by K.B. Woods
The smells of antiseptic, sewage, and body odor assault Emily’s senses as she treads down the steps from the ramp that runs along the cliffs into the smoke-filled tunnels that make up the Annexe, an underground military nursing station formed from tunnels sliced into the chalk cliffs of Dover. Nurses and soldiers bustle around her, filling the underground tunnels with a continuous hissing sound as people prepare their evening duties. This place has become even more crowded the past couple weeks since the Dumpy tunnels for administrative staff were built last year to continue operation ‘Dynamo’ to rescue soldiers from the German tanks surrounding Dunkirk located across the English Channel from Dover. General Ramsey had used anything possible to rescue the soldiers from battle ships to simple sailing boats.
Warped echoes bounce off the ridged metal fixed to the ceiling and walls, bringing bits and pieces of conversations to her ears. The lights brighten and blind her before they go out causing her to stumble. A hand grabs her arm, stopping her from falling. A couple of shouts shoot through the air around her, but everyone else has fallen silent and frozen in their actions.
“Are you alright?” the person holding her arm whispers.
“Yes,” she whispers back, trying to keep her breathing even. The darkness surrounding her makes her aware that she’s underground. A place not made for humans to be. She’s not afraid of the dark, but of the silence the darkness causes. Everyone and everything stills, but time. In tunnels filled with people and noise, the lack of light quietens everything, but the smallest of sounds seem alarming. Even a whisper seems too loud.
A piercing screech fills the tunnels, making her slam her hands over her ears, as the lights come on. The sound stops and she removes her hands as the tunnels fill with noise as the people crowded around her start moving again. Glancing at the soldier who caught her she first notices his smile. It’s one of those smiles. A genuine one filled with amusement that continues past his lips and lights up his eyes. She can’t stop the smile that spreads across her face in response, but it falters as she notices he has a scar that slices from the corner of his eye along his nose to the corner of his lip. “How’d you get that scar?”
“An accident.” The soldier’s eyes glance away, and his smile shatters as his body tenses.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“Forget it.” The soldier jerks his hand from her arm, turns his face away, and marches towards the steps she just came down. The lights flick back off for a few seconds, and the screech sounds again as they come back on, but the soldier is gone.
The soldier’s smile and the haunted look that replaced it bother her as she begins her rounds. She has quite a few patients, even though most people are sent here to die, or else be patched up and moved on to a better facility. Even so, she consistently has to check on them to make sure their bandages are clean and that they’re not showing any signs of having an infection. She has seen many different injuries, from bullet wounds to severed appendages. There are more nurses than doctors, and she finds herself performing duties that she wasn’t trained for. One of the most important skills Emily has learned is improvisation.
All her patients start to blur together and a shiver slithers up her spine as a message sent over the radio calls for her to head to the step-free entrance to prepare to receive a soldier with a chest wound being brought in. The step-free entrance is on the opposite side of the tunnel system away from cliffs that overlook the channel and is regularly used at night. The paths along the cliffs that lead to the Casements and Annexe are too dangerous at night without light, and no one is allowed to use light on those paths after dark for fear of giving away their position in the war tunnels to their enemies.
A few other nurses have gathered with her, waiting to tend to less severely wounded soldiers and citizens rescued from Dunkirk, a town surrounded by German tanks.
She stands to the side a group of soldiers finish making their way up the hill with a group of them carrying four wounded adults and two children into the waiting crowd of nurses and doctors. Tears flow from the wounded, but the nurses stay calm, serene, disconnected. Their faces blank, eyes empty and dull. Not responding to the blood coating their hands or the child screaming from having their broken arm set. The soldier she is waiting for is carried out on a stretcher. He looks to be in his early twenties. His chest is heaving as he tries to force air into his lungs. He looks like he’s drowning.
As Emily looks at his heaving chest she’s reminded of when she was a child being tossed around in the waves, the sharp stab in her lungs when she breathed in water, and that her dad had saved her. He had warned her not to go in the water because the current was too strong, but she went in anyway. She made it out to where she could barely touch the seafloor. She only made it a little further before she felt herself pulled under. Her dad saved her. A couple months later he was dead.
She gestures to those carrying the stretcher and leads them to the operating theatre. Under the focus of the lights, she can see that the lack of oxygen has made his skin turn a creamy white tinged with blue, making the scar on his face stand out. His eyes are glazed over, and his mouth is open as he tries to breathe, but can’t.
The doctor leans over the patient, but he jerks his head up and blood spews from his mouth. Blood paints the patient’s chest as he pushes their arms away, slings his legs off the side of the table, and shoves himself into a sitting position facing Emily.
“Hey.” Emily grabs his shoulders, and his eyes widen as more blood tumbles from his mouth. He grabs her shoulders as the lights go out and the screeching warble of the air raid signal sounds. His grip tightens on her shoulders as she feels the weight of his body lean against her, throwing her off balance into the wall and onto the floor with him on top. She tries to shove him off, but her hands slip through the blood on his chest. On her second try, she is able to move him a little to where she can crawl out from under him. Her mind goes numb, and she just reacts, focusing on what she needs to do. Emily feels around for her patient’s shoulder and pulls him into a sitting position. His body shakes against her as he coughs and coughs, and she feels blood running down her arm wrapped around his chest. She refuses to think of the man’s smile. Someone touches her shoulder, making her jump.
“It’s just me.” The doctor moves past her, placing his hands on the patient’s back. She hears soft thumps of the doctor’s hands on the patient’s back. Emily does not know how much time passes with them like this. It could have been an hour or only a few minutes. Finally, the patient’s coughing subsides and all she can hear is a wet sloshing sound. She should say something. Try to comfort him, but he’s just another patient. Just another body. A few seconds later, he goes still.
Vibrations shake the ground as shells shot from Cross Channel guns on the cliffs of Calais hit the town below. She puts her hands in her lap and rubs her thumbs in circles along her fingers feeling them slide through the blood on them. Her legs are stretched out and resting against the body. Sitting in the dark with a corpse covered in blood, Emily feels nothing. Nothing at all. No tears threaten to spill from her eyes. No feelings of grief threaten to overwhelm her.
Eventually, the lights come back on, revealing the body’s chest and face covered in blood. She looks at the body’s face, thinking she recognizes it, but dismisses the thought. He’s no one. It’s no one. Just another corpse. Another body to be burned.
“I’m going to wash,” Emily says as she leaves the operating theatre.
She scrubs her arms in the sink in the water closet, trying to get every speck of blood off. After her skin has turned red from scrubbing, she splashes some water on her face and begins washing the blood out of her apron, but she can’t get it all out.
“Emily, are you okay?” A hand rests on her shoulder, and she looks up from her apron to see Betsy.
“Yes,” Emily says.
“What?” Emily brushes her eyes surprised to feel water on her face. Betsy pushes past Emily and grabs her apron out of the sink and hangs it up to dry.
“Come on, we have more work to do. There’s no time for you to cry now.” Betsy uses the end of her apron to wipe Emily’s face before she puts her arm around her, leading her out of the washroom.
Betsy starts to say something else, but she falls into a coughing fit.
“It sounds like your cough is getting worse.”
“I just have a little bit of a cold.”
“It might be more than just a cold,” Emily says.
“I’m fine.” Betsy smiles. Her face pale.
They head back to the operating theatre as a couple of nurses pass, carrying the body on a stretcher to be identified, if someone knows him, and burned. Burying all those that die here would take too much time and be extra unnecessary work. If someone knows him, a letter will be sent to his family if he has any still alive. Another nurse is already scrubbing at the blood stains on the floor. Betsy hands Emily a rag and Emily gets to work wiping off the table so it will be clean for the next body to be brought in.
Behind her, Emily hears Betsy start to cough and she knows that she will soon lose her friend. Death always seems to be around every corner no matter which way she turns. Peace and silence are all she wants, but her life consistently echoes with air raid signals.
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2 thoughts on “Hellfire Corner”
A grim account of the hell of war. It’s impact would be heightened by careful editing. In general, the many long sentences clash with the urgency of feeling and action being described. The repeated description of Dunkirk as surrounded by tanks, ditto. The searing account of the scarred warrior’s death, which epitomizes the message of this work, deserves highlighting, I think. AGB
There are, for me, a couple of instances where identities become confused. All military personnel wear ID tags around their necks. Good story, well told. You held my attention to the end.