The long hall was finally silent after hours of commotion as sixty women, new mothers and some pregnant, lay resting on their beds side by side. The young girl’s labor had gone on way past midnight and they had to make her bite a pillow so her screams wouldn’t wake the babies.
Previous labors had already emptied the one bottle of morphine the nurses had, but the chloroform bottle was still half full. But the girl had refused the anesthetic. She had heard one too many stories of children choking as the mother lay unconscious with an overdose. Two babies and four mothers in the maternity ward had already died.
So the women heard her muffled cries by night, and silently admired the courage of the twenty year old. Anne was the youngest mother in the ward. Her labor lasted nine hours and she emerged exhausted but happy.
Now as the mothers slept contently in the cool dark room, the weary nurses were already up and running. They straightened their starch caps and pinafores before pulling up their white stockings and stepping into their shoes. It was the start of another busy day for the overworked nurses.
There were five of them here and only ten more in the entire hospital. But that was all the British government could spare. The medical services were already under tremendous strain. Hitler had just bombed London and murdered 60,000 people, leaving the city in tatters.
It was the year 1942.
Anne quietly sat up in her bed and looked longingly at a dozen tray–like trolleys parked on the far end. There were ten babies swaddled up in each, she couldn’t wait to meet her own. She glanced around her and looked kindly at the sleeping women, a mutual feeling of companionship glowing inside her. She had never felt so wondrously happy, as if a balloon blowing up inside her.
A nurse innocently walked over to the large windows and wrenched them open. Sunlight shimmered inside as fresh air smothered the lingering smell of milk and urine. Women irritably stirred awake and yawned but the nurse took no notice.
‘Oh lord,’ cried one red haired lady, ‘Rosie, why you do this every morning? I’ve hardly slept five hours.’
‘Fresh h’air,’ Rosie countered spiritedly, ‘is important for them babies. And whether you’re awake or not, I’ll make sure them gets it!’
Groans resounded across the room but Rosie marched off to join the other nurses who were beginning to wheel out the trolleys. Anne waited and meanwhile tried to gather her scattered blonde hair and straightened her loose blouse, attempting to make herself presentable.
The lady in the bed beside her chuckled.
‘Come on Anne, you can’t honestly expect him to turn up.’
‘No Martha, he will. He promised he’d come to see the baby, no matter what.’
‘Be reasonable, dear,’ Martha said. ‘None of us have seen our husbands in months. And now with the Blitz, it’s impossible he hasn’t been called up.’
‘I don’t care.’ Anne kept looking at the door.
Martha shrugged. ‘The only way he’s coming here is inside a coffin.’
Anne ignored her and tried to dispel the lingering doubt in her mind. Despite the unthinkable destruction the Blitz had caused she believed, almost childishly, that the government would allow RAF fighter pilot Thomas Wilson to go see his wife.
Rosie now walked up to her bed and placed the smallest, dearest creature in her arms. The baby didn’t even reach Anne’s forearms and she was so tiny. Her eyelids were shut tight and small tufts of golden hair spread around her little head. Anne had never held a more fragile thing, yet it was so precious. The young mother marveled at the smallness of her every feature.
Suddenly, all the noise stopped. The pain in her back couldn’t let her get up and she could only see the blue ceiling above her. A low thud came on the wooden floor as someone started walking slowly, nearer and nearer towards her. Anne could feel her heart pounding in her chest.
‘Oh Christ,’ Martha said. ‘Anne, it’s him.’
A figure slowly appeared over her and Anne’s breath stopped. Though he was a shade darker and looked dangerously thin, it was her husband alright. He was still in his RAF uniform.
‘Good heavens, Tom comma’ she whispered.
Tom slowly picked up the baby and looked at her, half caringly, half bewildered. ‘Well, thank God it’s a little girl.’ he chuckled at last. ‘I don’t see her being conscripted anytime soon.’
Anne continued staring at him, almost disbelievingly. ‘H-how…’
‘I promised I’d come,’ he replied simply. ‘And I won’t be called up again.’
At that moment, Anne knew something was horribly wrong. There was a secret in his eyes which he wouldn’t tell. Despite the wrenching pain in her spine, Anne sat up on her bed. She recoiled.
One of his legs was missing.
‘Oh, Tom coma’ Anne murmured, tearfully.
‘Now please comma Anne,’ Tom still smiled. ‘Don’t start scolding me. I’m away from the war and in place of my leg, I have time with my daughter.’
He put a hand on her shoulder. ‘I don’t mind the replacement.’
I look at humans in their ugly harshness and their joy, and wonder how the same thing can be both.
– Marcus Zusak.
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