This story was first published in Firefly litmag and you can also hear the audio version at http://www.brumradio.com. It is the story of my grandma, Vesta. A wonderful lady with a very unusual name. I hope you enjoy it.
My mother named me Vesta, after taking one look at my newborn titian tufts. My red hair and unusual name always wins me plenty of compliments from the GI’s and, I must admit, I rather enjoy it. Inevitably though, after a few dances and a few too many beers, it always ends the same.
‘Hey Red, where you goin’?’ they shout , as I walk away, head held high. ‘Awww C’mon, my hand slipped, I didn’t mean it.’
They’re all the same. Think you’ll do anything for a pair of silks.
Kitty and I took the bus away from here once. Most people want to escape to the country but we were quite the opposite. We wanted to gorge ourselves on smoky town fumes and eat chocolate cake with the wages we’d saved for weeks. Brush the antiseptic sting from our hair and forget the sounds of death that rung daily in our ears. We drank tea in a café with a rosy faced waitress and table cloths spattered with bluebells, took our time over the yellow tea pot and the china cups. It was the first real treat we’d had in years. Afterwards, fat raindrops walloped the steamed- up window, so we tied our headscarves and ran over the road to the public library. Our good shoes clattered on the polished floor and our giggles echoed off the marble. We found a book; I don’t know why we chose that one. I can’t remember now, but we looked up our names. Kitty meant pure and I was ‘Vesta’, goddess of the hearth, attended by the Vestal Virgins in Rome. It was Kitty’s laughter that forced the prune- faced librarian to throw us out.
‘Pure? Ha!’ she guffawed. ‘Vestal Virgins? Oh I really don’t think so. Our mother must have lost her poor mind when she named us.’
I was grinning too, but not so much later, when we were standing in the rain; our coats sodden, waiting an age for the bloody bus.
When was that now? I’m sure it was summer. May? No, June maybe? Oh, I must ask Kitty when I see her next.
I’m thinking about all this as I sit in my room. The nurse’s quarters are small, but cosy at least. I try and block out the sound of angry voices. It’s common here. Hospitals always bring out the worst in people.
‘You can’t just turn up here and start making decisions about her,’ a man shouts. ‘Who the bloody hell do you think you are?’
The relatives shouldn’t be in the nurse’s quarters but they often end up here, hiding the truth from their loved ones.
A woman knocks on the open door of my room.
‘Hello darlin,’ she sing-songs. Her voice sounds like it’s been bathed in sunshine and her face is beetle black. She puts a cup of tea down on the small bedside table and I’m watching her fussing with my bedclothes. I’m not sure who she is. I’ve only been a nurse here for a short while but I’ve never seen her before. How nice of her to bring tea.
‘Are you the maid?’ I ask.
Her brow furrows and she pauses for a second before her face splits into a wide grin revealing the biggest, whitest teeth I have ever seen.
‘That’s right darlin’,’ she says, then breaks into laughter. ‘That’s me, the maid.’
She bustles out and I sit in a large, brown armchair, drinking the tea from a flowered china cup as I gaze out of the window toward the hospital building. I can see across the little outdoor courtyard, past the benches and daffodils and the rockery, into the windows across the way. I’m not sure why our quarters are so close to the patients? You would think they’d put us nurses somewhere else. It’s not like the place isn’t big enough. If you go through the double doors at the front, you can walk down the gravel drive and beyond the Iron Gate you can see for miles. Acres of rolling, green hills, fields dotted with little red farmhouses and mini, cloud-like sheep, grazing. Its picture perfect….and boring as hell.
I’m looking at a man in his striped dressing gown walking around and around the ward like a clockwork toy. Poor thing. Someone should put him back to bed. I must check what time my shifts starts; maybe I can go and see him. Find out if its pain or boredom that’s bothering him. But I can’t seem to find my clock. That maid must have moved it. I will go and ask her.
It’s easy to get lost in a new place, the signs here are confusing. I can’t find the maid anywhere but as I wander into the common room I see a man, tall and broad shouldered. He is standing next to the window holding a cup of what I presume must be tea. He turns and smiles as I stop and steady myself against an armchair. Men aren’t usually allowed in the quarters. Matron will have a kitten if she sees him. He walks over to me and I notice his eyes, turquoise blue and twinkling with mischief.
‘There you are, beautiful,’ he says, smiling at me. ‘I just needed to calm down a little. I was just having a cup of tea before I came along for you.’
I don’t know what he means.
‘Have we made I date?’ I ask. ‘Only I’m not sure the dance hall is open this evening.’
I meet so many of them. At the village post office, in the queue for bread, sometimes they just stop Kitty and I on the corner. It is hard to keep up.
‘A date? Oh yes, that’s right,’ he says, looking a little uncertain himself.
‘But I’m not dressed to go out,’ I reply. ‘What time did we say? The silly maid has moved my clock, you see.’
He’s handsome alright. Those eyes are just lovely. Wait until Kitty sees him. She’ll giggle and want him for herself.
‘It’s ok. You go get ready, I’ll wait,’ he says, kindly.
I don’t need to be asked twice. I go back to my room and take my make –up from my dresser. I curl my hair and carefully apply lipstick, rouge and a dash of mascara. I can’t help wondering where I might have met him. I look through my wardrobe and choose a dress of blue, soft cotton with a flowered motif. It will have to do. I don’t have many dresses. I’m searching in my drawer for my silk stockings, when a woman knocks and walks into my room, uninvited. I am a little annoyed but in such a hurry that I carry on pulling out tights and underwear and throw them on the bed, rather rudely ignoring her.
‘You alright darlin’?’ the woman asks. She is smiling as she walks over and starts to put my things in a neat pile.
‘I brought you a cup o’ tea in your nice cup,’ she says, nodding toward my bedside cabinet.
‘What you lookin’ for?’ she asks.
‘Silk stockings,’ I reply, irritated. ‘I have a date. He’s waiting in the common room.’
Her face, black as night, breaks into a friendly smile.
‘Ohhhh, a date?’ She says, giving a throaty chuckle. ‘Well, that’s nice, darlin’.’ Then she takes a tissue from her pocket and tilts my chin up to her.
‘Here, let me help you,’ she says, softly. And I look into kind brown eyes as she gently wipes lipstick from my chin.
‘That’s better,’ she says and then she helps me find my stockings.
As I go to leave my room, dressed to the nines and ready for my date, I realise I’ve forgotten to ask what on earth she was doing in my room.
‘Are you the maid?’ I ask.
But she just smiles and shakes her head as she follows me out.
We are in the dance hall. I am looking up at his face and I am grinning from ear to ear. He has a dimple. I keep looking at that, and those blue, blue eyes and we are dancing. I can dance alright. It’s one of my favourite things on earth. You should see me jitterbug and jive. The GI’s taught me and I am good at it. Even better than Kitty. I love how they swing me and throw me around, my skirt swishing around my legs, then up, up, up, my stocking tops on show as I bounce along to the rhythm. I know it drives them wild. But it’s not that that I love. It’s the music, how it hums through my body, making me forget everything. The death, this war, all the broken people trying desperately to just hold on, until the sands shift once more and we can go back, back to living a life without fear, without this never ending bloody fear.
We are dancing. But not the jive or the jitterbug. This music is slow and he is holding me firm, looking deep into my eyes with a tenderness that reaches inside and makes my heart flutter with hope. He pulls me closer and I nestle my head on his shoulder, breathing in his lemon scent. As we move, slowly, I feel as though I know this man. A warmth floods through me. I feel as though I have known this man my whole life. I lift my head up and look into his eyes and I know he will kiss me. He gently takes my face in his hands and puts his lips to mine, and I don’t pull away. The kiss is sweet and chaste, but nonetheless I blush as red as my hair and look down to the ground.
The spell is broken. I cannot believe it. I am wearing slippers! Oh goodness me, how shameful. What will he think? I must go. If I go quickly he might not notice. If I go quickly, they might not notice. Oh please don’t let Kitty see. She will tease me mercilessly. I’ll never hear the end of it. How could I forget my shoes?
‘I must go,’ I say sharply and flee from the dance hall, turning only once to see him standing there, looking so very sad to see me go.
The sun blasts through my window throwing ribbons of light around the room and I simply must go outside. I have spied easels, in the courtyard, and paint too. They must be a gift from a benefactor. Some of our patients are wealthy and we quite often have things sent to the hospital. Gifts from the grateful families of those we’ve managed to save. Even if their sons are sent back to them so torn up that it would have been kinder to let them die. Still we try, always, to keep them alive, no matter what. Women too. Women who have gone out to the field, to somehow try and mop up the agony with only bandages and buckets of rancid water. Women who end up here, just as torn and ragged as those they went to save.
I love to paint, almost as much as I love to dance. My mother said I was gifted, but you don’t get to use ‘gifts’ like painting during a war. I relish the idea of sitting in the sun and creating something beautiful, something to look at that I know won’t die. The paint has been left on a wooden table, simply begging to be used, so I sit down and I begin to mix the colours on a wooden palette. I spend an hour or two painting the flowers around the rockery, capturing the sunny smiles that radiate from the daffodils, the shy beauty of the crocus and the blazing pride of a cluster of crimson tulips.
I am distracted. There is a man sitting on the bench. I didn’t see him before, but now I peep round the easel and catch him staring at me. He looks upset, concerned. I stand and walk over to the bench; it’s my job, as a nurse, to comfort. I quite often see people here, on these benches. They ache for their loved ones. They arrive at the hospital filled with hope, only to find just a husk left of those they waved goodbye to. Sometimes not even that. Sometimes they come only to make arrangements, to have their fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands taken to a place where they can rest….in peace.
‘Can I help you?’ I ask
He sits up straight and smiles, although the smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
‘Will you sit with me?’ he asks, patting the bench next to him.
So I sit down and he turns to me, eyes brimming with tears.
‘I’m sorry it’s the first time I’ve been,’ he says. ‘I just…well I just couldn’t face it.’
‘It’s okay,’ I say softly. I hope I can comfort this poor young man somehow. He seems so distressed. I move closer and take his hand.
‘Have you had bad news?’ I ask.
He looks at me then. He is searching my face for something, something intangible. As he squeezes my hand tight, his face crumples, and tears spill down his cheeks.
‘Oh mum,’ he rasps.
His leans over and places his head in my lap and there is nothing I can do. He must have lost his mother. My heart aches for him and we sit for such a long time, me stroking his dark hair and patting him gently, until, eventually his tears subside and he rights himself.
‘I must go,’ he says shakily and I nod as he hugs me one last time then walks slowly across the courtyard, head bowed.
I sit for a while, and then shake off the sadness. If I let it take over I will drown in its blackness. I will finish my painting and breathe in the birdsong and the sunshine and let it fill my soul with its warmth. But, as I walk back to my easel, the world shifts beneath me. How can this have happened? My beautiful painting. Someone cruel has ruined my painting. I am not looking at daffodils or crocuses or tulips. In front of me is a riot of black and green lines, dashed across the canvas in a frenzy of hatred. My breath quickens and I feel the tears well in my eyes. I hurry from the courtyard passing two men on the way. One is tall and broad- shouldered with angry blue eyes, the other dark- haired and tearful and I push past them as they spit angry words at each other.
‘You’re not taking her anywhere,’ shouts the tall, handsome man. ‘You have no idea what you’re dealing with’. He prods the dark –haired man in the chest. ‘You have no idea. You haven’t been here.’
I don’t stop to listen to anymore.
I hurry back to my room. Was it this way? I somehow get lost and end up in the common room but I don’t recognise any of the nurses there. They must be new. We get a fresh intake once in a while. It must be the shock from the painting. It’s left me feeling upset, disorientated. My mind feels as though it’s been filled with cobwebs and everything is slightly out of focus, as though I’m wearing Kitty’s glasses. I don’t want these new girls to see me like this, so I turn quickly, heart hammering. Take a deep breath, Vesta. Focus. And then things slip back into place and I suddenly know the way again.
I am finally in my room. I take a book from the table. I will read quietly until I get my equilibrium back. I try not to think about who could have ruined my painting. Some of the girls here are jealous cats. Any one of them could have done it.
I open the book and just as I start to read a women knocks on the door and walks briskly in.
‘Hi darlin’,’ she says, smiling broadly. She has an accent but I can’t place it. Her face is as black as the ink on the page and her smile is filled with warmth. She is holding a flowered tea cup and I realise I am parched.
I smile at her.
‘Are you the maid?’ I ask.