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Dolce et Decorum Est

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No sooner had she fallen asleep than a hand on her shoulder shook her awake.

“Matron Evans, please wake up,” a soft voice said. She opened her eyes to find one of her nurses, Alice, staring down at her. “We’ve got more wounded coming in, and Dr. Cragin said to wake you.”

“Thank you, Alice,” she sighed, sitting up.

Alice nodded and hurried out, leaving her to get changed.

It was a struggle to get out of bed, her bones weary and eyelids burning from exhaustion. Alone in her room, Caroline thought this was what it must feel like to be half dead. Six months in this hospital and what seemed like countless more in others took its toll on her, beat her down to a bloody pulp until she asked herself, under the cover of night, what she was doing exactly. Escaping, her mind helpfully supplied. And then: You have no right to feel so used up, not when those boys out there are really dying. That--the measuring of her own struggles against others’ and finding hers wanting--had always brought her back to her blistered feet. Today was no different. By the time she had finished placing the final pin into her hair, she heard the sound of the train’s arrival.

As she stepped through the doors leading outside, Caroline was confronted by chaos. She quickly assessed the scene: the carriages, the stretchers, the bloodied bandages trampled into the mud of the courtyard by soldiers’ rotting boots. After a moment, she made sense of it all and began putting things to order, directing staff to take the worst patients to surgery and the wounded to an open bed until they could be seen.

“Where should we bring this man, miss?” one orderly called.

She went over to the two men who were holding a stretcher with an unconscious man lying upon it. Grabbing his dog tags, she read the bit of paper that had been tied to them, detailing his condition.

“Put him in my ward,” she ordered, and the two men nodded before leaving.

Despite the matrons’ efficiency, it took nearly an hour to get all the wounded settled in. One hundred and twenty-seven bodies to plug and cut and stitch--a small number compared to the trains they’d received in the months prior. Caroline knew better than to think this meant fewer of their boys were dying though; this was only a lull, a quiet respite before hell opened up again to swallow them whole.

Once matters looked to be sufficiently cared for outside, she turned to her ward. Her steps were brisk as she weaved around scurrying orderlies and instruments that had fallen in the mad rush to get care to these men. At the end of a row of beds, one of her newly arrived nurses, Agnes, was bent over a rubbish bin, retching up her lunch. Caroline patted her gently on the shoulder as she passed; the first sick was almost a rite of passage, an initiation into a sisterhood of horror. The stink of leaking bodies and dying men got to them all at first. For Caroline, it’d now become as familiar as the smell of bread from her girlhood.

There were a total of thirty-eight men in her ward currently, six of whom were new. As she assessed their bodies for their medical diagnosis--each man’s chest spattered with drawings or words to identify their injuries in ink--Caroline spoke to the men and made sure they were getting whatever they required.

Of her new patients, three looked like they would recover in a few short weeks. One she doubted would make it through the night and directed two nurses to keep him as comfortable as possible while being mindful of squandering supplies. She understood the impulse to use supplies; sometimes the men’s cries could wear already brittle nerves to breaking. Pumping men full of drugs to quiet them felt like a kindness to everyone present, but it was no kindness to the men who came next, who could have used those drugs to recover rather than to die in peace. Caroline didn’t like the look of the wound on the fifth patient’s hip, expecting it to fester and putrefy if not watched closely. She rounded up three nurses and gave them strict instructions about his care.

With the exception of the dying soldier, her final patient gave her the greatest concern.

At the moment, Mr. Shelby was sedated and seemed to be resting peacefully. He’d already been to surgery, his wounds requiring emergency intervention. The two bullet wounds in the shoulder were an issue, but not the worst of it. Mr. Shelby had gotten shrapnel and mustard gas-soaked dirt in his eyes, causing some unknown degree of blindness and minor blistering. If there was any hope of him regaining his eyesight, his eyes would have to remain covered for quite a few months.

Right, you’ll have to be careful with this one, she thought, having seen the things mustard gas could do to men both physically and psychologically. But all is well for now.

*

“Nurse, he’s waking up!”

Caroline patted the hand of one of her long-time patients with whom she’d been in deep conversation and rose to check on her waking one. It was the new patient with eye damage, Thomas Shelby. By the time she reached him, he sat upright, tugging at the bandages that covered his eyes.

“Easy there,” she said softly, reaching out and grabbing his wrists. “Leave the bandages alone now.”

Before she understood what had happened, she hit the ground, a copper taste filling her mouth and pain blooming on her jaw. As chaos erupted around her, Caroline blinked quickly and tried to steady herself.

Oh fuck, she thought, groaning. What were you thinking, you daft girl? She knew better than to startle a man in Thomas’ state. Of course, he’d strike out as disoriented as he was.

When her head stopped spinning, she glanced up to see Thomas struggling and weak-limbed, fumbling around on the bed. Caroline scrambled to her feet.

“Thomas, you’re safe! You’re in a hospital.”

She waved back the soldiers and orderlies who’d come to her rescue, knowing it wouldn’t be wise to make Thomas feel like he was surrounded.

“Shh, shh,” she said, soothingly. “Easy there, Thomas. You’re in a hospital now, alright? You were injured in battle, but you’re safe.”

Tommy sat up and began to crawl backward, unable to move any farther as his back hit the wall.

“It’s okay, Thomas,” she continued, voice soft as if she were talking to a wounded animal. In a way, she was.

As Caroline reached for Thomas and touched him again, he jumped once more. His hand reached out, grabbing a fistful of her uniform. A dirk was suddenly mere centimeters from her face. She took a breath to calm herself. Thomas should have never gotten past the guards and orderlies with a weapon. Having never been taught what to do should a situation like this arise, she felt far out of her depths. Caroline had no idea how to disarm a man, let alone one who was shell-shocked. One wrong move and he could thrust a blade in her neck without ever meaning to.

Thomas scrambled to his feet, pulling her up as he went and stumbling. The dirk continued to stay close to her face and unsteady in Thomas’ hand, even touching her cheek as he drew her up. She felt a trickle of blood beginning to slip towards her jaw.

“Who’s there?” Thomas called, voice shaking. “Show yourself!”

Knowing there was no other way to resolve the matter than by force, Caroline nodded to the orderly slowly approaching them. He quietly slipped next to Thomas, injecting Thomas with another sedative. As soon as she felt his hold on her loosen, she wrenched herself free and gulped down air. By the time she’s mostly collected herself, two orderlies have restrained Thomas.

“You alright there, Matron?” Alice asked.

She nodded silently, rubbing her neck. Her heart raced, the sound of her pulse pounding in her ears. For a moment, the room still seemed as if it were spinning, and she felt Alice’s steadying hand on her upper arm.

“Put him in Room 104 if it’s still empty,” she directed. “Strap him down--just his wrists--for the time being. I want to be alerted the moment he wakes.”

*


Thomas didn’t wake for hours. But when he did, Caroline heard his screams before her nurses even had the chance to tell her. When she reached his room, she assessed the situation and then motioned for Alice to leave. The girl did, looking relieved to be able to avoid an encounter with the screaming, violent man.

“Mr. Shelby!” she shouted, somehow overpowering his screams. “Stop it! That’s an order!”

Surprisingly, he did.

Past experience taught her that sometimes adopting a tone of authority worked on soldiers. She supposed it was because they’d been so used to following orders that for many it became instinctual. It didn’t seem to matter that she didn’t feel in control so long as she projected the necessary confidence. In truth, her exhaustion coupled with their earlier encounter had left her shaken.

“Good. Thank you,” she said, much more quietly. “Mr. Shel—”

Why can’t I fucking see?!

I hate this part, she thought. Damn every man whose actions have led me to have to do this. It didn’t get easier with time or practice. Sometimes she still wept, more often than not when the soldier himself cried and clung to her as if she could magically give him back his legs, or his arms, or even his face.

“My name is Caroline Evans, Thomas. I’m the ward matron. You’re at a hospital in France, alright?” she explains. “You’re surrounded by allies and fellow Englishmen here.”

Her training taught her to say those things to these men as if being among your countrymen somehow made getting riddled with bullets more bearable. It never seemed to, but then again maybe it would the four hundredth time, or five hundredth, or the six hundredths. Maybe then she’d find a man who would look at her and say: Oh, well so long as I’m surrounded by people who know how to brew a decent cuppa, what’s a little amputation, yeah?

She cautiously approached Thomas’ bed, her heart hammering in her chest. I’m about to give you maybe the worst news you’ve ever received in your life, she wanted to tell him. I may have been hired as a nurse in His Majesty’s service, but in truth, I can rarely put back together the men that they’ve given me. My real service to my country is to deal the killing blow that the Germans never could. And I’m sorry, more sorry than you’ll ever know. Maybe it’ll be a comfort to learn that a part of me dies every time I have to say the words that’ll change your life.

But instead, she told him something else.

“You were shot in your left shoulder twice, but the doctors anticipate it will heal well. The more concerning issue is that you have a rather severe injury to your eyes. We were told they’d been exposed to shrapnel and dirt containing mustard gas. They had to operate quickly in an attempt to save your eyesight.”

Thomas was silent for a few moments.

“Did they succeed?” he asked, voice thin and dangerously low.

“I’m not sure, and we won’t know for certain for several months.”

Caroline told him quickly, but the words didn't come easily. She gave him a moment to process the information and fully anticipated him to be furious. When he didn’t respond, she thought perhaps he would be one of the ones to cry. Still nothing. There was no reaction from him at all. Shock then. Sometimes it was just shock.

She attempted to speak with him a bit more and asked if there was anyone--a wife, a mother, a sister--that she should reach out to. When she was met with further silence, Caroline gave up and left him to his thoughts.

Another blow dealt, Your Majesty.