Observations of an Orderly - Some Glimpses of Life and Work in an English War Hospital
by Ward Muir
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It happens only too often that when a patient is discharged from hospital he is not fit to make his journey home alone. An orderly is detailed to accompany him. Sometimes the lot has fallen on me. Generally the trip is a short one, to some outlying suburb of London or to some town or village in the home counties; but sometimes my flights have been further afield, to Ireland, or Wales; and once I went to Yorkshire with a blind man.

That Yorkshire expedition was singularly lacking in drama and in surface pathos, yet its details remain with great clearness. The piece of damaged goods which, being of no further fighting use, was being returned with thanks to the hearthside from whence it came, was an individual answering to the unheroic cognomen of Briggs. A high-explosive shell had been sent by the Gods to alter the current of Briggs's career. Briggs came through all that part of the war which concerned him without a scratch upon his person—only after the arrival in his immediate vicinity of the high-explosive shell he was unfortunately unable to see. Never again would Briggs be of the slightest value either as a soldier or in his civilian trade, which was that of driver of ponies in a coal-mine. Consequently, as a distinguished invalid (with the sum of one pound in his pocket to comfort him until such time as his pension should materialise), Mister—no longer Private—Briggs, for the first and presumably the last time in his existence, went travelling with a courier.

A car supplied by the National Motor Volunteer Service awaited Briggs and his courier at the hospital entrance. Here the introduction between Briggs and his courier took place. Ours is a large hospital, and I had never to my knowledge encountered Briggs before that moment. I beheld a young fellow (he was only twenty-three) with a stout, healthy visage which wore a pleasant smile and would have been describable as roguish, only ... well, the eyes of a blind man, whatever else they are, are not conducive to a roguish mien. They were eyes not visibly damaged: nice blue eyes. And they stared at nothingness. I was in the presence of a stripling who, a few weeks ago, must have owned a mobile face, and was in rapid process of developing a quite different face, a face which still might—it certainly did—grin and laugh, but which would gradually gain, had already begun to gain, a set expressionlessness that overlaid and strangely neutralised its grins and its laughter.

Blind men's faces may have beauty, even vivacity, or a heightened intelligence and fire; but there is a something, hard to define, of which they are sadly devoid. The windows of the soul are dimmed. The face inevitably changes. And if even I, who knew not Briggs, could perceive that Briggs's face must thus have changed, how much more conspicuous would the change be to the partner whom Briggs had left seven months before and to whom I was now leading him back—his wife.

Briggs, a civilian once more, sported reach-me-down garments which fitted him surprisingly—our Clothing Store sergeant is the kindest of souls and expends infinite patience on doing his best, with government-contract tailoring, to suit all our discharges. His overcoat, which might have been called a Chesterfield in Shoreditch, pleased Briggs, as he told me in the car: he drew my attention to its texture and warmth, he admiringly fingered it. "I might ha' paid thirty bob for that there top-coat," he surmised. "A collar an' a tie an' all, too! Them boots ain't so dusty, neither: they fit me a treat. Goin' 'ome to my missus in Sunday clobber, I am." You would have said that he thought he had emerged from his hazards with rather a good bargain. A jumble of ready-made clothes—and a pension! The visible world gone for ever! These were his souvenirs of the great war. And, "Ah," he said, when I ventured on some allusion to his blindness, "it might ha' bin worse. I don' know what I'd ha' done if I'd lost a leg, same as some of them other poor jossers in th' hospital!"

(And this, marvellous though it sounds, is the standpoint of no small number in the legion of our Briggses.)

The motor ride was another source of gratification to Briggs. Seated beside me, the wind beating on his sightless orbs, he discoursed of the wonders of petrol. "Proper to take you about, them cars. W'ere are we now? 'Ave we far to run, like?" I told him we were traversing Battersea Park and that our destination was St. Pancras. It transpired that he was a stranger to London. This drive through London was, as it were, an item in his collection of experiences, to be preserved with the cross-channel voyage and the vigils in the trenches. "Shall we go by Buckingham Palace?" I told him we shouldn't; then, observing that he was disappointed, I asked the driver to make the detour. So at last I was able to inform Briggs that we were passing Buckingham Palace: I turned his head so that he looked straight towards that architectural phenomenon. It was, of course, invisible to him. No matter. He wished to be able to boast, to his wife, that he had seen (he used that verb) the house where the King lived.

His wife—he married a month before he enlisted—had been notified of his return; but I suggested that at St. Pancras we might telegraph to her the actual hour of the train's arrival, in case she should desire to meet it. The idea commended itself to Briggs: he had not thought of such a thing: telegraphing had perhaps hardly come within his purview, at least so I surmised when, the telegraph-form before me, I asked him what he wished me to write. He began cheerily, as though dictating a letter of gossip:—"My dear wife—" Economy necessitated a taboo of this otherwise charming method of communication. "Arriving Bradford five-thirty, Tom," was the result of final boilings-down, which took so long that we nearly achieved the anticlimax of missing our train altogether.

Now at Bradford (at the end of one of the chattiest five hours I ever spent in my life) no Mrs. Briggs was perceptible. I kept my patient on the platform until every other passenger had gone: I marched him up and down the main area of the station. Each time I caught sight of a woman who looked a possible Mrs. Briggs I steered my charge into her vicinity. In spite of a piece of information which Briggs had imparted to me on the journey—namely, that he expected soon to become a father—I was surprised that his wife had not come to the station to welcome him. However, it was plain that Briggs himself was not particularly surprised, nor, what was more important, disappointed. Nothing could damp his eternal placidity and good humour. He proposed that from this point onward he should pursue his journey alone. "Nowt to do but git on th' tram," he said. "It's a fair step from 'ere, but I knows every inch of t' way." At all events (as of course I could not allow this) he would now act as my guide. And he did. "First to the right.... Now we're goin' by a big watchmaker's-and-jeweller's.... Now cross t' street.... Now on th' corner over there by t' Sinnemer is w'ere we git our tram."

The tram in due course appeared, and we boarded it. "Tha mun pay thrippence only, mind," he warned me when the conductor came round. "It's a rare long ride for thrippence." So it proved to be—through wildernesses which were half meadow and half slum, my cicerone at every hundred yards pointing out the notable features of the landscape. On our left I ought to see the so-and-so public house; on our right the football ground—I should know it by the grand-stand jutting above the palings; further on were brickworks; further still a factory which, my nose would have told me, even if Mr. Briggs had not, dealt with chemicals; then, on the skyline, a pit-head; then another; then a mining village with three different kinds of methodist church and two picture palaces; then a gap of dreary, dirty fields. And then, nearing dusk, the village where my friend lived, and where also was the terminus of the tram route.

We quitted the tram and walked down a street of those squalid brick tenements which coal-mining seems to germinate like a rash upon the earth's surface. The debris and the scaffoldings of pits were dotted about the adjacent countryside. Sooty cabbage-patches occupied the occasional interspaces in the ranks of houses. Briggs directed me across a cinder path in one of these cabbage-patches. "See them three 'ouses at the bottom of the 'ill? The end one's mine." We approached. No sign of the wife. Surely she would be on the look-out for her husband? Also there was a sister and a brother-in-law—the latter in a prosperous way of business as a grocer near-by: Briggs had told me of them. Would not they be watching for him? I began to be anxious. Not once, but several times, I had heard of the wounded soldier returning to his home and finding no home: both home and wife had gone. (Those are bitterly tragic tales, which a realist must write some day.) Still, as we came nearer, I saw nobody at the cottage door. "Is th' door open?" asked Briggs. Yes, it was open. When we were at the end of the cabbage-patch, and I could discern the interior of the cottage parlour (into which the door opened direct), it became clear that three persons were there. One of them, a man, obviously the brother-in-law, came and peeped out of the window at us, and turned and spoke to his companions. Of these two, both women, one rose from her chair and the other remained seated. But none of the three came to the door.

I have met northern dourness and the inarticulate manner which is such a contrast to the gushing and noisy effusion of the south. By a paradox it is not inconsistent with the familiar conversationalism to which Briggs had treated me, a stranger. But I admit I found Briggs's family circle a little embarrassing. They were respectable people: the cottage was neat and decently furnished, its occupants were sprucely dressed. I fancy they were in their best clothes; certainly their demeanour—and the aspect of the table in their midst—denoted a great occasion. This table, as I saw when I assisted Briggs up the steps into the room, had indeed borne a well-spread tea. No very acute powers of deduction were required to decide, from the crumbs on the white cloth and on the dishes, that there had been bread and butter and jam and cake. Of these not a vestige (except the crumbs) remained. Briggs and I were an hour behindhand, and the relatives who awaited the wanderer had eaten the banquet laid to welcome him: or so it appeared. I have no doubt that all sorts of delicacies were in the cupboard; the kettle on the hob was probably on the boil; perhaps buttered toast was in the oven. The fact remains that devastation was on the table.

However, Briggs did not see the table, and the table's state occupied me only for a fraction of a second. I was more concerned with the three people in the parlour and with their reception of my patient. The pale woman in the chair by the fire was evidently Briggs's wife. She stared at us, as we entered, but said absolutely nothing. Nor did the other and slightly younger woman, his sister, say anything. She too stared. And the man stared, and said nothing.

"Well, here we are," I announced—an imbecile assertion, but I produced it as cheerfully and matter-of-factly as I knew how. I unhooked my arm from Briggs's, and made as though to push him forward into the family group.

"Nay!" said Briggs. "I mun take my top-coat off first."

I helped him off with his coat. Not one of the three members of his family had either moved or spoken—beyond one faint murmur, not an actual word, in response to my "Here we are." But Briggs seemed to know that his folk were in the room with him, and he neither accosted them, expressed any curiosity about them, or betrayed any astonishment at their silence.

When he had got his coat off I expected him to move forward into the room. A mistake. Mine must be a hasty temperament. They don't do things like that in Yorkshire, not even when they have come home blinded from the wars. Briggs put out his hand, felt for the cottage door, half closed it, felt for a nail on the inner side of it, and carefully hung his coat thereon.

Now I could usher him into the waiting family circle.

No. I was wrong.

Briggs calmly divested himself of his jacket. He then felt for another door, a door which opened on to a stair leading to the upper storey. On a nail in this door he hung his jacket. And then, in his shirt-sleeves, he was ready. Shirt-sleeves were symbolical. He was home at last, and prepared to sit down with his people.

Of the actual reunion I saw nothing, for I promptly said I must go. It was imperative for me to hurry back, or I should miss my train.

"You'll stay an' take a sup of tea with us," said Briggs.

I couldn't, though I should have liked to do so, in some ways, and in others should have hardly dared to be an intruder on such a meeting. I shook hands with my patient. Looking back as I went out of the door I saw Briggs's wife still seated, motionless, in her chair. She had not opened her lips. It was impossible to divine what were her emotions. She was very pale. There were no tears in her eyes as she stared at her young blind husband. But I think there were tears waiting to be shed.

I looked back again when I reached the end of the path across the cabbage-patch. The cottage door was still open. In the aperture stood the younger of the two women, Briggs's sister. She waved to me and smiled. It was evident that it had struck her that I ought to have been thanked for my services, and she was expressing this, cordially if belatedly. I waved my hand in return, and hastened up the street towards the tram.

My hurry was fruitless. I missed my train in Bradford, and stayed the night at an hotel, thus (with appropriate but improper extravagance) concluding this particular performance in the role of travelling courier to a distinguished invalid. As I sat over a sumptuous table d'hote—this was long before the submarine blockade and the food restrictions—I wondered what Briggs's wife said to Briggs; and I made up a story about it. But what I have written above is not a story, it is the unadorned truth, which I could not have invented and which is perhaps better than the story. In his courier's presence Briggs addressed not one word to his wife, and his wife addressed not one word to him; nor did his sister or his brother-in-law. Nor did any of this trio address one word to me.


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Transcriber's note: Spelling and punctuation have been normalized.


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