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 Post subject: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2017 4:10 pm GMT 
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Each step brought him a little closer to a man with no face.

It was bloody cold. As he marched through the fading fog of his own breath, Seare found his footsteps joined by another's. Glancing over his shoulder, he paused long enough to watch a man materialise from the shadow of the corridor and emerge, wincing, into the pallor of the morning light. Pale head bowed, he pulled his white coat tighter around his narrow shoulders. Had he enlisted, Seare thought with a note of cool disdain, the army would have given him a thicker khaki to bear with the winter cold. As it was, a nearly fatal combination of asthma and some cardiac complaint rendered him unfit to give his life to the glory of the Empire. Besides; even if his body hadn't been dead-set against it, a rich lad like him could easily buy his way into a cushy Ministry post to escape conscription. Then again, perhaps he might have been considered too useful to the powers that be to let a bayonet go through his eye socket. Yes; better that glory go to some poor bugger without an education, fit only for factory work. Better someone like Roper.

Tethered by a patience he didn't feel, he waited until the medical student caught up to him.

"Morning. 'Frommholtz', isn't it? Somewhat Germanic."
"So I've been told. I tend to go by 'Foster'; Doctor Murphy's suggestion."
"Hah." A sharp, abrasive laugh. "That's something he'd do."
"Captain Seare, I presume?"
"You make me sound like Livingstone."
"It's not often men rise from the dead, Captain Seare."
"... No, I suppose not. Not any more."

They began to walk down the corridor. Their shadows lengthened behind them with the rising sun. Through the thin walls, they could hear the hospital slowly stirring to life; the clink of bedpans and the tinny screech of medicine trolleys being wheeled between the beds their version of birdsong.

"How much longer do you have on your rotation with us?"
"Final examinations are about three months from now."
"Three months. And how are you finding your education here at Guy's?"
"I believe the term 'baptism by fire' is appropriate."
From the corner of his eye Seare watched the shadows catch under those pale eyes and felt a surge of benevolent sadism. "Better bloody well be, or you're not pulling your weight."

They took a turn to the right and passed beneath a particularly flickering light. From the window they passed they spied the all-too familiar sight of blackened and fragmented buildings left over from the last three years of bombing. The night raids hadn't overlooked the area. The staff here still had collective memories of the influx of casualties from the Royal in January. 'So bombs do fall on hospitals,' they'd said. 'Get the boys back from the Front to die in London. If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of fucking Chelsea/That is for ever England.'" The unfamiliar landscape was enough to give momentary pause, but then as ever, there never seemed enough time to allow the eye to take it in. That was something Seare had learned early. It never did too well to dwell. He supposed that was why he stayed sane through of all it - or at least, gave a good enough impression.

The scent of the ward was growing now, gangrene not unlike Trench gas with its yellow sweetness. Forcing back the gorge in their throats the men stepped onwards. Seare held the door open for the civilian as if he were a lady, and the flash of instantaneous dislike in those cold blue eyes was almost enough to make him follow it up with a croon of 'sweetheart'. As soon as they were in they spotted Murphy at the far end of the room- short, with the loose skin of a fat man made thin by grief and stress, round glasses balancing precariously on the edge of his button nose. He was peering down at the bundle of notes held at arms length, but glanced up in time to meet their entry and barked a greeting.

"Ah, Foster, just the man. And Captain Seare! Good to have you. Foster's practically been running the place, so I'm sure he'll give you a briefing on the ward. Our usual houseman's down in the loading bay, and Gladstone - the other - is ill. Third time this month."
"I hope nothing serious." Seare didn't give a damn.
" 'Flu', he's calling it. I'd rather he'd make up his mind whether he was going to be a patient or a doctor." Murphy returned his gaze to the notes with a grim twitch of his thin mouth. His lips contorted like that for only a handful of the men here. "I suppose you know our first customer."


No one really knew what had happened to Roper. The short paragraph that had arrived with him had said that an exploding shell had flung him and one of the guns still scorching from disgorging its own ammunition into the same crater. Pinned beneath it, his face and the hands he had used to try to push himself away had melted into the metal. He was left earless, noseless and with lips so retracted he couldn't cover his grinning white teeth. Shortly after admission, a well-meaning nurse positioned the metal bathing tub at an angle slightly too close. Roper had stared at his reflection through the one eye had had left and found the skin of his face too tight to allow him to scream.

That was a week ago, and he hadn't eaten since. Now, as they drew back the curtain to look down at him, the staff's hearts sank to the bottom of their stomachs. The matron, Sister Hughes, walked over to his side and with business-like hands smoothed back the hair from his forehead to coax the man awake and straighten the bedclothes warped fingers had pulled to knots over a night of terrors. Her tone was at once maternal and that of a sergeant major. "Private Roper! Rise and shine if you please. The doctors are here for the morning ward round. Private Roper."

One slit of an eye stirred open, and the wasted man looked down the bed towards them. Beneath the hospital pyjamas a thin chest rose and fell, shining with tight scars. A pale tongue protruded out in a lame attempt to moisten his absent lips, and slipped back behind the prison of his bare teeth. For a moment he seemed to watch the four intruders with the same dull wariness as a fox dying by the side of the road. Murphy was familiar, with his domed forehead already shimmering with sweat. The other was too; pale and tall and aristocratic. The type who'd never have glanced in his direction before the war, and who only did so now with an expression of such emotional attachment that it was clear he only did so with the same interest as a student faced with a particularly disfigured specimen floating in a jar. Who was to say that wasn't the reality of his existence? And the other, a man he remembered from his dreams - that was the uniform - and from a feverish haze - that was the scar. An officer no less! He stirred enough to raise a smooth, contractured hand to his forehead in the painful imitation of a salute, and with a dog-like laugh let it fall. With stiff cheeks he uttered something the matron refused to translate.

"Good morning Private Roper. You'll see our merry band is joined today by Captain Seare."
" 'Octer'?"
"Yes." Murphy handed the notes to Frommholtz, who uncapped his pen ready to scribe them. "He'll be the consultant joining me on the ward for the near future. Now it says here you've missed another day's meals. We did talk about this."
" 'E did." The guttural rasp was apathetic.
"Yes, and we said you'd try to get at least half a portion down you." Roper walked around the side of the bed to place a hand on the headboard to look down at the young man. "You promised that much."

Silence. Frommholtz' pen hung a thought from the paper in preparation for the inevitable. Roper's single eye, the only living thing left in the bald battlefield of his face stared up at Murphy. The light trembled in his glasses and the ghost of his own face was reflected in them. After a moment his head tilted away, and the eye closed beneath a damaged eyelid. This was where the catatonia set in. And it did; the unnatural stillness, limbs laid out as if they were threaded with France's wire. With a sigh, Murphy reached out and took his arm, and straightened it up in the air. When his hands left the limb stayed there, suspended above his body as if the doctor had remodelled Roper's flesh out of warm candle-wax.

Seare watched on, pausing only to glance down at what Frommholtz was annotating. 'Passive catatonia. ... Waxy flexibility. ... Apathy, anorexia.' Then he returned his gaze to watch as Murphy gently returned the limb to his side to straighten with a sigh.

"Roper, I'll see you again before lunch. For God's sake, eat something."

Roper grinned, but then, Roper always did.



"From a medical point of things, there's little more we can do." Frommholtz spoke with such a cool authority that Seare wanted put him in a deep hole in the ground and fill it up to his waist in cold water.

The ward round was over, and now they marched through to the outliers before they all went their separate ways; Frommholtz to the laboratories, Murphy back to the ward, and Seare to oversee the newcomers. Already their medical student seemed eager to leave; throwing quick glances to the clocks on the walls as if running to a timetable the patients in their stupidity stretched the borders of. Above them the lights continued to hum like so many flies, and outside the rumbling belch of London's pollution crept in through the thin windows along the same patterns as the frost.

"He should be moved to some rehabilitation institution- or frankly neuropsychology."
"Not had enough burns in your opinion, 'Doctor Foster'? Think a little ECT would do him some good?"

That sidelong glance. Seare knew he shouldn't enjoy it so much.

Murphy turned to them, seemingly aware of this appointment of Frommholtz', and gave him permission to leave the round. He marched on to leave the two younger men alone at the top of the winding stairs that led down to the laboratories and the world one of them knew better than the fractured death-rattles of living men. Drawn to the rooms beneath the earth, Frommholtz had already started down the first two steps before pausing and turning to look over his shoulder, up at him.

"I defer to you, Captain. What would you have us do?" he asked, and his voice was as cold as the ice that laced the windows.

Seare was aware of his efforts to keep his gaze directed in his eyes only, impressed and contemptuous of his restraint. Part of him - the more self-destructive side - wanted to raise his hands and unknot the tie, break open his collar and invite him to look. I know, I know. Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder at how I can still speak too. Look down far down it goes. I'm not Livingstone; I'm Lazarus.

Outside the window a dog barked, and they were both transported back to Roper's bedside and the wire in his bones, the shrapnel in his laugh.


"I'd have shot him before he ever left that shell hole."


Frommholtz descended deep into English earth, and Seare made his way to the waiting bay where the boys France's mud had spat back out writhed and died in the cool morning sun.

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Last edited by Nerfiti on Sat Apr 29, 2017 3:29 pm GMT, edited 2 times in total.

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 Post subject: Re: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Sat Mar 11, 2017 5:08 pm GMT 
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"I never learned my letters, see. Mam sent us asking to the factories early, she had to do it. I'd've done it. But it meant we never got our schooling, did we? Neither did she, come to think-- Not me Mam. Well, yeah, me Mam, but Mads too. My Madlin. But she's got our Rosie with her, and she learned her letters something proper, so she'll be able to read them to her."

"Yes, but what do you want to say?"

"Something about the food. Mads likes her food. She'll be wanting to know I'm keeping up my appetite, won't she?"

"I'm sure. But you just say out loud and I'll do what I can to write--"

"--And she's never got to see London neither. Not the pretty sight it was in the postcards now, is it? Bloody Hell, she won't half be disappointed if she comes down now. Still, if she could see the old Houses of P, that'd be enough. She'd egg 'em though, mind."

Barnes looked out of the window and gazed, disappointedly, out at the landscape. Clara watched the lines move like the ripples on the surface of a pond up and down his forehead, to settle and etch themselves into his face. Perhaps he was looking at the Birmingham city line. He spoke about the city enough that she wouldn't be surprised. The pencil tapped restlessly in her fingers. She wanted to loosen her collar, and a curl of hair that had escaped down the side of her neck was irritating her. Discretely she stretched back to check the watch that hung from her apron's breast-pocket, and found herself wincing at the time. There was something about Barnes that kept you; the incessant melancholy of his accent and the cheery optimism of his words and the way they just kept coming.

This letter was no where near finished, though he kept begging her to come and scribe for him in her time between administering medications, and cleaning beds and patients and her own hands again and again. When she did so, her hands blistering from harsh carbolic soap, he talked to her about his wife, and their daughter, and the two they'd lost to the flu outbreak in '12. He spoke without a bitterness or pain, which surprised her. Only a gentle nostalgia, calm and clear. Maybe, she thought, that was why she came when he asked her to write his empty letters. He was an excellent tutor for grief.

Barnes began to talk about his daughter again; a story she'd heard before, at least half a dozen times, but who was she to disrupt the tenderness in his eyes? So she pushed her chair back with the balls of her thick-soled shoes and watched the rest of the bay, and let his words wash over her in a comforting drone.

There were eight beds, which was two more than the room had been designed to hold. Across the room she could see its matching set. There was meant to be more distinction between the surgical and medical patients, but with each new influx of men, and the scattered escalations and deaths-- some expected, some not-- patients were often posted as outliers where any beds could be found. The two that flanked the doors belonged to Private Jones and Sergeant Major Cartwright. Bullets to the left and right leg respectively. Jones was getting on, Cartwright was failing.

Then there were Privates Tomlinson and Batten, who despised each other. Tomlinson had a severe burn on his left hand, which had been a little too perfect as a Blighty wound. He'd have been bound for a coward's court-martial if a shell hadn't exploded ten metres to his left seconds later and made mincemeat out of the rest of the arm. Batten made her heart sink, though, try as she might, Murphy's foil - Major Wright - point-blank refused to refer him to neuropsychology for review. "A shock's all he needs. By God, we didn't have any of this new-fangled nonsense in Ladysmith."

Then there was an empty bed, the coverlet only newly folded. That had been Smith. There had been a sigh of relief when he had finally passed on, something which had taken too long. The sheets were so pale and starched compared to what they had been. Like a fresh, new page, ready for new crimson ink. The unmarked paper beneath her hands crinkled, and she looked away.

Opposite Smith's bed was Roper, curtains drawn for everyone's sake. Roper was the one that stayed with them when they made the long walk home. Sometimes she found herself brushing her hair in the mirror in the mornings, and self-inflicted wounds out of curiosity. Scraped away her nose, flattened the skin of her brow into her cheek to obliterate her eye, drew her lips back to make the ghoulish smile. Wondering if she could live with that. Knowing that they had little choice than he make him do so.

And then there were the last two last ones, Barnes and X, two men utterly dissimilar. Barnes wouldn't have made it up to the other man's collarbone, his poor little bones bent and curved by childhood rickets. His skin was as pallid as X's rose and gold with old tan. And where he spoke, his words a comforting stream, the other man was silent, save for the gentle rasp of his breath between pale lips and the nonsensical words and names they formed somewhere in the depths of delirium.

Rosie had just saved up for a typewriter. They were approaching halfway. Clara set down the pen and paper, and let her chin rest on a hand. Watching the irregular rise and fall of X's chest, she found herself breathing to his rhythm. It made her heart seem to stutter, and the corset of the starched uniform even come constricting. He coughed, and she had to stop herself from getting to her feet to go over to him.

... Stupid. This was stupid.

Another glance at her watch, and realised with a sudden shock that Barnes had fallen silent. Rosie should have been employed by now, should have been promoted to secretary. She glanced up, suddenly wracked with guilt to find Barnes lost for words, looking down at the pyjamas too long for his skinny arms.

"Private Barnes...?"

"... I... I should've been the one to buy her that typewriter."

A wince, berating herself for losing track, she straightened up and tried to catch his eye. "You put her through school. That was an opportunity you and Maddy never got, isn't it? But you made that happen for her."

"In her last letter she said it broke. The typewriter."

"-- Barnes--"

"--And now I... Before I might've been able to-- At least if they had a widow's pension they could-- they could--"

"-- Barnes, don't." She reached out to place a hand over the only one he had left. It was shaking. "Don't."

Before the tears began to fall she had already pulled the red curtain closed, and in the secrecy of that crimson light placed an arm around the shoulders skinnier than her own, and felt the spasms and shakes move through his shoulder blades and into her chest, knotted tight with high collars, stiff with carbolic soap. Her little, pale tutor of grief.



She pulled back the curtain when he did, and for a second they found a jolt of eye-contact, frozen in place. Then, self-conscious, a brief nod as they righted the beds they had just left. They tweaked the bedclothes with hands made steady through training as vigorous as bayonet practice, checked two pulses through force of habit. Then, as she left Barnes' bedside, and he left X's, they found themselves walking out of the bay side by side, strangely unwilling to speak and awkward through the lack of words. With effort, Clara spoke first.

"You know, I think you were meant to finish a couple of hours ago."

"It seems I'm following your example."

A stiff, exhausted pair of smiles.

"I need to get my coat."



They fell into step through the fading light, and their shadows melted together, elongated and strange. At dusk the hospital became a strange place, as if with each lapsing hour it moved like a beast settling in to sleep. It felt, Clara thought, like they were wandering cells in the body of something alive in itself. They were the blood that made the heart beat, but at any point the hospital had but to have a cut and they would be lost. A miracle thing; a building that generated its own lifeblood, and used patients as food, gulping them raw. Wasn't that how they described the war, sometimes? The satanic monster that feasted on the nation's sons, and made widows of their daughters.

The wind outside was chill, and the wind pricked their faces. Hers had broken in a gust as she'd made the crossing above the Thames in the morning, so they walked together under his. It painted a strangely domestic picture; had a stranger watched them they would have mistaken the silence for contentment. Instead it was an exhausted tension, both dwelling on the moment of revelation in the bay. Again it was left to her to speak. The pale, rain-streaked face betrayed little.

"I haven't seen you around as much. I thought you'd finished your rotation."

A cool laugh. "Oh, I'm there. I've been reassigned. Medical students they can do without. Pathologists on the other hand..."

"Ah. I can't say I understood many of your papers but..."

"You've read them?" There was a flicker of curiosity in his voice; he glanced down at her with a look torn between amusement and surprise. "Where on earth did you get copies?"

"I tried to," she correctly wryly. "Captain Seare had a few of them stashed away in his briefcase." With a glimpse of a smirk she rarely let slip under the stern gaze of Matron Hughes, she added, "Espionage? Or sabotage?"

"Both, probably."

They'd made their way to New London Bridge, and mounted the steps slippery with rain. The streets were empty now, and the sun had already sank beneath the irregular. The darkness was less piercing than it had been in years passed, but the threat of raids still lingered and the lights were kept low. Without the hustle around them their footsteps naturally slowed, and cold air plumed before their mouths a pale silver. Silence lapsed again, and as they approached the middle of the bridge so did their paces. They turned, looking down the river at the lights winking off the crest of the river's current and the outline of the House of Parliament.

Still, if she could see the old Houses of P...

"Pneumococcal serology. X started it off."

"I heard from Doctor Murphy." For a moment she was silent, and then, quietly, testing the waters... "He's getting better, you know."

"Is he?"

"He told me his name. Or, at least, I think he did." She was aware in a slight shift in his posture, and the way his eyes which before wandered over the skyline became fixed. His interest was only murmured.

" 'Joe'."

"Really? I'd expected something more..." He searched for a word. "Exotic."

"You know, so did I."

A shared smile overshadowed a brief meeting of eyes, and they looked away from each other. Clara found herself laughing, and raised a raw hand to cover her mouth. With a change of the wind the rain smarted against her face, stinging her eyelids and running down her cheeks. She turned her face up to it, and found a few of the raindrops that met her mouth tasted of salt.



They walked together to the junction of Bishopsgate and City Wall. There they turned to each other, drunk with exhaustion, and he handed her the umbrella with quiet insistence over her protests. He stood back and turned his collar up to the rain, and she shivered in her damp stockings where the water had leaked through her boots.

"Thank you."

"Not at all."

"I'll give it back tomorrow, unless...?"

"It's my on-call shift."

"Oh." A note of disappointed she pretended she hadn't uttered, he pretended he hadn't heard. "-- In which case, the end of-"

"Evening shift?"

"Yes."

"Then, then."

"Yes. That's when you usually stop by, isn't it?"

Their eyes met again, and fell apart with a sting of some unspoken, shared guilt. A man walked by on the other side of the street and instinctively they stepped further apart from each other, though now they wouldn't make for an uncommon sight. Trapped beneath the stranger's glance he merely nodded a farewell, touched the brim of his hat and turned to leave. Clara watched him leave only for a moment before starting the short journey West to Moorgate, her heels striking sharp against the pavement. And then, on a whim, she half-turned, the shaft of the umbrella pressed tight against her chest and walking backwards called over to him above the sound of the rain in the gutters.

"You know, I like 'Frommholtz' better! Even though it's unpatriotic."


In the darkness and rushing water, she only just caught the sound of his laugh. And London swallowed them both.

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 Post subject: Re: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Sun Apr 30, 2017 2:41 pm GMT 
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His pyjamas were getting thin. He should probably buy a new pair soon.

Dazed with sleep, Murphy stared at his knees between heavy, sluggish blinks. He'd automatically reached for his glasses, something as natural as breathing that came upon waking, but had yet to place the bridge into the little furrow in his nose. Instead his hands idled with them, allowing himself a few moments of blurred navy stripes, and somewhere in their folds his legs. They belonged to his pre-war body. Much like him, the material had grown a bit coarse, threadbare, almost pushed to point of use. He grimaced, set the glasses on, remembered it was a Sunday.

5.30am, the clock said. He almost threw it across the room.

...

"Francis! My God, you look..."
"Go on, you can say it. Ravaged? Wraithlike? An absconding scarecrow?"
"I was going to say 'slender', but I imagine if your own sister can't even insult you there's little chance you'll get it anywhere else. So yes, you look jolly dreadful."
"Thanks, I needed that. I thought we'd had coffee outside Paul's."
"Only if you're paying."

They sat by the window, since it was about as cold there as anywhere else, and kept their coats buttoned up beneath their chins. Murphy watched his sister take a sip of the assuredly bad coffee, grimace slightly, and with panache bravely take another. She was older than when he'd last seen her. Obviously. What an obvious thing to think, but it was there in the crowfeet, in the wire grey hair that escaped whatever hasty bun she'd scraped it into before she dashed out for the train. He could imagine her running down the platform, umbrella aloft, scarf trailing behind her. Their parents had always rather hoped she'd turn out a little more put-together then she'd been in her youth, but it seemed the years were running her a little more wild.

"How's the hospital? Singlehandedly saving the war are you?"
"Let's not talk about that bloody place. Tell me about York, and the boys. The juniors, that is."
"Oh," Jennifer replied with zest, laying her spoon down with a confrontational clatter, "I assure you you'll hear about Senior once the tea cake arrives. I feel as if I'm going mad, rattling around that house by myself. If I didn't have the dog and the endless administration and the odd prodigal son to worry about I don't know where I'd be."
"At his throat?"
"I am at his throat. If he thinks he can toss away a good thirty years of marriage and my savings out of the windows for a twenty-something blonde from the front row-- God Francis--" They were receiving looks now, but neither of them at this point were in the mood to care, "His class. A student. What a farce. What a bore. What a cliché."
"Beneath the righteous fury I naturally felt on hearing the news, I confess I felt as if the whole thing were rather cheap."
" 'Cheap'! There, that's the word. Well, I won't let it be. I'm bleeding every pound, shilling and penny out of him, see if I don't."
"Teacake's arrived."
"Good, I'm starving."

They tucked in. As if in consideration for the state of their drinks, it was surprisingly good.

"Mark's busy designing whatever it is they want him to, but neither I nor you will ever know much more than that. Nature of the business, or so I'm told."
"Very hush-hush is it?"
"Rather."
"Sounds more like he's the one saving the war."
"Mmm-hmm. How's yours?"
"Andrew? He's... Well. You know Andrew."
"No one really knows Andrew."
"True, but apparently his professors are keeping him occupied, which is good."
"Yes."
"Yes."

Jennifer raised her cup to her lips to preoccupy her eyes.

"I imagine he misses his mother terribly."

Murphy raised his likewise, but his attention was caught by a flock of pigeons bursting from St Paul's roof and circling overhead. The daylight reflected off their feathers as if they were made of silver.

"... Yes. Yes, I think..."
"Are things all right at the hospital? Francis?"
"Yes, I think he does."

...

It was ridiculous to come in at half two in the afternoon on a Sunday, but increasingly he found that he really had little else but the hospital and its odd comings and goings. Jennifer was an oasis- albeit a chaotic one- in an otherwise arid desert of rain and power cuts. Besides, she had lawyers to see between their little spot of tea and dinner, and faced with the oppressive silence of his rooms, the friendly madness and familiar stench of a ward was a welcome relief.

There was matron taking a spot of respite at the desk and scowling furiously at him for disobeying bed rest. He nodded and then quickly averted his eyes before he invited any further commentary on his presence. Instead he could take it in from the momentary position of a stranger, a visitor before he donned the white coat and materialised within this place as a cog, part of the machine. He watched the pale light stream through the condensation on the tall windows and give the place the look of a church or chapel.

All save two of the beds had their drapes open, bar Roper's (a permanent choice) and Batten's (probably using the commode). The customers looked comfortable enough, save for that poor bugger at the end who still looked rather touch-and-go. He felt an instinctive surge of distate upon seeing him- not for him, but rather the circumstance he'd thrown him into. As jocular as he might make an effort to sound in the day, his personal thoughts were always laced with acidity when it came to Frommholtz. 'Foster', hah. What a good joke. He must have been delirious with exhaustion but it seemed to have stuck and X was, at least for the moment, alive. Apparently the name was actually 'Jo Something', according to little Clara. Where was little-- Ah, there.

She always managed to look lovely, or at least he thought so. A little mousy, but those lovely green eyes, that thin and earnest face, usually with a sort of pondering scowl. He'd considered asking her to tea a couple of times, but found himself confronted by Jennifer's scathing words, something along the lines of what a cliché he'd turned out to be, panting after a girl old enough-- or rather, young enough to be his daughter. Even her fictional remarks were enough to drive all that nonsense back and find himself bewildered and a little disgusted by himself.

She was ducking out of Roper's self-erected prison, with a few dirty strips of bandage tossed in her basin, and mortified he glanced away still stinging with self-reproach. Good God, she really couldn't be more than twenty three.

"Doctor Murphy! You surprised me." Seare's voice came from behind and he started, turning abruptly to look first at the chest of the man's uniform, and then up to his face. He was always surprised by just how tall he was. They said the infamous Sassoon occupied the body of some greek god, and Murphy wondered, with a touch of acidity, whether he and Seare were possibly related somehow. "I thought you'd managed to scrape a day off?"

"I find myself something of a homing pigeon, Captain Seare. Some little compass somewhere in my head has this old place set as North."
"You're an example to us all." Perhaps it was just him, but Murphy suspected he could hear a note of sarcasm, and no the kind sort. "Nothing new or exciting I'm afraid."
"Roper?"
"What about him?"
"Has the man eaten, or...?"
"He's not going to."

Murphy bristled, and with difficulty stroked down the spines with a deep breath.

"Our student was making noises about recent advances on the Jones model."
"Feeding tubes? Through what? What's left of his nose?" Seare arched an eyebrow, and for a moment seemed to smile, or threatened to. "He's quite the revolutionary, your Foster. How exciting this all must be for him."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Look." The captain gestured to the beds, and the men dosing and reading the newspaper, writhing, muttering with pain. "A whole room of patients to play with. He's made himself quite the laboratory with your 'customers', Doctor Murphy."

Murphy felt something cold slip down his collar and down his spine, and found himself clenching his teeth and wanting to utter back down snappish remark about how ridiculous he was being. But he found he couldn't. Not when he saw an echo of his own thoughts in the words. A familiar glitter of revulsion in the eyes.

In the end he coughed and muttered something beneath his breath and strode over to the notes cabinet to leaf through them and note the latest entries in each, and the familiar cut and thrust of that neat, scientist's handwriting. Heart rate. Bowel habit. Blood loss.

He glanced up to see Seare pull back the curtain to Roper's bedside and let the sunlight fall on that tortured face, with their eyes half-open as if already dead. He watched the officer take a seat next to him and conjure some life out of him; a few words, that mocking salute, and then- and he found himself startled by the sound- a glimpse of laughter. Some trench humour perhaps, some joke that can only be shared by those familiar with the stringent scent of bogs as battlefields. Lord knew they'd earned it. He watched the scar on Seare's throat bob with his Adam's apple to the tempo of his laugh, Roper's hacked out through bare teeth.

He was, Murphy had to admit, an excellent doctor.

BP: 100/75. Other observations stable. Patient lying in bed, comfortable at rest. Apathetic. Frommholtz' handwriting. Anorexic. Chest clear, HS I + I + 0. Abdo SNT. Calves SNT.

The specimen, Murphy translated in his head, is still alive. And he found himself shivering.

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