Thursday, January 08, 2009

Tuesday 3rd August 1943

Everything was made ready but the Big Inspection did not occur. Result – panic followed by suspended animation. After lunch this ended when an orderly appeared – named Gent – who was to escort us to the 92nd General Hospital. He came quite casually with his haversack and sat on Bill's bed and talked vigourously with a broad Lancashire accent. We did not know that his departure from us, a few hours later, was to be under highly dramatic circumstances!

When I came to this hospital I was labelled with a little blue tie-on label marked “Pn”. For going away however, we were given green labels, marked “Pp”. “Put 'em on badin, not now,” said Gent, easily.

Good-byes: to Sister Mitchell who gave us two local made tray cloths each and a photograph of the staff and said we must really write and tell her how we got on; to Sister Smith who thanked us for the work we'd done and added that there was a special brew of tea in the kitchen for us at that moment; and to Sister Banks, who said “Call and see me at Matlock Hydra after the war. I expect I'll be Matron there again”.

We had few friends left among the patients as a new batch of men whom we hardly know, came in recently. We shook hands with Geller and Keys (both in khaki and due for discharge tomorrow) and left the P and N Centre, with it's semi-circle of verandaed bungalows above a bowl of rich earth full of masses of many-hued flowers. It certainly seemed a fairer place than it did the day I came!

Down at the railway siding we sat waiting in sunshine and dusty winds for hours, whilst the long hospital train was slowly loaded. “You'd better put your labels on now,” said Gent. Thus we were distinguished from yellow-faced and snow-white faced fragile medical cases and the limbless, scarred, curiously gay surgical cases (many were minus a leg and two had no arms below the biceps; all very happy and elated.)

We waited, eventually plans were changed. The train crawled off and we went by bus with 50 others to Lydda Station and were loaded into Red Cross coaches in a goods yard siding. After some whispered consultations (“Here's two patients from the Neuropathic Hospital, sir. The orderly is in charge of them. He's got their papers... yes, neuropathic patients, sir...”) we were put into a special compartment with three bunks, which suited us fine. During this journey we were to get many evidences of the awe with which “mental” cases are regarded by laymen, normal people and ordinary medical staff.

At last the train arrived, shunted about, coupled-up the extra coaches and steamed out southwards, that is to say towards Beer Y'aquar. We all stood in the corridor, and the train rumbled around a curve... we saw a path we'd followed one Sunday... orange groves on one side, vineyards on the other... fields of water melons...As the familiar block of buildings swung into view on the hill among the trees, I called to William, “Now I feel homesick a bit.” “Yes! Funny isn't it?” he shouted back from his window. “Well, it was a refuge in a time of need,” he added a few moments later.

We returned to our carriage and sat down. As though to emphasise that the journey had begun, we each received a pamphlet inscribed: “ME General Order 916 Invalids in transit to UK”. I put this aside to read later on. I wanted to get my final picture of Palestine. The train rushed on. It was twilight – that very short twilight – and I looked out of the window thinking “this will be the last impression.”

I saw a dun grey field sloping up to a tree-less horizon, with a suggestion of wide desert spaces beyond. Then, as I looked, this drab vista was all-suddenly dappled black and white, as a milling mass of sheep and goats swirled into sight right beside the railway, all mixed up as it seemed, with the three Bedouin women who were driving them fold-wards. There was a sensation of wind and storm about the scene. It was the last patch of colour before night.

“Well, let's get to bed,” said the orderly a few minutes later, when the electric lights came on in the compartment. Now I read my little pamphlet:

“It is the policy at present that al invalids disembarked in the UK from abroad are admitted to hospital for examination and any treatment necessary before being allowed to proceed to their homes... they will be detained for the shortest time possible... it must be appreciated that travelling from ports presents difficulties in these days of crowded and fewer trains with no refreshment cars, and with the scarcity of taxis and porters...”

Just after we'd settled down for the night we had to be roused, half-dressed, and find other quarters as our compartment was wanted by two officers. They stood in the doorway whilst we collected our kit. “Sorry to disturb you chaps,” said one of them conventionally. Neither Gent nor his charges made any reply. We transferred to an unlighted compartment with six bunks, three of which were occupied by shadowy figures. Gent and I were on the two top bunks and William was below me. Later another man arrived and lay on the floor. So there were seven of us altogether.

Below and at the side of Gent's bunk was an open window, through which I could see a patch of whitish sand. We were in the Sinai Desert. Cocoa and biscuits were issued. “Pass a mug over here chum.” “Just a minute mate... I've only got one hand” said someone unseen.

The train rushed on. Dumpity-dump, dumpity-dump. I fell asleep.

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