We’ve reached Chapter Five! It’s actually sort of hard to believe I’ve been posting this story for five weeks now and that we’re half way through the story now :D. And, of course, the stakes are hopefully ever rising. Let’s get into it.
I learnt a lot during my first week in hospital. I learnt about English soldiers, I learnt about doctors and insanity, and I learnt a lot of English. I could understand simple conversations in English. At night, I would lie awake, warding off the nightmares by practising my English. By rehearsing how I would ask Nurse Ella Carter out to dinner. By imagining my next conversation with Simeon. When darkness overcame me and I gave up hope of ever seeing my family again, those dreams kept me alive.
I knew they were fantasies–that’s all they ever were. I couldn’t ask Ella out to dinner and I didn’t know whether I would ever see Simeon again. But Dr Roberts believed that shell-shocked soldiers needed rest and recuperation, and not entertainment. So I dreamt to while away the time. These dreams all had happy endings. The boy got home—without gaining any new bullet holes—and married a nurse whose smile healed every wound in the world.
But the dreams remained only that—dreams.
“Good morning, Alan,” Ella said, waking me one morning. “How are you?”
I smiled at her, like I did every morning, but she wasn’t expecting me to answer. “Dr Roberts wants to examine you today. He finds you quite interesting!” She laughed, plumped up my pillow, then glided to the next soldier.
I watched her as she moved about the ward with a fairy-like grace. From scraps of conversation, I managed to piece together the stories of the other men in my ward. Caleb Wallace was in the bed to my right. He’d suffered a severe brain injury from shrapnel lodged in his skull. Dr Roberts had said it was a miracle he was alive. To my left was Anthony Young, blinded by mustard gas and suffering shell-shock. When he was awake, he was friendly and often spoke to me in pantomime. At night, though, he screamed and thrashed in his bed, like a child tormented by nightmares. Next to Anthony was James Hill, who’d fought at Gallipoli, and then on the Somme, lost his leg and lost his mind. Finally, there was Thomas Malone, a cold man whose eyes were as blank as unwritten paper. He never smiled and rarely spoke.
They all made my heart ache. They were men who had returned from war alive, but tortured by their own memories, their own minds. Some of them, like Thomas Malone, were dead inside, even if their hearts continued to beat. Like them, my sleep rarely went uninterrupted, but I wasn’t dead inside…not yet.
“Come on, Bennett.” Dr Roberts voice startled me and I looked up at him. He met my eye, frowned for a moment, and then forced a smile. “I’m going to examine you.”
I had noticed that Dr Roberts talked to all his patients. Even those who, like me, he didn’t expect to hear him, and Thomas Malone, who never spoke back. I liked that about him. It made him appear kind and interested.
The orderlies laid me out on the operating table, and Dr Roberts began examining my wounded ankle. He seemed pleased with its progress, so he called a nurse to redress my wound. Then he moved on to examine my head, speaking to the nurse as he did so.
“I’ll operate on that ankle soon, Nurse,” he was saying, and I could understand a little of it, “I’m still afraid that it won’t heal. Will you be able to organise surgery for tomorrow morning, first thing?”
Dr Roberts dismissed the nurse, then sat down in a chair across from the table. He sat there for a long time, watching me, chin cupped in his hands. I was beginning to feel uncomfortable, frightened even, when he straightened up.
“War neurosis,” he said, his voice low and soft. “Shell-shock, that’s what they call it. What you have, Alan.” He fell silent again. “The therapists are trying all sorts of methods to fix it. They go as far as shooting those who suffer from it. But is it working?” he tipped his head on one side and a shiver ran down my spine as his blue eyes met mine. “Sometimes. But they’re going about it the wrong way. Electrocution won’t get them anywhere. Burning won’t help anyone. Maybe talking will.”
My hand was shaking, so I slipped it under my leg, pressing it flat against the tabletop.
“What did you see there? On the Front? What caused this?”
I resisted the urge to curl my fingers into a fist.
“Have your comrades died?” The compassion on his face made me want desperately to trust him. I found myself nodding in reply.
“You flew, didn’t you? You were in the Corps?”
I nodded again.
“Do you like flying?”
The urge to clench my hand was almost irresistible now, but I nodded.
Dr Roberts fell silent. “I knew you could hear me. Your friend thought you were deaf because you wouldn’t talk. But you aren’t, you’re just frightened.”
This produced another nod, and a sick feeling twisting in my stomach.
“So, I’ll keep talking to you. You’ll talk back one day, I know you will.” He got up from his chair, smiled at me, and opened the door.
That afternoon, Nurse Carter walked into the ward beside a tall, uniformed figure. I sat up as I recognised Ben Simeon. Nurse Carter laughed at my enthusiasm.
“Your friend is glad to see you!” she told Simeon, her smile dancing across her face.
Ben frowned at me, then he looked at Nurse Carter. “Would Alan be able to come for a walk?”
“Of course. I’ll bring a set of crutches and you only walk in the garden for ten minutes. Any longer than that and you’ll wear the poor fellow out.”
Five minutes later, I was hopping along in the hospital garden on crutches beside Simeon. The garden was empty of other patients, so in a low voice Simeon murmured, “Guten tag, Alan Bennett.” He put a special emphasis on my new name. “How’s your new self?”
I scowled. “I will go mad if I stay here much longer!” I told him. “Alan Bennett is such a….” I paused. “A dumm name. Why did you give it to me?”
“You need a good Brit’s name.” Simeon replied, shrugging.
I blew air through my teeth and let out a sharp whistle. “Fine,” I said. “But this inability to speak is almost killing me.”
“Remember,” Simeon growled. “If you dare utter a single word, you’ll be dead anyway. One word, I’ll be a traitor, you a German spy and both of us shot at dawn.”
I shivered, then I lowered my voice. “Dr Roberts…” My voice trailed off. “He talked to me. I don’t know…I don’t know if he suspects there’s something…odd about me. Do you think he suspects? The military police might have spoken to him, shown him my picture.” Without me realising it, my hand clenched at my side.
Ben Simeon shook his head. “No. The last thing in his head is you being a German solider. That idea is so foreign; no one will think of it.”
“But you did.” I decided against sharing my thoughts that if Simeon could come up with such an idea, then Dr Roberts could too.
“I’d say,” continued Simeon, ignoring my comment. “He has something else on his mind.”
“Like?” I ventured.
“He thinks you’re a deserter,” Simeon replied. “Which is almost as bad as knowing you’re a German.”
“What happens to deserters?”
“They’re shot at dawn,” Simeon said. “Deserters, cowards, traitors, spies… shot at dawn. Dr Roberts believes you are a deserter. Though what deserter would have the guts to hide from the MPs in an army hospital, I’ve no idea.” He shook his head, then went on. “But if Dr Roberts thinks you’re a deserter, feigning shell shock to the escapes MPs and avoid getting shot—”
“He’d be right about half of that,” I interrupted.
“—And if believing that, he calls the MPs and they come here, they could well recognise you for who you are. We can’t have that.”
“No,” I agreed. “It could be painful.” I paused, then added, “What do we do?”
“Nothing. There’s nothing we can do until we’re ready to smuggle you to France.”
“Mr Simeon, you are tiring out my patient!” Came Nurse Carter’s voice.
“Of course, Nurse,” he said, “I shouldn’t have kept him so long. Please accept my most sincere apologies.” He flashed her his most charming smile.
She pacified at once, but patted my arm, “Mr Bennett and I will see you next week.”
Simeon laughed, “I’ve got no leave for a few weeks yet.” He bowed with a gallant flair. “I’ll get myself out of your way now, Nurse. Goodbye.”
With that Simeon was gone, and Nurse Carter had me by the arm and was leading me back inside.
How’s things? Is my dear Wolfe still engaging you? What do you think will happen next? Do you ever make up stories when you’re stuck in bed?