There is blood on the walls, there is blood on the floor, even some on the ceiling. I just don't have the energy to scrub it off. I need some helpers to do the grunt work.
Maybe I'll get some helpers tomorrow, it is the first of the month, the day they usually come, but I didn't get any this month nor last month. They come here as absolute know-nothings, I have to tell 'em what is what.
“OK, guys, sit down where ever you can and relax. Let me answer your questions. Firstly you have just been dumped from an army helicopter in the middle of nowhere, where is here?”
“You are in Desert City, two hours flying time from Big City on the coast. Yep, you are in the middle of the desert. You are at Military Forward Hospital Number Five. It was a civilian hospital until the war started.”
“Who am I? I'm Senior Theatre Sister David Hackerby, I'm a civilian, I live in Desert City. Everybody calls me Hack, so call me Hack.”
“Who are you? Officially you are confinees. That means that you have been thrown into military jail and haven't had a trial. You'll probably be released at the end of the war, if you're still alive.”
“Why are you here? To help out – transporting patients, cleaning up the operating theatre and the wards, helping the patients and so on.”
“What is our mission? The clue here is the name: Military Forward Hospital. Injured and dead soldiers are brought here by truck or chopper or wheelbarrow – anyway possible. We patch'em up, stop the bleeding and stabilise them ready for a chopper trip to a big hospital in Big City.”
“No, we can't do any fancy stuff, we just try to keep'em alive ready for a chopper ride. And the dead'uns are put in body bags for the same chopper ride.”
“Yes, some of the stuff we do here is awful, just wait. And it gets worse, just do what I say or you end up dead. Got it?”
“I'm not threatening you, I have no gun, I don't know how to use one. Just do what I say and I'll make sure you get a chopper ride back. And I mean not in a bag.”
“Rule one: do not leave the hospital for any reason – you probably won't come back alive.”
“Rule two: do not go into the desert for any reason – you won't come back alive.”
“Rule three: there are no women, no tobacco, no alcohol, no drugs in the hospital. No TV either.”
It is strange, it is so quiet. There are no patients or dead'uns – a chopper has taken the last ones away four days ago. We had two staff, a colonel from the Medical Corps and me. The quietness must have driven the colonel crazy, I told him not to go for walk in the city, I think that he is dead, I'm all alone here in the hospital, but I'm not crazy yet.
I'm in charge – of nothing. I listen to music on an old radio and make a peanut butter sandwich from an army ration pack and do some thinking. There are three types of people: us, them and the rebels. I'm one of us, I was born here, I've always been here in Desert City.
Them is the soldiers, they speak differently, they probably come from Big City. And the rebels, I don't know, I've never seen one. There are supposed to be rebels on the other side of Desert City, I don't know, I've never been there.
I sometimes hear shooting, sometimes somebody takes pot shots at the hospital. I got my helpers to fill empty disinfectant drums with sand and stack them up round the hospital like sandbags. But no helpers now – all gone.
It's 19:35 hours, I switch on the military radio and make my daily report: no patients, no dead'uns, one member of staff, no activity. The operator in Big City says that no military activity is planned in my sector for the next three days and no chopper trips. I sign off, I'm bored.
What's that noise? It's a chopper. It's not scheduled – it must be some injured. I run out to the big H and it lands. No injured and no dead'uns – some supplies and a brigadier with a star. “Keep yer head down! Keep yer head down!” I grab the brigadier's hand pulling him down and run to the supply hut.
A brigadier in full dress uniform – never had one of those before, he looks a bit airsick. “Soldier, take me to...” “Stop!” I say in a slow and resigned voice. “I'm a civilian. Please sit down and wait till I've got the supplies unloaded.”
I run out and help the pilot put the supplies on the ground. The chopper leaves and I carry the stuff into the hut. Drums of disinfectant, drinking water in big plastic containers, ration packs, bandages, a box of forms ‘110B Application Membership Officer's Mess’ and stuff, but no morphine.
“Welcome Brigadier Wade” I read his name tab “to Military Forward Hospital Number Five. Sorry to keep you waiting, but the hellipad has to be kept clear at all times. I'm Senior Theatre Sister David Hackerby, I'm a civilian. Everybody calls me Hack, so call me Hack.”
“I'm here to inspect this hospital, there have been reports of patients airlifted to Base Hospital with broken legs and arms bound to chair legs...”
“Table legs. Table legs are longer than chair legs – we get'em from the abandoned school next door.”
“Table legs? Why aren't the limbs properly set and splinted or plastered?”
“We'd love to do it properly, but we ain't got no splints or plaster or the metal bits, we certainly haven't got the skills to set multiple fractures. All we got is wooden table legs and sometimes morphine or ibuprofen. We stop the bleeding and tie them to a leg or an arm to keep the limb reasonably straight and hope that Base Hospital can fix it.”
“Inventory list? You mean form 2534B. The only form we got is ‘110B Application Membership Officer's Mess’, we use it for everything, it's the only paper we have, we wipe our behinds with them. Another boxful has just been delivered.”
“Look around you. This is the supply hut. This is all we have. We ask for stuff over the radio, but it never comes, we just get the basics. The door is not locked, anyone can and does steal stuff, we are not armed, there is no need to shoot us. Inventory list – I gotta laugh.”
The brigadier looks unhappy. “Mr Hackerby, please take me to your commanding officer.”
“No, I can't do that, I told Colonel West not to go for a walk in the city last week, he did not come back, I think that he is dead.”
“And the other officers and enlisted? I have a list here...”
“They'll all gone, Brigadier. Maybe they bribed somebody, maybe someone in their family bribed somebody, all I know is that they got airlifted out of here months ago. I'm all alone here in the hospital, but I'm not crazy yet.”
“Brigadier, this is ward number two for the patients. There is blood on the walls, there is blood on the floor, even some on the ceiling. I just don't have the energy to scrub it off. However the beds are clean. There's a big washing machine in the cellar, just don't expect the sheets to be ironed.”
“It's usually full or empty in here. Two choppers come in and it's chaos in here – young men covered in blood and screaming. Two choppers take'em to Base Hospital and it's empty again. Two years ago this was a civilian hospital, lots of old people and children and mothers-to-be, no young men.”
“We load the dead'uns directly into body bags, no clean-up, and store them in the cold room in the cellar. A week ago a chopper took the last ones away – it's real quiet here now.”
“This is the operating theatre, most of the equipment don't work, not properly maintained. We have electricity and water most of the time, but you won't want to drink the water, too much chlorine. Drinking water and ration packs are in the supply hut.”
“This is ward number one for us to sleep in and for overflow patients. Do you want to see the offices and the cellar?”
“Mr Hackerby, it's time for the truth. This hospital is filthy and there is not enough staff, supplies and working equipment, that much is clear. This hospital scores zero out of ten and it gets worse.”
“I'm a specialist for throat, nose and ears. I've had a desk job for the last twenty years and a bit rusty with a scalpel. I'm not much of a replacement for your Colonel West.”
“However it's not your fault that the hospital is filthy and that there is not enough staff, supplies and working equipment. You have been doing your best. I will try to do my best when the injured arrive. When I get back to base I will run a full investigation, it's clear that the problems are in Big City and not here...”
“Brigadier, it's 19:35 hours, time for the daily report on the military radio.” I show him how to enter the numbers for the day from the code book. “You're s'posed to eat that book if we get overrun.”
The operator in Big City says that heavy military activity is expected in our sector for the next ten days and big sand storms. “Sand storms mean no choppers. It means you're stuck here for a week, Brigadier. You're going to have to keep your promise.”