much I liked him and trusted him, but there was one thing about him—just one thing—that never failed to get me on edge. It was his mail.

You know I’ve no family and almost no friends; certainly not what you’d call real friends. So, you see, no one ever wrote to me. In all the time I was overseas I never got a letter.

Pathetic, isn’t it? But I wonder if you can understand how hard it was? It mightn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for Murchison. He must have had an enormous family and, of course, being what he was, his lady-loves were legion. One out of every 10 young women in England must at one time or other have sat down and written Murchison a letter. Week after week they came, thin ones, fat ones, air-mails and penny postage. It would have made a crooner envious.

ONE DAY, it was about six weeks after the other episode, we were talking together in his billet when the postal orderly came in and handed Murchison his quota. Then the man looked over his shoulder at me. “Nothing for you today, sir,” he said. There was a snicker in his voice.

I watched the orderly go out the door, then I wheeled around on Murchison.

“Damn it all, it’s not fair!”

He looked up at me, surprised. “What’s not fair, old man?”

“You and your filthy letters. Look at the wad of them and not even a postcard for me! My God, I’d be glad to get a parking ticket, just for something to read!”

Murchison looked embarrassed and mumbled, “Nothing much in ’em, really. Long-winded stuff from aunts and uncles mostly.”

“Sell me one.”

I don’t know where the idea came from. It just flashed into my mind and I said it without thinking. Murchison was looking puzzled.

“What’s that you said?”

“I said, sell me one. Look, I’m desperate. I’ll give you 50 guilders for one of your letters. Fifty guilders, cash!”

He was pop-eyed with amazement and I could hardly keep from laughing.

“Fifty guilders,” I repeated, “twenty Canadian dollars—on the spot. Only I’ve got to have my choice.”

“Bernie, you’re crazy! Here, take the lot of them if you want them that much. But I don’t get it.”

“No, you wouldn’t. But I won’t take it unless you’ll sell. Then it’s mine. Bought and paid for. Is it a deal?” 

“You’re crazy in the head. Fifty guilders for a lousy letter!”

“Is it—”

“Okay, it’s a deal. Take your pick.” He picked up the letters and fanned them out like a deck of cards. But first I pulled out the 50 guilders and put them on the table.

I shut my eyes, reached out and grabbed. When I drew my hand back, with the letter in it, it was trembling.

It was a thin blue envelope with a London postmark. The writing was spidery, angular, feminine. I stared at it, crackled it in my hand, then very slowly put it in the pocket of my tunic. 

“Well, aren’t you going to read it?” 

“No, not now. Not just yet.”

“Fifty guilders for a letter and he doesn’t even read it!”

“You don’t understand. This isn’t the time or the place ...”

“But—”

“No, you don’t understand, Harry. You just don’t understand.”

I’m not sure that I understood myself. At least, not just then.

As a matter of fact, I kept it there all day, buttoned in my pocket, rustling when I moved. I kept it all that day, until I was alone on my bunk, with a stub of candle flickering on a biscuit tin beside my head. Then I opened it and read . . . my letter.

FOR THE next two days Murchison didn’t say a word about the letter.

Once or twice he looked at me in a funny sort of way, out of the corner of his eye, as if he were going to say something, then shrugged his shoulders and walked away. But Harry wasn’t the subtle type; he couldn’t pretend for long. On the third day he came out with it:

“By the way, what was in it?” he asked me.

“In what?”

I made a convincing pretence of being dumb.

“In the letter of course!”

“The letter? What letter?”

This was going to be fun.

“The one I sold you. The 50 guilder letter! What was in it?”

“Now Harry,” I contrived to look absurdly shocked, “that’s not very polite. Have I ever asked you what was in your letters?”

“In my letters? But that was my letter!”

“That’s right, Harry, it was your letter. Until you sold it to me. Then it became my letter.”

“Oh now, wait a minute!” He was getting red in the face by this time. “You don’t mean just because you paid for the thing you’re going to be high and mighty about it?”

“That’s exactly what I do mean, Harry. I paid for it. Cash on the line. So it’s my letter and what was in it is my business.”

“Well, of all the darn screwy—Look, Bernie, I’ll tell you what. Here’s your 50 guilders back; now give me the letter and we’ll forget about the whole thing.”

“Sorry, but it just won’t do, Harry. The money’s yours and the letter’s mine. We’ll keep it that way.”

“If it’s more money you want. I’ll make it a hundred. Fifty clear profit and you can have the letter back when I’ve read it!”

He went on and on but I held out. I played him till he got tired and quit. Next day he tried again: more money, more promises, but it didn’t work. All the money in the world wouldn’t have got that letter away from me. Not all the money in the world . . .

WE’D GONE back up to the front.

Farther to the east this time, close to the bank of the river. They were getting ready for the big push—the last big push of the war as it turned out. High Command was yelling for information: information about the ground ahead and about the enemy who were holding it.

It was Jimmy Williams, our company commander, who put it up to us, and when I realized how big it was, and how risky, I felt cold and sick. Two officers on a patrol. I think Williams knew it was my turn but he wasn’t sure enough of me; the thing had to go right and he wanted Murchison along just in case.

Jimmy told Murchison and me to take 15 men between us to the bank of the river, then one of us was to take three men and go across while the other stayed on this side with the remaining dozen men as a covering party, ready to put up fire if it was needed. Straightforward enough as far as it went; but, you see, the trouble was that Jimmy didn’t say which of us was to go across and which was to stay back. He left that up to us to decide between us.

I volunteered to do it. I don’t know why, but somehow I just had to. Of course Murchison wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted to go himself. I suppose I knew he would, but I couldn’t let him do it—just that way. There was only one way out.

“All right, let’s toss for it.”

Murchison said it and I knew it was the fairest way. I suddenly felt a knot yanked tight in the pit of my stomach. I slowly put my hand in my pocket and fished out a coin. Half a gulden, shiny silver, just like a Canadian quarter.

“Winner stays on the bank,” Murchison said. “You call.”

I said “tails” and the coin flew up, tumbling and flashing in the air. It rang on the table, rolled, whirled around, settling itself. I wanted to shut my eyes and wait till it was still, but I couldn’t. I had to watch while the pattern slowly resolved itself.

The good old Queen of the Netherlands.

I could almost swear that the wrinkled face was grinning at me.

“Bad luck.”

What . . .? Oh, Murchison, of course— commiserating with me in his friendly way . . . saying he was sorry I had to go across the river in a rubber boat to where the enemy was waiting.

I waited. It was a long time before Murchison spoke. Then he said very quietly, “I’ll make a deal with you.”

I looked up quickly.

“A deal? What do you mean? What kind of deal?”

He was smiling very faintly, the corners of his mouth twisted up.

“I’ll buy your trip across the river.”

I spoke slowly. “Buy my trip? What do you mean? What have I got to give you—?”

“The letter.”

My heart stopped beating. I held on tight, and carefully and deliberately said the things I knew I had to say.

“No, I couldn’t. That’s crazy! Harry, if you want the letter that much, take it. It’s all yours, for nothing!”

“I won’t take it unless you’ll sell. Bought and paid for.”

My own words. They came back to me like an echo.

“No, I can’t do it. The price, it’s too high. Take the letter, Harry!”

But he wasn’t listening. You see, he’d found the way out. He couldn’t control his curiosity but he wasn’t afraid of the Germans. It was a satisfactory bargain. An honorable one. And so in the end he got the letter and went across the river.

Funny how he took it. He stuffed it in the pocket of his tunic, just as I had done. It was a brave gesture.

“If you could wait, so can I,” he said. “I’ll read it when I get back.”

THE NIGHT was cold, a clammy cold that soaked through your clothes and chilled your guts.

They began poking around us with mortars before we ever got to the river but we made it to the dike with no one hit. I lined the men along the bank where we could get a field of fire on the other side, then Murchison collected his three men and started over. He was 10 yards away when I went after him, grabbed him by the arm and whispered to him.

“Harry, I want to go. Forget the deal. I lost the toss, I want to go . .

He didn’t say anything, just shrugged me off and went over the bank.

It was a long time before anything happened. We knew he must have got across all right.

Then the firing started. The long rasping snarl of the Spandaus, the slow stutter of the Stens in reply. They were fighting back.

The firing stopped as suddenly as it had started. We waited a long time. Then a grenade went off and the machine guns started up again, much farther back this time. They’d got a long way in. The noise died away gradually. First the Stens were silent while the Spandaus went on chattering. Then everything was still. Thirty minutes . . . forty-five ... an hour . . . suddenly the gentle splash of paddles in the water. Somebody was coming back . . .

They’d riddled Murchison with bullets but he’d come back on his own feet, stumbling and staggering to the bank of the river, and only allowed himself to die as his men were lowering him into the boat.

The letter was right there in the pocket of his tunic when they brought the body in. I took it out myself.

DOCTOR, you’ve got to try to see it from my point of view. It wasn’t as though I’d killed him to save my own life. It wasn’t that at all! I heard the whole story from the boys who brought him back. Murchison needn’t have been killed, only he was reckless. You see, doctor, he was killed because he was a reckless fool! Not because of me! I didn’t make him buy back the letter ... I tried to stop him . . . but he wouldn’t listen! It was all his own idea ... it was all his fault ... it was his fault . . .

What? What do you mean, something more? Something I haven’t told you? No. There isn’t . . . there isn't!

What are you trying to do, condemn me? I tell you there isn’t anything! It was his fault . . . it was his fault.

All right ... all right. Don’t say anything. You’re right. There was something . . . something I didn’t tell you. Something that didn’t seem important . . .

You see, when I put my hand in my pocket to get the coin, there was something else there too. Yes, the letter ... and I let it fall on the floor in front of him—face up.

Doctor, do you think that’s it? Do you think that’s why I dream about him . . . see him drifting up to me, all bloody and full of holes . . . and hear him saying over and over again—

“I'll buy your trip across the river . . . I’ll buy your trip across the river . . . I’ll buy your trip . . .”

WHAT’S that? Oh, the letter. It wasn’t much, really. It was from a girl named Elsie. You know the sort of thing: coy and playful, a lot of exclamation marks, bits in brackets . . .

But there was one part I do remember—almost word for word, I think . . .

Darling, how I laughed at that bit about the joke you played on—what was his name— Howell? What a fool the man must be! But Harry, darling, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, really you ought, dressing up like that and frightening the little man to death! Thank heaven he never found out who did it! He'd never have forgiven you. Of course if you only put up with him because of the laughs he gives you, I suppose it really wouldn't have mattered. But darling—What an idiot! What a really priceless fool . . .

The rest? I don’t know. You see, that’s as far as I could ever bear to read ...