Just the Sort of Day Jack Had Always Loved

How to Cite

Brien, D. L. (1999). Just the Sort of Day Jack Had Always Loved. M/C Journal, 2(8). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1811
Vol. 2 No. 8 (1999): End
Published 1999-12-01

Edith and John Power were a wealthy expatriate Australian couple who lived in England and Europe from the early years of the 20th century until their deaths. In 1915 John Power married Edith Lee in London before serving as a surgeon on the Western Front in the Royal Army Medical Corps. After the war Edith and John left Britain to live in Paris and Brussels in the centre of a large international group of avant-garde artists. Edith, who was twelve years older than her husband, and had been married twice before (once widowed and once divorced), was to all accounts the driving force behind John's success as an artist -- he exhibited alongside Picasso, Braque and Kandinsky -- and the great love of his life. The following comes from a book-length fictionalised biography of their lives, narrated by Edith in the early 1960s when she was ninety-two years old. This extract comes from the part of the manuscript dealing with the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Island of Jersey in the second world war; the 'safe haven' to which the Powers had fled in 1938 when war threatened.

The first winter under the Germans was very hard and there were reports of old people dying of starvation and exposure. Jack had terrible chilblains and we were both very thin. Cooking fat was only available for doctors to give to invalids, and one poor chap was so desperate that he used sump oil from his car to fry up some gull eggs, and poisoned himself. Sitting down to a plate of boiled potatoes I couldn't sometimes help but reminisce about the wonderful meals we had eaten in Paris and Brussels. How decadent they seemed -- oysters, poached salmon, grilled tournedos with asparagus or a roasted duck, then a glass of champagne, a slice or two of Ange à Cheval and some wild strawberries to finish off with.

I also realised how petty all our worries had been up 'til then. We would be upset if the hotel we fancied was booked out for the summer, the bath water cold or a soufflé heavy. When the stock market dropped a point or two we were devastated, and Jack used to sulk for days when he had trouble with a painting or if his frames were not exactly as ordered, the moulding wrong, the gilding scratched or too bright. Such concerns seemed absurd when we faced death every day and misery and fear were all around us.

Then the prisoners-of-war arrived from Russia, dressed in rags and even thinner than us. They suffered terribly, working impossibly hard every day on the railway and underground hospital, with nowhere proper to sleep and very little to eat. We felt so sorry for them, and admired those Islanders who, although it was a serious crime, sheltered them if they managed to escape. We had another dreadful reminder of just how awful the Germans could be when they started shooting anyone caught with a crystal radio set.

By the summer of 1942 Jack was very ill, although he continued to deny anything was wrong. He finally confided in me just how dire things were one afternoon when we were sitting on the terrace. We were drinking the last of our English tea and discussing how wild the garden had become. One minute Jack was saying how much he enjoyed watching everything return to its natural state, the next he was telling me that he thought he had a cancerous tumour in his kidneys and should see a doctor. I listened in a daze as he detailed the possible treatments and his prognosis, which he anticipated to be poor. Then he stood, drank the dregs in his cup, kissed me and said he had to return to the studio. He had salvaged a piece of wood from somewhere to paint on and didn't want to lose the last light.

I was stunned, not wanting to believe what he had told me. I never found out whether Jack suspected the cancer before the Occupation, but if he did, I can't understand why he didn't tell me. We could have gone back to England or over to Switzerland and seen the best doctors. This still puzzles me for Jack was never reticent to seek medical treatment. Tony even laughingly called Jack a hypochondriac, he was so careful with his health, but then again, I know Jack's father had hidden the same condition from his family some forty years before. For many years after the war Ceylon tea only ever tasted of trouble and dismay to me. Nowadays everyone wants to give me tea all the time, especially the nurses. I tell them I'd really like a stiff gin and tonic, but alcohol is another of life's pleasures denied to the elderly. If I could only get out of this bed, I'd get one for myself -- a big one.

I have forgotten the name of that doctor we consulted a few days later, but I remember exactly what he said. He confirmed what Jack thought, that the tumours were in his kidneys, but added that they had possibly settled in his lungs as well. In a last (but futile) effort, my poor darling was operated on by this old fashioned surgeon who had to work in the most primitive conditions; without the drugs, anaesthetics or antiseptics he needed. By that time it was difficult to find soap whatever price you were willing to pay, and I gave him some fancy little rose scented tablets to wash up with before he cut Jack open.

Jack had never been a fast healer and all the odds were against him; the strain of the advancing cancer, the inadequacy of our diet and the lack of proper medicines. The only foods we could obtain were quite coarse, there was no lean meat to make beef tea or eggs for milk puddings. Jack once said to me something to the effect that the ghastly jokes of fate are not always in the best of taste but they could be extremely witty. I never, however, found anything except the most savage cruelty in his situation, that such a highly trained surgeon had to endure such a crude assault on his body, and that a wealthy philanthropist could suffer so for the want of the most basic requirements of food, firewood and pain killers.

My darling, who had been so dreadful when struck down with the slightest illness, was a model patient. It took a long time, but eventually he was able to leave his bed, and the first thing he did was to boil up his own analgesics, potent narcotics which he followed with a stiff whisky. When his condition deteriorated and I had to tend to all his most intimate needs, he was always good tempered and never made me feel I was humiliating or demeaning him. We grew closer than ever, but I knew our time was running out.

In another cruel twist of fate Jack was only exempted from deportation to a German internment camp by the sick certificate. An order of 1942 decreed that all the British men not born on the Channel Islands, from the young boys of sixteen to poor old men of seventy, would be transferred to Germany. Thinking about it now, it seems bizarre that such a reasonable bureaucratic rule could regulate the Germans' inhumanity.

My darling's last days are as clear in my memory as if they were yesterday. He lay in our yellow bedroom, looking out over the garden to the sea. I only left his side for the briefest periods, and slept in a chair by his bed.

Early one morning I woke from an uneasy doze. I looked over to Jack. His face was grey and much too old for his sixty-two years, he was no longer the boy he had always been in my heart. Lying stiffly in the middle of the bed, arms by his side, eyes and lips closed, his breathing was so shallow that his chest hardly rose or fell. I wondered if he felt the weight of the blankets or heard the wind outside. Did he even know how I sat with him?

I looked out over the garden. The vegetable patches dug in the chamomile lawn were flourishing, but the grass was long, the roses run to briars, the pond filled with sludge and rotting weeds.

I wanted to lie beside my darling and hold him, just as I had each night for so many years, so after I had removed my shoes and placed them together under the bed, I pulled back the sheets and lay on my side facing Jack. He didn't move. I traced my finger across his cheekbones and down his nose to the mouth I had kissed so often. His skin was cool and very dry. I moved over and pressed my body close to his and as he made no sign that this was uncomfortable, I began to relax. The house was quiet and, for the first time in weeks, I sank into a peaceful sleep.

When I woke, the soft light of late afternoon was filtering through the curtains. The breeze had dropped outside and I heard a lone bird calling for its mate. Most of the birds had been killed and I thought I would put out some potato bread for him. What depths we were reduced to in those days, eating the gentle creatures around us. It was rumoured that some desperate soul had roasted and eaten a hedgehog, but I still can't believe that was true. There were so many dreadful stories in those days, you never knew what to believe.

My hand found Jack's. It was icy. I willed myself not to think of it, but I knew he was gone. I touched his cheek, my fingers slightly warming the cold flesh, then I put my arms right around him and pressed my face into his neck. We lay like that for a long time.

Eventually I got up, tucked the blankets around him and closed the window. Downstairs I washed in cold water and dressed in black stockings, black slip and my best black dress. My black shoes were still under Jack's bed, so I laced on my tan brogues. I found my veiled black hat and put it on the sideboard. Even though I knew it was ridiculous, I felt uncomfortable wearing brown shoes with black and returned them to the cupboard. I looked around for my pearls, and realised I had left them upstairs too.

I stood outside the bedroom door for some time before I could enter. Then I went in, raised the window and sat on the chair. I don't know what I thought about, but after some time the chirping of the little bird brought me back to the present. I bent and retrieved my shoes from under the bed and placed them beside the door. I could see my pearls lying in a shining mound on top of the blankets just below his hip.

As I was picking them up I finally looked at Jack properly. His eyes were closed and his face was relaxed as if in a deep dreamless sleep. He looked years younger. He wore his favourite blue striped pyjamas from Jeremyn Street, but he was a stranger to me. I kissed him for the last time, then lifted the linen sheet to cover the face I had loved so much. I turned away, picked up my shoes and left the room, closing the door behind me. Although I hadn't noticed, that dreadful Sunday, the 1st of August 1943, had been a beautifully hot summer's day, just the sort of day Jack had always loved.

Author Biography

Donna Lee Brien