The bomb blast seemed to shake the city to the core of the earth but ARP Warden Nicole Haught continued to stride down the street, or what was left of it, as if it was nothing more than a few drops of rain. It was the house at the end she was aiming for: the end of the row of compact terraces and the only one with a wall still standing. The inhabitants of the rubble that had once been homes had all been accounted for in the shelter on the corner but Mercedes Gardner had not been there with her sister and their perpetually creepy brother, Tucker. Hers was the house that was now just a wall at the end. As the bomb blasts continued to echo around her and she heard the spark of incendiaries, she quickened her pace to a run, adeptly dodging the craters and pools of water that littered the way.
The wall stood firm and proud amidst the chaos and the adjoining staircase seemed to cling to it: desperation the only thing keeping it upright. Nicole glanced up at the monolith and was about to judge that Mercedes wasn’t there and if she was, there was no chance there’d be anything to retrieve, when she caught a flash of pink peering out from the staircase behind half a hall table. She picked her way expertly through the rubble: her foot glanced off books and ornaments and a bedside lamp as the flash of pink shifted into an arm, clad in a woollen dressing gown looking out from the cupboard under the stairs.
“Miss Gardner?” Nicole called, her voice steady, “Mercedes? Can you hear me?” she swore under breath as the beam she was stood on gave way and her leg disappeared up to her mid thigh. “Hold on. I’m coming.” She grunted as she extracted her leg and the noise seemed to echo across the site, exemplified by the absence of noise coming from the pink arm. Alive or not, Nicole had to get to Mercedes: a body couldn’t just be left in the middle of the wreckage. Everybody knew kids played on bomb sites no matter how many times they were chased away and besides, it just wouldn’t be fair on Mercedes. Everybody deserved respect in life, and in death.
The hand was warm when she reached it at long last and there was a pulse, a surprisingly strong one given that the rest of her disappeared into the rubble of the cupboard. “Hey, Mercedes! You’re still with us! Hang tight, we’re going to get you out.” Nicole scrabbled for her whistle and blew it and blew it until she heard footsteps and a voice uttering curses as it scrambled across the detritus of the house. Randy Nedley was old but tough. In a previous life - before retirement - he’d been a docker and he’d never lost the strength that that job had required. Frustrated by being too old to join up, he’d thrown himself into the ARP team and had become like a father to Nicole. He made short work of the cupboard door and hat stand and joists that were holding the hidden figure captive and together they lifted her out. She was unconscious but with no obviously broken bones. There was an ambulance crew on standby who’d rushed over with Nedley so they gently carried her out across the rubble and placed her on their waiting stretcher.
“I think I’ll go with her,” Nicole said. She phrased it like a question but one that the only answer to was agreement.
“Nicole, it’s the end of the night,” Nedley said, catching her arm, “Go home and get some rest.”
“I will. I’m just going to see her to the hospital. A woman on her own, it isn’t right,” she said with a glance at the two men loading Mercedes into the ambulance.
Nedley followed the direction of her eyes, “I think you might be right. Alright. You go with her. But then I want you going straight home to bed.”
“Understood,” Nicole nodded and clambered into the ambulance just as its doors were about to slam shut.
She could tell the ambulance driver was new to the job even without windows in the back from the hesitant stop-starting as he got to grips with the clutch. She’d ridden in the backs of ambulances countless times but this was possibly the slowest trip she’d even been on. The steely glare of the uniformed figure with her had her wondering if perhaps there was something deliberate about the slow progress: the driver hadn’t seen her get on. Nicole held Mercedes’ hand and carefully smoothed her hair away from her forehead, picking out some of the bigger lumps of plaster and feeling an enormous sense of relief at having disrupted their plans.
Arrival at the hospital usually meant getting out with the casualty and immediately finding her way home but the ambulance ride made Nicole determined to stay with Mercedes until she was safely on the ward. The dirty looks of the ambulance crew only intensified as they carried Mercedes into the hospital as it became clear she was not going to leave their side. The entrance to the hospital was rammed with the walking wounded, stretchers, nurses and more ambulance crew. A small nurse holding a clip board seemed to be the only one trying to establish any order in the midst of it all. Her face seemed to visibly drop when she saw them come in. She looked briefly at Mercedes’ prostrate figure and scribbled something on the clipboard. “I’m afraid there’s not much room down here and the porters are all AWOL. Look, can you take her straight up to Ward 14. It’s on the second floor,” although the instructions were directed at the ambulance crew, it was Nicole she addressed. Nicole was suddenly very conscious of the grime that coated her skin and the way her tin hat had slid back to reveal a sweaty forehead plastered with strands of red hair compared with how perfectly turned out the petite nurse was.
They were already halfway to the staircase and so didn’t notice the nurse stop and turn as if to call them back. She’d never seen the figure on the stretcher in her nightwear before so it had taken a moment for her to recognise her.
“Sister Earp, over here,” a voice called from the midst of all the wandering bodies and the nurse was gone leaving Nicole traipsing up the stairs behind the ambulance crew with the best friend of the nurse’s sister. The lift was broken and halfway up, Nicole had no choice but to insist on taking one end of the stretcher as the younger of its bearers seemed on the verge of collapse. In the ward they were met by Sister Nedley - Randy’s daughter - who smiled gratefully but briefly at them and directed them towards the one vacant bed. After Mercedes had been deposited - Nicole made sure that she was responsible for the head-end when they lifted her - she found herself redundant: the ambulance crew had made a hasty departure and Sister Nedley - Chrissy - returned to begin an assessment in lieu of a doctor’s presence. Nicole quietly slipped out of the room.
The all clear had sounded when they were in the ambulance so the streets - whilst explosion free - were filled with pockets of people making their way home for a couple of snatched hours in their own beds, if their beds were even there any more. The night air was chilly against Nicole’s sweat streaked forehead as she tucked her helmet under her arm. She pulled her coat tight around her and hoped no-one spotted the ARP arm band and asked for her assistance. The night had been long and she didn’t think she had it in her to help anyone else. At least all the people around her were still conscious and seemed more than able to help themselves.
The crowds thinned out as she reached her road. It had a small parade of shops - mostly boarded up - but the green grocers on the corner had survived the war mostly unscathed. It was above here that she lived. Her flat was one room with a large cupboard into which a bed had somehow been squeezed. Her bathroom was shared with the other three equally poky flats that were also above the green grocers. She entered through the back door behind the shop and unlaced her boots and left them in the compact hallway at the bottom of the stairs. Her tin hat she hung above it. She began fiddling with the belt of her overcoat but found herself overcome with exhaustion and instead rallied the last of her energy to trudge up the stairs and stumble into her flat. She knew that really she should take a bath but the act of setting up the tub and waiting for the water to heat felt completely beyond her. Instead, she ran the tap of the tiny sink in the corner and dunked her whole head into it before rubbing it dry briskly with a nearby tea towel. Her cropped red hair stuck out at all angles and she smiled at the ridiculousness of her reflection in the chipped mirror above the sink. At last she undid her coat and shrugged it onto the floor - she’d hang it up later - and stepped towards her bedroom. Inside, the bed was neatly made and she knew there were pyjamas under her pillow but she disregarded this knowledge and just flopped face down onto it.
Instead of falling immediately into a dreamless sleep as she’d hoped and expected, she found she was too tired to sleep. Her thoughts were consumed with images of bomb-strewn streets and disembodied pink arms and amongst it all, the tiny nurse with her kind eyes and patient smile who beamed at her from a world of chaos.