Monday, December 15, 2008

Sunday 21st February 1943

Those two days in the CCS at Damas did me a lot of good. It was so quiet, and no one bothered me. I talked not more than a dozen words to anyone until last night, when I had a long chat with an American (suffering from the after effects of snad fly, I think) who was in the next bed. He was a refined, cultured man, the first American I had found so. He was in the film industry before the war and was full of anecdotes of California, New York and the country between. He was well read, too. We discussed books and I found my memory gone to hell.

Those quiet days have stood me in good stead though for my sense of humour has come back again, a little, so that I can laugh at today's events, not hysterical laughter either but genuine whimsical mirth.

After a long ambulance journey across the mountains, we arrived here, at a hospital of tents near the sea. The 22nd General, at Sidon, to the south of Beirut. Gentleness but firmness was the key note of my treatment. First, my kit bags were taken away to the pack store and I was led to a ward. All the remainder of my kit was deposited on my new bed – except for my haversack! This puzzled me. Then I noticed, with sudden shivers, how quiet and still, the other occupants of the ward were. I had come among Isobel's people.

I didn't want to get into bed, but one of the two orderlies gently but firmly! told me I must, until the doctor had seen me. Feeling hungry I took a bar of chocolate out of my pocket and a jack knife. As I opened the knife, I felt, did not see, everyone go quiet and still near me; the two orderlies and another patient.
I cut off a piece of chocolate, and an orderly came across and said, “We'll have to have that knife, you know...” Thank God that sense of humour had come back!

Someone brought my lunch and the missing haversack. I seized the latter. “Don't worry about that now,” said the bringer of food, “Eat your lunch.” I obediently did so, and then undid the haversack. “How Green was my Valley” was still there, and my cigarettes and other things. But, as I had guessed, my knife, fork, spoon, razor blades and razor were gone. Tucked away in a corner were a small pair of scissors, which I conscientiously produced and surrendered. They were politely received.

“How do I shave?” I asked the Corporal, a twinkling-eyed, red-haired man who said he'd worked at Severalls Asylum before the war. “You're allowed to shave – under supervision,” said the Corporal, all a-twinkle.” The Corporal came over and sat on my bed. “Where are you?” he asked. Unfortunately I didn't know at the time, so said, “I don't know. South of Beirut, maybe.” The vagueness of my reply didn't seem to surprise him. “Yes” he said, quite encouragingly, “and how old are you?” “Thirty!” I said definitely. “Good! And where did you live, when you were in England?” “Various parts,” I said sadly, doomed. The Corporal sighed and filed away.
“I forgot my pay book,” I said plaintively, “I left it behind at the other hospital.”
“Never mind. They'll send it on.” “And can I have pay?” “Yes, but you won't tear the money up, like that Arab opposite, will you?”

In a nearby corner, a lad of 22 sat smiling, as he disintegrated a fly swat. “Now why have you done that?” asked the Sister. He giggled hysterically and cried, “To help win the war!” (My brother. There but for the grace of God – Yes, that's how I'd have been, if I'd waited much longer.) The lad got more excited, and was put in a special little enclosure. My God, the faces around.

Suddenly a new patient was led in. An absolutely normal-looking bloke. To my relief, he was put in the next bed. I sympathised with the shock he felt, when he gazed around the ward, as I had done. And his surprise, when they took away his knife, razor etc. “I say, does this happen in every ward?” “Well...” “Oh, I see, this is the ward where they're absolutely bats!” And he looked around again.

“Have a couple of bananas?” I offered, when he was safely in bed. “Thanks old man!”
Apparently he'd had some sort of an epileptic fit, probably through overwork. It was pleasant to talk to someone sane, someone who could still laugh, utterly sane laughter. “You and I ought not to be in here at all, old man,” he chuckled. “No! But the worst loonies of all, always think that, boy!” “D'you know?” he said confidentially, “These blokes even look at one with suspicion! And they asked me if I ever get rough when I had a fit.” “Queer joint this.” “Yes old man, and queer people.” “So are we, boy.”


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