Zeitgeber

The cup and saucer are mine.

The uniform’s mine as well. 

Two shillings a week comes out of my pay packet until it is paid for.

Twelve-hour shifts, six days a week.

I’ve been refused permission to return to the front.

“Considering you walked away and took yourself home, you are very lucky we took you back at all,” said Matron Silver.

I understood what she meant.

I had a good excuse, but I also knew that explaining it all again was a waste of time.

I signed up so that I could be close to my brother.

I achieved that goal only to nurse him back to health and see him return to his unit.

 

My service at the front started after many months of training at a hospital not far from home. Only then was I was dispatched to the front. A small town not far from the Belgian border.

Months of blood, mud and exhaustion.

I received word that my brother was ‘missing in action’.

Missing in action can mean one of two things — he’s at an aid station, unidentified, or he is dead.

My heart wanted to believe that he was sitting in a bar in some small Belgian village, just behind the lines — dazed and confused, trying to remember who he is.

One rainy exhausting day, a colleague told me my brother had been brought in. I found him lying among the soldiers who were pronounced dead on arrival.

Like every loving sister since the beginning of time, I didn’t want to believe it.

I dragged him out from the line of dead young men and cradled him in my arms. There was still a faint glimmer of life in him, and over the coming months, I nursed him back to something approaching good health.

When they sent him back in action, he promised to write every week, and he did, but the glacial movement of mail meant that his last letter arrived about two weeks after he disappeared in action, for the second time.

Every person has a limit to their endurance, but we don’t know what that limit looks like until we are tested.

My role as a combat nurse was voluntary. I wasn’t in the army, so I could leave if I wanted to. So I did.

I was done.

Exhausted.

Spent.

The voyage home, in a ship full of wounded young men, was mercifully short.

At home, I spent a lot of time in the garden sitting under my favourite tree waiting for news of my brother — news that never came.

My brother and I were best friends. 

He stood up to my father when I wanted to go to University. He won the day, and I followed him to Edinburgh. He was in his final year when war broke out. I was at the end of my first year.

He enlisted, and I left University and took up nursing.

The head of the women’s College was furious with me for leaving my degree studies.

“You have a first-class brain and a heart to match. Young men will be marching off to war forever and a day. You have a chance to decide your own future, don’t throw that away to follow a man.”

I tried to make her understand that I owed it to him to return his loyalty, and she just sighed.

“I can’t guarantee that you will be allowed back if you survive the war. I only make room for women who understand that the future requires commitment and courage. You obviously have courage but I doubt your commitment,” she said as she turned and walked away. 

I was determined to follow my brother, but I was sad that I’d let her down. She was the most inspiring woman I had ever met, and disappointing her was something I did not want to do.

 

It’s about three o’clock in the morning, and the ward is quiet. 

Earlier, Captain Wainwright was keeping the other men awake with his constant nightmares, constant screaming.

“Gas, gas. Get your bloody masks on. Gas! Gas!”

The exertion made his lungs raw, and he coughed so much he began to bleed — again.

We settled him with a sedative, and the ward has been quiet ever since.

“Thanks, sister. I know the poor bugger has been through it, but there’s a good chance I might strangle him if I don’t get some sleep,” said the sergeant in the last bed on the ward.

As I said, the cup and saucer belong to me, or they are mine now. They were my grandmother’s, and she left them to me.

I ‘brew up’ at this time and sit quietly and sip my tea and wonder about my brother and what my life will look like now he is gone.

Being able to look after these soldiers makes me feel close to him, but one day all this madness will end and then, what do I do? 

Turn Left.

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 This story is now part of my new short story anthology, PASSERBY.

You can purchase a copy HERE

If you like what I do, you can help me to keep on doing it by buying one of my books.

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The small white  van dropped her off with the following instructions.

“Make sure that the children turn left and head for the top of the hill.”

This was Sarah’s assignment.

The one she had been training for.

If the emergency arose, all the children were to be taken to safety.

Taken to higher ground.

Volunteers had been called for.

“DO YOU WANT TO HELP YOUR COMMUNITY?”

Sarah did, so she came forward.

When the van left she was the only adult for miles. Sarah had not been an adult for very long. She felt the weight of her assignment.

The children must make it to safety.

The corner she was on stood at a reasonable altitude but the children needed to be higher.

By the time the van had dropped her off there were children all over the place.

It was a bit of a mess.

All day long she said the same words over and over. “Turn here and head to the top of the hill. Good people will be waiting for you.”

The same words again and again.

From her elevated aspect she could see the rising water off in the distance, and every child who went past her and made the correct turn was one more saved.

This went on all day.

A continuous stream of diminutive humanity. Many holding hands, but not a lot of singing.

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Each child was carrying a small box wrapped in brown paper and tied up, rather expertly, with string. If her job had not been so important and if she had not been concentrating so hard it would have reminded Sarah of the line from that song, “and these are a few of my favourite things….’

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Just as she was remembering the line, ‘….when the dog bites…’, the little white van stopped and out jumped a dog.

An Australian Shepherd, if she wasn’t mistaken, and she wasn’t.

Sarah wasn’t frightened of dogs.

The van sped off.

No instructions this time.

Sarah thought that they had probably sent her the dog to help her with her task.

She explained to the dog what she had to do and she used the sentence, ‘herd the children up the hill’, because she deduced that the dog would know what ‘herd’ meant and probably had a good idea what a hill was as well.

Dog took to the task with gusto. She loved herding stuff and in the city there were very few things that needed herding.

She had tried herding people but mostly they didn’t like it, and there was a bit of yelling and throwing of stuff. She tried bringing back the stuff that they threw but that seemed to make things worse. Next she tried cars, but they just ignored her and it got a bit dicey a few times so she packed that it.

But here, she was actually being asked to do the thing she was born to do.

She was gentle but firm and on more than one occasion she had to use her nose to make some small human keep moving.

Small humans smelt good, all ‘pockets full of sweets’ and sticky hands, and they didn’t mind if you licked some of it off.

She enjoyed that part but she tried to be professional.

 

It was starting to get dark and eventually the line of children dwindled down to nothing. Sarah was exhausted but Dog could have gone on a bit longer.

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There was a small park on the corner which had running water from a rainwater tank and a toilet. Sarah didn’t fancy going behind a tree but Dog did not mind, but even a dog wanted a bit of privacy.

They slept together on the soft grass, but not before they ate the food that the little white van had provided.

They never saw the little white van again but next morning, at first light, the children started coming up the hill again.

Dog kept things going while Sarah washed up and used the facilities.

“Turn here and head to the top of the hill. Good people will be waiting for you.”

Days turned into a week.

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Sarah and Dog survived on tank water and the contents of those little boxes wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string.

Children being children, they would occasionally drop a box and forget to pick it up.

The boxes contained a type of army field ration. Not very appetising but it was food, about enough to keep a child alive, but only just.

If you have ever had a job requiring a repetitive action you will know that after a while your body carries it out without you having to think about it and your mind can concentrate on other things.

Sarah’s mind was thinking about those little boxes tied up with string.

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They didn’t look like they had been prepared by a machine so Sarah imagined a long table with ladies loading those tasteless food bars into those little boxes, wrapping then in brown paper and then expertly tying string around them and leaving that clever little bow that acted as a carry handle.

“Who taught them how to tie that bow?” Sarah thought.

Sarah also wondered why the little white van did not have any markings on it and why she wasn’t given one of those cool orange ‘fluro’ vests.

Maybe they had run out by the time they got to her. Maybe her task was not important enough.

They could at least have given the dog a vest.

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Maybe they would give her a T-shirt when this was all over.

 .

One week turned into two and Sarah could see that the water was still rising but not as fast. She was tired all the time and her clothes were very dirty.

She tried to wash them, especially her ‘smalls’, as her mum used to call them, but without soap nothing really got clean.

Sarah was not at all sure that she smelt good either, but it was hard to tell with no other adults around and she didn’t want to ask one of the never-ending line of children. Children always thought adults smelt bad, it was part of their thing.

Dog didn’t care how she smelt. All humans had their own distinctive odour, it made them easier to find in a crowd.

Dog noticed that Sarah’s odour was changing.

She was very weak and not very well. Dog worried about her as she was the leader of her pack now and she wanted her to be strong and decisive.

Sarah got weaker and the children kept coming.

There did not seem to be as many of them but they still kept coming.

 Sarah lay down next to Dog. She needed her warmth; she was very cold.

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Sarah did not wake up the next morning.

Dog nudged her a few times, the way she always did but she knew it was no use.

Her leader was gone.

Dog got up, stretched, went behind her favourite tree and headed off to work.

That night Dog lay down next to Sarah and guarded her body.

It was the least she could do for such a brave pack leader.

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PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS STORY IS NOW THE MIDDLE STORY IN A TRILOGY CALLED ‘And In The End You’ll Hear Me Calling.’ If you enjoyed this story you might want to find out what came before and what came after.

Terry