A Short Story
Judith pressed herself back against the wall, as a hospital trolley carrying an unconscious, blood-spattered man sped past her. Its wheels jolted against the uneven mosaic floor of the corridor.
“Get a new line in. He needs another unit of blood!” shouted Mr Burwell, the young, puffy-eyed surgeon, while the theatre nurse struggled to position the oxygen mask on the patient as they ran. Most of the hospital staff were suffering from lack of sleep and it showed on their pale faces. The anaesthetist frantically squeezed the contents of the fluid bag into the patient’s vein as he raced to keep up with them. A red-faced theatre orderly struggled to catch his breath. They turned left, and the trolley, patient and resuscitation team crashed through the operating theatre doors and out of sight.
The ensuing silence was broken by the footsteps of a man Judith recognised instantly. “Peter! What are you doing here?” she said, smoothing down her uniform and quickly checking her nurses cap. “You shouldn’t be here. Matron’s inspecting the ward in half an hour!”
As a student nurse in the RAF Hospital, Judith was expected to learn her trade fast. The hospital was expecting a further influx of wounded airmen and the junior nursing staff had been told to take their tea break quickly.
She had first met him when he was a cadet. He had been kneeling at the bedside of a wounded airman. Two days earlier, the man had been pulled out of the burning wreckage of a military plane that had crash-landed on the airfield. As the days passed, Peter would offer soft words of comfort to his friend who lay immobilised in several layers of bandages covering his trunk and face. There was something about that glint in Peter’s eye that aroused her interest. Within days, she found herself accompanying him to the mess bar. She delighted in his interest in her life and work and listened in wonder to his animated tales about his forays into the skies.
Her concentration always went into meltdown in his presence. Although she’d seen him several times before in his Air Force uniform, this time he looked different. Was it the perfect trim of his moustache and the way his bright blue eyes shone against the beautifully pressed grey fabric of his jacket? She loved him in his side cap and gleaming gold buttons and she had to resist the urge to fling her arms around him.
“Judith, I had to see you. I’m leaving tomorrow.” Pointing to his sleeve, he smiled and said, “Look, they made me a sergeant.”
“Leaving for where, Peter?”
“Berlin. We’re going to bomb the city. We’re going to end the war.”
“But you only joined the RAF three months ago.”
He spread his arms, and with a wide grin, he said, “Well, you’re looking at the latest Lancaster bomber wireless and radar operator.”
Judith let out a stifled squeal, “I’m so proud of you!” As soon as she said this, her expression changed. “Peter, I have to go back to work.”
“Can I give you one last hug before I go?”
“Come this way, I know a room we can go to.” She looked up and down the corridor and when satisfied nobody was watching, grabbed his hand and led him to a door with a sign that read Clean Utility. “Quick. In here.”
Once inside the room, Peter drew her close. He pulled a picture from his jacket pocket. “A photographer visited the air base and took pictures of us. I want you to keep it.”
She studied the photograph. He was in his uniform, poised cross-legged on the bed in his barracks.
“You are going to be alright, right?”
Peter nodded, “Of course. We’re bomber Command.”
The deep rumble of the engines of a military aeroplane flying over the hospital could be felt through the hospital floor.
She pulled a hair slide from the back of her head and her curly tresses dropped to her shoulders. “Take this with you and bring it back to me,” she said, placing the slide in his hand. She traced a finger over the half-wing emblem on his jacket.
“I’m going to learn to be a pilot one day. Then I’ll have full wings.”
Smiling, she pushed away from his embrace and danced and twirled around the packs of towels, sheets and pillowcases that filled the room, her arms stretched out like airplane wings. Her newly liberated curls bounced daintily under her nurses’ hat. Her red-lipped, smiling face was wide-eyed and beautiful. “Peter, you’re going to fly! I want to be there with you. We’ll be above the clouds together.”
He reached out to her and pulled her close, his hands roving under her pinafore.
“Peter Mallon, what do you think you’re doing?” Within moments, he had lifted her onto a stack of bed linens. She quickly lost the ability to speak as he looked at her in that way he sometimes did – as if nothing else in the world mattered to him except for her. Her cap fell to the floor. She could feel her insides swell as he kissed her deeply. She knew she was going to be late for matron’s ward inspection.
“Ok, tell me about this patient,” the consultant said to the white-coated junior doctor who was clutching his clipboard nervously.
“She was found collapsed in the street and we admitted her for a fluid infusion. She has hypothermia and she’s confused. We’ve been struggling to raise her temperature.”
The consultant took a handkerchief from the inside pocket of his pinstriped suit and cleaned his wire spectacles before placing them back on his head. He inspected the pale, skeletal scrap attached to an oxygen mask and covered by a thermal blanket on the hospital bed. He took the case notes from the charge nurse who was standing on the other side of the bed, “Do we know anything of her social situation?”
The nurse replied, “Only that she lives alone, and we cannot trace any next of kin. She used to work as a ward sister here. Some of the senior staff remember her. Apparently, she dedicated herself to her patients and was well respected.”
The consultant flipped through the notes. “Well, the only medical history here seems to date back to 1945 when she had a stillbirth.”
“By all accounts, she lives on her own. ”
The consultant glanced at the tube of red lipstick, the worn purse and a faded picture of what looked like a wartime serviceman on the patient’s side table. He took the mask off her face and pulled back the blanket. He warmed his stethoscope in his hands and placed it on her chest. “Nurse, her breaths are very shallow. Turn up her oxygen. Let’s see what we can do to make her more comfortable.”
Free at last, Judith felt herself soaring above the patchwork of green and yellow fields. In her final living moments, she rose through the billowy clouds that she had always looked at with such longing. After a lifetime of waiting, her dashing wireless operator, now with full wings, clasped her to him, and as they rose in a lovers’ embrace, they were joined by a third, smaller soul, united, beautiful and happy.
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