Sian Evans: All Aboard!

“Get out of the way. Move it.  Doctor!  I need a doctor.  Over here, quickly!”

The burly sergeant carried the prone body over his shoulder as he raced down the white tiled corridor.  The slap slap of his army-issue boots on the parquet floor parroting deadmancomingdeadmancomingdeadmancoming echoing and fading.  Echo and fade, echo and fade, echo and fade…. Ominous silence of the virus.  (Zephyr; it came cloaked in invisibility.  Assassination of the killers, the conscripted falling on the crest of jubilation, tumbling into the maelstrom of unsuccessful pathological research.)

“I have a boy here.  A little boy.  He needs help.  Help him.”  The sergeant gently lowered the boy onto the floor alongside a metal trolley as he entered the ward, the cavernous domed belly of the building.  A makeshift ward set up for assessment.

“Nurse,” he shouted.  “He has a fever, he’s not opened his eyes, he’s voided into his trousers and he was lying in his own vomit when I found him.”  His words tumbled out, anxious to ride on the wave of his exhaled breath.  “I thought to wrap him in a blanket but he’s so hot but his little body is rattling, rattling like he has sudden chills.  Nurse,” he grabbed the arm of the young dark haired girl.  She was not much older than the boy, almost a mirror to the sergeant in colouring and height, two matchstick people in desperate need of food and sleep but vying to save the dying.  Like the sergeant’s uniform, her own was doused in numerous stains with vile scents and a myriad of colours.  Unlike the army uniform, the nurse’s did not have a blood-stained hole just above the left hip.  “Nurse, there are more.”

The sparrow/hummingbird/nightingale nurse’s voice sang out across the ward, her words spiralling up, fluttering skywards to the dome’s peak and finding no escape.  Her words fell, tumbling down, somersaulting over and over each other to cloak the patients laying, waiting, groaning on the makeshift beds.  She was a songbird: help…help…help…  Some patients joined in her melody –

the mellifluous vocals of the diseased.  Others didn’t and the fallen words nested (a mockingbird’s nest?) in their open mouths.

…lub-dub-lub-dub-lub-dub, thud-thud, ba-boom, dup-dup, pop-pop, throb-throb…sounds of life – a heart?  A gun: lub-dub-lub-dub-lub-dub, thud-thud, ba-boom, dup-dup, pop-pop, throb-throb 

“He had his shot at life…”

The sergeant stood rooted to the spot.  Around him medical staff dashed hither and thither.  Like fallen white dominos, the beds were lined with regimental precision, up and down and up and down.  Each occupied.  Many of the other patients were sitting, lying, curled in the foetal position wherever space allowed.

There were days, in the past, even that morning when he would have killed for a bed, so to speak he thought, silently laughing.   There were those whose need was greater than his.

“Sergeant!  Sergeant!”  The young nurse grabbed his arm, her eyes quizzical when she felt the padding underneath her hand but her thoughts remained locked.  He wouldn’t have been the first man to pad out his body with layers to keep warm.  “We need to go.  You need to show me where the other boys are.  We can save them.”

“Follow me,” he all but shouted as he turned on the worn heel of his boot and marched down the corridor.  “Keep up!  Come on, move it, we need to get those boys inside quickly.  The street is no place for anyone to be, be it ill or otherwise.”

“Lead the way, Sergeant,” she replied briskly as she signalled for the other staff members to ready themselves for a fresh wave of casualties.  He wondered – just for a fleeting moment – if she was betrothed to anyone, promised to another, lost her sweetheart amongst the filth of the trenches, lost all hope in mankind.

…darling, I….what have you done to me?  I don’t feel so well.  I’m feeling feverish, a little achy, tired and, yes, queasy.  You don’t think I’m….?

Ring-a-ring-a-roses, a pocket full of posies, a-tishoo a-tishoo, I think I’ve got flu.

She wondered about the sergeant as she followed on his heels, heels of mismatched height.  But then she had noticed that the boots he wore were of different sizes, the right marginally bigger than the left.  She’d observed how his gait was perfectly fine despite his uniform displaying a clear tear where a bayonet or bullet had torn into his left hip.

“You there,” he shouted at a man who was cooing to his horse just outside the hospital entrance.  “We need your cart sir, quickly now, over here.  Follow me.”

The sergeant led them a little further away from the hospital to a narrow alleyway, almost hidden by a stack of empty wooden crates and beer barrels.  Behind them a mound of bodies lay, small and quivering.  Dressed in grey and coated in grime they looked like a mass of rats, a writhing and distorted mound.  Pungent and poisoned.

“… ‘To see the townsfolk suffer so from vermin, was a pity. Rats!’…” The sergeant quoted.

“These children will not disappear,” the nurse said brushing past him.  “Too many have perished thus far.  I will not lose these children too.  Act Sergeant, now!”

“Your cart sir, now.  Do hurry please, they need medical attention.”  The old man spoke, his words lost in the overriding shouts of the sergeant who was gently lifting the nearest boy into his arms.  “Come on!  Come on!  Come on!”

“Sergeant, look,” the nurse said, pointing to the wooden cart harnessed to the old nag.

He cradled the feverish boy tighter in his arms.

“I was trying to tell you, Sergeant,” the old man spoke.  “I’m transporting these bodies to the mass grave.  There are more behind me, a train of wagons, if you like.  So many dead you see.  Need to bury them, kill the virus.  Not natural like, is it, all this death after such a war?”

“They’re boys for God’s sake!  Children; they don’t deserve this.  He has a name this one,” he indicated the body in his arms with a shrug of his shoulders.  “George Albert Canning.  He’s cheeky; he hates algebra and can’t spell worth a damn but he has gifted fingers when it comes to mechanics and can paint a lovely watercolour, not that he would admit that out loud.”

“You know this boy, Sergeant?” the nurse asked gently, as she moved around the crates checking the pulses of the others.

“I…”

“I know you,” the old man said, scratching his bearded chin.  “Yes, from the other village over.  You were the teacher weren’t you before the war.  Then…”

“Then?” enquired the nurse, as she took out a pen and gravely marked a black dot on one boy’s forehead.  Bowing her head she whispered a prayer and then moved to the small blond-haired boy dressed in trousers too short and a shirt tatty from overuse.

“He was given a white feather,” the old man sneered, spitting at the sergeant’s feet.  “And now he has the audacity to wear the King’s uniform.  Playing dress up.  Playing the hero when really he is nothing but a coward.”

“I am a pacifist.”

“You are a tramp rejected by all who know you.”

“I…”

“You should be on the back of my cart.”

“There’s no room on your cart,” the nurse interjected.  “Carry on please sir; I’m sure your bosses are expecting you.”  She dismissed him without a second glance.  “Sergeant, do you think you can carry him too?  I can manage this poor little mite.  If we hurry back we can get more help.  I didn’t imagine there were so many…how far they must have walked…Sergeant, we must hurry.”

The day of the week was Tuesday, the date 12th November 1918.  Many thought death that wiped out families, communities, and futures was behind them.  Over.  Dead and buried.  Many were wrong.  There were 49 days left of the year, the successive years were to take many more last heartbeats including the sergeant and the nurse.

She would have made matron by then and he would no longer be sleeping on the street, few left alive would even know him for the tramp he once was.  Death claimed him the free man he always had been in his mind and heart, the only difference was he had a bed to die in and a warm hand to hold as he passed away, his body riddled with the flu.

Clip clop clip clop, their hearts went pop.

Clip clop clip clop, off to the mass grave drop.

Clip clop clip clop, clip clop clip clop.

Tick tock tick tock the virus struck everyone.

A train of the dead, cart after cart: a train bringing the dead…  deadmancomingdeadwomancomingdeadchildcomingdeadjewcoming – echoing and fading.  Echo and fade, echo and fade, echo and fade….

black tree

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