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On the Burning Deck

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The car moves forward another eight or ten feet before it stops again, lurching against something in the road.

Stifling an expletive, Nancy climbs out. In the blackout it’s hard to see anything at all, but not too far away buildings are burning, flames throwing a flickering light.

Something’s wedged under the front tyres. She prods it with her foot; bricks, a chunk of bricks and mortar, someone’s wall.

With a sound so loud it seems to suck at the air there’s another explosion, close by her. Dust rising up and people shouting, people screaming, the wail of the siren, all pressing in on her in the darkness.

There’s rubble all over all the street in front of her car, she swiftly realises. And the tyre is soft, punctured with a wide gash.

For a moment Nancy closes her eyes; it’s still black, but a different blackness.

When she was a child she never saw the tourists swarming on the lake that was her seven seas. She never saw hills or huts or fields, but mountains, palaces, deserts and steppes, North Poles and archipelagos; beautiful, exotic and dangerous.

Behind her eyes, for this moment, she is waiting in the dark on the lake to recapture Wildcat Island, crouched in the Amazon, its varnished wood under her fingers. If she breathes deep she can smell the mud at the water’s edge, hear an owl call and feel her sister tremble for a moment at her side.

“Galoot,” she says, loudly, and opens her eyes again, reaching into the car to grab her work bag and gas mask from the passenger seat. Another explosion and then another to the west, in the direction of her block of flats, followed by the echoing rumble of falling bricks.

They will have gone to the shelter. She is sure, absolutely sure of this, determined with every particle of her willpower.

A nearby lamppost shows a sign with the stylized ‘S’ and the arrow directing to the shelter nearest to her position.

She bites her lip as she walks swiftly, determinedly back down the road, away from the car and the shelter, towards the nearest focus of light and sound and almost tangible pain, already pulling her handkerchief out of her pocket and twisting it up ready for a tourniquet.

- - -

Time always expands and contracts in a peculiar manner when Nancy is working. She finds a young man already pulled from the wreckage by firemen; he’s only stunned, she tells them to keep the ambulance a while longer for someone who needs it more. They find her quickly enough, the little girl in a nightdress soaked and stiff with blood. Nancy tears it open, finds the wound and presses down, swift and accurate; the human body is like a ship, like a perfectly balanced sailing ship, you have to know what to do and do it at once, and then, sometimes, you can keep it going perfectly.

The little girl is very cold, her breathing shallow and sparse.

Nancy cradles her in her arms as best she can whilst keeping the pressure up and lifts her into the ambulance, shouting down the men who are still trying to assemble a paediatric stretcher. She tells the driver to move, the assistant to pass her more gauze and a bottle of iodide, and the firemen to bring in the young man, who’s staring into space, unseeing or unbelieving.

“Where did you come from?” he asks her after a few minutes, as they rattle around in the back of the ambulance. Nancy’s hands are sticky with blood, her fingers cramping.

“I’m a doctor,” Nancy says by way of reply.

The wind blows strong sometimes, fighting back against you and the boat. Some people are scared of sailing, of the whole world twisting out of your control and capsizing.

Nancy knows that a good Captain will do their best, will fight their best, will plan their best. And if the wind still blows you under, you swim to the surface and build another boat.

She’s been swimming a long time now. But she’s still swimming, still kicking.

“Is she going to be all right?” The young man’s eyes are full of tears. He might be the child’s father or just a neighbour – more than one house smashed down.

“Rub her feet and her legs,” Nancy tells him. “Keep the circulation going, keep her warm.”

“She feels like ice.”

Nancy drags the child’s face up towards her, listens and feels for a while. Then she brings up two fingers to the carotid pulse. They leave a red stain like lipstick.

She bangs on the partition to get the attention of the driver. “Slow down, it’s too late.”

They confer a while. The young man is staring into space again, down at his empty hands, rapidly going under.

“Take him the rest of the way to the hospital,” Nancy says softly. “Get someone to give him a cup of something.”

“What about you?”

“There must be somewhere round here that I can be more useful than this.” Nancy lays the child on the bench and covers her with a blanket. The girl looks like she could be asleep, could be dreaming under a clear sky by a campfire, lulled by the lapping of the lake.

Nancy’s back hurts; she presses her palms to the base of her spine. She thinks about swimming, about the embrace of warm water, how lying back and floating under the sky you can almost be free, flying.

Picking up her bag again, Nancy climbs out of the ambulance and starts walking.

- - -

“Young lady like you shouldn’t be out on the streets in an air raid!” the warden says again, right in her ear in case the meaning wasn’t evident.

Nancy folds her arms. “Be that as it may, please tell me where your nearest First Aid station is.”

“Castle Street, along there, second right. But you should go to the shelter, you know. I could report you.”

“I’m not really here.” Nancy moves past him. Her feet are starting to ache in time with her back. It’s April now - surely dawn is coming soon?

All around her, houses are breaking apart.

Uncle Jim sometimes told them a story about coming under attack in South Africa. He talked about spears falling down, to either side and all around, killing people to left and right, but for some reason never falling onto him.

Nancy treads across the pavement, stepping over twisted pieces of metal, hearing the story in her mind, the scene painting in around it. The houseboat smelt odd sometimes, of exotic spices and parrot and bachelor cooking. They would sit there in the winter, crammed onto the bench, Roger at the end so he could get out and let off steam, all of them drinking sweet tea and eating ginger cake.

Uncle Jim and her father fought in the last war together, Nancy knows. All through her childhood that war had sat, silent, in the corner of almost every house she visited, just as it sat in her own. She can’t remember the first time she started to think the Zulu spears might have been German bullets.

But she had still played at war, and John and his family had been happy to join her.

All fun and games, Susan used to say sometimes, until someone loses an eye.

For many years now Nancy has concluded that the world needs a great deal more Susans in it generally. Susan is doing her part in that, admittedly, married and already with four children. They’re all in Buckinghamshire somewhere at the country seat of her husband, hopefully safe enough.

Peggy’s nursing at the military hospital in Dover. She sends postcards: Still here, much love, P xxx, after every attack.

Roger’s flying, or will be soon. The training programme has been significantly shortened, apparently. He can make a noise exactly like his engine aeroplane, to the delight of his nephew and nieces.

Right now – Nancy pictures the scene with another surge of will – Titty is – must be - in the air raid shelter under the block of flats where she and Nancy live. Titty moved there first, when she came to London to write for The Lady. After the war broke out and Nancy had graduated and left the student accommodation at the hospital, she joined her.

Titty is looking after a little boy belonging to Dorothea, whom they’ve only heard from intermittently and vaguely after she and her brother went to work at some country house in Bletchley at what sounds like something very dull and organisational, and of which Nancy has certain suspicions.

The boy – Daniel – is happy enough. It was Dorothea who used to live in the flat with Titty before the war moved her, and Daniel seems to treats both of them almost equally as parents. Nancy has some thoughts about that as well, and only wishes Titty would just tell her, instead of looking so worried and lovelorn and bottled up about it.

Whoever Daniel’s father is, he isn’t married to Dorothea and he doesn’t seem to know Daniel exists, and Daniel doesn’t seem to care. He loves it when any of the boys visit, though, especially in uniform. The last time John visited, Dan was climbing up his trouser leg and laughing, running round with a paper boat held high in his hand, frantic with excitement till John offered to come and show him how to blow it around his bathtub.

Nancy feels a shudder, almost a pain, deep in her abdomen. She can’t think about John now.

And yet once she’s pictured his face, it’s hard to stop. So, concentrating on keeping her feet moving, one in front of the other, over and over, she thinks about John then.

She thinks about the lake. About the way the boats looked, luffing together, the grace and power as they sped across the water. The look in John’s eyes, the first time he beat her boat in a race, with the pride that showed her how much he admired her abilities. The top of Kanchenjunga, the way he looked at her then and how angry she was that he could see her. She can almost feel the wind blowing over her flushed cheeks, the way her hair whipped at her face, her whole body tensed to throw him off if he touched her.

Looming out of the darkness, she sees the white and red crosses painted across the sandbags outside the First Aid station. They draw back her focus; keep her on an even keel.

Lying across the doorway inside the station is a man with a piece of shrapnel embedded in his calf, groaning in pain with a vigour that is reassuring. Nearby on the floor others are quieter, some cradling burnt limbs, one or two grey-faced with that blank stare Nancy is coming to recognise. Further inside, harried volunteers with the Red Cross armband run around with bandages and not enough morphine, trying to triage for the ambulances that aren’t coming quickly enough.

She grabs one as he passes: “Tell me where you need me.”

He blinks, looking her up and down. “Would you like to sit down, madam? This is no place...”

Nancy takes a deep breath and resists an urge she is sure must be so evident that she can almost hear her sister giggling in delight at the unspoken words. “No, thank you,” she says finally. “I’m a trained medical professional and I am going to help you save as many people as we can.”

There isn’t a wedding ring on her finger. Some people notice that and some don’t. This man does, looks for it at once – what unpleasant minds some people have – and when he looks back at her, despite everything, despite the stupidity of worrying about anything other than the death and the horror of the night, she feels uncomfortable. He looks at her like her Great Aunt used to: You are no kind of young lady, Ruth Blackett.

She had never wanted to grow up or change or be a lady, if being a lady meant wearing dresses and being quiet and setting a nice example.

She kept putting on the same bathing suit every summer, even when differences were starting to show.

And then John wouldn’t look at her. One day just like any other - sunshine and water just like any other - but he was walking away along the beach, being a gentleman. That was when she’d realised he saw it, that no matter what she did there was no way things could stay the same.

She’d been furious, half-blind with anger, blood throbbing under her skin, her body alight with rage she had no words for as she’d gone after him, catching his arm, forcing him to turn and see her.

She hadn’t expected to find it hard to see him.

Her heart kept pounding. Though still dripping from the lake, she was getting warmer, a strange thrill dancing in her stomach.

John looked every bit as unhappy as she felt, flushed across his throat and bare chest, agonised.

“You utter galoot!”

She was still holding his arm.

“You idiot, John Walker, you ridiculous idiot, I’m not... I’m still me, aren’t I?”

John grabbed her hand; he’d always treated her like an equal, maybe a superior officer, certainly not like a girl. For a mad moment she wondered if he was actually going to fight her. His grip was strong enough.

“Nancy Blackett,” he hissed under his breath, fury in his eyes to match hers, or something as intense. “Has it occurred to you that it’s because you’re you?”

For a moment they were just breathing, watching each other, waiting.

Then Susan’s whistle had sounded for tea and they’d gladly run back to camp and away from what had held them caught in each other’s gaze, both of them, both the brave Captains. She avoided his eye round the fire for the rest of the summer and tried not to talk about anything personal – as little as she did it, it was only when she tried to stop that she realised how much of it was to him – and the summer after that he was in Naval College and she was at University and there was no long holiday, no lake and no island.

 “Are you sure you’re feeling well?”

Nancy smiles through gritted teeth. “I just need to keep moving.” She gets her stethoscope out of her bag and heads inside the station, where the scent of blood rises like steam and her mind becomes mechanical as one of Roger’s engines.

- - -

John had told her once about his channel crossing in the Goblin. About how he had thought the night would never end, the day never dawn.

“I wished you were there,” he’d said softly. “I tried to hear you in my head, the advice you would have given. But you’d never have let it happen on your boat. You’d have navigated better than I did.”

“You did your best.” Nancy couldn’t truthfully contradict him.

They’d been sitting side by side on the sofa in the Walker’s living room, having just turned off the wireless. It was winter, the winter before the summer that made them awkward. The curtains were closed tight and the coal glowing in the grate. Peggy and Susan had been out shopping, the younger ones running about with some kind of bat and ball game with Mrs Walker taking an eager part.

“Susan didn’t even fully understand it, let alone the kids,” he’d continued, “what nearly happened to us.”

A chill went down her spine. “But it didn’t.”

“No,” he smiled. “The night ended, of course it did. It was just...”

“You were a good Captain and you got your crew to safety.” She’d stood up then, because she was feeling an odd impulse to hug him. “Besides, the night always ends eventually.”

- - -

Nancy’s first aware of the All Clear as she tries to block it out – it’s interfering with her auscultation of the chest of a woman who she’s pretty convinced has a pneumothorax.

Nothing really changes at first, except that a door opens and more air gets in, and gradually more ambulances arrive and the wounded are ferried away, until all that’s left is a few volunteers drinking cold tea, one dead body and Nancy, sitting on a packing case by the door. There wasn’t space in the ambulances to take her to the hospital to keep working, and she is really starting to feel dizzy now, the pain lancing into her back.

Someone tries to drape a blanket round her; in snapping awake she realises she’s been drifting.

“Thank you, but I’m not injured. I was stuck outside when the siren went. I’ve got to get to South Kensington – do you know where the nearest bus stop is, please?”

It’s a Salvation Army woman looming over her, a look of concern on her face. “In your condition, my dear? Are you sure you don’t want to come and sit in the church for a while? Have a cup of tea?”

Closing her eyes for a moment, Nancy strokes her hand over the curve of her belly. Something kicks back against her palm and she grins – always waking up just when Nancy’s activity finally ends.

Taking her silence as the beginning of assent, the woman presses her point. “What possessed you to be out and about at night anyway?”

Nancy stands up, taking up her bag and gas mask. “I was hunting rival pirates by the light of the full moon.”

The woman stares, but Nancy walks on, up and out onto the street.

- - -

In 1939, the first time John came to visit Titty on his leave, Nancy hadn’t quite known what to say to him. They’d sat like fools, talking about the war and the weather and family and idiocy whilst Daniel sang baby-talk from the floor and Titty bustled about with a trifle.

“I’ve hired a boat for the day,” he’d said, the second day he came. “Just on the Thames at Richmond, it’s not the same, but if you want to...”

She had hugged him then, she couldn’t not have done, not the way she felt, thinking of sailing again, of putting her hands to the ropes and soaring.

She could spend days remembering each minute of it. The things they said, where they went. Visit after visit, month after month, slowly pacing round each other, cautious for the first time in either of their lives. The first letter he wrote to her, his voice in the words; she carried it in the pocket of her white coat and read it in the snatched moments when she had a break; he told her he did the same on his ship with the dancing semaphore messages that were still all she felt able to send him.

It was perfect and natural and wonderful and adventurous; dangerous, exotic and exciting. Everything happened as it should, as she wanted, as he wanted; he made her feel like a sail turned expertly into the wind, taught and then released at precisely the right moment.

She regrets none of it.

- - -

It’s been two months since anyone has heard from John. Somewhere out there, out in the wild world, he’s battling – Nancy knows this, believes it so strongly that it must be true – making his way through the endless night.

Outside the shelter, the dawn is coming up, bathing the streets in a thin light as people emerge to view the destruction.

Titty and Daniel will have made it to the shelter, Nancy is sure. Peggy will send her another postcard today. She’s got another day’s work to do across the city at the Royal London; just because people are being blown up it doesn’t stop them also getting coughs and chills and ulcers just as usual.

If Nancy closes her eyes, the ground under her feet is heather and the only sound for miles is the sheep calling their lambs across the hillside.

She steps forward, and keeps going.

- - -