The sun actually woke Charles on his seventh morning in the Royal Victoria Hospital; the Dover hospital that is actually located in Folkestone, six miles to the west. It was not a warm sun but was bright enough to penetrate his bandages and give his eyes their fist sensation of light since Loos. By now he was used to operating without his sight, under the strict understanding given to him by the doctors that his eyesight would return given time. So he sat up in his bed and waited for the day to begin. It began, not with a dawn choirs of birds, but with the man in the next bed waking; screaming from a nightmare. Charles could smell that he had obviously soiled himself. “Poor blighter,” thought Charles to himself, lying back down and turning away from the other beds, towards the door through which the day would come. He felt under his pillow for the small rectangle box that held his medal. He could not understand why, but admitted that it meant a lot to him. Promptly at 05.30 hours a metal medicine trolley bashed through the ward doors. This would have caused resentment if it was not been pushed by Sarah Bealen. She attracted everyone’s attention.
“How are all my brave fighters this fair morning?” she asked. “Tablets for everybody.” She based herself in the centre of the ward and worked in a counter-clockwise direction, so as to end up at Charles’s bed. She fed him a mixture of eleven tablets with a mug of tepid water. “How is my favourite medal winner today?” She was easy with him, used to the idea that he could not see her. Somehow, she still made the effort to look her best for him.
“All the better for hearing your voice, Sarah,” he answered, reaching for her hand. However, Sarah was checking his eye bandages, covering her hands over one eye and then the other.
“How are the eyes doing?”
“I can see some light and they are not hurting as much.” He moved his hands over hers and, when she started to remove them, he held them tightly, and pressed them to his lips. “Someday I will get these blasted bandages off and then you’ll have to look out. The monster will be released!” He gurgled a laugh through his damaged larynx. He laid his head back with a deep breath. She stood and leaned over to kiss the bandage on his right eye.
“That’s a deal, Charles. Until then, you just do as you’re told. Listen to your doctor and to me of course, as we want your recovery as much as you do.” She pressed his hand again and pushed her medicine trolley out of the ward. That afternoon, the patents were helped into wheelchairs and taken onto an outdoor terrace. They were entertained to a concert by a Brighton and Hove quartet. It was pleasant in the windless sunshine and gave Charles time to think. Thinking of course, meant thinking of Sarah Bealen. His imagination insisted on filling in the blanks that existed by his lack of eyesight. He was determined to regain his sight and to reward Sarah for all the help and support that she had shown him. Without even realising it had happened, he was wishing to present his personal angel to his parents. But what could he tell them? Practically nothing. He knew her name but not where she was from. By her voice, he was guessing North England, but she could even be a London girl, for all he knew. Her age? He would guess mid-twenties, but she could be younger. Looks? He was still using the actress Pauline Chase as her template. He hated his damn eye bandages.
Each morning and evening Sarah would spend about five minutes with him. Mainly small talk, as she was aware that the other patients could hear every word. Then came Thursday, when she and nurse Mae Clark, from HMS Salta had to give the ward bed baths. As things turned out, everything worked in Sarah’s favour. Mae took her aside, before entering the ward.
“If it’s not an inhibition, Sarah.” She seemed unsure of herself, but with Sarah’s encouragement came out with her request. “I would like to look after Captain Thomas Harper. I feel a real tie to him since the ship and we’ve had little chance to talk.” Sarah could not believe her luck, and said simply,
“No problem, Mae. You do the right-hand side and I’ll look after the left-hand beds.” Delighted by that, they entered the ward. Sarah admitted later, to herself, that she was aroused by the prospects of bathing Charles Huffington. It was surreal as, due to his lack of sight, the sense of touch was elevated. She whispered into his ear about what was going to happen. “I have to bathe you, Charles. I want you to relax as much as possible and dream away to your happy place.” She was putting the bowl and towels on his bedside table. When she had filled the bowl with hot water, she let it cool for a few minutes. She continued to talk.
“I will be changing your eye bandages, Charles and bathing them. We will do each eye separately. Don’t try to use them, as you won’t be able to and it will frustrate you and cause you pain.” She lifted one of his hands to her cheek saying, “let your fingers paint the picture.”
Charles tentatively moved his fingers over her face; high cheek bones, almond eyes and broad lips. “Eye colour?” he asked in a guttural voice.
“Blue, Charles.” She started to detach the left eye bandage as he ran his fingers gently through her hair. “Auburn,” she volunteered, before he could ask. She took the moistened flannel and started to timidly wipe his eye, from the nose out to the ear. Once, twice and three times she wiped, while he kept it closed and his fingers in her hair. Sarah carefully patted dry the eye with a hand towel, before attaching a fresh patch over it. “We can rest for a moment if you like,” she told Charles, leaning in to blow softly on the newly covered eyelid.
“No, continue please.” Sarah addressed his right eye with equal gentleness. Then she used the flannel to wash his ears, face and, with extra care, his throat and neck. She continued to undo and remove his pajama top, despite him wrapping his arms around her neck. She washed each arm and hand; drying as she went. She placed his hands in his lap as she started to wash his chest and stomach. She allowed her right hand to work independently of the flannel, massaging his fair chest hair. She helped Charles to roll onto his side, so that she could wash his back. When she had dried off the back, she paused again. He rolled onto his back once more and placed his hands onto her nurse’s waist belt, making her shuffle nearer to the head of the bed.
“Your home, town?” He strained, but was becoming used to the pain associated with trying to speak.
“Carlow in Ireland,” she supplied, beaming an unwitnessed smile. Charles half laughed.
“I wouldn’t have ever guessed.” Pause to breathe. “An Irish lass, with auburn hair and blue eyes. Freckles?”
“A few,” she said, laughing lightly. She moved to replace his hands in his lap, but he resisted. She glanced around the ward, and saw nurse Clark by Harper’s bed. She was sitting on the edge, her back to Harper, with both her hands under the blankets, washing his lower half. He was staring at the ceiling with a glazed expression on his face. Sarah turned embarrassingly back to Charles. “Captain Huffington seems entirely capable of washing under the blankets for himself,” she said, forcing the flannel into his hand. She went to rise, but he held her hand and gaze.
“Sarah please.” She relented, letting their fingers intertwine. “You have bewitched me with your Irish charm, you know that?”
“It’s you that has enchanted me, my gallant knight in shining armour.” She studied his face. Nose had been broken and badly set, giving it a Roman profile out-of-place on his broad Anglo-Saxon head. Laughter from behind her informed her that Mae and Thomas had finished their bath time. She used it to finally end the invisible link, which had held her to Charles. She stood and leaned in to kiss his forehead. He was quick enough to grab her ears and lower her mouth to his. She practically fell onto him and would recall later that night, that she had distinctly felt his tongue against her lips and teeth. She quickly got back up, blushing and grabbing the trolley for support. She straightened her uniform and pawed at her fringe.
As she left with Mae, she shouted to Charles over her shoulder, “Look after my flannel, Captain Huffington. I’ll be back for it later!” Wearing the broadest grin that Charles had had in months, he threw the flannel into the air, allowing it to fall back unchallenged, across his face. “Who would have believed it?” he said aloud. “Sarah is bloody Irish.”
Sarah and Charles were informal and relaxed in each other’s company after that bath. Charles told her all about Wombourne and his childhood there. In reply, Sarah reminisced about Carlow and her Irish upbringing. They laughed and, if the time spent touching is to be a gauge, they were moving continuously closer to a romantic affair. As Charles was to forget, the first time that Sarah kissed him back was on October 23rd, after she had heard that the hospital’s current patients were being relocated, prior to the arrival of a new batch of front line casualties.
“Your marching orders, Captain.” She said, sitting on his bed and kissing him lightly. She handed over the transport sheet that she had borrowed from the nurses’ station, explaining what it said.
“Where are they sending me? What about you, are you coming too?” He pawed her tunic, trying to get at the knee underneath. She giggled and held his hand back on his own knee.
“That’s the wonderful thing, Charles. General Rawlinson’s chic from Calais was never rescinded, so I guess where ever you go, I am obliged to follow.” They laughed heartily and Charles allowed his hands to outline the curves of her breasts for the first time.
“Farming stock,” he said, running his fingers back and forward. “These damn bandages!” She allowed him to play a little, trilling at the interest that he was showing in her. Then she stood and in her most official voice she told him to remember his position. Still, as she turned to collect the contents of his waste paper bin, he fondly grabbed her right buttock and squeezed. She left the ward in a giggling fit. There was a lot of fuss in the ward as the move got nearer, and they hardly saw each other for the rest of the month. Endless paperwork kept Sarah tied to the nurses’ station and she only got to stick her head in and blow him a kiss while passing.
On November 1st, a military train arrived at Dover’s Priory Station and was positioned on a siding. It was different from the normal passenger train, having most of the seating removed and wooden benches installed, which stretchers could be strapped to. At noon that day, patients started to be transported, beginning with the amputees. It was late afternoon before they came for Charles Huffington. Two Geordie porters displayed none of the bedside manners that Charles had gotten used to under Sarah’s care. After a very uncomfortable journey to Priory station, he was subjected to even more juggling, making him feel like a piece of un-valued luggage. He ended up strapped to a top bench in the ninth carriage out of twelve. Once they left, he lay there moodily regretting that Sarah had not bothered to see him off. Sarah had in fact arrived at the train with the second ambulance and had been kept busy in the front carriages. It was past midnight before she could get enough time to search for him. She ignored the draw of sleep and moved through the train, staring into all the faces that were caught by her smile. When she saw him, he was actually asleep. She blew on his face, which had become her call sign, and his expression showed that he recognised her presence. Even as they exchanged cliché greetings, a military police corporal interrupted, asking Sarah to return to the front carriages. Despite her best wishes, she ended up getting much-needed sleep before she was awoken again, at Brighton, the first stop where carriages were being disconnected from the main train, to continue their journey west. Charles, delighted just to know that she had made this train dreamed of her and announced, if only to himself, that he wanted her around.
to be continued