In the summer of 1904, eleven year-old Simon Ballantyne launched himself from a high tree-branch, and flapped his arms valiantly while he hurtled to the ground. Not even his broken ankle could dim his exhilaration over that brief flight. Ten years later when the Great War broke out, nobody who knew Simon was surprised that he would do his part for King and Country from the air as an aviator.
At home on leave in Devonshire for Christmas of 1916, Simon took another plunge during Christmas dinner. This time in the company of Verity Cotton, also home on Christmas leave from her nursing duties at the front. Blissfully blind and deaf to everyone else, neither of them noticed the pleased conspiratorial smiles their mothers exchanged up and down the length of the dinner table.
In January 1917, wrestling to control his plane in buffeting winds and poor visibility, Simon saw the German aviator’s plane just a heartbeat too late, and took the final fall of his life.
France, Late November 1918
“I look forward to basking in a hot bath until it’s not a hot bath, anymore,” Matron declared. “I don’t think I’ve been properly clean since 1914!”
“Oh yes, and nice clean towels all warmed on a rack by the fire!” Mary Alice enthused.
“Washing with soap that doesn’t smell like a disinfectant,” Angharad added, sounding wistful.
The nine nurses seated around the scarred kitchen table where they’d assisted in so many terrible surgeries, looked around, smiling and nodding at one another, tired faces lightening. A leisurely soak in a hot bath was a longed-for luxury they could all agree on. In their identical blue-gray uniforms with white aprons, the red cross centered on the breast of each one, their heads covered with white caps and veils, they looked almost like nuns. The Sisters of Unremitting Labor, Edith had irreverently named them all.
“I’ll be happy enough for a fire to warm my bedroom,” wire-thin Caroline declared. She rubbed her upper arms vigorously with her palms and shivered. The damp chill of this late November afternoon was bone-piercing and she always felt the cold the most. Work kept one warm, but this little chateau near the Marne River which they’d commandeered for their hospital back in the spring of 1916 was almost empty now two weeks after the Armistice. Three ambulances full of patients bound for England and home had driven away late that morning. The ward was now full of silent rows of empty iron cots, the stripped mattresses rolled up at the foot of each one. For the first time in months, there were no more bedlinens to wash. The quiet felt eerie to them all. They were growing restless too, wondering when the news would come that they were free to return home, also. The war might be over at last, but reliable information was no easier to come by.
Verity could not remember seeing so many of the nurses seated around this table at the same time before. They were all a bit bewildered by the leisure, all of them still listening for ambulances arriving, wheels scattering the frozen gravel on the short front drive between the allée of sycamore trees. All of them were expecting Matron was about to order them all to be about their duties at once, almost quivering with anxiety at the unspoken order that did not come.
“Time for Tea, then,” Edith announced in her London cockney. With immense pride as if she were presenting a wedding cake, she set a small loaf of plain brown bread resting on a cracked china plate down near the bowls and soup kettle already on the table. All of them gasped and cheered, smiling, in prospect of something more solid than soup to eat tonight.
“Bread! Wherever did you get it, Edith?” Matron exclaimed in delight, patting the loaf which all of them would have taken completely for granted before 1918.
“The village, of course, ma’am. Not a bad scrouge, eh?” Edith looked pleased with herself and began ladling out the thin vegetable soup and passing round the bowls. “Little Mon-seer Boo-shay got his hands on some flour somehow and fired up his oven again, so I wheedled his last loaf from him. Cor, you’d have thought it was gold brick for what he wanted for it, at first. I had to bargain him down, so I got back later than I meant to. I am sorry I was too late to say a proper goodbye to our lads, though.”
Verity nibbled on her kerchief-thin slice of bread—there wasn’t enough of it for any of them to have more than a thin slice, and sipped on the bland vegetable broth. Edith wasn’t much of a cook, which hardly mattered when there was so little around that was worth cooking. Not even Lizzie, the best cook among them, could have made a tasty meal out of war rations when the best they had had to be given to the patients. Not unnaturally, the conversation was turning back to things they’d all missed and planned to eat or drink first when they were all home again at last.
“We are all proper Jane Bulls, calling this a Tea, when there’s not a tea leaf to be had within a hundred miles of the Marne,” Violet grumbled, stirring her soup unenthusiastically.
“Tea,” Siobhan sighed. “I’ve almost forgotten what it tastes like.”
“I’m looking forward cup of real, piping hot China tea,” Caroline told them all. “While sitting in an armchair by the fire. Even if there wasn’t a thing to eat with it, though I’d not say no to some bread and butter.”
“Well no wonder you’re so thin, Caroline! I’m looking forward to a real, hearty Yorkshire Tea.” Lizzie sighed with longing. “Sandwiches, scones, strawberries jam and cream—oh everything.” She gazed dreamily into middle distance.
“Strawberries in November in Yorkshire!” Caroline snorted. “Only if your father’s a millionaire.”
“Hardly matters if we ask for anything sensible or not, since we don’t have a prayer of getting it stuck here. Matron is there any news—“
“None, Lizzie.” Matron gave her a quelling look. “I keep craving some of my sister’s good black walnut cake, though,” she admitted. “Having a sweet tooth in the middle of a war—that’s deprivation for you!”
“My first day home, I plan to sleep ‘til noon, then have a huge breakfast of eggs, sausage, grilled tomatoes and bacon and hot buttered toast. And tea of course, unless I can get some coffee. Then after washing up, I’ll take a good long nap ‘til Tea time,” Violet announced to general laughter.
“Going back to Dublin and sleeping in my own bedroom in my own bed with clean sheets every night,” was Siobhan’s wish.
“Having a bedroom again,” Annie added. Modest to a fault, she felt the lack of privacy they all endured the most and the worst.
“Clean sheets I didn’t have to wash,” Edith added and got another laugh. “If I have nightmares remembering all this, either it will involve ambulances full of wounded soldiers, or else it’ll involve miles of wet sheets on a wet afternoon and no hope of drying ‘em before a new lot of casualties descends on us.”
Verity shifted a little in her hard chair, eyes on a soggy celery leaf clinging to the bottom of her soup bowl. While she didn’t want to remain here, she had no idea where she did want to be or could bear to stay. As a country girl, she loathed London, but dreaded returning to Devonshire where she’d see reminders of Simon everywhere. Especially the village church where they would not now get married in the spring following the war. And she could hardly think about facing his grieving mother and sisters.
Edith’s nightmare sounded very like the ones Verity envisioned for herself. Since the day the telegram came, the exhausting work here had been a kind of anesthetic for her soul, and she dreaded losing it. How odd to realize Simon had been gone almost two years. It was her clear duty to be here, so she’d put her head down and scrubbed the floors that never stayed clean, washed the unending bed linens and bandages; the men’s bloody and muddy uniorms, and tended the patients that inundated them in waves. She had just concentrated on getting through the days, and enduring the war, never daring to ask when it would be over. It seemed impossible it ever would be over.
In the past four years, she’d seen much too much of all the horrible effects of modern warfare on the human body. Men came here gagging and coughing fit to drag their lungs out of their chests after inhaling mustard gas; they came in filthy, verminous, wet, blood-stained, missing body parts, burned by explosions, torn by shrapnel, and there always seemed to be more of them than there were available beds. “There’s always room for one more” had been Matron’s motto, but finding that one more bed or pallet for one more wounded soldier had always been a struggle.
Worst for Verity had been the narrow hospital cots all filled with those terribly injured men. Young men, some almost still boys, but with exhausted, hopeless eyes that were far too old for their faces. Some were silent, some bitter and angry, some haunted and shell-shocked. All of them seeming to have lost their capacity for joy. She blamed much of this on the horrible pointlessness of trench warefare, and the manifest miseries of the trenches themselves. How could men not go mad aiming their machine guns at people they never saw across the blasted desert of No Man’s Land for months on end, never knowing if they were winning or losing those battles that dragged on for weeks, months without resolution? Now, Verity was somewhat shocked that it all finally had ended.
She had been drawn to Simon at that Christmas dinner because his eyes and face were still young. He was still alive inside, still hopeful, interested in life, could make plans and state confidently ‘when the war is over we’ll do such and such.”
In that week between Christmas and New Year’s they’d spoken for hours each day, and amid their joy, their talk had kept circling back to the war, and each of their experiences in it.
“How can anyone endure trench warfare without going mad, Simon?” Verity had burst out on New Year’s Eve. “It’s so horrible and pointless! They can’t even see who they’re fighting, or really know why they’re there at all!”
“I don’t know, Verity,” he’d answered bluntly. “In the air, there’s none of that feeling of stalemate. You can see whom you’re fighting, or at least, see his plane. You’d better hope you see them before they see you. In a dog fight, there’s always a clear winner and loser.
“But I’ll tell you this; I’ll die before I’ll fight this war from down in the trenches.”
Verity did not like to think of Simon and his plane spiraling to earth in flames; did not want to think of him being burned alive, even if he didn’t live long enough to suffer. Instead, she preferred the image of Simon pulling his control lever back, and sailing up to meet the brightness beyond the clouds, going on to his next adventure with all the enthusiastic curiousity with which he’d leaped out of that tree as a boy.