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Illingworth House: 32 - Another Crisis

After the horrors of warfare a 'flu epidemic sweeps across Europe - and Abe Illingworth is summoned to London where his estranged wife is desperately ill.

To read earlier chapters of John Waddington-Feather's novel please click on Illingworth House in the menu on this page.

But there were others present who weren't so happy - those who had served at the front. Joe's words rang true, and though he never admitted it, Abe Illingworth admired Joe for speaking out so. So did Henry Johnson. They had been in the killing fields and knew all about them. Because of this Colonel Illingworth treated the German prisoners at his camp more as brothers-in-arms than as an enemy.

And even on the frontline, by the end of the war, when their ways crossed, German and British patrols simply waved at each other and then went in opposite directions. Only the generals and the politicians on both sides continued sanctioning the butchering.

Joe Gibson and Abe Illingworth never went into action again, but another crisis entered their lives by the end of the year. A flu epidemic swept across Europe claiming more lives even than the four years of conflict. Mary Gibson was ill for weeks. Worse still, first her mother, then her father succumbed and died within a day of each other. Little Helen became an orphan and went to live with the Gibsons permanently.

The epidemic rampaged through the prisoner-of-war camp where Abe Illingworth was commandant. The German officers refused to open their dormitory windows, leaving their quarters airless and ripe for the virus to take hold. Many soon fell victim to the bug and were buried in a new cemetery near Keighworth.

One day, after he'd been attending the funerals of two high-ranking German officers and had called in at home to see how his father was, a telegram arrived. His wife was very ill with the flu and could he come at once.

"Damned nuisance," was his first reaction, but when he rang the hospital, his mood changed. She was dying and hadn't long to live. He quickly made arrangements with his second-in-command at camp, rang his sister Victoria in London, and caught the next train to London.

As it rumbled through the English countryside into the dusk, his mind went over his marriage and the impending divorce. "No need for that now," he mused, but felt no relief, only an odd sense of guilt. Why, he didn't know. There was nothing to feel guilty about. The separation had been mutual from an early stage of the marriage, a loveless venture from the start, and he had made sure Rachel was all right financially.
Anyhow, he consoled himself with the thought that if she died it would save a deal of further expense and the cost of an expensive divorce settlement. The man of business was always in control right to the end.

His sister met him off the train as he was staying at her London flat overnight. Events had overtaken her and she looked drawn, for Rachel had been ill only a matter of days. She clung to him as they walked down the platform and poured out all that had happened.

To make matters worse, Aubrey Kingham-Jones was waiting at the barrier for them. Why he was there, Abe never discovered, but he tagged on like a limpet. He had been drinking at the railway bar while Victoria had waited on the platform for her brother,and he reeked of whisky.

"Damned awful business this flu, Illingworth," was all he could muster. "Frightful!"

Abe glared at him, walked past and called a cab. It was Victoria who did all the talking in the taxi on the way to the hospital.

When they arrived, Victoria deposited the major in the waiting room and hurried with Abe along miles of brown-tiled corridors. The place reeked of disinfectant and was packed with flu victims. When they entered her ward, Rachel was in a side room, with the girlfriend she lived with at her bedside. The woman was red-eyed with weeping and as Abe and his sister came in, she left hurriedly.

Abe felt sorry for the woman. She had given his wife more love than ever he had and made her life worthwhile.

Used as he was to seeing men die at the front and in hospital, he was still shocked when he saw Rachel. She had been a big woman but was now he barely recognised her at first, she was so emaciated. She was bathed in sweat and her hair stuck to her face, throwing into relief her gaunt features. Her face looked more like a mask than a living thing and all the time he was there, she gave out long agonised snores as life left her, breath by laboured breath.

Abe could only stare. He reached out and held her thin hand laid on the coverlet. "Rachel," he offered. But there was no response. She was past all speech. He was glad his sister was there and they made stilted conversation as together they watched Rachel die.

They spoke in whispers, never taking their eyes off Rachel but after a while, it all became too much for Victoria and she deserted Abe to join her lover in the waiting-room. He remained alone, steeling himself against those dreadful snores and bouts of coughing, each one of which seemed as if it would be the last. And as he looked on her, he pitied her. He felt no remorse, no grief, only pity that she had to die so young. And he was glad he had Mary Calow and he was glad Mary was healthy.

Suddenly the dreadful intakes of breath ceased and for an instant the silence was worse than the noise. She made no movement, just stopped living. He waited a moment and leaned over her. "Rachel," he called softly, but he knew there'd be no reply.

She was already growing cold when he called the nurse. She confirmed what he knew already and as he got up to go, the woman who had been at Rachel's bedside came in.
He paused and said awkwardly, "You must be Angela." She nodded and he held out his hand. She took it and for one moment they faced each other. "I'm sorry," he said simply and squeezed her hand. "I'm very sorry for you." Then he left her to her grief.

Before leaving the hospital, he made arrangements to have his wife's body sent home for burial. Then he went to his sister's flat, having told her to get rid of Kingham-Jones. He took her out for a dismal meal that night, where they talked over the past and Rachel before returning to Victoria's flat, and the next day he caught an early train to Keighworth.

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