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Hey kid.
 Post subject: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2017 4:10 pm GMT 
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Location: Probably a lab. Wishing I was in bed.
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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.

My incredibly sophisticated minions.

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


Hey kid.
 Post subject: Re: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Sat Mar 11, 2017 5:08 pm GMT 
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Location: Probably a lab. Wishing I was in bed.
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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?"


"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.

My incredibly sophisticated minions.


Hey kid.
 Post subject: Re: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Sun Apr 30, 2017 2:41 pm GMT 
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Location: Probably a lab. Wishing I was in bed.
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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?"
"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."

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."
"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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 Post subject: Re: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Sun Dec 10, 2017 4:03 pm GMT 
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Crimson smoke rose beneath the velvet dark and stole across the sky. It was hot; the kind of arid, blanket heat that sank deep through the soft layers of the body and into the bones and memory. That was how Africa did it. It invaded you from the outside in. No measure of fans and mosquito strips and quinine could fend it away. It was the furnace heat in which his father and grandfather had been hardened into men. It was a magnificent, harsh kiln. Even now he could see his father astride his horse, sitting as if the whole world was straddled between his legs. Old Boer stock. Afraid of nothing. He looked out across the acacia trees, and the sky that stretched on without limit.

Red sky in the morning. That was the old sailor’s phrase. But as he looked to the red warnings, he found he didn’t know whether he looked towards dawn or twilight. The sun hang white and low. It neither sank nor rose. Scarlet clouds leaked out from it as if the star itself was bleeding against the dark canvas horizon. He had forgotten this heat. The trenches had taken it from him; like an old man sucking the marrow out of bones.

Occasionally he would feel he was being touched.

Somewhere in the darkness something woven and wet and lukewarm invaded him. It rasped across his shoulders, his chest, the underside of his neck and the recesses of his armpits like the rough tongue of an animal. Lights would dance amid the chatter of woman’s voices, hallucinatory, nonsensical. The subject eddied with the sound. Dancehalls. Books. The wireless. One woman’s voice permeated his dreams. He became used to it as white noise, and occasionally it uttered a scrap of his name that tire him out of reverie. Beneath her hands he was cadaveric. His arms weren’t his own; only heavy branches of meat she could pull and stretch and take with fingers light as moth wings. Jo, she’d say, Jo, can you...

At first he’d thought she was Abby. He’d waited with the passive acceptance of a dreamer as she had approached. A little hand pushed him back into place and then started to turn the pages of her endless books. Her voice came back to him so easily now, so easily he wondered how he had ever thought he might forget it. It started off stern, and then would unconsciously rush, lisp, stumble in her eagerness to get out the words and tell him of the sword fights hiding in the pages, the frantic dashes for life, the hard struggle of abandonment on a desert island and the colour of the macaw’s feathers stamped on thick white pages in black ink. Abby, Abby. He could see her glasses slipping down her nose. The little tufts of baby hair at the corner of her temples that escaped her plaits. Before his eyes he watched as her knuckles grew white as they gripped her books’ spines. He melted before the childish toothiness of her smile, Abby....

Jo, the voice called, Jo...

And all that was left of his sister was a yawning pain and searches in the dark. And he searched and he wandered. The washing cloth left his skin a cold husk over the fever beneath. He was in his uniform again. The water logged exoskeleton seemed to both fuse and rub across his skin, chafing, melding, rubbing his necks raw with writhing seams of white lice. This was his chrysalis; beneath he was being broken down and reduced, hidden from strange eyes. This uniform was his coffin; he’d be buried in it.

He groped blind along the trench, one hand tugging his helmet lower over his eyes as the rain poured in. Abby’s name became his, the one he had barely let himself utter in the last few years and even now he couldn’t conjure. Even nameless he knew; the presence and idea of him were overwhelming, as heady as the scent of hothouse flowers and grass in summer. He was here, somewhere in this mire of tar black mud and grey clouds. This was why he had never found him. His father had buried him here in the border between France and Belgium and he had been sleeping since, waiting for this day. I can save him, he thought. I can find him. The raindrops on his helmet rang like bullet casings.

The nurses let him drop too hard.

He was flung across the trench, and, winded, was forced to lie in the muddy water to stare up at the borders above him. Barbed wire and scraps of cloth wound across the stark remnants of trees.

And there. There he was: naked, exposed, looking down at him with quiet bewilderment. He stood on the parapet, a dark silhouette against storm clouds. They seemed to look at each other for years. Wordless as he struggled to make the man live again in his mind’s eye... the folds of his eyelids, the slender curve of the neck he had loved to watch bent over a haze of flowers almost too precious to conjure. He was paralysed now, he couldn’t move, and could only whisper. Come down. Come down to me. They’ll see you. They’ll...

He heard the whistle, and the man on the parapet became a plume of smoke and dank earth, and the shell’s scream was Stefan’s. And in a moment all that was left the sky, infested with its hellish wire.

When he turned over to vomit into the trench, the man that stared back up at him in his reflection was that boy — that idiot boy, the one who had laughed too loud in the gardens, who had hung from his hammocks and thrown half-eaten peaches into the immaculate undergrowth and bent rules as flippantly as he creased the pages of his books. The one who had paraded into New York, Sotho still fresh on his tongue. The fool too bold to see the bridges that belched columns of smoke as they burned behind him, fuelled with Stefan’s body as coal, oh God—

Oh God, the men around him were burning too, and all the while shrieking for the medic. Their groans were fish hooks in his skin. Unrelenting, they dragged him upwards and on, to wade through the mud and the bodies where they lay translucent as gutted fish. Their fire was infectious. It was in his cheeks now, his head. It was boiling his eyes in their sockets. He found himself panting Stefan’s name, and Abby’s, and his mother’s through bloody teeth. He could hear pus rattling in his chest with each breath. So he would drown and burn at the end, he thought, and slowly.

He seemed to float for a while, contracting and groaning into the nothingness. Then he felt it.

At first he thought it was nothing but the soft kiss of rain, or the flat side of a bayonet. Cool. So cool. Turning his cheek to it, he guided its touch down, across his jaw and onto the scorch of his neck. The men needed their medic. He needed to get back, to drown in the sea of their pain. It was the price he needed to pay—

“The War’s over.” The voice was like a cut, and startled he looked up towards it.

The soldier who spoke looked at him. He recognised the uniform instantly, from even before he saw it. He had been a child when he visited the camps in the veldt, but now he stood level and could look at this Englishman, this foreign soldier without craning his neck and reaching out for his mother’s skirt. Somewhere behind him came the reek of the open sewers and the exhausted yelps of babies too starved to cry. The murderer with his ivory uniform stared at him with the same impassive look as the guards that had watched their shambling pilgrimage, armed with with bars of soap, all those years ago.

“The War is over, soldier,” he repeated. His voice was quiet. His helmet was gone now; his hair shone a pale blonde in the heat. With quiet authority, the stranger reached out one of his hands. The palm was so clean. It should have been steeped in blood. It was no witness to his crimes, no testimony to the lives he and the rest of his country had ripped up from the roots and let scatter and die. With the fury of a child and the strength of a man, he grabbed him by the wrist and dragged the Englishman closer, wanting to hurt and damage and make him understand - the War wasn’t over, it never ended, not until he and his kind paid for the corpses in the camps at Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Viljoensdrift, and the way they had fingered their guns as they laughed at the gate houses...

If the solider felt pain he didn’t show it, though he could feel his fingers gripping too deep and twisting too hard to not leave a mark. The skin beneath was so cool, and the blue eyes never so much as flickered.

“Germany surrendered, a little under a month ago,” he said. “You’re in Guy’s Hospital in London. Do you remember?”

Above him he could see a pale golden light. He felt a pillow, the cover damp with sweat pressed against his ear. He dimly saw the pale green stripes of a pyjama sleeve. Somewhere behind him he heard a child’s cry and the horror of his memory stormed back - he hauled himself upright - from standing, it seemed as the world seemed to tilt hard on its axis — and grabbed the soldier’s collar with raw fingers. All at once he felt the stiffness of the uniform and the rubber of a stethoscope. This is what he should have done, all those years ago, tried to fight back, it was what his father would have done, should have done, hadn’t done - Jy moet zich vermannen. Man up, for God’s sake. No son of mine —


“Han,” he rasped, “It’s Han.

He panted. Each breath seemed to snarl, hurt, worry away at his ribs like wolf’s jaws eating him from the inside. He could feel buttons biting the inside of his fist, and the give of the stethoscope casing, familiar, haunting. His shoulders gave way and he slumped against the soldier even as his hands tried to push away. They fumbled, drunk with fever, catching, gripping the places where military honours should have been pinned, where the strap of the rifle strap should have lain, but finding nothing but shirt cloth and beneath cool, smooth, lilywhite skin here at the base of a throat, there at the inside of a forearm. The soldier was very still. Only when Han threatened to tilt over did he move; to raise a single hand to rest on the back of his neck to steady him, and in return he pushed his forehead against the soldier’s shoulder, gasping for air, trying to breathe submerged in water and fire.

He could see trench flares on the inside of his eyelids. So he let his eyes fall open, and traced the pattern of the pyjamas he wore but did not recognise, and the sheets beneath him, and the stethoscope now resting where it had fallen in his lap. Same brand as his own. Newer model. The air smelt of dusty lightbulbs burning too bright, and iron, and carbolic soap. The shirt beneath him smelled new, and the man beneath it - pine, paper, a hint of cigarettes. The bed was surrounded by crimson, as if they were floating on a scarlet sea, or the African sky, and his father was sat on a horse somewhere far below, looking up at them.

“It’s over.” He didn’t recognise his voice.


“Ah.” A groan, a laugh, something between. He’d expected to feel more. He’d expected to die with this lumbering deathmill of a War. Perhaps he still would. He knew the boys still waited for him; they lay outside the reach of these hands and soon he would too. They were still burning and drowning far away from Guy’s Hospital, London, England, with its stethoscopes and striped nightclothes and watchguards dressed as doctors. He raised his head, their jaws brushed and he resisted the urge to press his cheek against that coolness. Instead he angled his head back, and looked into his eyes. And as Han did so, and he couldn’t explain why, his fingers raised to touch the dressing he knew would be there on his left cheek.

For a long time they looked at each other. And then the soldier laid him down against the pillows, and listened to him breathe through the stethoscope. His blue eyes rested on the rise and fall of his chest and the face of his watch. All the while water rose around the bed; it lapped at the legs, soaked up the bedclothes and climbed around him. The trenches were calling him back.

The soldier stood, and replaced the stethoscope around his neck. He felt his pulse one last time. Familiar, that touch. Han found himself closing his eyes.

By the time he had opened them again, the English soldier was gone.

The barbed wire children welcomed him back beneath the mud.

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Hey kid.
 Post subject: Re: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Mon Dec 18, 2017 2:04 pm GMT 
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She’d left her apartment late this morning. In hindsight she’d spent far too much time in front of the mirror, cursing herself whilst she was at it and feeling ridiculous. What was a little added rouge after all? Who was she trying to impress? One of the juniors, in their oversized white coats and tired shoulders? Seare, all sharp humour and vacant stares? The man who had leant her an umbrella in the rain? Of them all, he seemed the most apt. She found it hard to imagine illicit conversations in store rooms with him, though. As she smudged some of her lipstick onto her cheeks in an attempt to pinch a little colour into the December chill, she recalled some of the talk she’d had with the girls last night. Stupid stuff about factory romance. Kisses under munitions equipment, little grabs attempted through uniform thick and unweilding as potato sacks. Imagining young Mr Foster catching her in a passionate embrace made her snort out her toothpaste, swearing under her breath as a few specks of it landed on the collar of her uniform. In the room behind her she heard Gloria moan something about ‘shut it up, it’s only five o-clock in the bloody morning Clara’.

With a cursory apology yelled with glee over her shoulder at her slumbering roommate, she snatched up her bag and bolted out of the door.

The bakery was on her way there. They knew her well enough by now to slip her half a newly toasted loaf as she made her way past the side entrance, and chewing it she blew streams of cool air into the dark morning around her. Before the war there had been traces of cinnamon in the air that billowed from their doors in the wee hours, and raisins, and orange peel this close to Christmas. Rationing had seen an end to that. But she could still remember pressing her nose up to the window and drooling up at the pastries on display, too young to know any better. Back then her mother would impatiently tug her hood and, deaf to her whining, drag her down the street. But now the war was over. And now, maybe in a few months, a few years, one day she might step foot back there and walk up to the counter to order something and devour it, licking the buttery, sugared crumbs off her fingers to sate the slumbering greed of a little girl.

The war was over.

It was really over.

It still had yet to sink in, even these weeks after. It seemed that boys were still coming through the doors, and that she still saw their uniforms come in, torn and threadbare, and leave too, pressed onto their haggard bodies, or folded with official telegrams bearing worn patriotic words. They were still dying. Even here and now after the church bells across the world had rung out the funeral march of the war to end all wars. Even when she’d begun to dream again about what would now come after. Raisins. Marzipan. Dances and light and love she hadn’t let herself feel for this generation of beautiful boys, not after she’d seen first hand what happened to them. She had never understood the phrase “to love and lose”. If she was going to love, she wasn’t going to watch her heart march away to face gunfire. She wasn’t going to read about it buried somewhere in a mass grave, by a village she had never heard of, in a region she could barely pronounce.

For some, the ward told her, things had ended. She watched, face tight with the rest of them as the porters had drawn the curtains to Bed 3. And as its occupant was bestowed his last rites, and unfamiliar hands closed his eyes, she had turned to walk into another cubicle and sit at the patient’s side and watch. The Lord giveth, her father had told her once, and he taketh away. She hadn’t believed it, and even now she thought of his words with a twist of revulsion.

But then X, then Jo, stirred against his pillow. She watched a bead of sweat roll down the side of his cheek, and how he stretched, and reached a weak hand up to touch his cheek. His eyes opened and wandered without a thought for a time about him. She held her breath and watched their darkness follow the folds of the curtains, up to the glint of the rail that held them up. Past it, to the frosty windows, and then down to the sight of his hand, his arm, and then hers. He looked up at her.

“Hello,” he said. His voice was very quiet, more a sigh. She had the impression he hadn’t woken yet, but his eyes carried a watchful wariness. It stole across her face; fever must have made him bold, and beautiful, and able to explore the curve of her eyebrows and the shadows at the corner of her mouth. It were as if he were looking for something. She felt something go very tight in her chest.


She could barely feel her lips move. The voice that came out was husky and hushed; unlike herself. His mouth was dry, chapped a little. In the weak sunlight he was a pale gold.


Behind them she could hear the creak of the bed being shifted, and the low drone of the priest bestowing last prayers. She could hear words like father and son, salvation and heaven, light and dark. The theatre of death was being played out half a yard away. She could feel its breath on the back of her neck; the War was still stalking her back and whispered to her. You’re not out of the woods yet, it warned, its threat cold as winter rain. She heard the bodybag being drawn closed, and the hiss of it being dragged from the bed to the trolley. It landed true with a meaty thud.

The man she called Jo smiled, and she thought - it’s him. The rouge was for him.

You’re not our of the woods Death promised, and neither is he.

The priest made his last intonation, and she reached out and brushed a strand of hair back from the soldier’s forehead.

Baking sugar and the promise of oranges, and doomed young men come home. Winter’s thaw seemed so close she could taste it. His forehead was warm, and he didn’t pull away.


You can stop searching, she wanted to say. I’m here. You’re safe.


The young man didn’t stop when he saw it. His fingers grew numb, and the reports in them threatened to fall. His footsteps never ceased to fall but for a moment they dragged, as if time itself froze for just one moment and left him suspended. The ward’s doors were swung shut, and before them stood a little congregation; Matron, and Murphy, and Gladstone all in low conversation with a priest. Seare stood a little way away. He was looking through the window out across the snow and chimneys; ravens shook ice from their feathers as they huddled closer to the umber ceramic tiles. Away from them all stood the gurney, left out of all of it. As if quite separate. Almost forgotten.

He rested the folders on the windowsill.

No one watched. After all; the War was over, and people were looking forward, and the snow would melt soon. Gladstone laughed, the sound bounced off the walls, echoing in and out of itself in the quiet to disguise the tread of his feet. The bedpans had stopped rattling, the patients had stopped their groaning for a day, and the hospital was still beneath the snow. The War was over, and the boys were coming back home.

So no one turned to look as the young man drew to a stop beside the trolley, silent and pale. No one spared a glance as he slowly pulled back the zip, and with a brush of the back of his fingers coaxed the dark bag open, and he I nhaled the scent of death.

No one would see the quiet breath that slipped out between his teeth, and the pale flicker of his gaze.

Apart from Roper, who smiled. But then Roper always smiled, even as the young man’s hands moved to draw him back under the cover of darkness and zip shut his canvas shroud.

For a moment Septimus stood sentinel. In his mind’s eye danced the dead man’s face; a familiar battleground of crevasses and creased, warped skin. There were so many scars there; all horrific but clean. The matron has wiped the cares from his face, but not even her practiced hands could properly shut the eyelids. He’d been made presentable for death, all but the little crust of blood at his right nostril.

The young man stepped back, and his hands fell to his sides.

He had thought he’d see only one scar.

Outside, a single crow took wing, and his eyes followed its soaring path away, across the right side of the building until it met the bright glare of the sun. As it was lost to him, he found himself looking directly into Seare’s eyes.

“One for sorrow,” Murphy commented quietly.

The group turned, and saw him where he stood in the shadow of a dead man’s hearse. There was a moment of silence. Gladstone’s smile died, and the echoes of his laugh finally faded into the cold walls.

Very cold walls.

“Enough of that. Ward round in five. Father Patrick, if you could, the body...”
“Of course Matron. Again, if there’s anything I can do.”
“Thank you Father.”

The man stepped back, and the priest and the servant boy wheeled Roper away for the last time.

“Come along Foster,” Murphy said, and his voice was flat.

“You heard Matron. Ward round in five.”

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 Post subject: Re: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Tue Dec 19, 2017 8:06 am GMT 
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As far as he could tell, there were four doctors on the ward. Each had their own distinct level in the hierarchy; ward rounds were conducted with the same tremulous power play as those he remembered from medical school. ‘Yes sir. No sir. At once sir. The drug chart? Just a moment Dr Murphy, I’m so sorry for the delay.”

It was nostalgic, in its own way.

He tried to concentrate when they stood at the foot of his bed, but keeping his attention focused was like climbing a wall of black ice. Every time he thought he had a foothold, a basin would clatter, or one of the patients would break out in laughter— and it only took that much to send him falling once more back into shadow and feverish dreams. Han found it was easier to lie still and listen passively. It was surprising how much he could take on that way; from Dr Galdstone’s stale laugh to the gentle inflections that indicated whether a patient was unwell, or sick. He could hear it from the other side of the ward. “Temperature since three? Ah well. That is a shame. You saw it yesterday Seare; wound looked rather clean to me. Well well, that is a shame.” A rustle of notes, Campbell’s voice piping out the management plan to an applause of stern grunts and little footnotes - “I’d say give that fluid bolus sooner rather than later,” - and then the congregation would move on to the next riddle. A couple of amputations he managed to make out, a bit of shrapnel in an abdominal cavity awaiting review, and the others he couldn’t tell. The words seemed to float over him, pushed and pulled with some invisible current. He was watching from the ocean floor and the world moved on without him. Weeds entangled his limbs, and the salt left his mouth parched and rough, aching for sweet water. Occasionally the young woman called Clara would plunge down into the depths and connect him to the world that lingered just out of reach. He had woken up to her; the first touch he could remember since the rough porter’s grip in a hospital across the channel. She’d looked at him with lovely green eyes, and tucked a lock of his hair back. He’d been too exhausted to pull away. Her hands had been very kind, very gentle.

What would David have of it all, he wondered. Probably call her a catch and elbowed him in the ribs he swear were fractured.

“Ex.” That was Murphy’s voice. He tilted his head and eyed the quartet. They were an interesting bunch. “Ex Ex Ex.” Was he speaking in tongues? Crucified Christ, what was going on. “How’s our customer doing, Dr Gladstone.”

Gladstone stepped forth. He was ruddy, with a full head of chestnut brown hair scraped back distressingly close to his skull. Ladies’ man, Han thought, plays hooker on the field. Clearing his throat, the doctor held his notes at arms length.

“Up and down. He’s been persistently tachy all round, and the temperatures never really been lower than 38.”
“We were peaking 39.5 in the night.”
“And how’s the blood pressure?”
“105 over 60. It’s gone up though; according to our resident expert he was crawling along in the 80s when he first got here.”

Crucified Christ.

“Let’s have a look at him then.”

Seare, the man in uniform, officer judging by the lapels stepped forward and unswung his stethoscope. Tall man. Dark hair. A grim scar on his throat that gashed it’s way beneath the high fold of his collar. Handsome by all accounts, but, lying there and writhing in his coughs and the tatters of his body, the only heat he managed to feel burnt through his head and lungs. It wasn’t the pleasant type of torture. Briefly Han wondered if he was any relation to that Seare, not that he’d ever seen a photograph.

The captain unbuttoned his shirt, and Han was powerless to do anything. The helplessness infuriated him, infantilised him, a grown man trapped in a suit of rotting meat. Seare felt his windpipe. Uncomfortable, but not painful. His hands were as callused as his own. Trench hands. There was the touch of the army doctor; efficient, no wasted movement, no pleasantries. His hands descended to rest on his ribcage, and through them Han felt the rattle of his lungs and how they trembled and shuddered with pus. Then they went to reach around and fasten on the sides, and he almost cried out in pain. God, surely his ribs were broken. In desperation his mind went back to distract himself and came to that first touch, the nurse Clara coaxing away a strand of hair, that had... that...

The war’s over, the soldier said. Pale skin. Cool hands rested on his chest and seemed to let him breathe. Han had bruised his wrists with clumsy grip, called him a murderer.

Tap tap. Tap tap. His body was a drum and Seare was sounding it to a marching beat. He sounded hollow, and then dull dull dull. Dull far higher than where he knew the border of his liver to be. Cohen had percussed it enough times for him to know exactly the silhouette of his liver, spleen, and the angles of his heart.

He saw Campbell’s red head bob in concerned interest. He heard Murphy take a deep breath. “Seare...”

“Empyema. It’s a big one.”

“Ah, well.”

He remembered the words of one of his professors in Columbia. Recall this, gentlemen; when it comes to your patients, there are some you must worry for, and others that must terrify you. You have patients who are unwell, and patients who are sick. Remember the difference.

Which am I, do you think?
he asked David. And David, Detroit twang, gangly shoulders, infectious smile sitting by his side turned to him, and looked down at him with dark-eyed worry.

“I think you might be dying, Han.” he said.

He knew they gave him morphine for the procedure; he recognised the nausea that came with it and the sense of detachment. It was as if the drug let him feel what he already knew - this was out of his control, and the pain wasn’t that important. He’d had worse. But it made the sense of drowning more acute. He wasn’t even aware when they inserted the chest drain, and was disconcerted to hear the trickle of words that pertained to him talking about swinging and bubbling. All he knew was that by evening time he had Clara by him once more, and that she was draping damp towels across his forehead and speaking to him. Jo, she called him, Ex, they called him, and Abby’s voice had fallen silent hours ago though he’d come no further out of his fever. That dark, glassy wall seemed taller than ever. Try as he might to climb, their words began to dissolve and disintegrate to nothing long before he had a chance to hear them.

Jo, Jo, Ex, that fellow, listen, listen, can you hear... too much morphine, reduce the... have to get the pyrexia under control or... damn, I think it’s the line... Jo, Jo, Jo... where’s Gladstone, he was meant to...

He felt the puncture in the vein and the cold spread of saline through his vessels. Lights came and went, and he heard Clara’s voice, and another voice, a familiar voice saying something about the labs, and if there was another deterioration they should contact him directly, and... and... nurses flitting around him like moths around a flame... their aprons left the imprints of wings in the air, and their footsteps were a waltz he was drawn into, they guided him around the floor and... and laid him to rest here, to be found, to be lost and found again...

What’s your name? he asked the spectre that night as he watched the bruised fingers take his pulse. The English soldier looked up at him, expression lost beneath the mask he wore, and told him with a cool laugh that he’d forget when dawn came.

Every morning he woke to Clara’s green eyes, and wondered why he always seemed to think they would be blue.

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Hey kid.
 Post subject: Re: A Different Earth
PostPosted: Thu Jan 11, 2018 6:04 am GMT 
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You think I can’t see you. I do.

Perhaps you think I choose not to. But I do. I see everything. I see the way your hand fidgets with the pen. I see the way you loosen your tie ever so slightly with a single finger, giving the illusion of stillness. I see you. I see them. I watch this whole play from between coarse sheets strung up, with their cumulative stains marked by your passing; here a little crust of vomit, there a smear of blood, at shoulder height a passing darkness of rainwater pressed by an impatient coat. You think I lie here like a shell; like a hermit crab that withered away long ago and left it’s shell here to rot and be riddled with holes. But the creature still lives somewhere in here. Only the captain with his dark eyes and slow laugh sees it, but I suspect he’s made a habit of reaching into caverns to draw out the pale, naked creatures waiting within, with flesh the consistency of wet bread. He’s probably a coast boy who grew up around rock pools and the arid stink of sea salt. He knows the tempests and wild power of the sea. He knows how the things that live there have to grow harder to withstand it’s rage, and softer too, to be able to mound itself placidly to whatever rough rock it’s scraped against when torn from its shelter. Crags of limestone, and granite where the clay earth was bitten away. Barbed wire and the fragments of old cottages that stood there long before the sea washed through the mainland and brought mortars in its wake.

You see. I watch. I learn. I study.

There are things I notice you never would; you with your head too high in your clouds of numbers and moles and drug dosages. Perhaps it’s an insult to you to turn your head down to watch the struggle that goes on below, but I start to realise that probably isn’t the case, not really. It’s just that you aren’t interested. The small chat you make is thin as ice on the top of a milk cap at dawn. It breaks apart as soon as you open your mouth to speak, but then— with your reward of a few bubbling beads of blood in the syringe, you no longer need it. It’s child's play to lie back and watch the moving shadow at the corner of your mouth that belies pleasure; you mine veins like other men mine gold, finding seams of sluggish purple blood to tap. All talk of food and babies and that new song on the wireless becomes suddenly defunct. This is the treasure we both sought, you think; they should be happy with that. With a cursory thanks for mutilating our sea shell skin, you stand up straight, bottle those drops of what was us, once, seconds ago, that is still warm with our heat and claim it as your own. You own a part of me, and stand there above me triumphant as a general, elated as an athlete, heart pounding as you dangle my cooling body between your fingertips and turn it up, down, centrifuge with a curl of your wrist to make sure it doesn’t coagulate.

You still talk to me.

I know why, though. It’s not any sort of compassion. It’s methodical. It causes less deviation that way; your process stays perfect and honed and untailored. Your conversation suits anyone, of any age, even children. You guide me through checkpoints designed to capture my attention. You pluck and play my strings like a marionette, or you would, but they lie already cut. Your fingers continue to dance in the air though, where the silk would have hung. It amuses me, it makes me want to keep watching how your mouth continues to speak as your touch continuous its pilgrimage down the recesses of my arm, probing into the valleys laid out between tendons where the shadow of blue rivers once flowed. You know me now. You’ve studied the map of my body with a cartographer’s eyes. You know the desert of my deltoid, the tributaries that flow across the backs of my hands, the parts that burn like a desert under an equatorial sun. Girls used to line up to do the same once. I’m serious. They used to hang off me like flies back in the day. And now here I am, stewing in these starched linen sheets, watching you chart those same routes thinking nothing more than- will this serum be enough? Will it haemolyse before I reach the basement? Will this piece of shit even bleed for me today?

I’ll think about it.

The nurses have long stopped thinking we see them. They gossip and pray over us as they wash us, voices chatty and bubbling with laughter, sometimes forced. The jocular sing song has become familiar as a lullaby now; it signals the stench of the commode or the slap of water against the basin’s sides. I watch Doctor Gladstone pinch that one, with the hair the colour of a faded conker like in the autumn sun too long. I watch her blush and slap his hand away, but not quite vehemently enough, and when her shift ends she hangs around a bit at the nurse’s station eyeing him hungrily, and they leave together. I watch her partner, the one with the blonde hair go about oblivious. Her name is Clara, and she thinks she’s too good for this place. I watch her pity grow and ebb like the tide, pushed and pulled by a moon I can’t see. It may be whatever book she’s reading, or what she had for breakfast that day. She’s started wearing lipstick dabbed onto her cheeks. It’s not quite her colour, but she’ll grow into it I think. I find myself wishing her well.

The captain comes to me now and then. He reaches in, gropes around a little and manages to scoop me up and draw me out, shivering in his palm, newly birthed. I forget what it is he talks to me about. It’s the way he does it; low, conspiratorial, as if we are the only two real souls here. The rest are fabrications, War Effort Poster Representatives that drift around in white and red crosses. We are true, and have to keep it a secret. We know the sea, and the guns, and the pain of mustard gas. Damp beef eaten out of tins, empty French bakeries, trying to piss into the freezing night air from the recesses of an overcoat under shellfire. Things you don’t understand, though you’ve heard the words and navigated the wounds. He makes me laugh, gagging on air washed in carbolic soap.

I watched him and you, that one time after you brought that tube, and curled it around the back of my ear, laid it out against my chest. I had pretended to be asleep then, so you wouldn’t know. I saw you, and you didn’t seem guilty. Your hands were those of a tailor. I watched him stop between the gaps of the curtain - dap of vomit, trace of blood, splash of saline - and watch you as you did it. I think you knew he did, because you stopped just briefly. Enough to make it look deliberate, I thought. I watched you as you curled it up and set it aside, and waited with the careful directions of an actor on stage as you jostled my shoulder once - twice - three and a half times before I winched open my eyelids.

You told me to sniff deeply as you placed a finger against that was left of my nostril. Instructed, I did. And the other. Intrigued, I acquiesced. I watched the captain as all three of us, him hidden, listened to the whistle of air, and then your quiet thanks for my participation.

It was dark, so no one else but me saw. I wanted the way he caught your arm, and spoke to you half hidden in shadows. Don’t think I don’t know your dirty little secrets, he said, and you looked at him so cool and quiet I thought you would cut him in half. Don’t think, the captain said, that this is your absolution.

Girls flocked to me once. They told me I was beautiful.

The captain came later that night after you went to Murphy. He prised me out and spoke to me. I love the way he speaks. He knows I lived by the sea, he knows that despite the fact I never told him, he knows that once that of all my friends they loved me best, he knows those childhood days I spent picking over sand dunes and staring at the creatures that unfolded themselves from the wet beaches.He talks me into a daze. He makes me remember the past. Remember things I hadn’t known I had forgotten.

Chalk on a blackboard, half rubbed out. My tonsils being spat out into a bowl, much to my astonishment. The scent of my mother’s talc powder hair. My father’s work trousers, rubbed bare at the knees, and his cloth cap wilting over my ears.

He talks and talks, and I remember and remember... unbalanced I wander here and there, guided by his sandpaper voice to a land before, when the sea I thought I knew brought me far from home and washed me under black guns that whistled with heat the same way a kettle does...

He tells me it’ll be fine. I should be there, not here, and I think yes. Yes, that’s right.

That’s right.

Here’s the blood you need for baptism water. However often it splashes to make a marsh of the ground, no matter how deep your shins sink into it as it swells up and paints the walls a martyr red, you can dunk yourself again and again, and with each new forgiven transgression a new miracle. Lo! the basin is never empty. But I think you know it’s drying out.

Your other wineskin awaits; his murmurs hide the accent so well that you can’t quite decipher his vintage. He lies two beds away. I can hear his wheezing, like a broken down engine.

I can hear him now. I want to talk to you. I want to tell you things. I want to tell you about the currents and the riptides of my home. My father’s fish boat. I want to tell you more, about the tractor I fixed when I turned fourteen and the nickname everyone used to call me back in the village. You can hold that tube against me again, you can check the patency of my nostrils. Because I’m going back, the captain tells me.

You can go home Roper, he says, and his voice is getting quieter, and far away...

You can go home.

Just a few minutes more, I promise.

My incredibly sophisticated minions.

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