This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Arnhem. To commemorate the occasion, we are serialising William’s short story, The Bridge, which is set against the backdrop of the infamous battle, which took place between 17th and 26th September 1944.
ADVISORY: This story contains adult themes and occasional strong language.
THE BRIDGE: PART 4
The boy ran through the gate toward the house, past the rows of stretchers and body bags, through the clumps of tired, filthy and dejected young men nursing what the medical officer had defined as minor wounds. He bounded up the steps and into the house.
‘Druschke, Drush, where are you?’
Running to the door of the cellar, he shouted down.
‘Drush! Are you down there?’
‘Pieter, is that you?’
‘Yes, Mrs Doorn. I was looking for Druschke. I have some news for the sergeant.’
‘They’re both in the kitchen. He brought more wounded in.’
He ran down the hall and into the kitchen. The large, flagstoned room had been used as an emergency first aid room and surgery throughout the nine day battle. Even though he had seen it many times he still could not overcome the feeling of nausea at the sight of this carnage. The broken, mutilated bodies of young men, sedated by morphine to mute endurance, lay about the floor awaiting attention. The doctor was operating on the kitchen table, the large oak trestle around which they had enjoyed many a family meal before this madness had begun.
‘Pieter. This is no place for you. Why don’t you take Druschke down to the cellar to her mother before it starts up again? Sergeant, make them go down.’
The sergeant was sitting on a low stool staring dejectedly into the grate of the kitchen range. The girl stood beside him, her arm around his shoulder. She was gently stroking his hair. He stood up slowly and, turning, kissed her lightly on the forehead.
‘Come on, love. Go downstairs with young Per. Your dad’s right, this is the lull before the storm. The bastards will try to finish us off before the army can get here.’
‘No. No they won’t. They’ve gone. They’ve gone away.’
‘Per? What are you saying? Who’s gone?’ Druschke turned back to the sergeant. ‘Tommy? Have the Germans gone? Is it all over? Has the army come?’
The sergeant pushed her gently down on to the stool. The doctor stood stock still, his hands, bloodied from his work, held up as if in surrender.
The sergeant looked at the boy. ‘Who’s gone, son?’
‘The paras, your comrades, Tommy. They’ve all gone back. They put out white ribbons for them and they swam back over the river.’
The boy looked expectantly into the sergeant’s face but there was no response. He stared vacantly out over the head of the boy for what seemed like an eternity, then slowly he turned to face the girl. She watched him, mouth agape and saw his head drop slowly until his chin touched his chest. Then he began to cry, at first softly, but then his young body racked with convulsive sobs and he gradually sank to his knees onto the cold floor.
The doctor lowered his hands slowly to his sides and surveyed the tragedy around him. He looked at the boy, incredulous at the human frailty of his hero. He saw his daughter, her pretty face drenched with tears, unable to move, not fully able to comprehend the total abjection of her beautiful soldier, her first young love. He looked down at his patient. There was nothing more he could do for him now. He was already dead. He was always going to die.
Crossing to the sink, he washed the blood from his hands and rubbed them on his apron to dry them. He then moved to stand before the sergeant.
He had stopped crying and just knelt, his head hanging in total despair. Lowering himself on to his haunches, he placed a hand on the sergeant’s back.
‘Come on lad. It’s over. You can do no more. God knows, you’ve been asked to do too much, more than is reasonable for one so young.’
Slowly raising his head, the sergeant gazed around the room at the broken bodies of his comrades. ‘What am I going to do, Doc? What’s going to happen to this lot? I’m responsible for them. The CO left me in charge and now he’s gone…I don’t get it. If they were pulling out, why in the name of Christ didn’t someone tell me?’
He became more animated now and walked over to Pieter, taking hold of his arm. Glaring at the doctor, he began to shake the boy violently.
‘And what’s he talking about? White ribbons? What fucking white ribbons? And who swam the river? My lot swam the river? My arse they did. It was as much as I could do to get the bastards to wash, let alone swim. They couldn’t swim any fucking river. And where’s the army, eh? Two fucking days we were supposed to hold that poxy bridge and how long have we been here, eh? Nine, is it? That little prat Montgomery, strutting about in his Airbourne beret, he’s not entitled to wear any red beret. He’s never done any jumps. The only thing that little poof has ever jumped is his fucking adjutant.’
They stared at him, shocked at the profanity of his outburst. They had never heard such language from him, in contrast to most of his comrades. As his raving became increasingly incoherent and the doctor could see he was losing control, he crossed to the dresser to prepare a sedative. Coming back to the sergeant, he unprised his hand from Pieter’s arm and the terrified boy fled from the room.
‘Here, drink this.’
‘What is it?’
‘Trust me, I’m a doctor.’
Gathering himself, the sergeant allowed the flicker of a smile to cross his face. He took the potion and swallowed it in one gulp.
‘Bloody wars. That tastes like owl’s piss. Haven’t you got a proper drink?’
‘You can’t drink alcohol after taking a sedative.’
‘Why? What’s it going to do, kill me?’ He began to chuckle, but then to laugh hysterically.
Shaking his head, the doctor went back to the dresser and took down a large stone flask of Bols. ‘Here, drown your sorrows.’
The sergeant sank onto the stool and began to drink the gin from the flask. The doctor went over to his daughter. Grasping her hands in his, he pulled her to him.
‘Come, Drush. We must leave now. The Germans will be here soon.’
‘But what about Tommy, Papa? What will happen to him? We can’t leave him here, they will shoot him. They hate the paras, Papa, we can’t leave him.’
‘There’s nothing more we can do, Drush. He is effectively a prisoner of war now and if we interfere they will probably shoot us. We really have to leave.’
She looked toward her soldier and knew she would never see him again, never feel his strong young arms around her, never again hear his tender voice.’
‘Oh, Tommy. Why did you make me love you so much?’
But he could not hear her. They left the room quietly, heads bowed. As he turned to close the door, the doctor took a last look. The wounded, the effects of the morphine now wearing off, had started to moan softly. The man on the operating table stared through dead eyes at the ceiling, the rictus smile set in his blackened face. And the sergeant, who had so bravely endured nine terrible, savage days, now sat on the stool, stupefied with gin. He was rocking back and forth softly humming to himself.
Check back on Tuesday for the next part, or read the whole story now by downloading the ebook: