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Updated: Mar 15, 2022

This girl, this English nurse,

flings her flaming hair

over the bath

and sings.

We laugh –

we, who were born to be

Dovedale mothers

and farmer’s wives –

raised to live our lives

on smudge green dales

under heavy northern skies.

Oh, how far we’ve flown

and spread our wings –

to cast our shadows

on these distant lands:

to flop on canvas chairs

and stare at camels in the sand –

lounging, like movie stars,

with cigarette in hand.

Libya, Egypt, Tunisia –

why ever would we now return

to stare, with itchy feet,

at bilberries and Gritstone sheep?

We, who know the world!

Both cocksure and weary wise –

we’d felt the heat of men’s entrails,

laughed at their jokes in ways

our mothers never would

and, when we could,

we took the hands of dying boys

and whispered gentle words of love

amidst the dust and noise.

But here, in our billet,

behind our grand façade,

we were a harem without a king.

Oh, the giggling that night!

For, Red-head,

my friend, had sutured her last soldier,

finished her last shift

and tomorrow would be wed.

This was our party

to wave goodbye to her virginity –

more cackling and lurid cries,

“What virginity?

And that was it!

Merciless medical filth poured forth –

hymen, vagina…prick!

(Don’t send us nurses in

to patch up troops and then

condemn us when

our language blooms

like a violet bruise on skin.)

We picture their big day:

taste the champagne,

dance their first dance

and fall, with fearsome, frantic love

upon those pure white sheets –

the marriage sheets

he will not check

for signs of maiden blood.

Tonight our world is fizzing –

war forgotten!

By morning, she’ll be gone

to catch confetti in her hair.

For us, another shift,

the stifling heat,

the fight against invading sand,

the men laid out like meat.

But in our minds,

their promised night

will dance and tease,

at the edges of our dreams:

two heads upon a pillow,

two hearts beating far too fast

beneath tangled cotton sheets.

I rub her shampoo in,

lather it up:

make bunny ears

and gorgon snakes.

“Give her a beard,” they scream.

Together we make soapy strands –

a splash across her chin and loop,

above her lip,

a matador’s moustache.

The phone rings.

Her name is called.

“It’s him,” she says,

“It’s him!”

I catch her long enough

to wrap a towel around

her head

and let her go,

skittering and soapy wet,


We wait.

In his pilot’s uniform,

he grins, from a snapshot on the sink-

looking gawky, odd and slightly strange

but made so handsome in our eyes

by her adoring gaze.

We hear her speak.

Then silence,

and then, rising from the nothingness

a moaning – thin and raw and wretched,

like a shred of tattered skin.

I leap to my feet.

From the landing –

as if from the underworld –

I see her crawl:

a wretched climb, a gutshot girl.

I hold out my hand.

The other girls stand still outside

the bathroom’s bolted door

while, with bare feet on lino floor,

she takes a chipped bone china cup,

rinses bubbles from her hair

and lets me pin it up.

We sit, perched on the bath,

and watch as time draws lines of grief

around the shadow that she casts.

This war cry is not the first

and will not be the last.

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