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?