Daylight never used to feel so intrusive. Before the push, he could’ve sworn that he loved to feel the sun, a gentler touch than any human hand could offer, on his skin. Neither kiss nor breath could compete with the warmth and lightness of a spring morning. That was before the day the world had turned to thunder and the sky bruised over with smoke and pain, so much pain.
For weeks he wonders how he came to be here, seeing nothing for the dressing that covers his eyes. He might be blind – but how would he know? For a while he thinks he’s deaf too, until he raises a hand and clicks his fingers over first his left, then his right, ear. They echo like gunfire and he retreats into the darkness before the memories crash over him, the memories of the rattling and the screaming and then, worst of all, the shelling.
It’s not all horrors, though. The bandage might seem claustrophobic and all-consuming at times, a mummification of the senses – especially when the close silence informs Jim that night has fallen and a kind of loneliness sets in – but sometimes the blackness splinters with dreams of startling colour and clarity, of a young horse with white socks and a pastoral paradise and heartbreaking visions of his home. Sometimes a nurse comes, and she’ll sit with him and talk of times before the war – she’s from the north, full of stories of cities he’s never seen and the untamed beauty of the moors and forests that lie beyond the Midlands.
She makes him laugh as he’s never laughed for months, imagining this alien place as less like the brutal, uncompromising wasteland of Wuthering Heights and more a strange fantasy land of earth and sky, a place of cruelty and splendour. He tells her stories of growing up in the south, and coaxes a song or two from her until she chides him that he should’ve been asleep by now, has he no thought for his recovery?
In truth the captain has no thought for himself at all, beyond the need to recover his sight. He worries instead for his comrades. So many others left their fractured selves upon the field that bloody day – his batman, the major, a host of others he’ll never see again, if indeed he sees at all. He tells this to Emily, his sweet-voiced nurse, and her silence is all he needs to hear to know the truth of how much was lost. She slides a hand down over his warm arm to grasp his own with clutching, doll-like fingers, and whispers the only thing she can to console him – that she’ll come back tomorrow with the doctor and see about removing the dressing over his eyes.
At first he notes little difference between the utter emptiness of his blindness and the hospital room itself, until Emily tells him that they’ve sealed the weak sunlight from the room, and they’ll get him re-accustomed to a little lantern light. He tells her that he’s looking forward to seeing her face at long last, because he’s perfectly certain her lovely voice can only match a real blinder of a girl. They both wince then, and he amends – no, not blinder. A blinder’s the last thing he needs. Stunner, that’s better. She giggles, tells him she’s lifting the screen on the candle now.
Through the low amber light he sees her, smiling hesitantly with her other hand on his arm to keep him steady, and the captain laughs aloud. To see again, after so long in darkness…it’s as if she has exhumed him from the earth itself. He sweeps her close and kisses her cheeks, thanking her delightedly. Even in the dim light he can see her flush crimson and gesture to the doctor: he deserves the credit, not her, but Jim knows she and she alone is responsible for his salvation.
Still pink in the cheeks, she clears her throat and informs him through a badly-stifled smile that for the next few nights he can sleep without the dressing, but he should still wear a thinner one during the day.
He does so, hating the grey light that makes it through the gauze to taunt him with its elusive presence. It feels like a clinging fog and it puts him in a foul mood until Emily returns a week later, telling him that in the morning he can take it off altogether. Then she has something to show him.
What can she have to show him, he demands? Shaking her head, she pushes him back onto the bed: if he’s not careful, she threatens, she’ll give him something to make him sleep. Who knows what damage he might do overexerting himself?
Nonsense, Jim scoffs, refusing to release her hand. He coaxes her towards him, pleading with his wide smile and his undine eyes until eventually she relents: she’s taking him to see the man that saved him, who has been asking for him for three days. A major, brought in with the other casualties the same evening as Jim. He’s in another room, still working through the loss of his hearing and nerve damage in his leg.
Same name as him, Emily remarks, and Nicholls freezes.
She takes the momentary advantage to slip from his gentle grasp and pull the sheets up over him, skimming one dainty hand over his forehead and sweeping his fair hair back from his face. Sleep now, she says; tomorrow, she’ll take him to see Major Stewart.
The next morning, filled with a new hope as alien to him as the sun itself, Jim lifts the gauze over his eyes himself and greets the daylight with a smile.