From the author again: Once more, please find the German translations used in this chapter in the end-note. I haven't included them for every phrase I've used because a number of them are translated in the text. If you'd prefer a comprehensive list, drop me a line and I'll make one up swiftly. Thank you for reading.
Becoming our role, and first engagements
Morning came slowly to the camp on the hill. Lit up by a swathe of golden light, the wheat fields rolling their lazy way across the land seemed to shimmer as a soft breeze caught through them and caused the stalks to sway and clatter. The air was fresh and the camp, still suffused with the deep night's hush, woke gently to the break of the day. For the most part at least. Within the nurses' quarters, all was decidedly not well. A fit was in the midst of being pitched.
"She must be joking!" Rose exclaimed for the third time in the scant five minutes since she had read through Ms Taymar's edicts. She paced the length of the room, a twenty-foot by twenty-foot box with a bed in the top and bottom corners on the right hand side, one hand holding the note from the matron, the other knotted in her hair holding it back from her face.
"I don't think she is dear" Sally said, staring at herself in the small mirror hanging over the wash basin in the left and topmost corner of the room. Her back to the door, and to Rose, she glanced down at her copy of Ms Taymar's instructions and began re-reading that which was causing her friend such grief.
'In order to prevent the spreading of li-'
"I WILL NOT CUT OFF MY HAIR!" Rose howled defiantly, her volume making her friend jump and turn to her as she tossed the paper to the ground and stamped on it with a bare foot. Sally watched her display with a mixture of amusement and concern. It couldn't even be an hour past dawn yet. The way she was going, Rose would wake half the camp!
"It's a preventative measure" she put in quickly, trying to reason with her rancorous companion "to keep the threat of lice at bay." Met with a scandalised glare she went on, guessing at the reason behind the order. "We're new in the country, off a ship full of soldiers and rats. Can you blame the matron for wanting to make sure we aren't lice-ridden before letting us near patients?"
"I do NOT" Rose bit out from between clenched teeth, "have LICE!"
"Well nor do I!"
"Then why are we debating this!" The list was picked up and brandished by she who once again took to pacing to and fro as Sally watched. Bemused, the seated woman spoke up.
"I don't understand your problem with it" she huffed, turning away from her to rummage through the draws of the small cabinet the washbasin sat upon. Within the slender pair she found numerous items for personal grooming that had kindly been provided for their stay. Brushes and combs, even plain and sturdy hair clips were on hand, as well as an item that, when she saw it, convinced Sally that the matron had thought to facilitate the undertaking of her orders, not just to see them issued. Cautiously, she fingered the bone-handled implement, listening with one ear to Rose's grumblings and her angst-driven stomping. Contemplating her next move.
She could empathise to a point with her friend's horror at the thought of being shorn. Though Sally had learned through sharing quarters with her during their trip across the sea that outward expressions of femininity concerned Rose much more than they did her, the prospect of losing her hair to the cause did not light mirth or joy in her soul. She did, however, understand the need for minimising the risks of lice outbreaks. It would be another problem, were one to take place, put upon an already stretched medical facility. One which they could not afford.
Resolved, Sally squirreled the bone-handled implement into her lap quickly. "It's just hair Rose" she said, glancing over at her before turning back to her reflection in the mirror. She was decided. If it would take seeing it done to get Rose onboard, so be it.
"It's not JUST anything it..it's..Sally, what're you doing?" Her tone changed from outraged to curious to horrified as she watched her counterpart unfold what turned out to be a straight razor. "Don't you come near me with that!" she yelped, backpedalling quickly as the blade was raised.
"I'm not about to chase you with it, you silly thing" Sally huffed, reaching up to wind a lock of hair about her forefinger. She tugged it out to its full length, set the edge of the razor to it and sheared it away cleanly, watching as it fluttered down into the basin. Her gaze remained upon it for a number of breaths before she again looked at herself in the mirror, noting that a fine clump was missing now from above her right eye. She raised a hand and fluffed at what remained with her fingers, feeling the odd sensation of unevenly cut short hair prickling her skin.
At length, she blew a soft breath through her nose and concluded that, while strange, it certainly wasn't as mortal a thing as Rose seemed to think it would be. Tilting her head slightly as she regarded her reflection, she selected another lock, tugged it to full stretch, raised the blade again, and then cut it away. It's not as if she could stop now that she'd started.
Behind her Rose gaped, horrified.
"You'll end up bald if you carry on that way!" she said, coming forward and fretfully hovering at Sally's back as she lopped away, never once breaking eye contact with herself in the mirror.
"Don't be silly" came the preoccupied response, spoken amid a flurry of cuts and a rain of shorn hair. "I'm leaving enough to run a brush through."
Rose despaired. "You could run a brush through half an inch!" she said, wringing her hands at the thought of having so little hair left upon her head. She wasn't so childish that the thought of losing a gathering of inches perturbed her, but to lose anything more than three quarters of the length she had, the manicured ends of which touched the small of her back at present, was just ungodly.
"Exactly" Sally replied, half of her head now left more or less covered by little more than an inch of gently curling blonde fluff. "It's out of the way and very easy to keep clean."
With a huff Rose turned from the butchery taking place before the mirror. "You're mad" she said, throwing up her hands and making her way back to her bed. She had remade it after her night's sleep and had, prior to reading Ms Taymar's note, laid out her uniform neatly. Returning to it now, she rubbed a corner of the bluish-grey material that made up the majority of the practical dress between her fingertips to test its quality.
As well as the dress, they had each been provided with a white apron and a cap to keep their hair back, and in picking up and slipping on the latter Rose concluded that she could spare herself the Sally-with-a-razorblade treatment and keep her locks at shoulder length without them being burdensome. She had seen this Ms Taymar woman the night previous, and she certainly did not have nought but fluff upon her head. If it truly was the fear of lice that precipitated the order to clip their hair, she would not go to Sally's lengths unless the matron also did.
While her companion was dutifully absorbed by the mirror, Rose took the opportunity to make for the stove-room Dr Hall had mentioned the night previous. She wanted to wash before changing into her uniform and said so to Sally before cracking open the door and peeping out into the hall beyond. Thanks to the various shades of white that decorated the walls, the morning light that crept in through the windows seemed doubly bright compared to the candlelit and curtained dim of their quarters. Glancing to the right and then out along the corridor towards the ward, Rose found not a soul out to wander. She answered her counterpart's distracted, "Bring me back a pail, please" with a nod, missing the conspiratory grin she spoke it through before tiptoeing quietly, cautiously, into the hall.
Gathering her skirts to curtail their propensity for rustling, she made haste to the stove-room, betraying herself and her cautious approach when her curiosity was piqued by muffled voices from within the ward. She pressed herself lightly against the door to listen better, and heard fractured details regarding where the nurses with whom she and Sally had travelled were heading when they moved out with their respective contingents. Feeling the need to, she devoted a moment to pray for their safety before going about her business and easing open the door between corridor and stove-room.
A wall of heat hit her as soon as the door swung open and she squinted against it, letting out a discomforted 'Uhffff..' as she entered and approached the wide open-bellied stove at the back of the room. It was stone made from top to bottom and was heating, upon a metal grill, four bubbling pots of water. Above these two of these pots, hung across two wide-set horizontal poles, bed sheets were in the process of being cleansed by the rising steam.
Not wanting to pilfer water that was already being used, Rose took up a wooden pail and dipped it in the last pot, hefting it clear and earning a face full of steam for her trouble. She repeated this with a luckily found second pail, remembering Sally's request, then made slightly wobbly haste back to their quarters. Weighed down with a pail in each hand and finding it necessary to keep to near silence in her travels, appearing graceful was, at this moment, the least of her concerns.
Once she returned she gave the room her back briefly to nudge the door closed properly, and it was then, in that moment of inattention, that Sally struck.
"Rose!" she called, her voice purposefully made deep and commanding.
The woman yipped with fright at the sudden commotion, turned to look at she who had called to her, took a pause of three seconds to comprehend quite what she was looking at, then almost dropped the pails laughing. Sally stood between their beds, arms crossed over her chest, her shorn head tipped back proudly, feet apart, in her ragged travelling dress with a lock of her own hair caught between her curled upper lip and her nose. Clearly she had been waiting for Rose's return.
"I!" she proclaimed, raising a finger in an authoritative manner, "am Henry Barmouth! And I declare that you!" She pointed at Rose with her once raised finger. "Little nurse, will call me SIR!"
Sliding down the wall, the pails just about saved from crashing down with her, Rose laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks and Sally, her act over as soon as that last and strident 'SIR' left her lips, collapsed along with her.
"Sally!" Rose wheezed, dragging herself upright enough that she could see her friend's crumpled form where she had fallen cackling against her bed, "He doesn't even have a moustache you mad thing!"
"But God he SHOULD have, Rose!" Sally laughed. "He SHOULD have! It might cover that spiteful face of his and make it more-"
"Shhhhhhhh!" Rose hushed quickly, crawling over to her friend's side and gathering her into an embrace that she easily returned. "If he hears you.." she snickered, wiping the other woman's cheeks free of mirth-brought tears.
"He'll what?" Sally laughed, holding the lock of hair she had fashioned into a crude facial adornment up over Rose's top lip and falling prey to another brief spate of cackling before regaining enough command over her faculties to opine, "Curse me with his spitefulness?"
"You could lose your place here, silly.." her briefly-tashed friend replied, a flicker of concern brought by that thought stealing across her face as she tried in vain to straighten the wear-and-tear-skewed collar of her companion's dress. "Then where would I be?"
Still chuckling softly, Sally smiled at her friend's words. "You'd be here" she said jovially, unperturbed by the thought of being exiled for her humour. Had she been caught by the man she had parodied she would have been contrite, but now, safe in her anonymity, she revelled in her cheek. It was well meant really. That Barmouth fellow, with all his finery and his painted-on smile, deserved a little ribbing.
"And I" she continued, "would have a pleasurable cruise back to London in the hold of a frigate! Without the panicked rush to learn a language to ruin it this time."
"Oh honestly" Rose scoffed fondly, rolling her eyes and dragging Sally to her feet once their laughter had properly abated.
They parted then, to opposite ends of their quarters to bathe in privacy, backs turned, before changing into their uniform blues and whites and eyeing each other critically. They spent minutes fixing and primping, ensuring a proper fit and presentation before once again parting ways, Sally heading out to the ward as Dr Hall had instructed the night prior, while Rose attended to her hair by the mirror.
Both foresaw a mass of work ahead.
Neither was mistaken.
By the time Sally made it onto the ward that morning, the visiting nurses had long departed for their posts elsewhere within the State. As soon as she had stepped within the room Dr Hall, after having performed a double take of surprising force at the state of her hair, tasked her, since they had no patients to see to at present, with both cleaning the room from top to bottom to ready it for receiving the inevitable wounded, and with restocking the cupboards which sat between the operating room's outer wall and Ms Taymar's bed. They had been arranged there, the doctor told her, to discourage the soldiers from stealing supplies. The Oberschwester could be a frightening woman when she wanted to be, he said, and the thought of incurring her wrath deterred all but the most foolish.
Having met the woman as soon as she entered the room, Sally both could and couldn't fathom how she had earned such a reputation. She had a severe cast to her, certainly, but she was also kindly, industrious and quick witted with an infectious laugh and perceptive, wise eyes. She couldn't have been older than forty, but her presence felt ancient and commanded respect.
So struck by this was Sally that, when a chore took the matron from the room for a time, she asked Robin about it. His reply was spoken through a knowing smile.
"Tell me this" he said, handing over the next crate of supplies to his curious nurse. "Knowing Ms Taymar as you do, would you steal from these cupboards?"
"What?" Sally spluttered, scandalised. "Never."
"Exactly" Robin replied. "Never mind how it works. It just does."
With that in mind and glad of the leave she had been granted to resupply the Oberschwester's coveted shelves, Sally found herself, at around noon and after the ward was spotlessly clean, knelt between open doors, her head and both hands well within the cupboard she was stocking. Blind to the room, she did not notice the arrival of company until, reaching back for another item to add to the shelf she was working on, she felt fingers touch her own; their owner passing her the very thing she had sought.
Assuming her helper was either Dr Hall or Rose, Sally forgave them the start she got from the unexpected contact and spoke a companionable "Thank you" as she sat the item in its place and extricated herself from the cupboard's depths carefully. Straightening, she turned to add a smile to her thanks, but ended up gifting it to neither of the persons she expected to. Instead she found herself being rather shyly looked upon by a tall and rangy young man who was clad quite formally in deep blues and crisp whites. Not knowing him by sight, Sally consciously warmed her demeanour and set about making him feel welcome.
"Hello there sir" she said, conjuring her most sincere and pleasant smile. "May I help you?"
The response she got drained that warmth from her almost entirely.
"Hallo Schwester" he said, shifting his weight from foot to foot while trying his best to tamp down the cotton-mouthed unease new people, particularly new female ones, always brought out in him. " Willkommen im Camp."
The moment between those words and his next lasted an eternity for Sally. Inside, behind her newly shocked expression, her nightmare situation seemed to have come real. Here was a soldier, obviously a Hessian one, who could well have come to her seeking assistance and she, unpractised she, could barely understand enough of his language to render whatever aid it was he needed.
Before the panic could send her into a hyperventilation fit however, she realised that, unlike in her imagined nightmare, she had understood almost everything the young man had said. The word 'Schwester' was a mystery for now, but the rest she puzzled out with minimal trouble.
'Hello [Schwester]. Welcome to camp.'
That realisation brought the warmth back to her in a rush. She had caught those words! Had understood them! And damn it all if she wasn't about to thank him for the welcome in his own tongue when he spoke again.
"Ich heiße Thomas" he said through that same shy smile, patting himself on the chest to aid comprehension.
"Thomas.." Sally repeated, enraptured by the fact that she actually understood what he had told her. True, these words were simple. The most basic things Dr Hall's notes had taught her and Rose, and those which, through practicing with each other, they had learnt most quickly. And yes, the word 'heiße', like 'Schwester', was new to her. But it was a start! Here she was, weeks after her rushed practice in the bowels of a Frigate, being spoken to by a Hessian in his native tongue. And she was confident enough in what he was telling her to reply.
"Hallo Thomas" she said, trying to mimic his intonation while giving a polite curtsey. He grinned at her, bowing from the waist in response, and she actually managed to laugh around her introduction, "I..ich bin Sally."
"Hallo Sally" he mimicked, doing his level best to imitate her intonation. His 'S' came out as a 'zzz' and turned her name from 'Sally' to 'Zally', but that was nothing to complain about in her book. Here was progress! Here was comprehension! And a chance to flex her very..very..limited mastery of German with a seemingly willing and, more importantly, seemingly jovial native speaker. Her hands shook with nerves, and she knew, just knew, that she was butchering the words she said with her foreign accent and lack of experience, but she tried her best regardless.
"Yes, er..Ja, Hallo" she began, flushing at having stumbled at the first hurdle and gathering the scant few words she knew together into a somewhat coherent message.
"Ich...ich spreche nur ein...bisschen Deutsch" she managed, repeating the phrase she and Rose had worked on learning as a kind of shield against unintelligible barrages of unfamiliar words. They had decided against saying, 'I don't speak any German' to German people IN German right from the off. It was simply a contradiction of logic to say such a thing while speaking the language you profess to be unable to speak at all. Thus, 'I can only speak a little German' was Sally's introductory phrase of choice, and her recently arrived companion gave an understanding nod, seemingly glad both for her honesty, and for the fact that she was speaking in his mother tongue.
Shifting a little on the spot, much as Thomas had moments before, she raised a hand and made an inch between her thumb and forefinger, adding "..sehr wenig.." or 'very little' with entirely honest embarrassment and receiving, for her attempt at humour, a quirked grin and a huff of laughter.
"Aber.." she added quickly, wanting to get all of the pre-learned 'I'm new to this language, have mercy' phrases out of the way before her seemingly highly entertained company could interject and throw off her stride.
"Aber ich...ahh...Aber ich versuche zu lernen."
The words, declared with finality and punctuated with a pleased nod, were an expression of the wish to learn more of the language that was giving her trouble. They came out in a bit of a rush, but were intelligible enough that they merited a returned nod and another quirk of the lips from her Hessian guest.
The effort she was putting forth was rewarded most unexpectedly then, for when he next spoke it was in direct answer to her words. A continuation of their rickety conversion.
And it was in English.
"Und..ah..I" he said, a hint unsure of his words at first but brightening when Sally's face lit up in recognition. He copied her mimed inch with his forefinger and thumb, finishing his thought carefully, "speak..little..Englisch..also."
So pleased was she by his attempt, and lacking the language skills to tell him properly, Sally beamed for his effort and clapped her hands lightly in appreciation, delighting in the rakish smile she was given in return. She drew breath to praise him in English, regardless of his professed lack in proficiency, when a third voice echoed across the room,
The poor man snapped to so quickly he almost tripped himself up, turning with all haste to see the curious though stern figure of Dr Hall emerging from the operating room. Sally turned sharply to face him also, cheeks flaming, and favoured him with a polite and, given his station as her direct superior, intrinsically necessary curtsey. She was about to greet him verbally, but was beaten to the punch by Thomas.
"Hallo Herr Doktor!" he enthused, covering his embarrassment at being caught engaging one of the nurses in conversation without any real reason but curiosity with exuberance. "Wie geht es dir?"
"Mir geht es gut, Thomas" Dr Hall replied without missing a beat. He watched the startled pair closely for a brief moment, wary from long experience of the overtures soldiers have a habit of making towards women in encampments such as this. Regardless of the fact that he knew Thomas well, and was certain that his reason for lingering on the ward was purely innocent, he was and always would be protective of his nurses.
Satisfied that he had made his presence felt, Robin gave the flustered soldier a pointed though not unkind look. "Lassen Sie in Ruhe, Junge" he said, nodding towards double doors at the far end of the ward. Vaulting the railing had been Thomas's favoured mode of entry into the triage since he first arrived in the camp, and he made his exit the same way after giving a deep bow to the still flushed lady and bidding both she and the doctor a hasty, and very English "G'bye!"
Shaking his head fondly, Dr Hall turned his attention to Sally, saying, "I do hope our Thomas didn't give you a fright. He's made it his mission to get to know the staff here as they come and go."
"Oh..Oh no, not at all" Sally replied, trying to rub the blush from her cheeks with her palms. "It's just that I'd never..never had the opportunity to..ah.." she gestured between herself and the direction of Thomas's escape. Robin understood.
"To speak German with a German" he said.
"Yes" Sally spoke through a sigh, her shoulders slumping slightly with relief at their being on the same page. Robin 'hmmm'd' knowingly.
"I understand the feeling" he said, stooping to pack away the last of the supplies Sally had been putting to inventory when she had been interrupted. Though she fluttered at his back, uneasy about her task being taken over by he who had first given it to her, the chore was done too quickly for her to help further.
As Dr Hall stood again and closed the cupboard doors, Sally's curiosity got the better of her.
"If I might ask, doctor.." she began, waiting for the return of his curious gaze and his nod of assent before continuing. "You called him, 'Our Thomas'. Have you known him long?"
Robin answered as he steered Sally into the operating room. More supplies needed inventorying and two sets of hands would cut through the work in half the time. "Thomas arrived here about four months ago" he said, sorting through the various bottles of herbs and unguents festooned across the operating table.
"He's only a young man, as you could probably tell by looking at him. Barely nineteen years old, and half way across the world from home fighting a war between countries that aren't his. He was in here wounded not three days after his arrival, and was transferred, after that, from the platoon he came here with to the home guard."
"Home guard?" Sally asked, sorting the vials Dr Hall passed to her into alphabetical order based on the labels affixed to their sides.
"Hm? Oh yes. The garrison based permanently at this encampment, that guards it and its close surrounds" Robin clarified, squinting at one vial in particular before handing it off to his curious assistant and taking up another. "Because we're quite the sizeable outpost, we need a standing guard in case we're discovered. So far we've been lucky. Two raids in almost a year is not bad going."
"Not bad at all" Sally had to agree, frowning faintly in thought. Something Dr Hall had said of Thomas caught in her mind as she packed the bottles she had sorted into their stand ready to be transferred into the cupboards lining the far wall.
"Is it rude of me to be curious over how Thomas came to be injured when he first arrived?" she asked. "I only ask because you mentioned raids and-" falling silent when Robin gave an amused chuckle and passed her another set of vials to sort, taking those she had packed neatly away and setting them in their appropriate place in the cupboard. When he'd arrived he had removed the front panel of each of the cupboard doors, allowing him to reach within quickly in an emergency without having to pull open doors and search when time was against him. The frames remained in place for sturdiness more than anything, and formed a handy barrier which stopped haste-quickened fingers from tipping entire rows of vials onto the floor.
"He'd fallen off his horse" he explained, returning to the table once he was happy with the first stand's placement. "Came in covered in cuts and with a badly bruised hip. He was lucky he didn't break anything honestly. We, Ms Taymar and I, feared he had done, for he couldn't walk right for a good four days after the accident."
"Good Lord" Sally gasped, "A break that serious would have surely killed him."
"Yes" Robin agreed, "He's a very lucky boy."
Giving a nod, Sally winced in sympathy for the poor lad's pain and mulled through the information she'd received while filling another little bottle rack with her latest acquisitions.
"He's a horseman then?" she asked.
"Well he fancies himself to be" Dr Hall chuffed. "He's always telling stories about the dark riders and the heroics of the cavalry that in turns fill him with fear and stoke his courage."
Sally couldn't help but give a giggle at the thought. "Dark riders you say? He's got quite the imagination, this Thomas, hasn't he." A tangential thought came then. "Are all of the cavalrymen stationed here Hessian?"
"Yes he does and no, they aren't." Robin said, gladly receiving the second rack of vials and finding it a place within the cupboard. "All told we have more Englishmen on horseback than we do German ones. It would seem though that the role of guide has fallen to the Hessians this time round, hence your having seen a couple of them mounted."
"Oh I see"
"On a similar note" he went on, "Thomas's favourite tale at present concerns a Hessian. They always do, Thomas being Hessian himself. It makes the stories more relatable for him I think. Der Reiter, he calls him. 'The Rider', or 'The Horseman' if you prefer."
"How curious" Sally said, smiling at the prospect of a story. "What else is there to this tale, doctor?"
Robin chuckled softly at her inquisitiveness, an idea presenting itself at this fortunate turn in their conversation. He rested his elbows on the table between them, lacing his fingers thoughtfully and regarding the woman in silence for a moment, as if considering which part of the tale to tell next.
"You're truly interested?" he asked.
"Of course" she rejoined, eagerness making her curiosity shine a little in the dim room. She seemed so honestly keen that Robin almost, almost felt remorse in springing his trap.
"Ask Thomas to tell you" he said, chuckling openly as her face fell.
"I..What? But..That was unkind!" Sally scolded jovially, forgetting herself for a moment in the comradery that seemed to have formed in the sharing of the tale and the talk of unlucky Thomas and his fall from his horse.
"Honestly doctor, I don't know that I could" she continued, reigning in her manner consciously and taking up her task with the vials once more. Robin noticed this display of propriety and smiled for it, even though it was misplaced in these, their off duty hours. He would allow her to become accustomed to that with time. For now, the mentor in him sensed the presence of confidence that needed shoring up.
"I'm sure you could" he said, giving his charge a reassuring smile as they got back to work. "Thomas is by far the least threatening Hessian member of the home guard, and I know for a fact that he'd love a chance to regale you. He was so excited about the arrival of the troops and your good selves that he rode out to meet you the night you arrived."
Sally blinked, again struck by a detail, her fingers sent fumbling over the vial she had just picked up. "He came to.."
"Yes. You'll remember him of course. The silly sod was yelling 'Die Engländer kommen' as he rode up to the camp. I heard him from my office. His sergeant nearly ran him through for all the noise he made."
"Oh my goodness!" Sally laughed, "THAT was Thomas? I can't b-"
"Sally!" a voice sounded from the doorway, deep with affect and profoundly masculine. With a jump and a gasp Sally turned and found Rose leant with theatrical aplomb against the door frame, an auburn lock of hair that had been fashioned into a crude facial adornment held between her thumb and forefinger across her top lip.
"Beautiful isn't it?" she said, batting her lashes and watching delightedly as her friend sputtered then succumbed to gales of laughter. Dr Hall, unused to though pleasantly surprised by Rose's brand of humour, fought a noble but losing battle to keep a straight face. As the comic in question succumbed also, she flipped the faux-tash into her pocket as the matron, with whom she had spent the morning learning about her various duties, was drawn by the ruckus, intent on scolding her for shirking chores.
Yes, Rose thought as the scowling older woman approached, setting a wagging finger to work with a mirthful twinkle in her eye. I think I'll like it here.
"Wie geht es dir?" How are you?
"Mir geht es gut, Thomas." I am well, Thomas.
"Lassen Sie in Ruhe, Junge" Leave her alone boy.