The hospital train was crowded, every bed filled with an injured man heading for the coast. Some, like Tom, had been caught in the gas attack at Ypres and now lay rasping through ruined throats, struggling for the breath they needed to survive. Others had been ruined by bullets or shelling, their bodies wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, arms and legs brutally shortened. The man across from Tom screamed in pain at every bump in the track, until a nurse came around and gave him an injection.
As the man sank back onto his pillow, she turned to Tom.
“How are you doing, Private Macdonald?” she asked.
“Better than some,” was all he could think to say. Every breath hurt. He barely had the strength to stand. Just getting out of bed to relieve himself was a humiliating struggle. But he was alive, unlike many he’d left behind, and he was intact, unlike some of these other poor souls. How could he complain?
“You’re Canadian, aren’t you?”
“It was very brave of you to come all this way to fight,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder.
“Just doing my duty.”
He wanted to make the most of the pretty young woman’s attention, but speaking hurt too much. Instead he closed his eyes and hoped for sleep.
The ferry lurched and Tom’s stomach lurched with it. Nausea swept through him. He flung aside the blanket and forced himself to his feet.
Just that movement made his head spin and his legs tremble. He clutched the wall and staggered a few steps, out of the cabin and into the corridor. His throat burned, his lungs ached, and any strength he had seemed to have fled. He slumped against the wall, stomach heaving.
He could do this. He wasn’t like those poor souls torn apart by shells. He’d worked in the wilds, felling trees and hauling timber before the war. He could make it to the rail.
Except that he couldn’t. The floor beneath him shifted, his stomach rose like a wave in a storm, and he was sick, vomit pouring down the front of his pyjamas, covering his feet, spattering the floor.
He felt so helpless he wanted to cry, but he was a grown man, and he was better off than others. To Hell with self-pitying thoughts. He needed to get to the rail before he was sick again.
He stumbled down the corridor, flung a door open and walked out onto deck. The wind snatched at him, threatening to knock his weakened body down. Even through the stink of vomit, he caught the salt smell of the sea.
It was night and no-one else was on deck. He reached the rail just in time to throw up what was left in his stomach, but getting there left him short of breath, his vision blurring. A deeper darkness crept in at the edges of his view.
How could he live like this? He’d been a lumberjack, then for a brief while a soldier. He’d always been strong. What good was he to anyone without that strength?
And he was so damn miserable. Everything hurt. Even when he wasn’t moving, he felt like there were needles in his throat and harsh smoke swirling through his lungs. The rest of his life stretched out before him, decades of frustration and pain.
He could barely hold himself up at the rail. It would be so easy to fall over and be lost in the waves.
The thought should have appalled him, but instead it was a relief. An end to the pain and humiliation. All he had to do was let go.
He leaned over, looking down into darkness, and took one hand off the rail.
Another hand settled on his. Smaller, softer, warmer. He looked up to see the nurse from the train standing beside him.
“Please don’t,” she said.
“You don’t understand,” Tom said. “I’m broken. I’m useless. Everything hurts.”
“We’ll find a way to fix you. Do you know how much medicine has changed in the past year, just to keep up with this terrible war?”
“No-one’s dealt with this before.” He pointed to his throat. “There’s no cure.”
“Then live long enough for the doctors back home to see you, to help them learn how it works. That’s how the cures will happen. As long as you live, you’re not useless.”
Tom looked down at the sea – cool, dark, inviting. He felt the hot pain in his throat.
And he thought of how many more would suffer like he did. If he couldn’t live for himself, he could live for them.
“I’m going to need new pyjamas,” he said, stepping away from the rail. “And a bucket by my bed.”
The nurse smiled and wrapped her shawl around his shoulders.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
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These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.