An Indecent Obsession by Colleen McCullough

  Start Reading

  About this Book

  About the Author


  Also by this Author

  Table of Contents


  ‘baby sister’

  Mary Nargi Bolk

  I am grateful to Colonel R. G. Reeves, Australian Staff Corps (Ret.), Mrs. Alma Critchley, and Sister Nora Spalding for their generous technical help.


  Part 1


  The young soldier stood looking doubtfully up at the unlabelled entrance to ward X, his kit bag lowered to the ground while he assessed the possibility that this was indeed his ultimate destination. The last ward in the compound, they had said, pointing him gratefully off down a path because they were busy and he had indicated he could find his own way. Everything save the armaments his battalion gunsmith had taken from him only yesterday was disposed about his person, a burden with which he was so familiar he didn’t notice it. Well, this was the last building, all right, but if it was a ward it was much smaller than the ones he had passed along his way. Much quieter, too. A troppo ward. What a way to end the war! Not that it mattered how it ended. Only that it did end.

  Watching him undetected through her office window, Sister Honour Langtry gazed down neatly divided between irritation and fascination. Irritation because he had been foisted on her at a stage when she had confidently expected no further admissions, and because she knew his advent would upset the delicate balance within ward X, however minutely; fascination because he represented an unknown whom she would have to learn to know. Wilson, M. E. J.

  He was a sergeant from an illustrious battalion of an illustrious division; above the line of the pocket over his left breast he wore the red-blue-red ribbon of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, most prestigious and infrequently awarded, together with the ribbons of the 1939–1945 Star, the Africa Star without an 8, and the Pacific Star; the almost white-looking puggaree around his hat was a relic of the Middle East and bore a grey-bordered divisional color patch. He was wearing faded greens neatly laundered and pressed, his slouch hat was at the regulation angle, chin strap in place, and the brass of his buckles shone. Not very tall, but hard-looking, the skin of his throat and arms burned dark as teak. He’d had a long war, this one, and looking at him, Sister Langtry couldn’t begin to guess why he was scheduled for ward X. There was a subtle aimlessness about him, perhaps, as of a man normally well accustomed to knowing his direction suddenly finding his feet pointing down an utterly unfamiliar path. But that any man coming to any new place might feel. Of the more usual signs—confusion, disorientation, disturbances of comportment or behavior—there were none. In fact, she concluded, he looked absolutely normal, and that in itself was abnormal for ward X.

  Suddenly he decided it was time to act, swung his kit bag off the ground and set foot on the long ramp which led up to the front door. At precisely the same moment Sister Langtry walked round her desk and out of her office into the corridor. They met just inside the fly-curtain, almost perfectly synchronized. Some wag long since recovered and gone back to his battalion had made the fly-curtain out of beer bottle caps knotted on endless yards of fishing line, so that instead of tinkling musically like Chinese glass beads, it clashed tinnily. They met therefore amid a discord.

  ‘Hello, Sergeant, I’m Sister Langtry,’ she said, her smile welcoming him into the world of ward X, which was her world. But the apprehensive irritation still simmered beneath the surface of her smile, and showed in the quick peremptory demanding of her hand for his papers, which she had seen were unsealed. Those fools in admissions! He’d probably stopped somewhere and read them.

  Without fuss he had managed to shed sufficient of his gear to salute her, then removed his hat and gave her the envelope containing his papers without demur. ‘I’m sorry, Sister,’ he said. ‘I didn’t have to read them to know what’s in them.’

  Turning a little, she flicked the papers expertly through her office door to land on her desk. There; that should inform him she wasn’t going to expect him to stand like a block of wood in front of her while she delved into his privacy. Time enough to read the official story later; now was the time to put him at his ease.

  ‘Wilson, M. E. J.?’ she asked, liking his calmness.

  ‘Wilson, Michael Edward John,’ he said, a tiny smile of answered liking in his eyes.

  ‘Are you called Michael?’

  ‘Michael or Mike, it doesn’t matter which.’

  He owned himself, or so it seemed; certainly there was no obvious erosion of self-confidence. Dear God, she thought, let the others accept him easily!

  ‘Where did you spring from?’ she asked.

  ‘Oh, further up,’ he answered vaguely.

  ‘Come on, Sergeant, the war’s over! There’s no need for secrecy now. Borneo, I presume, but which bit? Brunei? Balikpapan? Tarakan?’


  ‘You couldn’t have timed the hour of your arrival better,’ she said cheerfully, and walked ahead of him down the short corridor which opened into the main ward. ‘The evening meal’s due shortly, and the kai’s not bad here.’

  Ward X had been thrown together from the bits left over, parked like an afterthought down on the perimeter of the compound, never intended as housing for patients requiring complex medical care. When full it could hold ten beds comfortably, twelve or fourteen at a pinch, besides what beds could be fitted on the verandah. Rectangular in shape, it was built of unlined ship-lapped timber painted a shade of pale brown the men called baby-cack, and it had a hardwood plank floor. The windows might more accurately have been termed large apertures, unglazed, with wooden louvers to shut out the weather. The roof was unlined palm thatch.

  There were only five beds in the main ward room at the moment, four down one wall in proper hospital rank, the fifth oddly out of place, for it lay on its own against the opposite wall and along it rather than at right angles to it, in contravention of hospital regulations.

  They were drab low cots, each neatly made up; no blankets or counterpanes in this steamy latitude, just a bottom and a top sheet of unbleached calico long gone whiter than old bones from hard use in the laundry. Six feet above the head of each bed was a ring rather like a basketball hoop, yards of jungle-green mosquito netting attached to it and draped with a style and a complication worthy of Jacques Fath at his best. Beside each bed sat an old tin locker.

  ‘You can dump your kit on that bed there,’ said Sister Langtry, pointing to the end bed in the row of four, the one nearest to the far wall, and so with louvered openings along one side of it as well as behind. A good bed for catching the breeze. ‘Stow everything away later,’ she added. ‘There are five other men in X, and I’d like you to meet them before dinner arrives.’

  Michael placed his hat on the pillow, the various components of his kit on the bed, then turned toward her. Opposite his bed was an area of ward completely fenced off by a series of screens, as if behind it lay some mysterious dying; but calmly beckoning him to follow, Sister Langtry slipped with the ease of long practice between two of the screens. No mystery, no dying. Just a long narrow refectory table with a bench drawn up along either side, and at its head one fairly comfortable-looking chair.

  Beyond was a door leading out onto the verandah, which was tacked like a showy petticoat down one side of the ward building, ten feet wide and thirty-six feet long. There were bamboo blinds below the eaves to keep out the weather when it rained, but at the moment they were all rolled up out of the way. A post-and-rail fence formed a balustrade, slightly less than waist high. The floor was hardwood like the ward, and rolled with a hollow drum sound at the beat of Michael’s booted steps. Fou
r beds were lined up against the ward wall, rather close together, but the rest of the verandah was furnished with a motley collection of chairs. A longer twin of the refectory table within the ward was standing near the door, benches down either side; quite a few of the chairs were scattered nearby, as if this part of the verandah was a favorite spot to sit. The ward wall consisted mostly of louvered apertures, wooden slats fully opened to permit whatever breeze there was full entry to the interior, for though the verandah was on the monsoon lee of the hut, it also happened to be the side of the southeast trades.

  The day was dying, but not yet spent of its last breath; pools of soft gold and indigo shadows dappled the compound beyond the verandah railing. A great black thunder-head swimming in bruised light sat down on the tops of the coconut palms, stiffening and gilding them to the panoply of Balinese dancers. The air glittered and moved with a languid drifting of dust motes, so that it seemed a world sunk to the bottom of a sun-struck sea. The bright banded rib cage of a rainbow soared upward, a crutch for the vault of the sky, but was cruelly smeared out of existence in mid-arch. The butterflies were going, the night moths coming, and met and passed each other without acknowledgment, no more than silent flickering ghosts. A chiming and a clear joyous trilling of many birds came from the cages of the palm fronds.

  Oh, God, here goes, thought Sister Langtry, preceding Sergeant Michael Wilson out onto the verandah. I never know what they’re going to be like, because whatever rationale they obey is beyond all save my instincts, and how galling that is. Somewhere inside me is a sense or a gift that understands them, yet my thinking mind can never manage to grasp what it is.

  She had informed them half an hour ago there was a new patient coming, and felt their uneasiness. Though she had expected it; they always regarded a newcomer as a threat, and until they got used to him, readjusted the balance of their world, they usually resented him. And this reaction was in direct proportion to the newcomer’s state when he arrived; the more of her time he took away from them, the deeper their resentment. Eventually things righted themselves, for he would slide from new hand to old hand, but until he did her life was bound to be hard.

  Four men sat around or near the refectory table, all save one shirtless; a fifth man lay full-length on the nearest of the beds, reading a book.

  Only one of them rose at the intrusion: a tall, thin fellow in his middle to late thirties, fair and bleached fairer by the sun, blue-eyed, dressed in a faded khaki bush jacket with a cloth belt, long straight trousers and desert boots. His epaulettes carried the three bronze pips of a captain. The courtesy he manifested in rising seemed natural to him, but it extended only to Sister Langtry, at whom he smiled in a way that excluded the man at her side, the newcomer.

  The first thing Michael noticed about them was the way in which they looked at Sister Langtry; not lovingly as much as possessively. What he found most fascinating was their refusal to look at him, though Sister Langtry had placed her hand on his arm and drawn him out of the doorway until he stood alongside her, so that not to look at him was difficult. However, they managed it, even the slight sickly lad reclining on the bed.

  ‘Michael, I’d like you to meet Neil Parkinson,’ said Sister Langtry, blandly ignoring the atmosphere.

  Michael’s reaction was perfectly instinctive; because of the captain’s pips he stiffened to rigid attention, precise as a guardsman.

  The effect of his respect was more in keeping with a slap across the face.

  ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, stuff it!’ Neil Parkinson hissed. ‘We’re all tarred with the same brush in X—there’s no rank to barmy yet!’

  Training stood Michael in good stead; his face showed no reaction to this gross rudeness as his pose relaxed from attention to an informal at ease. He could feel Sister Langtry tensing, for though she had dropped her hand from his arm, she stood close enough to him for her sleeve to brush against his; as if she wished in some way to support him, he thought, and deliberately moved a little away from her. This was his initiation, and he had to pass it on his own.

  ‘Speak for yourself, Captain,’ said another voice. ‘We are not all tarred with the troppo brush. You can call yourself barmy if you like, but there’s nothing wrong with me. They shut me in here to shut me up, for no other reason. I’m a danger to them.’

  Captain Parkinson moved aside to turn on the speaker, a young man lolling half naked in a chair: fluid, insolent, striking.

  ‘And you can get stuffed too, you slimy bastard!’ he said, the sudden hatred in his voice unnerving.

  Time to take over, before it got out of hand, thought Sister Langtry, more annoyed than she showed. It seemed this was going to be one of their more intolerable welcomes, if any could be called a welcome. They were going to play it in a meanly minor key, the sort of behavior she found hardest to take always, for she loved them and wanted to be proud of them.

  So when she spoke her tone was cool, detachedly amused, and threw, she hoped, the small clash into its right perspective for the newcomer. ‘I do apologize, Michael,’ she said. ‘To repeat myself, this is Neil Parkinson. The gentleman in the chair who contributed his mite is Luce Daggett. And on the bench next to Neil is Matt Sawyer. Matt’s blind, and prefers me to tell people straight away. It saves embarrassment later. In the far chair is Benedict Maynard, on the bed Nugget Jones. Gentlemen, this is our latest recruit, Michael Wilson.’

  Well, that was it. He was launched. Frail human ship, frailer than most or he wouldn’t be here, setting his sails into the storms and swells and calms of ward X. God help him, she thought. There doesn’t look to be a thing the matter with him, but there must be. He’s quiet, yes, but that seems natural to him. And there is a strength, a core of resilience quite undamaged. Which in my duration on ward X is unique.

  She looked sternly from one man to another. ‘Don’t be so touchy,’ she said. ‘Give poor Michael half a chance.’

  Subsiding onto the bench, Neil Parkinson laughed, and slewed himself sideways so he could keep one eye on Luce while he addressed his remarks to the latest recruit.

  ‘Chance?’ he asked. ‘Oh, Sis, come off it! What sort of chance do you call it to wind up in here? Ward X, this salubrious establishment in which you find yourself, Sergeant Wilson, is really limbo. Milton defined limbo as a paradise of fools, which fits us to a tee. And we wander our limbo about as much use to the world and the war as tits on a bull.’

  He paused to check the effect of his oratory on Michael, who still stood beside Sister Langtry: a fine young man in his full tropical uniform, his expression interested but undismayed. Normally Neil was kinder than this, and would have served as buffer between the newcomer and the other men. But Michael Wilson didn’t fit the X mold. He was not uncertain, emotionally impoverished, dazed, any of the multitude of things he might have been and still fitted. Indeed, Michael Wilson looked like a hard, fit, young but veteran soldier in full possession of his wits and in no need of the concern Sister Langtry was plainly suffering on his behalf.

  Ever since the news had come several days ago of the cessation of hostilities with Japan, Neil had felt the anguish of time outstripping him, of decisions not yet satisfactorily made, of strengths returning but untested. What time was left to Base Fifteen and ward X he needed, every second of it, without the disruption a new man was bound to cause.

  ‘You don’t look troppo to me,’ he said to Michael.

  ‘Nor to me,’ said Luce with a chuckle, and leaned to poke the blind man in the ribs a little too hard and viciously. ‘Does he look troppo to you, Matt?’ he asked.

  ‘Cut that out!’ snapped Neil, his attention diverted.

  Luce’s chuckle became a laugh; he threw back his head and roared, a barrage of sound without amusement.

  ‘That’s enough!’ said Sister Langtry sharply. She looked down at Neil, found nothing to help her, and then looked at each of the others in turn. But their resistance was complete, they were determined to show themselves to the new patient in prickly, squabbling diso
rder. At such times her impotence tormented her, yet experience had taught her never to push them too hard. Moods like this never lasted, and the worse the mood, the stronger the swing in an opposite direction was likely to be when it was over.

  She finished her scansion of the group with Michael, and discovered his eyes on her intently, which was a little disquieting too, for unlike most new patients, his eyes had erected no walls to hide behind, held no rudderless plea for help; he was simply staring at her as a man might regard a charming novelty, or a pup, or some other article of great sentimental appeal but little practical value.

  ‘Do sit down,’ she said to him, smiling, concealing the irritation she felt at being so dismissed. ‘You’re probably weak at the knees by now.’

  He picked up immediately the fact that her comment about being weak at the knees was more a reprimand to the other men than sympathy directed at himself, which surprised her. But she got him settled in a chair facing Neil and the others, then seated herself where she could see Neil, Michael, Luce and Benedict, and leaned forward, unconsciously smoothing the grey cesarine of her uniform.

  Used to focussing her attention on those among them who seemed to warrant it at any particular time, she made a mental note that Ben was beginning to look restless and distraught. Matt and Nugget had the happy knack of ignoring the bickering which was a permanent thing between Neil and Luce, where Ben flinched from the discord, and if it was allowed to go on would become very distressed.

  Luce’s eyes, half shut, were dwelling on her with the kind of chilling sexual familiarity her whole character, upbringing and training found offensive, though since being in ward X she had learned to suppress her disgust, had become more interested in discovering just what made a man stare at her so. However, Luce was a special case of it; she had never managed to make any headway with him at all, and sometimes felt a little guilty for not trying harder. That she did not try harder she readily admitted was a consequence of the fact that during his first week in ward X he had fooled her gloriously. That she came to her senses quickly and with no harm done either to him or to herself could not mitigate her original lack of judgment. Luce had a power, and he stirred a timorousness in her which she hated to feel but had perforce to endure.

No Previous Page Next Page
Should you have any enquiry, please contact us via [email protected]