With Ross gone, it was just Susan and I. There seemed to be a tension there that wasn’t there before Ross left for the war. We’d go hours, even days without talking. It was as if a barrier had been created and neither of us dared to break it. And when we did it normally ended in tears, so we tried our best to avoid it at all costs. A month after Ross had left for the war it was the 17th February 1944 and I was turning sixteen. I had seen advertisements all over town asking for female recruits, of all nursing abilities, to go and help with the war.
The thought had obviously crossed my mind but I knew I had no experience and when I looked closer I realised it said you had to be eighteen to sign up. I’d spoken to Susan about joining but every time I’d bring it up she’d shout and scream at me relentlessly about not wanting to lose another child. I felt useless to the cause. Here I was, perfectly able of helping out, but the government seemed to think I was too young. I spent my days helping Susan on the farm, harvesting the crops. It was an important job, of course, but not what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to help on the front line. Help the soldiers who were fighting for our country.
And so, two months later on the 17th April, I went down to the recruitment office whilst Susan was at the farm. It was my day off and I’d told her that I was going shopping in town for new ribbons. I’d thought about what I was about to do and, although I knew I’d be breaking the law, I also knew it was for the greater good. I stepped inside the daunting building on the high street, straightened myself up, and walked down the long dark corridor until I reached a desk with a small, old woman sat at it.
“I’d like to register to be a front line nurse.” I said, plucking up all the courage I had. “Please.” I added quickly. The woman just sat there, staring me up and down. I knew this was going to happen and I sighed in defeat. I’ve always looked younger than I am because I’m very small. I’m about the height of an average fourteen year old, yet I’m sixteen. “Age.” The woman asked bluntly, speaking at last. “E-eighteen.” I managed to get out. “Date of birth?” I thought for a moment. Doing the math in my head. “17th February 1923.” The woman nodded, not seeming to care about the amount of time it took me to say my date of birth. “Any experience?” “A little, yes.” I lied, not wanting to be rejected from duty. The woman nodded at me. “Take a seat in there.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, not realising I had been holding it in, before trudging over to the room she had pointed at. You didn’t exactly have to be a great mathematician to lie about your age I thought. No wonder lots of other girls had already done it. I sat down next to the two other girls there who looked at least four years older than me, maybe even more. The hardest part was over with. She didn’t even ask for a birth certificate. I suppose it was because they were so very low on nurses that they’d take any one they could get their hands on, I thought. But, my thought was interrupted by a harsh, deep voice. “Next.” I looked up. “Yes, come on.”
I followed the voice into another dark room opposite and was motioned to sit on the edge of the hospital like bed. “We just need to do a simple check over to make sure you’re fit for the front lines.” The stout man began, opening his bag. “And we’d also like to know your name and age for our records.” I unclasped my sweating hands, making an effort not to look nervous. “Elizabeth Winston, age eighteen.” I said confidently. “Mhm. Now, stand up.” I stood up whilst the man measured my height with a tape measure. “Quite petite for your age aren’t we?” I thought for a minute before replying. “Oh, yes Sir. I’ve always been on the small side.” “Right. Now sit back on the bed for me. I see you said you have some experience.” “Some, yes.” I said. “Good, we need more experienced nurses on the front line.” I suddenly started to panic, knowing I had lied about my experience.
Another ten minutes went by and I was told that I’d passed the health examination. I was then taken into yet another room to fill out a form. Name, age, date of birth, current occupation, signature. As soon as I’d signed the paper I gave it to the same small woman at reception like I was told to. She filed it away into a cabinet behind her desk before looking at a sheet in front of her. “Yes, let’s see. They’ve placed you at the front line near the south of Belgium. You’ll be working with mostly British soldiers, although there’s a few of us there too.” I nodded. “When do I leave?” I asked. “In two days. Meet here at seven a.m. sharp with only your essentials packed. We’ll give you your uniform.” “Thank you.” I said before walking out of the recruitment office and swiftly back home.
“YOU WHAT?” Susan screamed, tears welling in her eyes. “Mom I had to! I feel so helpless here and what difference does two years really make? I can do exactly the same job as the other girls can!” I screamed back, feeling the anger rise in my cheeks. My temper had always been my weak point and I hated it. One second I’d be calm and the next I’d snap. Susan stepped towards me and cupped my face in her hands. She seemed suddenly calm. “You shouldn’t have lied Elizabeth.” I moved out from her grip, still flaming with anger. “I’m not the only one doing it you know?” I spat back. “It still doesn’t mean it was right.” “I know, I..” My tone then softened, noticing her expression “You’re going to let me go. Right?”
Susan sighed. “Yes. But only if you know what you’re getting yourself in to.” I smiled. “Thank you. I’ll do you proud.” She took my small hand in hers, grasping it tightly. “From what I remember, Ross was working on the front line somewhere near Belgium. You might even see him.” I knew it was unlikely as Belgium had many front lines, but I didn’t want to hurt her anymore than I already had. “Maybe.” I whispered before hugging her tightly, pressing my face into her shoulder.
Two days passed and the hours ticked by slower than I could have ever imagined! But then the day came. I woke up, just as the golden sun was rising outside my window, at five a.m. exactly. I got dressed in my usual pale blue dress, white socks and brown leather shoes before latching up my suitcase full of my essentials and heading down the stairs. Susan was waiting for me in the living room, still dressed in her nightwear. “Don’t forget the ribbon.” Her words eerily echoing the words of Ross from only a month before.
I stepped towards her and placed my leather case onto the floor with a slight thud. She then proceeded to walk around to the back of me and tie the red ribbon onto my tight, wavy ponytail before stepping back in front of me and straightening out my fringe. “Good luck.” Was all she could manage before breaking down in tears and giving me a quick embrace before running into the kitchen, her dress flowing, as elegantly as always, behind her.
The usually busy streets were quiet, with no footsteps to be heard except my own. As I made my way down the street it was the first time, I realised, that I had ever properly looked to take in the beautiful surroundings. The cobbled streets were grey but shining brightly from the dew drops, the buildings all a cream colour with the doors all made from a deep auburn wood. I was just gazing out into the golden horizon above the church when I finally heard someone else’s footsteps. The footsteps became faster and more frequent until I snapped my head around to see a tall, lanky girl running towards me. “Are you off to the recruitment office?” She said between gasps. “Yes.” I replied bluntly, not wanting to stop in fear of being late. “Well,” she gave a sigh of relief “I wasn’t sure if we left for Belgium from here or not you see!” I raised an eyebrow at the girl. “We were told where to meet when we signed up.”
I quickened my pace, with my suitcase in hand, the office wasn’t too much farther. The tall girl was still following me and I could hear her footsteps now jogging to catch up with me. “I know, but, I forget things you see.” “Mhmm.” I replied, carrying on and not bothering to turn around. “Guess we’ll be seeing more of each other then?” The girl suddenly ran in front me, causing me to stumble to a halt. “Grace.” She said. “Grace Clark.” I nodded, before replying. “Elizabeth Winston. But we really should be going, we’ve got to be there at 7.” And with that I set off again, Grace following straight behind me.
As we turned round the next corner of the cobbled street I saw that there was a growing crowd of young girls gathered outside the office. However, they all looked to be a lot older than Grace, never mind me. “How old are you?” I asked her as we reached the crowd. “Nineteen. You?” “I’m…eighteen.” I finally stuttered out, sensing that she saw straight through my lie. “Right.” She replied slowly before pointing to an older lady in uniform now coming out of the front door to the office. “That’s Marlene Lawrence.” Grace whispered to me. “Who?” “She’s our mentor… leader. You know, whatever you want to call her. She’ll place us in our regiments.” I nodded, still looking at the woman. She was small and stout, her long grey hair tied back into a slick bun on the top of her head. Her skin paler than I’d ever seen.
“Do you know where you’ll be working?” Grace asked, snapping me out of my gaze. “Oh, yeah. I’m working on the front line near the south of Belgium but they haven’t told me exactly where.” She looked shook. “The front line?” Her eyebrows furrowed together. “Elizabeth, they only send the older, experienced nurses to the front lines.” “Where are you going then?” I asked, worry rising in my stomach, not wanting to be the only girl at the front line who had lied about their experience. “A local village to help out at a hospital taking in injured soldiers. And as far as I know, most of the other younger girls are going to the same place as me.” I looked at her, meeting her strong brown eyes for the first time. They fixed onto my bright hazel ones and, in an instant, I knew what we were both thinking.