Chapter 1: Chapter One
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.
Chapter 2: Chapter Two
In which Caroline finds out how stubborn Thomas really is.
The mail had been piling up for two weeks now, resting on the bedside table. She’d done that on purpose--kept it out someplace she’d see it daily--so that the guilt would well up until she’d have no choice but to tear the envelopes open.
Looking down at them with all the caution she might reserve for a bomb, Caroline pushed the edges of the letters around with her fingertips. There were two distinct scripts, both familiar to her and inspiring the same sinking feeling in her stomach. The writers had started visiting her dreams now, no doubt a sign of her amassing guilt. Reaching out for the topmost letter, Caroline tore it open before she could doubt herself.
I hope you are alright. Your last letter was so short that I worry something is wrong. Last week Bessie said that there was a girl from South Hams working as a nurse who went mad from what she saw in France and was sent off to the asylum. I told her she was the mad one and they kept you young girls away from the worst of it.
We’ve been managing here at home. There’s still a ban on using lights after dark on account of the Zeppelins. Most nights me and Violet go to bed when it gets dark. There’s not much to do when you can’t see.
Nathan wrote two weeks ago. He’s in Ypres now. I know he’s having troubles with everything that happened. I wrote back and told him we’d take care of it when he came home. He could take time for himself. I think that’s best. Write to him if you can. I know you two had your troubles growing up, but he’s still your brother. Violet says she’s doing good in school and getting good marks. I think it’s because she’s been studying so much with Margaret Hughes. She says she’ll send a letter soon and is sorry her last one got lost.
In your next letter, please let me know how Peter is. And tell him hello for me when you write him next. I hope the war ends soon so that everyone can come home and you two can be together.
Caroline only felt like a horrid daughter for a moment when she folded the letter back up and binned it. Her relationship with her family was complicated on the best of days, and it had no place in this hospital. Already, the noticeable shift in her mother’s writing from neat, precise letters to sloppy loops told Caroline that two children at war had done little to sober her mother up. She might not have even held that against her if her mother had only just started in recent years. But the reality was that her mother had become a drunk years ago, back when her father left with another woman. It’d fallen to Caroline to keep the household together--an unfair task for a girl of ten. Whenever her mother wrote, it always seemed to her that her years of hard work were slowly coming undone.
Caroline tried to push all that from her mind. There was nothing to be done about it anyway, not when she was in France. She only had herself to look after now. Well, she and hundreds of patients and staff. It was no small task, but at least it felt familiar to her, just larger in scale.
Having made quick work of her uniform, Caroline dressed in her nightgown and unpinned her hair. For as tired as she was, her bed ought to have offered a welcome respite. Lately, she was lucky if she got five hours of sleep a night. But as she slipped beneath the covers, Caroline felt the restlessness in her bones, despite all her weariness.
A ghost loomed large at her bedside, its presence fueled by her mother’s letter. Rolling over, Caroline stared at the remaining pile of letters. It’d taken her nearly two weeks to open the last one she’d received from Peter. Reaching out to take his letter in hand, Caroline held it for a moment before deciding against it. She slipped it into the little drawer in her bedside table, hoping that by tucking it away she might be able to get some rest.
Sleep still did not come easily.
“Have some pity, Alice.”
“I don’t care. He’s mean. All these boys we’ve treated, and they’ve never acted like this!”
“What’s this now?” Caroline asked.
She took a moment out of her rounds to stop at the small gathering of harried nurses--Alice, Ruth, and Fanny. When they’d realized she’d overheard them, all three looked a bit sheepish. The hospital doctors gave them all strict instructions about being sweet to boost soldiers’ morale, so they had no business complaining at all, and certainly not in public, as far as the hospital higher-ups were concerned. As matron, Caroline should have enforced the unofficial policy, but she had no interest. Her nurses put up with a lot, and it was only fair that they have an outlet for their frustrations and grief. Though Caroline preferred that they take their conversation to someplace far more private.
“The patient in 104, miss--”
“--Thomas Shelby, ma’am--”
“Yeah, him. He’s an arsehole.”
“I see,” Caroline said slowly. “Any particular reason? Or is this a personality flaw?”
Alice rolled her eyes. “Probably just his personality, ain’t it? But I went in there this morning to give him his breakfast. Said hello and everything, nice as can be. And he throws the tray at me, and he says, ‘Fuck off, and let me die.’ He probably pulled his stitches too, but I wasn’t about to help him, was I?”
If Alice’s face was anything to go by, Caroline expected that Alice would be happy to let him die. She glanced around to the other girls--middle-aged Ruth and plain-faced Fanny--and got the sense that they more or less agreed with Alice’s assessment of the soldier’s behavior. He was difficult, unkind, and was reacting poorly to the news of his prognosis. Caroline couldn’t blame him for that last bit.
“I’ll add Mr. Shelby to my rounds today,” Caroline said. “See that everyone else gets their lunch, and if there’s any difficulties, you’ll let me know.”
With all that in mind, Caroline collected a lunch tray and medical supplies and headed to Thomas’ room. Alice had been right; Thomas looked a bit of a mess. From across the room, she saw a small patch of red staining the back of his shirt. Broken stitches then. The bandages around his eyes were in disorder but still held tight to protect his hopefully healing eyes. That would also need to be seen to. Lastly, it appeared he’d gotten this morning’s breakfast (and perhaps some of last night’s dinner) all over his bedding.
None of this would do.
“Hello, Thomas,” Caroline said, setting the tray and equipment down. “I’m not sure if you remember me. We met a few days ago when you first arrived. I’m Matron Caroline.”
Thomas was silent.
“I’ve been getting some complaints from my nurses that you’re making their jobs unnecessarily difficult. They’re doing what’s in your best interest to get you healed. I promise.”
“Right, well, I’m going to need you to let me treat you and clean you up, alright?”
Caroline approached him cautiously, expecting him to lash out violently as he had with Alice. However, he made no movement to do anything, including showing any interest in eating his lunch when she announced she had it there for him.
Frowning, Caroline set the lunch tray back down and assessed the situation. She’d dealt with her fair share of difficult men before. Well, they were hardly difficult intentionally. Most of the soldiers who responded like Thomas were simply in shock and unable to process the damage their bodies had taken. While it made her job more challenging, Caroline imagined it was far more difficult for them and found it pointless to hold on to any anger towards them.
“Why are we not eating, hmm?” she muttered. “Will you let me look at your shoulder? It appears that you’ve reinjured yourself.”
As she waited for some response, Caroline wracked her brain, searching for something she could say to coax Thomas into talking. She was no stranger to the silent treatment, but she’d not had to deal with someone who couldn’t talk to her in some time. After another few moments of silence, she knew she would not get an answer from him and set to work on the broken stitches. Despite the tensing of his muscles and small shifts in the bed, Thomas didn’t utter a word.
After cleaning up and changing his soiled blanket, Caroline finished all the necessary care Thomas immediately required. She would send an orderly to change the rest of the bedding when Thomas was taken for his bath.
Before leaving, she tried once more to get him to eat, even bringing a spoonful of applesauce just to his lips. Caroline didn’t let it linger there for long though; he wasn’t an infant who needed to be fed. And if she were ever going to build any sort of report with him, she would do herself no favors by treating him like a child.
“Alright then, Thomas. I’m not here to force-feed you. When you’re ready to eat, let someone know and the food will be brought.”
And with that, she left.
“Agnes?” Caroline called, knocking on the door. “Are you in there?”
She waited for a few moments, hearing nothing on the other side of the door. Then there was a deep, wet inhale and what Caroline thought was a string of curses. The door opened to reveal a disheveled Agnes, who looked ashamed beneath Caroline’s gaze.
“Fanny mentioned she picked up your shift. She said you were unwell.”
“I’m just feeling a little under the weather, miss, and I didn’t want to expose the men in case it was catching.”
It was a lie. A lifetime under her mother’s roof had taught her when someone wasn’t coping well with matters at hand. Then, just as now, it had been her job to put things back together as best she could.
“You’re certain it’s just a cold?”
Caroline hesitated. “If it’s ever more than that, you should come speak with me. We see many difficult--”
“Forgive me, miss, but I’m feeling a little lightheaded. I’d like to return to bed if it’s all the same to you.”
Caroline’s heart sank. She didn’t know why she expected Agnes--who she knew for less than two weeks--to open up to her. Wishful thinking, she supposed.
“Yes, of course. Get some rest.”
Despite Caroline’s intervention, the situation with Thomas Shelby did not improve. When he wasn’t giving the nurses the silent treatment, he was shouting at them to leave him. Treating him was a nightmare that few nurses wanted to deal with, so more often than not Caroline brought him his meals and tended to his wounds. He rarely spoke or ate, but, those times that he did, Caroline suspected it was to hurry her out of his room. At least he had the good sense to know that shouting at her would not serve his ends. They maintained this pattern for several days until one evening Tommy sat up when she came into the room.
“How are you today, Thomas?” she asked, setting the food tray down on the bedside table. “Well, I suppose it’s technically this evening now.”
Caroline went to work freeing him of the restraints. It appeared that he’d finally left the bandages around his eyes alone overnight, no longer trying to rub against the bed to loosen them. If he seemed to be overall improved tonight, she considered keeping the restraints off.
After loosening his wrists from the bonds, she sat his tray on his lap and briefly explained what was on it. Surprisingly, Thomas moved his hand towards the food before him. When Caroline reached out to help guide his hand to the utensils, Thomas jerked away.
Stubborn as a mule, she thought. Alright then, suit yourself.
Standing back, Caroline watched as Thomas fumbled for the spoon. He found the soup on his own too but did not manage to get it anywhere close to his mouth. His unsteady hand shook, spilling the soup down his front. He hissed--whether from surprise or the soup’s temperature, she couldn’t say--and threw the spoon across the room.
He turned away from her like a fussy child. She couldn’t entirely blame him for his frustration even if it did mean more work for her cleaning him and the room up.
Knowing that Thomas had barely eaten for several days, Caroline was determined to get something in him. She took the fork from his tray, got a bit of mash on the end, and reached for Thomas’ hand. When offered, he held the fork and successfully managed to get the mash into his mouth after a few attempts.
She stayed with him until he finished his mash and the bread. While it wasn’t the healthiest of meals, it was still more food than his body had had since coming to the hospital. Pleased with his progress, she helped him into fresh clothing and bid him goodnight.
When she brought Thomas breakfast the following morning, Caroline was received to find she hadn’t made the wrong call in freeing Tommy of his restraints overnight. All his bandages were intact, and the room seemed no worse for wear for his being able to move about.
“Morning, Thomas,” she says, setting the tray on his lap as usual. “It’s eggs and toast today. And they don’t look that bad, which is impressive since our cook has a lot to learn. Water is on the left corner of the tray.”
Caroline reached out cautiously and took Tommy’s hand to guide him to the glass. At first, he refused to budge, but when she made it clear that she was going nowhere until he cooperated with her, Thomas finally allowed her to bring his hand to the water. She’d savor this small victory.
After it was clear that he would do fine with his breakfast, Caroline left him. Upon returning for lunch, she found that he’d eaten most of the eggs and nibbled on the toast.
Things between them continued that way; Thomas still put up a bit of a fight whenever Caroline sought to clean up his bandages or prod him into eating. But he did; he ate. He wouldn’t speak to her though. For some nurses, the silence caused distress, but Caroline was one of the ones who didn’t mind it so much. The hospital was loud enough with people calling her every which way until she crawled into her bed at night. Thomas’ silence sometimes felt like a reprieve, one that she was grateful for.
Chapter 3: Chapter Three
The hospital receives more patients than it can manage. Caroline tries to keep it together while Tommy begins to wonder if life is worth living in his newfound state.
This chapter is heavy on descriptions of war and war-related injuries, so be warned.
For several weeks, life moved faster than Caroline would have liked. The hours bled into days and it seemed that each day only grew worse for every soldier who was cleared to return to the front line, two more would take his place. This pattern was far from unusual however, she’d never felt like it was such a Sysiphian task before now. As best she could, Caroline had made every effort to treat them as individuals despite the sheer number of them but this eventually just became near impossible. It’d taken its toll though; especially on Caroline. When was the last time she had slept for more than five hours straight? When was the last time she had woken up feeling refreshed? She had no answer.
There was little worth remarking upon in her new routine, and what was worth it tended to stray towards the horrific. Every once in awhile though, life threw her something that warmed her heart. It was one evening that Caroline’s eyes caught sight of a familiar name belong to a former patient. She noted too, with relief, that his hospital location suggested that his wounds were relatively non-threatening as long as they were seen to properly. When she had a few minutes to spare, Caroline went to visit him.
“Mr. George King, what are you doing back in my hospital?” she asked, her tone teasing.
“It’s cause I missed you, Matron.” George said with a cheeky wink. “You and the real tasty food here.”
They both laughed at that. Caroline took a seat next to his bed, eyes surveying his new injuries--some minor chemical burns to his face and a bullet to the belly. Despite his wounds, George was jovial. He always had been even when she’d first met him and his injuries had been more concerning. Privately, Caroline had always assumed that George put on this happy act for her and the other nurses’ benefit. It didn’t make her any less grateful for the young man.
As with many of her new arrivals, George updated her on what had happened where he had been stationed. She listened with rapt attention, eager for any news of the world outside of this hospital, however bleak. What news she received from papers and letters was often outdated, so the soldiers were her best bet.
“Nobody’s moving forward,” he explained as he recounted trench life. “Whenever you go over the top, they just shoot at you, but we do the same to the bastards. Sometimes I think the war won’t ever end, and other times I think both sides are just going to kill each other until there’s no one left.”
No progress then. Caroline sighed and patted George’s hand sympathetically. In the process of their healing, Caroline had noticed a trend where soldiers found the need to discuss their experiences on the frontlines, sometimes with her, other times with fellow soldiers who shared the experiences. George was no different.
Their conversation was ended abruptly as a nurse came in, informing Caroline that new patients were arriving. Caroline stood and ordered George to get some rest. He gave her a mock salute, assuring her that he would, but only if she joined him for what he had heard was a decadent four course meal for supper
The smile she wore from her conversation with George faded though as she hurried down the hallway, her mind slipping into action mode. Their goal was to assess the damage of each soldier, figure out who needed the most intense care, and then get the soldier off to that area.
As Caroline made her way to the door, she was forced to slow down and slip between and around her other staff members who were rushing to get into their positions with stretchers and medical supplies. At this point, most everyone knew what was expected of them save for a few new staff members. Caroline was pleased how the hospital ran like a well oiled machine, in part because she knew it could mean the difference between saving or losing a life.
As she stood outside in the courtyard with the rest of the medical staff to wait for the arriving patients, Caroline took a moment to survey the hospital grounds. The warmth of the summer’s heat on her cheeks steadied her fraying nerves. Caroline felt a little renewed wave of energy flow through her, and Lord knew she needed it. Her feet ached already from her long shifts. Despite shifting from foot to foot, nothing relieved the soreness. The more her thoughts focused on it, the worse they seemed to become.
Don’t think about it , she told herself. You have your eyes and all your limbs. Your pain is a pittance compared to the men in your care.
Inhaling deeply, Caroline shifted her thoughts to the job at hand.
Ward One has four open beds, but they can only take soldiers with minor injuries since three of their current patients have severe chest wounds that must be closely watched. Ward Two has six open beds, but one of their patients might be coming down with pneumonia. Something like that could wipe out the whole ward, so he’ll have to be relocated, perhaps to one of the small private rooms for now.
Caroline continued to run numbers and organize the hospital in her mind. She reached Ward Four when the cry went up:
“HERE THEY COME!”
As the soldiers began to be unloaded from the vans, Caroline forgot about her own pain and the rest of the world around her. She rushed around, directing nurses and orderlies about where patients should go and establishing who needed to be prepped for surgery immediately.
The stretchers seemed to cycle endlessly, leaving only to return with more wounded. At some point, it became too overwhelming, and Caroline lost track of how many patients they had in each ward and what the distribution of the injured looked like. Her hands and uniform were covered with the blood of dying men. There were too many wounded, but they couldn’t possibly be sent to another hospital. They wouldn’t make it. send them back.
Just as she was about to direct the orderlies to start arranging the incoming soldiers on the floor, one of her nurses approached her.
“The men who have minor wounds are givin’ up their beds for the ones comin’ in, Matron”
Her heart eased with relief, but she showed no outward sign of it, no tears of joy. Instead, she nodded and rushed inside. There was no time for crying--for joy, for grief--in a hospital, at least not for her.
The next hours passed by in a blur for Caroline. The hospital seemed to have gotten every possible injury known to man: bullet wounds, mustard gas burns, trench foot, typhus, trench fever...The list went on and on.
The worst, though, was the grenade
Caroline had been setting a broken bone when she heard screaming coming from down the hall. Ordering another nurse to take over, Caroline rushed to investigate the scene to find nurses, doctors and patients scattering in panic.
“We’ve got an issue here, Matron.” Dr. Anderson said as she joined him next to the patient.
The boy had a massive stomach wound, and Caroline could see his inner organs moving up and down with his breaths. The organs did not bother her so much as the sight of a grenade settled among his intestines.
A grenade , clear as day, with the pin removed ; the damn thing could go off at any time.
Caroline vaguely registered the sound of Dr. Anderson saying her name, but it took her several heavy moments before she could draw her eyes away and acknowledge him.
“How shall we handle this?” he asked.
How the fuck should I know? she thought, but held her tongue. She’d heard stories a few times from other nurses about things like this. Rarely did they end well. The only option was to take it somewhere and pray it that it went off before anybody could get hurt.
“Give me a pair of forceps and then get this place cleared,” she ordered.
Apparently relieved that he’d not be the one dealing with this delicate problem, Dr. Anderson all too quickly began spreading her order. Meanwhile, Caroline took the wounded soldier’s hand, squeezing it.
“Sc-scared,” he grumbled, teeth chattering from shock and blood loss.
Me too , she thought. I’ve never been more fucking scared in my entire life .
Caroline stroked the boy’s knuckles with her thumb. “My name is Matron Evans. We’ll take good care of you, I promise.”
Once she was handed the forceps, the other nurses cleared the room, leaving Caroline and the soldier. None of her training had ever prepared Caroline for this. But what else could she do? Caroline swallowed a painful gulp before reaching forward. She was forced to use two hands, one holding onto the other so the forceps did not shake. Hardly daring to breathe, Caroline gingerly picked up the grenade, lifting it from the body.
Her hands were soaked with sweat, and Caroline wished she had gloves to keep the forceps from slipping. As she made her way out of the room and hospital, she occasionally spotted people watching from behind closed doors. But other than that, the hospital was silent for the first time since opening. Each step that Caroline took was forced, as if her shoes weighed a ton. Each breath could be her last. This could all end in her death? She wouldn’t be able to write to her mother to assure her that things were alright. She wouldn’t be able to open and read Peter’s letter, to find out what her sweetheart had said.
By some miracle, Caroline made it to the edge of a field, a safe distance away from the hospital. Taking a deep breath, she found herself sending a quick prayer to God, asking to be protected. A desperate plea for a desperate situation . She pulled back her arm before launching the grenade in the air, sending it as far as she could. Caroline didn’t watch it land and instead just ran back towards the hospital.
When the grenade exploded behind her, she hit the gravel hard and pain shot up through her hands and chin. Caroline welcomed the pain. It meant she was alive. Scrambling up, Caroline rushed to the hospital steps, where she was greeted by cheers and applause. Caroline meekly accepted the praise before ordering everyone back to work.
By the time all the new arrivals had been seen, Caroline had been on her feet for over sixteen hours. She was covered in blood, some of it her own but a majority belonging to the soldiers. How many bodies had she stuck her hands into today? Caroline had lost track.
After she was relieved, Caroline spent almost half an hour trying to clean the blood off her hands, leaving them raw and tender. They would be chapped and cracking within the day, she was sure, but at least the blood was gone.
As she wiped her hands on a towel, Alice came with the report. They had treated almost five hundred patients today. Close to a third of that number had died or were critically injured with little chance of recovery. Though most of those men were effectively dead before arriving to her, Caroline still felt the heavy pang of guilt. It was no easy thing, losing a life. Yet, she couldn’t dwell on that long, at least not right now when she had more pressing issues to attend to. The hospital was not meant to hold this many patients. Soldiers lacked beds and supplies and food were running low. They would come apart at the seams if their stores weren’t refilled soon.
Caroline nodded her thanks to Alice, clutching the report close to her side. Alice was about to ask her something else, but Caroline waved her off. She needed to be alone to unwind from the day.
As she wandered through the dimly lit halls, her feet ached so much that fat tears began to well in her eyes. She wiped them away with the back of her hand and sniffed hard, trying her best to bury her emotions as best she could.
Don’t you dare start , she told herself as she had countless times since she was a little girl. Crying won’t solve a thing. It won’t bring those men back. You’re not going to suddenly unhear their begging for their mothers. The war isn’t going to stop even if you’re breaking. Keep it together, girl .
Most of the time she could will her tears into submission. Most of the time she could swallow the lump in her throat and raise her chin in defiance. Once her tears formed tonight though, Caroline lost all control.
Her chest tightened violently, restricting her breathing. Caroline let out a half-strangled gasp before fumbling for the nearest doorknob and pushing the door to the nearest room open. Nearly falling into the blackness of the room, Caroline scrambled for the rubbish bin and sicked up. She could barely breathe between her sobs and heaves, her uneven gasps causing her to sound like a dying animal.
When her stomach settled for a moment, she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. Despite all her scrubbing, the smell of blood on her skin still lingered, and Caroline got sick again. She tried once more to stop, forcing herself not to retch at the stench. It was no small task, not with the amount of blood she’d had on her hands. She’d been pressing down on and holding together men’s bodies all day, trying to keep the liquid inside their mass. But it just burbled up, forcing its way between the cracks of her fingers.
Though she didn’t want to, Caroline did her best to swallow the scream that rose in her throat from the memories. Her self-control was fracturing. The dam had broken. Everything felt like it would flood out any moment now, and Caroline was powerless to stop it.
Her head throbbed. She felt immense pressure behind her eyes, beneath her cheeks. Her skin was hot and wet and sore. There, on the floor, Caroline lost track of time and herself with it. It was only when she heard a voice that reality came rushing back to her.
“Are you alright?”
Realizing she had no idea what room she was in, Caroline slipped her hand into her pocket and pulled out a torch. The beam illuminated the figure in the bed who had just spoken to her. Panic seized her, violently squeezing her heart until she thought it would burst like overripe fruit.
“Thomas! Christ, I’m s-sorry about this!” she said with some difficulty, leaning down and grabbing the rubbish bin. “It’s just...supper didn’t agree with me is all. Happens to the best of us, yeah?”
Her voice was hoarse and quivering, but Caroline prayed that Thomas wouldn’t know anything was amiss. She wrapped her arms around her to try to steady her shaking limbs. However, there was nothing to be done for it.
“I’m blind, not a fuckin’ idiot, eh?”
“It sounded like more than a bad meal.”
“I’ve never liked getting sick. It makes me a bit weepy,” she lied, though she thought she did a poor job of it.
Thomas scoffed. “If that’s what you need to tell yourself, matron, don’t let me tell you otherwise.”
Her brow furrows. Of all the doors she could have possibly come across, it had to have been Thomas’, didn’t it? He’d been by far her most difficult patient, but recently she’d been making headway with him. Maybe not considerable progress, but he did generally answer her questions more often than not, even if he rarely responded with more than one word. She felt embarrassed that he’d seen her like this when she has tried so hard to earn his respect. In her fragile state, the very idea of walking into this room during her next shift left her throat constricting again.
“Goodnight, Thomas,” she managed. “Again, my apologies.”
The silence from the bed came as a relief. Easing herself up, Caroline slipped quietly out the door and up the stairs to her room. When she was safely behind the locked door, her legs gave out on her, and she slid quickly down to the floor. There seemed to be a gaping chasm between where she sat and her bed just across the room. Rather than find the energy within herself to cross the floor, Caroline eased herself onto the ground and closed her eyes.
Unsurprisingly, the floor offered little comfort through the night. When she woke a few meager hours later, she felt as if she’d been hit by a train. It even hurt to blink her eyes, and her limbs felt leaden and freshly stitched to her body. There, on the cold ground, Caroline thought she might not leave her room again until she was well rested.
But as her sleepiness began to ebb to be replaced by a violent sort of wakefulness, Caroline realized that wouldn’t be an option, not for a long, long time. You don’t deserve more rest than anyone else in this bloody place. They were there yesterday too. They were there in the blood and the guts and the filth, fighting to keep each patient alive. If you don’t get up right now, you might as well die here and spare them the trouble.
Somewhere within herself, Caroline managed to find the last bit of strength she had and put herself back together--a splash of water on the face, a clean uniform, freshly pinned hair. A quick glance in the mirror showed a gaunt and pale face. There was nothing to be done for it though. Not that it mattered much; she wasn’t here to impress anyone with her looks. Sighing heavily, Caroline headed downstairs to start her day.
After a quick breakfast of watery oatmeal and weak coffee, she began her rounds. The hospital was, indeed, at maximum capacity. Every bed held a patient with many more lying in the corridors.
“Get them into a ward,” Caroline told two orderlies, motioning to a line of patients on the ground. “I don’t care which one. Just get them out of the damn corridor.”
The men hurried to do as she bid.
As she continued her rounds, Caroline grabbed breakfast for Thomas and brought it to his room. She had no desire to step through the door before her, not after she’d made a fool of herself last night. Thomas had seen right through her. Caroline wondered if he would say anything to her this morning; he certainly seemed the type to use it against her if angered if her nurses’ reports were anything to go by. Still, she had to do her job. Knocking lightly, she entered to see Tommy sitting upright, his head turned in her direction.
“Good morning,” Caroline said, forcing herself to keep her tone light and calm.
“Mmm,” he returned dully.
Taking his tray of food over, she placed it on Thomas’ lap. Caroline quickly told him what was on his plate and where, though by now she suspected he knew where things were located. She made sure to keep his utensils and cup in the same places for each meal she was in charge of. After pausing for a moment to see if Thomas needed anything, Caroline turned to leave.
“Aren’t you going to ask me how I am?”
The question took Caroline a moment to process, and even then she was rather perplexed.
“Every time you come in here, you always ask how I am,” he said bitterly. “As if you fuckin’ care.”
Caroline wasn’t sure where exactly Thomas was going with this, but she tries: “Well then, Mr. Shelby, how are you?”
Thomas scoffed and then fell silent. Frowning, Caroline briefly considered prying, but thought better of it. She had no time for Thomas’ difficult personality today.
By the time Caroline was well into her morning business, Thomas drifted far from her mind. She set herself to the task of restocking the hospital supplies in between her rounds. After yesterday’s patient intake, they were running dangerously low on vital medications and bandages. For three hours, she tried to convince headquarters to send them more supplies, even leveraging some contacts she had there. In the end, what they offered was only half of what they needed--which she was told sternly was far more than they could spare--and Caroline didn’t press further. She would take what they could send her.
After expressing her thanks and saying goodbye, Caroline hung up and leaned back in the small chair that she had occupied for the majority of that day. Glancing at her pocket watch, she noted that it was drawing close to dinner time. Despite how her body ached and head throbbed, Caroline stood and made her way to the kitchen where dinner was being prepared.
“Matron, do we have more food comin’?” one of the cooks asked as she prepared Thomas’ tray.
“Aye, we do. Should be here within two or three days,” she answered.
The cooks seemed palpably relieved; no doubt the dramatic increase in the number of meals they needed to prepare daily caused some concern when they’d received the morning report. As Caroline left the kitchen, she heard one of them say, “Don’t know how she fuckin’ does it, that one. Always up and about like that.” Caroline sighed, weary. I don’t know how I do it either .
The hospital grew louder as those patients who could began to make their way towards the mess hall. Their chatter sounded far more like a buzz than a cacophony of voices. She attributed that to her fatigue and was grateful that the sound died down considerably as she approached Thomas’ tiny room. Knocking, Caroline paused and then went in.
“Evening, Thomas,” she said, closing the door behind her with her foot. “How are you doing?”
Thomas’ silence did not surprise her. Normally, it caused her a bit of concern that he wasn’t opening up to her or any of the other patients. Tonight though--and in light of the previous night’s incident--Caroline let herself appreciate it.
As she moved to put the tray on his lap, Thomas stopped her hand.
“I don’t want the food.”
Caroline’s brow furrowed. Thinking back to earlier that morning, Caroline couldn’t recall anything amiss with Thomas’ appetite. Or at least she hadn’t recognized anything wrong in those few minutes she lingered in the room. Now, she wondered if he’d eaten it at all. Looking around the room, her eyes fell on the lunch tray in the corner, brought this afternoon by another nurse, and saw that it was uneaten.
“Oh?” she said, doing her best to sound relaxed and unconcerned about this development. “I know you’re probably tired of pasta by now, but Richard makes a decent red sauce. Better than most of the others. And the peas are fresh from--”
“I said I don’t want the damn food!” he snapped.
“Why not?” When she received no response, Caroline sat next to him and tried again. “Thomas--”
“I don’t want to fuckin’ hear it! Just leave! Now!”
Caroline wasn’t sure if Thomas was trying to challenge her or if he actually wanted her to leave, but whatever the reason, Caroline didn’t budge. They sat in silence for several pregnant moments; she suspected that Thomas was trying to make it awkward enough that she’d decide to leave. However, she had no intention of doing so until she could examine his shoulder.
When she reached for his shoulder, Thomas jerked away. After a few more attempts on Caroline’s part, it became apparent that this was devolving into a game of cat and mouse. However, Caroline was in no mood to play.
What in God’s name has him acting like this? she wondered. He’s never had much of an appetite, but he’s never outright refused his meal.
Caroline supposed that sometimes patients didn’t feel up to eating, but somehow this didn’t feel like that . There was something about the way that Thomas held himself, the tension in his muscles and set of his jaw, that suggested there was something more. Had he received bad news in the post? Had a nurse said something to him? Perhaps another patient? Maybe he’d overheard something? Just as Caroline was about to give in and leave, Thomas spoke.
"I've spent the last few days alone in this room, reliving everything that happened to me before I got this fuckin’ injury. I eat and shit and sleep. That's it. This place is chaos, and I don't even know the half of it until some nurse comes in whenever she has the chance and tells me."
As she listened to Thomas, Caroline’s lips began to press together. Everything he said was true; there was no denying it. She didn’t envy Thomas’ position, but Caroline also knew that he was one of the minority of men here who might walk out of the hospital mostly whole.
“Just leave me to die, matron.”
With that, Caroline suddenly lost all patience and sympathy.
“Leave you to die? Leave you to bloody die ? Do you know how lucky you are, Thomas Shelby? How lucky that you still have your fucking life! I have spent the last God knows how many hours sitting with men as they died, their entrails spilling out all over the place. I held their hands as they screamed for their mums or their sweethearts or just anybody who might care. Men and boys are dying out there, and you’re choosing to moan and complain. Yes, you might not have your eyesight but you have two working legs! You can get yourself out of this bed and go outside! You can feel the sun on your skin, the wind on your face. So many of those men can’t anymore, Thomas, and honestly, you’re so fucking lucky!”
Caroline’s words were met with silence. When the blood finally stopped pounding in her ears, she replayed everything she’d just said to him. Dread crept up her spine, settling in her wildly beating heart.
What the hell did I just say?
“Thomas, I...” Caroline stood abruptly as her cheeks began burning. “I was...That was highly inappropriate of me. I should never have said such horrible things.”
Reaching out, Caroline grabbed the tray of medical supplies, her hands shaking and causing the metal to clatter about. She mumbled some sort of goodbye and hurried out the door.
As Caroline lay in bed that night, staring at the dark ceiling above her, her thoughts continued to drift back to Thomas, her belly coiling with shame. What would he do? If working in a hospital had taught Caroline one thing, it was that if a person truly wished to die, no amount of medicine could save them.