(Based on the piece Oblivion, by Astor Piazzolla. Listen to the Gidon Kremer recording on YouTube.)
She stocked the linen cupboard with restless hands, reveling in the relative silence of a day without sirens. Stacking the clean cloths on their respective shelves, she turned to inspect her work: everything was in order, and she pulled on the light-chain, drawing the door closed behind her. The chatter of nurses, of women, filled the hallway, heels clicking from every corner at a constant brisk pace.
There was always some task to be done in these brief periods of respite- needles to be sterilized, bedpans to scrub, stockings to mend. She clipped up the stairwell to the dormitory, bent on fetching her sewing kit from where she had forgotten it in the morning. “I love you,” a girl murmured into the telephone as she passed, one hand curled over the receiver as if it were her love’s cheek. At the far side of the room was her cot, and she neatly dodged the adornments of women’s lives, hanging from bedposts and rafters and the rogue hanger, and any other spare knob that could be employed.
Molly Hooper sprawled on her cot for all of a moment, allowing herself one minute of breathing, simply for the sake of it, eyes shut against the stink of war. What was supposed to be a useful thing, nurse’s training, had quickly descended into a nightmare of noise and despair she hadn’t realized could be possible. But she stuck staunchly to the task she had set herself because here, with her scissors and her sewing kit and her steady hands, she could make a difference, no matter how small or large. She could never bring her father back, or her brother, but if it was only one man she saved, or gave the comfort of a warm hand to, it would already be enough. She drew a deep breath in through her nose, savoring the absence of noise, with only the swirling murmurs of gossip in the company of women reaching her ears.
It was too good to last.
There was a shriek, followed closely by a hurried patter of footsteps; the slam of a doorknob into a wall. She sat bolt upright, tugging at her apron in an attempt to straighten it, as if the starched panes of cloth might help her survive whatever had caused that sound. “Something’s happened,” came the panicked voice of Mary, and she ran forward to clutch at Molly’s hand. They held each other briefly, drawing strength from each other as only friends can, before the wail of voices reached a fever pitch, writhing up the walls in spurts and bursts in a clamor of dread. One final squeeze of rough fingers, one final glance, heavy with meaning, and they ran, ran, clattering down the hallways and stairs, past the throngs of nurses struggling to pin a heard-hearted attitude onto their pretty faces.
And then the men came, men flooding through the doors on stretchers stained red. Molly pushed past the doors and out into a street packed full of lorries, lorries packed full of soldiers; soldiers loitered on the corners or lounged on crates, soldiers draped on makeshift cots in every direction. Cigarettes dangled from the corners of their thin mouths, and they dragged in dull breaths to bring color to their grey faces. The edges of dirty bandages ran rampant around heads, chests, mangled limbs that bore no resemblance to their function.
Within moments Molly found herself supporting a stretcher with Mary, clenching the end of it as if her life depended on it. They found an empty bed in the clamor of the ward, and deposited their silent man onto it, as he struggled to breathe. When she looked up the room swam about her; the sounds of wailing men assaulted her ears, men so red with blood she could barely see their faces, men with stitches swollen tight and rank with infection, men with skin melted by the heat of fire. And what could she do? What could Molly Hooper, little, plain, Molly Hooper do, in the face of this destruction, this absolute disregard for life? A hand landed on her shoulder- Mary’s hand, steady, firm, and with the strength they both needed to see the night through. And with a tight nod from them both, they continued, on, and on, and on.
Later, when the halls had been cleared of the smell of piss and blood, to be replaced with the tang of anesthetic barely covering the stench of death, Molly stood over the cold steel of an industrial sink. She scrubbed at her fingers, and her palms, and her nails. The brush was course and bristling, and she sloughed the layers of skin from her hands, until they were raw and trembling. The hard smell of the soap stung her nostrils, but she rubbed harder, faster, as though if she could erase the day from her hands, she could erase it from existence. The brush clattered to the bottom of the basin, and she clutched at the edges of the cold metal, her body bent forward as the bile rose in her throat. The slim contents of her stomach emptied itself with a sickening splash, and she gasped as the burn of stomach acid permeated her throat. The sting of tears trailed unbidden from her eyes, and her body heaved.
“Nurse Hooper,” a stern voice interrupted. Sister Clarence stood in the doorway in all her no-nonsense stylings, manner stiff as ever. She gave Molly a brisk once-over as she stood to attention, face softening slightly as she took in Molly’s blotched face and quivering hands.
Molly shakily wiped the spittle from her lips. “Yes, Sister Clarence.” Sister Clarence pursed her lips, taking in the slight girl, struggling to school her expression into that of a Nurse, instead of a young woman who had seen far more of suffering today than anyone should ever see. “Nurse Hooper, there is a patient in your section in need of your assistance.” She hesitated, empathy for the girl- for the soldier, for the situation, for the world- threatening to overcome her, as it colored her words. “You might give him some..morphine, for his nerves. There is a little left- he’ll keep the whole ward awake otherwise, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, Sister Clarence,” Molly said, stiffening her resolve; and she tugged at her apron, straightened her cap. With a steady breath of determination, she left with head held high, leaving Sister Clarence standing in her wake.
The patient in question lay tossing in his bed as she approached. He had been cleaned, as best as any of them could manage given the circumstances, his face pale and shining with sweat in the little light filtering in from the high window. As she approached, she saw what she had at first overlooked in the poor light: bandages were wrapped thickly around his head, covering his eyes from view. He tossed his head fitfully from side to side, muttering under his breath, his hands occasionally flailing about in a manner suggestive of a seizure. She caught one of his hands in her own, moving to sit beside his cot, and held it firmly- but regretted this action almost immediately, as he let out a great shout, wrenching free from her grip with a strength she had not thought him capable of in his state. She reached again for his hand, and in doing so brushed his side: the shock of such close contact had him thrashing about as if the very devil was upon him. “It’s alright,” she whispered, “Calm yourself.” But it was no good, and the groans from the nearby beds grew louder by the moment. She put her hand to his forehead, pushing back the lank, dark curls, still sticky with blood. He burned with fever, and she wondered if he would last the night. The thought caused her gorge to rise once again, and she swallowed forcefully, stroking his forehead until he had calmed. “It’s alright,” she whispered again, although she wasn’t sure who exactly she was trying to convince. “I’m here. I’m here.”
“John?” he asked her suddenly, his voice hoarse with smoke and disuse. “John,” he said again, and she grabbed his hand towards herself, brushing his dirty fingers with her thumb. “I’m here.” He sagged into the bedding, the lines of his face smoothing. She took the opportunity to strap the tourniquet around his arm, plunging the syringe deftly into his flesh. His breathing evened slowly, and as she stood, she looked closer at them man- who might even be handsome, if this were a different time, or a different place- if his eyes weren’t wrapped with ragged bandages stained with the dirt of war.
“Rest easy,” she whispered, and tucked the sheets up higher to his chin. She gathered her things, and left.