If I should go before the rest of you
break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
nor when I am gone speak in a Sunday voice
but be the usual selves that I have known.
September 28th 1942, Exeter
Another world captured in sepia. The tone drains the blue from the sky and her clothes but Mary smiles as she leans against the brick wall. Hair off the collar, the fringe pronounced. Her wedding ring, not yet a day old, gleams for the camera. Ron’s grin seems wider. A cigarette rests between his fingers. His other hand is hidden in his trouser pocket. Short back and sides except for the dark hair hanging over his forehead. Both are in uniform. Only their arms touch each other. It would seem like any other day, just another picture of a W.A.A.F nurse and a light tank soldier in training, if nobody ever bothered to read the back:
September 28th, 29th, 30th 1942
Exeter - on our honeymoon
Ron deployed to Germany
December 10th 1942, R.A.F Catterick
Mary held onto the man’s ankles as he twitched and jerked in the bed. He whimpered and called out in strained tones. Three other nurses also pinned him to the bed. The matron ran over but the man’s body had already begun to go limp as she wrapped her fingers around his wrist. A glimpse of gold on his left hand flashed at Mary. After a moment the matron pulled the main bed sheet over the man. His blonde hair stuck out from the top like a sprig of dried grass.
Mary shivered as a cold breeze blew through the small cracks in the windowsills of the ward. She wondered who the man had been married to and where she was. Mary imagined a short woman, perhaps a nurse, like herself, or sat at home with a child. In a few days the letter would arrive at the woman’s door to give her the news. Mary took out a handkerchief from her pocket and used it to blot away her tears. As she blew her nose she was pleased that she could no longer smell the bleach. After three years as a nurse Mary had thought her senses would have dulled to the odour but every morning, when she walked through the hospital doors, it still made her heave.
She looked around the ward. All of the other beds were full. The bandages of the crying or sleeping men were stained with blood and pus even though they had been washed and changed. She touched the gold band on her ring finger and hoped Ron was safe. In the brief moments when the morphine worked, and the men in the ward were no longer in pain, they often shared their experiences or the stories they had heard before coming to the hospital. Mary had always listened to them with a patient interest until she had heard about the attacks on the British tanks.
Two nurses entered the ward carrying an empty stretcher. They came to the bed where the man lay limp under the sheet. He was moved to the stretcher and the two nurses, struggling under the weight, carried him away. Rose, one of the nurses who had helped, began to strip the stained sheets from the bed. Mary walked over to the bedside chair. The man’s brown uniform was folded on the seat with his leather boots and steel, ridged helmet resting on top. His dog-tags were laid out across the shirt with the name: Thomas Leveque.
‘I’ll take those, Mary,’ Rose gestured towards the items on the chair.
Mary nodded. She picked the belongings up with care and placed them in the Rose’s arms. The woman then walked away towards a side door in the ward. Mary held her hands together behind her back to stop them from trembling. She looked at the other nurses tending to the men in the ward. A man called out to her from one of the beds.
She walked over to him and smiled.
‘What can I do for you?’
‘I was wonderin’ if I could have a hot water bottle for my foot, miss. It’s awful cold,’ the man said as he patted his left leg. The uniform on his bedside chair was olive green and beige with leather shoes and canvas gaiters. He had a stitched-up cut on his cheek and spoke with a southern American accent.
Mary nodded and headed to the staff kitchen. It was empty when she reached it. She lit the stove with a match from the drawer under the sink. The kettle was at the back of the stove. Mary filled it with water from the tap and placed it onto the hob. She rested against one of the cabinets. Outside the sky had blurred into a swirl of grey and red. Mary looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost seven.
Quick footsteps echoed down the corridor towards the kitchen. Mary stifled a yawn. She opened the nearest overhead cupboard and looked for the hot water bottle. The footsteps stopped at the kitchen doorway. Mary turned to see who it was and found Vera staring at her.
‘No, I’m fine. Just looking for the hot water bottle,’ Mary said.
‘It is pretty cold today. There was a beautiful frost this morning though.’
‘It’s for a patient. If it gets any colder I might have to start wearing my coat during our rounds,’ Mary peered into another cupboard. ‘You haven’t seen the bottle have you?’ She asked, readjusting her cap.
‘Last time I saw, it was under the sink.’
‘Thank you.’ Mary looked in the under-the-sink cupboard and found the stoneware bottle. She brought it out and placed it on the counter. Using a spare tea-towel she wiped it down.
‘Well, shift’s nearly over. Are you coming dancing tonight?’ Vera adjusted the flame under the kettle as it started to boil.
‘I might do, but I want to check the post first.’
Vera sighed, ‘Have you still not heard from Ron?’
Mary took the kettle off the hob as it began to whistle its screeching tune. ‘No, but, you know, he probably can’t find the time. Besides, I am not the only girl waiting for their letter; perhaps it just got lost in the post.’
Vera stepped over to Mary and put her arm around her, ‘The war has to end sometime.’
Mary smiled and looked at the wedding band on her finger.
‘Well, if you feel like dancing later, then you know where I’ll be.’ Vera hummed Glenn Miller’s Juke Box Saturday Night as she left the kitchen.
Mary laughed at her friend. She filled the hot water bottle and wrapped it up in the tea towel on the counter. On her way back to the ward the groans and cries of the men began to lessen as they always did around the end of her shift. The nurses often administered the last dose of morphine between half six and seven so that the patients could sleep through the night. It made the late shifts much easier too, Mary thought, though she preferred the day rounds that kept her mind busy.
Most of the other nurses in the ward had already left for the day but a few remained. The matron was walking around each bed asking the men if they needed anything. Rose sat beside a patient, his eyes half shut, talking to him in fluent French. Mary listened to her footsteps resound across the room now that the ward was quiet. She reached the bed of the man who had requested the hot water bottle. He was still awake.
‘Thanks, miss. You’re awful kind,’ the man said as he laid back against his pillows.
‘It’s no problem, Mr - '
Mary pulled the covers out from where it had been tucked under the corner of the mattress. As she lifted the sheet she almost dropped the hot water bottle resting under her arm. The man’s coarse-haired knee stuck out from under the bedding. Halfway down the shin his leg ended with a tight wrapping of fresh bandages. Mary felt cold again and goosebumps pinched her arms. The American looked at her. She smiled and placed the hot water bottle just below where the foot had ought to have been.
The man smiled. ‘That’s much better now.’
‘You’re welcome, Mr Johnson.’
Mary re-tucked his bedsheets and took deep, slow breaths. She glanced back at the American but the effects of the morphine had started and he was now asleep.
Rose wandered over to her. ‘Never quite get over the shock of it all, do you? I’ve been a nurse for eight years and I still can’t.’
Mary shook her head. ‘What happened to him?’
'He stood on a mine. Should count himself lucky really; his whole body could have been blown up.’ Rose took hold of Mary’s hand and squeezed it hard. ‘He’ll be okay. Go and enjoy your evening.’
Mary nodded and left the ward. She grabbed her coat from the rack by the nurse’s entrance to the hospital and walked out the doors. The wind blew her jacket about her as she wrapped it around herself. The bare trees were dark against the grey-red sky. She thought about the photograph in the dormitory by her bed. The image of her and Ron just about to go on their honeymoon. It had been a warm day and the leaves in the trees had not yet turned yellow. Not long after, Ron’s training ended and he had been called out to Germany. That was almost three months ago. He had written to her every week except for the last fortnight. She twisted the wedding ring around her finger as she reached the accommodation building. Once inside she walked over to the sign-in desk where the usual plump, red-haired receptionist sat. She seemed to be knitting a scarf from a ball of beige wool.
‘Hi, Audrey,’ Mary leant over the counter to get a better look. ‘That’s coming along well.’
‘Thank you, it’s part of the Knitting for Victory so our men can stay warm while they fight,’ Audrey smiled. ‘Plus, it’s quite distracting.’
‘I can imagine,’ Mary watched as Audrey continued to move the knitting needles backwards, forwards, and around each other.
‘Well, what can I do for you, Mary?’ Audrey stopped and placed her work on the desk.
‘I was just wondering if I have had any post today,’ Mary looked over to the wooden unit separated into individual ‘pigeon-holes’ for all of the nurses’ mail. She tried to identify her own section of the wooden structure but could not make out the names on each ‘hole’.
Audrey stood up from her chair and went to the second from last row, fifth box down and peered inside. Mary watched her as she stuck her hand into the unit and pulled out a small mud-streaked envelope.
‘Is this what you were hoping for?’ Audrey handed over the letter.
Mary took it with still trembling hands and nodded. She walked up the main staircase as quick as she was able and made her way to the second floor dormitory. The long room was empty as Mary reached her bed. She sat down on the edge of the mattress and opened the letter.
I know you are probably worried by now. I’m okay, but things have been hard. We buried Harry yesterday. Couldn’t leave him lying there. Been trying to keep telling my little old jokes (they always seem good enough for you) but everyone’s struggling to smile now. At least I can fill my thoughts with you, my wonderful Mary.
Will write to you soon (hopefully with better news).
I love you,
Mary wiped away a tear and smiled. Ron was safe for now. She propped the letter up by the photograph of their honeymoon and went to the wardrobe she shared with Vera and another nurse. She pulled out her copen blue harriet-dress and matching shoes. She was going dancing.
Weep if you must parting is hell
but life goes on so sing as well.