OBSERVATIONS OF AN ORDERLY
Some Glimpses of Life and Work in an English War Hospital
L.-CPL. WARD MUIR, R.A.M.C. (T.)
Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., Ltd., 4 Stationers' Hall Court : : : London, E.C.4 Copyright First published July 1917
Novels by the Author of "Observations of an Orderly"
THE AMAZING MUTES WHEN WE ARE RICH CUPID'S CATERERS
Also Editor of
"HAPPY—THOUGH WOUNDED" The Book of the Third London General Hospital
LT.-COL. H.E. BRUCE PORTER, C.M.G.
OFFICER IN COMMAND OF THE
Some passages from Observations of an Orderly have appeared, generally in a shorter form, in The Spectator, The New Statesman, The Hospital, The Evening Standard, The National News, The Dundee Advertiser, The Daily News, and The Daily Mail. The author desires to make the usual acknowledgments to their editors.
The coloured design on the paper wrapper is by Sergeant Noel Irving, R.A.M.C. (T.), a member of the unit at the 3rd London General Hospital.
I PAGE MY FIRST DAY 19
II LIFE IN THE ORDERLIES' HUTS 33
III WASHING-UP 51
IV A "HUT" HOSPITAL 65
V FROM THE "D BLOCK" WARDS 79
VI WHEN THE WOUNDED ARRIVE 93
VII "T.... A...." 107
VIII LAUNDRY PROBLEMS 121
IX ON BUTTONS 137
X A WORD ABOUT "SLACKERS IN KHAKI" 147
XI THE RECREATION ROOMS 159
XII THE COCKNEY 173
XIII THE STATION PARTY 201
XIV SLANG IN A WAR HOSPITAL 219
XV A BLIND MAN'S HOME-COMING 235
MY FIRST DAY
The sergeant in charge of the clothing store was curt. He couldn't help it: he had run short of tunics, also of "pants"—except three pairs which wouldn't fit me, wouldn't fit anybody, unless we enlisted three very fat dwarfs: he had kept on asking for tunics and pants, and they'd sent him nothing but great-coats and water-bottles: I could take his word for it, he wished he was at the Front, he did, instead of in this blessed hole filling in blessed forms for blessed clothes which never came. Impossible, anyhow, to rig me out. I was going on duty, was I? Then I must go on duty in my "civvies."
It was a disappointment. Your new recruit feels that no small item of his reward is the privilege of beholding himself in khaki. The escape from civilian clothes was, at that era, one of the prime lures to enlistment. I had attempted to escape before, and failed. Now at last I had found a branch of the army which would accept me. It needed my services instantly. I was to start work at once. Nothing better. I was ready. This was what I had been seeking for months past. But—I confess it—I had always pictured myself dressed as a soldier. The postponement of this bright vision for even twenty-four hours, now that it had seemed to be within my grasp, was damping. However—! The Sergeant-Major had told me that I was to go on duty as orderly in Ward W—an officers' ward—at 2 p.m. prompt. I did not know where Ward W was; I did not know what a ward-orderly's functions should amount to. And I had no uniform. I was attired in a light grey lounge suit—appropriate enough to my normal habit, but quite too flippant, I was certain, for a ward-orderly. Whatever else a ward-orderly might be, I was sure that he was not the sort of person to sport a grey lounge suit.
Still, I must hie me to Ward W. I had got my wish. I was in the army at last. In the army one does not argue. One obeys. So, having been directed down an interminable corridor, I presented myself at Ward W.
On entering—I had knocked, but no response rewarded this courtesy—I was requested, by a stern-visaged Sister, to state my business. Her sternness was excusable. The visiting-hour was not yet, and in my unprofessional guise she had taken me for a visitor. My explanation dispelled her frowns. She was expecting me. Her present orderly had been granted three days' leave. He was preparing to depart. I was to act as his substitute. Before he went he would initiate me into the secrets of his craft. She called him. "Private Wood!" Private Wood, in his shirt-sleeves, appeared. I was handed over to him.
Herein I was fortunate, though I was unaware of it at the time. Private Wood, who was not too proud to wash dishes (which was what he had at that moment been doing), is a distinguished sculptor and a man of keen imagination. At a subsequent period that imagination was to bring forth the masks-for-facial-disfigurements scheme which gained him his commission and which has attracted world-wide notice from experts. Meanwhile his imagination enabled him to understand the exact extent of a novice's ignorance, the precise details which I did not know and must know, the essential apparatus I had to be shown the knack of, before he fled to catch his train.
He devoted just five minutes, no more, to teaching me how to be a ward-orderly. Four of those minutes were lavished on the sink-room—a small apartment that enshrines cleaning appliances, the taps of which, if you turn them on without precautions, treat you to an involuntary shower bath. The sink-room contains a selection of utensils wherewith every orderly becomes only too familiar: their correct employment, a theme of many of the mildly Rabelaisian jests which are current in every hospital, is a mystery—until some kind mentor, like Private Wood, lifts the veil. In four minutes he had told me all about the sink-room, and all about all the gear in the sink-room and all about a variety of rituals which need not here be dwelt on. (The sink-room is an excellent place in which to receive a private lecture.) The fifth minute was spent in introducing me, in another room, the ward kitchen, to Mrs. Mappin—the scrub-lady.
A scrub-lady is attached to each ward; and most wards, it should in justice be added, are attached to their scrub-ladies. Certainly I was to find that Ward W was attached to Mrs. Mappin. Mrs. Mappin was washing up. Private Wood had been helping her. The completion of his task he delegated to me. "Mrs. Mappin, this is our new orderly. He'll help you finish the lunch-dishes." Private Wood then slid into his tunic, snatched his cap from a nail in the wall, and vanished.
Mrs. Mappin surveyed me. "Ah!" she sighed—she was given to sighing. "He's a good 'un, is Private Wood." The inference was plain. There was little hope of my becoming such a good 'un. In any case, my natty grey tweeds were against me. One could never make an orderliesque impression in those tweeds. "Better take your jacket off," sighed Mrs. Mappin. I did so, chose a dishcloth, and started to dry a pyramid of wet plates. For a space Mrs. Mappin meditated, her hands in soapy water. Then she withdrew them. "I think," she sighed, "you an' me could do with a cup of tea."
And presently I was having tea with Mrs. Mappin.
I was afterwards to learn that this practice of calling a halt in her labours for a cup of tea was a highly incorrect one on Mrs. Mappin's part, and that my share in the transaction was to the last degree reprehensible. But I was also to learn that faithful, selfless, honest, and diligent scrub-ladies are none too common; and the Sister who discovers that she has been allotted such a jewel as Mrs. Mappin is seldom foolish enough to exact from her a strict obedience to the letter of the law in discipline. Mrs. Mappin, in her non-tea-bibbing interludes, toiled like a galley-slave, was rigidly punctual, and never complained. Her sighs were no index of her character. They were not a symptom of ennui (though possibly—if the suggestion be not rude—of indigestion caused by tannin poisoning). She was the best-tempered of creatures. It is a fact that if I had been so disposed I need never have given Mrs. Mappin any assistance, though it was within my province to do so. She would, without a murmur, shoulder other people's jobs as well as her own. Having finished with bearing children (one was at the Front—it was Mrs. Mappin who, on being asked the whereabouts of her soldier son, said, "'E's in France; I don't rightly know w'ere the place is, but it's called 'Dugout'"), she had settled down, for the remainder of her sojourn on this plane, to a prospect of work, continuous work. A little more or a little less made no difference to her. She had nothing else to do, but work; nothing else to be interested in, except work—and her children's progress, and her cups of tea. Her ample figure concealed a warm heart. Behind her wrinkled old face there was a brain with a limited outfit of ideas—and the chief of those ideas was work.
Our cup of tea was refreshing, but it would be incorrect to convey the notion that I was allowed to linger over such a luxury. There are few intervals for leisure in the duty-hours of an orderly in an officers' ward. Had the Sister and her nurses not been occupied elsewhere, I doubt whether I should have been free to drink that cup of tea at all—a circumstance of which perhaps Mrs. Mappin was more aware than I. At any rate the call of "Orderly!" from a patient summoned me from the kitchen and into the ward long before I had finished drying Mrs. Mappin's dishes.
The patient desired some small service performed for him. I performed it—remembering to address him as "Sir." Various other patients, observing my presence, took the opportunity to hail me. I found myself saying "Yes, Sir!" "In a moment, Sir!" and dropping—with a promptitude on which I rather flattered myself—into the manner of a cross between a valet and a waiter, with a subtle dash of chambermaid. Soon I was also a luggage-porter, staggering to a taxi with the ponderous impedimenta of a juvenile second lieutenant who was bidding the hospital farewell, and whose trunks contained—at a guess—geological specimens and battlefield souvenirs in the shape of "dud" German shells. This young gentleman fumbled with a gratuity, then thought better of it—and was gracious enough to return my grin. "Bit awkward, tipping, in these days," he apologised cheerily, depositing himself in his taxi behind ramparts of holdalls. "Thank you, Sir," seemed the suitable adieu, and having proffered it I scampered into the ward again. Anon Sister sent me with a message to the dispensary. Where the dispensary was I knew not. But I found out, and brought back what she required. Then to the post office. Another exploration down that terrific corridor. Post office located at last and duly noted. Then to the linen store to draw attention to an error in the morning's supply of towels. Linen store eventually unearthed—likewise the information that its staff disclaimed all responsibility for mistakes—likewise the first inkling of a profound maxim, that when a mistake has been made, in hospital, it is always the orderly, and no one else, who has made it.
Engaged on these errands, and a host of intervening lesser exploits in the ward, I had to cultivate an unwonted fleetness of foot. I flew. So did the time. Almost immediately, as it seemed to me, I was bidden to serve afternoon tea to our patients. The distribution of bed-tables, of cups, of bread-and-butter (most of which, also, I cut); the "A little more tea, Sir?" or, "A pot of jam in your locker, Sir, behind the pair of trousers?... Yes, here it is, Sir"; the laborious feeding of a patient who could not move his arms;—all these occupied me for a breathless hour. Then an involved struggle with a patient who had to be lifted from a bath-chair into bed. (I had never lifted a human being before.) Then a second bout of washing-up with Mrs. Mappin. Then a nominal half-an-hour's respite for my own tea—actually ten minutes, for I was behindhand. Then, all too soon, more waitering at the ceremony of Dinner: this time with the complication that some of my patients were allowed wine, beer, or spirits, and some were not. "Burgundy, Sir?" "Whiskey-and-soda, Sir?" I ran round the table of the sitting-up patients, displaying (I was pleased to think) the complete aplomb and nimbleness of a thoroughbred Swiss garcon, pouring out drinks—with concealed envy—placing and removing plates, handing salt, bread, serviettes.... After which, back to Mrs. Mappin and her renewed mountain of once-more-to-be-washed-and-dried crockery.
It was long after my own supper hour had come and gone that I was able to say au revoir to the ward. The cleansing of the grease-encrusted meat-tin was a travail which alone promised to last half the night. (Mrs. Mappin eventually lent me her assistance, and later I became more adroit.) And the calls of "Orderly!" from the bed patients were interruptions I could not ignore. But at last some sort of conclusion was reached. Mrs. Mappin put on her bonnet. The night orderly, who was to relieve me, was overdue. Sister, discovering me still in the kitchen, informed me that I might leave.
"You ain't 'ad any supper, 'ave you?" said Mrs. Mappin. "You won't get none now, neither. Should 'ave done a bunk a full hower back, you should."
She drew me into the larder, and indicated the debris of our patients' repast. "A leg of chicken and some rice pudden. Only wasted if you don't 'ave it."
"But is it allowed—?" I was, in truth, not only tired but ravenous.
Sister, entering upon this conspiratorial dialogue, unhesitatingly gave her approval.
Cold rice pudding and a left-over leg of chicken, eaten standing, at a shelf in a larder, can taste very good indeed, even to the wearer of a spick-and-span grey lounge suit. I shall know in future what it means when my restaurant waiter emerges from behind the screened service-door furtively wiping his mouth. I sympathise. I too have wolfed the choice morsels from the banquet of my betters.
LIFE IN THE ORDERLIES' HUTS
In May, 1915, when I enlisted, the weather was beautiful. Consequently the row of tin huts, to which I was introduced as my future address "for the duration," wore an attractive appearance. The sun shone upon their metallic sides and roofs. The shimmering foliage of tall trees, and a fine field of grass, which made a background to the huts, were fresh and green and restful to the eye. Even the foreground of hard-trodden earth—the barrack square—was dry and clean, betraying no hint of its quagmire propensities under rain. Later on, when winter came, the cluster of huts could look dismal, especially before dawn on a wet morning, when the bugle sounding parade had dragged us from warm beds; or in an afternoon thaw after snow, when the corrugated eaves wept torrents in the twilight, and one's feet (despite the excellence of army boots) were chilled by their wadings through slush. Meanwhile, however, the new recruit had nothing to complain of in the aspect of the housing accommodation which was offered him. Merely for amusement's sake he had often "roughed it" in quarters far less comfortable than these bare but well-built huts—which even proved, on investigation, to contain beds: an unexpected luxury.
"I'll put you in Hut 6," said the Sergeant-Major. "There's one empty bed. It's the hut at the end of the line."
Thereafter Hut 6 was my home—and I hope I may never have a less pleasant one or less good company for room-mates. In these latter I was perhaps peculiarly fortunate. But that is by the way. It suffices that twenty men, not one of whom I had ever seen before, welcomed a total stranger, and both at that moment and in the long months which were to elapse before various rearrangements began to scatter us, proved the warmest of friends.
Twenty-one of us shared our downsittings and our uprisings in Hut 6. There might have been an even number, twenty-two, but one bed's place was monopolised by a stove (which in winter consumed coke, and in summer was the repository of old newspapers and orange-peel). The hut, accordingly, presented a vista of twenty-one beds, eleven along one wall and ten along the other, the stove and its pipe being the sole interruption of the symmetrical perspective. Above the beds ran a continuous shelf, bearing the hut-inhabitants' equipment, or at least that portion of it—great-coat, water-bottle, mess-tin, etc.—not continually in use. Below each bed its owner's box and his boots were disposed with rigid precision at an exact distance from the box and boots beneath the adjacent bed. In the ceiling hung two electric lights. These, with the stove, beds, shelves, boxes and boots, constituted the entire furniture of the hut—unless you count an alarm-clock, bought by public subscription, and notable for a trick of tinkling faintly, as though wanting to strike but failing, in the watches of the night, hours before its appointed minute had arrived. The hut contained no other furniture whatever, and in those days did not seem to us to require any. In the autumn, when the daylight shortened and we could no longer hold our parliaments on a bench outside, a couple of deck-chairs were mysteriously imported; and, as the authorities remained unshocked, a small table also appeared and was squeezed into a gap beside the stove. Some sybarite even goaded us into getting up a fund for a strip of linoleum to be laid in the aisle between the beds. This was done—I do not know why, for personally I have no objection to bare boards. I suppose linoleum is easier to keep clean than wood; and that aisle, tramped on incessantly by hobnail boots which in damp weather were, as to their soles and heels, mere bulbous trophies of the alluvial deposits of the neighbourhood, was sometimes far from speckless. But to me the strip of linoleum made our hut look remotely like a real room in a real house: it was a touch of the conventional which I never cared for, and I only subscribed to it when I had voted against it and been overborne. An extraordinary proposition, that we should inaugurate a plant in a pot on the stove's lid in summer, was, I am glad to say, negatived. It would have been the thin end of the wedge ... we might have arrived at Japanese fans and photograph-frames on the walls.
Not that our Company Officer would have tolerated any nonsense of that kind. Punctually at eight-thirty, after the second parade of the day, he marched through each hut, inspecting it and calling the attention of the Sergeant-Major to any detail which offended his sense of fitness. On wet mornings, instead of parading outside, each man stood to his cot, and thus the comments of the Company Officer, as he went down the aisle, were audible to all. Stiffly drawn up to attention, we wondered anxiously whether he would notice anything wrong with our buttons, boots or belts, or whether he would "spot" the books and jam jars hidden behind our overcoats on the shelves. Nothing so decadent and civilian as a book—and certainly nothing so unsightly as a jam jar—must be visible on your barrack-room shelf. It is sacred to equipment, and particularly to the folded great-coat.
"The Art of Folding" might have been the title of the first lesson of the many so good-naturedly imparted to me by my new comrades. There was, I learnt, a right way and a wrong way to fold all things foldable. The great-coat, for instance, must at the finish of its foldings, when it is placed upon the exactly middle spot above your bed's end, present to the eye of the beholder a kind of flat-topped pyramid whose waist-line (if a pyramid can be said to own a waist) is marked by the belt with the three polished buttons peeping through. The belt must bulge neither to the right nor to the left; the pyramidal edifice of great-coat must not loll—it must sit up prim and firm. And unless all your foldings of the great-coat, from first to last, have, been deftly precise, no pyramid will reward you, but a flabby trapezium: the belt will sag, its buttons won't come centrally, and indeed the whole edifice of unwieldy cloth will topple off its perch on the narrow shelf—which was designed to refuse all lodgment for the property of persons who had unsound ideas on the subject of compact storage.
The second series of folderies to which the novice was initiated concerned themselves with his bedding. This consisted of a mattress, three blankets and a pillow. It is an outfit at which no one need turn up his nose. I never spent a bad night in army blankets, though when out on leave I am sometimes a victim of insomnia between clean cold sheets. But the moment the Reveille uplifted you from your couch, that couch had to be made ship-shape according to rule. No finicky "airing"! The mattress must be rolled up, with the pillow as its core, and placed at the end of the bed. On top of it a blanket, folded longwise and with the ends hanging down, was laid neatly; on top of that you put the other two blankets, folded quite otherwise; then you brought the first blanket's ends over, and reversed the resultant bundle and pressed it down into a thin stratified parallelogram with oval ends. The strata of the said parallelogram, viewed from the aisle, must show no blanket edges, only curves of the blankets' folds: the edges (if visible at all) must face inwards, not outwards. Correct folding, to be sure, gave no visible edges, viewed from either side; and, once you caught the knack, correct folding was just as easy as incorrect—though there were temperaments which did not find it so and which rebelled against these niceties.
I was afterwards to learn that this mania for matching (if mania be indeed a legitimate word for a custom based on common-sense principles and seldom carried to the extremes which the recruit has been led to fear) obtains not only in the army but also in the nursing profession. Not long after I became a ward orderly I got a wigging from my "Sister" because I had not noticed that every pillow-case of a ward's beds must face towards the same point of the compass: the pillows on the vista of beds must be placed in such a manner that the pillow-case mouths are, all of them, turned away from anyone entering the ward's door. Similarly the overlap of the counterpanes must all be of exactly the same depth and caught up at exactly the same angle, the resulting series of pairs of triangles all ending at exactly the same spot in each bedstead. These trifles reveal at a glance the professional touch in a ward, and are, I understand, not by any means the insignia of a military as distinct from a civilian hospital. They may or may not contribute to the comfort of the patient, but they betoken the captaincy of one whose methodicalness will in other and less visible respects most emphatically benefit him.
Our hut life was something more than a mere folding-up of bedding on bedsteads and great-coats on shelves. After midday dinner it was allowable to unroll the mattress, make the bed, and rest thereon—which most of us by that time (having been on the run since 6 o'clock parade) were very ready to do. There was half an hour to spare before 2 o'clock parade, and a precious half-hour it was. Snores rose from some of the beds where students of the war had collapsed beneath the newspapers which they had meant to read. Desultory conversation enlivened those corners where the denizens of the hut were energetic enough to polish their boots or sew on buttons. The one or two men who happened to be "going out on pass"—we were allowed one afternoon per week—were putting on their puttees and brushing-up the metal buttons of their walking-out tunics (otherwise known as their Square Push Suits). The buttons of their working tunics had of course been burnished before parade. The correct employment of button-sticks and of the magic cleaner called Soldier's Friend; the polishing of one's out-of-use boots and their placing, on the floor, with tied laces, and with their toes in line with the bed's legs; the substitution of lost braces' buttons by "bulldogs"; the furbishing of one's belt; the propping-up of the front of one's cap with wads of paper in the interior of the crown; the devices whereby non-spiral puttees can be coaxed into a resemblance of spiral ones and caused to ascend in corkscrews above trousers which refuse to tuck unlumpily into one's socks—these, and a host of other matters, always kept a proportion of the hut-dwellers awake and busy and loquacious even in the somnolent post-prandial half-hour before 2 o'clock.
But it was at night, at bedtime, that the hut became generally sociable. Lights-Out sounded at 10.15; and at 10.10 we were all scrambling into our pyjamas. In winter our disrobing was hasty; in summer it was an affair of leisure, and deshabille roamings to and fro in the aisle, and gossip. When the bugle blew and the electric lights suddenly ceased to glow, leaving the hut in a darkness broken only by the dim shapes of the windows and the red of cigarette-ends, many of us still had to complete our undressing. We became adepts at doing this in the dark and so disposing of the articles of our attire that they could be instantly retrieved in the morning. Once between the blankets, conversation at first waxed rather than waned. The Night Wardmaster, whose duty it was to make the round of the orderlies' huts, disapproved of conversation after Lights-Out, and was apt to say so, loudly and menacingly, when he surprised us by popping his head in at the door. But—well—the Night Wardmaster always departed in the long run.... And then uprose, between bed and bed, those unconclusive debates in which the masculine soul delighteth: Theology; Woman; Victuals; Politics; Art; the Press; Sport; Marriage; Money—and sometimes even The War; likewise the purely local topics of Sisters and their Absurdities; Our Officers; The Other Huts; What the Sergeant-Major Said; Why V.A.D.'s can't replace Male Orderlies; What this Morning's Operations Looked Like; Whether an Officers' Ward or a Men's Ward is the nicer; Who Deserves Stripes; C.O.'s Parade and its Terrors; Advantages of Volunteering for Night Duty; The Cushy Job of being in charge of a Sham Lunacy Case; Other Cushy Jobs less cushy than They Sounded; and so forth; until at last protests began to be voiced by the wearier folk who wanted silence.
Silence it was, except for the thunder of occasional passing trains in the near-by railway cutting. These had little power to disturb. Tucked in the brown army blankets, which at first sight look so hard and so prickly, we slumbered, the twenty-one of us, as one man; until, with a cruel jolt, at 5.15 that wretched alarm-clock crashed forth its summons for the fastidious few who liked to rise in ample time to bath and shave before early parade. Sometimes I was of that virtuous band, and sometimes I wasn't; but, either way, I hated the alarm-clock at 5.15,—though not so virulently as did those members of the hut who never by any chance dreamt of rising until five to six. These gentry had reduced the ritual of dressing, and of rolling up their bedding, to a speed at which it might almost be compared to expert juggling: the quickness of the hand deceived the eye. At five minutes to six you would see the juggler asleep on his pillow, in blissful innocence; at six he would be on parade, as correctly attired as you were yourself, and having left behind him, in the hut, a bed as neatly folded as yours. The world is sprinkled with people who can do this kind of thing—and our hut was blessed with its due leaven of them. But I would not assert that they never had to put some finishing touches, either to their dress or to their hut equipment foldings, before the Company Officer's tour of inspection at 8.30. It sufficed that they would pass muster at 6 o'clock, when appearances are less minutely important. And the man who never rises till 5.55 detests an alarm-clock that whirrs at 5.15. The hour at which the alarm-clock should be set to detonate was one of our few acrimonious subjects of argument: I have even known it upset a discussion on Woman. But the early risers had their way, and the clock continued to be set for half an hour in front of Reveille.
The harsh vibration of the alarm at one end of the day, and the expiry of the Lights-Out talks at the other—these events marked the chief time-divisions in our hut life. While we were absent at work, our interests were many and scattered; but the hut was a nucleus for communal bonds of union which evoked no little loyalty and affection from us all. On the May morning when I first beheld that corrugated-iron abode I thought it looked inviting enough; but I did not guess how fond I was to grow of its barn-like interior and of the sportive crew who shared its mathematically-allotted floor-space. "Next war," one optimist suggested during a typical Lights-Out seance, "let's all enlist together again." There were protests against the implied prophecy, but none against the proposition as such. That is the spirit of hut comradeship ... a spirit which no alarm-clock controversies can do aught to impair; for though 5.15 a.m. is an hour to test the temper of a troop of twenty-one saints, 10.15 p.m. will bring geniality and garrulousness to twenty-one sinners.
The following substances (to which I had previously been almost a stranger) absorbed much of my interest during my first months as a hospital orderly:
Coagulated pudding, mutton fat and beef fat, cold gravy, treacle, congealed cocoa, suet duff, skins of once hot milk:
Plates, cups, frying-pans and other utensils smeared with the above:
Knives, forks and spoons, ditto.
I am fated to go through life, in the future, not merely with an exalted opinion of scullery-maids—this I should not regret—but also with an only too clear picture, when at the dinner table, of the adventures of each dish of broken meats on its exit from view. I have been behind the scenes at the business of eating, or rather, at the dreadful repairs which must be instituted when the business of eating is concluded in order that the business of eating may recommence.
There were days when the ward-kitchen was to me a battlefield and I seemed to be fighting on the losing side. This was when our scrub-lady was ill or had "got the sack" and it fell to me, the orderly, to do the washing-up single-handed. Those patients who were well enough to be on their feet were supposed to help. (I speak of a men's ward, of course, not an officers'.) They did help, and that right willingly. Sometimes I was blessed by the presence of a patient with a passion for cleaning things. When there were no dishes to clean he would clean taps. When the taps shone like gold he would clean the hooks on the dresser. When all our kitchen gear was clean he would invade, with a kind of fury, the sink-room and clean the apparatus there. When this was done he would clean the ward's windows and door handles. Between-times he would clean his boots and shave patients in bed. The new army is thickly sown with men like that. They are the salt of the earth. I would place them at the summit of the commonwealth's salary list, the bank clerk second, and the business man, the artist and the politician at the bottom. At all events these were my sentiments when a patient of this type, convalescing, began to be able to help me with my kitchen chores. But it occasionally chanced that every single patient in the ward was confined to bed. It was then that I made my most intimate acquaintance with the catalogue of horrors I have cited.
You behold me, with my shirt-sleeves rolled up, faced by a heap of twenty plates, twenty forks, twenty knives and twenty spoons, all urgently requiring washing. Were these my whole task I should not shrink. They would be nicely polished-off long ere one-fifteen arrived—the time when I should (but probably shall not be able to) leave for my own meal in the orderlies' mess. But there are two far more serious opponents waiting to be subdued—the dinner-tin and the pudding-basin. This pair are hateful beyond words. Their memory will for ever haunt me, a spectral disillusionment to spoil the relish of every repast I may consume in the years that are ahead.
The dinner-tin was a rectangular box some three feet long, twenty inches wide and six inches deep. It was made of solid metal, was fitted with a false bottom to contain hot water, and was divided internally into three compartments to hold meat, vegetables and duff. These viands were loaded into the tin at the hospital's central kitchen. I had naught to do with the cookery—which I may mention always seemed to me to be excellent. My sole concern was with the helping-out of the food to the patients and the restoration of the dinner-tin to its shelf in the central kitchen. For unless I restored that tin in a faultless state of cleanliness, the sergeant in charge of the central kitchen would require my blood. The tin's number would betray me. The sergeant needed not to know my name: all he had to do, on discovering the questionable tin, was to glance at its number and then send for the orderly of the ward with a corresponding number.
He was a sergeant whose aspect could be very daunting. I never had to come before him on the subject of a dirty dinner-tin. But he and I had some small passages concerning "specials" (separate diets ordered for patients requiring delicacies). Sometimes the necessary forms for the specials had been incorrectly made out by a Sister with no head for army accuracy in minor clerical details. Thereafter it was my unlucky place to see the sergeant, and put the matter straight with him. I have survived those encounters. I have survived them with an enhanced respect for the sergeant and the organisation of his large and by no means simple department. There were moments, nevertheless, when I approached his presence with a sinking heart. For if I failed to "get round" him in the matter of coaxing another special for a patient, there was Sister to placate on my return to the ward; and it was quite impossible to persuade Sister that she could have made a mistake with her diet sheets, or, if she had, that it was of any consequence.
The dinner-tin was somewhat larger than the sink in which I was supposed to wash it. It was also very heavy. When full of food, and its false bottom charged with hot water, I could only just lift it, and my progress down the ward, carrying it from the trolley in the corridor to the ward-kitchen, was a perilous and perspiring shuffle. As soon as all the patients had been served I placed any left-over slices of meat in the larder: these would be eaten at tea. Then I drained out the hot water from the false bottom. Then (but only after experience had given me wisdom) I ran hot water from the geyser tap into the now empty meat, vegetable and duff compartments, and gave them a hurried swill: this to rid them of the pestilent dregs of fatty material which would otherwise have dried and glued themselves to the floor of the tin. The latter had now to be put on one side, for I must be back in the ward attending to my diners. Only when they had finished their meal, and their bed-tables had been removed, folded up and placed neatly behind each bed, could I tackle the tin in earnest.
I abhor dabbling in grease; but life is full of abhorrent dilemmas which must be endured; and the interior of that dinner-tin somehow got itself cleaned, every day, in the long run. During the early part of any given week I was almost happy over the job. For Monday was "Dry Store" day. On Monday, and on Monday only—and you were helpless for the remainder of the week if you forgot the rule—you could obtain, on presentation of a chit, blacklead for the stoves, metal-polish for the brass, rags for cleaning the floor, floor-polish, one box of matches, bath-brick, soft soap, and—soda. It is an extraordinary chemical, soda. Before I became a ward orderly I had no idea of the remarkable properties of soda. A handful of soda in boiling water, and behold the grease dissolve meekly from the nastiest dinner-tin! It was miraculous. When a pitying scrub-lady first showed me the trick I thought that all my troubles were at an end. Soda made the ward-kitchen seem like heaven. Alas, the supply of soda considered sufficient by the Dry Store authorities never lasted beyond Wednesday. On Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday the dinner-tin had to be cleaned out not by alkaline agency, but by sheer slogging hard labour. And when at last I stood it on edge to dry, and thought to go off duty with a clear conscience, I generally found that I had overlooked the waiting pudding-basin.
On the whole I am inclined to pronounce the pudding-basin a more obdurate utensil than even the dinner-tin. The pudding-basin, however, only appeared every second morning. On duff days (duff being served in the same tin as the meat and vegetables, though in a separate compartment) we had no pudding. By pudding I mean milk pudding—rice or sago or tapioca. Now a milk pudding, such as those my patients received, though perhaps it was looked askance at in the nursery, is food which, as an adult, I am far from despising. Rice pudding I have come with maturer years to regard as a delicacy. Sago and tapioca I still eat rather with amiable resignation than from choice. But any milk pudding, as I now know, has a most vicious habit of cleaving to the dish in which it was cooked. Rice is the least evil offender. The others are absolutely wicked. To clean oleaginous scum from a dinner-tin is not easy, but it is a mere bagatelle compared with cleaning the scorched high-tide-mark of tapioca or sago from the shores of a large metal pudding-basin. I have tried scraping with a knife blade, I have tried every reasonable form of friction, and I can simply state as a fact from my own personal experience (perhaps I am unfortunate) that those metal pudding-basins of ours would frequently yield to nothing less powerful than sandpaper.
I need scarcely say that sandpaper was not supplied by the deities of the Dry Store. Sandpaper did not come within their purview. It had no recognised use in hospital. Therefore it did not exist. But, observing that a succession of metal pudding-basins would be an insupportable prospect without sandpaper, I laid in a stock of sandpaper, paying for the same out of my own private purse. It was a cheap investment. Never have earnings of mine been better spent. Moreover, having once hit on the notion of giving myself a lift illegitimately, so to speak, I added to the smuggling-in of sandpaper a secret purchase of soda. Except that our scrub-ladies, each and all, discovering that the Dry Store's allowance of this priceless chemical had at last apparently been generous, caused it to fly at a disconcerting pace, and as a result sometimes left me short of it, my career as a washer-up afterwards became more comfortable.
I shall never like washing-up. In the communal households of the future I shall heave coal, sift cinders, dig potatoes, dust furniture or scour floors—any task will be mine which, though it makes me dirty, does not make me greasily dirty. But if I must wash-up, if I must study the idiosyncrasies of cold fat, treacly plates, frying-pans which have sizzled dripping-toast on the gas-ring, frozen gravy, and pudding-basins with burnt milk-skins filmed to their sides, I shall be comparatively undismayed. For sandpaper is not yet (like the news posters) abolished; and soda—although I hear its price has risen several hundred per cent.—is still cheaper than, say, diamonds.
A "HUT" HOSPITAL
People have curious ideas of the kind of building which would make a good war hospital. "The So-and-So Club in Pall Mall," I have been told, "should have been commandeered long ago. Ideal for hospital purposes. Of course some of the M.P. members brought influence to bear, and the War Office was choked off...." And so forth.
It would surprise me to hear of anything that the War Office was held back from doing if it wanted to do it. Perhaps the least likely obstructionist to be successful in this project would be a club-frequenting M.P. The War Office has taken exactly and precisely what it chose—even when it would have been better to choose otherwise. In this matter of commandeering buildings for hospitals it may or may not have acted with wisdom; but at least it has been safe in avoiding the advice of the individual who jumps to the conclusion that just any pleasingly-situated edifice will do, provided beds and nurses are shovelled into it in sufficient quantities.
The indignant patriot who was convinced that chicane alone saved the So-and-So Club from being dedicated to the service of the wounded was quite unable to tell me whether the lifts—assuming that lifts existed—were roomy enough to accommodate stretchers; whether, if so, no interval of stairs prevented trollies from being wheeled to every ward; whether the arrangement of the building would allow of the network of plumbing necessitated by the introduction of numerous bathrooms and lavatories (for each ward must possess both); whether the kitchens were so located that they could supply food to top-floor patients without waste of carrying labour on the part of the orderlies' staff. These problems, the mere fringe of the subject, had never occurred to our patriot. His idea of a hospital was a place where soldiers lie in bed and get well. (What queer notions visitors absorb of the easiness of hospital life!) He had not glimpsed the organisation which made the cure possible. The man in bed, a Sister hovering in the background with, apparently, nothing to do but look pleasant—these constituted, for him, the final phenomena of a war hospital. These phenomena, instead of being housed in a wood-and-corrugated-iron shed, might have been staged picturesquely in one of the luxurious salons of the So-and-So Club in Pall Mall. It was a shame that they weren't. He would write to the papers about it. Somebody must be blamed, somebody must be made to hustle. And meanwhile the Sisters and doctors who were installed in gorgeous mansions for their work were openly envying the fortunate ones who had been given those bare but efficient and compactly-planned sheds.
Some years ago a number of public buildings were earmarked for hospital use in case of war. It may surprise the indignant patriots to learn that any preparations whatever were made prior to the outbreak in 1914. Nevertheless all kinds of preparations actually were made. Mistakes and miscalculations may have marred those preparations: the fact remains that, as far as the Territorial Medical Service was concerned, the authorities had merely to press a button and hospitals came into existence. Thus a number of institutions—mostly schools—found themselves ejected from their own roof-trees: found, in short, (what many other folk were to learn later) that the State is omnipotent in war-time and that sectional interests fade into insignificance compared with the interests of the safety of the commonwealth. Some conception of the promptness with which this paper scheme of Sir Alfred Keogh's materialised at the outbreak of war may be gathered from the simple statement that the building of which I myself write was an Orphans' Home on August 4th, 1914. At 6 a.m. on August 5th it was a military hospital.
I do not say that it was a military hospital in working order. But if, by a miracle, wounded had turned up then, there was at least a staff of medical officers and orderlies on the premises to receive them. In point of fact it was some weeks before the first patients arrived. Those weeks, however, were not idle ones. The layman who considers that any large building can be turned instantaneously into a hospital would have had an eye-opener if he had witnessed the work done here. The mere removing of 95 per cent. of the institution's furniture was a colossal task; added thereto was the introduction of hundreds of beds, hundreds of mattresses, hundreds of sets of bedclothes, hundreds of suits of pyjamas, hundreds of—But why prolong a brain-racking list? Then there was the pulling-down and fixing-up of partitions, the removal of every single window for replacement by Hopper sashes, the fitting-in of bathrooms, lavatories, ward-kitchens, sink-rooms, dispensary, cookhouse, operating-theatre, pathological laboratory, linen-store, steward's store, clothing-store, detention-room, administration offices, X-ray department ... all these in a building which, spacious and handsome outwardly, was, as to its interior, a characteristic maze in the Scottish baronial style of architecture beloved by mid-Victorian philanthropists. How the evicted orphans will like to return to those stone-flagged passages and large airy dormitories, after having experienced the comforts of the banal but snug suburban villas in which they are at present located, I know not. There is a certain dignity about the Scottish baronial pile, I admit. The silhouette of its grey stone facade, rising above delightful lawns, makes a good impression—from a distance. Postcard views of it sell freely to visitors. But the best part of our hospital is hidden behind that turreted facade, and is much too "ugly" and utilitarian for postcard immortalisation.
The best part of our hospital—the hospital, to most of us—came into being when the commandeered Scottish baronial orphans' asylum was found to be too small. Then were built "the huts."
The word "hut" suggests something casual, of the camping-out order: a shed knocked together with tin-tacks, doubtfully weather-proof and probably scamped by profiteering contractors. Of the huts provided at certain training centres this may have been true. The finely austere and efficient ranks of hut-wards which constitute the main part of the 3rd London General Hospital are the very antithesis of that picture. They may look flimsy. They were certainly put up at a remarkable pace. I myself witnessed the erection of the final fifty of them. An open field vanished in less than a month, and "Bungalow Town" (as someone nicknamed it) appeared. You would have said that such speed meant countless imperfections of detail. No doubt some tinkerings and modifications were bound to follow, when the regiment of workmen, carpenters, engineers, drainage specialists, electricians, had vanished. But, in the long run, the ideal hospital remained—a hospital with which the So-and-So Club in Pall Mall, for all its luxuriousness, could never hope to compare.
There are still a dozen wards—used mostly for medical cases—in the Scottish baronial building. Its rooms, too, provide the Administration with offices. Its great Dining Hall is a splendid Receiving Ward for the sorting-out and clearance of newly-arrived convoys of patients. We should be poorly situated indeed if we had not our Scottish baronial main building to be the hub of the hospital's activities, or rather the handle from which springs the fan of the hospital's great extension—the huts. Approaching the hospital the visitor sees nothing of those huts. As he walks up the drive he flatters himself that he has reached his destination. He discovers his mistake when, at the inquiry bureau in the entrance, he is informed that the patient whom he has come to interview is (say) in "C 13." He is advised to go down the passage on his left, turn to his right, turn to the left again and then again to the right—after which he had better seek a further re-direction. Launching himself optimistically on this voyage he learns, long ere he has attained his goal, that a modern war-hospital can hide a considerable extent of pedestrianism behind a comparatively short Scottish baronial frontage. He will be fortunate if five minutes' steady tramping brings him to the bedside of his friend in C 13.
Perhaps he will content himself in his footsoreness by noting that, to reach C 13, he has not had to go up or down any stairs. This is one of the beauties of the hut system. It consumes a big area, but it is all on one level—the ground level. The patient on crutches can go anywhere without fear of tripping, the patient in a wheeled chair can propel himself anywhere, the orderlies can push wheeled stretchers or dinner-wagons anywhere. Our visitor for C 13, having escaped from the back of the Scottish baronial building, emerges into a vista of covered corridors, wooden-floored, galvanised-iron roofed. It is a heartbreaking vista to the poor woman who has had no bus-fare and is burdened by a baby in arms. It is a vista which seems to have no end. Corridor branches out of corridor—A Corridor, B Corridor, C Corridor, D Corridor, each with its perspective of doors opening into wards; and shorter corridors leading to store-rooms and the like. But the patient or orderly who has dwelt in a hospital where, though distances are shorter, staircases are involved—or where every trifling coming-and-going of goods or stretchers necessitates the manipulation of a lift—blesses those level, smooth corridors, with their facile access to any ward, to operating theatres, kitchens, stores, X-ray room, massage department, etc., and their stepless exit into the open air.
Looked at from outside, a hut-ward is—to the aesthetic eye—a hideous structure. Knowing what it stands for, the science, the tenderness and the fundamental civilisation which it represents, we may descry, behind its stark geometrical outlines, a real nobility and beauty. Entering a typical hut-ward you behold thirty beds, fifteen on each side of the room. Between each pair of beds is a locker in which the patient stows his belongings. (Woe betide him if his locker is not kept neat!) In the central aisle of the room are the Sister's writing-table, certain other tables, chairs, and two coke stoves for heating purposes in winter. The floor is carpetless, and maintained in a meticulous state of high gloss by means of daily polishings. At a height of a few feet from the floor, the asbestos-lined walls cease and become windows. There is no gap in the continuous line of windows all down each side of the ward—a special type of window which, even when open, declines to allow rain to enter. In consequence of these windows the ward is not only very well lit, but also airy and odourless. When all the windows are open (which is the case throughout the entire summer and generally the case in winter also) the patient has the advantages of indoor comfort plus an outdoor atmosphere. At the end of the ward a covered verandah is spacious enough to take an extra couple of beds for those requiring completely open-air treatment.
The ward proper has certain additions: a kitchen with gas-stove and geyser; a sink-room with geyser and cleansing apparatus of special pattern; a bathroom with geyser; lavatories; a small room for the isolation of a patient on the danger-list; a linen-room; and cupboards. All these are packed neatly under that one rectangular corrugated roof which looked so ugly and so unpromising from outside.
Do not pity the wounded soldier because he is quartered in a "hut." The word sounds unattractive. But if it is the right kind of hut, he is in the soundest and most sanitary type of temporary hospital that the mind of man has yet devised. The rain-drops may rattle a shade noisily on the roof, the asbestos lining may be devoid of ornamentation, but as he lies in bed and contemplates that unadorned ceiling he is a deal better off than if he were gazing at the elaborate (and dust-harbouring) cornices of the So-and-So Club's grandiose smoking-lounge in Pall Mall.
FROM THE "D" BLOCK WARDS
If you walk up the corridor at half-past four on certain afternoons of the week you will meet a mob of patients trooping from their wards to the concert-room. Being built of wood and corrugated iron, the corridor is an echoing cave of noises. It echoes the tramp of feet—and army-pattern boots were not soled for silence. It echoes the thud-thud of crutches. It echoes the slurred rumble of wheeled chairs and stretcher-trollies. But, above all, at half-past four on concert days it echoes happy talk and chaff and boisterous laughter.
As often as not, the loudest talk, the cheeriest chaff, the most spontaneous laughter, emanate from the blue-clad stalwarts who have mustered from the "D" Block wards.
"D" Block contains the wards for eye-wound cases.
Here they come, a string of them, mostly with bandages round their heads. The leading man owns one good eye—a twinkling eye—an eye of mischief—an eye (you would guess at once) for the girls. (But the eye's owner probably calls them the "pushers." Such is our language now.) Behind him, in single file, and in step with him, march a gang of patients each with his hand on the shoulder of the man in front. Tramp, tramp! Their tread is purposely thunderous on the bare boards of the corridor. They sing as they advance. It is a ragtime chorus whose most memorable line runs, "You never seem to kiss me in the same place twice." A jaunty lilt, to be sure, both in tune and in rhythm. Tramp, tramp! The one-eyed leader swerves round a corner, roaring the refrain. His followers swerve too. Suddenly the Matron is encountered, emerging from her room. "Fine afternoon, Matron!" The leader interrupts his chant to utter this hearty greeting. And, with one voice, "Fine afternoon, Matron!" exclaim his followers. But they do not turn their heads. Each with his hand resting on the shoulder of the man in front they go steadily on, towards the concert-room, with an odd intentness, glancing neither to one side nor the other. For though, at their leader's cue, they have hailed the Matron, they have not seen her. They are blind.
The spectacle of men—particularly young men—who have given their sight for their country is, to most observers, a moving one. Melancholy are the reflections of the visitor who meets, for the first time, a promenading party of our blind patients. It is the plain truth, nevertheless, that the blind men themselves are far from melancholy. One of the rowdiest characters we ever had in the hospital was totally blind. The blind men's wards are notoriously amongst the least sedate. I offer no explanation. I simply state the fact. I will fortify it by an anecdote.
It came to pass that eight complimentary tickets for a Queen's Hall matinee were received by the Matron, who in due course allotted them to seven "D" Block patients. An orderly, detailed to take them to the hall, completed the octette. Corporal Smith, the orderly in question, recounted his adventures afterwards. "Never again," quoth he, "shall I jump at a matinee job if there are blind chaps in the party. They're the deuce."
You must understand that we hospital orderlies regard the task of shepherding patients to an entertainment in town as an agreeable form of holiday. I have had some very pleasant outings of that sort myself. But not—I am thankful to recall, in the light of Corporal Smith's narrative—with blind men. One-legged men are often a sufficient care, in manoeuvring on and off omnibuses. Apparently helpless cripples have a marvellous gift for losing themselves, entering wrong trains, and generally escaping—as the hour for return draws nigh—from one's custody. And the city seems to be full of lunatics ready to supply alcohol or indigestible refreshments to the most delicate war-hospital inmates. Even with ordinary patients the orderly's afternoon excursion is sometimes not unfraught with anxiety. But blind patients, as Corporal Smith said, are the deuce.
Out of his party, four were totally blind, two could recognise dimly the difference between light and darkness, and one had a single good eye.
Queen's Hall was reached, by bus, without mishap. After the performance there was tea at an A.B.C. shop. Here Jock, one of the totally blind men, a Scotchman—all Scots are "Jocks" in the army—distinguished himself by facetiae (audible throughout the whole shop) on the English pronunciation of the word 'scone,' and intimated his desire to treat the company to a ballad. This project was suppressed, but "a silly fool in a top hat threatened to report me for having given my men drink," said Corporal Smith. "Jock gave him the bird, not 'arf. But I thought it about time to be going home."
So the party prepared to go home.
The bus was voted dull. Somebody suggested the tube. Corporal Smith consented.
He had forgotten that at Oxford Circus station the lifts have been abolished in favour of sliding staircases. Confronted by the escalator, Corporal Smith halted his party and informed them that they must walk down by the ordinary stair. The escalator was not safe for blind men. Unfortunately, Jock had sniffed a lark; the one-eyed man backed him up; the party—elated perhaps by their tea—would not hear of anything so humdrum as a descent by the ordinary stair. They were going on the sliding stair. They insisted. Corporal Smith argued in vain. In vain he exerted his (purely nominal) authority. His charges mocked him. The one-eyed man leading, with Jock in his wake, they launched themselves at the sliding stair. In sheer desperation Corporal Smith brought up the rear, supporting two of the more timid venturers as best he might. None of the group except Corporal Smith himself, as it turned out, had ever travelled on an escalator before. But they had heard a comic song about a sliding stair, and they wished—Jock especially—to sample this metropolitan invention.
By dodging forward to place each blind man's hand upon the banister, Corporal Smith managed to send off his patients without a stumble. But as the stair inexorably lowered them into the bowels of the earth he realised, only too vividly, what might happen at the foot of the descent. The evening rush of suburb-bound passengers had begun and the staircase was rather crowded. Nobody seemed to realise that the khaki-overcoated men who stood so still upon the steps were not the usual hospital convalescents out on leave and able to look after themselves. Corporal Smith, delayed by one man who had hesitated at the top before taking the plunge, beheld his charges below him, hopelessly dotted, at intervals, amongst the general public. It was impossible for him to struggle down ahead, to the bottom of the staircase, to guide the men off as they arrived. This task, he hoped, would be adequately performed by the one-eyed man.
It might have been. The one-eyed man was game for anything. But Jock, arriving in the highest good humour at the bottom of the staircase, was tilted sideways by the curve, and promptly sat down on the landing-place. Instead of rising, he proclaimed aloud that this was funnier even than England's pronunciation of the word 'scone.' Whereupon various hurrying passengers, including an old lady, tripped over his prone form. The sensation of being kicked and sat upon appealed to Jock's sense of humour. The more people avalanched across him the more comic he thought it. And in a moment there was quite a pile of wriggling bodies on top of him. For though the public managed on the whole to leap over, or circumvent, the obstacle presented by Jock's extremely large body, none of his blind comrades did so.
"Every single one of them fell flop," said Corporal Smith; "I give you my word."
But were they downhearted? No! They regarded this mysterious hurly-burly of arms and legs as a capital jest. So far from being alarmed or annoyed, they shouted with glee. The old lady, who had gathered herself together and was directing a stream of voluble reproof at Corporal Smith for his "callousness and cruelty to these unhappy blind heroes," retired discomfited. Jock's comments routed her more effectively than the Corporal's assurance that the episode was none of his choosing.
The party at last sorted itself out and was placed upon its feet once more. It was excessively pleased with its exploit. Hilarity reigned. Corporal Smith, relieved, made ready to conduct his squad to the platform.
Alas, a bright idea occurred to Jock. Why not go up the other sliding stair and down again?
Agreed, nem. con. At least, Corporal Smith's con. was too futile to be worth counting.
"I had to go with the blighters," said he. "There was no end of a crowd by this time. And Jock and some of the others fell over at the top again. And there was a row with the ticket-collector. And people kept saying they'd report me. Me! And when I'd got my party down to the bottom for the second time, and some of the tube officials had come and said they couldn't allow it and we must buzz off home, I lined the fellows up to march 'em to the train, and dash me if two weren't missing. They'd given me the slip."
The two truants, it may be added, could not be found. Corporal Smith had to return without them. At a late hour of the evening they appeared, not an atom repentant, at the hospital, having persuaded someone to put them into the correct bus. One of them, Jock, explained that, being from the North, he had desired to seize this opportunity of seeing the sights of London. Jock, I may remind you, is totally blind. Jock's guide, the man who had volunteered to show him the sights and who had only once been in London before, could see very faintly the difference between light and dark.... Thus this pair of irresponsibles had fared forth into the dusk of Regent Street.
* * * * *
It sounds a very horrible fate to be blinded. But somehow the blind men themselves seldom seem to be overwhelmed by its horribleness. If you want to hear the merriest banter in a war hospital, visit the blind men's wards. The pathos of them lies less in the sadness of the victims than in the triumphant, wonderful fact that they are not sad. I wish we others all inhabited the same mysteriously jocund spiritual realm as Jock and his comrades, who come tramp-tramping to the concert-room down the corridor from the D wards.
WHEN THE WOUNDED ARRIVE
The receiving hall of the hospital is its clearing house of patients. It is a huge room, with a lofty and echoing roof, a little in the style of a church. Before the war, when the building was a school, this rather grandiose apartment no doubt witnessed speechifyings and prize distributions. May the time be not far distant when it will once again be used for those observances! Meanwhile its vast floor is occupied by ranks of beds.
Those beds are generally untenanted. Visitors who, like the lady in the play, have taken the wrong turning, are apt to find themselves in the receiving hall, and, gazing at its array of vacant beds, have been known to conclude that the hospital was empty. (As if any war-hospital, in these times, could be empty!) But our patients have only a short acquaintanceship with the receiving-hall beds: these beds are momentary resting-places on their journey healthwards: they are not meant to lie in but to lie on. The three-score wards for which the receiving hall is the clearing house are the real destination of the patients; down long corridors, in wards far cosier because less ornate than this, the patient will find "his" bed ready for him, the bed which he is not to lie on but in.
We orderlies meet each convoy at the front door of the hospital. The walking-cases are the first to arrive—men who are either not ill enough, or not badly enough wounded, to need to be put on stretchers in ambulances. They come from the station in motor-cars supplied by that indefatigable body, the London Ambulance Column. The walking-case alights from his car, is conducted into the receiving hall, and ten minutes later is in the bathroom. For the ritual of the bath must on no account be omitted—although now not so obviously imperative as in the early period of the war. Few patients reach us who have not first sojourned, either for a day or two or for weeks, in hospitals in France. They are therefore merely travel-stained, as you or I might be travel-stained after coming over from Dublin to Euston. The bath is thus a pleasure more than a necessity. Whereas there was an era, when our guests came straight from only too populous trenches....
"O.C. Baths," as the bathroom orderly was nicknamed, had to be circumspect in the performance of his job.
The few minutes which the walking-case spends in the receiving hall are occupied (1) in drinking a cup of cocoa, and (2) in "having his particulars taken."
Poor soul!—he is weary of giving his "particulars." He has had to give them half-a-dozen times at least, perhaps more, since he left the front. At the field dressing-station they wanted his particulars, at the clearing-station, on the train, at the base hospital, on another train, on the steamer, on the next train, and now in this English hospital. As he sits and comforts himself with cocoa, a "V.A.D." hovers at his elbow, intent on a printed sheet, the details of which she is rapidly filling-in with a pencil. For this is a card-index war, a colossal business of files and classifications and ledgers and statistics and registrations, an undertaking on a scale beside which Harrod's and Whiteley's and Selfridge's and Wanamaker's and the Magazin du Louvre, all rolled into one, would be a fleabite of simplicity. Ere the morrow shall have dawned, our patient's military biography will be recounted, by various clerks, in I don't know how many different entries. If you are curious, refer to one of our volumes of the Admission and Discharge Book: Field Service Army Book 27a. Open it at any of its closely-written pages and see the host of ruled columns which the orderly in charge of it must inscroll with reference to each of the many thousands of patients who pass through our hospital per annum. The columns ask for his Regiment; Squadron, Battery or Company; Number; Rank; Surname; Christian Name; Age; Length of Service; Completed Months with Field Force; Diseases (wounds and injuries are expressed by a number indicating their nature and whereabouts); Date of Admission; Date of Discharge or Transfer; Number of Days under Treatment; Number of Ward; Religion; and "Observations"—a space usually occupied by the name of the hospital ship upon which our friend crossed the Channel, and the name of the convalescent home to which he went on bidding us adieu.
Having furnished the preliminary statements which lay the foundation of this compendious memoir, the walking-case thankfully finishes his cocoa, picks up the package of "blues" which has been put at his side, and departs, with his fellows, to the bathroom. Here he is tackled by the Pack Store orderlies, who take from him, and enter in their books, his khaki clothes. These he must leave in exchange for the blue slop uniform which, pro tem., is to be his only wear. When he emerges from the bathroom he is attired in what is now England's most honourable livery—the royal blue of the war-hospital patient. And (though perhaps the matter is not mentioned to him in so many words) his own suit is already ticketed with an identification label and on its way to the fumigator. This is no reflection on the owner of the suit ... but there are some things we don't talk about. Mr. Fumigator-Wallah is not the least busy of the more retiring members of a war-hospital staff. He is not in the limelight; but you might come to be very sad and sorry if he took it into his head to neglect his unapplauded part off-stage.
The walking-cases are still splashing and dressing in the bathroom when the ambulances with the cot-cases begin to appear. Now is the orderlies' busy time. Each stretcher must be quickly but gently removed from the ambulance and carried into the receiving hall.
Four orderlies haul the stretcher from its shelf in the ambulance; two orderlies then take its handles and carry it indoors. At the entrance to the receiving hall they halt. The Medical Officer bends over the patient, glances at the label which is attached to him, and assigns him to a ward. (Certain types of cases go to certain groups of wards.) The attendant sergeant promptly picks a metal ticket from a rack and lays it on the stretcher. The ticket has, punched on it, the number of the patient's ward and the number of the patient's bed in that ward. This ceremony completed, the orderlies proceed, with their burden, up the aisle between the beds in the receiving hall.
Arrived at the bed, they lower their stretcher until it is at such a level that the patient, if he is active enough, can move off it on to the bed; if he is too weak to help himself he is lifted on to the bed by orderlies under the direction of the receiving-hall Sister. The stretcher is promptly removed and restored to its ambulance. If the patient is in an exceptionally suffering condition he is not placed on the receiving-hall bed; instead—the Medical Officer having given his permission—his stretcher is put on a wheeled trolley and he is taken straight away to his ward, so that he will only undergo one shift of position between the ambulance and his destination. The majority of stretcher-cases, however, reach us in a by no means desperate state, for, as I say, they seldom come to England without having been treated previously at a base abroad (except during the periods of heavy fighting). And it is remarkable how often the patient refuses help in getting off the stretcher on to the bed. He may be a cocoon of bandages, but he will courageously heave himself overboard, from stretcher to bed, with a gay wallop which would be deemed rash even in a person in perfect health. Our receiving hall, at a big intake of wounded, when every bed bears its poor victim of the war, presents a spectacle which might give the philosopher food for thought; but I suspect that, if he regarded its actualities rather than his own preconceptions, what would impress him more than the sadness would be on the one hand the kindliness, brisk but not officious, of the staff, and on the other the spontaneous geniality of the battered occupants of the beds. The orderlies can spare little time for talk, but the few chats which they are able to have with patients whom they are helping to change their clothes, or to whom they are proffering the inevitable cocoa (which is a cocktail, as it were, prior to the meal which will be served in the men's own ward), are punctuated by jokes and laughter rather than the long-visaged "sympathy" which the outsider might—quite wrongly!—have pictured as appropriate to such an assemblage.
The stretcher-case, before he is taken to his ward, must also "give his particulars," must also be interviewed by the Pack Store officials, and must also have assigned to him his blue uniform (wherewith are a shirt, a cravat, slippers and socks) in anticipation of the time when he shall be able to use his feet again and promenade our corridors and grounds. He receives the customary packet of cigarettes (probably the second, for he often gets one at the railway station too), and then, on another stretcher, mounted on a trolley, is wheeled off to his ward. Here, bestowed in bed at last, we leave him to his blanket-bath, his meal, his temperature-taking and chart filling-in by the Sister, his visit from the doctor, and all the rest of it. For the moment we see no more of him; we must race back to the receiving hall, and, if there are no more patients to take away, return the trolley to its proper nook, put straight the blankets and pillows on the beds, sweep the floor, and tidy up generally, in readiness for the next convoy's advent.
Presently the huge room, beneath its dim arched ceiling, is silent and empty once more. The four ranks of beds, without a crease on their brown blankets, are bare of occupants. The Sister and her probationers have vanished. The Pack Store orderlies have carried off their loot of dirty khaki tunics and trousers for the fumigator. The clerical V.A.D.'s have gone to enter "particulars" in ledgers and card-indices. The cookhouse people have removed their cocoa urn. The sergeant is inspecting the metal ward-tickets left in his rack. A glance at them tells him how many beds, and which beds, are free in the hospital; for the tickets have no duplicates; any given ticket can only reappear in the rack when the bed which it connotes is out of use and awaiting a newcomer; the ticket hangs from a nail in the wall beside the patient's bed just so long as that bed is tenanted. So the rack of metal tickets might almost take the place of that important document, of which a freshly-compiled edition is typed every morning, the Empty Bed List; and the sergeant is meditative as he sorts into the rack the tickets which have newly been sent in from the Sisters of wards where there have been departures. "Not much room in the eye-wound wards," he ponders; or, "A lot of empties in the medicals." And then ... the tinkle of the telephone....
"Another convoy expected at 6.15? Twenty walking-cases and seventeen cots. Right you are!"
And at 6.15 the party of orderlies will be back again at the front door, again the motor-cars will stream up the drive, again the ambulances will come with their stretchers, and again the receiving hall will awaken from its interlude of silence to echo with the activities incidental to a clearing house of those damaged human bundles which are the raison d'etre of our great war-hospital.
War-hospital patients are of many sorts. It is a common mistake of the arm-chair newspaper devourer to lump all soldiers together as quaint, bibulous, aitch-dropping innocents, lamblike and gauche in drawing-rooms, fierce and picturesque on the field, who (to judge by their published photographs) are continually on the grin and continually shaking hands either with each other or with equally grinsome French peasant women at cottage doors or with the local mayor who congratulates them on the glorious V.C.'s which, of course, they are continually winning. In a war hospital that harbours many thousands of patients per annum, we should know, in the long run, something about the characteristics of Tommy Atkins; and it is with resentment that I hear him thus classified as a mere type. He is not a type. Discipline and training have given him some veneer of generalised similarities. Beneath these, Tommy Atkins is simply the man in the street—any man in any street; and if you look out of your window in the city and see a throng of pedestrians upon the pavement you might just as well say that because they are all civilians they are all alike as that, because all soldiers wear khaki, they are all alike.
I have a quarrel with the Press on the score of its persistent fostering of this notion that "our gallant lads" (as the sentimental scribe calls them) are a pack of children about whose exploits an unfailing stream of semi-pathetic, semi-humorous anecdotes must be put forth. Even the old professional army exhibited no dead level either of blackguards on the one hand or humble Galahads on the other. But whatever may have been the case before the war, all the armies of Europe are now alike in this, that they are composed of civilians who merely happen to have adopted a certain garb for the performance of a certain job—and, be it remarked, a temporary job. That garb has not reduced the citizens, who have the honour to wear it, to a monotonous level either of intelligence or of conduct: nor even of opinions about the war itself. I have had fire-eaters in my ward who breathed the sentiments of John Bull and the Evening News, and I have had pacifists (they seemed to have fought no less bravely) who, week by week, read and approved Mr. Snowden in the Labour Leader; I have had Radicals and Tories, and patients who cared for neither party, but whose passion was cage-birds or boxing or amateur photography; I have had patients who were sulky and patients who were bright, patients who were unlettered and patients who were educated, patients who could hardly express themselves without the use of an ensanguined vocabulary and patients who were gently spoken and fastidious. Each of them was Tommy Atkins—the inanely smirking hero of the picture-paper and the funny paragraph. Neither his picture nor the paragraph may be positively a lie, and yet, when the arm-chair dweller chucklingly draws attention to them, I am tempted to relapse into irreverence and utter one or other (or perhaps both) of two phrases which T. Atkins is himself credited with using ad nauseam—"Na-poo" and "I don't think."
When I assert—as I do unhesitatingly assert—that no one could work in a war-hospital ward for any length of time without an ever-deepening respect and fondness for Tommy Atkins, it is the same thing as asserting that the respect and fondness are evoked by close contact with one's countrymen: nothing more nor less. A hospital ward is a haphazard selection of one's fellow-Britons: the most wildly haphazard it is possible to conceive. And the pessimistic cynic who, after a sojourn in that changing company for a month or two can still either generalise about them or (if he does) can still not acknowledge that in the mass they are amazingly lovable, is beyond hope. The war has taught its lessons to us all, and none more important than this. For myself I confess that I never knew before how nice were nine out of ten of the individuals with whom I sat silent in trains, whom I glanced at in business offices or behind counters, whom I saw in workshops or in the field or who were my neighbours in music-halls. They were strangers. In the years to come I hope they will be strangers no longer. For they and I have dressed alike and borne the same surname—Atkins.
Of course, there remain a few generalisations which can safely be risked about even so nondescript a person as the new Tommy Atkins. As practically all the Tommy Atkinses are, at this moment, concentrated on the prosecution of one great job, it is natural that their main interests should revolve round that job. They all (for instance) want the job to be finished. They all (within my experience) want it to be finished well. They nearly all desire earnestly to cease soldiering as soon as the job is finished well. I never yet met the man (though he may exist, outside the brains of the scribes aforementioned) who, having tasted the joys of roughing it, is determined not to return to a humdrum desk in an office: on the contrary, that office and that humdrum desk have now become this travelled adventurer's most roseate dream. I have conversed with patients drawn from nearly every walk in life, and I do not remember one who definitely spoke of refusing to go back to his former work—if he could get it.
One of my patients had been a subterranean lavatory attendant. You would have thought his ambitions—after visits to Egypt, Malta, the Dardanelles and France—might have soared to loftier altitudes. He had survived hair-raising adventures; he had taken part in the making of history; although wounded he had not been incapacitated for an active career in the future; and he was neither illiterate nor unintelligent. Yet he told me, with obvious satisfaction, that his place was being kept open for him. I was, as it were, invited to rejoice with him over the destiny which was his. I may add that the singular revelations which he imparted as to the opportunities for extra earnings in his troglodyte trade extorted from me a more enthusiastic sympathy than might be supposed possible.
That agreeable domestic pet, homo sapiens, remains unchanged even when you dress him up in a uniform and set him fighting. He is always consistently inconsistent; he is always both reasonable and unreasonable. You can try to cast him in a mould, but he resumes his normal shapelessness the moment the mould is removed. Expose him to frightful ordeals of terror and pain, and he will emerge grumbling about some petty grievance or carrying on a flirtation with another man's wife or squabbling about sectarian dogmas or gambling on magazine competitions or planning new businesses—in fact, behaving precisely as the natural lord of creation always does behave. No member of our hospital staff, I imagine, will ever forget the arrival of the first batch of exchanged British wounded prisoners; It was the most tragic scene I have ever witnessed. It is a fact, for which I make no apology, that tears were shed by some of those whose task it was to welcome that pitiful band of martyrs. We had received convoys of wounded many a time, but these broken creatures, so pale, so neglected, so thin and so infinitely happy to be free once more, had a poignant appeal which must have melted the most rigid official. (And we are neither very official, here, nor very rigid.) Well, amongst these liberated captives was one who told a sad tale of starvation at his internment camp. There is little doubt that it was a true tale, in the main. On that I make no comment. I simply introduce you to this gentleman, who had been restored to his native land after ten months of entombment, in order to mention that on the following morning, when his breakfast was placed before him, he turned up his nose at it. Loudly complaining of the poorness of the food, he leant out of bed, picked up a brown-paper parcel which had been his only luggage, and produced from it some German salted herring, which he proceeded to eat with grumbling gusto.
That is not specially Tommy Atkins; it is homo sapiens of the hearthside, whether in suburban villa or in slum, for ever dissatisfied (more especially with his victuals) and for ever evoking our affection all the same.
No; Tommy Atkins is never twice alike. He is unanimous on few debatable matters. One of them, as I have said, is the desirability of finishing the war—in the proper way. (But even here there are differences as to what constitutes the proper way.) Another is (I trust I shall not shock the reader) the extreme displeasingness of life at the front. I would not say that our hospital patients are positively thankful to be wounded, nor that they do not wish to recover with reasonable rapidity. But that they are glad to be safe in England once more is undeniable. The more honour to them that few, if any, flinch from returning to duty—when they know only too well what that duty consists of. But they make no bones about their opinion. Not long ago I was the conductor of a party of convalescents who went to a special matinee of a military drama. The theatre was entirely filled with wounded soldiers from hospitals, plus a few nurses and orderlies. It was an inspiring sight. The drama went well, and its patriotic touches received their due meed of applause. But when the heroine, in a moving passage, declared that she had never met a wounded British soldier who was not eager to get back to the front, there arose, in an instant, a spontaneous shout of laughter from the whole audience. That was Tommy Atkins unanimous for once.
He was unanimous too, I should add, in perceiving immediately that the actress had been disconcerted by his roar of amusement. The poor girl's emotional speech had been ruined. She looked blank and stood irresolute. At once a burst of hand-clapping took the place of the laughter. It was not ironical, it was friendly and apologetic. "Go ahead!" it said. "We're sorry. Those lines aren't your fault, anyway. You spoke them very prettily, and it was a shame to laugh. But the ass of a playwright hadn't been in the trenches, and if your usual audiences relish that kind of speech they haven't been there either."
So much for Tommy Atkins in his unanimous mood—unanimously condemning cant and at the same time unanimously courteous. Now that I come to reflect I believe that, in his best moments, these are perhaps the only two points concerning which Tommy Atkins is unanimous. Whether he lives up to them or not (and to expect him unflinchingly to live up to them in season and out of season is about as sensible as to expect him perpetually to live up to the photographs and anecdotes), we may take them as his ideal. He dislikes humbug: he tries to be polite. Could one sketch a sounder scaffolding on which to build all the odd divergencies—crankinesses and heroisms, stupidities and engagingnesses—which may go to make the edifice of an average decent soul's material, mental and spiritual habitation?
* * * * *
Postscript.—An expert—one of England's greatest experts—who has read the above tells me that I have not done justice to the old professional army men of Mons and the Aisne. When wounded and in our hospital they did want to go back to fight. But their sole reason, given with frankness, was that they considered they were needed: the new army, in training, was not ready: it would be murder to send the new army out, unprepared, to such an ordeal.
This authority, who has interviewed many thousands of convalescents, further remarked: "The wounded man who has been under shell fire and who professes to be eager to go back, whether ordered or no, is a liar. On the other hand, the scrim-shankers who try to get out of going back, when they should go back, are an amazingly small minority."
A number of oddly unmasculine duties fell to the lot of the R.A.M.C. orderly prior to the time when "V.A.D.'s" were allowed to take his place (at least to some extent) throughout our English war-hospitals. One of my first tasks in the morning was the collecting and classification of my ward's dirty linen. The work cannot be called difficult. It would be an exaggeration to say that it demands a supreme intellectual effort. But to the male mind it is, at least, rather novel. The average bachelor has perhaps been accustomed to scrutinise his collars, handkerchiefs and underclothes before and after their trips to the laundry. He has seldom, I think, had intimate trafficking with pillow-cases, sheets, counterpanes and tablecloths. In the reckoning of these he is apt to make mistakes and to lapse into a casualness which, in a woman familiar with household routine, would be improbable. "Sister's" sharpest reproofs were called forth by errors made in connection with this daily exchange of clean for dirty linen.
A form, of course, had to be filled in. (The army provides a form for everything.) This form presents a catalogue of eighty-one separate items, from "Blankets" ("Child's," "Infant's"—I do not know what is the difference between them, and I never had to deal with either—"G.S."—whatever that may be—and "White") to "Waist-coats, Strait." It distinguishes between ten kinds of "Cases"—pillow-cases, paillasse-cases, and the like: for example, there are "barrack" bolster-cases and "hospital" bolster-cases; and you must not confound "hospital" mattress-cases with "officers'" mattress-cases. You are misled if you imagine that the heading "Cases" has exhausted the possibilities which appeared to be latent in that noun; for, in addition to the ten unqualified "Cases" there are seven more, defined as "Cases, slip." Can you wonder that the orderly, presented with a bin-full of confused and crumpled objects ready for the wash, and told to count them and enter their numbers in the appointed columns, occasionally made a wrong guess? Then there were eight sorts of "Cloths"—tablecloth, tray-cloth, distinctive cloth, and so forth. (To how many lay minds does "distinctive cloth" convey any meaning?) Counterpanes you would think to be obvious enough; but that remarkable compilation, the Check Book for Hospital Linen ("Printed for H.M. Stationery Office...." etc.), recognises four varieties. It also allows for four varieties of sheets, four of aprons and four of trousers. Of towels it knows six.
Each ward has a certain stock of linen in its cupboard. That stock can only be kept at the proper level by strict barter of a soiled object for a clean duplicate of the same object. As there are three hundred and sixty-five days in the year on which this transaction occurs, and sixty wards' bundles of linen to be dealt with by both the Dirty Linen Department and the Clean Linen Department on each of those days, it is clear that exactitude in the filling-in of the form aforementioned becomes an affair of almost nightmare importance. Bring back from the Clean Linen Store three dusters instead of the four dusters which you previously handed in at the Dirty Linen Store, and your cupboard will, to the end of time, be short of one duster which it should have possessed. Even if Sister fails to pounce promptly on the evidence of the loss, the quartermaster's dread stocktaking will ultimately find you out. Your cupboard declines to correspond with his book-entries. And there is trouble brewing, in consequence. (But indeed, if the loss of a single duster were the sole crime revealed on stocktaking day, you would be fortunate.)
The orderly, with an obese bundle of washing on his back, plods from the ward to the Dirty Linen Store at quarter to nine every morning. I say he "plods" because the bundle is generally too heavy for transportation at a rapid pace. Twenty sheets are usually but a part of the bundle; and twenty sheets are alone no light burden. Between his teeth—both his hands being occupied with the balancing of the bundle—he carries his chit: that indispensable list. Arrived at the store he dumps the bundle on the ground, opens it, and pitches its contents piecemeal over a counter to one of the staff of the store. One by one the objects are named and counted aloud, as they fly across the counter, the staff orderly simultaneously checking the list and keeping an eye on what he is receiving. For we may, by guile, palm off on him one sheet as two. It can be done, by means of a certain legerdemain which comes with practice. Or we may have received from the Dry Store, amongst the rags meant for cleaning purposes, a couple of quite worn-out socks, not a pair, and long past placing on human feet: these derelicts, with a rapid motion, can be passed over the counter amongst the good socks, and only later in the day will the Dirty Linen Store officials detect the fraud—when it is impossible to locate its perpetrator. The store-orderly's job is therefore one requiring some astuteness: his checking of the list has to be achieved at a high speed and in the midst of a babel; for as many ward-orderlies are present as the length of the counter will accommodate, and they are all getting rid of their dirty-linen bundles at the tops of their voices.
Altercations, I am afraid, were not infrequent in the epoch when the actors in this drama were of the male sex. (Even now, when the scene is mainly feminine, I believe differences of opinion continue to arise, but doubtless the language in which they are conducted is seemlier if no less deadly.) The store-orderly had a marvellous eye for the difference between two kinds of shirts which are worn by our patients. One kind has a pleat in the back, the other kind hasn't; and I confess I occasionally transposed them, on the form. It was fatal to do so. There was a separate line for each brand of shirt and there must be a separate entry. The store-orderly's trained powers of observation could see that pleat, or the absence of it, even as the shirt slid across his line of vision in a torrent of other shirts. His hand shot out and grabbed it back from joining the heap on the floor within the counter. His pencil poised itself from the ticking-off of the items on the form. "Wrong again!" he would cry, sometimes in anguish and sometimes in anger. And there was nothing for it but to apologise. To keep on good terms with the various orderlies in the various stores was the secret of making one's life worth living—a secret even profounder than that of keeping on good terms with Sister: to be sure it was (though she seldom realised it) the very foundation of the art of keeping on good terms with her. You could not even begin to please Sister unless, at the end of those incessant journeyings of yours which she did not see, you had dealings with store-orderlies who were obliging and who would give you the things which the taskmistress had sent you to fetch (or would drop a kindly hint as to where and by what means you could acquire them). The Dirty Linen Store orderly who declined to accept your plea for forgiveness when you had been obtuse enough to see a fomentation-wringer in a teacloth, could devastate the harmony of a whole forenoon. A sweet reasonableness was undoubtedly the note to strike when such a contretemps occurred.
Having got quit of the last item in your bundle, you returned to the ward to attend to other (and generally less entertaining) duties until such time as it was proper to repair to the Clean Linen Store. The staff of the Clean Linen Store, a huge department whose system of book-keeping is enough to make the brain reel (for here sheets, etc., are dealt with not in dozens but in thousands), had in the interim received your chit from their colleagues of the Dirty Linen Store. These latter, rashly or otherwise, had guaranteed its accuracy by initialing it. Accordingly, in the Clean Linen Store, a fresh bundle was ready for your acceptance, its contents consisting of duplicates of the objects now on their way to the laundry.
It was unwise, however, to accept this neatly folded and virginal bundle without investigation. It might contain what the chit demanded; or it might not. Before you could carry it off you must yourself initial, and finally bid farewell to, the chit: thereby certifying that you had got what you claimed. To make sure of this you would be well advised to undo the bundle, and (as far as was practicable in a jostling crowd of fellow-orderlies similarly employed) run through the whole of its contents, computing them with precision: twenty sheets, twelve pillow-cases, nine bolster-cases—it is only too easy to miss the difference in the sizes of these—seventeen hand-towels, two operating-aprons, eleven handkerchiefs, ten pyjama trousers, ten sleeping-jackets, and so on. When you had ticked-off all these separate items in the list you scribbled your initials thereon and fled with your bundle—to find, as often as not, that Sister, sorting the things into her cupboard, could discover a mistake after all. This meant a humble return to the Clean Linen Store to beg for the mistake's rectification; and the sergeant in charge had merely to take your chit from his file, and show you your own initials on it, to prove that you were in the wrong.
It is conceivable that by means of a ward stocktaking and a reference of the results to the figures in the sergeant's huge ledger, you might have proved that you were not in the wrong. But the only time I ever knew one of these disputes to be thus put to the test I admit I wished that I had refrained from so temerarious an adventure. Somehow or other I had managed to come back to the ward with three clean pillow-cases fewer than the tale of dirty ones I had taken away. And Sister was exceedingly cross. The particular Sister whose drudge I was at that period was rather apt to be cross; and this was one of her crossest days. She threatened to "report" me, and in fact did so. I was not—as she seemed to expect—shot at dawn. I merely underwent a formal reproof from a high authority who perhaps (but this is a surmise) knew Sister's idiosyncrasies even better than I did. There remained, nevertheless, the pressing problem of the three strayed pillow-cases. These Sister commanded me to obtain from the Clean Linen Store. But you cannot go to the Clean Linen Store and say "Please give me three pillow-cases." The Clean Linen Store either says "Why?" (a question which, under the circumstances, is flatly unanswerable), or else tells you, in language both firm and ornamental, that you have already had them: your initialed chit testifies the fact.