Summary: Robbie's limp gets noticed. This changes everything.
"Your left, guv'nor. It's your left side that's limping."
Private Robbie Turner's side was aching with each uneven step as he was mock-dragged between Mace and Nettle to avoid being pulled over by a higher up. The wound in his side was acting strange – or perhaps he was acting strange. He felt queer suddenly, a feeling apart from the hunger and thirst and exhaustion that was settling in.
The two corporals stopped abruptly. "Fuck me," Mace said quietly once they were out of sight of the lieutenant among the chaos of the beach. "He's actually hurt."
"It's just…" Robbie gasped, catching his breath. "Just a nick in my side, that's all."
"Just a nick if my side," Nettle taunted. "Come on, Turner. You're not getting home to crumpet if a piece of metal gets you first."
"You should have spoke up," Mace chided. "All that wine back at the barn a few nights ago. Could have used it as an antiseptic."
The private groaned in pain and futility. Of course it seemed so obvious now, but he hadn't wanted to appear weak in front of his company.
Robbie collected himself and looked up, weighing the reality of what Nettle said. "No wounded. That's what the captain said, the Navy chap. I can't be wounded."
Nettle rolled his eyes while Mace gave a hoot. "You've got two legs and two arms but you're only using half your brain. You look whole, and we'll get you on those boats. Look, there's a medic down there. Let's see what he has to say."
"No." Robbie said it as firmly as his vocal chords could allow. They were constricting as a lump grew, precluding tears. "No, they'll mark me wounded and leave me…"
"No, no," Nettle said soothingly. "The medic chaps, they're all right. No fucking Navy captain'll know. Mace and me," -he caught Mace's eye over Robbie's head—"We'll get you back."
The doctor on hand – a firm but compassionate man – had seen a lot over the past few days and was reticent to stop seeing patients despite a severe lack of a supplies. He couldn't suppress a gentle tut tut at the pussing wound the private showed.
"That's getting to be badly infected," he commented as he washed the area with whiskey. ("The only alcohol I could find.") "Sepsis or tetanus, and hopefully not both." He motioned to Mace and Nettle. "You, grab his feet. You his arms." To Robbie he braced simply, "This will hurt. Here, bite down on this." He put a damp rag between Robbie's teeth. "And I'll pull on three. One, two…"
The sock muffled the private's screams as the doctor expertly pulled out a small sliver of shrapnel from the wounded man's torso. He inspected it briefly. "I've seen bigger. But the real problem is in the oil and what else comes with it. Tiny, microscopic organisms get into your bloodstream or worse. Here, we'll get you set up with a drip and a transfusion - you're damn lucky, I've got just the two left." He cocked his head to the tent entrance. "You can wait for him out there if you'd like. I won't be needing your assistance now."
"I'm off," Mace announced the second they were out again. Nettle grabbed him by the lapel and twisted him by the ear. "Fuck!" he yelled. "What the hell do we owe him?"
Nettle lit a cigarette and offered it to Mace, who turned back around and leaned up against a truck that hadn't yet been set aflame. "Guv'nor walks us across the countryside, keepin' off the main roads, making sure we don't get our heads blown off by the Luftwaffe. You an' me – would've been blown to bits out there in the open. Somehow we get put with a toff-who's-not-a-toff who can walk us through every nook and cranny, avoidin' Jerries and Frogs better'n the rest."
Mace grunted in reply.
"Besides," Nettle said softly. "I don't want to be the one to break the news to the crumpet."
"Oh, come off it. Not really your duty, that."
Nettle looked over at Mace in disgust. "You'd watch him die and not let someone back home know? He carries those damn letters with him everywhere. If it were me own girl – "
"If you had a girl," Mace corrected, passing the cigarette back to him.
"Nevertheless, if it were me, I'd want to know someone did the right thing." He nodded to himself. "So we fix him up now and no one's the wiser."
Mace scoffed. "If I get left behind because of some private, you're a dead man."
Nettle inhaled the last of the cigarette. "Then let's hope he pulls through."
Robbie felt better and worse after the medical attention. Fear of being left behind, marked as a sick man, filled him with dread. They found a place to sit and Mace went to find someone to pass for food.
"Here's what we do," Nettle conspired. "If you feelin' lightheaded tomorrow, try to hide it til we get on the boats. The boys were saying we might have to stand in the water a bit. Try to lay low til then, save your strength."
Robbie nodded. He was lying down, his right hand holding his now-bandaged wound and the other his packet of letters. The doctor had warned he'd need further treatment as soon as they hit dry land ("You're on the verge of a bad septic attack, I'm afraid.") but that the extra blood and saline, plus a large dose of sulfanilamide, ought to keep him relatively stable until then.
"Once we're on the boat, it don't matter. Sway if you need to, you can even turn grey again. All we do then is call it seasickness, and we wait until Dover." Nettle stood over Robbie and looked him in the eye. "And in two days, probably less, you can stop looking at that damn postcard and look at a real girl again."
The wait on the beach was agonizing. The weather was fair but the sun offered Robbie no comfort. He was lost in his hazy thoughts, half aware at his raw side and increasing disconnection at the chaos around him. Slowly the day sank into night and he heard Nettle next to him announce, "Just a few more hours, guv. Then we'll be on our way." He hadn't heard Mace in awhile. Had he gone off and left him there? He didn't want to burden either of them, though he'd been trying to justify their actions by recalling how much they'd depending on him back in the field, despite his lower rank. He was only half aware when Nettle pulled his great coat over him and that it was now very dark.
It must be almost be June, he thought. They had walked all the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth. Now it must be the twenty-seventh. He had been so determined before, so determined to get back, but now his heavy head made him realize that it'd just prolong the date on his tombstone. Would he even have a tombstone, marking the end of his days? May 27, 1940. It seemed so early, too soon. He had plans.
"May 27th, 1940." He hadn't meant to say it outloud.
"That's right." Nettles voice was far above him now, though something wet and cool was poured down his throat. "The boats come today and we're off, private. Off to England." Robbie though of the boats he used to row when he taught in Lille. Would they hold everyone?
The next few hours passed in a blur. The sun came early, and to his utter disbelief there they were! Boats! Of all sizes, mostly destroyers, hundreds of yards out in the water.
"Stick by me," Nettle said in a low voice as they marched into the queue. "We're not leavin' you behind."
They waded into the water until it was hip deep. It seemed that thousands of men had appeared from nowhere – from the dunes and the houses all around Dunkirk.
"They won't fit," he heard himself saying. "There's not a chance."
"Just you wait now."
He was almost glad for his wound, for it made passing the time less of a worry and more of a state of mind. He thought about music and how he loved that one piece by Lizst. Would they be banning it? He remembered Grace saying that during the Great War they had banned German composers out of patriotism.
Oh Grace. He had completely forgotten about her. He wondered, if he didn't make it, who would know first, Cee or his mother?
"Run, private. You've got to run right now." Nettle was digging in his side and dragging him through the sea. Robbie's legs felt like lead and he couldn't fathom swimming that far or ever making it to the destroyer in front of him. "The crumpet, guv'nor, think of the crumpet. She'll never forgive you if you give out this close to home. Me either, that said."
Suddenly his heart felt light and he broke into a run, nearly tripping over the debris in the water. Her face appeared before him, dark curls popping out of her nurses' cap, pale face beckoning him. Come back. Come back to me. He passed a man's body in the water, back to the sky and his pale arms spread out around him. That wasn't him, and it wasn't going to be him. Come back, Robbie. I'll wait for you.
He couldn't keep her waiting. That thought alone got him to throw his legs over the edge of the gangplank at the ramp. He was vaguely aware of Nettle spotting him – such a good chap, how could he ever thank him?
"Christ, he looks a bit rough." Someone was walking Robbie through the ship until they arrived at a room with bright lights. A kindly, round face peered into his and spoke reassuringly, but he couldn't hear the words. Cool, clear water went down this throat, and the Robbie Turner felt nothing more.