More bombs. Cocking an experienced ear to the whistling, Mae Ellen estimated that that one would hit several blocks to the south, well away from her ambulance. No need to detour this time. She continued driving, lights off, through pitch-black streets. Starlight glinted off gashes in the paint where rubble and shrapnel had gouged it away. In the back, Jackie gently wiped the poor sod’s forehead. Frankly, Mae Ellen could hardly credit his survival, after two days trapped in the rubble of that bank. His rags had probably begun life as some high-end togs, suitable for impressing the respectability and seriousness of the bank on its customers.
Not being a Brit, Mae Ellen didn’t give two spits about the bank man’s attire or dignity. She just wanted to get him to the field hospital before he finished bleeding to death from internal injuries, which seemed his most probable fate at this exact moment.
Some fool walking appeared in front of Mae’s hood – bonnet, they said here – and she swerved with reflexes honed by countless hours driving through potholed, rubble-strewn streets in the dark of night. Always at night. The blackout may have worked; she couldn’t judge whether the Krauts hit more targets without lights than they would have with them on. But for sure, the darkness and road conditions exercised an evolutionary process on ambulance drivers. Those with weak stomachs or slow reflexes didn’t come back. Those like Mae… did come back. Simple.
“Can you pick it up? He’s fading fast,” Jackie called from the back, voice pitched low to avoid disturbing the victim. Jackie called them “patients,” but then, she’d actually been a real nurse in a hospital, with a white hat and uniform and the whole nine yards. She hadn’t forgotten the training, even if she had lost most of the uniform. White didn’t stay that way long in this line of work.
Mae grunted. She was going as fast as she could without crashing, and she knew Jackie knew. Jackie just needed to say something, to share the concern with another person who wasn’t likely to die in the next hour. Mae Ellen was no more likely to die in the next hour than the next lady, excepting of course her current occupation of bat-out-of-hell ambulance driver.
More whistling, not far ahead. Damn, she’d have to detour after all.
Mae Ellen remembered arriving in London a year and a half ago. The city had seemed so big, so incomprehensible, so foreign, compared to her little hometown. Where her town had Main Street with a half-dozen parallel streets on each side, and some cross-streets in a nice tidy grid, London was a mess. Roads met at angles never intended for intersections; streets zigged and zagged, changing name or direction or both, leaving a newcomer like Mae Ellen utterly bewildered.
And let’s not mention that they drove on the wrong side of the road! The first time crossing a street, Mae Ellen had looked left, stepped out, and missed being run down only by the grace of God—and Ed’s quick reflexes. He’d grabbed her arm and snatched her back from certain death, back onto the sidewalk and into a new life.
“Almost there,” Mae Ellen called out, equally low. No need to disturb anyone. Jackie murmured in the back, saying whatever nurses said to victims almost certain to die. “He still kickin’?” She swerved around a familiar corner, cutting it close, saving a few seconds. She knew this part of London better than the back of her hand, which she still sometimes glanced at just to admire the glittering diamond engagement ring and plain, steady wedding band. Six months of marriage hadn’t yet accustomed her to seeing the flash and sparkle on her left hand.
“Please,” Jackie groaned. “Show a little respect to this poor fellow’s ordeal.”
“Aw, now, I surely do respect it, I just wanna know the score,” Mae Ellen replied, laying on the American-ese extra thick just to twit Jackie. Although they would never be best friends, they usually worked together well, probably because Jackie ignored most of Mae Ellen’s jibes. Mae Ellen could drive a mean ambulance, no question, but some of the other nurses preferred to avoid her because of her caustic tongue. Too bad for them. Mae Ellen and Jackie had survived every run every night so far.
“Help me get him out.” Mae Ellen was already hopping from the open side where her door had been, heading around to take the tail end of the victim’s stretcher. Waste of weight, and just slowed a girl down opening and closing doors. Anyway, an exceptionally large chunk of shrapnel had taken the decision from Mae’s hands some weeks ago, and since the ambulance still worked, Mae didn’t mind about the door.
They hauled the poor bastard into the hospital, an orderly in surprisingly clean scrubs swinging the doors open and then shut again quickly. They didn’t rate special treatment; it was just to keep the light leakage to a minimum. No need to pinpoint the hospital’s location for the Luftwaffe.
“Male, aged about 45, white, found under some rubble in the City,” Jackie reported to the triage nurse. “Based on his pallor, I suspect he has internal bleeding due to organ damage in addition to severe dehydration and mild malnutrition.
Leaning against the door, Mae Ellen turned to the orderly. “Any good ones tonight?”
“Sure, you know, anything exciting happen?”
“Mrs. Banning came in. She’s in labor,” the orderly offered. Mae Ellen’s eyebrows rose. Not a trauma—astonishing.
“And? Boy or girl?”
“Still to be determined.” The orderly jerked his chin down the hallway, indicating which way the laboring mother had gone.
“Wanna bet on it, then?” Mae Ellen’s Father disapproved of gambling. But since he was thousands of miles and a war zone away, him and his hypocritical morality could go to hell. “I’ll bet one week’s sugar ration it’s a boy.”
The orderly shook his head, but also shook her hand, sealing the bet. “I hate to take your sugar ration, but… that woman has four daughters. It’ll be another girl.”
Mae Ellen shrugged philosophically. “Then she’ll be real glad to have a boy, I bet,” she replied as Jackie walked by.
“Are you coming, or am I driving this ambulance myself?” she asked, a touch acidly. Also a touch rhetorically, as Jackie was nearsighted and couldn’t see much past the end of her arm without her glasses, which she left carefully secured in a sturdy wooden box beneath her bunk while out on ambulance runs. She didn’t want to risk breaking them, as near-irreplaceable as they were these days.
“I’m about to win this poor fellow’s week’s sugar ration off him,” Mae Ellen facetiously whined, “I just have to wait to find out if Mrs. Banner’s fifth baby is a boy.”
Rolling her eyes, Jackie hopped back into the ambulance and slammed the back doors, securing a new stretcher in place with swift fingers as Mae Ellen started up the engine again. “Mae, you ate your week’s sugar ration already, and it’s only Tuesday.”
“Sure, that’s why I need his!”
Mae Ellen pulled out into the remains of the street in front of what had once been a fine hotel but was now the field hospital for their area of London. Now most of the rooms were filled with sick and injured—more of the latter than the former—while the gorgeous ballroom’s mirrors presided over surgery, its floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows boarded over. No half measures here.
“Where to?” Mae Ellen asked. Jackie navigated when they didn’t have a victim. She could read maps in near darkness, and had a keen ear for bombing. Plus, she asked the triage nurse where to head next.
“North two blocks and then east. There’s been some bombing around the tube station and Nurse says some civilians may have been caught in the open.” Civilians used tube stations as bomb shelters, which Mae Ellen thought mighty convenient. An entire city with pre-built bomb shelters, practically perfect to withstand the Blitz.
Except when more poor bastards were late, got stuck outside, or tried to time it. Swerving around a pile of sandbags bracing a corner, Mae Ellen took a deep breath, then held it as another whistle of falling ordnance sounded. Behind them, not far but far enough. Keep going.
Yes, this was certainly better than staying at home would have been.
Twelve Months Earlier
“Are you crazy, Miss? That lorry nearly ran you down!” The Brit let go of her arm and carefully released her from his embrace. Was he angry or anxious? It was so hard to tell.
“I – I – I didn’t even see it!” Mae Ellen gasped. She’d dropped her suitcase and purse, and now pressed her gloved hands to a heaving chest. “You saved my life – thank you – Mr. … um…”
The Brit grinned, showing white but rather crooked teeth, every trace of anxiety or anger (either one) vanishing. His brilliantly Brillantined hair shone pale yellow in the sunlight, his uniform crisp and tidy. Mae’s heart gave a little flutter unrelated to her near miss with the truck.
“Corporal Edward Prentiss, at your service, I’m sure,” he said, taking her hand and bowing over it with exaggerated courtesy. “And you, Miss, are not from around here.”
“No, no – I’m from –”
“America?” Corporal Edward Prentiss finished for her. “So I deduced.”
“Oh, of course,” Mae Ellen gasped, rather breathless, again unrelated to her near-accident. “My name is, um, Mae Ellen, um,”
“Um? Is that a common surname in America?” Corporal Prentiss inquired, gallantly retrieving both bags from their resting places on the sidewalk nearby.
Mae giggled. She couldn’t help it, honestly. “Of course not, silly,” she replied, finally catching her breath. “I’m Mae Ellen Stone, and I only just arrived here this morning, and I’m trying to find—” Here she reached for her purse, which Corporal Prentiss supplied without demur. Rooting among the detritus of a long journey, Mae pulled out her compact.
Corporal Prentiss held out a hand, inviting her to deposit the compact for the moment while she found her missing item. She did. Then she pulled out a mostly-empty tube of lipstick, a mirror, nail scissors, a needle and thread, a pair of stockings in need of darning, a ball of twine, half a pack of gum, an almost full pack of cigarettes purchased to spite Father despite Mae’s dislike of smoking, and a surprising pile of wadded-up paper scraps, all of which she deposited in Corporal Prentiss’s increasingly full hands.
“Anything else in there?” he inquired in an interested tone. “A rabbit, perhaps, or a long and colorful silk scarf?”
Mae giggled again and pulled out a small silk handkerchief with MES embroidered in the corner, a gift from her grandmother. “Does this count?”
“Not shabby,” Corporal Prentiss admitted, “but sorry, that’s still well wide of the wicket.”
“Well, anyway, here it is!” Mae Ellen exclaimed, finding the extremely crumpled newspaper clipping wadded in a deep corner of the bag. She held the purse open as Corporal Prentiss carefully decanted the entire contents of her purse back into its rightful home. “I was hoping to volunteer, you see,” Mae explained as she handed the clipping over to the young man.
His bright eyes quickly skimmed the article. “Looking to volunteer, eh? And you’re over 18?”
“Sure,” Mae Ellen lied, “I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t.”
“Indeed,” he murmured, sounding not at all convinced. “Well, how about I take you around to the pub for a bite and a pint, and then I’ll show you to the recruiting office. You must be famished after your trip, with only stowage class food.” He held out an elbow invitingly. Mae noticed he also hadn’t released her suitcase.
Well, what the heck? She was starting fresh, and this was as fresh as it gets. “Sure thing,” she said, and slipped her hand into his arm. “Lead on.”
~ ~ ~