Stretcher-bearers stumble in the gloom of open country, not fully knowing what lies beneath upon the watery earth. The women and men striving to save half-lost lives know it will not be enough, just as endless weeks past. In the low morning light, another ambulance departs for the field hospital. Beyond, dozens of men lie still among turnips blown out of the soil by shellfire.
Beside her in the ambulance, a soldier is trying to speak as they judder through pits. As a front-line nurse this is her norm. Arriving at the hospital, she prepares. Into her hand from his blackened one, he presses a cigarette tin, patterned like the one Peter always carries. The one she bought for him at the store on Hampton Road.
She works swiftly as casualties are transferred, each man feeling heavier than the last. Wind thrashing the tent walls does not muffle agonised moans. She tends methodically; cleans, bandages, soothes. Crimson splashes on her uniform will never wash out, like memories absorbed.
As rain seeps in, the mud outside thickens to ankle deep. After the first bombardments, her hands shook as the stretchers went down; now they hold steady. In this confinement she transforms, becomes immune to unendurable sights. She blinks against flashes of Peter’s face in the half-lit features of wounded men. As
practicalities overcome all else, the clock hands switch to slow motion.
In calm moments, she imagines stepping out on Peter’s arm again wearing her finest green coat. He liked to take her to the theatre, would pay for the best seats he could afford on a clerk’s wage. Betty was the last performance they saw. At the closing scene, she leant her head against his shoulder in the darkness and breathed in Woodbines and cologne.
“Are you there?” A man’s calling against the background hum. Standing close to the bed, she gauges that he is not yet twenty. She gently holds his clammy hand. By his glazed eyes, she senses either shock or morphine. Perhaps both. In minutes, his eyes flicker closed.
She pulls the tin out of her damp pocket. When Peter took out a cigarette, he always winked at her tenderly, then offered one. In the lamp-glow of the tent, this tin shines like silver, but her heart is leaden. She squeezes it like a talisman and tucks it away again.
“Are you still there?” His voice is weaker. His hair looks familiar, she almost reaches out to touch it. For the briefest moment she believes it is Peter but knows it cannot be. They are far distant from his base. Her breath catches: it is dark as mahogany, not like Peter’s. His eyes remain closed, but she leans closer.
“Yes,” she replies. Here, she will remain. When finally she can sleep, she’ll rush outside into dream-hour rain, take flight, and go to him. Hundreds of miles across Belgian fields to find him safe, until she wakes.
Christine Collinson writes historical short fiction. She’s a Best Microfiction nominee and has had over twenty flash fiction pieces published. She’s been long-listed by Bath Flash Fiction Award and the Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.