Song of songs, p.28
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       Song of Songs, p.28

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  Alice spoke viciously: ‘What a bloody war!’ She lit another cigarette.

  I had spent my embarkation leave with Pansy and her mother at The Pines. Then I came back to London for the last night as I had been told to report to Victoria at 7.30. Alice got up early the next morning to see me off. ‘I’ve said fond farewells to so many men, now it’s the turn of the girls. Good luck, Hellie.’ Her perfumed cheek brushed mine. ‘My dear, you look hideous in that ghastly hat.’ She gave a mock shudder then turned and walked away over the station concourse. I saw several backs straighten as men returning dejected from leave stopped to watch her swaying hips and the poise of her beautiful head.

  I had looked down at myself: my coat was hideous too, and my shoes were almost flat, but it would not matter where I was going. So I pulled the unaccustomed weight of my knapsack more securely on to my shoulders and beckoned to my porter to follow me on to the platform.

  The destroyers began to wheel about; we were coming close to the coast of France. I heard excited squeals of mirth behind me and saw that two of my fellow VADs were either side of the young Flying Corps officer, talking and laughing up at him. I was shocked; how could they have allowed themselves to be approached like that – without an introduction? I looked at them disapprovingly – until I remembered my own voice protesting to Frank Gardiner: ‘But we haven’t been introduced!’ – and such a short time after, I had permitted his intimacies in the taxi, and kissed him in the night club. Bitter shame swept over me. Gerald – oh Gerald, how could I have so forgotten you? And as I stared through a mist of tears at the harbour of Boulogne coming steadily nearer I vowed I would never dishonour his memory again.

  Chapter Two

  Six of us were posted to Rouen, to a tented hospital on the edge of a great forest. I shared with a VAD called Innes: her father was Master of an Oxford College and she had graduated herself before enlisting, so I was rather nervous of her: but she was shy and softly spoken, and in the forced intimacy of the tiny bell tent we became friends.

  The grey-haired matron, who wore a regular army cape and the ribbons of the South African War, welcomed us pleasantly the first morning – but her face was stern as she recited the strict list of rules we must obey. We were very subdued as Home Sister escorted us to the big marquees which were to be our wards.

  But I was lucky; as I stepped through the canvas porch a tall handsome woman with striking black hair framing her face rustled forward. ‘Pleased to meet you, Nurse.’ As soon as she spoke she betrayed her origins, but she gave me a warm smile with a flash of very white teeth, and I smiled gratefully back.

  Sister Jennings was from Birmingham; she had trained in a Poor Law infirmary there. She was very tall, taller even than my five foot nine, and her hair was blacker, her cheeks pinker, her figure fuller; so that at first I felt like a mere shadow in her surging wake. But she was kind. She seemed to like everyone, and everyone liked her. With the men she flirted relentlessly; I was shocked until I began to realize that flirting was like eating and breathing to her. She flashed her eyes at the CO; her hand would rest lightly on the orderly officer’s arm as he did his round, and when he patted her full behind in the sisters’ bunk one day she turned and laughed at him and wagged her forefinger in front of his nose – ‘Now, now, behave yourself!’ and then the rebuking finger descended and she stroked his lapel and straightened his tie as he smirked back at her.

  We had the hardest-working orderlies in the hospital, because Sister flirted with them too, and the patients adored her. She laughed and chaffed, and as she took the medicines round she sang, ‘Hold your hand out, naughty boy,’ in a deep warm contralto. If we were not too busy in the evening she led the men in sing-songs, and I would join in too. One evening as we went off duty together she said, quite seriously, ‘You know, you’ve got a really nice voice there, Girvan – plenty of body to it, despite your being so slender. And, dear, if you don’t mind me suggesting it, why don’t you borrow some of my rouge when you go down into town next time? You could be a real stunner if you dolled yourself up a bit. Why, with your voice you could even go on the stage!’

  I did not know how to reply, so at last I said, ‘So could you, Sister, I’m sure.’

  She said seriously, ‘No, dearie, – I’m a nurse. Never wanted to do anything else and never will, it’s my job, you see.’ And I did see. She was deft and kind and clever, and like a true professional she made the most difficult tasks look easy. The only duty she was unhappy with was writing to patient’s relatives. ‘I’ve never been very sharp with a pen, it doesn’t come natural to me. When I write the words they seem too stiff and formal, and I know they’re not right but I can’t think of any others. So I’d be grateful if you’d do it when you’ve got the time dearie – ever so grateful.’

  From the tales the other VADs told, it was obvious that Sister Jennings did not take Matron’s rules too seriously. They said she often slipped back into our compound late at night, skirting the edge of the forest and ducking under the barbed-wire fence behind the latrine hut. She had never actually been caught yet, and the general opinion was that Matron suspected, but chose to turn a blind eye because Sister Jennings was such a good nurse.

  I wrote to relatives, as Sister had asked me to, and I wrote long letters to Robbie. He became quite interested in my fellow VADs and nurses, and would even ask after them by name. But in every letter he referred to Eddie; the loss of his twin ran through his words, like the counterpoint to a tune. As I read them my heart ached for him, and for myself – I still could not believe that Eddie would never laugh with me and tease me again. But I noticed that Robbie often mentioned an officer called Ralph Dutton; they seemed to spend a lot of time together when they were out of the line and he wrote, ‘Ralph’s a very decent sort,’ so that I was glad he had found a new friend. In another letter Robbie told me that Sergeant Holden had been awarded the Military Medal for his work in bringing in the wounded under fire after the failure of the attack on Thiepval early in September. I remembered Eddie’s loved voice as he had said, ‘Then he picked me up and carried me in, just like a baby.’ Sergeant Holden had earned the gratitude of other men’s sisters now. At the end of that letter Robbie wrote, almost casually, that he had been given his company. It was with pride that I addressed my reply to ‘Captain Girvan’.

  A brief scrawl from Conan told me that he was back in France, his all-too-short training period over. As I answered it I remembered Hugh’s tale, and thought that at least my cousin would never again have to squat in a muddy trench while his chum died at his feet. It was Nanny’s cramped, seldom-used handwriting that informed me of the birth of Guy’s second son. She had written: ‘Lady Muirkirk is well, but very tired.’ I suspected that even Nanny thought the births had come too close together. When I next wrote to Guy I congratulated him, but Guy’s letters were very short now – he never mentioned Pansy at all, only the weather in the front line, and how sick he was of the incessant hammering of the guns.

  Gradually I learnt to gauge the strength of the wind by listening to the rush and slap of the heavy walls of the big marquee, and got used to calling sugar boxes medicine cupboards, and the bell tent at the end of the ward, the sluice room. I soon realized that emptying bottles and bed pans was much more complicated in a tented hospital, but luckily Sister Jennings’ way with the orderlies ensured that I hardly ever had to do this job, and the only time I visited the incinerator was when I slunk there after dark to push in my own sodden pads. I was ill the second week in Rouen, but Sister filled me a hot-water bottle herself and placed a footstool beneath my feet and left me to doze behind the screens that made up Sister’s bunk. Afterwards, when I tried to apologize for my incapacity, she said, ‘Oh, dearie, don’t think of it – I know what it can be like – I have the occasional bad do myself. But generally I’m so glad to see it that I don’t mind. I always try to be careful, but you never quite know, do you dear?’ She went off with the medicine tray, humming, as I gaped at her. But it was impossible to b
e shocked: she was so open and cheerful.

  Once Innes and I had mastered the mysteries of the guy ropes and tent pegs, living under canvas was fun – rather like a continuous picnic but the one thing I did not like about camp life was the rats. I was terrified of them – with a terror out of all proportion to their size and activities. Innes spent hours trying to explain that as long as I did not interfere with them they would not interfere with me – she seemed to be quite fascinated by their mentality – but as soon as I heard the telltale scuffle under the floorboards of the marquee I would go rigid with fear. And at night I would huddle with my head under the bedclothes while Innes shooed the intruder away.

  One day the Colonel decided the rats were getting too obstreperous, and declared a rat hunt in our marquee and the one next to it. The patients were wild with excitement that morning; and Sister obligingly told the orderlies to roll up the canvas sides so that everyone could have a grandstand view. A fatigue party arrived armed with spades and tent-peg mallets, and accompanied by a very small white terrier bitch from the infantry camp across the road. Her owner was a brawny red-faced sergeant-major who was boasting of her talents to anyone who would listen. Most of the MOs appeared, their canes held hopefully in their hands, and I even spotted the red flutter of Matron’s cape next to the Colonel.

  I longed to go and hide, but I was on duty, so I edged very close to Sister for protection. She flashed her white teeth at me in a broad smile – and I saw she had a broom handle concealed in her skirts. Two orderlies tugged up the linoleum at one end of the marquee, and prised up the floorboards, while a couple of others began to bang on the wooden floor and shout – and suddenly pandemonium reigned. The white terrier streaked forward – her sergeant-major owner bellowing encouragement – the patients shouted, the orderlies banged, the MOs pressed forward, and I threw myself back against the wall of the next marquee, shaking. I watched mesmerized as the terrier sprang on to rat after rat, snapping her teeth into its neck before tossing it contemptuously aside. But one was too fast for her – it escaped while its predecessor was still in her mouth – the orderlies’ mallets and spades thwacked the ground but the sharp-nosed animal zigzagged frantically through the obstacles and headed straight towards me. I screamed in terror and Sister shot forward, broom handle raised. The rat turned, Sister gave chase – one hand holding her skirts above her shapely calves, the other wielding the broom handle like a hockey stick. There were excited yells and shouts, ‘After it, Sister, after it,’ and incredibly, Sister was gaining on the frantic grey form. There was a slicing blow, two quick thuds – the rat rolled over and the terrier pounced. Cries of congratulation rent the air: ‘What a goal!’ ‘Holed in one!’ ‘Well held, Sister’ and, louder than the rest, the sergeant-major’s betraying bellow: ‘Well done, Connie, old girl.’

  As I walked back into our marquee on trembling legs beside the heroine of the hour, she said, quite seriously, ‘You know, you could ask Tom to lend you that bitch of his at nights – he’s a really nice chap and a tremendous sport. Just flutter those long lashes of yours and flirt with him a little and you’ll have him eating out of your hand.’

  In my relief at the end of the rat hunt I could hardly suppress the giggles welling up inside me as I imagined the Lady Helena Girvan flirting with a brawny sergeant-major!

  The main road to Rouen ran between us and the infantry camp opposite. When Innes and I were both off duty we would slip out to the little booth at the camp gate, where a plump Frenchwoman sold chocolate and eggs and any fruit which was still in season. When we had made our purchases we would perch on the railings and linger a while to watch the traffic go past. The long strings of mules always made us laugh – one of the six was generally trying to break free and when it succeeded it would kick up its heels and set off down the road with its harness trailing, leaving its fellows dancing and shying. In the evening a long line of soldiers would pass us, marching back from the Bull Ring at Rouen, grimy and sweaty and tired but still singing. Their deep voices filled the air as they sang: ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, ‘Mademoiselle from Armentieres’, and all the other well-worn favourites. But best of all I liked to watch the Indian cavalry ride by on their gleaming horses, the afternoon sun shining on the points of their lances and turning to gold the khaki of their tunics and turbans, so that they seemed like the bronzed warriors of long ago.

  One afternoon Innes and I were off at the same time, so we both crammed into the tiny tram car which ran past the camp. We creaked and groaned down to the city, swung across the bridge over the Seine and plunged suddenly into the Middle Ages. It was good to stroll through the narrow cobbled streets, peer into the diamond-paned windows of the cramped little shops, and breathe the sweet scents of the wares in the flower market in the centre. We ate a fresh cooked omelette and salad in a little cafe and then began the tramp back to the hospital.

  But camp life was too crowded for me; I needed to spend time on my own. So whenever I could I would duck under the barbed-wire fence behind the sanitary hut and walk silently on the soft mossy carpet through the tall straight trees, with their bark that was almost pink and their dark-green heads. At first I would hear voices, and see the flash of a white nurse’s cap at an impromptu picnic, but soon the camp was left behind me, and only the high firs stretched ahead. Then I would find my chosen clearing, and practise my singing.

  I went into the forest one day in October. The bracken was turning, to brown, to red, to yellow, to gold. Tiny white parachutes spun and danced in shafts of sunlight and then drifted slowly down to rest on the purple heather. I stopped in my clearing and began to sing: first my scales, then my aria, and finally my sad, longing Lieder. As I turned to leave I saw a little group: a couple of French peasant women with young children close to their skirts, and a small hand cart piled high with sticks and bracken. They smiled at me and called, ‘Merci, mademoiselle merci beaucoup,’ and I realized they had been standing there silently, listening to me. I smiled back and slipped away between the tree trunks and hoped that they would never know that I had been singing in German. Behind me I heard the high-pitched voices of the children as they continued their search for sticks: firewood and kindling to store against the cold of winter.

  That night I woke in the dark; I was shivering and cold. I heard Innes slide out of bed, so I got up too, and we both fumbled for our coats to add to our bedding. I dozed off again, but next morning we saw the thick frost on the ground – winter had come too early that year.

  Chapter Three

  Cold October gave way to a colder November. At the beginning of the third week we heard that our men had finally captured Beaumont-Hamel – which they had hoped to gain long ago on 1 July. Beaucourt had been taken too, together with thousands of German prisoners; after this success the numbers of casualties began to dwindle. The army had exhausted itself in the huge Somme offensives, and now it crouched in its trenches like a great spent animal, licking its wounds.

  Life under canvas was not so pleasant these days; the winter saw to that. I would wake up very cold at nights, when my blankets came adrift, so Innes and I sent to Harrods for sleeping bags, and they helped a lot. But it was still getting colder and colder. We kept the oil stove burning in our tent all evening and huddled in our sleeping bags either side of it, so for a while at least we were warm. But it became more and more of an effort to haul ourselves out of bed in the morning and struggle to unlace the frost-hardened ropes with numbed fingers, so that we could scuttle through the icy air to the sanitary hut.

  We began to admit men suffering from frostbite and trench feet. Privates from a Highland battalion arrived who told us they had been holding a sector which was knee deep in mud. They said their feet and then their legs had gone quite numb as they stood on sentry duty – it had almost been a relief – but when they got back to the support trenches and took off their water-logged boots and puttees their feet had turned dark blue, and were swollen and agonizingly painful. When we unwrapped their dressings we often f
ound toes blackened by gangrene; then Sister called the MO, the men were taken off to the theatre, and when they came back they had only two or three toes left. One burly Scot stared in dismay at his mutilated foot, then shrugged his shoulders and smiled: ‘I canna play “This wee piggy went to market” now, Sister, that’s for sure.’

  Some cases were less serious; their feet were still numb and white. We rubbed them gently with warm olive oil and wrapped them in soft cotton wool until the feeling came back – and with it, the pain. The men said their soles were on fire, and they shrank from our touch – but we had to touch them.

  We took in a lot of chest cases; the wet open trenches were taking their toll in this way too. It seemed so ludicrous to try to nurse them in this draughty marquee, but we had no alternative; I was glad now of all the time I had spent at the East London learning to make my linseed poultices smooth-textured and nicely sticky. Some of the men were wheezing from bronchitis, others became delirious with pneumonia, and young boys came in doubled up with rheumatism so that they shuffled up and down the ward like old men. We evacuated all those who were well enough to travel, but others soon came flooding in to take their places. It was a bad winter.

 

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