The room was full of false noises and chatter. The cocktails flowed and were too warm. Naval officers in tropical dress-whites looked tired and worn from seeing and participating in so much horror. Gladys stood still, thinking and feeling so alone. She was among men who were among their ghosts.
She moved out to the balcony of the Residence and looked out over to the Fleet in the harbour below. The wind from the sea smelt of brine and cordite, sand and sorrow. She could almost see the rust, like painted swatches over the hulls and the gaping gash-sharp dark holes where shells had punched into people’s lives and bodies. It was sunset and as tradition had it, the White Ensigns were lowered across the grey battle ships and cruisers. A bugler played a lament and clouds started to chase a rain shower towards the french windows forcing her to turn and that meant she would have to try and engage in conversation in the smoke filled room.
A tall, slightly stooped officer with dreary eyes stood blocking the entrance. His hair was thinning, grey and his uniform although with two rows of bright medal ribbons, flopped around him. He looked straight at her, then closed his eyes momentarily. He looked burdened.
This was a man with secrets and troubles she thought.
‘Excuse me Lady Barttelot, I knew your husband well and I thought,’ he stopped and dipped his head down. ‘I, I am so, so sorry.’ He finished with a stutter.
‘Thank you,’ she tightened her lips, ‘where did you meet him?’
‘It was at Gallipoli. We were on the staff together, rather out of the whole bloody mess really,’ he said still looking at the floor, ‘I am sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.’
‘No, well, thank you’ she almost whispered, ‘I am sorry as well you know?’
Suddenly behind him Evie her sister appeared and then moved swiftly between them.
‘Oh Gladys, I should have introduced you, this is Commander Diggle.’
He stood straighter now, and offered his hand. Gladys’ head was dulled by the drink and and before she could touch him she was pushing her sister and the Commander to one side and swept through the room. Gladys stumbled through the fug and noise and found herself at the grand and opulent entrance. Two naval ratings presented arms to her, their polished boots scuffing the gravel as she tottered, crunching stones beneath her tight shoes and made her way carefully down the stone steps.
At the bottom, she sat down and looking back saw the lights of the Residence dancing and flickering as people moved through the beams. The awfulness of her situation had now dawned on her. She was a war widow and not one that she could be proud of, and yes, Evie had been kind to ask her out to Gibraltar where she was posted with her husband Ernest.
But there was another reason why she was there.
The man who had killed her husband was in the prison on the Rock just under a mile from the Residence. She could almost touch it from her balcony. What was he doing she thought right now? In solitary she had been told and so imagined him pacing, running his hands through his hair with his elbows furrowing on a desk or maybe he had started to write and refuse her visit, but it was all too late now.
Gladys stood up and smoothed her dress, breathed in deeply and knew that by tomorrow she would have answers.