[The narrator is Kate Flanagan, a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Somme, France, 1916.]
The wheels spun in the mud. I accelerated slightly to move into the centre of the road, out of the way of a gun carriage being shoved along through the crowd. It bogged down, the mud deep over the spokes, horses straining and slipping against the load.
“We’re not going anywhere,” I muttered. Every day was the same. “These blokes in the back will die of old age before we get them to a doctor. Get out and give ’em a holler.”
Chook clambered out of the cabin and started yelling from the running board. “Ambulance! Make way. Make way!”
It made no difference. Everyone else was already yelling.
I heard the shell before it hit. There was a low shirring noise in the air, really quite familiar, except much closer than all the others.
Oh no. No.
Then the blast came.
The old truck lifted and bucked, slamming down on its side in a spout of mud. I felt the movement – flew and fell and floundered in the wave – but it was the sound that terrified. Sucked out the ear drums and scorched like fire. Maybe it was fire. Something hammered hard at my shoulder, something else tore at my legs. Someone was screaming.
Maybe it’s me.
For years everything was black.
Silent. Still. How strange.
Then the moaning started. All around, moaning, shifting and spinning. I moved a little. There was no pain, only something else, too dark to feel. Moved a little more.
Shattered truck, shattered road, shattered army all over the place. Horses, in pieces, screaming and thrashing. Men half buried in mud, scrambling and scratching.
Try to sit up.
“Help me, Chook!” My mouth was full of blood. “Are you there?”
I crawled very slowly from under the wreck of the truck. The world shuddered beneath me. A grey sky circled my head and fell sideways into the ground. Or I did.
One arm hung down, ridiculous, but still there. No boots on my feet.
Where the hell did they get to?
Get up. “Chook!” Fuck it. “Where are you?”
My knees went a bit strange. I sat down in the mud.
Breathe. Stand up. Do something. Stop all this moaning.
“Chook, my boots are gone.”
There was sobbing from near the back of the ambulance. I dragged myself across to it, pulled away the busted wood and canvas lying shredded. The roof was gone, and the top row of stretchers. The rest was just blood.