The muffled wails of the air raid sirens in the hospital above mingled with the plaintive cries of the children, crowded in the basement for safety. A few of the adult patients moaned. Most were silent and watchful.
Clara Cooper picked her way between the stretchers crammed together on the floor. She held a child closely to her chest. Despite the blanket folded around him, she could feel heat pumping off his body. He was burning up, poor mite.
‘Is this the last child from the Fever Ward?’ Sister Quilter said, taking the boy from Clara and laying him down in a makeshift cot. Her face was strained and drawn in the guttering candlelight.
‘Take my torch, go back upstairs and have one more check. You know they hide when the bombing starts. Be quick. It looks like it’s going to be us tonight.’ She pushed a torch into Clara’s hands.
As Clara hurried up the basement steps, the sound of the children crying was replaced by the wails of the sirens. In the distance she could hear the crump of detonations and the clatter of the ack ack guns out in the parkland behind the hospital.
The docks were getting a terrible hammering. It had taken out the power, plunging the hospital into darkness. People said Netley was safe because the Luftwaffe used the dome of the hospital chapel as a landmark to make their way up Southampton Waters. She hoped to high heaven they were right.
She stepped into the deserted corridor. It ran a full half mile along the east wing, wide enough to drive a truck along. What she wouldn’t give for a truck tonight. When darkness fell sea mist oozed from the fabric of the building and hovered above the floor, freezing her feet. The light from the burning city a few miles away flickered between the gaps in the blackout shutters, and cast a shifting fluorescence in the gloom.
Clara ducked as a blast rattled the shutters that covered the vast picture windows along the hospital front. A wave of adrenalin pinched at her diaphragm. That was closer than the city. The torch flickered. Cursing under her breath, she banged it hard on the palm of her hand. It sputtered into life, illuminating the corridor ahead. Eventually she reached the Fever Ward.
The beds glowed white in darkness. Moving along each side of the ward, she shone the torch beneath the beds before opening the cupboards behind the Sister’s desk. She checked in the sluice room, pointing the torch behind the doors, peering under the trolleys and stretchers. When she’d looked in every conceivable hiding place, she stood in the middle of the ward and called, ‘Hello?’
Her voice echoed bleakly, bouncing back at her from the high ceilings. She walked slowly towards the door, sweeping the torch around the walls and along the floor. She stepped out into the corridor. The barrage from the park paused.
In that moment of silence she heard a voice, far off, weak and high.
The ack ack started up again. It was impossible to tell where the cry had come from. Another lull. She strained her ears, her mouth open to deaden the sound of her breathing. Distant crumps and rumbles. There it was again. Very faint.
It hadn’t come from the ward behind. It was somewhere up the corridor, way off in the distance. She looked from left to right. Surely the other wards were checked and rechecked after everyone was evacuated. Was she the last member of staff left above ground?
‘Hello,’ she shouted. She thought she heard the cry again but it was her own voice returning, thinner, paler. She listened. Nothing.
Then she saw it. The outline of a figure in the distance, shimmering above the mist that coiled along the floor.
She lifted the torch and shone it into the gloom. The light melted into the thickened air long before it reached the small, insubstantial figure. A child, surely. It was hard to tell how far away it was but there was something wrong with the movement. She strained her eyes. Was it coming towards her? No, it was moving away. In a moment the figure would be lost from sight.
‘Wait,’ she called.
Still it receded.
‘Come back,’ she shouted, moving forward.
Between the rumble and thunder of the bombs, her footsteps echoed sharply around the walls, fooling her that other feet followed in her path, stopping when she stopped, hurrying when she hurried. Was that why the child ran? This building snatched at voices and tumbled them around, distorting the direction of her call, promising the child that salvation lay ahead.
Clara began to run. The light from the torch bounced in her hand. Her breath became ragged and panting, her ears ringing with the sharp click of her shoes.
Eventually she reached a wide stairwell which seemed to amplify the sound of the air raid. She distinctly heard a stick of bombs, the monotonous beat as each explosion came nearer than the last, building to a terrifying orchestral crescendo. She held her breath, felt her heart banging in the base of her throat. She stared up, waiting for the final one to hit the hospital.
It never came. Instead, an eerie silence washed through, followed by the faintest sound of footsteps limping up the stairs ahead. She was about to follow when she spotted something dark glinting on the steps. She played the torch on the drips and splashes disappearing into the gloom. It was blood. The child was bleeding. She called again, ‘Come back. Come here,’ and began to climb.
At each turn she expected to find it, wounded and afraid but the footsteps kept going, kept receding, up and up. She took the stairs two at a time until her thighs ached, and her chest heaved. How many flights had she come? When was this child going to stop?
Another stick of bombs. Detonations closing in. She crouched against the wall and covered her head. A mighty rumble passed under her, through her. The building shifted behind her as the shock waves poured beneath. The noise of glass shattering came from below. With a sound like the clatter of pebbles on the shore, the booming moved away, rumbling like distant thunder in the hills. A cloud of dust pushed softly up the stairwell. Plaster pattered onto her head and shoulders like light rain.
Lord, that was close. She ran her hand across her mouth. Her lips were dry and gritty. She rose to her feet on shaking legs. Her whole body was shuddering as if the shockwaves still vibrated in her bones.
If only she could turn and hare back down, helter skelter to the sanctuary of the basement, the comfort of other people, but if she felt this alone and afraid, what of the child, terrified and running headlong towards disaster? The pressure of her panic waned, as if drawn from her body by a needle. She had to go on. Courage washed into her veins like strong drink and she began to climb again.
The battery in the torch had dimmed to almost nothing. She banged the cylinder on the wall. The dim yellow light glowed fractionally brighter, illuminating the ground a couple of inches in front of her. She ran her other hand up the wall, feeling for the corner that heralded the top of each landing.
Two more flights, two more storeys. The bang of a door closing above her. She reached the top. No more stairs. The yellow glow of the torch picked out a door on the right. It was locked. The one opposite opened. She was in a narrow corridor, even blacker now. The darkness seemed to press on her from all sides, stifling her breathing which came in shallow pants.
She walked forward, feeling along the wall, the dying light of the torch finding doors, some open onto denser darkness, others shut. The smell of cordite was still in the air, mixed with the tang of antiseptic and a tomcat scent of fear.
She knew this place.
She heard a sound behind her and swung round. Her abrupt movement rattled the battery in the cylinder. The torch sprang to life. A face loomed out of the darkness.
She gasped and backed away. Dread clasped a cold hand around her throat. She began to shake uncontrollably, the light of the torch quivering and jerking in the gloom.
‘You,’ she said, her trembling voice barely a whisper.
Six months’ earlier
Clara strained her eyes into the milky distance, but in this vast mausoleum of a hospital, there was no hope of seeing where the corridor ended. The air had a strange thickness to it, turning the wall-lights a dirty yellow – the colour of spiders’ nests, she thought with a shudder.
Although the tall picture windows looking out over Southampton Waters were shuttered, she could hear the engines distinctly now. The tension in her chest subsided. It wasn’t German planes. It was ambulances. Dozens of them, driving up to the hospital.
When the front door came into view, she slowed. People milled around in the half-light, some crouching down, others bending. Cries and moans floated towards her. Someone screamed. Dozens of stretchers were laid on the ground, soldiers leaning against walls, faces bound with filthy bandages, makeshift splints lashed to legs. Her eyes darted from face to face, her heart accelerating as a catastrophic thought leapt into her mind. Frank could be here, lying in wait for her among the wounded. She had to get away from the wounded.
She pushed through the crowd and the smell hit her, pumping a fresh wash of panic into her chest. Unwashed bodies, oil, soot and the sickly sweetness of gangrene. The air was electric with pain, washing away the peace and purpose that had filled her for five glorious weeks.
‘Missing in action is kind way of saying dead,’ her roommate Joy had told her. ‘He won’t be coming back. Even if he does, this is the last place he’d look.’
But what if he was one of these smashed and damaged men? Incapacitated she’d have a chance to escape, but what if he was among the walking wounded? If he saw her, she was doomed. Two years of marriage to the man had taught her that there was no safety in a public place. He would eventually isolate her and wreak his vengeance on her for slipping away in the night, returning to the arena where he was king. His rage would know no bounds.
Looking out through the doors, she could see the front drive was filled with ambulances. Out there she could lose herself, scuttling around as if she was busy, hidden in the darkness. In the pools of light cast by the slit headlamps, soldiers stumbled towards her and she raked their faces, desperately trying to imagine what Frank might have been wearing when he went missing. It was hopeless. There were so many men. Their uniforms were torn and filthy, sand and oil still clinging to them, faces obscured by bandages.
Someone tripped on the step. She steadied him by the elbow.
‘Where have you come from?’
She freed him and he staggered on. She stared after him, wondering if she’d be safer inside. She could find Sister Price, volunteer to roll bandages and prepare dressings instead of taking the risk that she’d been seen without knowing it. At that moment a doctor leaned out of the back of an ambulance, looking desperately from left to right. He spotted Clara and called, ‘Nurse. Here. Quickly. I need someone to hold a light for me.’
‘I can’t. I have to report to Sister.’
‘Get over here.’
When she reached the back of the ambulance, the doctor was inside, kneeling next to a stretcher, resting a steadying hand on the writhing body. He looked up. ‘Grab that torch. I can’t get the line in.’
Clara climbed in. It wasn’t so much an ambulance as a converted bread van, cramped and difficult to stand in. There was a disturbing smell of charred meat in the confined space, mixed with a hint of aircraft fuel.
‘Bad burns I’m afraid,’ the doctor said, ‘I must get some morphia into him as quickly as possible. I can’t see a damned thing.’
She lifted the torch from the floor. The light fell on a blackened arm, twisting under the doctor’s hand.
‘That’s better. Now I can see what I’m doing.’ He tied a tight red band of rubber above the elbow and patted up the vein. ‘Aha! There you are,’ he said with satisfaction, reaching for the syringe.
Clara stared at the man on the stretcher. Frank? No, a pilot. The pressure in her head subsided and compassion flooded her senses. His hair was scorched across one side and his forehead had the imprint of the flying helmet burned into his skin. His hands were raw and bleeding, loose skin hanging from them like the inner membrane of an egg. His face was blackened and patched with weeping sores where sheets of white skin had sloughed away. His eyebrows and lashes were nothing more than melted beads and yet, behind his swollen lids, glistening with serum, two eyes stared up at her, pleading. Under the light of the torch, they glowed the colour of bright new pennies.
She knelt beside the stretcher and placed her hand on the charred fabric over the pilot’s chest. Her fingers felt something round and hard lying on the burnt cloth. A coin? No, a St Christopher on a chain. Poor chap. It hadn’t done him much good.
His rib cage pumped up and down. He moved his head to keep his eyes on her. She felt his breathing steady. The moans coming from his swollen lips stilled. His arm stopped writhing. The doctor looked up, a hypodermic syringe hovering over the bulging vein.
‘Well done, nurse.’ He returned to his work with a slight smile on his lips. The needle popped into the vein. The pilot’s gaze drifted away before his bulging lids folded down and closed.
‘Right,’ the doctor said, ‘we can get this brave fellow moved onto a ward.’
He shuffled forward, jumped down from the van and called across to a couple of orderlies. The doctor’s calmness and authority inside the cramped space of the van had given Clara the impression that he was a man of stature but when she climbed down and stood beside him, she was surprised by how short he was. No taller than me, she thought. The orderlies towered over him.
He checked the patient one more time and barked instructions at them. Then he turned to Clara. ‘Make sure the patient is specialled the moment he reaches the ward,’ and he strode off towards the next ambulance that was inching forward.
Here was her chance. The situation would be more controllable down on the Burns Unit than among the mass of milling wounded. She straightened her back and said confidently to the orderlies, ‘Follow me.’
She walked ahead of them up the steps and into the crush of people. As she looked from face to face, she spotted the crisp starched cap of Sister Price.
‘Where on earth have you been, Nurse Cooper?’
‘I was asked to assist one of the doctors outside, Sister.’
‘Outside? You were told to report to me immediately.’
Before Clara could reply, one of the orderlies behind her said, his voice straining with the effort of holding up the stretcher, ‘Which ward, Sister?’
‘Burns Unit. Obviously, but for pity’s sake, put the stretcher onto that trolley over there. You’ll never make the distance carrying him.’ Clara fell into step behind the stretcher. ‘Where are you going, nurse?’
‘The doctor told me to special the patient the moment he reached the ward.’
Sister Price glared at her. She was a slim woman with sharp features and clever green eyes which she now narrowed. ‘You specifically.’
She looked over Clara’s head and called, ‘Nurse Quinn. Follow that stretcher and make sure the airman goes into a side ward when he gets to the Burns Unit. I’ll be along shortly. And as for you…’ she continued, turning back to Clara, ‘A Voluntary Aid Detachment girl is arriving any minute.’ She checked the fob watch pinned to her chest. ‘She should have been here by now.’ She sighed heavily. ‘Tonight of all nights,’ she added under her breath. ‘Go outside and keep an eye open for her. She’s coming by private transport and needs to go straight to D Block.’
‘That’s correct, nurse.’
Female nurses were never allowed to work in D Block, let alone a Red Cross nurse, one that wasn’t properly trained. They were fine for dirty work – bedpans, blanket baths and changing dressings – but not on the top floor. That was completely out of bounds for women, not because it was the psychiatric wing but because the soldiers with venereal disease were also treated up there.
‘I didn’t think female staff were allowed to work up there,’ Clara said.
‘They’re not, and she isn’t. She’s having treatment. Now, get out onto that drive and wait for her to arrive.’