SHORT FICTION: BATTLE BY CARLA J. DOW

August 3, 2013 Fiction

 

January 1941

 

The seafront was ablaze, fire dancing without discrimination. Sirens whirled through the air, the high-pitched drone sending chilled shivers through the core of Frances’s spine. But now was not the time to start getting the heebie-jeebies.

Frances looked down at the Red Cross on her starched white apron and it gave her strength. Taking a deep breath she stepped forward to take her place, ready as she’d ever be to head out to war.

They were calling this the Blitz and Plymouth was suffering. The guns banged endlessly, one blast after the other in a crescendo of echoes. The searchlights span patterns through the black sky, drawing out nightmares amidst the grey smoke.

Frances needed to keep her head. She took another deep breath, filling her lungs with courage, and stepped up to the Sister.

“Are you alright Nurse White?” the stout figure barked, her deep voice belying an uncharacteristic gentleness, although it may just have been the blasts playing tricks on her hearing.

Frances paused in her reply to Sister Weld for just a second, but not a moment longer. She was the youngest at the First Aid Post, the baby of the group at just 17. But she’d done her training and she’d treated many men before today – yes, she was ready.

“Yes Sister,” she replied, her chin high in the air, her mouth a thin straight line.

“Then change your left cuff,’ Sister snapped, “You can’t go out like that, what will the patients think if they see a soiled uniform. A professional image is as important as the delivery of professional care.”

Frances’s confidence fell a few notches and her eyes slid down to the offending sleeve. The spot of blood bloomed like the red petal of a rose.

Cuff replaced, Frances skipped back up the steps with an effortless energy that only the young can possess and hopped into the converted Cherabang, a small jeep commandeered as an ambulance by the Red Cross and St John’s nurses who together formed the Joint War Organisation. The driver was a sweet chap named Alfred, with messy brown hair flying in all directions and equally wild eyes roving the skies in the shadows of the searchlights.

“Alright there?” Frances asked and patted the side of the vehicle to signal she was ready, while absentmindedly squashing her own brown curls into the side of her white nurse’s cap.

“Will be when these bleedin’ bombs stop…” She caught only half of Alfred’s reply before another explosion lit up the sky and sent bricks, mortar and God only knows what else careering into the air and all that was underneath. But there was no time to ponder on it, the engine roared and they moved off.

Their job was to transport casualties to the hospital or first aid post. The Cherabang sped through the bright streets glowing with fear and fire, towards the high street where most of the damage was. But they never made it that far.

“Stop!” the cry halted the vehicle as if it were a barrier blocking the road and a lad skidded out to claw at Frances’s arm, at once covering her newly clean cuff in dust and blood. But Frances’s eyes were fixed on a group of children in the doorway of a house that no longer stood behind it. The wooden frame was all that remained.

Another young boy screamed and caught her attention for a moment before she noticed the tiny figure of a girl no more than two years old, hugging her little knees to her chest, eyes wide and staring. Curling blonde ringlets pasted to her face, soaked with the sweat of fear. As Frances took in the scene, it was this child that set the adrenaline racing through her veins.

The older boy who’d stopped the jeep gestured behind a pile of rubble where clouds of pale dust billowed upwards in silent protest and she saw the stilled bodies of two adults. The woman was face down in the remains of her kitchen, arm twisted back at an impossible angle, legs buried under a large pile of bricks. The man was curled into a fetal position, knees curved protectively up to his chest and arms encircling his body not a mark on him except the deep cavernous hole in his skull from which a steady stream of red was seeping.

Frances bent and checked both casualties quickly; neither had a pulse. With Alfred’s help she loaded the young survivors into the back of the ambulance, cradling the silent girl in her arms.

“Right let’s take them to the Exeter Street post,” she directed, a new authority in her voice. “This one’s losing blood and I don’t want to wait ‘til the hospital to get ‘im seen.”

Alfred gave a curt nod before speeding off but it wasn’t long before they were forced to stop again and he looked in dismay at the fire raging into the sky from a row of terraces, thick smoke and roaring flames cutting off their path.

 

“We’re never going to get through this fire Nurse,” Alfred’s eyes were wild again, wheeling across the devastation just as the bombers had done moments before.

But Frances had an idea. “What with all that water in the sea there?” she asked with a tart tilt of her head towards the Barbican. Leaping from the ambulance and carefully transferring the little girl into her brother’s arms, Frances grabbed a fire bucket and raced down to the seafront.

“I don’t reckon that’ll be enough for them fires Nurse.” Alfred’s despair rose but to his surprise – and their casualties consternation – Frances launched the water over the canvas top soaking the entire ensemble before jumping back in her seat yelling: “Let’s move it.”

A man used to following orders, Alfred’s foot pressed on the accelerator without pause. He shifted through the gears fiercely and drove past the blazing block making it safely out the other side, the canvas now dry from the heat but only slightly singed. Frances whooped silently to herself in secret triumph. I’m ready to take the War on, she thought as she ferried her patients safely inside the busy first aid post.

                                                          

She packed the last of the bandages into the box and smoothed down her bright white apron. Frances was finished for today and eager to leave. She’d heard the butchers down Royal Parade had some lamb and she wanted to get there early to ensure a good place in the queue. That is if the sirens stayed quiet long enough.

As she had predicted, the long line wound its way round the building but Frances joined the end anyway. The women were almost silent; the nightmare of last night’s bombing still haunting their thoughts, creating unwanted memories that danced on the edges of their consciousness like ghouls. These women were the brave ones, the stubborn ones, those who haunted the city in search of normality and routine amongst the trails of grey smoke. The rest remained in hiding or lay under the ruins – their distress finally at peace.

More than half of the women had lost loved ones, friends, neighbours, or colleagues last night, either here, or on the battlefields across the Channel. But no one spoke of it. The only words whispered aloud were rumours of Coxside gas works taking a direct hit.

The whining scream of sirens cut into the grey morning. The melancholy sound never failing to send a shiver of chill panic through Frances before her training took over and she tripped into action. Most of those in the queue rushed off to seek out the safety of the Anderson Shelter, but others stayed where they were determined to get their meat, desensitised to the danger by their own refusal to accept the fragility of life and easy reception of death. These Plymouthians were resolute not to let the Krouts take the meat from their tables.

But for Frances, there was no decision to make – she was needed. Whenever the siren called, she reported to the First Aid Post.

She hurried through the rubbled streets, dust clouding her way, creating barriers where once there was a path, leaving gaping spaces where once there was a bank, a nursery, or a church. Frances saw the frightened faces of her neighbours around each corner, wrought with fresh worry overlaying the deep lines of the poverty of wartime. The older ones, those who had been through this all before during the Great War, were more resigned, but those younger who now experienced the horrors for the first time were still unsure, skittish even after these two long years of fighting. When would the end come? When would the Axis advance be curtailed?

Frances shook the nightmares from her head and pushed past the stretcher-bearers at the doorway of the underground First Aid Post. Inside, she took a second to make sense of the chaos, her trained eye taking in the triage area and rows of beds aligned like soldiers in battle, nurses and a few doctors weaving in and out of the frontline.

That was when it happened. The moment would be etched in her mind for years to come, would haunt her every day until only the context of a life lived could make sense of it.

Before anyone knew it was a bomb, before they even heard the impact, Frances was thrown like a limp ragdoll across the small underground room hitting a trolley of neatly-arranged surgical tools and regimented lines of rolled bandages as she went. The unheard force felt like a strong gale which blew her off her feet and discarded her carelessly amongst a tumble of patients and colleagues. A German voice broke into the silence, an unmistakable cry and Frances imagined for a second that the bomber pilot who’d dropped this fresh hell was jeering at them from above. But no, it was a patient, a wounded soldier; a man who had just a week before left his new bride, glowing with the swell of her tummy and hope for the future. A man who had been as frightened as they were now before his ship was hit and he had no choice but to swim for enemy shores. A man who had left his leg floating in those cold waters unbeknownst to him, as he felt each and every phantom kick swimming determinedly, albeit less efficiently, through the icy sea. A man who, if his last breath hadn’t been stolen by a missile launched by his own comrade, would have made a full recovery and spent the rest of the war safe in a POW camp to return home in 1945 to his loyal family.

Frances heard nothing but that German voice long after the last breath had been squeezed from his blood-filled lungs, until a ringing sound slowly penetrated and she opened her eyes to yet more dust and another voice filled her ears.

“Get to your posts, smarten yourselves up. Set up the mobile hospital. Move it!” It was Sister Weld. Her unmistakable bark rang out through the confusion. Frances got to her feet, pulling strength from her leader. She took  Dr. Lewis, his insides spread across the crisp white bed sheet, spilling over the patient he’d been tending but who was now beyond help. One end of the First Aid Post had been blown clean off.

The pain throbbed in her shoulder where she’d hit the ground, her head rang with the damage to her eardrums and she was sure a few of her teeth had come clean out. But Frances got up and stepped over the lifeless bodies of the nurses she’d worked side by side with for two long years, moving to those who showed signs of life.

“If you can get up from the floor, you can carry on.” Sister’s Weld’s voice came loud and clear, giving comfort and direction at once with her unyielding authority.

It wasn’t until the team finally left the scene 14 hours later that Frances received medical help herself. Her cuts were cleaned and bandaged and it was as she sat feeling sorry for herself, that she heard Sister Weld’s voice again and learnt her superior had been blinded in the bombing, her eyes damaged beyond repair by the blast debris. It was thanks to her strength that any of them had been able to pull themselves up from that floor and carry on.

 

March 1941

 

Off duty at last, Frances walked along the Barbican, drinking in the new sights of her city – a city that changed all too often now bombs rained down more frequent than the heavens themselves. She weaved her way through the streets, heading to the First Aid Post where she was due.

But each new scar in the landscape chipped away a little more of her spirit. Passing by St Andrew’s Parish Church she despaired at the bombed roof, now cut into fanged teeth. A hard lump formed in Frances’s throat and she tried to swallow it down, to breathe past the fear, the horror that threatened to cut off her oxygen but as the lump sank down into her chest it wrapped its chill around her heart.

‘Maybe this is it, maybe I cannot take any more,’ she thought, sinking weak to the ground right there on the pavement as if the life were draining from her, ignoring the questions and pokes from the people of her city, the city she loved so much. As one man tried to lift her, grabbing her under the arms to force her to her feet, his worried voice a muffled sound at the edge of her comprehension – she heard the hammer; the rhythmic and defiant banging. Amidst the smoking ruins of the church, the school headmistress was nailing a wooden sign over the charred door – a sign that simply read “Resurgam” – I shall rise again.

In that simple gesture of wartime spirit, a gesture repeated at so many broken churches throughout the Allied countries, Frances knew she could fight on, just as her city would, and she rose to her feet again.

 

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