Michael awoke early Christmas morning in his bed. It was still reasonably dark outside; they had definitely reached the peak of winter. A soft red glow was just emerging behind the clouds and rooftops, gently lighting the mound of snow now sitting on the windowsill. Michael rose, coming to the window and touching the frosted glass. Through the panes he could just see into the street below, a number of vans bringing in more soldiers from France; even on Christmas.
Michael pulled on the white coat that he wore when accompanying Bert in the wards. It was several sizes too big, but all the doctors rolled up their sleeves whilst working anyway. Michael had often seen whole bundles of them go out laundered; piles of white fabric soiled deep in blood. All the while, Michael's own coat rarely met a spot of spilt tea. It frustrated him. He often thought how much he'd rather not wear the coat if he wasn't going to look the part. Wearing it for a day, then hanging it back up, still clean, it felt more like a costume than the uniform it was.
When Bert left the night before to join the others at St Paul's, Michael had seen fit to rise to the occasion. It had been a quiet night, but he'd seized the opportunity to do some proper work. After the incident with Jock, Michael was determined to prove himself. The last thing he wanted was to be sent off to boarding school, leaving Jane behind.
He couldn't stop thinking about Jock, what had become of him. He couldn't help but think how very nearly that could have been himself. He remembered the countless conversations he'd had with Bert, whilst watching him perform different procedures on patients. Despite Bert's concerns that he should return to school, Michael was sure that if he had, he would have definitely run off to enlist; like so many of the boys at the schools round the country.
He grabbed his medical kit, checking its supplies, before quickly hurrying downstairs to find Bert. He had forgotten entirely that it was Christmas, until he crossed the main entrance hall where his sister came running in from outside.
"Michael! Merry Christmas! Look!" She held out her hands which he saw were filled with brightly coloured sweets.
"They appeared! This morning?"
She looked around, before coming closer. "We don't know!" she whispered. "But I think I may have a hunch."
She pressed a few of them into his hands. Michael looked at them startled.
"What do you mean you have a hunch?" he asked, turning them over.
Jane huffed. "Oh Michael, must you be so tiresome?"
"No, I just—" he looked toward the ward with the numerous new patients waiting for him. "I can't talk just now, Bert and I have a lot to get through‒"
"It's okay." Jane knew all too well how it was.
"I do have some reading to do later," Michael offered. "I'll be in the upstairs kitchen."
"I break at eight."
"I'll see you there."
Jane kissed his cheek bidding another "Merry Christmas" before dashing upstairs to the other wards. Michael looked down at the sweets in his palm, studying their vibrant colours. A cry echoed from one of the wards and he quickly shoved them in his pocket and went straight to find Bert.
Christmas Day had seen a mad rush of soldiers from the clearing stations at the front. They were quickly running out of beds and there were many soldiers made to sit on chairs, their old bandages from the clearing stations now soiled with blood, demanding attention. Even on Christmas Day they had their work cut out for them. Michael did his best to observe every detail of what Bert was doing; every procedure for every different condition. How to treat trench foot and gangrene on amputated limbs; how to clean bloody scalps, devoured by lice. Bullet wounds, splintered limbs, everything had a particular method.
Michael had worked difficult shifts before, but this was the first time he had worked so long without a proper break. Even when it began to ease up around six, he still wasn't able to leave the wards for long—just five minutes to visit the lavatory. He hadn't eaten since breakfast.
"How are you feeling?"
Normally when staff were asked this, it was because their performance in their roles was slipping, which could potentially be dangerous for patients. But the way Bert had said it, Michael was surprised to find he was actually just making small talk.
"I'll live," said Michael honestly.
"Good, I can't let you go just yet."
Bert looked at their patient's arm—a bullet wound which had grown heavily infected. Without needing to be asked, Michael began preparing a syringe with the right substance.
"You know Michael," Bert said. "If you truly want to be a doctor you're going to have to go back to school."
"I can go back once the war's over."
"And when do you expect that to be?"
Michael sighed; they'd had this conversation before. "It doesn't matter. I'm here now, doing some real work. Besides, most boys my age are at the front."
Bert made a gesture and Michael handed him the syringe. Bert pressed its needle into the soldier's arm, watching its chamber slowly empty of liquid.
"At least I'm doing my bit, the right way, right?"
Bert removed the syringe and wiped the patch of skin. He placed on the tray between them, before turning to Michael. "Why do you care so much about 'doing your bit?'"
"This war. Why does it matter so much to you? Why is it so great a cause?"
Michael was startled by the question. The war had consumed all of their lives, had become their reality. No one had stopped to think about why it was happening.
"Look at these men, Michael. Then tell me it's all worth it."
"How can you say that?" Michael shot. "After the sacrifices they've made?"
"I acknowledge and respect their sacrifices and I am well aware of my own. But what are we actually fighting for?"
"We're fighting the Germans."
"Because..." Michael thought about it for a moment, but never came to an answer.
"You should go back to school Michael, and soon."
Seeing Michael's face, he added, "I know you don't want to leave your sister, but you can't waste your youth here. You're bright, you'll make an excellent doctor, one day."
"But these men need help now," Michael said adamantly. "Whatever the cause, they need my help."
Bert placed a finger beneath the patient's jaw. Satisfied, he gathered up his medical kit and lead Michael to their next patient.
"I never told you I attended to prisoners of war, at the front."
Michael shook his head.
"Well no one else was willing to do it. I was also one of the few who knew a little German."
"Why did you bother?"
Bert smiled. "Well the army was hoping to smuggle information out of them. But from what you've just told me, I can tell that you now know what it's like?"
"What what's like?"
"When you see someone suffering. You can't stand by and do nothing."
Michael thought suddenly of Jock. "No, you can't."
It wasn't until nine that Michael finally managed to go off duty. He hung up his coat and suddenly noticed a slight bulge in the pockets. It was the sweets Jane had given him this morning. He took them out again and studied them. Then, unwrapping one of them, he put it into his mouth, expecting some mildly sweet, diluted substance. But as the toffee touched his tongue, its thick taste syruped through his mouth, more strongly than anything he could remember. This wasn't an ordinary sweet. Nothing like the sweets from before the war, or even his childhood.
Remembering his reading, he grabbed his books and came into the upstairs staff room. Jane wasn't there; she was likely working overtime as well. Having eaten nothing all day, he finally prepared himself a sandwich; but strangely the toffee seemed to have ridden him of all hunger.
He looked at the pile of books waiting for him. Bert didn't intend for him to get through all of it, but Michael was determined to prove otherwise. It was difficult and draining, reading just after a shift, but he couldn't help but notice how much more he understood when he read up on a procedure immediately after he had watched Bert perform it. He thought of his school, out in Kent, of his school mates dissecting frogs and mice. How juvenile it all seemed now.
The clock showed half past nine when Jane finally came in, her hair falling from beneath her cap and her face flushed and red.
"Four cases of gangrene in that last hour, I thought I'd never get out of there." She slipped her cap from her head and began unpinning her hair. "God if anyone saw me like this!"
"So you haven't been in the children's ward today?"
"Nurse McIntosh took over, why?"
Michael pulled out the remaining sweets she had given him that morning. Jane stopped fixing her hair, looking at the bundle.
"Where on earth would someone get these."
"Exactly what I thought when I found them," Jane smiled. "Rations were reduced again at the start of the month. And they're not the sort of thing that's on the black market."
"Have you tried them," Michael asked.
Jane smiled guiltily. "Perhaps more than my fair share."
"They're not normal sweets. I mean, it's like—"
"Nothing you've ever tasted before?"
"Not even before the war. Not even from when we were kids."
Jane nodded knowingly.
"Where could they have come from?"
Looking quickly to the door, Jane came to sit by him. "You haven't any idea?"
Michael thought for a moment, before realising what she meant.
"You don't think—?"
"It could only be."
"You told me it was all gone, that she... lost it or something."
"She did but..." Jane looked round again, before continuing. "I was talking with her the other day, in her office. I saw her umbrella, with the parrot head."
"She's always had that—"
"It winked at me."
"I'm not making this up. I know what I saw."
"I believe you."
They were silent for a moment, letting it all sink in. There was a soft echo of doctors conversing in the hall; so when Michael spoke again, he dropped his voice. "What would cause it—"
"She said the war was what damaged it, but somehow I don't believe her."
"What do you mean?"
"I think it's more than that, we've all been affected in some way. But she seems really, I don't know, not herself." Jane leaned in closer, her voice now barely a whisper. " The children for instance. She never comes out to that ward, and not because she's busy. It's almost like she feels uncomfortable around them. It's so strange; she was a nanny for so long."
"So what's changed now?" Michael asked. "If all this is because of her."
"What else would it be, Michael?"
A doctor came in suddenly and Jane and Michael fell silent. The doctor nodded to them and Jane and Michael expected him to start making tea or something. But seeing the books on the table, the doctor came to Michael and asked if he'd seen any others lying about. When Michael answered in the negative, he left to look elsewhere.
"Who knows about the sweets?" Michael asked hastily.
"Just us, Nurse McIntosh, the children—" Jane looked quickly at her brother. "Did you mention it to Bert at all?"
"No, we had patients to look after."
Jane nodded quietly, when her eyes suddenly widened as she realised something. "Bert."
"Maybe it's... I'm not sure Michael, but I think I may be onto something."
A bell tolled somewhere in the city. It was eleven.
"I'd better go to bed," Jane said quickly. "I doubt tomorrow will be any easier than today was." She glanced at Michael's pile of reading adding, "Don't you stay up too late either."
She smiled and added kindly, "They do make you look very intelligent though."
"I don't understand them as well as I should like," Michael laughed.
"Still," Jane said. "I was worried about you not going back to school, but I was wrong. You're doing very well for yourself." She placed a hand on his arm. "I'm proud of you, and I know Father would be too."
"Thank you," he replied. Then, before he could stop himself, added. "I miss him."
"Me too Michael," Jane replied quietly. "Which is why you were right. We need to stay together."