“In her vital and poignant themed story collection, Megan Mayhew Bergman explores the interior lives of women who lived on the precipice of notoriety before falling into obscurity. The story here, ‘Who Killed Dolly Wilde?,’ delves into the unusual life and mysterious death of Oscar Wilde’s niece, Dorothy Wilde, building a rich portrait of a witty and wild bon vivant who dated both men and women (but mostly women), drove an ambulance in World War I, and fell prey to dangerous addictions. Bergman daringly imagines Wilde’s last days suffering with cancer and her addictions as something other than what history has recorded, which leaves a unsettling and dangerous aftertaste in the reader’s mouth—if we write women out of history, we never know the truth of things.”
* * *
You wouldn’t have liked Dolly if you met her, that last year. She spent a lot of time screaming in her bedroom, complaining about the wallpaper. She claimed she couldn’t be left alone with bad wallpaper, because that was how her uncle Oscar had died, and she was his reincarnation, and wasn’t it dangerous to leave a narrative thread dangling that way?
“Isn’t it just asking for trouble?” she’d ask me, rolling over in her bed, naked. She’d been athletic as a young girl, but looking at her pale legs, I realized her muscles had gone soft in middle age. Sometimes she wore silk pajamas peppered with cigarette burns, but she was often naked. She was ashamed of her negligible bank account and empty bottle of Guerlain—never her body, not even the track marks on her arms.
I knew Dolly wanted to go back to the Hotel Montalembert in Paris, but she’d been kicked out of the hotel at least twice and it was impossible to get into Paris now with the war. She kept bad company, odd hours, and rarely paid her bills. She’d drink an expensive bottle of champagne and take the warm dregs of the bottle with her to the kitchen and smoke cigarettes with the line cooks in the back alley. Her fluidity attracted people to her as a young woman—she knew how to cultivate obsession—but now her intensity made people uncomfortable. She wanted things: conversation, money, drugs, a hot meal, sex. She wore the want on her face; I could see it in her violet eyes every time she looked at me.
“No more bacon in bed,” she complained. “No more love letters on expensive hotel stationery.”
“You aren’t allowed back there,” I’d say, shrugging my shoulders. “And besides you have this smart flat that’s all yours.” She lived on Chesham Street near Belgrave Square, a small place with a posh address and a crummy interior that was also close to the physicians’ offices she tore through on Sloane Street.
“It’s so bleak in here,” she said, sighing. “The lighting is bad, and the maid mumbles . . .”
“She’s intimidated by you,” I said, but the right word would have been horrified, because the young woman had happened upon Dolly in various states of undress, wretched hangovers, and what might have been described as fits of madness, usually brought on by the sirens that wailed throughout London in the evenings. Dolly had to dope herself to sleep every night as the Luftwaffe bombed London into blocks of fire, making hollowed-out silhouettes of old buildings.
I think she saw her life as it was: over. As the war and her cancer progressed, I watched her try to decide if she wanted to end it all or resurrect herself, rejoin the intellectual set, make things right with the people who had once loved her but now ceased to answer her desperate letters.
Dolly was often high, out of her mind nearly half of the day. I don’t know where she got the drugs, but she always had them. Paraldehyde, heroine, morphine—she was indiscriminate. But despite the relentless ways she poisoned herself, she would obsess over what brand of deodorant or toothpaste to use, panic over small rashes and coughs, and phone me multiple times a day to discuss her ailments.
“I’ve noticed a spot underneath my armpit and must go to the physician’s at once,” she’d say. “You’ll take me, darling, won’t you?” I would.
I loved Dolly in the way that you can only love your first love, a way that is infinitely forgiving and always mindful of the early days. We’d been friends since we were children. I used to give Dolly my nice dresses because I had no place to wear them; I hated parties. I knew she’d never return them and if she did they’d be wrinkled and stained.
I had to be patient—I couldn’t abandon her—she was a dying woman, in many ways. There was the cancer, of course, but also the sort of dying that happens when the beautiful person you once were wears off and all that’s left is someone frightened and ugly, this hard and cruel kernel of a self that’s difficult to look at.
If you can love her through this part, I told myself, you are the love of her wild and miserable life.
Nearly every day I walked through the smoking rubble of London, past the crippled chimneys and grieving mothers, past the men blacking out the lights along the Thames, past the people going to work, and I knocked on the door of Dolly’s flat to see if she was okay. It was part of my wartime routine. We all had them, the things you did to reassure yourself that you were still alive.
You’re a good person, I told myself. You’re her only friend.
Every afternoon she ate fish soup at Russo’s, and sometimes I joined her. She wore the same blue dress over and over again, because she thought she looked good in it or maybe it was the last designer dress she had. Dolly would rather be caught twice in the same well-made dress than wear something cheap.
She rubbed her shoulders. I looked at the toile tablecloths, worn from bleaching. There were anemic flowers on the round bistro tables. A little winter sun came through the wide windows.
“Where’s your coat?” I asked.
She didn’t answer.
“I pawned it,” she said, staring me right in the eyes, daring me to judge her. I sighed.
Dolly swallowed the fish soup, wincing a little at its heat. “It makes me think of drowning in the ocean,” she said, letting her spoon rest in the bowl for a moment. “Of getting knocked down by a wave and coming up with shells pressed to your knees, the inside of your nose stinging with salt. Do you remember that feeling?”
The soup was thin, and I think eating it was an act of contrition for her. I took a few polite bites; I’d eat at home later. We still had a cook and black market food, and I knew how lucky that made me.
“I don’t have much of an appetite,” Dolly confessed, swirling the soup. “But last week I spent the last of my monthly allowance on a hunk of Camembert and a buttery brioche. I pulled the knob off the top of the pastry and left the rest at the boulangerie,” she said, one side of her mouth twisted into a half smile.
“Why didn’t you wrap it in a napkin and save it for later?” I asked. She didn’t answer; I knew she resented my veiled attempts at financial advice. She was prone to spontaneous, wasteful gestures. I think they made her feel luxurious.
I missed her better stories, the days when she might hold forth about listening to George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique in a private garden, eating figs in Algiers, a sheikh kissing her stockinged leg. There was opium shared with Cocteau behind heavy velvet curtains in a private club she could never find on her own. I needed these stories because I had none of my own. I was too wealthy to work—my mother forbade it—and too shy to have my own adventures. After finishing school—Dolly liked to ask “finished for what?”—I read books, kept my mother company at teatime, and lived vicariously through Dolly. It had always been that way; it was our currency.[ad]
“Something sweet?” the waiter asked.
We shook our heads, and he left with a smile that was focused on Dolly.
“He’s Parisian,” she explained, rifling through her wallet. “He says my French is impeccable, and for that he gives me a half carafe of wine some nights.”
She placed a few coins on the white tablecloth.
Je suis désolée, she said to the waiter. I’ll come back with a tip. Ne vous inquiétez pas, he said, his thin face expressing something like sympathy. He poured more water into her glass and went back to the kitchen.
“I look like someone you should be nice to now,” Dolly mumbled. “Not someone you want to sleep with.”
I put more coins on the table and walked her back to her flat.
“I heard on the wireless that you have a one in ten thousand chance of dying each night in a raid,” I said, thinking those chances sounded pretty favorable.
“My chances are much better,” Dolly said, squeezing my hand.
In reality she was probably more likely to die of an overdose than in a raid. The paraldehyde vials were everywhere in her room, giving it a distinct vinegary smell.
I knew Dolly wanted desperately to believe in her own glamour and bravery—twenty years ago she had been brave, a volunteer ambulance driver on the front lines of the First War, dodging bombs and changing her own tires under the spray of bullets—but we both knew that instead of making love to androgynous heiresses and sticking it to the Germans, she was now lying comatose in her bed, racked by hallucinations.
When we were younger I’d envied Dolly’s worldliness and experience to the point of pain; it made me feel weak, pampered, and inadequate. While my brother and Dolly were off fighting, I went with my mother to the cathedral to assemble care packages of Bovril and cigarettes for soldiers. I slept in a soft bed my entire life. I’ve never seen a dead body, let alone thousands.
“Would you stay with me?” Dolly asked. “We can read the paper and I can make you some tea.”
“I guess I could stay for a little while,” I said. “But I can’t miss my train.”
“I’ll braid your hair,” she said, pulling me closer. “The way I used to.”
I’d never had any boyfriends to speak of. I liked to be touched and she knew it.
“How’s your mum?” she asked.
“The nights are hard for her,” I said. “Even out in the country. We can still hear the planes.”
“I cry myself to sleep every night,” Dolly said, staring at the street. “The sounds, the vibrations. It’s too much.”
Yes, Dolly had once been a hero.
Now she was just a coward and we both knew it.
How had Dolly first come to our house? I can’t remember, but it must have been because of my mother, who was a collector of Oscar’s manuscripts and clothes. She owned two of his dress shirts, a handful of personal letters, early notes for Dorian Gray, and pamphlets from his lecture series, and kept them in a trunk in her room. Over time I’ve come to believe my obsession with Dolly was first hers. My mother, a bored and wealthy housewife, heard of Oscar’s brother’s poverty and helped pay the bills for Dolly’s birth in a pauper’s ward. Over the years she bought artifact after artifact and kept Dolly’s mother afloat.
Mum’s money hadn’t kept Dolly out of a convent, where she’d been tossed for a while as a child, but she came back to us as an adolescent with some obligation toward my mother that she wanted to honor. She joined us for dinner weekly, and we all fell in love with her in our different ways. My mother loved her resemblance to Oscar. I loved the way she recited Byron, and the way she made me feel. She disarmed my shyness in a way no one else ever had, coaxed words and laughter out of me, forced me into stating my opinions—but how do you really feel about long underwear?—snuck D. H. Lawrence books into my room and left them underneath my silk pillowcase. She knew my insecurities and had once, well into a bottle of wine, recited them: “men, your hawk-like nose, your lack of success as a painter, your knobby knees, and your boring existence supported by your family and not yourself.”
Dolly was the exclamation point in my life. She made me feel things: adoration, anger, frustration. She was always in love and it made her glow.
But she didn’t glow anymore.
The following day I was sitting on the edge of her bed as she slept. We were supposed to go out for tea and then volunteer at the cathedral making care packages for soldiers, but she was in no shape to leave her flat. I knew tears would stream down her face in the afternoon sun; her pale eyes were sensitive to light. Her sheets were damp; she suffered from night sweats. I let her sleep.
I saw a small packet of letters tied with blue silk ribbon on her bedside table, right next to two vials of what must have been paraldehyde. The letters’ edges were tattered. Curiosity seized me. I knew deep down I shouldn’t read them, that even the most boisterous, immodest people have secrets and a need for privacy, but I wanted to believe—I have always wanted to believe—that I’m Dolly’s sister, or something more, maybe an extension of her, and therefore it would be okay if I merely peeked at a letter or two.
For years people who admired Dolly’s wit and entertaining personal letters pleaded with her to write a book, but she never had. She was lazy, but I think she was also stymied by her uncle’s shadow.
“How can I be any good if he has used it all up?” she once said to me.
When I opened the first letter I found pages of her looping script; I knew it like my own. I was surprised to see it was a letter to a girl named Betty Carstairs, a girl she called Joe. I felt a pang of jealousy, just as I had when Dolly came home and talked ceaselessly about how fast Joe could change a tire, how she cut her hair like a man—the type of women Dolly loved were women I could never be.
It’s not a dream if it really happened, it’s a memory that comes to me in my sleep, isn’t it? Do you have these same nightmares?
I’m driving my ambulance over the war-scorched earth, toward the front lines in Verdun. It’s March 1916, and you would have been out doing the same. The ground is black, and covered in piles of receding snow. Naked trees jut from the earth. The Meuse River is an ice slick, its banks covered in unexploded shells, split limbs. I pass the white-rubble ruins of all those nameless villages, approaching Fort Souville from the south. Where farms, churches, and green fields once stood lie piles of German stick grenades, bomb scars, and dead bodies. My wheels shake and skid over potholes. I grip the steering wheel so hard my frozen knuckles bleed.
In this dream, and maybe you have some like it, I haven’t slept for thirty-two hours. I can’t feel my fingers, nose, or ears. I’ve long since forgotten to be hungry.
As I get closer to Fort Souville, I can see smoke—or is it fog?—rising from the gouged hills. My windshield is cracked and my jacket is ripped. Everything in me wants to turn around, but I can’t. It’s my duty to continue; this is why I ran away from home; this is the adventure I wanted. I thought I wanted. Dolly Wilde, ambulance driver. Dolly Wilde, patriot. Dolly Wilde, adventuress. And we did have adventures, didn’t we? Valid adventures. But we paid for them, you and I.
In the dream I can never turn back, and I wake up sick with dread, because I don’t know if I could still do the things that we did then, see the things that we saw. We were just children, weren’t we? Young girls who were going to do their part?
I thought that life as an ambulance driver—wrapping broken limbs, plucking lice from my hair, kicking ice from the wheels—was the antithesis of pleasure seeking, the only way I could avoid repeating my uncle’s flawed existence. Everyone told me I had his face. Even you said, “It is Oscar incarnate, only much prettier . . .”
What we saw changed me. Those days are why I don’t cry at weddings, why I drink, why I say something rash at dinner. They are why I forget to pay my bills. They are why I can’t sleep. They are what I see in my sleep. They are why I don’t waste time doing practical things, hoping the world will be good to me when I’m older. Tell me, Joe, do you think the world is still good to women like us? To anyone?
How are your boats? I miss driving. If only I had a car of my own.
You said in your last letter that I taught you flexible thinking, but I don’t think anyone can teach you much. As for my writing, I have nothing to show. The world prefers listening to me, looking. That’s what I was made for I suppose.
When Dolly began to stir I slowly tucked the stack of letters into my leather bag. She would miss it, of course, but given how much of her life she spent blacked out, she’d assume it was misplaced, knocked behind the bureau.
“How long have you been here?” she asked, licking her lips, stretching her arms. She looked old.
“Only a minute. I’ll let you rest,” I said. I kissed her cheek and let myself out of the flat. I walked to the train, aware that the light was fading and night was coming on soon. The city seemed heavy, mid-sigh, as if bracing itself for a blow, and I guess it was.
On the train back home to my mother’s empty mansion in the countryside—I never thought of it as mine, I had nothing—I dozed off, then woke up in a semilucid state. I closed my eyes again and saw Dolly in her prime.
She was descending a staircase slowly, dressed as her uncle Oscar in a borrowed fur coat. A hush came over the crowded foyer—how many women can silence a crowd? Dolly could.
The cane Dolly carried clicked on every stair. She thrust her chin into the air and then looked down, making eye contact with the people beneath her. She remained in character, though it wasn’t much of a stretch; Dolly was gregarious at parties and depressed the morning after. But she had dressed to awe us and she did; she made the papers the next day: Niece Dolly Brings Oscar Back to Life.[ad]
And though I was fascinated by her, I hated seeing her like this, drinking up her own social success. Her laugh reached across the room and strangled me. No, I preferred private Dolly. I liked Dolly in my library with a book on her lap, not perched on the arm of a plush sofa with champagne in hand, someone, anyone, kissing her neck.
I left the party early that night.
I always left parties early.
A week later I went to meet Dolly at Russo’s and was disappointed to see her friend Jeanette there. She and Dolly were overdressed for the venue, but they both had more panache than money, a quality in a woman that bothered my mother, and I guess it bothered me too.
Jeanette wore a fox stole and tapped her nails on her water glass as I approached. She shifted in her chair. She was bird-thin and just past pretty, her blond hair going gray, her gray eyes blinking repeatedly. She lit a cigarette, looking at her fingers as if she was impatient with their inability to move faster with the match. She brought the small fire to her face.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
“Let’s get another chair,” Dolly said apologetically, waving to the waiter, her waiter.
“Welcome,” Jeanette said, exhaling. Her voice was pitchy and plaintive.
She and Dolly had been friends for years now. They’d met over an opium pipe at Le Boeuf sur le Toit.
“I love meeting people that way,” Dolly had once confided in me. “Colliding into them. There’s a strange intimacy that comes with intoxicated conversations. You discard barriers. You’re interesting and filled with a peculiar energy, and you just want to share it.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I’d said.
Dolly had nodded and patted my thigh in a way that was both insulting and compassionate.
The waiter brought the third chair and we sipped water in silence. Jeanette muttered something awful about “death and destruction becoming monotonous,” and Dolly rose from the table.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I’m going to the ladies’ room.”
“Here,” Jeanette said, fishing around inside her worn leather handbag to produce a monogrammed silver compact. “Take this.”
I knew it was packed with cocaine. I also knew Jeanette thought I was naïve. These situations were common in Dolly’s company and used to make me feel insecure. Now I just felt infuriated, fatigued.
Dolly placed the compact into her own bag and walked through the restaurant with feigned elegance. Whenever I watched her walk in public I remembered a line someone had written anonymously about her during a Victorian parlor game called Honesty: Dolly doesn’t walk, she lumbers.
Dolly had cried to me that night. “They used to call Uncle Oscar elephantine. I’m the same way. I’m not built like a woman.”
I knew she’d made efforts to shorten her stride and straighten her shoulders. I still felt anger toward whoever had written such a cruel sentence, the kind of sentence that stays with a woman.
I followed Dolly to the small bathroom, which smelled strongly of bleach. The white plaster walls were chipped, and blue curtains framed one small window. Dolly stood in front of the sink blotting her armpits with paper, then her face.
“The cancer makes me sweat more,” she said, wrinkling her nose, sniffing.
“I know what’s in that compact,” I said, standing behind her. Dolly didn’t say anything, but shrugged her shoulders and resumed blotting her face in the mirror.
I returned to the table and sat with my arms crossed. Dolly had a way of making me feel like a petulant child.
“I’m short on cash,” Jeanette said, rifling through her leather purse.
“I’ll cover you,” Dolly said, sitting down. I could tell she was impatient to get home and away from my judgment, maybe away from Jeanette ’s bony and depressed face. But while she hated to suffer through inconvenient social situations, she also hated being alone.[ad]
Dolly’s black book—I’d looked through it before—contained contact information for one-night stands, theater boys, dealers, doctors, fake doctors, nurses, ex-girlfriends, aristocrats, art thieves, sodomites, artists, race car drivers, actresses, writers, amateur philosophers, politicians, soldiers, housewives. She wasn’t picky, not these days. She just wanted company, or maybe drugs. She went to parties in abandoned underground stations and on rooftops and God knows where else.
We said good-bye to Jeanette and walked to Dolly’s flat in silence.
“It amazes me,” she said as we reached her front door, “that you still find the energy to be disappointed in me.”
“I’m not disappointed,” I said, clutching her hand. “I’m worried.” “I’m late with rent again.”
I took a few bills from my purse—half of my monthly allowance—and pressed them into her hand. I had never been good at telling her no, and I wanted to be useful—to anyone, but especially to Dolly. Decades into our relationship, helping her was a reflex.
She kissed the top of my forehead. It was a sisterly gesture.
“Call if you need me,” I added.
She nodded and the lock clicked behind her. I headed for the train, aware that after every visit with Dolly I felt exhausted. But these visits were the only breaks in the monotony of my life with Mum, of teas gathered around the wireless, long stretches of reading time, unsatisfactory sessions at my easel.
A few blocks away I heard something moving behind a trash can. Cowering among crates of rotting produce was a brown dog so emaciated I could count her ribs. The dog bared her broken, black teeth and I inched away, wishing I had a few pieces of bread, or anything, to give her.
I hurried into the station.
Safely on the train, I pulled out Dolly’s letters and read from them, as I’d developed the habit of doing. This letter was to Natalie, a lover she’d lived with on and off in Paris, and who never had anything to say to me the times I’d visited Dolly in the little garden there.
I hope you’ll forgive me for what I said yesterday. I know I’ve outstayed my welcome, but for Romaine to call me a rat—my temper rose. I’ll find a way to repair the vase, darling.
I think, some days, that I’m a broken human being. Last week, the pop of a champagne cork made me sweat. If I stare too long into a fire or smell certain brands of cigarettes and tea, I feel sick, as if the night is coming on in Verdun. Dearest Natalie, please understand—I dream of burned flesh.
Were these drafts of letters, or were they never sent? I folded the papers, carefully tied the ribbon, and stared out of the window. Dolly had a habit of using people like me and Natalie; this was not news. There were years when I convinced myself that she had to rely on others because she was a woman without means who didn’t want to marry, and there were years when I got tired of trying to save her, tired of trying to coax her into the incredible woman she should have been. There shouldn’t have been flashes of greatness; there should have been a lifetime of it.
A general uneasiness came over me. The train ride was long, cold, and silent.
* * *
The next time I came to her door it wouldn’t open. The maid had called me.
“I haven’t seen Dolly in two days,” she said, “but I’ve heard her and she’s howling again, and throwing things at the wall. I think you should come.”
“I’ll be there tomorrow morning,” I said. “Offer her some coffee or even some bread.”
Sensing the maid’s hesitation, I added, “I’ll pay you. Plus a service fee. Just offer her food and drink and let her know that someone cares about her. That part is important.”
When I got to Dolly’s at ten the next morning, the place was silent. I knocked on the door—nothing. No footsteps, no hello, no swearing. It occurred to me that the inevitable might have happened, that she might have overdosed. I tried my key but couldn’t budge the door; she’d pushed something in front of it.
“Dolly!” I screamed, jostling the doorknob, shouting through the small opening. “Let me in.”
I pressed my ear to the crack. I heard faint sobbing, then louder cries. I jostled the door some more, but to no avail. At least she was alive.
Because it was a ground-floor apartment, I went around to the outside window and rapped repeatedly.
“Dolly!” I shouted, over and over again. “Let me take you home. Let me take you to the country.”
A middle-aged man opened his window and yelled down to me. “Can’t you two keep it together? Must you cry and shout so often?” I glared at him. For the first time I felt as if I had the will to hurt someone. I started to go to the train station, then turned back toward Dolly’s flat, feeling as if I’d left something unfinished. I could try harder. I could do more.
I should tell you about her death. No one came to Dolly’s funeral but me and two other friends, one who was on crutches. There were fires burning in the city from the evening’s raids when she was buried; we could see the smoke and there was, I think, a universal feeling of dread. An urge, maybe, to put Dolly’s life and death in context. Did it matter? What was more suffering in a year like this? How many people we knew and loved were dying each day?
The police didn’t know the cause of death, and I don’t think they cared. Here was an addict who was already dying of cancer; what was her life valued when there were so many children and heroes at risk?
There was a coroner’s report, and they asked me to identify the body. I remember looking down at her face in the morgue. It was a large face, moonlike, original except for the fact that it had already been around the block once before as her uncle. Her eyes were closed. I could see the track marks, her brittle hair. Gone was the socialite, the sexpot, the conversationalist. Here was an abused body.
“Goddamnit, Dolly,” I said.
At the end, I could no longer pretend she was good, or a valuable member of society. At the end, I could no longer watch what she was becoming. The decline was too disgusting, too steep. Perhaps the war had made us obsessed with honor and bravery. Perhaps I became impatient.
* * *
When I was younger I wrote her a love letter. I told her that I wanted more from her. That she was beautiful and capable of becoming a great writer and a great human being, and that I could help her if she’d let me. She was twenty-two and just back from the war and I’d missed her so much my stomach hurt and I ran to greet her when she visited the house.
She never responded to the letter, and acted as if she hadn’t received it. I was too embarrassed to ask, to force the issue.
Now, reading her letters, I knew more about the woman I thought I loved. Or maybe I knew less. Maybe what I knew was that there was more mystery and hurt than I could have imagined. Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women. Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.
And then in the yellowed packet I found an unsent letter addressed to me, from the early days, when she’d first run away to France and I’d lost many nights of sleep worrying about her.
What troubles me about our friendship, darling, is that you live in an alternate universe. You say you want to understand, that you wish you were here with me, so let me tell you about my day:
I back my ambulance into the tent, and jump out of the driver’s seat and onto the hard earth, snow to my ankles. I open the rear doors. The putrid smell of gangrene and vomit rushes at me and I dry-heave, covering my mouth with my shoulder. There’s no time to clean the ambulance between loads.
It’s six a.m., and the shelling has stopped, which means we have a chance to collect bodies. The capable survivors, draped like ghosts in foul wool blankets, hoist the injured out of the dugout with strange efficiency. There are bodies half-lodged in the rubble, arms cocked as if still ready to throw grenades.
I kick my tires to check the air pressure; you don’t want to get stuck on the road here, because people die out on the roads. Good tires save lives. My tires are fine, so I wait for orders.
Sixteen, one of the soldiers says, giving me my count. I nod my head, and log the figure with shaking hands in a small black notebook. Shit, I think.
I will never understand how they decide which bodies are capable of living, but the first one they give me is no longer in human form. The flesh has been burned from his body, what’s left of his body. There’s no hair, no nose or mouth, just eyes. A face of fire. I could not tell if this man, this body, wished to live, or die.
I hate them for making me see this, for knowing this state of being is possible, for knowing that if I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time and a flame is thrown—But I hold the soldier’s hand—the one he has—and sing to him as I help secure him in the back of my ambulance. I sing “Au Clair de la Lune,” and I do not wince, though I am terrified.
Fifteen more are loaded. Trench foot. Lost arm. Legs full of shrapnel. I climb into the ambulance, start the engine, and pull away from the tent. I can hear a sound more animal than human coming from the back; I know it is the burned one. I drive as fast as I can, the roar of planes overhead, up the icy roads toward camp, knowing he will not be alive when I open the back doors.
Years later, I still imagine how it feels to live inside that body, even for one moment.
I’ve never heard of women feeling this way. After returning home from the War, am I expected to be beautiful again? I do not feel beautiful inside. I’m expected to respect those who serve, and I continue to tend to soldiers. But who will tend to me when I am home? Will you?
How many times I’ve seen the eyes of the burned soldier in my sleep. How many times I’ve tried to look at the world through those eyes. I will never understand what lives are worth saving. I know now I will never understand life, and neither will you.
There is the matter of the last time I saw her, the afternoon when I turned back to her flat. When I threw my weight into the door until my hip was bruised and entered, locking it behind me, displacing the trunk she’d blocked it with, the object I’d had to move with sheer willpower. I barged into her bedroom. She rolled over to look at me, silent and shocked, eyes glazed.
“You’re not taking care of yourself,” I said, raising my voice. “You’re crossing the line.”
She groaned and went facedown into her pillow. “Tomorrow,” she mumbled, “I’m going to cheer up London’s children. The ones hiding in the country.”
“You’re all talk,” I said. “You might have done that when you were younger, but not now. You’re wasting your life. You’re lazy and troubled and I can’t stand it! You have failed yourself!”
“Shut up,” she said. “Shut up, shut up, shut up. Tais-toi!”
Then she tried to get out of bed, as if she was coming after me, but she collapsed to the floor, first onto her knees and then she was passed out again, sprawled like a corpse.
I dragged her to the bathtub; she was unaware, unhelpful, dead weight. She woke up naked in the cold water and reached out to slap my face.
I slapped her back and it felt good, too good. And then she laughed.
The tiny fish enjoy themselves in the sea.
Quick little splinters of life, their little lives are fun to them in the sea!
“D. H. Lawrence, darling!” she said, cocking her head back. Don’t you love it? Don’t you remember?”
She splashed my face, and I sat fuming. I left her there and began cleaning up bottles, wiping down the bathroom—there was blood.
“Goddamnit, Dolly,” I said.
“I need to sleep this off,” she interrupted, clumsily reaching for the paraldehyde on the bathroom counter.
“You’ve already had enough!” She got it down before I could reach her.
And then I let it happen. Because it was the merciful thing to do. I couldn’t take it, seeing beautiful Dolly reduced to this.
Killing her was easy; she wanted me to do it. Woman to woman.
I’m not even sure she knew who I was, but she offered me her arm and then her thigh. There were needles on the counter.
“More,” she said. “More!”
All around me, killers. My brother. My neighbor. My countrymen. My enemies.
Everyone has a saturation point.
Everyone is capable of radical change. This is what the war has taught me: we kill each other and we kill ourselves. Even though we sleep in nice hotels on soft French linens. Even though we have dresses we never wear. Even though we drink champagne while others work in coal mines or the trenches of Vimy Ridge, smelling of gangrene. We have always been this way, killers inside. It is the human condition.
The world folds in on itself in a ball of fire, and today I walk down Sloane Street, past the small flat near Belgrave Square, the ugly one with the good address. It is part of my wartime routine, how I assure myself I am an ordinary person, and still alive.
And what of it?
* * *