There is just the two of us at the Military Forward Hospital Number Five, the brigadier and me, Senior Theatre Sister David Hackerby. Just the two of us to handle casualties starting next morning.
I get some water and ration packs from the supply hut and start cooking on the floor in ward two.
“Brigadier, beef and noodles, crackers, cranberries and coffee ready now.”
“Mr Hackerby, I haven't had field rations in years. Thank you.”
“It's going to be a heavy day tomorrow, you know that, Brigadier?”
“Yes, we'd better get some sleep, but first tell me about this hospital.”
I tell him about the civilian times and the start of the war. “At first there was no fighting around here. Everybody was bored – there were thirty of us, I was the only civilian, most of them hated it – boring and nothing to do. Most of them wanted to get back to Big City.”
“Without warning we got twelve injured one morning and the fun started. The enlisted men knew what to do, but most of the officers were hopeless – it was training on the job.”
“I remember one major who was worse than useless. He managed to kill some of the patients. He cut himself so badly one morning that I had to sedate him and sew him up; I also bandaged his legs together to prevent further trouble. I persuaded the colonel to transfer him back to Big City. Everyone cheered when he was carried to the chopper.”
“The colonel was a good man, a good cutter as we say. He could do the difficult stuff. It wasn't easy for him, the officers were a bad tempered collection of third rate medics – all they wanted was to leave, to be airlifted back to Big City.”
“The colonel went on leave for a week, it was chaos for two days until the officers chartered a chopper to take'em back to Big City. That left me with three nurse privates and a specialist – we had twenty wounded that week.”
“One of the privates made me a hat with Surgeon General on the front. We had no choice, I patched'em up as best I could. I removed an infected appendix, I had to, it was either do it and hope or watch the guy die in agony. We had used all the morphine and sedatives.”
“When the colonel got back he was livid, but there was nothing that he could do to get the officers replaced. The enlisted men left at the end of their tour of duty, but they were not replaced. There was just the two of us.”
“We had some luck, the fighting moved to another part of the country and we received very few injured. Life with the colonel was OK, as I said he was a good man, but there was one thing he objected to strongly. That I as a civilian ate army rations. I explained that I had not been paid for months, the banks are closed, the local currency is useless, US dollars only. I had to eat something, but he did not want to understand.”
“I have nothing, no money, no family, nowhere to live since my tiny apartment was bombed flat and no clothes – I wear army scrubs. All I got in my life is the hospital where I eat, work and sleep...”
“You're getting emotional, Hack. You are slowly losing your mind. D'yer know that?”
A visitor – a policeman comes pushing a wheelbarrow “I think it's one of yours, an officer.” I fetch a body bag, unzip it and the two of us unload the body into the bag. It is Colonel West.
I give the brigadier a form to fill out. “Cross out ‘110B Application Membership Officer's Mess’ at the top and write ‘666 Transfer Fallen Officer’ instead. Fill out his name and ID from his dog tags. No, don't remove one tag, leave'em be.”
“Rank is O6 for colonel. From address is Military Forward Hospital Number Five, Desert City. To address is Base Hospital, Big City. Cross out Hobbies and write Cause of Death: exposure and desiccation. It'll have to do.”
“Date it and sign it. Fold the form and tuck it into the transparent pocket on the body bag with his name and ID visible. And write his name and ID and date into this log book.”
We carry the bag to the cold room.
Late in the morning an armoured troop carrier brings two injured and two dead'uns. One of injured is screaming and covered in blood, the other has a stomach wound and is very quiet but awake.
The first is covered in small shrapnel wounds from a hand grenade, he was saved by the two men who had stood in front of him and are now in bags – he is covered in their blood. The second has lost most of his guts and will probably die soon. Triage is simple, we clean up the first guy, stop the bleeding, cut out the metal bits and sew him up.
The second guy gets some morphine. I talk to him, he is wandering in his mind and thinks that his mother is coming to see him.
Two more injured and five dead'uns arrive. The brigadier and me work until midnight to stabilise the two soldiers, they are badly injured. We have no time for the daily report on the military radio. The brigadier falls asleep. I talk quietly to the gutted soldier. He tells me about his mother, where she lives and what she will be wearing when she comes to visit him. “Then I'll get better.” He will die soon. I fall asleep on the floor.
I wake to the sound of screaming and sedate one of the badly injured soldiers. The gutted soldier has died in the night. It's bag time again. “It's form ‘666E Transfer Fallen Soldier’ for the enlisted men, Brigadier.” Breakfast is a funny selection of stuff – supplies are running low.
I stop working and sit down, seconds later a large emotional hammer hits me hard, I cry. I need to do something to cheer myself up and stop thinking.
I grab four metal spoons and attack the metal tubes on the end of a hospital bed. I've done this before – I played the xylophone at school. I play Ring-a-ring o'roses, hitting all four spoons for the last loud and low note. I play it again and everyone sings, even the brigadier.
Ring-a-ring o'roses, A pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down.
One more time.
Ring-a-ring o'roses, A pocket full of posies, A-tishoo! A-tishoo! We all fall down DEAD.
I cry uncontrollably.
It's 19:35 hours, I switch on the military radio and the brigadier makes the daily report: three patients, nine dead'uns, two members of staff. He reads out the names and IDs of the injured and the dead'uns. The operator in Big City says that a chopper should arrive in the morning to pick up the patients.
We're expecting a chopper at about 09:00 hours to take the brigadier, the wounded and maybe some dead'uns if the chopper is big enough to Base Hospital in Big City. I put on clean scrubs and prepare breakfast for everyone.
The brigadier puts on his dress uniform and goes to inspect the injured soldiers OR rather shock'em. They realise for the first time that the doctor who is treating them is a brigadier, a one-star general.
He declares all three stable enough for the flight. He warns them again “You can fly back to Big City, you feel OK, you feel almost fit. You're not. Don't move without my say so. Your wounds could burst open again and you could bleed to death...”
I help the soldiers into clean scrubs, the brigadier gets some ‘110B Application Membership Officer's Mess’ forms and creates three ‘665E Transfer Soldier’ forms and one ‘665 Transfer Officer’ for himself.
The chopper arrives, the brigadier and I help two of the soldiers to walk to the chopper and strap them in the back. The third soldier we carry on a stretcher.
“There's room for two dead'uns, I'll go and get...”
“No, get inside, that's an order, Mr Hackerby.”
I get inside and strap myself in next to the pilot. I've never flown in a helicopter before. It's very loud, I don't feel good, my stomach is uneasy, I look out the window. I never realised how beautiful the desert is.
The brigadier is in the back of the chopper tending to the injured, maybe he's enjoying the experience. I wonder if I'll ever see my hospital again.
“There's the airport, we are landing on the southern edge of it, at the military base. Hold on tight everyone, we're going down.” the pilot yells above the engine noise.
A small cloud of paramedics attack the chopper, they take the injured away on stretchers to ambulances, two of them help me out of the chopper and into a waiting car. I feel bad, I can hardly stand.
The brigadier gets into the car next to me. “Don't worry, you'll feel OK again in a few minutes. And look at this, I've brought the hospital radio code book with me.” I smile weakly. The driver in the front drives off. Where are we going? No idea.
I see an airliner landing, it is huge. We speed past empty fields and crawl to a halt after entering the city. It must be a street market, it is loud and colourful, there is much shouting, there is music, someone is singing. People are having fun, I've never seen so many people.
The brigadier speaks “These last few days have been a real experience for me. I've seen what really happens in Military Forward Hospital Number Five and rediscovered my surgical skills. I want to thank...” His voice fades away. Where am I?
I look down at my feet. Why? Are they still connected to the rest of me? Do I need to know that? I can see my feet, no problem, but nothing else. I can hear nothing, I can feel nothing, I can smell nothing, I can taste nothing, I can see nothing, just my feet.
I realise that I have gone over the edge.