A short story by Eleanor Pilcher, based on the adventures of an aspiring WW1 reporter who was the only British female to make it to the Western Front. Illustration by Roland Hildel.
He arrived by car, no bigger than a twelve-year-old child, standing in the street distorted by the rain like a watermarked photograph. I stared at him through the bars in the window and waited for him to spot me. He didn’t.
Later, when he joined me in the mess room, he made a performance of dragging out his chair from under the desk, slamming down a folder, which he never opened, already inclined to believe I would tell nothing but lies.
I sat, a picture of unloveliness, coddled and wrapped in padding and a dirtied uniform, green in the face and thinning for the first time in years, from exposure, semi-starvation and fear. I was exhausted from my interrogations by men, who all thought I was a German spy.
‘How old are you, Dorothy?’
‘I’m twenty years old.’ I sighed and crossed my arms, leaning towards him so as to not appear afraid or off-put by his strange mannerisms.
This was my sixth cross-examination, my fingernails were bitten to the nub and days-old sweat covered me. Breathing was an effort through the exhaustion my whole body felt. I could barely hold myself up and stare at the little man; answer his questions honestly or even keep my own eyes open.
‘How did you come to be at the front, madam?’
‘I travelled. By bike.’
‘Without any identification of who you were, except a falsified passport and a note, no doubt written by yourself, claiming that a ‘Denis Smith’ was on special leave. Is that correct?’
‘I had a sauf conduit as well. From Paris.’ He nodded, his hands clasped together on the table.
‘It was signed, by a French maire.’ He made a ‘hmm’ sound, never letting his piercing stare falter.
‘I’m telling the truth sir, I’m no spy.’
‘Please, let me explain…’ I began.
I shook my head and tried not to laugh. In a moment of madness I saw myself and this little man and it seemed so funny. Me, ragged and stiflingly pungent, with him smelling like Ivory soap, sitting snug in his jacket with perfectly combed eyebrows and a beauty spot on his cheek.
He must have led a life of luxury going from interrogation to interrogation to break men into spilling their secrets. But I was a woman, without a secret, just a story. He couldn’t break me, not after what I had seen. Graves upon graves, men sitting in the holes of mud smoking and crying, beating each other for paper to write to their loved ones. Rats on pikes, blood swirling in rain puddles and the constant drumming of the ground being beaten by shells and gunfire and cordite.
‘OK. Start from the beginning and explain yourself. If you have nothing to hide, explain!’
I cleared my throat and nodded, no longer hiding my smile.
‘I went…I wanted to be a war correspondent, sir, so I went from paper to paper begging them to let me prove myself.’
‘Where was this?’
‘London, sir. I’m from London.’
‘They wouldn’t let me, but I wanted to prove myself, sir, I wanted to show that I could do one better than those big men with their cars, credentials and money. So, I sold everything I owned and booked passage to France. I went to Creil and learnt what I could, hoping to get to the front to report what I saw.’
‘Which is illegal.’
I shrugged and looked around the room absent-mindedly. I knew full-well why no reporters were getting to the front. I had lived in the trenches and seen with my own eyes what the papers back home were banned from broadcasting. It wasn’t just the interrogations that were stopping me from sleeping.
‘I didn’t learn much in Creil, sir,’ I said, ignoring him. ‘So I got a sauf conduit and went to Senlis and–’
‘There are three places called Senlis in this country. To which Senlis did you go?’
I had no idea there was more than one. I was dumbstruck and too tired to think. ‘I’m telling the truth,’ was all I could say.
‘Which…Senlis?’ He began to smile thinking that he had discovered the proof to my falsehoods. I began to stutter, unable to think of a coherent answer, my memory dirtied with the horrors I had seen since.
He shook his head and began to laugh under his breath, still staring at me. I looked to the floor and blinked away the tears, feeling like my stomach was shrinking in size and I was about to vomit the meagre contents.
‘Who helped you?’
He sat forward, resting his elbows on the edge of the table and clasped his hands together. ‘Who helped you? You didn’t do this alone, you’re a woman.’
I scoffed. ‘No one helped me.’
‘That’s a lie,’ he said, prodding the folder and pushing it towards me. ‘You’ve said so before, it says so in here. Men helped you.’
‘Two soldiers in Paris,’ I said defiantly. ‘English soldiers.’
He sat back and huffed.
‘I went up to them and said ‘hullo boys’ and told them what I wanted to do; to get to the frontline. They agreed to help straight away, got me everything I needed: clothes, a haircut, some training, and then they sent me in the direction of Bethune.’ He said nothing, but continued to smile inanely. ‘They just wanted to help me.’
‘And the other?’
‘The other soldier. The one you refer to as Sir Galahad.’
I smiled and began to chuckle again, not attempting to stop since I saw how much it irritated him.
‘You should write some of this down, Dorothy.’
‘Dorothy? I said you should write some of this down,’ I repeated, waiting for her to continue speaking, but my suggestion had interrupted her train of thought and immediately her milky eyes closed and her mouth shut.
‘Dorothy?’ I pressed, but she did not stir.
I had an inclination that she had not realised she was talking aloud, and her mind had wandered. In my stupidity I had interrupted her, bringing her back to the present.
She was not in a mess room in France in 1915. She was not surrounded by plain walls, chipped tables and paraffin lamps. Her uniform was not khaki but cotton, an old cotton nightdress, stained yet clean.
‘Can you tell me anymore?’
She sat silently.
I sighed and gave up. I pushed my chair back into the corner of the room, quietly, taking her medical folder from the floor and placing it in the crook of my elbow as I picked up my coat and leather briefcase. I briefly stopped as I opened the door, thinking that I had seen a flicker of movement, but the only movement was the constant tremor of her hands against the threadbare armrests of the armchair that she sat in. I looked around me, at the sparsely decorated bedroom with its brick and board bookcase and bowing bed, but there was nothing else to see besides an old woman with mottled hands and drooping lips. I pulled the door shut, listening for the click of the old Victorian catch and then took my keys from my pocket and locked the door. Ritually, I placed her medical file in the slot beside her door and proceeded to complete filling in the blackboard, which hung on a piece of string in the middle of the door, with the relevant information needed for the night porter on duty.
DOROTHY LAWRENCE, Aged 76, Psychosis; hourly obs. Dr. I. Bennett.
I sighed and readjusted my grip on my briefcase, all the while thinking of Miss Dorothy Lawrence, the doddery old lady who liked to tell tales. Lately, she lingered in my mind long after I left, sitting in the centre, her hands clasped in her lap and her icy eyes piercing me with a look similar to the one that my Grandmother used to give me before telling me to clear my plate or to stop fidgeting.
My original idea of Dorothy, from when I was just a trainee psychiatrist, was one of an insane old woman with a compulsion to lie. But she had grown on me as a person, thanks to her constant tales of World War I adventures, and I was finding myself viewing her ‘insanity’ as less of a condition and more of a stalemate description of her tendencies to tell stories. The stories are so fantastical — unbelievable of course, but well-rehearsed — that even I find myself slipping into them as I stare at her decaying in her chair. She can remember the street names of Albert in France, and how far she biked over them to reach the trenches. She can recount the names of the men that, supposedly, helped her; the ones from Creil, Paris and Amiens. She can even tell me how heavy the footfalls of the men that came to arrest her were, although I believe she is confusing these men with the men that came to section her in 1925. Yet, she has no recollection of those men, or that she is in Friern Hospital. She still believes that she is in France, despite the fact that the war is over and there has been another since.
I searched the interior of my briefcase for a cigarette, suddenly desperate for one, and lit up as I reached the front doors. I stopped to button my coat once I reached the green of the drive, my cigarette hanging from my lips, as I observed my surroundings with morbid reflection. The hospital itself, at least the building, was ironically beautiful. There are endless arches over doorways and windows and endless windows in which no one is ever seen. Like Buckingham Palace, everything is shuffled inwards at a safe distance from the public. There are beautiful flanking campaniles in which no bells have ever rung, some raised porticoes left bare, hip-roofed turrets and tarnished gold bricks, surrounded by forsythia. It looks like a Tsar’s palace without the snow.
I wondered if Dorothy could remember it, the sight of the hospital. Or, if like many, the sight had driven ice into her mind and numbed her senses so that she truly forgot where she was. In 1925, when she was committed, according to her notes, she had broken her own wrist trying to escape the grasp of the nurses who dragged her from the car to the hospital. Such terror and ire had long since disappeared within her, along with her mind it seemed.
There is a tray of food left for me on a collapsible table, along with a newspaper that states the date is December 1st 1963. I push both away from me.
I miss meat, the taste of succulently roasted meat. I would rather eat a can of bully beef on dog biscuits than this slop that they serve me in this prison cell.
My mouth waters when I think of the stew that my friend, Sapper Tommy Dunn, cooked me whilst he hid me off the road by the trenches. I can see him now, cooking up a storm on a hotplate on the muddy ground of a burnt-out cottage, sitting on a makeshift mattress of a rotting eiderdown, dog blankets and an overcoat.
‘Eat up, love,’ he said.
As soon as I met Sapper Dunn I knew that he could be trusted. I had approached the frontline a few days beforehand and Sapper Dunn had stopped me on the road, all bluster, red hair and alabaster skin. He championed my cause of getting to the front and reporting the truth to the masses from the outset, and he was the exact kind of man I needed to help me get away with it.
Imagine it, a twenty-year-old girl, with a boy’s haircut and this bemused fatherly forty-something-year-old man, with pictures of his three daughters in his breast pocket, sitting on the floor in a muddy cottage, one mile from the front.
‘Yer the only one that made it through,’ he said with pride. ‘Someone can finally tell them what’s ‘appenin’ ‘ere. And truthfully. That’s important!’ His shaking hands gripped mine and shook them roughly.
He packed me away in the hollowed cottage off the main route to the front. Each night I fell asleep listening to a chorus of cracks and booms and rapid fire. It hardened my disposition to report the truth, but also weakened my temperament considerably. My hands never stopped shaking.
Sapper Dunn got me into the trenches without so much as an odd glance from another soldier. But with each day I stayed there my nerve was driven away by the grinding of the earth, like a mason’s mallet and chisel to my soul. Every time I fell asleep I woke to the bang of destroyed earth. When it wasn’t a bang it was a cry, then a whistle, then screams and calls for stretcher bearers. I saw men fly up into the sky and fall back as a heap of blood, guts and bones.
In a moment of cowardice, perhaps madness, I took out all my papers, bar the sauf conduit and my special notice, and burnt them. I feared for the safety of my soldier friends, who would have been revealed upon my discovery.
‘Tommy…I need…I need you to tell them that there’s a woman in the trenches.’ He did not protest. ‘I need you to send them to the cottage. I’ll hide out in the cottage.’ He nodded and squeezed my shaking hands in his own. ‘Thank you, Sir Galahad,’ I mumbled as he went to fetch a sergeant.
I sat on the floor of the cottage, facing the wall, rocking and holding my knees, shivering with exhaustion as a knock came on the door. I turned, expecting to see three officers coming to arrest me in the name of the King, but instead a man in a white coat entered.
‘Good morning, Dorothy,’ he said. I didn’t recognise him, so I sat back in my chair and fiddled with the spoon that sat in the slop that they had served me. I presumed he was another interrogator, so I sighed and waited for the questions to begin. I heard him dragging the chair from the corner of the room over to where I sat, keeping a polite distance between the two of us. He sat down heavily, dropping the folder he carried to the floor, believing that he would not need it for I would tell nothing but lies.
I looked up at him and smiled briefly, knowing the drill well enough. ‘My name is Dorothy Lawrence…and I am not a spy.’
To ensure that you never miss a future issue of the print magazine, subscribe from just £24 for 4 issues.