Flora’s War by Pamela Rushby
We can always smell them before we see them.
Today it’s bad, really bad, but not as bad as the first time, because then we had no conception of just what we’d see when the wooden doors of the train slid back. Then, that first time, we’d all surged eagerly forward as soon as the train stopped, ready to help, prepared to assist those who could walk and carry those who couldn’t.
And then it hit us.
It was overpowering. It stopped us dead in our rush forward; made us stagger back. It wasn’t heat, or dust, or blowing sand – in Egypt, we were used to those – but a smell. It was more than a smell. It was a stench. So strong it grabbed deep into our throats; made us cough and choke, made our eyes pour water. I’d never smelled anything like it before; couldn’t begin to think what it was.
I know now. It’s the smell of infected wounds, of bandages that haven’t been attended to for days, of unwashed bodies, of stale sweat. Awful. Just awful. But now, I can cope. I’m expecting it. I don’t react the way I did that first time, almost vomiting onto the sand.
Gwen did. Well, she didn’t actually vomit. Gwen would never do anything so unattractive in public. But she went – very prettily – quite white, and Frank had to take her back to the motorcar she was driving and sit her down for a bit. She recovered quickly, though. Gwen’s tougher than she looks, and when it’s an emergency she comes through. And she’s used to it now, after months of volunteer driving.
So am I.
Now I can step forward and say briskly to the doctors and orderlies on the train, ‘I’ve got room for three in my car, who should I take first?’ And I can smile at the white, exhausted faces of the soldiers they send towards me, and say cheerfully, ‘Hello! I’m Flora. Come on now, we’ll have you at the hospital in just a couple of minutes.’
And if one of them is not too exhausted, or in too much pain, and says something like, ‘But you’re an Australian girl, aren’t you? And you’re driving a motorcar!’ I can answer something bright and cheerful, like, ‘Well, you can’t be too bad then, if you can notice things like that! That’s good! You’ll be fine in no time!’
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