Later that afternoon, William travelled to the Citadel by ambulance motor, rather than grappling with trams. He watched the landmark looming ahead – like his trip home, which now felt as real as the bricks and mortar that dominated his vision. The weeks and days had dwindled down to hours. He felt the clock ticking. Saying goodbye to Lily seemed so final.
The ambulance soon labored up the hilly road. Each time the driver swerved to the road’s edge to allow the passing of oncoming military vehicles William tightened his grip on the open-door frame. He enjoyed the ride as the motor growled around the giant fortifications. He ducked his head and peered upwards through the windscreen at the towering minarets and dome of the mosque. Of course, this wasn’t his first visit, but he took it all in as if it was. He knew it would be his last.
The vehicle squealed to a halt behind a line of identical transports in the courtyard of the Citadel Hospital.
“I shan’t be long,” William told his driver as he levered himself down from the passenger seat.
Inside the hospital, the lofty walls dripped with remnants of wealth that had long lost their relevance. Beds spilled out into wide passageways from crowded wards. Faded murals and gilded archways of former grand reception rooms looked upon patients expectantly, however, no one possessed the energy or time to give them the attention they commanded.
When Lily came dashing across the room to William, she appeared flustered, and her voice rushed as she greeted him. “Will. I’m sorry, I can only spare five minutes.”
He raised his hand in a motion to stop her, although he wished he could stop time.
“You don’t need to explain Lily. I can’t stay long anyway. My driver is waiting.”
Lily glanced back over her shoulder at staff busying themselves around patients. Returning her attention to William, she lowered her voice. “The least I can do is walk you out. Surely, I can do that much.” She then ushered him toward the door.
As they walked, Lily vented. “We’re so short-staffed and yet they keep sending girls to France.”
“How would you feel if they send you to Europe?” William enquired.
“I’m not sure. I mean, I’ve only been here a short time.” She paused, then asked, “Would I have a choice?”
She didn’t expect an answer. They both knew her life was out of her own hands. William regretted his question, especially today. He wanted to leave on a cheery note.
“Don’t worry Lily,” he said, placing his arm around her shoulder. “I’m sure you can handle whatever life throws at you.”
“Hmm, I will have to,” she said, nodding her head with conviction.
“That’s the spirit, my girl.”
They walked through wards lined with beds occupied by men who were broken in one way or another. William acknowledged some patients with a nod of his head. Others laid back, motionless and bandaged, seemingly unaware of their presence. The poor sods. Will they ever be fixed? Entirely fixed? He pushed the thought aside and returned his attention to Lily.
“You know,” Lily whispered, so patients couldn’t hear. “Nothing is how it was in hospitals back home.”
“Of course, it isn’t,” William replied. “This is a war.”
“Yes, and that is why we find ourselves rewriting the nursing manual, inventing new ways of dealing with wounds, the catastrophic damage inflicted by……”
William suddenly felt queer. Lily’s words began to melt into a stream of indecipherable sounds. Sweat dribbled down his face, despite the cool air. He edged toward the source of bright sunlight, pushing against the darkness that crept over his eyes. One, two…only a few steps to go. Breathe, I need to breath. His outstretched hand clutched the door frame to hold himself upright. Filling his lungs with fresh air, he cleansed himself of intoxicating hospital smells and unwanted memories. Straightening up, he hoped Lily hadn’t noticed, but she had.
She was clearly distressed. “Are you okay? Your face is as white as my apron.”
“Just a little lightheaded, I’ve been pushing myself too hard,” he replied.
“Are you sure?” Her voice was as intense as her gaze. “Perhaps you need to sit.”
“No. I can sit in the lorry,” he said pointing to the ambulance parked a short distance away.
“Well, let’s keep walking. Take hold of my arm so you don’t fall.”
Without arguing, he obliged.
As they edged forward Lily sighed, “I’m sorry Will, I’ve been prattling on about my woes, and here you are, about to leave, you’re clearly unwell and…” She ran out of words, much to William’s relief. He lacked the energy for conversation.
The driver saw them and rattled the motor to a start. William glanced down at Lily who read his mind. “Yes, I know. You have to go.”
“Afraid so,” he said as he stooped and wrapped his long thin arms around her. “Take care, little Lily. Keep your chin up.”
When he released her, she wiped a tear from her face. Regaining her composure, she pleaded, “Please promise you’ll take care. I’ll worry about you now.”
“I promise,” he replied, then urged his body up into the lorry, falling back heavily against the seat.
The driver crunched the vehicle into gear and William waved to Lily as it lurched forward. He heard her shout, “Bye Will,” as they motored away. Before they headed around a bend, he looked back. She was gone.