It was the way she stared at him. Those dark brown eyes gazing up at him with measureless reproach and endless hope that the verdict might be reversed. It took him back to earlier betrayals, the girl back home that wasn’t home no more, the chance encounter at the railway hotel. If only he could reverse them all. But that made no sense. He was feverish.
He stroked the moist hair from her forehead and smiled as bravely as he could, and she managed a smile that broke his heart. A smile he would not forget.
Her eyes flickered past him and he gradually became aware of a presence at his elbow and he looked round at a face he vaguely recognized. He was being monitored.
With a start he glanced round the admissions ward, barely more than a station waiting room lined with banks of stretchers. New patients were arriving by the minute. His job was to find them beds. And now she was coughing again, first phlegm, then blood. He wiped her clean.
This was his first hospital placement, something he had worked for all his young life. Seven days later the pandemic had burst upon them and nothing he had learned was any use.
Nurses and specialists were all on the wards. Newly qualified as a general practitioner his job was first diagnoses. He was the front line. He had to test and triage.
He was to allocate beds but there were no beds. Not without further fatalities. The death certificates were coming back by the hour but not fast enough for the new intake; the corridors were being swabbed down for the stretchers. But the stretchers were needed for the ambulances, so cushions were found and the corridors were soon impassable.
His orders were that beds were for the milder cases which could be treated. The corridors were for the severe ones unlikely to survive. Palliative care was the euphemism for the corridors. Some wit had scrawled an arrow on the wall with the words Lozinghem…
He thought of his great-great-uncle blown apart at Passchendaele, too young to have known any girl, and wondered how the field surgeons had kept him alive for three days. Military surgery, terrorist atrocities, he had done them all in his final year. All useless now. This was worse. There, a random shell had done it. Here, he was not the surgeon, he was the shell.
An explosion of rage lit the fuse inside him and he felt his teeth grinding to be checked up on at this one moment of respite when his duty was all too clear and he was getting on with it.
A hand grazed his shoulder and he looked up to see the grizzled face and the smudged whites and the endless weariness of a man twice his age. He’d seen him on the wards. A bowel cancer surgeon diverted from ops to the front line, nursing, resuscitating, cleaning, mopping.
“You take a break,” the senior consultant murmured with a good night that reminded him of his dad. “I’ll find her a bed.” It was a lie. He knew it, and was grateful.
Outside, he tried to smoke, like his great-great-uncle in the trenches, but the taste was foul and his coughing revolted him. He had to get through this. His armistice could wait.
When he returned, the girl was gone. So was the consultant. He checked the new intake.
© Gareth Jones 27/9/20