A mere fifteen minutes on his motorbike brought Matthew to John Maynard’s house, and he was oddly surprised at it being on a normal suburban street; nothing unusual about it at all. The front yard was neatly kept, though not exactly a demonstration of horticultural wizardry. It was just gone half-nine – that wasn’t too late to call, was it? Sure, the guy was old, but he somehow didn’t strike Matthew as the kind of man who went to bed early with a glass of hot milk! He pulled the jacket out of the box on the back of the bike, and strode purposefully up the driveway.
When Dr Maynard opened the door, it was more than obvious that he was, delicately put, three sheets to the wind.
“What in God’s name do you want?” he asked, the over-enunciation of the words as telling as slurring them would have been. Matthew hefted the jacket.
“You left this at the hospital,” he explained, holding it out. Dr Maynard reached out to take it, misjudged the distance, and almost fell over the threshold. Matthew grabbed his arm, noting absently as he did so that he was thinner than he had expected, given the man’s height and breadth of shoulder. The older man steadied himself, then a certain amount of wry humour lightening his expression.
“How very embarrassing. You had better come in.” He didn’t give Matthew any time to respond, but turned and went back inside, Matthew at his heels.
It wasn’t bad, as houses went. The décor was neutral; inoffensive. The rooms seemed spacious. Dr Maynard led the way to the living room, and sat down carelessly in an armchair, gesturing for Matthew to do likewise.
“Drink?” he asked. Matthew started to shake his head, then thought better of it.
“Sure. Why not?”
“Attaboy,” and was there a touch of irony in that voice? He poured two glasses of whisky, handed one over to his junior. “Cheers!”
“Cheers,” mumbled Matthew, and took a sip, thanking his father for having found it incumbent upon himself to introduce his son to both whisky and cigars.
“So, you met the dear Sister?” asked Dr Maynard, knocking back his glass. “Saintly, isn’t she?” He smiled bitterly as Matthew nodded. “Yes, everyone loves dear Soeur Marie-Cecile!”
“I’m guessing you don’t?” hazarded Matthew. It seemed a good bet. Dr Maynard poured another drink.
“I knew her when she just a little girl,” he said, unexpectedly. “Six, seven… something like that. I worked at a clinic in Austria; her guardian was the chief. She was a nice kid. Grew up into a nice girl. Angel-child, they used to call her over there.” He went quiet, and after a moment, Matthew asked,
“She didn’t sound Austrian.”
“What? Oh, she wasn’t. Her father was English, her mother was… oh, I can’t remember. Russian, Polish, something like that. Huh.” There seemed to be nothing to say. Matthew took another sip of his whisky, and wondered whether he could politely leave. Certainly Dr Maynard seemed to have no further need for conversation. He seemed to have sunk into his chair, contemplating the liquid in his glass, paying no attention to his visitor. And yet… Matthew couldn’t get rid of the nun’s words: *He needs to forgive…fifty years is a dreadfully long time to be so bitter.*
“What had happened?”
“Huh? What?” Matthew realised that he had spoken out loud, and for a moment he contemplated standing up and leaving, but he couldn’t.
“What happened?” he asked again, this time looking Dr Maynard in the eye. “Why does she… Soeur Marie-Cecile want you to forgive her?”
“That’s a damned impertinent question,” said Dr Maynard, but there was no heat in his voice, and when Matthew said nothing, he sighed.
“It’s old history,” he said eventually. “That clinic in Austria – I worked there in there 30s, till the Anschluss – do you know about that?” Matthew nodded: European history had been a favourite at high school. “Well, the clinic was English, more or less. Russell – the chief there – was married to a lady who owned a school, also English. We had to clear out pretty sharpish. Some of us… well, the Gestapo weren’t renowned for their understanding, or their sense of humour. We had to get out straightaway. We took Rob with us.” He fell silent, and Matthew, who had listened on many occasions to his grandfather’s reminiscences of fighting in the war, knew better than to say anything. He waited.
“I was engaged. Joey was… she was…” The words wouldn’t come, and he started again. “Her sister, Madge, was Russell’s wife. Joey lived with them, up on the Sonnalpe, near the San. I’d known her for years. Rob’s parents were dead, she and Jo were as good as sisters, though of course Rob was much younger. Joey loved her so much.
“We were trying to get to the Swiss border. We had one of the Austrian doctors with us; he knew the area blindfolded. God, it was… you can’t imagine. I was terrified, not that I could let the others see. It was Mensch and me, and one of the teachers, and then a bunch of schoolgirls. And Joey, of course. We had to be the brave men for them; they were relying on us. It was a long journey, and hard. Some of the girls weren’t really up to it; Nell Wilson wasn’t either – she had a dodgy foot.
“Joey and Robin got separated from us. We were going a long way; we kept splintering into smaller groups as we walked. We heard the car coming, and hid down in the ditches. They… there wasn’t anything there, where they were. No cover.” He smiled, remembering something. “Joey pretended to be a gypsy, asking for alms. She was a sponge for languages, and we all looked pretty disreputable by then. I-I think they might have gone for it, but one of them recognised Rob. She really was an angel-child for looks, and he’d seen her at the San.” There was silence again, this time deeper. Maybe it was because Matthew could see where this was going.
“I don’t know what their orders were. We – Mensch and I – had thought if they caught the girls they’d arrest them, but…” He shook his head, as if even now he couldn’t quite believe it. “They shot them. Two girls, alone, unarmed. Just shot them. We…*I* couldn’t see; we were hiding. We heard the car stop, and Joey call out and then… Mensch stopped me going out; he was probably right. We had the others to think of as well.”
“I don’t know what happened, but they drove off straightaway, didn’t even stop to look for the rest of us, though they must have known we were close by. Maybe they’d overstretched themselves, and thought it better to leave. I don’t know. Gottfried made me wait so long. So long. They shot her right through the heart; I know she didn’t have a chance, but I still wonder if I’d gone right to her, if I hadn’t waited… Well, that doesn’t help. She was dead. There was blood… so much blood. God, Joey!” He sat for a moment, his head in his hands, and Matthew hardly dared breathe.
“They’d got Rob too, but nowhere serious, though we almost lost her anyway. Fleeing from the Gestapo across continental Europe was hardly conducive to good medical care. She lived, anyway. Obviously. Hardly had a scar – we could all be *so* grateful for that.” His voice was so bitter that Matthew winced.
“It wasn’t her…”
“Her fault, I know. Oh, the Nazi bastard recognised her, but he might as easily have recognised Jo – hers wasn’t a face you forgot easily. And I resent that she lived and Joey died, but that wasn’t her fault either.”
“Because she’s a sanctimonious bitch, who spent years after that night spouting bullshit about how it was meant for the best and how God” – he spat out the word – “had a plan for Joey. Utter crap. A violent fascist animal murdered her – how is that for the best? She was… you’ve never met anyone like her. She was so vital, so special. I loved her with every breath in my body, and I don’t care how damned stupid and sentimental that sounds! But Robin… oh she ‘forgave’ them. She… and everyone else talked about how strong she was, and she was right and… it drove me wild. I couldn’t stand it. She wants my forgiveness, but she doesn’t understand why I can’t forgive her. She made a mockery of Jo’s death.”
“Oh, get out! You haven’t a chance in hell of understanding what I’m talking about.” He stood up. “Out!” Matthew stared for a moment, then stood as well, and ducked his head.
“Good night, Dr Maynard. I’ll see you in the hospital.”
Somewhere, across space and time, in another house, Jack Maynard woke up from an uneasy sleep, and rubbed his eyes, cursing his ageing bladder for its lack of staying power. Getting back into bed a couple of minutes later, his gaze strayed to the other side, and he smiled, unconsciously, as he watched his wife sleep. Joey, her once black hair now mostly white, lay dead to the world, one hand tucked under her cheek as it had been since the first night after they married. He leant over and kissed her forehead. Turning on his side, he faced the bedside table, and, in the moments before sleep claimed him once again, he reached out to brush the beads of his rosary, thanking God for everything he had been given.