Vain Shadow
Author: Steven Wyatt

Chapter 19
Buck Up, Ruthie

                  

Ruth hitched up her full-length skirt and stepped on to the trench’s fire step. She peered through the box periscope into no man’s land.

Ostrich feathers bobbed in the late September sunshine. The garden was thronged with people in their Sunday best; straw-boatered men in suits and women in their most extravagant hats, carrying parasols. Many of the younger women had adopted the startling new short skirts, some trimmed as high as calf-length. They did look chic…but Miss Brindle would never permit it.

Children played under the laden apple trees, the boys running about in yelling groups of ‘Tommies’ and reluctantly-pressed ‘Turks’, and the girls sitting on the grass in solemn conclaves of ‘nurses’ attempting to lure stray boys across to play the role of wounded. Few cared to.

A hubbub of conversation commingled with the chink of teacups and the strains of Garcell’s band running through its familiar and by now thoroughly practised repertoire of patriotic and sentimental songs, competing with the barrel organ on the other side.

Ruth panned the periscope from left to right, picking out familiar figures. There was Holy Joe, an upholstered grey slab of self-satisfaction, holding court amid a synod of Millbridge matrons; Sergeant Lomas in silver-gleaming splendour; and the severe and sylph-like Sister Trixie Collingwood in her grey bonnet, ignoring in dark-eyed disdain the menagerie of middle-aged men clustering around her.

‘You won’t see him through that, you know,’ said Florrie Swindells, fidgeting in the queue behind her, like Ruth dressed in the white drill coat, apron and tied-back kerchief headdress of Voluntary Aid Detachment Cheshire 45. ‘Come on, let someone else have a turn!’

Ruth relinquished the periscope and stepped down on to the duckboards, assisted by one of the blue-uniformed convalescent soldiers from the Manse, here to guide the garden party guests around The Trench. ‘See how Our Boys really live at the Front! 2d. a tour!’ Florrie swarmed up on lithe legs to take her turn at the eyepiece, wiggling her bottom a little more than strictly necessary.

‘I expect you see something a little different through the periscopes over there,’ Ruth remarked to the soldier.

‘Just a little, miss,’ he said, a momentary, blanking hesitation flicking down over his eyes like the shutter over a camera lens. ‘You’ll find the dug-out further down.’

It seemed actually rather cosy, if Spartan. There were two wooden bunks, a table with two chairs and a gramophone sharing a shelf with a selection of tinned and dried rations, tin boxes of Will’s Whiffs cigarettes, matches, a supply of candles and two bottles of Bass’s beer. Portraits of their Majesties, various music hall stars and a number of military-looking notices were fixed to the wood-revetted walls. Duckboards covered the dusty earth of the floor. A paraffin lamp sat on the table.

Ruth imagined Tolly and Harry sharing a dug-out much like this, writing home in the light of the lamp, Tolly perhaps smoking a pipe – it would suit him, a pipe – with a song scratching out from the gramophone.

The dug-out held a rich and wholesome earthy smell with just a hint of September dampness. She hoped the two were looking after themselves, keeping warm and dry as autumn approached. It comforted her to know they would be under cover in shelter like this. You heard such terrible things.

Over by the new vegetable plot a group of convalescents had set up ‘camp’, brewing tea in mess tins over a Primus stove and selling it at an extortionate 3d. a tin cup. Nobody minded the price – much – because it was for the Boys, and the soldiers were doing good business. They had cooked up some sort of hash with bully beef, tinned peas and broken Army biscuits, quite acceptable with a dash of Lea & Perrins, served on enamel plates. The convalescents manning the camp had gone back into khaki for the afternoon. Two or three sported ‘wounds’ dressed in clean bandages for that extra touch of gallant realism, making them magnets for fussing little girls.

The vicarage garden was dotted with white-tented stalls and stands. Alongside the Kaiser Bill coconut shy and kiddies’ roundabout were demonstrations of sandbag-sewing, home gas mask-assembly and bandage-making, the elaborately-tailed bandages for abdominal wounds attracting much ghoulish attention.

There was a poster-festooned Army recruiting stand manned by a plum-coloured sergeant doing his best to fend off the badgering of  militaristic boys without actually being seen to clip their ears for them, blasted little monkeys.

The YMCA was collecting writing materials, smalls, socks, scarves, pyjamas, flint-and-tinder lighters, hot water bottles, magazines and novels. Lady Bushman’s Ambulance Fund was extracting shillings and florins from purses for her ladyship’s ‘Names’ appeal. She had suggested that the ambulances rattling along the pavés of rural France should bear female names and had asked the nation’s many Claires, Elises, Marjories, Betties, Vickies, Tillies, Fredas and Dorothies to contribute whatever they could afford towards their eponymous vehicles.

Mrs Garnet herself of Garcell’s, resplendent in leaf-green and at least three intertwining fox stoles, her own hunt trophies, was combing her two Pekinese dogs on a table and displaying examples of the wonderfully soft bodices woven from the hair, used to dress burns victims who could not stand the touch of less kind materials. All over the land doleful but immaculate Pekinese like Mrs Garnet’s Ming and Ling were being relentlessly combed in middle-class parlours.

Ruth noticed a Boy Scout, a Donovan boy, one of the seemingly inexhaustible supply of younger ones – so terrible about his brother; Mrs Donovan must be frantic about Michael – gallop breathlessly up to Sergeant Lomas and deliver a message, gulping in his haste. The police officer listened with attention, nodded, made his farewells and followed the lad out of the garden.

Florrie Swindells emerged from the mock-up trench, having lingered to flirt, and linked her arm in Ruth’s.

‘I suppose we’d better be getting back to Old Mother Brindle,’ she said in a voice made clear and confident from manning her father’s market stall since girlhood. ‘She’ll be on the warpath, she will.’

The two set off arm in arm, Florrie a good head shorter, dark against Ruth’s tall fairness, a neatly agile girl of curved strength and easy virtue. She had a rapid stride and sly cat’s eyes of startling pale green. Her mouth, never far from an impish smile, showed small, pretty teeth.

An unlikely and eyebrow-raising friendship had grown between the two since they had joined the VAD together that summer. Ruth knew about Florrie and Harry, and did not take it seriously for a second, knowing her friend, and naturally Florrie knew about Ruth and Tolly.

Florrie Swindells had that…well, that reputation – Ruth could see some of the matrons looking askance at them as they strode between the stalls on their way back to the VAD stand – but she didn’t care. It wasn’t fair that different sexual standards should be applied to men and women.

She felt a thrill of daring even to be thinking of the word ‘sexual’ but since making love with Tolly – please God, keep him safe – she was a sexual woman herself now, for all that she was still only seventeen. Her man’s woman. A fighting man’s woman. She had not regretted doing it with him for a moment. Only Florrie and Grandma Oldham truly understood. Things were different now.

Sister Trixie joined them, gliding alongside like a gull, saying in a low voice: ‘Sergeant Lomas had to go back to the station to take a telephone call. It might be what we think it is.’

Ruth and Florrie halted, staring at the older woman. She was a trained Queen Alexandra nurse, the precise daughter of a fringe-aristocratic family down south, sent with Miss Brindle to oversee Cheshire 45’s eager but inept VAD girls and convert the All Saints church hall into an emergency hospital. It waited now, empty and scrubbed to carbolic-reeking perfection.

Her slanting black eyes glittered with calm tenacity. ‘We should tell Matron. Come on.’

Bernadette Brindle, a square-cut Irish woman of middle years with a frank, sculpted face, rose from her canvas stool as if preparing to scold the approaching trio for returning late. Like Sister Trixie she wore the close-fitting Queen Alexandra grey bonnet tied in a bow under the chin, the ankle-length dress and short scarlet cape designed, legend had it, by Florence Nightingale to steer the lustful eyes of recuperating Tommies away from anything as distracting as their carers’ bosoms. Her cape bore the red, yellow and blue ribbon of the South African campaign medal.

Hovering at her shoulder was Sylvanus Iley, the orderly, an intense gangler with agitated hands and pleading, watery eyes. He had joined the VAD in desperation after being rejected for active service at four separate recruiting stations on grounds of age. Like every sighted male in Millbridge over twelve, though he was four times that, he was in thrall to Sister Trixie.

The sister darted ahead of Ruth and Florrie to forestall admonition and spoke quickly to Miss Brindle, who came alert like a gundog.

‘Mr Iley, man the stall,’ the matron boomed in her penetrating Celtic contralto. ‘Find a Boy Scout and send him to round up the others. I want everyone. Sister, girls, with me.’

She swept off across the garden like a battleship putting purposefully to sea, her words and her manner attracting attention and setting speculation riffling through the crowd. Everyone knew from newspaper hints and guardedly-written letters home about the show at Loos, the big push to break the German line and bring victory in one mighty blow. It was common knowledge the hospitals had been put on alert for casualties.

The station master, Mafeking Wilson, set off on his long legs without waiting for Sergeant Lomas to return. Drivers scattered from the beer tent to fetch their improvised ambulances, wiping their mouths. Matrons fluttered like windswept pigeons while Holy Joe made calming motions.

Ruth, Florrie and Sister Trixie followed Miss Brindle, Florrie scuttling to keep up. She and Ruth exchanged an excited, nervous glance. Was this it?

 

The church hall held forty beds in two facing ranks of twenty. The way they were made up to strict Queen Alexandra prescription was the only uniform thing about them. There were wooden beds, iron beds and brass beds, old and new, high and low, narrow and wide, all donated locally, dismantled and wrestled down from attic rooms, spare bedrooms and empty servants’ quarters. All the manservants had joined up and the maids were in the factories, turning into proper little hussies with their sky-high wages and more independence than was good for them.

The beds were covered with multi-hued counterpanes shaken out from cupboards, drawers and linen boxes all over Millbridge. The colourful, non-regulation look of the ward disturbed Miss Brindle. But they were beds and that was what counted. The sheets and pillowcases had been boiled and bleached to dazzling, scorched-smelling cleanliness and starched to the verge of rigidity.

The hall had a kitchen off to one side supplied with crockery, much of it recruited from glass-fronted dressers for the duration. Ruth and Florrie were set to work lighting the range and putting the two enormous urns to boil while Sister Trixie unlocked the big cupboard and began checking through the medical supplies of disinfectant, iodine, bowls, instruments and dressings.

Another VAD girl bustled in with the bandage display from the garden party stall. More girls arrived, summoned by Scouts, hastily tying headdresses and pulling at aprons, to remake and smooth already-immaculate beds and polish already-shining surfaces. Some were despatched to knock on neighbours’ doors for bread, butter, eggs, cheese and anything to feed almost certainly ravenous Tommies, Miss Brindle having had experience in this regard. She took imperious station at a raised table at one end of the hall, a self-possessed and stately despot at her command post, the deep voice carrying to every corner.

Outside, the evening brought a fat harvest moon a couple of nights past the full, rising over the Pennines. The electric lights were switched on. Gaunt Dr Pole, trailing a faint smell of hypochlorous acid and whisky, arrived carrying his bag and confirmation from Sergeant Lomas that casualties were on their way.

Finally they were done even to Miss Brindle’s satisfaction. It went quiet. The girls took deep breaths and looked at each other. What now? Where were their patients? Would there be Cheshires, North Cheshires, Lancashires, Ashton Pals, Stockport Pals? Would they send the boys home, here, to be treated? There was no saying. The first casualties to arrive at the Royal last year had been Belgian. Some were still there.

In the night, a train whistle sounded. They could hear it approaching, puffing up the long hill on the track paralleling the flight of locks on the canal. Here they came! There was a rush to the door.

The noise of motor engines coughed in chorus from the direction of the station, less than half a mile away, as ambulances were crank-started. The girls spilled out of the church hall on to the steps, the electric light following them, straining to see and hear. Sister Trixie was sent off with Sylvanus Iley and two of the more muscular girls to meet the train. The Army used milk trains for casualties because the shelves for the churns were ideal for stretchers.

Ruth waited outside the double doors in heart-banging tension, both dreading and hoping that the train would be carrying Tolly. Or Harry. She knew it was unlikely – impossible, almost – but she could not help herself. If Tolly – or Harry – was on board, he would be wounded but alive. If he wasn’t on board, he could be fit and well or he could be… No. She would not think about that. But she would treat every Tommy who came through the doors as if he were Tolly, or Harry, and pray that if either of them were hurt the nurses treating them would act the same. Oh, this was unbearable.

‘Buck up, Ruthie,’ Florrie murmured by her side, reaching for her hand and squeezing it. Her grip was dry and warm. ‘They’ll be all right.’

The train heaved and chuffered to a stop in a hissing exhalation of tired steam. Men were shouting in the distance. Automobile gears crunched as ambulances were manoeuvred, their engines revving. Carriage doors were opened.

Ruth could imagine the scene at the station. Sergeant Lomas would be there with his constables, soldiers, folk from the town, Boy Scouts and Mafeking Wilson with his wheezing old porters. The mayor’s formidable wife would probably be attempting to instruct Sister Trixie. Some hope. Men would be manhandling down the stretchers with their broken burdens and lifting them into the ambulances. Oh, hurry! Be careful!

One motor engine sounded out from the others, pulling away. Another followed, then another. They would be on their way down Station Road, along Salt Street past the bakery, past Threlfall’s, past the pubs where the non-combatant curious would be emerging to gawp, across the Market Square, slowing down over the tram lines, and past the park. Almost here...

There! There they were!

Clegg’s converted truck led the little convoy, white duck canvas spread over cane hoops like a Wild West wagon with red flannel crosses home-stitched on either side. The farmer himself was driving, beery eyes gleaming with patriotic purpose. He braked to a stop outside the church hall and made a maladroit, gearbox-wrecking three-point turn to point the rear of the truck towards the doors, exhaust fumes billowing.

One of two canvas flaps twitched aside and Sylvanus Iley jumped down, tying back the flap. Sister Trixie looked out and beckoned Ruth and Florrie forward. They ran down the steps to the ambulance as Sister Trixie held back the other flap so they could see inside.

Ruth peered in, her heart pounding, trying to make out –

The tattered khaki was soiled a repulsive mulberry-black colour. A fouled bandage covered the stump. Light gleamed on tarnished brass, on the insignia borne so proudly by Tolly and Harry: North Cheshire Regiment.

 

 

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