this side of mortality (part two)
Tatiana had never been a coward. She’d gone plunging in to treat soldiers in the war when she was only sixteen years old. She helped with amputations. She was brave every single day that she was separated from the ones that she loved. Tatiana knew courage through and through – but no matter what, she always understood mercy better.
December 24, 1915
“It’s Christmas, boys,” the General said with a broad grin.
Benj’s first question was how do you know? He’d only been back to war for two months, but already it was taking its toll on him. He was always tired (but what else could you expect when he was woken every few hours to take his turn to stand by the borders and keep watch?) always hungry, always exhausted and missing home. Nevertheless, Benjamin Gray had a job to do here and he was hardly going to abandon his post when there was still a war to fight in.
He’d been half asleep in the barracks; him and the four other men asleep there as well had also just finished up, but Benj was used to getting little sleep and being woken up urgently.
Nate Taylor stirred on the bunk beside him. “Did you get us a present, General?” he asked cheekily as he sat up and rubbed at his eyes.
“Sure did.” The General made a big show of feeling through all his pockets for something.
“Unless it’s the end of the war,” whispered Nate to Benj, “I don’t want it.”
The General pulled out a bottle of rum.
“I think you’re going to change your mind real fast,” Benj replied back jokingly as he stood, his boots caked entirely with mud, and then went to the General with a grin. “Where did you get this from, Sir?”
“It’s Christmas,” General Jones informed him easily. “We can disregard rations for one day. The Germans will take it easy on us tonight.”
“Are we going to take it easy on them?” asked Benj.
The General quirked a wry smile. “Just for tonight? Yes.” He placed the bottle in the young man’s hands and disappeared, presumably to reward the next shift of young men with the same thing.
Benj turned and showed the others in the bunk what he’d been given. “We’re getting drunk tonight.”
One of the older boys – he thought that his name was Max, scoffed at him. “We can’t get drunk on this,” he replied in his amused Irish tone, taking the bottle and surveying it critically. “We can, however, have some fun.”
That was how the five of them ended up sitting on the floor without any regard for the muddy ground, passing around a bottle. It didn’t take long for the effects to take hold. Benj had had wine only once in his life before, when he’d snuck a sip out of his father’s glass once, and this was nothing like that. A warm, elated feeling spread through him.
“We should have a toast,” he declared, lifting the bottle and nearly spilling it all over himself. Nate grabbed his arm to steady it, and then took it from Benj to put it to his lips again.
Max quirked a grin. “What are you going to toast to?”
Benj focused on him. He couldn’t say that he knew the four men around him very well. One of them was Nate Taylor, another Seth Allen, and the other two were named Max and Danny. He didn’t know their last names, and he hadn’t wanted to ask. They must have been in the war for about as long as he had been, but they were older than he was; only barely nineteen or so themselves, but when he was only seventeen now and not even of age, he didn’t want to risk asking them more about themselves.
With a little bit of liquor in him, however, all the soldiers were a little bit braver.
“To life,” Nate decided, and took a swig. He passed it to Seth.
“To not being dead,” Seth decided, and took a sip.
Nate frowned. “That’s basically the same thing that I said, mate. Come up with something new.”
Seth gave him a small shrug. “To living through a year of the war and still being here?” Without opposition, he took another sip and passed the bottle on.
Max was the next to take it. “To Christmas,” he affirmed.
Danny took it from him. “To hopefully being back home with our families by this time next year,” he said firmly, the gruffness in his voice almost hiding the Welsh tone, and then took a sip amidst the cheerful whoops of the other four in agreement.
Benj was the last to get the bottle. He was always a sappy person, and the spirit of the holidays and the warm feeling running through him set off into another such mood. “To love,” he decided, and took a big swig.
Nate cut him off and took the bottle again, and Benj flopped backwards on the ground cheerfully. His curls were gone again; he’d been forced to cut them off the day that he’d been sent back to the trenches. For some time, he’d thought wistfully to how his girl had used to thread her fingers through the curls before he consoled himself with the idea that he’d grow them back by the next time that he saw her. If he saw her again; he wasn’t a pessimist, but war had turned once idealistic Benjamin Gray into someone who was far more realistic.
“What kind of love?” Max questioned.
Benj pressed a hand to his lips to stifle a burp. “All kinds of love, I suppose. For your mums. For all your brothers in the war. For the girls you left behind.”
Danny made a noise something between a groan and a sigh, and Benj turned to him. “What?”
“I remembered my girl again,” Danny said, rubbing ruefully at his forehead. “She’ll be livid that I haven’t written in a few days, but I haven’t had much time. Besides, there’s not much to write, is there? Every day is just about the same. You wake up, you eat, you go on watch, and then you come back and sleep and start it all over in a few hours.”
Nate let out a hiccup. “You could write her about the rats. They’re fairly new.”
The others chose to ignore this. “I don’t think so,” Benj said thoughtfully after he contemplated this for some time. “You never know, there might be things in her life that are new to ask her about. Besides, if you run out of room to report what you’ve done during the day, write about her, and how much you’re thinking about her in this hell out here. Write about your feelings.”
Danny was thoughtful. “That’s true,” he mused, and then his lips curved up into an amused grin. “Look at me, I’m taking love advice from a kid who probably doesn’t know anything about it. Have you ever even kissed a girl, Benji?”
Benj felt a sudden surge of annoyance at the man, and he wasn’t sure if it was induced by the insinuation that he had no experience or for the alcohol running through all of their systems right now. “I have,” he declared haughtily, and when Danny laughed, he continued, “I have a girl too, you know.”
“With all your romantic lines about feelings, I’m not surprised you’ve got a girl. I’m impressed.” Seth put out an unsteady arm on Benj’s shoulder.
Danny looked less impressed, but he at least looked the tiniest bit sheepish. “Right, well,” he cleared his throat, “Mia’s still annoyed that I enlisted. She tells me just about every time she writes to me, and I don’t know how to change it.”
Benj’s annoyance melted away into sympathy. “My Mum does the same thing. I think she’ll come round eventually. Maybe when the war’s won, but I think it’s mostly that I enlisted without even giving her any warning.”
“I did the same,” Danny said with a small laugh. “My sister hated me for it. She wouldn’t write back to me for a whole month after I joined until she finally got over it.”
“Mine won’t stop writing,” Benj replied, “She gives me every tiny detail at home – Dear Benj, today Mum bought half a dozen eggs. She says we’ve got to stock up while rations are generous.” He closed his mouth suddenly, awash in such a strong wave of homesickness that it gripped him tightly and made him remember all the comforts that home had provided him with. He had nothing out here but his memories to recall the better days with, and he closed his eyes to relive them; but soon they were replaced with dreams for the future instead of the golden-tinted events of the past.
“What does your girl write to you about?” Danny asked at last.
Benj opened one blue eye to peer at him. He wasn’t sure if the boy was simply taking the piss out of him or if he was actually asking because he wanted to know. Benj decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“All sorts of things. She’s a nurse in Italy, so she talks about the hospital a lot, and the other patients in there. Also about her best friend, who’s another nurse. Sometimes she puts in a line of poetry that she really likes because she thinks that I might like reading it too,” and he did, not because he had any real appreciation for poetry, but simply because the words were written in Tatiana’s hand. “She asks about me a lot. I never know how much to tell her.”
There’s a sage nod from around the small circle. They know that there’s plenty that they can’t write to home about. The dead bodies buried in the trenches itself, the rats underfoot, the crushing and dismal realization that they might well die in this miserable, stinking hole without feeling as if they’d done anything for their country – all of those topics weren’t to be spoken about. They weren’t even to be written about. Not now, at least, when they’re so fresh in their minds; they’re still living in Hell. They can’t talk about it now.
The mood had been set off somehow by those words, but Benj sensed this and tried to brighten up. “The rum’s not all gone, is it?” he asked, effectively reminding the others that it was still there. He sat back up, feeling slightly less-lightheaded than before.
Danny shot him a sideways glance. “What’s her name?”
Benj though briefly of how he’d met her so many times before she’d told him. Tatiana Penvrane was an easy person to get attached to, and he was already lost. He thought that he might save someone else from doing the same. “She doesn’t share it easily,” Benj said at last, “You have to earn it. I call her Nurse – or Darling, but that’s less professional, and then the Matron always glared at me when she heard.”
That earned him a laugh from the others, and Danny clapped him on the back. Benj grinned back and picked up the rum again – it was Christmas, he decided. If there was one day he was going to dwell on memories and dreams of the future instead of focusing on the present situation, then it was today.
December 25, 1915
“Alright girls, settle down,” Matron Collins-Stroud said, but there was a small smile on her lips as the young women in front of her giggled, still pulling apart their Christmas crackers.
Tatiana pulled a little yellow paper crown out from the end of hers that she’d won from Lydia and placed it onto her dark chocolate locks. “Oh, two in one!” She pulled the second blue paper crown from the cracker and handed it to Lydia with a grin. Lydia placed it atop her own hair, and Tatiana admired her friend. “I always knew that you’d make a good queen.”
Lydia let out a small, amused scoff, but didn’t take off her crown. “After what happened to the Romanovs? No thank you, I prefer democracy.” The words were delivered in the usual Lydia fashion, but the woman smiled over at the darker-haired one anyway.
Tatiana turned her chin up pointedly. “If you won’t take the monarchy, then I will,” she declared jokingly, “That way I could just decree the war over and make the soldiers come home.”
Lydia’s smile faded slightly. “If the queen could do that, she would have by now.”
Tatiana knew she was right, but she couldn’t help but feeling slightly crushed by the words. She placed her half of the cracker on the table and then turned her attention back to the Matron as she spoke again.
“I know that sugar is hard to come by with rations, but,” she hesitated, and then left the room before returning with a small chocolate cake. The nurses cheered and clapped in glee. “It’s Christmas,” explained the Matron. “The soldiers will allow us just a few hours to celebrate.”
Besides, Tatiana thought, the patients in the ward probably wanted their own privacy without the nurses to celebrate. She’d already seen one soldier smuggling in alcohol when he’d gone out to ‘speak’ to the ambulance drivers and had decided to turn a blind eye. Soon there would be raucous singing from the ward, but she knew that even the Matron wouldn’t step in unless it got too rowdy. This was a day for them all to celebrate.
Lydia was already cutting the cake into enough pieces for all of the nurses. She handed Tatiana a plate with a slice and then kept dividing the remainder among the others. Tatiana picked at her cake absently. “What do you think the troops are doing right now?”
The rest of the small, crowded table was silent. At last, Ariel across from her leaned forward, resting her chin on her elbows. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “I expect that it’s much the same thing that we’re doing, except without the comforts of a proper shelter, or sugary cakes.”
“They’re probably getting jingled,” Lydia said sagely.
“Lyds!” Tatiana turned to her friend in surprise.
“What?” Lydia shrugged. “If we’re disregarding rations for a day, they probably are too, and I doubt that they’re going to care about sugar as much as alcohol.” She paused. “If it’s any consolation, the Germans are probably doing the same thing right now, so they’ll be safe for today.”
The darker-haired nurse decided that she was right and plunged her fork into her piece of cake. “I bet that they’re really missing home this time of year.”
“So are we,” Ariel pointed out as she scraped the icing off of her piece of cake. “But I imagine that it’s worse for them. At least we’re not in a dirty, wet trench with people constantly firing at us.”
“That’s enough,” the Matron said firmly, and the three of them stopped talking about that subject and turned to another, currently more appealing one.
“Has your boy written back to you yet, Ariel?” Tatiana ventured.
Ariel didn’t appear bothered by the lack of communication, even if Tatty and all the other nurses knew that she always waited anxiously for the post in the morning for any news. “Nate? No, not yet, but it’s only been a week since his last letter. He’s always been lazy, I expect that I’ll hear back eventually.” She always had an air about her of not caring what anyone thought of her, romantic or otherwise, and it showed now in her nonchalance.
Tatiana almost envied her for it. She herself was lovelorn, drooping at some times and blossoming at others whenever she was handed her post and saw a letter postmarked from Northern France. The other nurses always laughed at her when she ran off with a shriek to read the letter in her room or a closet somewhere as to keep her joy private.
Lydia looked between the two of them, amusement clear in her pale eyes. “Look at you two,” she said at last, her tone colored in amusement. “You’ve both got it so bad.”
“Just wait until it happens to you, Lyds,” Tatiana replied, this time imitating her friend’s wise tone, and then grinned sweetly at her friend when Lydia let out a small laugh.
“Unlikely. I think with my head, remember?” Lydia tapped a finger against her temple.
“It takes your head to fall in love, too,” reminded Tatiana, and then grinned brilliantly when Lydia stopped to consider this. “Anyway, it’s Christmas. It’s the best time of the year to fall in love.” Or to be in love, and luckily for Tatiana Penvrane, she already had that for herself.
January 2, 1916
I know that you’re still angry with me. I would be too if you’d done the same thing to me, but our roles aren’t reversed right now. This is the way that things are, and we have to accept them. I admit that I’m still scared out here. Being in war doesn’t get easier, but it does make me number to everything I face – except death. Imagining my own is terrifying. Sometimes I think about how I’ll go. Will I die in battle heroically? Will I be caught in a bombed trench? Will I end up eighty years old in a bed back at home with you and our children fussing over me as I take my last breath?
If there’s one thing that keeps me going, it’s you. I want to see you again, but I don’t want it to be because I’ve been injured so badly out here that that they send me all the way back home to be treated in a hospital by you. I don’t know if they’d ship me back to the UK, anyway. Maybe I’d end up at Tatty’s hospital in Verona. I don’t want some Italian nurse treating me, though. I want you.
You haven’t found some English soldier to replace me, have you? I’ll come back home and fight him for your affections again. Before you ask – no, I haven’t found someone else here. Clearly not. My only love in these trenches are my boots that keep the water out. It’s terrible in here, but we try to make it bearable somehow. I won a little spinning top off of one of the other soldiers in a game of cards yesterday, so I’m putting that in the envelope for you.
When I get home, I’ll buy you a ring all properly but until now, will you take this in its place?
January 28, 1916
Josephine Penvrane ran her fingers behind her ears to brush her dark hair behind them. The Rookery was filling up quickly with beds and bodies of all of the patients that had overflown from the hospital, and now that she was not only the lady of the house and the last one remaining but also the nurse in charge of their small hospital, she found her hands quite full.
“Not much longer now,” she chirped cheerfully to Ethan Swifte as she put on her brightest face. He was here after his trench had just about exploded, and though he’d been there for just a few weeks, he was about to be shipped back out again.
Ethan let out a light laugh. “Lucky me.” He peeled back the bandages on his arm and Josie swatted at him until he moved his hand away and ceased picking at it. “You sure this will be healed by then?”
Josie wasn’t sure, actually, but her bright expression was still on her lips and she nodded anyway. “It’ll be fine,” she said confidently. “Just don’t mess with it now, and it’ll be nice and healed up by the time that you’re back on your way to France.” She paused. “Actually, will you a do a favor for me?”
“What is it?” Ethan looked up at Josie curiously. She had nursed him back to health after he’d been on the brink of death. Anything that she asked of him was something that he would do without question.
Josie hesitated, and then she pulled something out of her pocket. “Mia wanted to get this to Daniel somehow. She wanted to put it in the mail, but I think she wanted it to be more personal than that.” It was a single slip of paper (Josie had already checked), and all that it said was yes in embellished, beautiful calligraphy. Josie already had an idea of what the question was.
Ethan nodded and slipped it into his pocket. “I’ll be sure to.”
“And another thing,” Josie added, and then gave the boy a grin, weary but affectionate, “When you see him, make sure that you give him a swift kick from me about how he didn’t even tell his own mother that he was enlisting.”
Ethan smiled back brilliantly. “I’ll be sure to.”
February 14, 1916
Darling, dearest, Benj,
I feel like a lovesick schoolgirl still when I’m writing letters to you. I guess that I would be a lovesick schoolgirl if it weren’t wartime, wouldn’t I? I’m not even seventeen yet; I’d still be getting an education. Although I suppose that if it were wartime, we’d have no reason to meet. You’d be in England and I’d be in Wales and we’d have no reason to cross paths. I’m so glad that we have, even if it was under the circumstances of making you well again after you nearly got torn apart in the trenches.
I hope they’re not as bad this time, darling, but the soldiers I’m treating come in and tell me that they’re even worse. I don’t know if it’s simply because they’re injured that they’re saying that because they’re in so much pain, but if that’s the truth, then please be safe. I don’t know when I’ll see you again, but I don’t want it to be a question of if I’ll see you again.
When do you next get leave? Surely it can’t be that long, can it? You left four months ago and I don’t know how long they can keep you out there. I’m not a soldier. I’ll ask my brother the next time that I write. He might be out before you are since he’s been serving longer and he also didn’t take a hit that put him in a hospital for a while like you have (unless he has and just hasn’t told any of us about it).
I’ve been treating dozens of patients, but none of them are like you. None of them even make good conversation. I know that I’m doing important work, but I’m so detached from the field and fighting that I can barely tell. I also miss you like an ache and I just want you back again.
It’s Valentine’s Day here. A few of the soldiers gave me daffodils that they picked from outside the hospital and three of them (jokingly) proposed to me, but I told them that I was taken. I’ve pressed a daffodil into this letter for you. Neither of us have much time for valentines, but will you be mine?
Love love love (because I could write it a million times to you, but I’ll settle for three),
February 26, 1916
Darling, dearest, Tatty,
I can’t even imagine that if it weren’t for the war, I probably would never have met you. I don’t thank the war for very much, but that’s one of the things that I’m grateful to it for. Maybe I’d be a lovesick school boy too, even if I’d probably be in a school in England and in love with some other very pretty nurse. Before you get jealous, I’m joking. I’ve only got eyes for you.
Speaking of that, some of the boys have been asking how you looked like and I realized, like a complete idiot, that I didn’t even think to take a small picture of you with me to carry around and look at whenever I wanted a reason to fight. I carry your letters instead. I know that you’ve said that you stick mine in your apron when you’re working so they’re always nearby, and I do the same with your letters under my uniform. They don’t get wet this way, and I can carry them next to my heart and count down the days until I see you once more.
I expect that I’ll get leave in a few more months. Nobody knows how long we’re here for, not even the Generals even if they pretend that they do. Everyone said this war would be over two Christmases ago; here we are, February 1916, and it’s still going. I feel lied to. As soon as I get leave, though, I’m coming back to Italy for you. Your brother might be out before me, though, but you said that he’ll probably go home and see his girl and your Mum instead of going to see you in Italy, so you might end up seeing me first. One of the boys in my unit, Danny, says that when he was in a field hospital for a few days he didn’t write to his parents or sister about it because he said that they’d worry, so there’s a chance your brother has done the same thing.
I miss you as well. I think of our time together often when I’m sitting in the trenches, half buried in mud. I will see you again soon; I don’t know how soon, but I know that it can’t be much longer, and that’s what’s keeping me going through this.
You won’t have taken up with one of your new patients when I come back to see you, will you? I can’t give you daffodils or Valentine’s Day proposals, but I can give you my heart. I already have, actually. Make sure you take care of it. I’m not actually worried, though. I’ve left it in good hands.
Love love love (why three times? Is this going to be your send-off for me? Do I get three times the normal amount of love anyone else gets?) ,
April 3, 1916
Lydia started at the sound of her best friend’s voice and then plastered a smile over her lips. “Hello, Tatty. What do you need?’
Tatiana was more gullible than her friend was, but she could see the way that the other nurse’s eyes changed when they saw her, how shifty she’d looked before Tatiana had spoken and broken her out of her reverie. She thoughtfully tilted her head at the other nurse. “I only came in to get another washbasin. Will you hand me that one over there?”
“Of course.” Lydia smoothly slid one of the smaller ones off of the shelf and handed it to her friend.
Tatiana took it but she narrowed her eyes at her friend nevertheless. “I’ve got to go clean off the patient with that nasty cheek wound. Will you help me with it? He makes too much of a fuss every time I try to do anything, so I might need someone to hold him down.”
Lydia smiled teasingly. “What, you’re not just going to sit on this poor boy?”
Tatiana flushed. “I only did that once – er, twice. But that was only to one soldier, and that was for a good reason! Don’t you start on me, you know that I got enough of a lecture from Matron Collins-Stroud after that.”
“I think that that was more for the fact that you got into bed with a soldier,” Lydia replied.
“Into a hospital bed next to one to keep him warm and make sure that he was being looked after,” Tatiana defended.
Lydia let out a noise halfway between a snort and a laugh. “Alright, Tatty. At least you’re not doing it again, or your boy will be jealous.”
“He doesn’t get jealous,” Tatiana declared as she started out of the closet, Lydia at her heels, “and besides, I’m not doing that to anyone else.”
“So you do admit that it wasn’t meant to be a purely professional thing? That it wasn’t just about sharing body warmth and looking after a soldier with a fever like you told the Matron?” Lydia quirked an eyebrow upward.
Tatiana opened her mouth to retort, then thought better of it and closed it sullenly. Lydia smirked and walked ahead of her friend to tug open the door of her ward, but as she did, Tatiana could see the small pile of bandages sticking out of the hidden pocket in her apron (the one that the nurses often used to sneakily take army knives away from the soldiers that they thought were violent or volatile).
She didn’t drop her expression, but Tatiana mad a note to keep an eye on her best friend.
They had just finished their duty again, and now Daniel and Benj were sitting on their bunks, each of them writing letters.
“When’s the wedding?” asked Benj idly.
Danny looked up and then shrugged. “I’m not sure,” he said thoughtfully after a few seconds. “Her birthday’s not for another two months so she’s not even eighteen yet, but she’s already agreed to marry me. I expect that by the time we’re out on leave, I’ll go home and marry her.”
“Romantic,” Benj said as he continued to write. “My girl’s not eighteen yet, either, but her birthday is today so she’s a year closer.” He paused. “Of course, I’d have to get back first, and ask her to marry me, of course, but assuming all of that is done, we couldn’t even get married until this time next year.”
“What’s the date?” asked Daniel idly.
Daniel put a hand to his head so fast that he left behind a smudge of ink. “It’s my kid sister’s birthday! I can’t believe that I almost forgot. This letter won’t get to her in time if it’s today, but at least she’ll know in a few days that I’ve been thinking of her.” He laid down his sheet of paper and picked up another before he began to write furiously.
Benj watched him with some amusement before he put his own pen back to paper and continued writing. He’d hoped that he’d be back to see Tatty before her birthday and to give her a proper present, but for now he could only settle for a letter. The daffodil she’d given him sat on his bunk, wilted and crumbling, but it still smelled fresh – or at least, anything smelled fresh when he compared it to the stale, terrible air of the trenches.
Seth entered then. “You’ll never believe what I bummed from one of the officers.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and Benj was so pleased that he laughed aloud.
“Seth, mate, you’re the star of the show. Pass me one, will you? Have you got a light?” Benj lifted the cigarette to his lips and took a deep puff from it, relishing in the feel of it. He’d turned into a proper soldier out there in the trenches after several months; he drank when he could, he smoked, he swore, he watched for the enemy with narrowed and angry eyes – he was a proper soldier now.
Seth tossed one to Daniel as well and then sat on the bunk beside him. “I think the enemy line’s getting closer,” he said with a cigarette between his lips. “I heard some of the officers talking about it today when they thought that no one was around to overhear. They say that one of the sentries on duty last night saw people moving through no-man’s land.”
“That’s a load of shit,” Benj replied, “If anyone got through no-man’s land, they’d be shot dead as soon as they got anywhere near us. We’ve always got a few boys with guns at the ready in case they tried to mount a sudden attack.”
Seth shrugged. “I don’t know, mate, that’s all that I’ve heard. I don’t know how much of it is true or not.”
“What does Ethan say?” Danny asked nearby.
They both turned thoughtfully. Ethan had been back for a few months now, and his father was a general. If anyone was likely to know information on the strategies that the mere privates weren’t privy to, it would have to be him. “I haven’t asked,” Seth said slowly.
“I will,” Danny decided, putting down his letters. “But on the chance that they actually are preparing to mount an attack on us, you two should get some rest. We’ll be up all night soon.”
“After this letter,” Benj decided, holding his cigarette in one hand and the pen in the other as he continued to write back to Tatty.
June 4, 1916
Tatiana had let this go on for too long. Perhaps she was too trusting; she believed that in the end, the truth would come out. Everyone that she knew was keeping secrets – hell, she was keeping secrets herself – but most of those would be revealed with time and trust. Already, she knew most of Lydia’s, and Lydia knew most of hers. She’d hoped that she’d get to find out this one as well, but so far, Lydia hadn’t told her anything, and she decided that she’d done this for long enough. Two months had passed, and though she knew there was something going on, she hadn’t done anything about it until now.
“What are you hiding?”
Lydia jumped, her comb catching on her hair. She tugged it out and laid it on the bedside table. “What do you mean?” she asked, turning to Tatty.
The dark-haired nurse was not in the mood to play games or to run around in circles before they approached the point. “I know it’s something,” she warned her friend. “I just didn’t think that you’d keep it a secret for so long. What is it? Why do you keep taking those supplies from the cupboard? Are you selling them to someone?”
Lydia had the decency to look sheepish. “You saw me? No, of course I’m not selling them to someone.”
“Where do they go, then?” Tatiana asked, and lifted an eyebrow at her best friend.
Lydia gripped her comb and stared at it, and Tatiana could see that the other woman was having an internal battle of some sorts. The two trusted each other with their lives, with their secrets, with everything that they had. She hoped that the other nurse would trust her with this too.
At last, Lydia placed down her comb. “Alright,” she said, her voice quiet, “but you can’t tell Matron Collins-Stroud.”
This condition surprised her. Tatiana blinked hazel eyes in surprise once before she nodded.
Lydia rose from her bed and took her friend’s hand before she guided her out of the nurse’s quarters. They stopped at the corner to make sure that the Matron wasn’t nearby to see them slip out, and then they left the hospital premises altogether.
“Where are we going?” Tatiana asked under a whisper.
“Here,” whispered Lydia, and then guided her toward an old, abandoned shack. Tatiana was sure that it had been some sort of place to hold grain before the war had begun; now it lay empty, as did the fields of crops that had already been taken to feed the soldiers. She gave her friend a perplexed look, but Lydia didn’t look back at her as she went to the shack, rapped on it four times in a specific pattern, and then opened the door. Tatiana followed her.
“Derek,” whispered Lydia, “I brought company.”
There was a soldier lying on a makeshift cot made out of hay and an old bag. He opened one of his eyes warily at Tatiana. “I thought you weren’t telling anyone,” he said in exasperation.
“I had to tell her,” defended Lydia. “She found out. Besides, she’s another nurse. She can help.”
Tatiana stepped forward carefully. “What happened?”
“Shrapnel,” explained Lydia, “He’s got it all over himself. I’ve been taking the supplies for him, so that I could try to treat him on my own, and I’ve been successful, but it’s been slow. I only have one pair of hands, and I don’t even have all of the proper equipment that the hospital has to do this.”
“Why aren’t you just treating him at the hospital?” Tatiana asked in confusion. “He’s one of the soldiers like all the others. He’ll get treatment faster there, and he’ll be more comfortable on a real bed.”
Lydia and Derek exchanged a look and Tatiana knew that they were communicating without speaking. Without either of their heads moving or their expressions changing, they seemed to have come to an agreement. “Here,” Lydia said to Tatty, and then pulled her to another end of the small shack.
The blonde nurse dropped the volume of her voice. “Derek is my brother.”
“Your twin brother, yes, I know,” replied Tatiana in confusion.
“He’s injured pretty badly not because his trench exploded or because of enemy fire,” explained Lydia in a cool, quiet voice. Had Tatiana not known her, she would have said that Lydia was fine, but the quality of her voice betrayed herself to Tatty; she could sense the nerves under it. Lydia paused for a moment. “He was running from the battle when one of his own threw a grenade at him. He was really badly injured, but one of the other divisions discovered him and brought him in with their wounded. His name will have made the list right now, though.”
Tatiana stared, and then blinked. “Are you saying that he’s a deserter?”
Lydia gave her a small, almost imperceptible nod, and suddenly everything clicked into face for the brunette.
“So he wouldn’t get treatment if he were in the hospital,” she concluded, “and that’s why you won’t tell anyone that he’s here or that he’s alive; he’d be executed for cowardice if he were.”
Lydia nodded again slowly, and her jaw set. “I can’t let them kill him. He’s my brother. Other than Laura, he’s the only sibling that I have left. I can’t say that I agreed with what he did, but I have to keep him alive. I have to keep this family together.” Her eyes had taken on a somewhat crazed look, but the rest of her features were smooth, impassive.
Tatiana glanced back at Derek. “He’s really injured, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” Lydia returned. “He needs more medical attention.” She paused. “Will you help?”
Tatiana had never been a coward. She’d gone plunging in to treat soldiers in the war when she was only sixteen years old. She helped with amputations. She was brave every single day that she was separated from the ones that she loved. Tatiana knew courage through and through – but no matter what, she always understood mercy better. She didn’t agree with what Derek had done, but she couldn’t turn away someone who wanted her care.
She nodded. “Do you have tweezers?”
July 31, 1916
“Mrs. Penvrane,” Daniel said with a grin.
“Mr. Penvrane,” Mia replied, matching his grin, “my husband.”
Josie cleared her throat. “Alright, lovebirds, there’ll be plenty of time for sweet talk later. Will you walk now? The patients have been looking forward to your wedding ever since they heard that you were coming home.”
The newlyweds could scarcely take their eyes off of each other, but they did as Josie said. Daniel was at the Rookery for this weekend, and this weekend only; they’d married now to make the most of it and so that his mother could be present (even if most of both his and her families were absent), but at least they were together for now, and when he left again, she’d be Mia Penvrane, not just the girl waiting for him back home, but his lawfully wedded wife.
They grinned as they passed through the makeshift hospital in The Rookery and the patients through rice at them, calling out cheers and congratulations as Josie stood in the back, her hands clasped and her eyes shining with tears at the sight of her son and his wife, so grown up already.
July 31, 1916
“When will it get here?”
“You’ve asked me that half a dozen times already, Tatty,” Ariel reminded the other nurse as they waited by the gate in front of the hospital, but she didn’t look irritated; she simply seemed as impatient as her friend was.
The soldiers were due to come home on their leave that day. Tatiana knew that it was only for the weekend, a way to boost the morale of the soldiers as the war stretched deeper into the summer, but right now, it was more than enough for her. All she wanted was a sight of him and she’d be satisfied.
She perked up at the sound of a car only to watch it drive by the hospital instead, and her shoulders fell glumly.
“Excuse me, Nurse?” came a voice from behind them.
Tatiana absently waved behind her. “In a minute, Sir, I’m expecting someone. They should be here any minute now and I don’t want to miss them.”
“It’s just that I’ve lost something,” the voice behind her explained patiently. “I think that you might have an idea of where it is.”
“Do I?” Tatiana’s responses were absent, her hazel gates still past the gates and on the road.
There was the sound of laughter, distinctly another man, and then what sounded like the swat of a hand against fabric. The first man continued onward, “It’s my heart, you see. I was thinking that you might be the one who had it.”
She scarcely had time to exchange a look with Ariel before she was turning around and there they were; two soldiers, weary but beaming at them.
Benj winked at her, and before she knew it, she was running forward and leaped at him so suddenly that he staggered backward in surprise before he righted himself with a laugh, wrapping his arms around her instinctively as well. “Darling,” he greeted her.
“Darling,” she replied, lifting her face up to kiss him. They were clumsy at first, out of practice as she pressed kisses to every part of his face that she could reach and he did the same to her, and she found that she didn’t mind her lipstick smudging all over her mouth or his when their lips finally crashed together and her hands wrapped around his neck to pull him closer.
They broke apart, breathless, not even minding Ariel and Nate nearby as he took her hand and led her back to behind the hospital to their little bench. Tatiana kept squeezing his hand, scarcely believing that he was actually there and beside her, and her heart was beating so loudly in her chest that she was sure he could hear it. Instead, she chattered the entire way and as they sat, filling him in on all of the details from the hospital before she turned to asking questions.
“Are the trenches terrible?”
Benj’s smile slipped a notch. “They’re the trenches,” he replied with a shrug, “They’re always going to be pretty bad.”
“Have you met anyone new?”
“Oh, yes, I’ve met a ton of soldiers. I know guys named Max and Danny and Seth and Nate now – oh, that was Nate back there, but I guess you must already know who he is if his girl is your friend. We’re all mates now; we’re on the same duty shifts.”
Tatiana watched him speak in some kind of rapture, her hazel gaze giddily fixed on him. The next question from her mouth was instinctive. “Did you miss me?”
“Of course,” Benj answered without hesitation. “Did you miss me?”
“More than you can imagine,” Tatiana replied without pause.
Benj laughed and wrapped his arms around her, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “Oh, I can imagine exactly how much, believe me.” He tilted to press a kiss to her forehead and then trailed a line of kisses down the bridge of her nose. He hesitated just before he got to her lips, gave her a cheeky smile, and as he was leaning in –
The two of them turned to see the Matron standing outside, and then Tatiana let out a small groan. “You’re going to get me scolded for impropriety,” she chided Benj.
He lifted an eyebrow. “Isn’t it worth it, though?”
“Oh, of course,” Tatiana answered cheerfully, and then let him kiss her this time, long and hard. She broke it only to call back to the head nurse, “In a minute!” before she turned her attention back to Benj and kissed him again, her hands grabbing at his shoulders to reassure herself that he was there, that he was real.
September 5, 1916
Cleaning bedpans was Tatiana’s least favorite job. She suspected that it was the Matron’s way of punishing her for her public displays of affection the month before, but she didn’t understand why her punishment had to extend this long. Fortunately, Ariel was beside her doing the same thing.
“These smell horrible,” Ariel said in annoyance as she picked up a dirty bedpan with a frown.
Tatiana put a freshly washed bedpan with the others in the pile and then tugged her gloves higher on her hands. “I can’t believe we’re on bedpan duty again. Why didn’t Alice get bedpan duty? She was kissing that soldier a few months ago in the ward right in front of everyone.”
“It’s because he died two weeks later and she spent so much time crying that Matron Collins-Stroud took pity on her,” Ariel said wisely as she dumped water all over the bedpan.
Tatiana groaned, but she couldn’t help but feel infinitely luckier at the story. Her sweetheart was still alive; more than that, he was alive and well, and he loved her. The only drawback was that he was hundreds of miles away, but Tatiana had always been a romantic. Despite the war raging on, she knew that love would prevail. It was what kept her going, what kept him thinking about survival; it would reunite them again soon.
“I’m going to take these out,” she said as she picked up the stack of clean bedpans, and had just left behind the washroom when she bumped into a figure being wheeled by. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized as she gripped the bedpans tighter to keep her hold on them, but her hazel eyes blinked in startled shock as she recognized the patient.
October 12, 1916
“She finally sent me a picture of herself,” Benj said as he shook out the envelope. He beamed at the photo, even if the subject of it wasn’t there in person to beam back at him, and then he passed it to Nate next to him.
“I’ve already seen her in person,” Nate reminded him with a chuckle as he passed along the photo to Seth, and then to Max, who handed it to Danny.
“I can’t look, I’m married,” Danny answered, lying down on his bunk and covering his face with the letter that he’d just been reading.
“You’re married, not dead,” reminded Seth, “You can look at pretty girls.”
“I have my own pretty girl,” Daniel reminded him, “I don’t need to be looking at any other one.”
“Well, you can take my word for it that she’s beautiful,” Benj said as Max passed him back the small photograph. He pulled out his compass, tucked the picture into it, and then put it back into his pocket. “And she’s very much real, so I’m sure that you feel like a right ass for what you said to me on Christmas.”
“You still remember that?” Daniel asked in surprise.
“I remember every grudge I have,” Benj said mildly. “For example, Seth here took all my butter rations the first week that we were stationed here and he still hasn’t compensated me.”
“I give you cigarettes that I get all the time!” complained Seth.
“It’s not butter, though,” Benj retorted bitterly.
Max glanced outside their bunk as officers walked by in a tight huddle. “Why do they keep doing this?” he muttered in annoyance. “There have been reports of someone trying to breach no man’s land for months. I wish they’d just tell us if they were true or not so that we could go about normal again instead of being on edge all the time.”
Benj had to agree. The two-day reprieve that he’d had was far too short, and that had been a whole month and a half earlier. He was already aching for another chance to return to Italy.
“We should probably be getting ready for our shift,” Nate said with a heavy sigh as he stood and buckled his boots back on, and all the men trudged after him.
Guard duty on the trenches was both terrifying and boring. Every time he stood at the border, Benj was reminded that he was right in the line of fire and could die right there and then, or he remembered the time when he’d been nearly blasted out of the trench and had injured himself. At the same time, however, he rarely saw movement when he was up there; it was only a constant reminder that the enemy was there doing the same thing on the other side, and that they were just waiting for someone to make the move.
Today, however, he almost regretted thinking of the trenches as boring.
There were shapes crossing the field. “They can’t be this stupid,” Seth said in wonder, “There are grenades out there.” Sure enough, one went off, but the rest of the men weren’t deterred. They kept running; in fact, more poured out of the trenches and began running toward them.
“Oh my god,” Max breathed as Daniel let out a swear under his breath and ran to ring the alarms, “They’re trying to ambush us! The officers were right – but they’re going to make it.”
“They don’t need to make it all the way here,” Benj said shortly before he saw one man lift a gun and the other’s follow. “Heads down!”
The soldiers ducked simultaneously as bullets rained down upon them and explosions started and before he knew it, he was sucked back into the horror and thrill of war. He lifted his own gun as the other British soldiers swarmed out of the barracks, the generals screaming orders as they all scrambled to take down the invaders.
Benj raised his gun and shot round after round.
October 12, 1916
It was mass hysteria. A nurse had yelled that they were being bombed, and suddenly there was mass pandemonium. None of the nurses could stop it; neither could the matron.
They were all running around, gathering supplies, moving patients. Tatiana was helping them down the stairs before she was called up to help transport a man to a stretcher. It was normally a job that the ambulance drivers did, but they were frantically trying to evacuate the hospital as well.
Tatiana’s heart hammered in her chest. This wasn’t the same lovesick pitter-patter she got when she thought of Benj. This was pure, undiluted fear, and it was overwhelming her. Tatiana had never been close to the action before, and now that she was, she desperately wished that she wasn’t. It was terrifying; at any moment, a bomb could come down and kill them – all the patients, all the nurses.
“Easton,” she gripped the man’s hand, “get the rest of the nurses out. I have to check that the next ward over is empty.”
She ran out of her ward then before he could reply and then peered around at all the beds and found them empty. Tatiana was just running back to her ward when she saw Lydia running the wrong way.
“Where are you going?”
“Derek!” she explained. “He still can’t move! I can’t leave him there; if we get bombed, then he’ll get hit too. He’s too close.”
“Lydia –“ But the other was gone, and Tatiana was torn for a moment before she began to run after her down the stairs in the opposite direction from the rest of the evacuees.
The air whistled around them, and she wasn’t sure who was shrieking or what was making that noise, simply that it was flooding her senses as suddenly the building shook with a giant crash.
October 13, 1916
The shapes above him were moving, shifting, turning amorphous and then not as they solidified and then liquefied again. Benj felt as if his head was on fire. He was lying somewhere very hard, and his back hurt and his sides hurt and his legs and arms and head and ears and everything hurt. He groaned in pain.
His vision blurred again before it solidified in shapes. The sun was high, and it cast a glow on everything. Someone was bending over him, long hair slipping over her shoulder. It looked angelic in the light, but Benj could barely see. He was screwing his eyes shut until a hand laid something cool on his forehead and stroked back his hair.
“Tatty?” he managed in relief.
He opened his eyes again. The nurse was blonde, her eyes wide as she wiped at his forehead. He didn’t know where he was or who she was, but he didn’t have the energy to form more than that one word. The woman lifted a glass to his lips and he took a sip before he slumped back into a fitful sleep.