I had one of those days recently where I wanted to write something different. That different turned out to be fanfic and, in particular, the oddly specific pairing of M*A*S*H and the Chalet School. I was interested to see if I could make it work, if I could scratch that odd little tingle of an idea and turn it into something else. Fanfic has always had that appeal to me of being a stretch in language; and this proved to exercise some peculiarly distinct muscles. I’ll add it in at the bottom of this post.
Here’s a link as well to an appropriately seasonal, and somewhat fanfiction-esque, story that was in the news this week. Turns out JRR Tolkien was also Father Christmas in his spare time.… If you’re in Oxford, between June and September next year, I suspect this might be an exhibition to visit. If you do, please tell me ALL about it.
Here’s the piece I wrote:-
‘And all around me, they die’
“I didn’t think I’d make it,” he said, but he’d come to the best care anywhere. Mobile Army Surgical Hospital 4077. M*A*S*H, for short. I’ve been here for three weeks, and here’s what I’ve learnt. Number one, that 97% survival rate doesn’t come easy.
Heat and wind and mud and snow, and all of it sometimes on those days that didn’t know what to do with themselves. Sometimes she wondered if the world still existed, or if it ended at that bead of sweat on her forehead, or the damp dark marks on her shirt. There was a timelessness here that, despite everything, she rather loved. It made her feel immense, somehow, even though every day spent in this little rabbit warren of tents and sadness was determined to do quite the opposite. The men opposite her tent coped with humour and drink, and even though sometimes she ached to join them, she knew that she wouldn’t have fitted in. Her war was captured here, in those nights where the air didn’t move, not one inch, and neither did she, hunched over her Smith-Corona Skywriter, taking a knife to the English language. She had learnt that writing here in Korea, here in this, it needed to be angry. None of the precise and conscious rules that she’d been taught at school. She didn’t worry about slang any more, and infinitives could be split until the cows came home.
So she smiled, and she nodded, and worked around the nurses and the doctors, and asked them to tell her the things that they could talk about and when they fell silent, that was the moment that she stopped asking and started to listen instead. It wasn’t the right thing for a journalist to do but then, as she took great joys in pointing out to her editor, she hadn’t been hired as a journalist. She was a correspondent. A writer. Sometimes when she felt her position being questioned, and it was always by men with faces red as sunset, she would channel the voice of her old headmistress and reference the Queen, Clement Attlee or her sainted Aunt Sempronia. One of those would always work. It was the very rare idiot who required all three.
These boys survive thanks to dedication. People striving to be the one good thing that happens to them in the one place that good forgot. And every new offensive makes it harder for them to do their job. I’m not a journalist. I had to beg for this posting here. Every day reminds me why I’m here. I’m here to share their stories.
Every now and then she would get a letter from her sister, talking of those that she’d left behind. The children were doing well. Better than expected, considering the circumstances. She didn’t put the last bit in, because she was one for avoiding the obvious, but it was always there. That little pause, that little consideration of what their life could have been. An alternative world. The Christmas play with him at her side; the truth of the world denied for a few moments longer, his hand in hers, the two of them something more than they’d ever been apart. Love. Love. She said it sometimes to herself, as though to remind herself that it could exist, and when she watched the tall man with jet black hair smile at the nurses, she realised that it could even exist here. Briefly. Fleetingly.
He smiled at her once. She hadn’t realised it until the head nurse asked her to get out of the way and then, as she turned to push the door open, she’d seen his eyes on her and the twist at the corner of his mouth. He smiled like it came from deep within him; something pure, despite all of the madness around him, and she admired him for that. She worried for him too, though, recognising something of herself in that face that couldn’t keep a secret. He was thin, running on gas as they said over here, and there wasn’t much left in the tank. You could see it sometimes in the way he spoke, the way he’d sit in his tent and not move, not for hours.
She had asked for this job. Needed it.
But sometimes she didn’t want it.
Sometimes it all cut too close, and those were the nights that she’d have to go and stand in the shower and let the water blind her and the heat pull the darkness from her head. It wasn’t the soldiers, poor sods, it was the doctors. She had spent her life around doctors, and she knew how they worked. She knew what they did for people and the thin grey mist that lay between life and death. And she knew that every time their patient died, a little bit of them died along with them.
It was because of that that she stayed behind one evening. The air was hot and dark, suffocating, and so she moved slowly and tried to conserve her energy. She wouldn’t sleep, not for hours, and when she saw the tall doctor, and the way he paced the floor between the beds, she recognised something of herself in him and raised her hand to him in greeting. Like a child, she thought, and the two of them on the playground.
He gave her that quick, genuine smile of his, the one that transformed his whole face, and he said, “Hello. I don’t believe we’ve been properly introduced.”
She laughed, unsure. Uneasy, perhaps, at the thought that she could do this. That she was doing this.
“Come now,” he said, “Tell me about yourself. Oh wait, you’re the reporter, right?”
“Writer,” she said, in a voice dry as sand.
“There’s a difference?”
“Tell me more,” he said, “Tonight. 8pm. We can dine at Maison Mess Tent. I’ll bring the carbolic.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
The boy was losing weight; bones and skin, thin and sharp. He looked as though he was made of angles, and I could tell that the staff were worried about him. The nurses would spend just a little bit longer by his bed, and every now and then the doctors would cluster round his notes like bees to a honey pot.
He died, did this boy, took all night to do so, and they didn’t leave his side. Not once. And when he did, there was just the silence and the dawn.
“Pierce,” he said, sitting down beside her. “Two eyes, two knees, and ready to be interviewed by our camp writer. You’ve spoken to everyone else, and you’ve spoken to Frank Burns twice.”
She held up her hand. “That was because I couldn’t believe what he was saying.”
“A common problem,” said Pierce, “Take two analgesic and the symptoms of the war will disperse, Frank being one of the worst of them. Anyway, enough about me, what about you? You don’t seem to get out much. I didn’t see you at the film last night.”
“I had work to do,” she told him.
“I didn’t see you at the pot luck the night before either,” he said, “Or the mixer the night before that. I’ve never seen you at Rosie’s, and I’ve definitely never seen you at Chateaux Swamp, so that leads me to ask me where do you go? And also, the more professional question of, do you actually go?”
She stared at him.
He had the grace to look embarrassed. “Maybe that’s different in English. What I’m trying to say is that some people, namely me, are a little bit aware of the fact that you tend to keep yourself to yourself.”
“It’s better that way,” she said.
And he was so genuine, so raw and open, that she almost wanted to tell him the truth. But she didn’t. Her truth wasn’t the story. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
Sometimes we get children here. War is indeterminate like that. Trust me, I know. I was part of a group of schoolgirls who had to escape from occupation. It sounds ridiculous now, looking back on it, but they’d have killed us if we’d have stayed. Just because we weren’t the right sort of person at the right sort of time doing what they wanted us to do. But that’s what war is. Whatever war it is, whoever’s fighting it, and wherever you are, there’ll be people involved who shouldn’t be and they’ll get hurt, just as bad and just as pointlessly as the rest.
One morning, Pierce told her that he was going to give her a note.
“Make it a C,” she said.
He gave her a look of pride. “You’re on the ball this morning. Could you be on my -”
“Stop it,” she said darkly.
“You don’t know what I was going to say,” he protested. He sat down beside her, waving at the other officers on the table opposite. “I could have been inviting you to join our netball team.”
“I looked it up,” he said, “British sports are weird.”
“I’ve never played netball in my life.”
“What have you played?”
“I tended to not,” she said, “I was a delicate child.”
His professional interest was piqued. “What was it?”
She shrugged. “Everything. That was why I went to school abroad. England made me ill.”
“And you can cope with Korea?”
“I like the scenery,” she said.
And again that little look of pride flashed across his face.
It made her want to cry.
“I love you,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”
He thought I was his mother. I am a mother, but only in name really. I don’t have that instinct inside of me. I think I did, once, a long time ago, but circumstance beat it out of me and here I am. Playing mother to a blind, dying boy.
She sent a letter to the children. She knew that the eldest cut out her column, that they kept up with her that way, but every now and then her guilt made her pick up a letter and form their names with the careful curve of her hand. Sometimes, when she couldn’t sleep, she would mix up their names and address letters to Malvina and Tibbie. She’d started checking them the day after she’d written them for precisely that reason. No point in addressing somebody fictional or a cat. That would make them worry more about her than they did.
Sometimes, of course, she received letters. Not from the children, but from the others. The girls she’d been at school with. A packet of soap here, a bar of rich continental chocolate there. Little talismans that she did not use but instead placed on her windowsill to barricade her hut against the shadows. She was growing superstitious here.
Once she finished writing her letter to the children, she placed it to the side and pulled out her typewriter and began her proper work. The distinction concerned her some days, the way she saw the children as things that belonged to another world. The way that she didn’t belong there anymore.
She pressed the first key, and let the sound drive all the way deep into the back of her mind. They had had a visitor in the camp a while ago, back when she’d first came, a psychologist, and he’d given a talk on emotional wellbeing. The importance of hearing your thoughts. Of not being afraid of fear. Things like that. She had attended, primarily so she could speak with him afterwards. She wrote about him, filed it that very same night, and then cried her heart out because he was too close to the man that she’d loved.
She closed her eyes and began to type, her fingers moving instinctively from key to key. It was when it became a fusillade of bullets that she began to relax, and she opened her eyes and let herself start to realise what she was doing.
She was writing about the doctor and the way he’d checked up on her, even though his hand hadn’t stopped shaking, not once. She was writing about the way he’d looked at her, the way he’d forgotten everything about himself, the way that he had realised her isolation before she had even realised it herself, and when she finished it, she smiled.
In a way, she was always writing about a doctor.
The thing about being a doctor is this: it’s a calling. It’s not about you any more, it’s about what you can do. About who you can save, about who you can help and about who you can help leave this world a little bit easier.
The problem is that sometimes there isn’t anybody there for you.
I knew a doctor once. I’ve known several, in point of fact, but this was one was mine. And he died, same as so many other brave men and women did, and that’s my cross to bear. The part of it that galls the most, though? He died by himself, in the sea, alone. A thousand other men dying around him. Nobody there to save him.
He didn’t have a damn chance.
“I heard you last night,” he said.
“I thought I had to say that to you,” she replied.
“My reputation precedes me.”
“It’s the only thing that does.”
He laughed, delighted. “I like this,” he said, “Same time tomorrow?”
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she said.
And she wasn’t lying. Their little conversations in the mess hall had started to mean something to her. God, she’d even tried to do her hair differently this morning; her hand putting in a new parting before her brain had quite realised what she was doing. She’d never been a pretty woman. She could hear them now. Not pretty, but. Not attractive, but. That little but that meant so much.
She did some more work that afternoon, hiding away from the sun. Poetry. The lines shaping themselves. Something coming from nothing before she quite realised what she was doing. It felt good.
It felt like freedom.
a knife to my skin
the urge to carve his name
to remember who he was
Wounded came; filling the camp from every corner, like a river that had burst its banks and had nowhere to go but everywhere. Hours passed, quick as a blink, and when she wok up the next morning, she saw the doctors coming out of surgery, and knew that they’d been in there all night.
Guilt, sharp and sour, made her leave her tent and walk the edge of the camp. She didn’t know what she was doing, but she knew that she couldn’t stay there. She’d been a doctor’s wife. She knew what a doctor went through. And she also knew what it was to come home to nothing there.
Pierce found her on the edge of camp, looking into forever, and he didn’t say anything.
And eventually, she said it for him. “Sleep,” she said, “I’m not important right now. You are.”
“If I could sleep, I’d be sleeping,” he told her.
His hand, she saw, was shaking.
“You’re a good doctor,” she said.
“Why did you come here?”
The question startled her into fierce and sudden truth. “Because my husband died during the second world war,” she said. “He died alone, and I won’t have that happen to anybody else, I won’t.”
When she finished, Pierce did something that she did not expect. He embraced her.
And She let him.
That night, she did not write of Korea.
She wrote instead of a man that she had loved, a man that had died in the last war, a man that had died as no man should, and she knew it was her last and best story to tell.
I came here because of a man. It sounds cliché, doesn’t it? A man, a girl, a whirlwind adventure. Add Korea into that mix, and the Second World War, and suddenly it doesn’t sound cliché at all. It sounds like the worst sort of truth you’ve ever known. But I guess that’s how a story works, and sometimes life gives you a story that you’re not quite sure what to do with.
And I think it’s time to, at last, tell you mine.
I’m a mother, and a widow. My husband died during the Second World War. Manoeuvres. The Pacific. You know the drill. And I begged to come to Korea. I packed my bag, left my children at home and got on the first plane that would let me. Some of you may think I’m a bad mother, and there are days when I agree with that.
I’m not a doctor. Not a nurse. My strength lies in language. Words. Sentences that tell you the story of each and every boy that passes through this camp. I’m here to help you get to know the names of them, their favourite baseball team, anything and everything to bring them alive to you even when they’re pushing up daisies. Death happens. I can’t stop that. But my God, I can make sure they don’t die forgotten. I will remember their names.
(I was married to a man called Jack Maynard.
You will remember him too.)