Extracts of Let Us Do Evil
(From Chapter 15- The Widow Jessica)
Jessica was still in the habit of getting to work a good fifteen minutes before her eight o’ clock start. Now in her third week as Sir Harold’s appointment secretary, she was determined to keep the job because she was determined to stay in Palestine and without it she would be sent home.
Sometimes Jessica felt so guilty about not wanting to go home, about liking it out here. And she knew she was damn right to feel guilty because she was not behaving well. It had been over a year now since Bob was killed. For the first three months he had been missing in action. Then once it had been established beyond all reasonable doubt that the Vichy French were no longer holding any British prisoners he became "missing believed killed". Jessica had always been certain that she was a widow and no doubt many thought that her proper place was back home with her family poised, after a decent interval, to take a new husband. But that was not what she wanted. She had loved Bob well enough and never felt the need to be unfaithful but she did not, in the foreseeable future, want another husband. What she wanted was a good time – while stocks last and let the future take care of itself. She had not quite got around to admitting this to herself. All she would own up to was that she would be thirty next birthday.
Palestine was considered to be an active war zone but really it was soldiers without war. When Jewish friends fretted that the Germans were now only five hundred miles away from Tel Aviv Jessica liked to remind them they had been twenty-three miles away from Dover for the last two years. But it was undoubtedly getting closer. Recently trains had started to bring some of the wounded from Egypt’s western desert directly to Palestine rather than Alexandria and Cairo. At least once a week Jessica, along with some of the other young women from the Secretariat, spent an evening working as an auxiliary nurse at the new hospital the army had established in Jerusalem. Auxiliaries were menials, the bedpan brigade, though sometimes she was allowed to try and wash hair matted with oil and sand and occasionally wrote postcards or telegrams home for those reduced to dictation by wounds or illiteracy.
“Except when they’re dying, when they sometimes like to see a padre, you’ll find it takes three things keep them quiet,” advised the business-like Sister in charge of the auxiliaries. “A nice cup of tea, don’t stint on the sugar; a fag, watch out for the ones who’ll need to have it lit for them, and the kind of smile that says for two pins you’d hop into bed with what’s left of them. But don’t. Their stitches might come undone.”
To Jessica’s annoyance she was rarely assigned to one of the officers’ wards where she imagined herself stumbling on some lightly wounded acquaintance like the scene from Gone with the Wind where Scarlet O’Hara searches for Rhett among the litters of Confederate wounded. Not that the other ranks were loath to flirt with her. It was just that some were such unlikely heroes: small and weedy looking with bad teeth. Sometimes they would ask, “So what brings a beautiful girl like you out here Miss? (or Luv or Sugar or Sweetheart).”
“I was here before the war,” she would say, her accent descending like a portcullis. “My husband was RAF.”
“Was?” the more alert would reply, and contrive to look guilty at being alive and safe and attended by this hoity-toity smasher however painful their own exit from the desert war had been…
“How are things with you?” her sister had asked in her letter. “Have you met anybody yet or is it still too soon?”
Too soon? Jessica sighed. The first man she had slept with after Bob’s death had been the pilot who had followed his Hurricane down. It was his second visit to their married quarters, a house in Haifa not far from the airfield with an interesting garden and an elderly Sudanese butler who had his own quarters at the rear. Afterwards Jessica blamed Ahmed’s drinks. Nowadays the butler, having become a better Muslim, rarely drank himself but the strength of his cocktails was famous and Ahmed was always proud to show that age had not wearied his shaker.