Song of songs, p.37
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       Song of Songs, p.37

           Beverley Hughesdon
 

  At lunchtime I swallowed my meal hurriedly and ran back to the privacy of the hut. I found a brief note there from Mac, to say that the German boy had died at five o’clock that morning – he had never regained consciousness. I took out my pen and to the address I remembered I wrote in German: ‘Dear Frau Sussner, It is with the deepest regret that I write to tell you…’ Guy would be kept busy with the Red Cross this week.

  When I got back to the ward Sister said, ‘Several of the men want to speak to you, privately, so I told them they could wait in the kitchen.’

  I took a deep breath and pulled my cardigan more tightly round my shoulders as I went in. Ben Holden and Ginger were there, with Lofty’s small wiry figure standing foursquare in front of them. He began to speak at once. ‘Sister, these youngsters want to have a word with you.’

  I looked at them apprehensively. Ben Holden stared fixedly at some point over my left shoulder and blurted out, ‘Me and Ginger – we’re sorry, right sorry – we reckon we didn’t understand – and we should have trusted you.’

  Ginger added, ‘Aye, I’m sorry, too – real sorry.’

  They both looked at me desperately until at last I whispered, ‘That’s all right,’ and the two of them blundered out.

  Lofty said apologetically, ‘They’re only youngsters, those two – they don’t think. I went for them, and Sister told them how it was when you went off to dinner. They’ve been right upset since, they really have.’ He leant towards me, his small seamed face very serious. ‘I reckon – if my lad’s ever captured an’ lying like that – well I hope there’s a girl over there as’ll do for him what you did.’ He half turned away, and then asked, ‘How is he, this German youngster?’

  ‘He died early this morning, Lofty – it was better that way – he had lost all his limbs, you see.’

  Lofty reached out and patted my arm, then he shook his head sadly and left.

  I was still nervous when I went out on to the ward; Ginger was trying hard to be his usual self, but Ben Holden was very quiet, and I knew I was just as constrained. Lofty said to me later as he helped with the washing up, ‘Don’t be too hard on ’em, Sister – a lot of it were jealousy, you see – that you’d never sung to them.’ He grinned a moment: ‘Or kissed them goodnight, for that matter.’

  I stopped and looked at Lofty, then I managed to smile. ‘I don’t know about the kisses – but I can certainly sing to you all, if Sister agrees.’

  His face lit up in a beaming smile. ‘Then I’ll ask her now – we’ll have a little concert like, tonight that’s just the ticket.’

  Lofty reported that Sister was agreeable, and when I came back from tea there was a pleasant air of anticipation in the ward. I walked in, running through a list of the trite old favourites in my mind. But when I stood in the centre of the hushed marquee looking at the expectant faces I suddenly knew I could not begin with ‘Hold your Hand out, Naughty Boy’. I remembered Lofty’s daughter – Christmas was very near now – and these men deserved better.

  I stood still and let the opening chords play through my head, then took an imperceptible breath and let my voice soar up into the shadowy canvas in the age-old message of hope:

  ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth, – and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.’

  As my voice died away in the final ‘earth’ I sensed them hearing with me their familiar chapel organs playing the intervening bars, until I raised my voice again at the terrible:

  ‘and though worms destroy this body – yet in my flesh shall I see God, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

  – I know that my Redeemer liveth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.’

  I sang the final triumphant:

  ‘for now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.’

  No one stirred until the chords of our memories had ceased to play. Then there was a low murmur of appreciation and a voice asked hesitantly, ‘Can tha sing “How Beautiful are the Feet”, Sister?’

  So I sang of the gospel of peace to men maimed and wounded in this most terrible of wars.

  Then it was the joyous song of exultation:

  ‘Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice greatly, rejoice, O daughters of Zion!…

  Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem…

  behold, thy King cometh unto thee…

  And finally, at Sister’s mouthed; ‘Only one more now, Nurse,’ I sang that short and beautiful message of comfort:

  ‘Come unto Him, all ye that labour, come unto Him, that are heavy laden, and He will give you rest…

  Take His yoke upon you and learn of Him,

  for He is meek and lowly of heart,

  and ye shall find rest, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.’

  We waited together until the final chords died away in our memories, then I turned away from the centre of the great marquee and walked down between the beds, and heard the voices calling softly, ‘Thank you, Sister’, ‘Thank you so much, Sister’, ‘God bless you, Sister’.

  I remembered Elsa Gehring’s words – the words of my friend whom fate had made my enemy: ‘You must be able to sing anywhere – in the tiny cell of a monk, or the great Schloss of a king,’ and thanks to her, I could. But never, never had I thought that I would one day sing in this huge camp of weary, suffering men; all of us caught up together in the greatest and most terrible war the world had ever known.

  Chapter Eleven

  Three days before Christmas I was transferred to night duty, but to my surprise and relief I was to stay on B.4. Tilney had gone down with flu and been sent to Sick Sisters, so I was to take her place. Sister said to me, ‘I expect Matron doesn’t want to upset the men too much at this time – it’s bad enough they’re being kept in France over Christmas, without too many new faces as well.’

  She may have been right, but I suspected she had misunderstood Matron’s motives – there had been a gleam of spite in the latter’s protuberant eyes as she had told me of the transfer, and she had seemed disappointed when I did not protest, so I decided I was being left on B.4 as a punishment. I smiled a little to myself as I left Matron’s office; I did not want to face the upheaval of nights, but if it had to be, then I would rather go to friendly, familiar B.4 than anywhere else.

  I went off duty at lunchtime and slept through the afternoon, but I still felt tired and drained as I listened to Sister’s report that evening: she said Young Lennie was worse – his wound was so bad now it had been dressed in the evening too. I felt a cowardly relief that it was no longer my responsibility, but I was so sorry for him. The orderly began to cover the main electric lights with red handkerchiefs and I went to sit down at the screened table in the centre of the ward. When the orderly went on to one of the other marquees I felt very alone. Either side of me the beds receded into darkness, the chimney of the stove jutted up like a long black elbow, and the shadows moved menacingly as the canvas rose and fell, hissing and flapping like a sail in the wind. For a moment I was frightened; then Ginger turned on his back and began to snore in a steady, familiar rhythm, and I smiled and bent over the case book.

  It was not long before my ear caught the whimpers from Lennie’s bed; I went to him; he was restless and frightened, his brown eyes bright with pain. I put my hand on his cheek and whispered, ‘I’ll fetch you a nice hot drink, old man, that’ll make you feel better.’

  I gave him two aspirins with his hot milk, but I knew they would be almost useless. Captain Adams had had to start giving him morphia; I would have to ask Night Sister about an extra dose. He drifted into an uneasy doze at last, and I was able to go back to my table and begin a letter to Robbie.

  As I was writing I heard a rattling noise from the direction of the kitchen; I put my pen down and went nervously to investigate – but there was no one there. When I came back I saw there was a dark shape crouched on the floor by Lennie’s bed: it was Ben Holden in his pyjamas. The boy was clinging to Ben’s hand while Ben talked to him in a low rumbli
ng monotone. I went over to Ben’s bed, pulled off the top blanket and took it and wrapped it round the pyjama-clad form. As I tucked the corners in he looked up with a word of thanks, and I saw the tiredness in his face; but I knew it would be no use telling him to go back to bed; he would do what he felt he had to, regardless of any orders of mine. I took Young Lennie’s hot-water bottle to be refilled, and brought one back for Ben as well. As I slipped it inside the blanket against his chest he smiled at me gratefully, but his words to Lennie never paused.

  I finished my letter to Robbie and forced myself to begin one to Conan – it was dispiriting writing when I never knew if it would get through, but I felt I had to try. I noticed Ben finally clamber back into his bed and lie there breathing heavily, and saw he was watching my table. I moved softly over to his side and murmured, ‘I’m just going to make myself some tea – I’ll bring you a cup.’

  While the kettle was boiling I decided to get out the bowls I would need in the morning; I reached into the dark cupboard – and my hand touched something alive, and furry. There was a clatter and a large rat jumped out, straight at my face. I gasped and twisted frantically away from its vicious white teeth and felt its body brush my cheek. I clung to the table, terrified, as it scurried away into the shadows behind the far cupboard. Mesmerized, I stood watching the corner where it was hiding, feeling the hysteria rising. Then footsteps limped down from the ward, the flap was pushed aside and a face peered in. ‘Anything wrong, Sister? I thought I heard you call out.’

  I licked my dry lips and managed to whisper, ‘A rat, Ben – in the cupboard.’

  I saw the beginnings of a smile, hastily suppressed as he took in my panic-stricken state. ‘You get up ward – I’ll see to him.’

  I pointed to the dark corner and then almost ran to the screen and round it. As I cowered behind its flimsy protection I heard sounds of scuffling from the kitchen, a rattle of tin plates and then two heavy thwacks. Ben Holden appeared again, his face very smug. ‘Here he is – dead as a doornail.’ He swung the large grey creature by its tail, and I backed away. He began to tell me again that it was dead, but when I kept on backing, he shrugged and turned and took his trophy away. I sat down at the table, legs trembling. So it was Ben who made the tea, and brought it to me. He leant over the table and said, ‘They won’t hurt you, you know they’re more frightened of you than you are of them.’

  I looked up at him and shook my head firmly. ‘No, Ben – it just is not possible for any rat to be as terrified of me as I am of it.’

  He said, ‘Ah,’ and retreated with his mug.

  Next evening Ben Holden got out of bed as soon as Sister had gone, and I saw he was still wearing his blues trousers. ‘I’ve got summat to show you.’ His voice was conspiratorial. I followed him into the kitchen and there, sitting on the dresser top, comfortably ensconced on one of our best blankets, was a large ginger tom cat. Ben went over to it and rubbed its ear and it rose, arched its back and gave a loud rumbling purr. He explained, ‘I made a few inquiries, see, and Jones won it for us – from the Canadians. We’ve given him a good feed an’ he’s happy as a sandboy. Give him plenty o’ grub and a bit of a stroke now and then and there’ll be no more rats on this ward.’ He looked at me hopefully, just like a small boy waiting for praise.

  I mumbled, ‘But – Sister…’

  He was firm. ‘Sister likes cats.’

  How could I tell him I did not? I pulled myself together and said, ‘What a good idea, Ben – how kind of you.’

  His plain face glowed. The tom leapt down from the dresser and began to explore the kitchen; we both stood watching it. When it reached the table it turned its back on us, displayed two large round balls and then neatly sprayed the table leg. I looked at Ben; his face was on fire. He mumbled, ‘Um – I’ll leave you to it, then, Sister,’ and backed hurriedly out of the kitchen without looking at me.

  The cat sprang up on to the table top and butted my chest with an imperious yowl. Tentatively I scratched its head and it immediately began to purr again. Then I thought of Ben Holden’s crestfallen face and clutched the edge of the table and giggled and giggled until my belly ached with suppressed laughter. Poor Ben – what a return for his chivalry! I could hardly wait to write and describe the scene to Robbie.

  I grew quite fond of the cat over the next few days; as Lofty said, there was nothing like the smell of a tom cat for keeping the rats at bay. Sister told me that during the day Ben took it up the ward and it slept on Lennie’s bed; he liked to stroke it with his good hand and its presence seemed to comfort him. ‘Of course we have to keep it out of Matron’s way otherwise she’d read me a lecture on the dangers of infection, but we all know it’s not going to make any difference to Young Lennie now.’

  On Christmas Day the night VADs got up for lunch, but I was so tired the afternoon passed in a daze. Sears told me Ginger and Ben Holden had been very amusing with the mistletoe. ‘One of them would creep up behind me with it, then at the last minute the other one would cough loudly, so that I’d got time to dodge away – then they would pretend to fight each other over it! It was hilarious, Girvan, all the men roared.’

  I listened dully and wondered how I would ever keep awake all night. But I had no difficulty, because Lennie was crying and moaning; Night Sister got out more morphia, but it took a long time to act and she said I might have to call out Captain Adams next time, to write up a bigger dose.

  On Boxing Day night Lennie was crying; tears of pain and weakness dribbled down his cheek – the second dressing in the evening had taken him far beyond his small stock of endurance. Night Sister came in to look at him, but she told me she could not stay, as the VAD in ‘Heads’ was hysterical – she was weeping and laughing alternately. ‘I’ve got to go and take her off, otherwise she’ll be as crazy as all her patients by the morning.’ I held back the canvas curtain as she ducked underneath, and watched her hurricane lamp bob off over the duck-boards, then I went back up the ward to Young Lennie’s bed.

  I snatched a few minutes to go over to the night bunk for my meal. Ben Holden was with Lennie; he insisted I went, and I told the orderly to stay on call. But when I came back Lennie was screaming – a thin, animal sound that was torn from his wasted body. His eyes were terrified, so I sent the orderly to wake Captain Adams.

  Captain Adams came quickly. He took Lennie’s pulse as he twisted and turned in Ben Holden’s grasp, then said abruptly, ‘Come with me, Nurse.’

  I followed him down into the sister’s bunk and he opened the medicine cupboard and took out the phial of morphia tablets. He looked at the record sheet for a moment and asked, ‘Are Wall and Sanders asleep?’

  ‘Yes, both sound asleep.’

  ‘Right, I’ll put the other doses down to them.’ He drew water up into the hypodermic syringe and then began to add the tablets. As I saw the quantity, a ripple of shock ran through me and my hand was barely steady as I held it out for the syringe. But Captain Adams shook his head. ‘No, Nurse Girvan – this had better be on my conscience. It won’t be the first time – when you’ve been at the front as a regimental MO you learn not to be too sparing with the morphia.’

  I followed him back up the ward. Lennie was frantic now; Ben was struggling to prevent him from banging his shoulder against the mattress. I roiled up Lennie’s pyjama sleeve and Captain Adams stepped forward with the syringe; I saw Ben Holden glance up at him in surprise, then he looked at me, and I knew from his face he had guessed what was happening. ‘Come on, Lennie lad – just a little prick now, and then pain’ll all go away – and you’ll feel right as rain in morning.’

  I held Lennie’s arm still and Captain Adams pushed in the needle and pressed down the plunger. When he withdrew it I gently rubbed the place where the needle had gone in and said, ‘There, Lennie – you’ll soon feel better now.’ The frightened eyes caught at mine for a moment, and I smiled back into them and saw a second of comfort. Then his face twisted and his eyelids screwed up, and he jerked forward on the bed and los
t his balance and fell hard on to his bad side before Ben or I could stop him. He screamed again and again.

  I ran to the head of the bed and slipped my hand under the bony body. ‘Ben!’ and his warm hand clasped mine and together we pulled Lennie up until he stopped screaming. Soon he began to mumble, and I knew that the morphia was taking effect.

  When his breathing finally slowed and then stopped, I straightened my aching back and said, ‘Thank you, Ben. Go back to bed, I’ll see to him now.’

  I walked down into the privacy of the sister’s bunk and slumped into the chair, my hands pressed to my eyes. I could not stop the tears. Lennie had been a child, a simple pathetic child, who had looked up at me with his guileless eyes and trusted me, trusted that I would help him, even when I had had to hurt him again and again in his daily dressing. And now, how had I repaid his trust? Captain Adams had put in the needle, but it was my hand which had massaged the prick in his arm to spread the drug more quickly, my face into which he had looked in the extremity of his pain and fear, and my voice which had lied to him in those last trite words. I sat huddled on the chair and knew I could take no more.

  There was a short cough and I raised my face and looked up through swollen eyelids. Ben Holden stood in the entrance. ‘I brought this for you, Sister.’ He held the lid of a packing case in his right hand, carefully spread with a clean towel. On it sat Sister’s battered brown tea pot and enamel jug, and my cup and saucer. There was a plate of bread and butter, too – and each slice had had its crust neatly cut off. I felt my throat tighten. He put down the makeshift tray and began to back out.

 

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