“I might just as well kill myself!”
The inflection was flat, tired and barely audible above the coughing and muted noise particular to rooms crowded with men trying to find sleep. There was little more to alert Thomas, nothing which would have pressed it unto him just how serious the speaker was. Nothing but the brittle sobriety with which death was contemplated that triggered him into action.
He was half way down the aisle, blindly tackling the man on the cot, before he even registered Major Clarkson’s shout of warning. As usual with such things time expanded, painting everyone’s movements with treacle. The doctor was hanging on to the patient’s hand holding aloft an army revolver with everything he had, while Thomas found himself bearing down upon a thin, yet startlingly strong body. Twice the man managed to twist out of his grasp, before he realised that the left arm he was trying to pin ended in a stump, as did both the legs he was trying to hook into and contain.
Don’t shoot, he thought. Please, don’t shoot! One bullet into the hall’s priceless stuccoed ceiling, and there would be nothing which could keep the offender out of military prison, court-martial and all. He finally managed to restrain that flailing left arm under his chest, made for the other wrist and held it still long enough for Clarkson to wrestle his own weapon back out of the man’s hand. Thomas ended up holding the patient in a tight embrace, one arm confined under his body, the other held down in a stranglehold against the man’s side. Panted, ragged breath brushed against his neck as he secured the man against himself.
He had to give it to the doctor; the man had nerves of steel. He shoved his revolver back into the holster, then picked up the syringe already prepared and resting in the kidney dish the night nurse held on her tray. Between the three of them Clarkson injected his patient at last. Thomas needed no look at the label on the glass bottle to know the syringe had contained a powerful sedative: the taut muscles trapped under his body softened, the frightened tortured breathing eased, the whole man relaxed. He extricated himself, now mindful of the bandages, and stood, facing the doctor for further instructions without uttering a single word. Lessons learned. He was capable of that.
“Undress and prepare him,” Clarkson said. “I told him it has to be done. If we don’t take it off now, it will be so much worse later. I’ll send for him.” He pulled a deep breath. “No need to mention this in your report.”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said, casting a questioning glance at the nurse.
The major turned on his heels, quickly striding out of the hall as if nothing untoward had happened. Thomas looked down at the drowsy patient, not recognising him, and he certainly would have, had he met the man before. Emaciated to the point of gauntness, with elongated limbs, which – had he been in possession of his feet – would have meant he’d have been tall. He was quite young, pale and fair where Thomas was swarthy and dark, with pleasant and even features and hair still cropped short to deal with the lice. There had been the brief impression of clear, grey eyes, the colour of a foggy winter morning. Eyes which for a split second had reminded him of someone else’s bleak gaze.
“What is he talking about?” Thomas asked, while he and the nurse were efficiently stripping the clothes off the drugged man.
“He’s from a batch that came straight in from a place called Passchendaele, Sergeant Barrow,” she answered. “Got shrapnel in his left arm, but the feet – that was trench foot. They say he never left his post, never said anything.” She grimaced with distaste. “The hospital’s filled to bursting with much worse cases. So we have a few of them here, and they didn’t do one of them legs right. The major wants to chop off another bit.” She nodded down at the patient. “He didn’t like that. Didn’t like that at all.”
The trolley appeared while Thomas and the nurse were still fumbling with the hospital gown. The three of them lifted the now completely unconscious man onto the stretcher, which the orderly quickly wheeled back down the hallway, and towards the makeshift operation theatre the major had installed in one of the unused offices.
“If you ask me,” the nurse said, gathering her tray with movements much too forceful, “then I think the major could work some on his bedside manners.” She nodded that curt nod he had come to associate with professional nurses – VADs never were as self-assured – and swept out of the hall.
If only you knew just how right you are, Thomas thought as she hastened after the trolley. Involuntarily he shuddered, imagining the horror of having to watch one’s own feet rot away, unable to do a thing about it, and then being told that more of a once perfectly fine leg had to come off. He wondered how much the ‘bit’ actually was. He swallowed against the bile rising in his throat, then bent to strip the bed. A packet of letters, held together with frayed twine fell from the man’s clothes. They all were addressed to a Lieutenant George F. Milton. So that was his name. No wonder the major had been so brusque. A measly lieutenant, probably risen from the ranks as well. At least he could afford Milton the luxury of fresh, clean linen. That wasn’t much, certainly not enough for the losses he had suffered, but for someone so recently in from the lines – he might like it.
By the time he and the second nurse on duty had settled the other patients for the night, they wheeled Milton back in. Unconscious as he was he didn’t appear any worse for wear. Not like fresh amputees had looked like at the casualty clearing stations, when he had strayed into the tents of the just operated-on. Only a medic and stretcher bearer, but there had been times when he had been absolutely sure he’d never be able to sleep without seeing those long rows of empty eyes, the rictus of that fundamental loss etched into faces depleted of their last fragment of youthful naivety. It was there that they had learned at last just how much they had wasted. And if not then, they would learn soon enough.
No, it was quite clear, this time Milton had drifted out of consciousness well before men in bloody aprons had picked up their knives and saws and set about correcting what nature had provided him with, and what he had risked and lost to whatever values had driven him to sign up. So many fools, so many young and bloody fools. Wearily Thomas helped shift him from trolley to bed, signalled the orderly he could retire and clean up, and set about making Milton comfortable for the night.
It was the right leg, rather obviously, on which they had worked, for the bandages were already bloodied in aftermath of the brutality that limb had been subjected to. For how else to call it, really? Thomas was seasoned enough to know that this was not out of order, just a bit of blood. Not a pool of it. A good five or six inches shorter now than before, and shorter than the other. But he also knew, and was quietly happy to notice, they still had cut below the knee. With some luck and maybe someone to sponsor some of the better prostheses, the man would at least walk again, and it should be with a cane only.
He gently eased Milton out of the blood-spattered shift, relieved he was still too much under to react with pain. Thomas couldn’t help noticing the man had the kind of physique he was attracted to whether he wanted or not. Be it the Duke of Crowborough or Kemal Pamuk, even poor Lieutenant Courtenay; he had a fatal penchant for slender and tall men. And the unfortunate tendency to fall for those who considered him either an abomination or to be reaching too far above his place. He could not help touching Milton most tenderly, as he fed unresisting arms into the sleeves of a neatly pressed pyjama top, careful not to stub the still fresh stump of the left arm.
What was it about a man’s naked thighs and flaccid member which made him appear so vulnerable? Pyjama pants in hand, Thomas looked down at his patient, his gaze sliding along the trim lines, the helpless fragility of that penis nestled in a thatch of wiry blond hair several shades darker than the short stubble covering his scalp, and those oh so perfect lithe limbs, skin so white as only an Englishman’s could be. However, they did not end in elegant feet now, the arches of which one so inclined might kiss or lick in daring caresses. Thomas’ fingers involuntarily twitched with a need to touch the brutal new limits of this male body. The craving washed through him with sudden force, churning his stomach and wresting a resigned, tired smile from his lips.
He straightened and beckoned the night nurse from the table at the far end of the hall. Much safer this way, he thought wryly as together they carefully manoeuvred the pyjama bottoms over the bandaged stumps, rolled up the trouser legs and secured them with safety pins. The very efficiency of their attuned movements sign and proof off how accustomed they had all become to adjusting clothing to untoward needs.
“The major has him on a regime of morphia,” Thomas said. “He shouldn’t need anything soon though. I’ll go get a few hours of sleep. I’ll be back to take over nightwatch.”
~ o O o ~
It was a boon having his own room at last. What an irony that it had taken becoming a soldier and sergeant to achieve that. More irony that Carson had appointed him the old room he and William used to share. And now William was over in France himself, probably loving it as much as he had always claimed he would, as much as he, Thomas, had hated it. He was already awake and shaving when the orderly knocked on his door to summon him downstairs.
He used the main stairs with relish, knowing only too well that it was childish, but the privilege had not yet palled on him. How different moving about Downton Abbey was, when not restrained by what was proper for a footman rather than someone belonging one way or the other to the establishment. The night nurse rose upon his entrance, shoving the ledger towards him. He studied the entries, none of which were unexpected. Moreover, there was nothing referring to Milton, which was a good enough sign. Thomas scrawled his own signature next to hers, and nodded curtly as she gathered her knitting and handbag.
Once she had left he read the entries again, more carefully. She had dressed all the worst wounds, those which had to be changed every twelve or eight hours. They had no dresser here at Downton Abbey, so that often rather distasteful task fell unto whoever was on duty when it became necessary. He had to concede though that the stoicism he had witnessed in these young women, especially the VAD nurses like Lady Sibyl, had been quite impressing. But then he had long since come to the insight that even though women were supposed to be the gentler gender, they were far less likely to react to such suffering in a negative way. Instead they did what was necessary, and got on with it, as if it did not touch them at all. He might have little use for female charms, but as O’Brien put it, he was not above showing respect where it was due. Even after all that which he had seen in France he hated having to change the bloody, pus-caked bandages of patients already dreading being touched at all and barely able to contain the pain.
There were only four dressings to be done during his shift, Milton being one of those. He, as well as a few others, also needed their doses of morphia. Something in him wished he could simply leave everything else be and busy himself with taking care of Milton. The man had to be awake by now, he probably already was in pain, and like so many of them he’d hesitate to foist his needs upon the people helping him. Thomas had seen this time and again, men shrinking in on themselves, incapable of demanding what was their due.
Then he shook his head in exasperation. No. He had better not go down this route again. How many times before he learned the lesson? One of these days he’d make advances on someone offended enough to go to the coppers. And what then? Neither O’Brien nor his Lordship would be able, or likely, to keep them from jailing him for life. A filthy sodomite, seducing and corrupting helpless patients. What could be more vile in the eyes of the worthy citizens he’d have to face?
What is wrong with me, Thomas thought, shaking his head. Since when had caution become less important than a fleeting moment of affection? He began stocking up the tray on his desk with what bandages, salves and medicines he needed, his movements abrupt and forceful. Of course he knew when. But Courtenay hadn’t even signalled being of like mind, he simply had returned a friendly gesture. Thomas guffawed. He had interpreted the man’s behaviour so freely. Or had he? Well, he would never know. He squared his shoulders, took the tray and approached the first patient scheduled to get a change of dressings.
~ o O o ~
By the time Thomas reached Milton’s cot there was no doubt left that he was awake. Already from afar he could see the man fidget, trying to find a position comfortable enough to sleep, and heard the strained breathing he had long since learned to associate with pain. He set the tray down on the night table, switched on the weak lamp and pulled up the chair. The gaze Milton directed at him wavered between drug induced drowsiness and apprehension. Yet all Thomas saw was that beautiful, youthful face dominated by the expression of loss dawning in those grey eyes. He couldn’t help smiling reassuringly, and hoped to God he looked as professional as he needed to.
“Here,” he said and proffered one half of a tablet and a glass of water. “The major is unfortunately a huge believer in taking just the edge off. So I’m afraid that’s all I can offer.”
He helped Milton rise on his good arm, waited until he had taken the tablet from his palm, and then gave him a sip of water to wash it down. He shook his head when Milton would have drunk more.
“In a short while,” Thomas said, another smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “I’m afraid we’ll have to do that boring bit first.”
He pointed at the fresh bandages on the tray. It didn’t escape his notice, quite in spite of the meagre light, that Milton’s face drained of all colour. There was nothing to be done, he couldn’t even concede to the man’s fears without making things worse for him. All he could do was trying to be gentle. Milton’s were not the first amputations he had taken care off, he considered himself quite inured to the sight and smell by now. He rolled up the left sleeve until it bunched above the elbow, placed a clean sheet on the duvet and began to unwrap the stained, soiled bandage. The moment Thomas set to work Milton turned his face aside, looking into the opposite direction, his breath occasionally hitching. Neither man acknowledged the small sounds of distress Milton was unable to contain.
Thomas winced when he eased the last layer of linen off. He could see the imprint of his own fingers etched in livid bruises around the still swollen flesh of the stump. Grappling with Milton had reopened some of the stitches, thankfully not deep down into the wound. It must have hurt quite badly, yet still the man had wanted to go through with shooting himself. Thomas couldn’t help the chill chasing up the spine. Gently, oh so gently, he rinsed and washed the hand-less limb and applied the salve Mrs Crawley had coerced the major into using. And she had been right about it too, the patients benefited from it. Milton shivered through his ministrations, eyes firmly screwed shut, not even cadging a quick look.
“I’m – I’m sorry about the bruises,” Thomas said. “But otherwise it’s looking quite good. You’ll have a nice, firm stump there. It’ll be a good fit for an artificial hand.”
“Or a hook. It must be disgusting to have to touch so many defective bodies,” Milton said, his voice a pleasant baritone, still firmly looking into the other direction.
Thomas rested the forearm gingerly on the sheet, stretched across and edged the fingers of his gloved hand under Milton’s head, nudging him into turning around.
“This is no worse than anyone else’s, or mine,” he said, holding Milton’s gaze without flinching. “Come, look at it. It’s yours. It’s your arm now.” Thomas swallowed. “It looks fine to me, a beautiful arm, which happens to lack a hand. Don’t ever think otherwise.”
For a long moment Thomas thought he might have been too forward, as Milton kept looking at him, light grey eyes searching his face. At last Milton lowered his gaze to the empty space at the end of his left arm. The flurry of emotions chasing unchecked across the man’s features spoke for themselves. This was indeed the first time he inspected it since the injury. He tried to lift his arm to bring the stunted end closer to his face. His muscles were still too weak and shaking, so that Thomas cradled it gently by elbow and shoulder, giving Milton the moment he needed. Fascinated, Thomas caught the furtive impressions of disbelief, of disgust and anguish, and in the end of resignation, as they surfaced.
“In a few days,” he said softly, “it will be healed enough so you can touch it.”
Milton didn’t answer, but when Thomas applied another layer of salve he watched, not turning away either when it was being bandaged. He rose onto his good elbow and kept watching when Thomas switched his attentions to his left leg. As with the arm this amputation also had gone through the first stages of healing, and had been a clean, well done cut. Still, the wound being larger and much more substantial it was impossible to avoid causing Milton pain. Thomas took his cue from how the man had reacted when he had treated his arm, and worked, wilfully overlooking the many small signs of distress. The blunt stump, freed of the bandages and cleaned of blood and discharge, elicited another audible anguished sob. Thomas smoothed his hand up and down the slender calf in the attempt of reassuring Milton.
“I’m not commissioned,” Milton suddenly said. When Thomas looked up from his task and raised an eyebrow, he continued to explain. “I was a simple private, one of the 2nd Barnsley Pals.” When Thomas flinched he gave a dry laugh. “After Serre one of the brass hats pointed at me, that’s how I got my pips. Later they let me keep them. With so many dying they apparently thought I’d earned it, or maybe they just needed another idiot to blow the whistle at dawn.” He nodded at Thomas’ glove. “It seems you also saw action?”
“Just a body snatcher,” Thomas said with some difficulty.
There were times he felt filthier than a mangy dog. Like right now for instance, when he could not help but compare himself to Milton. He kept his head low, bent over the limb he was treating. However, the lieutenant did not seem to have noticed his discomfort. Thomas moved the chair and the tray to the other side, and uncovered the freshly operated-on leg. Milton seemed to shrink, he was nervously swallowing, Adam's apple bobbing in his throat, and his right hand scrabbled for purchase along the side of the cot. This time Thomas felt unable to uphold the semblance of normalcy. The ragged anxiety emanating from Milton was palpable, and not to be ignored. He slipped his hand into Milton’s, not astounded at all when the man grasped it in a crushing grip, needing the display of male muscle and sanctuary.
“I’m sorry,” Thomas said, “I’m not going to lie to you, this will hurt.” He covered Milton’s hand with his gloved one. “But it is necessary.”
Once, twice, three times even, Milton tried to answer, his lips mouthing soundlessly, until in the end he just nodded curtly, and turned his face into the other direction. Thomas guided the man’s right hand to where he could hold on to the metal piping of the bed’s frame. Already placing the freshly operated leg on the obligatory clean sheet was enough to shatter Milton’s careful composure. Thomas grabbed one of the rolled bandages and touched it to Milton’s lips before the man could disgrace himself entirely. The cool grey eyes slid his way in a split second of thankful acceptance, then Milton allowed Thomas to feed the linen between his teeth, biting down hard. Over the next minutes little more was to be heard than his heavy breathing and an occasional moan making it past the cloth.
Fresh stitches somehow always looked worse than untreated wounds, Thomas thought, as he washed the ladder of sturdy silken knots holding together what was left of Milton’s lower leg in Dakin’s solution. Careful not to disturb the drains, barely touching the skin, he eased a generous coating of the antiseptic salve onto the stump. It was quite a relief to pad the wound and bandage it up again. He then cleaned after himself, covered Milton up again, and gently pried the cloth from between his lips. The man was shivery and drenched in sweat, so Thomas went and fetched a flannel and washed Milton’s face and throat.
“Thank you,” Milton said, “you were – very patient with me. Don’t think I don’t know that.”
“No need for that,” Thomas said, unable to keep himself from smiling now that the worst was over. “Do you want something to drink?”
When Milton nodded he filled the glass from the jug, helped him sit up and drink. He kept topping the glass until the man had slaked his thirst.
“You should try to sleep,” he said. “You’ll find that the morphia will kick in now, and if you need anything just call me. I’ll be over there at the table.”
Thomas smiled down at Milton, his best footman’s smile, perfectly noncommittal. Truly, best not to get too close. In spite of that he could feel Milton’s gaze follow him down the aisle.
~ o O o ~
Three o’clock in the morning, the large hall was as quiet as it ever would be under such circumstances. Men coughed, they snored, turned restlessly in their beds, some of them spoke or mumbled in their sleep, and quite a few of them uttered small sounds of discomfort, hushed and hidden in the small hours. After a few days every night nurse got used to the background noise.
Thomas was writing the reports for Major Clarkson, most of it the big counting game: so many bandages, so many jars of boric acid or flavine, so much plaster of Paris, so many patients, so many work hours. The army thrived on it, Clarkson thrived on it. He was so concentrated on adding up columns of items of this or that, that he almost didn’t notice the muted moans of pain, proof of genuine need. He looked up, and when they did not cease, he rose and walked down the aisle, head canted.
Once again he had no trouble discerning it was Milton, as the man was moving so restlessly within his narrow cot that its frame was creaking. Walking up to him Thomas checked his pocket watch, which still showed but three in the morning. There was no way he could give Milton another dose of morphia. Every single tablet, every ounce of it was accounted for, and he knew from past experience that Clarkson accepted no excuses. He would not take kindly to being woken in the middle of the night either, for a patient who so far had been nothing but trouble. Thomas also knew there was little else which helped against that kind of pain.
And Milton was in pain. That much was clear the moment he switched on the lamp on his bedside locker. It also was just pain, Thomas ascertained next, checking him for fever and signs of infection. Milton was warm to the touch, but not burning up, and a discreet look at his right leg showed nothing which was not to be expected. Thomas’ gloved hand clenched into a tight fist of remembered agony before he could stop himself. It was hard not to commiserate when you knew so exactly what was taking place. There was nothing he could do, or was there? No one else was around, and the patients, they wouldn’t rat on him, would they? It was far too early for the servants to be up either.
Certain no one who shouldn’t was watching, Thomas perched himself onto the edge of the bed and took Milton's twitching hand in his. That wasn’t completely out of the world, it was what any nurse might do, what indeed had been done for him in Etaples. Nothing anyone might misconstrue. Yet, as Milton turned his head and those cool grey eyes gazed at him, curiously lucid despite the pain the man was going through, it hit Thomas like a sickening punch to the stomach that Milton knew quite all right. A long moment passed between them, time suspended, their eyes locked and searching, until both of them relaxed by infinitesimal slices. A muscle here around the eye, a tendon there to the side of the mouth, concurrently, like duellists lowering their weapons in a last-moment reprieve. Oh yes, he knew.
And Thomas could not stop his hand from caressing Milton’s palm, fingers stroking along the pad of the thumb, fingertips brushing sensitively across Milton’s own. Quite shyly he joined his gloved hand to the fray, clasping around that slender, sinewy forearm. Neither of them dared say a word, but was there even any need for words? With each passing minute that their contact – as illicit as it was – lasted, it suffused both of them. There was no question of more, nor any need. It was quite enough to caress in a moment of affection and intimacy, and have the other respond. Their fingers entwining, speaking of promises, not giving them away. It did not matter either that Milton fell asleep after a while, Thomas was quite content to keep holding that hand. Still reading its promises.