1945: Nothing we can’t do

Frank lay on his back, trying not to move. Pillow soaked with the thin yellow fluid streaming from his right ear. Drifting in and out of sleep, head humming with the pain.

Jock and Cockney Dave would be cursing him now. Saying he’d done it deliberately, collapsed with the Dengue fever right outside the HQ, just to get out of their jolly jaunt down the Burma Road.

Jean, the redheaded nurse from Yorkshire, told Frank later the padre had been called in to read the last rites because it didn’t look like he was going to make it.

But he did.

He’d managed to cheat old Death.

All right, so when the liquid fire in his head finally dried up he realised he couldn’t hear a thing through his right ear, but that was a small price to pay.

There’s nothing I can’t do now, he told himself.

He lost count of the days spent lying in that bed. He’d watch the parallelogram of sunlight on the bare stone flags, inching its way forward through the day, contracting, then elongating until it streamed through the whole huge room, bringing rivers of sweat to his face.

One day Jean came tripping up to his bed, a huge grin on her face. Her hair was neatly pinned up, as usual. For days, Frank had daydreamed about taking out those pins, carefully, one at a time, and watching her hair tip down over her eyes as he kissed her mouth.

Then she told him all about the election result, how Labour had won nearly four hundred seats. The Tories had been wiped out. Frank thought of his father, then, how he’d always hiss at the screen in the Grand Cinema every time Churchill’s face appeared on the newsreel, and Frank felt his own face widening until his grin turned into a laughing spasm of delight, unable to stop himself even though it sent a stab of pain lancing behind his gammy ear.

Jean was still talking.

“It’s all going to change, now, Frankie. No more tugging forelocks to the rich and mighty. That country’s going to belong to us, once we get back home. There’s nowt we won’t be able to do now, us working men and women.”

“You’re right there, Jean. Nothing we can’t do now.”

Before the end of Jean’s shift they had everything agreed. She’d come back to Wales with him as soon as she could. Bound to be plenty of nursing jobs she could go for, now there was going to be a proper health service and everything. And Frank would become a teacher in one of the new schools that would spring up all over the place.

Even when he walked out of his demob interview months later, with the offer of a crash course in plumbing to light his future path, and the memory of the snort of laughter the interviewing officer had stifled when Frank talked about his hopes of training as a teacher, he still believed there was nothing he couldn’t do.

Back home, he mastered the plumbing easily enough, but couldn’t get used to working on his own. He sought out his old job underground. On his first day he looked round at his new butties, wondered for a moment about the ones who didn’t come back, then shrugged his shoulders and got on with things.

He worked afternoons, mostly, the shift nobody wanted. He’d come home to find Jean in bed already, though sometimes they’d talk drowsily as he stroked the sharp rope of her spine, his fingertips on fire. And he stored up the memories of those times when she’d turn to him, threequarters asleep, pulling him to her with a hunger that still made his eyes water in the darkness.

2008: Who the hell are you?

If only he could rip out these blasted tubes chaining him to that machine. Red lights flashing. On and on and on. He’s tired of it, now. Why won’t they let him rest?

Jock and Dave came visiting again this morning. Sorry I missed your trip, boys. I tried to get up, but they just wouldn’t let me. Give me a shout next time, and maybe we can swing it. Sneak out when nobody’s looking.

At least they came. Jean hasn’t been for ages, now. He keeps thinking he can see her, pacing up and down the ward, dishing out the tablets. Her Yorkshire voice still sings out loud and clear in his head. There’s nothing we can’t do now, Frankie. But every time he calls her name, a different nurse turns around.

He’s beginning to forget what her face looked like. How warm she felt next to him, those nights when he’d get home from the shift, both of them so tired they could hardly stay awake. The taste of her hair in his mouth.

Now he can hear footsteps echoing on the ward floor. Can’t be right. He hasn’t heard a thing for fifty years. Who the hell are you? Cheeky sod, walking right up to my bed like that. Who do you think you are?

Brian George lives in Wales in the UK. His stories have been published in various UK print magazines, including New Welsh Review, Cadenza and Tears in the Fence. He has had one collection of short fiction published, Walking the Labyrinth, by Stonebridge in 2005. He is a member of Vanessa Gebbie’s online forum/workshop, the Fiction Workhouse.

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