Song of songs, p.30
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       Song of Songs, p.30

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  ‘But I’m still on duty!’

  ‘It’s all fixed, Helena, I’ve seen your matron – bearded the old trout in her den, fearsome creature, they should never put women in positions of authority. Hey, you there,’ she bellowed at a luckless orderly, ‘run and tell my staff car to drive round – it’s at the main gate.’ The orderly lumbered resentfully off. I asked how on earth she had managed to comandeer a staff car. ‘No trouble, Bobby Mason’s a friend of mine – glad to do me a favour – for old times’ sake.’ She dug a sharp elbow into my ribs. ‘Not a word to your papa, eh, Helena – we girls must stick together. Got to do your bit for the war effort – as I say to Juno, keep the troops happy and they’ll soon have those Boches on the run.’ She laughed again, and I had to smile back – there was something so attractive about her boisterous vitality – and her novel idea for winning the war. I ducked back into the ward to ask Sister’s permission for my outing.

  ‘You go off and enjoy yourself, dearie, a little bit of a chat with your friends’ll do you the world of good.’

  And I did feel better, having tea with them in the corner of their hut, talking of people and affairs far away from the hospital, and it was good to see Juno again. Before she sent me back in the borrowed staff car Lady Maud announced that she was getting up a concert. ‘Just a simple little do, give some of the men a treat.’ She looked at me meaningfully, and weakly I offered to sing in it.

  Lady Maud’s ‘little do’ filled one of the largest halls in Rouen; Bobby Mason had obviously come up to scratch. He shook me warmly by the hand: he was a small wiry man with a bald head, and as we talked his gaze kept straying longingly to Lady Maud – she looked very handsome tonight.

  I sang: ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ and the inevitable ‘Home, Sweet Home’. When I had finished, the audience roared and clapped deafeningly – but then so they did after Lady Maud’s off-key rendering of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.

  I was whisked back to the hospital in the borrowed staff car again. As the long lines of marquees appeared in the moonlight I was relieved to be back; it was easier to keep working. Innes was waiting for me in the mess, her face anxious. ‘Girvan – there’s a cable for you, from England.’

  My hands were shaking so much I could not get the envelope open, so she took it from me and tore up the flap and handed back the buff form. I stared at it until at last the dancing letters formed words in front of my frightened eyes: ‘Conan slightly wounded. Recovering in captivity in Germany. Victoria Pickering’.

  My eyes blurred and I felt Innes’ hand on my arm. I could not speak so I handed the telegram to her to read. ‘Oh Girvan, I’m so glad, so very very glad.’

  I whispered, ‘So am I,’ and stumbled off to the bell tent.

  Alice wrote later that Mother had broken down and wept when the message came through from the Red Cross: ‘She always did prefer Conan to her own children! I am so glad, though, at least someone’s safely out of it. Hugh will be pleased.’

  Soon after I had another visitor – Robbie. We hugged each other tightly, then he gestured over his shoulder. ‘I’ve got old Ralph with me.’ I felt my face fall as the pleasant-looking subaltern came forward and his shy smile wavered. I quickly pulled myself together.

  ‘Mr Dutton – Robbie’s written so much about you – I am so pleased to see you.’ He looked a little happier and shook my hand vigorously.

  Robbie said, ‘They’ve just pulled us out – we’ve had so many losses from sickness we’ve got to wait for a new draft – so Ralph and I are on a couple of days’ local leave; we’re on our way to Paris. Go and tackle your old battle-axe and see if she’ll let you off a couple of hours early and we’ll take you down to Rouen for a decent meal.’

  I shook my head. ‘I’m not asking Matron – I’ll only get a long lecture on dining in the company of an officer who’s not a close relative! No, I’ll see Sister, she’s a good sort.’

  ‘Then I’ll come and ask her myself – besides I’d like to meet her, after your stories!’ He strode purposefully into the ward. Sister Jennings flashed her smile at my handsome brother and shooed me out with orders to enjoy myself. I trod on air as I went to fetch my hat and coat.

  We ate in a hotel in Rouen and the food was delicious: lobster thermidor, followed by an enormous omelette aux champignons served with a salad aux fines herbes, and crepes with lemon and sugar to round it all off. I savoured the freshly made coffee as Robbie and Ralph Dutton lingered over their brandies. Then Robbie pushed his cup away and lit a cigarette. ‘By the way, Hellie – a curious coincidence, Sergeant Holden – you remember?’ I nodded, my eyes prickling. Yes, I remembered Sergeant Holden. ‘Well, he’s been made up to Company Sergeant-Major, and he’s coming to my company – so we’ll be working together.’

  I said hesitantly, ‘It’ll – remind you…’ then I stopped.

  Robbie’s face was very still, then he said, softly, ‘He can’t remind me of what I never forget.’

  There was silence. Ralph Dutton coughed. ‘Holden’s a very steady man.’

  Robbie said quietly, ‘Yes, I’m lucky to get him.’ Then we began to talk of other things.

  A couple of days later Matron called me in and told me I was being transferred to nights. I was sorry to have to say goodbye to Sister Jennings – she had been the best of sisters to work under, so efficient, and yet so warm and cheerful. As I thanked her for all she had taught me, she said she was going to nag Matron about a posting to a Casualty Clearing Station. ‘I like to be kept busy, dearie, and to be in the thick of things.’ I wished her luck and went off duty at lunchtime to try to snatch a few hours’ sleep.

  The two marquees under my care were right at the end of the lines, and when I came back from the mess tent after our midnight meal I lingered outside for a moment, listening to the night. The firs swayed and whispered, then slowly fell still again; a bird cried out among the trees and further away a hound bayed in the forest. As my ears sharpened they caught more distant sounds: the whistle of a train running into Rouen; the wail of a siren from a ship going down the river; and, underlying all these, like the bass of a mighty organ, the unceasing vibration of the guns playing their oratorio of death. I shivered in the cool air and ducked under the flap of the porch.

  The forest was beautiful now, and if the weather was fine when I woke up I would pack a basket with bread and cheese and fruit, on top of the small meths lamp and kettle I had bought in Rouen, tuck in a packet of tea and a tin of milk and scramble under the barbed wire with it and out of the camp. I would picnic in my clearing, then doze a little until it was time to trail back for supper.

  It was a full year since Eddie had died. On the anniversary of his death I took my writing case into the forest and wrote a long letter to Robbie. Although we were separated I knew we would both be looking at despair today. Our brother. Please God keep Robbie safe.

  Although I was coping I seemed to have little energy. One night one of the amputation cases – he came from Moffat so we had named him Mack – called out to me in the ward. I was tired and it took me a moment to realize where he was; then I ran to him and threw back the covers and saw the fresh red blood staining the bandaged stump where his leg had been. I fumbled as I began to unfasten his bindings – it must only have been for a moment but it seemed an age as the man’s life blood drained away beneath my hands – then I tugged the tourniquet from my belt and was tightening and tightening it until at last the bleeding stopped. A man further up the ward slid out of bed ‘I’ll go for the orderly, Sister’ – I saw him limp quickly away as I stood, panting, my hands slippery with blood. Mack opened his mouth, but it was several moments before I heard what he was saying. ‘I’m sorry to have frightened you, Sister – I could see you weren’t feeling so grand this night.’ I stared down into the concerned brown eyes and felt the tears slide down my cheeks. He reached out and touched the edge of my apron. ‘It’s no job for a young lassie, this.’

  I could not reply and
I was still silently weeping when the orderly came back with Captain Bevan, whose pyjama sleeves were showing under the cuffs of his tunic. I could not stem the flow of tears even as I prepared Mack for another visit to the theatre. But when Sister came bustling in, just as he left, she frowned and beckoned me down behind the central screens; she spoke sharply: ‘Stop that, Nurse – you’re upsetting the patients.’

  I said weakly, ‘But he’s lost a leg – and yet he was able to worry about my looking tired.’

  She looked at me steadily. ‘Nurse, if you are not able to match the courage of these men, then at least have the grace to pretend. I never want to see you crying on the ward again.’

  ‘No, Sister.’

  Captain Bevan came back with the stretcher; Mack was still under the anaesthetic. ‘Had to take off a bit more before I could tie the artery – the walls had rotted, but he’s still got a reasonable stump there, should be OK for a tin leg. Come with me, Nurse Girvan.’

  I followed him down the ward to Sister’s bunk and waited dully for another lecture. Instead he rummaged in the medicine cupboard, found the brandy and filled a medicine glass to the brim. ‘Drink that, Nurse.’

  ‘But…’

  ‘All of it – doctor’s orders.’ He smiled at me and I forced the harsh burning liquid down my throat. ‘You’ll feel better now – goodnight.’

  He was right, I did. The brandy warmed me all over and nothing seemed to matter as much. I went about my work in a dream, and I started to sing softly as I wrung out a fomentation for a painful swollen leg. The leg’s owner looked up at me and whispered, ‘That’s a nice tune, Sister – what is it? I couldn’t catch the words.’ I started guiltily, then looked him straight in the eye and whispered back, ‘It’s a song about a fish – a trout. You wouldn’t recognize the words because it’s in – er,’ – I thought frantically – ‘Portuguese – they are our allies, you see.’

  I was hunched over my breakfast a few days later when Home Sister came into the mess tent and handed me a type-written form. I stared at it disbelievingly.

  MISS Girvan RANK Nurse

  CORPS VAD HOSPITAL 15 General

  has been granted fourteen days’ leave from 6/7/17 to 21/7/17.

  N.B. She should report her arrival in writing to the Matron-in-Chief, War Office, London, SW, immediately on arrival in England, on attached form.

  The Colonel’s signature blurred before my eyes. I was so very tired, and here at last was my release.

  I packed my knapsack for the journey and joined the other two VADs who were going on leave as well. They burst out laughing as they read the printed instructions we had been issued with. ‘Look, Grey – it says we mustn’t take on leave: “bombs, shells or shell-cases”, nor “trophies captured from the Enemy”. Oh dear, you’ll have to unpack them all!’

  All I could do was hold my travel warrant tightly between my fingers as I thought longingly of escape.

  We collected yet more documents from the RTO at Rouen, and my companions laughed again at our apparently being designated as: ‘chevaux et mulets’ on the large ‘ordre de transport pour l’expedition d’Armee Anglais’, but I slumped silently in my seat, and thought that they could call me an ass if they wanted – just so long as they let me go. When the train came in a group of English officers insisted on helping us in with our luggage, and one asked eagerly, ‘May we travel with you? We haven’t spoken to a British girl for months!’ But I had been up all night and nothing was going to keep me awake now, so I left the other two to entertain them and fell instantly asleep.

  It was lucky I was not alone – I had to be hauled out of the compartment for changes, and pushed back in again when the next train arrived. At Boulogne they found me a space in a cabin and I slept until we docked at Folkestone. I woke up just as the train was drawing into Victoria, and suddenly I was alive again, and realized it was well on in the evening. The other two left me at the cab rank: ‘Goodbye, Dormouse!’ ‘See you in a couple of weeks, Girvan.’

  ‘Where to, Miss?’

  I said, ‘Cadogan Place,’ and sat back on the tobacco-smelling leather seat.

  A maid showed me into the drawing room, where Pansy stared at me as if I were a ghost. ‘Helena – I didn’t recognize you – you look so different.’ As I unslung the knapsack from my shoulder and dumped it on the Aubusson carpet the mirror between the windows caught my reflection – and I realized I did not recognize myself, either. For a moment I wondered who this creature was, in a badly-fitting navy-blue coat, peering out from under the brim of an ugly straw hat, and anchored to the ground by solid, sensible shoes. It was so long since I had seen myself I had lost my bearings. Then I heard a soft gulping, and saw that Pansy was crying – and pregnant yet again.

  She made a great effort to pull herself together. ‘I’m sorry, Helena – Guy isn’t in.’

  I sat down in the armchair and promptly lost my balance – it was so unexpectedly deep. ‘That’s all right, Pansy – I never said I was coming. I’ll see him later.’ She said in a very small voice, ‘He may not come in later – he often doesn’t come back at all.’

  At last I said, ‘Perhaps he doesn’t like to disturb you – he probably sleeps at his club.’

  Pansy just looked at me. Her round blue eyes were those of a child who discovers too late that Santa Claus does not, after all, exist. Then she began to talk of her babies, and after a while she took me up to the nursery to see them. I did not look too closely at the sleeping babies – instead I sat in the day nursery and let myself be clucked over by a dressing-gowned Nanny.

  Guy did eventually come home that night. For a moment he looked pleased to see me, then a shutter came down over his face. I ran to him, but he gave me only the briefest of hugs. ‘Hello, Hellie.’ He did not acknowledge Pansy at all. She sat on the sofa, a pitiful swollen figure, but with a kind of dignity. Guy asked me short, staccato questions, but I knew he was not really listening to my replies, and his eyes never met mine as they roamed restlessly round the room. His mouth was a hard thin fine.

  Pansy eventually spoke to him, very timidly, about some slight domestic matter – a fellow officer had called – but he rounded on her savagely: ‘Can’t you stop nagging me, you bloody woman?’

  I exclaimed, ‘Guy! She only – ’ But he had already gone. We heard his boots crashing down the stairs and the slam of the front door.

  Pansy looked at me helplessly. At last she said, ‘He can’t help it, Helena – I really don’t think he can help it.’ Tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘Nanny spoke to him, but he wouldn’t listen, not even to Nanny. She’s very kind, Helena, she lets me sit up in the nursery for hours, with the children. And – I’ve got him.’ She put her hand on her swollen abdomen in a small, loving gesture.

  I went to see Alice next morning, and then I travelled up to Hatton. Mother was still running it as a convalescent home and there were Canadian and Australian accents everywhere. They seemed a cheerful bunch, and a group of local VADs waited on them hand and foot. The dining room was being used as a ward, so we ate dinner in the morning room, but otherwise it was the same as always – the white damask tablecloth, the gleaming silver, the fresh-cut flowers. Mr Cooper had maids to help him now – the footmen had all joined up – but he had trained them well and the service was as deft and silent as ever. I stared down at the fragrant consomme in its delicate, gold-rimmed porcelain bowl, and felt as if I were dreaming.

  Each day when it was fine, I took a rug and a packed lunch and walked far out into the park until I found a secluded spot, and then I lay down and slept. When it rained I took my rug into the almost deserted stables, climbed up into the sweet-smelling hayloft, and curled up on it there. As soon as I had dined each evening I went up to my bedroom and nodded over a novel for a little while before climbing into my clean soft bed and sleeping the night through.

  Papa came up from London for a visit, and told us that Guy was going back to France – but as a staff officer at Fifth Army HQ. As he told me I felt sick with reli
ef – my brother would have to go up to forward positions occasionally, but most of the time he would be safe at the base. I went up to my bedroom and wrote at once to Robbie; he had written before I had come on leave to say that his battalion of the Lancashire and Cheshire Light Infantry were in a quiet sector at present. I prayed they would stay there.

  When I had put on my uniform on the last morning, Mother looked me up and down at the breakfast table and said, ‘For God’s sake, Helena – do something about that hideous uniform. Buy some better-looking approximation of it and charge it to my account.’

  I murmured, ‘Yes, Mother,’ but I knew I would not bother – what was the point? But when I went upstairs after breakfast, on an impulse I went to the chest of drawers and took out a dozen of my silk petticoats, rolled them up small and stuffed them into my canvas knapsack. I would wear them each day as some small gesture against the dirt and the blood and the ugliness.

  Chapter Five

  I stayed the night with Alice at Eaton Terrace, then set off for Victoria in the morning to catch the leave train. There was a great press of people round the barrier: women saying goodbye to their husbands, their lovers, their brothers. White faces, tear-stained faces, faces trying bravely to smile with their mouths while their eyes were wide with fear – I tried not to look at their private grief as I threaded through the crowd. As I climbed on to the train my stomach twisted; I did not want to go back.

  When we docked at Boulogne I trudged down the gangway and went to report to the Embarkation Sister in her office at the Hotel de Louvre. As soon as I told her my name she picked up a piece of paper. ‘You’ve been transferred to No. 23 General at Étaples, Nurse Girvan. Your kit has already been sent on from No. 15.’ I stared at her, my heart in my boots. Her face softened a fraction. ‘These things happen in wartime, you know. And I do have a little treat for you – you won’t have to go by train. An ambulance from Étaples brought an American MO down to Boulogne this morning, so I told the driver to wait and pick you up – I’m sure you’ll enjoy the ride.’

 

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