The work is backbreaking, monotonous drudgery and there are too many girls to name. Every last one of them blends together into a kerchief-coiffed, coverall-clad monolith.
“There’s the story of the milk ocean,” one of them is saying. Her hair is caught back at her nape, but a few dark strands of it have slipped free around her ears. “Long ago, there was an ocean that demons and angels churned together for a thousand years.”
You don’t have an inkling what she’s on about, but it scarcely matters. Your afternoon is measured out in the number of turnips you pull from the ground and toss into the basket over your shoulder. In the mornings, the cold sinks straight into your bones here, but the milking and the mucking aren’t quite so terrible. Yesterday, you bribed one of the other Derbyshire girls with your ration of coffee in order to steal a spare morning indoors and pretended not to notice when she looked at you with pity.
“I know this story,” another of the girls says crossly, the one who speaks often and authoritatively and has an accent too posh to mark her as a typical volunteer. “Haven’t you another?”
“Of course I have.”
“Then tell it.” Her voice is crisp as fried bread and your stomach growls for the third time in as many minutes. “Go on, before I die of boredom.”
“The dice game, then,” says the first girl, apparently not bothered. “For years and years, before the earth was as we know it, the god Shiva and his family have lived atop a mountain. This mountain rises from the very centre of the world, spearing into the sky with each of its four faces covered in gold and precious stones. Its highest peak has never once been scaled by any man. In India, they say this is the place where all souls come to rest. Unless Shiva is angry, the air there is always warm and filled with singing, like a lullaby.”
“Are you telling a bedtime story?” her friend interrupts. “Mellifluous as your words may be, I don’t think I should like to drowse off face-down in a patch of chicory.”
“Some of us want to hear it, you know,” comes a new voice, Irish around the edges. “Do shut up. Sara, go on.”
Winter is in that odd space between frigid and forgiving. The ground is more than moist enough to grip the soles of your brogues, but the air is chill enough to leave your hands shaking in their gloves and your entire face feeling as if it’s just had a good slapping. You wouldn’t refuse a promise of warmth and lullabies, however unrealistic.
The dark girl, Sara, continues as if she’s a governess entertaining a clutch of unruly children. “It was atop this very same mountain that Shiva challenged his wife, the beautiful and powerful Parvati, to a game of dice. With each roll of the dice, Parvati was victorious and her husband was forced to surrender his powers to her, one by one, until there was nothing left. And when Shiva could give no more, he sought to win each attribute back by imbuing the dice with his own spirit. The Lascars have a word for this, the very soul of a man in its purest state of being.”
Her words are soft, but plenty loud enough to be heard over the mind-numbing sound of turnips being tugged free and deposited into their baskets.
“And when Parvati discovered what her husband had done, she flew into a rage and would not be appeased by his words. Shiva claimed the game itself had been nothing but an illusion, that life itself was no more than precisely that.” She’s lowered her voice to just above a whisper. Down the line, someone shushes their neighbour. “For months, Parvati withdrew her bounty and the world was barren, stripped raw.”
Sara wrenches a turnip from the ground, so suddenly it makes you start, and tips her head to the sky. There’s a smudge of dirt on her cheek. “Until finally, Shiva came to her with a begging bowl in his hands and admitted the world was too dependent on sustenance to be nothing more than a mirage. And when Parvati returned, every belly was full and the people rejoiced, raising their hands to heaven and giving her the name Annapurna in thanks.”
Sara deposits her turnip in the basket with the others and it’s like the breaking of a trance. You’ve paused in your harvesting, but it hardly matters since it seems all the other girls have too.
“Is there a word the Lascars have for this, too, then?” you ask without thinking.
“Wartime,” someone shouts out, and the rest of the line dissolves into laughter.
Somehow, the rest of the afternoon doesn’t seem quite as cold.
The storyteller, Sara, looks up from her plate. “I’m so pleased to hear you enjoyed it. You looked as if your mind were somewhere else.”
“You’re young, aren’t you?” her companion asks suddenly. “I’d swear you weren’t a day over fifteen.”
“Mary,” chides the first girl, “hush. You’re being unkind.”
Neither of them can be past twenty.
“Work for pay is work for pay,” you say shortly. No one can fault you for craving as much, not with chambermaids and the like being let go at the drop of a hat by households looking to pinch and save a little extra. “And I’ll have you know I’ve been eighteen for nigh on six weeks.”
“Another of the Yorkshire girls, then,” says the smaller of the two, this Mary with the sharp tongue. “She’s no Londoner, you can tell. The London girls don’t turn to the countryside to make ends meet.”
Sara smiles politely. “Where do you come from?”
“Chesterfield. I was a needle-worker.”
“Seamstress,” Mary says succinctly. “There you have it. I told you, didn’t I?”
“Oh, you didn’t either. How are you faring out here, my dear? Don’t mind Mary, she couldn’t sew a fine seam until she was practically your age.”
Mary’s face, you notice, is extraordinarily pretty when she smiles.
“I can’t understand why anyone with a pound in their pocket and a lick of good sense would willingly join the WLA,” says the girl behind you as you collect your soap and towel. “And there’s more in their pockets than that, I’d wager, do you follow me?”
“They certainly wasn’t conscripted,” agrees someone else from behind one of the bath curtains. “No highborn lady signs on to go slogging about in wellies.”
As one of the greenhorns, you’ve learned the value of keeping your mouth shut and your ears open. And still, when you wake in the dead of the night to tug the coverlet closer around you, you sometimes hear the two of them softly bickering and laughing in their own little world and you all but bite through your tongue to keep from asking to join.
During the day, at least, it’s easy for you to try and find excuses to make conversation. “Is your husband in the war?”
“I have no husband,” says fair-haired Mary. There’s not a trace of her smile this time; her face is marred by a scowl and deeply puckered brows. She’s up to her wrists in mud, doing dirty battle with the carrot patch along with the rest of you.
Sara looks on with wide green eyes and deftly plucks one from the earth. “Nor I,” she says, and you realise you must be wearing your surprise on your sleeve. Without quite meaning to, you’d concocted stories for both of them, envisioning them as daughters from influential families who’d struck out from home to join the war effort and help ensure their husbands were brought safely home.
Mary sniffs. “This is all an elaborate ploy for the Lady Sara. By playing at being a commoner, she hopes to render herself undesirable to any man longing to lay hands on her for her riches.”
“Please forgive my dear friend’s forthrightness,” Sara says, sounding as if she’s said this many times before. “Shall I help you on the other side, just there?”
Mary is speaking. You’re curled under the covers in the hostel, straining your ears once again. “The cold out here, you know, it makes all the volunteers wither up and decide to take the season off. I can’t say that I blame them. There’s so little left to grow.”
From the bed beside her, Sara makes a small pensive sound. “That’s the nature of winter, isn’t it? Don’t fret, nobody else is having any better luck weathering it than you are.”
“I never said I couldn’t weather it,” Mary grumbles, “just that I wish it weren’t so dismal. I suppose you’ve learned a thing or two about picking up others’ messes in your time out here, haven’t you?”
“All that and more,” Sara says matter-of-factly.
And for a long while, you think perhaps they’ve both drifted off to sleep. Then Sara speaks again. “There’s no harm in imagining yourself to be elsewhere. I do it all the time. Bombay was always so bright, so alive, like a living tapestry.”
“No,” says Mary. In the faint flicker of candlelight, you see her sitting up and hugging her sharp knees. “I was never happy when I was there.”
When Sara slips out of her bed, you go stiff as a plank and squeeze your eyes shut until the sound of slippered footfalls and rustling sheets dies back down. When you look again, there are two heads on the same pillow, black and flaxen hair curling towards each other like tiny desperate hands.
“Misselthwaite is nearly all moor, nearly all barren.”
“But only nearly.”
“Yes. Only nearly. Once, there was just enough life in it to make all the difference.” Mary sounds tired now. “That’s wrong, what you said about Parvati the other day. The world didn’t rejoice when she returned. The world screamed for mercy when she disappeared and was too weak to do anything but beg.”
“Hush, Mary,” whispers Sara, once again sounding as if she’s said this many times before. “Hush.”
“The papers can’t get enough of you.” It’s the first time you’ve heard Mary laugh so bitterly and it makes you wish you hadn’t. “The princess who became a farm girl for the sake of putting food in the mouths of our poor brave boys. You act as if you have half a mind to keep this sort of life for your own, even when the war is over.”
“You as well. Misselthwaite sounds as if it must have been lovely. It must have been very difficult making the decision to leave it.”
Mary laughs her strange little laugh a second time. “I’m not one to be cloistered up in any sort of cage. Even if it’s for my own good. Especially if it’s for my own good.”
“Oh,” Sara says, gentle as a child’s kiss, “of course not. It’s never quite as romantic as it’s made out to be.”
“I knew an angel once, and he could make anything spring to life quick as you please. And Sara, there was a grey-eyed rajah too who had no use for any jewels, and both of them gone.”
The candle gutters out.
You fall asleep to the sound of crying and Sara’s soft, sad voice murmuring over and over: Hush, Mary. Hush.