Song of songs, p.34
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       Song of Songs, p.34

           Beverley Hughesdon

  Aylmer swung away to ‘H’ lines, and I quickened my pace to ‘B’. Inside the golden gloom of the marquee Sister was at the entrance directing the men while Tilney scuttled round with hot-water bottles. Sister gestured over her shoulder at the half-dozen walking wounded already sitting slumped on the edge of their beds. ‘Get them moving, Nurse Girvan.’ I went to them and began to shake bowed shoulders: they were exhausted but I had to rouse them – they must get themselves undressed and into bed – we had so little time before the stretcher cases began to arrive. I had not finished serving them with hot Bovril when the orderlies carried in the first of the stretchers – and the discarded clothing was still littering the floor. I thrust the last mug into the waiting hands and picked up a muddy tunic, and as I did so I caught sight of the shoulder title – it was that of Robbie’s regiment. My hand froze a moment, then I pulled the dirty khaki closer and read the battalion number – Robbie’s battalion number. I began to shake. Then I heard Sister calling me sharply so I bundled the tunic into the sack along with its trousers and seized another one to thrust in as I ran – but even as I did so I read the title, and on that shoulder too were the familiar markings. Oh Robbie, oh my brother.

  But there was no time to think; stretcher after stretcher was being carried in until the floor of the ward was covered with long brown shapes. Sister was walking down the rows of wounded studying the labels, and Tilney was ready waiting at the other side. Sister gestured to me and I climbed on to the first of the rigid mattresses and knelt there. As the orderlies brought the stretcher alongside I lifted the man’s arms and pulled them round my neck so that he could hang on, then I slipped my own hands beneath his buttocks and with muscles straining helped to haul him on to the bed. The orderlies moved off for the next stretcher and I jumped down, quickly tugged the blanket round the befouled khaki and rushed to the next bed. On the opposite side Tilney’s slight figure was hauling in her turn.

  We got the fractures settled, then the next man managed to roll himself over on to the mattress; his eyes closed with the effort of it as I wrapped him up. On again – a boy now, with white glistening face and open, unfocused eyes. He muttered and moved restlessly as we slid him on to the bed; I slipped my hand out from beneath his back and saw that it was smeared scarlet with fresh blood. I called to Sister, holding up my dripping hand, and she rushed to my side. ‘The dressing tray, Nurse – quickly.’ I flew down the ward for it.

  As I came back she was speaking to the boy, soothingly, quietly – his eyes looked up at hers and he stopped muttering and managed to smile. I helped roll him over and we saw that the bright blood was swiftly colouring the darkness of his back. Sister began to cut away the stained bandages. ‘There’s no time to fetch Captain Adams – wring out that gauze for me, Nurse.’ As soon as I had put the Eusol-soaked pad into her hand she thrust it hard into the hole in the boy’s shoulder and pressed down. ‘Bandage, now.’ The orderly lifted the boy’s trunk so I could loop the bandage round him, Sister eased her hand out as I tightened it and then together we pulled and pulled until at last the bleeding slowly began to lessen. We stood watching it, then Sister gave a nod of satisfaction, tied the bandage as tight as she could and laid the boy back against the folded blanket. ‘I think he’ll do now, but the minute we’ve got these last two in bed, run over to the reception hut and ask Captain Adams to come as soon as he can.’ The orderly ducked his head in assent and went for another stretcher.

  The next man was square-shouldered and heavy, and I had to struggle to lift him. His eyes stayed closed and his face was so drained of blood it was blue-white under the grime – I could scarcely hear his breathing. By the time I had bundled him up in his blankets, Tilney was already putting the last man to bed. Sister came over to me. ‘I’ll have to go over to the next marquee – they’re short of a VAD and they’ve just started taking in. You can go off now if you want to, Nurse Girvan – thanks.’

  Tilney started down to the kitchen to make drinks. ‘I’ll give you a hand with those before I go.’ I brushed aside her thanks – I did not want to go back to the hut yet and have to think about Robbie, under attack.

  The man with the blue-white face did not stir when I offered him a drink; I went on to finish the rest of the side – perhaps he would be awake by then. When I got back to him his eyes till stayed closed, although I felt sure he was not unconscious. I raised my voice and lifted his good arm, but his hand would not take hold of the mug so I slipped my arm under his neck and raised his face a little and put the rim to his mouth – still it would not open. I stood for a moment, baffled. Captain Adams came up beside me. ‘Sister did a good job with that haemorrhage – I’ve left the dressing in place until the morning. What’s the matter with this one?’ He picked up the red-bordered field card and scanned it quickly. ‘He’s been knocked about, but I’ve seen worse.’

  ‘He won’t drink.’

  The MO lifted the limp wrist and held it for a minute, looking down at the man with narrowed eyes, then he motioned me away. He spoke softly. ‘The poor blighter’s given up, he’s been in France too long and lost too much blood – you must get him to drink, Nurse Girvan, otherwise he’s had it.’ He looked round the crowded ward before turning back to me with a bitter smile. ‘The American medical units are giving blood transfusions, so I’m told – but we haven’t the time or the equipment. They’ve had him on a saline drip at the CCS, but that’s not going to be enough – he must be made to drink. God knows we need every experienced sergeant-major we’ve got.’

  I went back to the bed and saw this time the small crown above the sergeant’s three stripes – I had been so conscious of the Lancashire and Cheshire badges that I had not noticed them before. The man still lay unmoving, and I stood uncertainly holding the mug – I was very tired, perhaps Tilney… ? The patient in the next bed stirred and a hoarse whisper asked, ‘’Ow’s Ben, Sister?’

  I moved across to him. ‘Is that his name, Ben?’

  ‘Aye, Ben – Ben Olden.’ On his shoulder, too, I saw the titles of Robbie’s battalion, and shuddered inwardly. Olden – an uncommon name. Then with a sudden tearing shock I realized – it was not Olden, but Holden, Sergeant Holden – Robbie’s company sergeant-major. I turned round and stared down at the ghastly face above the filthy khaki and a fierce irrational anger swept over me. He had left my brother, he had deserted Robbie. Who would carry Robbie in now if he were wounded? Then I took hold of myself, and felt very ashamed. This was the man who had risked his life for Eddie and now it was he who lay dying in front of me.

  I bent down over the dirt-smeared face and held the mug to his mouth again. ‘Please – you must drink.’ His eyelids did not waver, but I saw the bloodless lips close more tightly. Captain Adams was right, he had given up – he did not want to live. I spoke to him softly but very clearly. ‘I’m damned if I’ll let you die, Ben Holden.’ There was no flicker of life on the muddy face.

  I took to my heels and ran down to the kitchen. I warmed milk and recklessly threw in eggs, sugar, brandy and beat them quickly together in a jug. Then I rushed into Sister’s bunk and began to look for the rubber tubing and glass funnel – I would force him to drink; I knew how to do it from long ago on Foldus Ward. I remembered sliding the wriggling red tube down the nostril of the paralysed Belgian – but then I remembered the Belgian next to him and hesitated – that soldier had resisted, just as this man would resist. Sister and I had had to hold him down as he struggled – and if this man struggled he would wear himself out and die anyway – so that could not be the answer. I stood still and searched my memory, and thought of Robbie – oh God, was he even now lying in another of these great tents, perhaps dying, without even the strength to ask for me to come to him? The pain stabbed at my heart as I thought of my brother’s white face and dark eyes and saw them in my mind’s eye not Robbie as he was now, a man and a soldier, but Robbie as he had been long ago, a frightened child lying on Nanny’s full bosom as she had coaxed him to drink. And I had the answer. My own small
breasts under my stained white apron could not match Nanny’s, but they would have to do.

  I ran back to the kitchen and took down a white china feeding cup and put it on a tray with the jug. When I got back up the ward I saw he had not moved – he lay so still that for a heart-stopping moment I thought he was already dead. Then I saw the faint beat of his pulse at the temple and put my burden carefully down on the locker. I went to fetch the screens and carefully arranged them round the bed, so that the two of us were enclosed in a little private room of our own. Then I took off my apron, unfastened my cardigan and unbuttoned the bodice of my frock. I glanced down at the curve of my breasts under the soft cashmere of my vest and prayed they would be good enough as I began to slide myself carefully into the bed on his uninjured side. He was heavy, too heavy – but I managed to wriggle my way sideways until I was kneeling with his shoulders on my lap – and his muddy brown hair resting on my chest. I put my hand gently under his stubbly chin and turned his head until his cheek lay against the fullness of my right breast, then I curved my hand round his face and held him there as I whispered, ‘Ben, you must drink, Ben.’ He did not move, but I knew he was listening – unwillingly perhaps, but he was listening. I spoke softly, soothingly, as Nanny had done to a tired, unhappy child. ‘Ben, in a little while I’m going to give you a drink, a nice warm drink, and you must be a very good boy and drink it all down, just for me.’

  I touched his cheek, then I reached for the feeding cup and held it ready while I put my finger between his pale lips and gently parted his teeth. I felt the soft warmth of his tongue on my fingertip as I slid in the china spout. I whispered, ‘Drink, Ben – please drink,’ as I tipped the liquid slowly into his mouth. The muscles of his throat tensed under my hand – and then he began to swallow. I murmured to him, ‘Good boy, Ben, good boy. A little more now, just a little more.’ As he finished each cupful I refilled it, and he drank again, until the whole jug was empty.

  My hand was shaking as I put the empty feeding cup back on the locker. I sat holding him for a while and then, at last, I felt him move – slowly he turned his head and pressed his face into my breast. I sat quite still, gently stroking his hair. Then I whispered, ‘Sleep now, Ben Holden,’ as I slowly slid out of the bed and eased his head back on to the pillow. I bent over him, my legs trembling with tiredness and relief, and murmured, ‘Goodnight, Ben.’ And as I watched, his eyelids flickered and slowly opened; bloodshot grey-blue eyes stared up at me, and for a moment his mouth moved – then his eyelids dropped like a shutter and he fell asleep.

  I carried the tray in shaking hands down between the rows of beds; exhausted men groaned and grunted in their sleep as I passed them. Tilney was bent over the table, her white cap gleaming. ‘I’m just going off,’ I told her.

  She looked up at me, grinning. ‘I don’t know what on earth you were doing up there, Girvan, but Sister said to leave you to it, so I did. You’d better get straight to bed now – you look like a ghost.’

  Aylmer was already fast asleep; she had put a hot-water bottle in my bed – it was lukewarm now – but I clutched it gratefully to my chest and thought of Robbie, until my tired body slept.

  When I began to dress next morning I found a louse on my vest. I tumbled all my clothes together and took them to be disinfected. There was no time to wash my hair – I only hoped that it had been safe in its tight plait.

  By the time I went on duty, all the men had been washed and changed: Tilney had worked hard. I went straight to the kitchen and mixed more eggs and milk, and took my jug and feeder up the ward. Ben Holden was a better colour this morning. I spoke to him and gently touched his cheek, and when his eyes opened I held out the feeding cup, but he turned his head a little and his mouth worked and I realized he was trying to speak. At last, with a great effort he got the words out. ‘Captain Girvan – ’e were back with Transport when they come – so ’e should be all right.’ I caught at the rail of the bed – my legs would scarcely support me – and it was some time before I could whisper my thanks. Then I put the spout into his mouth and began to feed him. His eyes had closed again, but he swallowed all that I gave him.

  As soon as I took my tray back Sister said briskly, ‘We’ve got to get these dressings changed, Nurse Girvan – and Captain Adams will want to see them to decide who’s got to go to the theatre.’

  Captain Adams’ face was impassive as he studied each wound and marked notes for the theatre, but when we arrived at Ben Holden’s bed he gave a pleased nod. ‘You’re looking much better, Sergeant-Major, much better.’ Ben Holden smiled at me as I reached to unpin the bandage holding his splint in place. The dressing had dried in the hole in his left arm and I had to pull the gauze away from the torn muscle. His face went rigid, but he did not move. I put in fresh packing, bound it up again and moved down to his thigh. Captain Adams made his inspection and then said, ‘You’ve been lucky, Sergeant – no bones broken there.’ I looked down at the jagged, gaping tear and thought how the war had changed our definition of luck. The MO moved over to Sister’s side of the ward, and as I re-packed the wound I asked, ‘How did you know who I was, Sergeant Holden?’

  ‘I saw you at Liverpool Street, when we went out first time. And I saw your photograph, the one the Captain carries – he showed it to me, after…’ His voice trailed off and I knew he was thinking of Eddie.

  ‘Thank you for bringing Mr Girvan in – it would have been terrible for him to die out there – alone.’ I finished off the dressing in silence and then helped him into a more comfortable position. ‘That’s all for now, Ben – I mean, Sergeant Holden.’

  He said gruffly, ‘You can call me Ben if you want, Sister – seeing as I don’t have a nickname like Ginger, there.’ The red-haired man in the next bed grinned at me; Ben Holden looked suddenly anxious.

  I was grateful to him for living, so I said recklessly, ‘Then I will, Ben,’ and pushed my trolley on.

  It was impossible to call the boy who had haemorrhaged anything other than Lennie – he told me he was nineteen, but he had the manner and speech of a small child, and he sobbed like a child when I dressed the quite small wound on his foot. Captain Adams told me not to disturb the dressing on his shoulder – he would look at it under the anaesthetic in the theatre first. When he heard this the boy began to whimper.

  Ben Holden called across the space, ‘Don’t tha mither thisenn, Lennie lad, we’ll a’ go together – mekk a proper musical turn like.’ The sweat was standing out on his forehead by the time he had finished speaking, but his words seemed to soothe young Lennie, and the whimpers ceased.

  Captain Adams started operating an hour later, and once the stretcher bearers arrived Sister and I had to race up and down the ward all day. Lennie came back dribbling blood from his mouth; I wedged a kidney dish under his unconscious cheek and ran to inject the next theatre case. Another was carried out before he had had his injection, and Sister chased after the stretcher, skirts flying, the hypodermic clutched in her fist like a gun. I turned to laugh at her, then a small middle-aged Lancs and Cheshire corporal began to vomit and I darted back to him; he was shuddering violently and as I held him still I saw Sister come back again and help to lift Ben Holden on to the bed opposite. He looked very pale, but his chest was rising and falling steadily.

  Later in the evening I saw he had come round and was watching me as I steadied the corporal through another bout of racking sickness. I smiled at him over the wiry grey head and he grinned back and dropped one eyelid in a wink. For a moment a memory tugged at my tired brain, then a chest case began to gasp and choke down the ward so I laid the corporal quickly back, rammed the bowl into his pillow and took to my heels again.

  When I sat down next to MacLeod in the mess at supper, her freckled face was unusually gloomy. ‘I’ve been transferred to nights, Girvan.’

  ‘Hard lines,’ I replied, ‘but at least you’ll be able to see something of Tilney.’

  ‘That’s true and I don’t mind nights all that much, it’s just – w
ell, it’s on the German wards.’

  Sears said, ‘How rotten. I didn’t know you could speak German, Mac.’

  Mac shook her head. ‘I can’t, that’s why Matron’s sending me – no fraternization with the enemy – as if I’d fraternize.’ Her voice was bitter; we all knew that Mac’s only brother had been killed on the Somme last year.

  It was Aylmer who broke the silence. Her face was rather pink as she said, ‘God tells us to love our enemies.’

  Mac turned round and snarled, ‘Then let Him damn well nurse them – I don’t want to.’ She got up and stalked out and there was a shocked silence. But whether it was in response to Mac’s blasphemy or to Aylmer’s text I could not tell.

  Chapter Nine

  Within a few days our new patients had become our old patients, and we began to wonder when they would be evacuated; but the hospitals in Britain were still busy with the casualties from Ypres, while in France the long autumn of battles was finally over and no new convoys were likely so for the time being they stayed with us. Then Captain Adams told us that the high command were getting worried about the shortage of experienced men. ‘Apparently the hospitals aren’t to send any more back at the moment unless they’ve bought it for good – and not even some of those – so it looks as if these poor devils’ll be here for Christmas.’

  I was sorry for the men’s sake that their hopes of Blighty were receding, yet for myself I was glad. I had got to know them – they were familiar personalities now, friends even, and knowing how each man would react, and how he wanted me to behave in turn, made the morning dressing round so much less of an ordeal. The middle-aged L & CLI corporal who had suffered so badly from sickness when he first came back from the theatre was Lofty – his real name was Makins but he was so short his nickname was inevitable. And I knew that Lofty liked to hum steadily all the time that I dealt with his arm – when I dressed the wound on his leg then he was ready to chat about his wife and family, and his eldest son, already at the front. Ginger, in the bed next to Ben Holden, liked to engage me in flirtatious banter: ‘I bet you’re going to have tea with the MO today, Sister – lucky so-and-so.’ His body tensed and he groaned as I pulled the last sodden twist of gauze out of the hole in his buttocks, then he managed to twist his head round on the pillow and wink at me. ‘Ah, the soft touch of a woman’s hands is music to a lonely soul.’ I smiled back at him as I picked up the syringe of Eusol. ‘Just imagine this is best champagne I’m using, then it won’t sting so much.’


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