The Beginning of Mateship – Historical Fiction
“Could you calm this patient down? I need to go get more hot water!” I remember those being the first words Charlotte said to me. She was running around with a large cut on her finger (which was no doubt prone to getting infected) — I can still hear her thick, Australian accent ringing in my ear.
One thing to say about Charlottle is that we did end up developing a very special bond. She taught me the difference between mateship and friendship. Australians use the word, “mate” as a term of endearment quite often. Charlottle said that mateship is similar to friendship, but more significant. It means that you have had a shared experience with someone and you would do anything for them in return. Charlotte and I’s mateship was very unexpected considering we couldn’t stand each other at first. But, our relationship started in 1918 during our first air raid at the Battle of Cantigyny near Amiens, France.
After Charlotte ran off, I went to go calm the soldier down, as he had awoken to the air raid in a frenzy. The man had a bandage tightly strapped on his leg, which was on the verge of amputation. The nurses had been working tirelessly to make sure that wound was clean. I had my hands full with trying to calm him down while also pouring hot water on the wound. His cries were as loud as the hissing of the bombs that were hurdling toward the station. As I did this, that’s when I took off the bandage and realized something was off. I wasn’t trained yet, but I knew deep in my gut that something was wrong.
After about ten minutes of trying to talk him through the pain and calm him down, Charlotte came back over.
“Sorry, mate, I got it from here! Get on the ground!!”
“Wait! Have you seen this man’s wound?”
“What are you talking about? Of course I seen it, I’m the one who put the bandage on. What are you on about?”
“Are you blind? You can practically see his bone the penetration is so deep!”
“Hmmm, interesting. Well, that would make sense considering he’s suffering from a shrapnel wound from a bomb!” Charlotte said with a hint of annoyance and sarcasm.
“All I’m saying is maybe we need to take extra precautions and use antiseptic instead of hot water.”
“Oh, I’m sorry love, but who are you? If I’m not mistaken you’re the new American nurse who has no experience, am I correct?”
“Well, yes I just got here today and I am from Nashville, Tennessee.”
“You say that as if I care. I don’t even know where the hell that is. Look, there’s not much we can do but disinfect it with this hot water and wrap it up. We don’t have the proper resources right now. So, if I can trouble you to do so, could you please stop wasting time and either make yourself useful or get on the ground?!” Charlotte said with a lot of haste.
She was right though, I didn’t know any better. So, I got on the ground and covered my head, just like I was told to do. And to think, all of that happened in the first few hours of my first day at the station.
I had just gotten to the army base hospital a few hours ago. This was my first ever experience with blood, battle, and base hospitals. I actually was supposed to be studying pedagogy at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, but I was recruited by the Red Cross Society during my first week of classes. My linguistics professor, Dr. Cunningham, asked me the first day of class to consider it. At first, I thought absolutely not. But then, I walked out of the classroom and saw a large poster on the brick wall that had a woman nurse inside a big red cross with “HELP” across the top of the sign.
I decided right then and there to do it. I’m grateful I made that decision, even if my parents were not very happy with it. They told me I was absolutely loony for “ruining my life.” After my brother, Richard, died on the battlefield in 1915, they couldn’t seem to get past it.
“Why would you put yourself in jeopardy after what happened to him?!” they would say.
I always could hear their voices in my head as I waited on patients every day, trying to help them heal. Sometimes I imagined that some of those patients were Richard and that I could have been the one to save him.
I had eventually stopped hearing the deafening roars of the air raid after half an hour and as I slowly looked up, I realized it was over, and I stopped shaking.
Charlotte was there, with blood all over the front of her uniform.
“Alright, you can get up now. It’s over.” She said while extending her hand.
I looked at her hesitantly
“Come off it. I shan’t hurt you.”
I reached my hand up and she lifted me up off the ground. I didn’t know what to do next, but I did know that I needed to get the dirt off my face.
Charlotte started walking the opposite direction with a towel over her shoulder. I assumed she was going towards where I wanted to go and if not, maybeshe would be nice enough to tell me where that was.
She ended up at what looked like a bath house. Thank goodness. I feel utterly disgusting. However, when I walked in, I had made the unfortunate realization that there were no bath tubs when I saw women soaking cold sponges on their body. Charlotte noticed that I followed her in there and I guess she also noticed the expression on my face because she then handed me a sponge saying,
“Be sure to scrub behind your ears, you never know what bacteria might be hiding behind there.”
“Is this all we get?” I asked with a hint of disgust, although at the time I did not intend for it to come off that way.
“Oh, I’m sorry, were you under the impression that we got nice, warm baths here? Are you so used to your luxurious, American life style? Oh poor thing.”
“Well excuse me. I just got here. It’s not like I was given a manual or something to tell me exactly what to expect”
“Oh yes I know. We got the news yesterday that you were coming. I’ve been waiting to see you in person. I’ve never met an American before and all I can say is you are exactly what I expected.”
“What did you expect?”
“A bludgering bogan who thinks they’re entitled and know everything just because they’re American.”
“Alright. I did not mean to come off in a negative light. I was just trying to help.”
“No you were trying to feel good about yourself. That’s why you’re here isn’t it? You want to feel like you have a purpose. Like you’re meant to take care of people for the rest of your life. Well listen here, this isn’t about being a saint and being better than everyone else. It’s a lot of disgusting, gruesome work that you will hardly ever get a thank you for unless a soldier is on his death bed. So, why don’t you mind your own bizzo, before I bail you up.”
I took a deep breath to stop myself from crying in front of everyone. I stayed quiet after that, as did everyone else. I grabbed the sponge and soaked it in the water like everyone else was doing. Of course, the only sink available was the one next to Charlotte. I walked over there trying not to look like I was shaking. After a long silence, I wanted to make amends.
“Listen. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’ve only been here a few hours. How about we wipe it all out and start over? My name is Jane. I’m originally from Nashville, Tennessee. I was studying to become a teacher and then decided to come here.”
“Again, you seem to think I even know what Nashville, Tennessee is. And a teacher? I’m not surprised.”
“It’s a very popular city in the states. We’re in the south. Where are you from?”
“How lovely. I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ve never been outside of the states before. That’s actually part of the reason I came here. Wanted to get out. Try to make a decision for myself for once.”
“Alright, slow down mate, just because we’re sponge bathing together doesn’t mean we have to go into a philosophical conversation. It also does not mean all is forgiven and we are mates or pals whatever you call it in “bogan land.” Save it. If you want my respect, stop being an arsehole, and then maybe we can be cobbers one day. Until then, please stop earbashing me.”
Eventually we did become cobbers, that’s another word for mate. After a few weeks, I finally got the courage to ask Charlotte what the hell half of the words that came out of her mouth meant.
Charlotte and I worked next to each other every single day. We would gradually have nice conversations here and there. We talked about her siblings, Gertrude and Beatrice. They were both younger than her so she always had to take care of them, which is why she’s so good at taking care of people now. She is very protective of them, like she is with everyone she loves. She might seem like she’s a sour peach, but then you realize she’s actually one of the sweetest peaches you could pick. We eventually talked about my parents and how I absolutely adore them, but always felt so confined by their strict rules and expectations. We also talked about my brother, Richard, and how much I missed him.
Honestly, seeing Charlotte’s face was my favorite part of the day. She was always so loud and obnoxious, but she pushed me out of my comfort zone. She also taught me a lot of expletives, even American ones I had never heard before. She was what I needed in my life. I’d always been surrounded by the white picket fences on my plantation in Nashville. I had never even seen the other side of my own town. Yet, there I was, learning about the other side of the world from Charlotte. She loved talking about Australia. I could tell she missed it a lot.
“Oi Oi Oi! Get on your swimming costume! It’s our day off and we are going biking and swimming!” Charlotte ran into my quarters exclaiming.
After about thirty minutes, Charlotte and I arrived at Etaples. She got out a basket filled with a ragedy towel, a few loaves of bread, and some disgusting, black liquid in a jar.
“Charlotte, did you bring me here to poison me?”
“Oh don’t be a figjam. It’s vegemite. Beatrice sent me some in her last package.”
“What on earth is in it?”
“It’s filled with Vitamin B, you know something you need to survive? It’s got thiamine, riboflavin, folate, and yeast extract. At home, we eat it with every meal. My mum says if I eat it everyday, I’ll live to be 100. You want some?”
“Oh come on, why do you always have to be such a drag?! You always talk about how you want to venture out and try new things. Come on, why don’t you lair it up a bit and try it? I promise you it tastes just like chocolate.”
“Fine. Hand it over you damn screamer.”
“How sweet. You’re even picking up my words. After you eat this, you will be a true Australian.”
“OH MY GOODNESS GRACIOUS! THAT WAS QUITE POSSIBLY THE WORST THING THAT HAS EVER ENTERED MY MOUTH.”
“Oh I am sure that’s not true.”
“Shut up! You told me it tasted like chocolate.”
“Okay so I told a fib. How else was I going to get you to try it? No need to spit the dummy. You tried it and that’s all that matters.”
“I hate you” I said while laughing.
“No you don’t” Charlotte replied with a smile.
We had the entire day off so we spent the rest of the time swimming, biking, and then we ended up on the coast. We both laid down on the sand and looked up at the sky since the sun was beginning to set and we could faintly see the night sky.
As we were lying on the ground, I heard sniffles. I looked over to see Charlotte rubbing her nose. I had never seen her show much emotion before especially not like this. But, oddly enough, she was unapologetically letting the tears fall down her cheeks. She looked up at the sky with the same sparkle in her eye that I saw the first day I met her.
She looked over to me with her eyes puffy.
“Ya know, even when I’m away from home, I can always see southern cross in the night sky. I guess no matter how far you go, you can always find your way back home.”
Of course, I started crying. I don’t know if it was because I finally saw Charlotte crack or that the wind was getting sand in my eyes, but before I knew it, we were both crying on each other’s shoulders. After we spent a bit crying, we had to hop on the bikes and go back to the base.
As we were biking, I tried to look around as much as I could without straying off the path. I looked around and realized, that although I was far away from my home, I had never felt more at home than I did when I was with Charlotte.
Once we got back to base, Charlotte and I put our bikes up and then she came over to hug me. As she pulled away she whispered,
“If you ever tell anyone I cried I swear it I will personally ship you back to ‘Tan-es-y’ or wherever the hell you’re from.”
We both laughed and I responded, “Your secret is safe with me, mate.”