In Thomas's world:
Thomas tries to make amends with Chris.
And in Sheila’s world:
Sheila drives an ambulance at a military hospital in Tamworth. When injured soldiers from the Middle East arrive, she gets firsthand news of Colin McKechnie and the Eighteenth Brigade.
Read episode #10 without commentary
“I picked up a snake once,” says Natalie.
“Really?” says Chris from her usual spot on the floor.
“Uh huh, in science class. It was green and this long.” She opens her arms eighteen inches.
“I wouldn’t want one on my back,” says April. “Ewww.”
“No way,” says Chris.
“What about you, Daddy?” says April.
“Hmm. It might be kind of fun, all slippery and cool. Those scales are so smooth.”
“Daddy!” says April.
“You’re joking,” says Natalie.
Soon we’re into a tickling battle on top of Natalie’s bed, which of course I win, but not without sustaining real damage. They’re getting better, splitting up to attack me from two sides. In the midst of the melee, I glance at Chris, and I could swear she wants to join in. It’s a good thing she doesn’t, or I would lose for sure.
After I tuck in the girls, Chris and I get a glass of wine and move out to the porch. We sit on the sofa and use the table in front for the drinks.
“That story wasn’t too tough,” she said.
“It’s early yet, 1941. The war has a ways to go.”
“What was that nonsense about wanting a snake down your back?”
“You’ve never had a snake slither on your skin?”
“No, thank you.”
“It’s cool, no kidding, all that wiggling. Have you seen the model with a python wrapped around her? It’s kind of sexy.”
I laugh, teasing.
“You’d better not put one down my back,” she says.
“Never know. You might like it.”
“Get out.” She reaches over and pushes my upper arm, sort of a light shove.
We’re in the moment, not thinking at all, and I reach over to push her back.
She grabs my hand, and we engage in a grade-school game of push-pull.
And then we’re kissing. It happens that fast.
The kiss lingers, and lingers some more. I put my hand on her shoulder and then the back of her neck. She breathes through her nose. Her lips taste like cool water on a hot afternoon.
I pull away, embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“What for?” she says. “I kissed you, too, and I’m not sorry.”
“It’s just . . .”
“What is it? Why are you sorry?”
How do I explain this? I can’t put it into words. I don’t even understand it myself.
“I’m not ready.”
“Not ready for what?”
She’s not irritated, just curious. Her hand gently touches mine. She skims her fingers lightly across my skin.
“I made a promise.”
“Promised who? Promised what?”
“I’m not ready.”
“You already said that. You need to say something else now.” She leans back, frowns, and reaches for her wine glass. After taking a gulp, she says, “Thomas Kelly the Fourth, your wife passed away seven years ago. Are you telling me you promised her you’d never kiss another woman?”
“No, I never made that promise.”
She inhales deeply, and then pushes the air out through her lips, slow and steady, like some sort of breathing exercise.
“What is it then?” she says.
I remember sitting on a different porch, fresh out of tears, my heart hardly working. I breathed in but never seemed to get any air. My arms were so weak I couldn’t lift them.
“I’m just not ready.”
Sheila lay on her back on the ground and looked up at the dirty engine. The air was stifling under the ambulance. With a rag, she wiped dirt and grease from the oil pan until she had a clear view of the plug; then she groped for the wrench beside her. With the plug half unscrewed she brought the metal bin underneath. She used her fingers for the last couple turns and yanked the plug away to let the black oil drain in a constant stream.
“Did you get it?” asked Norma.
“Yeah.” Sheila wiggled her way from under the chassis and stood.
“Thank goodness. It takes me forever, and I always make a mess. Last time I had to throw away my shirt.”
Norma was Sheila’s friend in the ambulance corps at the military hospital in Tamworth. She was an excellent driver, but not much good at performing light maintenance on her vehicle, which all the drivers were required to do. Sheila liked to have the extra work, so she helped Norma out.
Anything to keep busy. When not on ambulance runs, the girls washed their trucks or played cards or exercised, and tried not to worry. They all had brothers or cousins or boyfriends on the front lines. It was almost Christmas of 1941, but no one felt like celebrating.
The Japanese had everyone on the run. They had bombed the US base in Pearl Harbor on December 7, and invaded Malaya and the Philippines the next day. The newspapers reported the British and Australians were retreating toward Singapore, and the American general, MacArthur, was losing ground in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Colin was in Syria fighting Italians.
She used the rag to wipe her hands. His last letter had come three weeks earlier. That didn’t mean anything, though. He wrote every week, but sometimes the mail got bottled up between the Middle East and Australia. When the jam opened, she’d get several letters in the span of a few days.
“Did you check for mail today?” said Norma, as if reading her mind.
“Twice. Nothing yet.”
Norma was a skinny thing, but beautiful, with a bright smile and the darkest blue eyes. She was raised wealthy in Melbourne and learned to drive her father’s car at an early age. Some of the girls shunned Norma at first because she had money, but she always had a kind word to say. And she was smart, although not good with a wrench. Until stationed there, neither Sheila nor Norma had ever visited Tamworth, an interior town two hundred fifty miles north of Sydney.
“God, it’s hot,” said Norma. “I’ll never get used to this inland heat.”
Sheila wiped her brow. “It’s summertime. It’s supposed to be hot in the summer. Let’s sit in the shade while the oil drains.”
They ambled toward a nearby ironbark tree, and then the motor pool clerk, Millie, opened the shed door fifty feet away.
“Need five to meet a hospital train. You’re up, Sheila.”
Sheila handed Norma the plug. “Make sure you put this back in before you fill the engine with oil.”
Norma laughed, and Sheila ran for her ambulance.
The ambulances stopped at the hospital to pick up orderlies. An orderly named Marie climbed into Sheila’s cab. They had worked the train run together several times.
“I heard these are bad,” Marie said.
“Yeah?” said Sheila. She shifted into second gear, and they pulled onto Manilla Road and headed toward town.
“Lost legs, lost arms,” said Marie.
“They’re still alive. That’s something.”
“True enough. Those damn Germans. These soldiers came from North Africa.”
Sheila’s heart strained like the engine as she shifted to a higher gear. The Eighteenth was in North Africa . . . first Tobruk, and then Syria. Colin’s last letter was dated over a month ago.
“Did they say what division?” she said.
“Ninth . . . and Seventh.”
Could Colin be on this train? No. It would take longer. Wouldn’t it? She edged closer to the next ambulance, willing the driver to speed up.
Nurses waited for them on the train platform. More orderlies helped them carry the litters. They loaded four soldiers into her ambulance. A nurse checked each patient after they’d been secured. Two of the soldiers were deflated, not just sleeping, but devoid of energy or emotion. One soldier was missing a foot, but seemed healthy otherwise. He chatted nonstop.
“Oh, nurse,” he said, “how ’bout a kiss? You know . . . a goodbye kiss.”
“I’m married, soldier. What would my husband say?”
“I won’t blab if you won’t.”
“Tsk tsk,” she said. She patted his shoulder and exited the ambulance. Marie took her place inside. She would ride in back to the hospital.
“How about you, miss?” said the man with one foot. “Have a heart. Give a soldier a welcoming kiss to Tamworth.”
Marie giggled and shook her head, but she kissed him on the forehead anyway.
“Oh, jeez,” he said. “Tamworth is heaven.”
The fourth soldier watched with one unblinking eye. A bandage wrapping covered most of his head, leaving holes for the eye and his mouth. His hands were bandaged as well, perhaps burned. Sheila couldn’t tell if he was happy, sad, or even glad to be alive.
The talkative soldier continued to chat up Marie. Sheila might not see him again after they got to camp.
“Soldier,” she said. “Are you with the Seventh Division?”
“That’s right, miss. Twenty-first Brigade.”
“My beau’s in the Eighteenth. Colin McKechnie? Ninth Battalion?”
He shook his head. “Sorry.”
Her hand dropped from the door and hung listlessly at her side.
The soldier rubbed his chin. “But ask the others. Some guys from the Eighteenth were on the ship.”
When her shift was over, Sheila walked through a hot dusk to the hospital and learned two men from the Eighteenth had arrived, both from the Tenth Battalion from South Australia. She found them in a big room with twenty beds. The first man slept, and she didn’t have the heart to wake him. The second man, Ted Beasley, stared at the ceiling.
“Hello,” she said.
He jerked and stared as if she were a ghost.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She moved into the light on the other side of the bed. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“I thought you were an angel . . . that I was dead.” A huge bandage crossed his midsection. He propped himself on his elbows but kept his legs still, as if moving them would hurt.
“Do you need anything?” she said.
He inhaled deeply, savoring every bit of air. A breeze blew through a window and brought relief from the heat.
“Apparently,” he said, “I need a new girlfriend. Mine’s flown away.”
“Oh, no,” she said.
“She found an airman she likes better than me.”
“Poor taste. Without question, she’s shown poor taste.”
“I got the letter yesterday. But at least she made her decision before she knew I was injured. I’d hate for her to hang on to me out of sympathy.”
The soldier was so tall his frame ran from one end of the mattress to the other. He had oily hair and a gaunt face.
“We planned on getting married.” The words seemed to mean little to him, as if the marriage talk had only been a dream. “If the war hadn’t come, we would have married, and she would have been unhappy her whole life. But now she’s found the right man. Isn’t that strange? Something good has come from the war.”
“I don’t know,” Sheila said.
So many people strewn across the world because of a little man with a funny mustache—could anything good come from that?
The soldier noticed her uniform and said, “You’re not a nurse.”
“No, my beau’s in the Eighteenth.”
He tilted his head. “So that’s why you came. What’s his name?”
“I’ve met him.” He nodded, certain. “Ninth Battalion from Queensland. Tough lads. And your Colin is one of the toughest. The Germans tried to push the boys from Queensland back twice, but they wouldn’t budge. They made the Germans pay in blood.”
“What about Colin? Is he all right?”
Beasley bobbed his head, halfway between a nod and a shake. “He was fine when I last saw him. A group came by the hospital the day we moved out. Wished us a bon voyage, joked about us stopping in Seychelles for beach time. But that was two months ago. A lot can happen in a short time over there.”
She leaned against his bed, suddenly exhausted.
“When you say he’s tough . . . does that mean he’ll take unnecessary risks?”
He shook his head and touched her hand. “I meant tough to kill. Colin is intelligent. You can see it at a glance. He’s a good man, too. He’ll come home. I’m sure he will.”
On the way back from the hospital, she detoured to the gulley at the northern edge of the camp. The eucalyptus lining the creek bed reminded her of home.
Despite his assurances, Ted Beasley couldn’t guarantee that Colin would return. Nobody could. Her stomach churned. It was the waiting and not knowing. She could handle the twelve-hour workdays and the pain in the patients’ eyes, but the worry was wearing her down.
Enough self-pity. Others have it plenty worse, she told herself.
She remembered the cheerful soldier with only one foot. She turned from the creek and hurried back to the barracks. Tomorrow was Saturday. The AWAS team gave a weekly show for the patients. They made fun of themselves with silly dance routines and out-of-tune songs. Everyone loved it.
The recruiting poster had said: There’s a job for you in the AWAS. She had a job to do right there in Tamworth, and she might as well get to it.
END OF EPISODE # 10
About the Storyteller
Pat lives in Austin. He likes to cook dinner with his wife, listen to any kind of good music, and take long walks in beautiful places.
Pat is the author of four Joe Robbins novels and a college crime story titled Only Yes Means Yes. You can find Pat’s work on Amazon under his author name Patrick Kelly. Learn more about Pat’s writing at his website:
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