The event at St Bart’s pathology Museum went well – a crazy French silent film featuring Sherlock and Watson, by the charming Celine Terranova (who turned up in a lovely steampunk bustle dress) followed by me waffling about Watson until I could show the new trailer/extract for the book. There is still a slight volume adjustment to be made around the time the sodium citrate appears, but I think you’ll agree Janie Dee does a tremendous job. Thanks also to Sue Light for (most of) the photographs, to Bella Ryan for editing/assembling and to Carla Valentine for organising a night for Dr Watson to shine.
The above is an edited extract from this section of Dead Man’s Land:
“Careful with the solution bottles, Staff Nurse Jennings,’ Watson warned, as she unwrapped a glass cylinder from its cocoon of corrugated cardboard and newspaper. ‘That’s our secret ingredient. Hand it here, please.’
The flap of the tent snapped back with a crack like a whiplash. Standing in the opening was the Sister-in-Charge, her face almost as crimson as the red cape which proclaimed her a full member of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps. The sound of the German guns was momentarily lost beneath her impressive bellow. ‘Major Watson!’
Watson carefully laid down the precious jar of sodium citrate solution on the tabletop before he turned to face her. ‘Sister? How may I be of assistance?’
‘What is the meaning of this?’ She pulled back the canvas further to reveal his two members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment each holding an Empire medical kit. ‘Experience dictates that travelling with one medical kit in a war situation is somewhat risky, sister,’ Watson explained patiently. ‘I always pack a spare.’
Now the colour on her cheeks was a perfect match for the cape. ‘I am not referring to your travelling preferences, Major,’ she almost snarled. ‘You have brought VADs into my Casualty Clearing Station. VADs!’
She made it sound as if Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses were some kind of vermin ‘When I was at the hospital in Calais,’ Watson said calmly, ‘I requested some assistance during this tour of the clearing stations and field ambulances. The MO suggested Nurses Gregson and-’
‘They are not nurses, Major Watson, as you well know. Not qualified nurses. They are auxiliaries. Orderlies. And the Matron-in-Chief herself has forbidden VADs to work this far forward-’
There came another explosion, short and sharp, that made everyone’s heads turn to the source. It had come from Mrs Gregson, the older of the VADs. Her companion, Miss Pippery, a tiny thing who looked to be barely out of her teens, took a small step backwards, as if retreating from a ticking bomb.
Mrs Gregson bent at the waist, put down the medical chest, and stepped over it, so that she stood eye to eye with the Sister. Miss Pippery lowered her own case but stayed firmly behind it, as if it could act as a barricade. She yanked out a tiny gold rosary from beneath her collar and kissed it, briefly, in prayer, before tucking it away once more.
Mrs Gregson, Watson estimated, was thirty or thereabouts, with striking green eyes and, beneath the white VAD headdress, a crown of fiery red hair. The Sister was probably two decades older, pipe-cleaner thin with a mouth pinched by years of keeping her charges in line. Now the opening was reduced further, to a razor cut in a rather sallow face.
When Mrs Gregson spoke, it was with a quiet but stinging force. ‘Sister, I may not have your qualifications, but I have been out here for more than two years. I was running first-aid stations when the worst the men faced was a turned ankle from trying to march in hobnail boots on French and Belgian cobblestones. I drove for McMurdo’s Flying Ambulance Brigade at Mons. Perhaps you have heard of it? I have treated trench foot, venereal disease, lice infestations and lanced boils in men’s buttocks the size of macaroons. I have stuffed men’s entrails back in place and held the hands of boys who cried for their mothers, such was their pain, and of grown men weeping in fear at the thought of going back up the line. I have watched men drown in their own fluids from gas, carried men’s mangled arms and legs to the lime pit, told a private he will never see again, spent weeks wondering if I will ever smell anything in my nostrils other than the stench of gas gangrene. I have shown pretty fiancées what German flame-throwers have done to their future husbands’ faces. Then had to deliver the letters that tell the disfigured soldiers that they have lost those sweethearts. I have seen enough pus to last me a lifetime, Sister, and my hands are likely ruined forever from all the scrubbings with carbolic and eusol because, of course, only a Sister can wear rubber gloves and I do believe, no matter what your dear Matron-in-Chief thinks, that I have earned the right to go where my betters think I am needed in this war and I also believe that Major Watson’s new method of blood transfusion will save the lives of many who have to this point died for want of fluid and warmth.’ She finally took a breath. ‘Of course, I am not a nurse, nor would I claim to be. I am a VAD and proud of it.’
Mrs Gregson’s short speech never increased in volume throughout its course, but somehow, like a great flywheel pressed into motion, gathered power and momentum as it went. Watson, about to object that is wasn’t strictly speaking his new method of blood transfusion, decided to stay out of the contest. It would be like trying to separate two Siamese fighting fish.
The guns seemed even louder and much closer in the brittle silence that descended on the tent.
Sister took her time composing her reply. The heightened colour in her cheeks faded, but she twisted the piece of paper she held in her hands as if she were wringing Mrs Gregson’s neck. ‘I did not intend to impugn the service you have given. But there are few here who haven’t performed the same tasks. Isn’t that right, Staff Nurse Jennings?’
‘Yes, Sister,’ she agreed softly, eyes downcast. ‘Although I can’t drive-’
But Sister had turned her attention back to the VADs. ‘You will assist Major Watson, of course, in his important work, and I assume move on with him once the technique for this wonder treatment has been demonstrated. But I do not want you on the re-suss, pre-op or evacuation wards. Or on the officers’ wards in The Big House. It will only confuse the men. I don’t want them to think they are getting..’ She paused for moment and actually smiled before delivering the blow ‘.. second-rate care.”