Dorothy knew that if she was to help the boy it had to be done soon. Though by now used to horrendous patient injuries from massive burns to rasping mustard gas victims, the sight of Tim and the sad story twisted something inside her. Perhaps it was because politics played so much in his fate and nobody was interested in him as a person. He was a number to be put to trial for nothing but propaganda reasons and his friend was going home. In her mind this was the opposite of everything they’d been told the war was being fought for. Dorothy hardly slept that day and returned at twenty-two hundred hours, tired but with an embryo of a plan.
When she walked in the nurses’ office, Nicky the nurse she was taking over from handed her, amongst other items, a notebook with “Deaths” written on the cover.
‘Six so far tonight,’ she muttered before continuing with her report on acute patients to watch, problems and so forth. Dorothy wasn’t listening. Six deaths in one evening were probably average. Surely out of those, there could be one that would fit her plan.
‘I’ll tend to them first,’ Dorothy replied and took the notebook. After the initial disgust at this job, it had now become a routine. The bodies were not men any more and if she thought of it that way it wasn’t too hard.
She wheeled the trolley into Ward 3 where three beds had the ominous white sheets over the deceased soldiers. She moved up beside the first body so the trolley was adjacent to the bed, then placed a wooden platter under it, lifted and pushed it up so the body slid across to the trolley. Like most corpses, this soldier had been extremely undernourished so the manoeuvre wasn’t too difficult. She ignored the jibe from the patient in the next bed, pulled a sheet over the head and wheeled the trolley down a zigzag ramp to the morgue.
There, she removed the dog tags from the body and recorded the details in her notebook as well as a cardboard tag tied to the body’s big toe. The dog tags were placed in a locked drawer she had the key for. Her job was complete.
In the morning a doctor would walk through issuing death certificates. The dog tags and personal items would be sent back to the regiment the soldier came from. If they were not claimed by relatives within three days the corpses were buried in a nearby military cemetery. A vicar or priest, depending on the decease’s religion recorded on the dog tag, would officiate. The funerals were held with military precision. Dorothy knew there would be ten Anglicans, three Catholics, a Presbyterian and a Methodist waiting to be buried the next morning. It was all recorded in the morgue’s records. Death in the Great War was a common occurrence.
Dorothy’s plan hinged on the fact that there appeared to be no follow up check made between the dog tags and actual corpses. Once the information was written on the toe tag, the doctor used this to write the death certificate. Her idea might just work but she needed a body similar to Tim in size.
The fifth one she wheeled in would do. According to the dog tag the soldier was Australian. That was even better. There would be no local parents wanting a body. With her heart beating furiously in her chest she placed this body near the door, slid the dog tags in her pocket and completed her collection of corpses. Next she headed for Tim’s room, nodded to the M.P, a different man from the previous night, and found Tim asleep inside.
‘Tim,’ she hissed. ‘Wake up.’
The boy opened his eyes and stared at her. ‘Hello, Dorothy.’ He gave a sad sort of smile. ‘It’s good to see you.’
‘I have a plan,’ she whispered. ‘Now listen…’
‘You can’t do that,’ Tim complained when she had finished explaining everything. ‘If anyone finds out they’ll shoot you.’
‘They don’t shoot nurses,’ retorted Dorothy. She knew discovery would mean immediate discharge and probably a jail sentence but the consequences of her action meant little to her at the moment.
‘When you hear me come back and talk to the guard, pull the sheet over your head and don’t move a muscle. I’ll do the rest.’
She smiled at Tim and stalked out of the room as if she was in a hurry. Dorothy depended on the guard not knowing the routines as she pushed the corpse she’d selected, still covered in a sheet, back along the corridor up to Tim’s room. Also placed on the trolley was a large first aid box painted with a red cross against a white background.
‘You won’t have much to guard, tonight, Corporal.’ She smiled at the M.P. and tried to sound frivolous. ‘I don’t think this poor boy will last the night.’
The young soldier smiled and ignored the trolley she was wheeling.
‘Is that so, Nurse?’ he said as his eyes strayed down to her figure.
Dorothy pushed the trolley into the door and shut it behind her. Tim immediately staggered up and, together, they rolled the body onto his bed. Tim took his dog tags and placed them around the corpse’s neck while Dorothy undid the tag tied to the toe and shoved it in her skirt pocket. She shuddered. If the morning nurse or doctor remembered Tim and recognised the body as someone different the consequences could be disastrous. This could happen but with so many patients and a changing duty roster, the changes were in her favour.
‘Up you get,’ she whispered and pulled the blankets up so the head was poking out. She nodded and Tim climbed onto the trolley and covered himself with the sheet. Dorothy swallowed and pushed the trolley out.
If they were challenged now everything would be ruined. She left the room with an enforced slow casual walk past the guard who watched her but didn’t say a word. It was one in the morning and he watched as Dorothy swayed her buttocks as she pushed the trolley away. If he was looking at her he wouldn’t worry about the man on the trolley.
Back in the morgue Dorothy sank onto a seat and gasped. ‘It’s okay. Nobody will come in here until the morning.’ She looked at Tim with concern. The boy looked quite ill but was grinning. ‘Stay here. I have to do my rounds but will be back as soon as I can.’
‘Thank you, Dorothy,’ Tim said. He sat on the bench with a grimace on his face.
‘Does it hurt a lot?’ Dorothy asked but her companion smiled and shook his head.
‘Hardly feel it.’ reached up to squeeze Dorothy’s hand. ‘I’ll be okay, really I will.’
‘See you soon,’ Dorothy whispered and disappeared out the door. So far the plan had worked but anything could still go wrong.
She returned an hour later to find Tim sitting almost exactly where she had left him. He looked quite ill.
‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.
‘Not too good,’ he admitted. ‘I think my wound is beginning to bleed.’
He went to stand up, gave a tiny moan and staggered back onto the seat. Dorothy watched in anguish, bent down and felt a racing pulse. Her original plan was to walk out of the hospital with him, go down to the railway station and buy him a ticket for London. She had not thought beyond that, but now he couldn’t even stand, let alone walk out of the hospital.
In almost a panic, she glanced around with her mind racing. Of course, the dead man had dog tags so why couldn’t Tim take the other man’s identity? It might work. She still had them in her pocket.
‘Look, put these on,’ she said and glanced at the dull metal plates. ‘You’re Corporal Adrian Campbell. Remember that!’
Tim shrugged doubtfully.
‘Listen,’ Dorothy persisted. ‘You’re too ill to leave the hospital. I’ll find you a bed in a different ward…’
‘But what if I’m recognised?’
‘Well what do you suggest?’ Dorothy retorted. Her plan seemed to be falling apart already.
Tim looked at her. ‘I’m sorry, Dorothy. You’ve really put yourself out for me. I don’t want you to be caught, that’s all.’
‘Thanks,’ she replied and her anger disappeared. ‘I’ll get a wheelchair and take you to Ward 7. We often make changes in the early morning to get ready for new patients who arrive from the boat after breakfast. Nobody will think anything about it.’
Even though the corridor was empty, Dorothy’s heart raced as she wheeled Tim along to the ward, found an empty bed near the door and helped him in.
‘There,’ she whispered. ‘Now everything is as it should be. I’ll dress your wounds.’
After she had completed helping as best she could, there was no more she could do so she completed her rounds. She handed over to the morning staff and walked across the quadrangle to the nurses’ home. She felt exhausted but strangely calm.
Tim seemed such a nice boy but was really just a bag of bones. She liked his accent, too. Dorothy gave a giggle at what she’d done. He was actually older than her but didn’t seem to be. Boys were like that.