Secrets from the Past

Submitted for Contest #51 in response to: Write a story about someone who's haunted by their past.... view prompt


Jul 24, 2020


Peggy-Lee Williams had just got a job up in Darwin as a Psychiatric nurse after graduating from her nursing training. The year was 1970 and winds of change were blowing across the sunburnt country although the Vietnam War was still raging in South East Asia and the twenty-one year old was coming across newly returned soldiers every day as they were shipped back from the conflict zone.

    There was a new condition called post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychological disturbance lasting more than one month following stresses that would produce anxiety in anyone who experienced them. Peggy-Lee learned that returned soldiers suffered from symptoms including numbing of emotions, insomnia, nightmares, guardedness, an inability to concentrate, irritability, and explosions of anger or aggression. Returned soldiers often complained of feelings of anger, guilt, rage, alienation and hypersensitivity. This mental disorder could trigger an endless loop of intrusive, distressing memories and other destructive behaviours.

    During her rounds Peggy-Lee came across one returned soldier who kept making references to how, ‘The situation was different over there. I wouldn’t have done something like that over here… but I was in a combat zone… it was war… those things happen in war but not in normal situations… not in normal situations…’

    Peggy-Lee’s brown eyes widened, as she would watch him sitting in the corner of his room and continuously rock back and forward with his fingers in his mouth. The words kept playing over and over in her mind. ‘Not in normal situations… not in normal situations…’

    What on earth did he mean?

    She worked under the supervision of Dr Pleasance who had new ideas and a strong Humanist theory background. His Humanist outlook was an approach that focused on human experience, problems, potential, and ideals. Moreover, he had a keen interest in treating returned soldiers. He applied his new way of treating his patients at every opportunity.

    He started a group therapy session much to the amazement of the entire hospital. Peggy-Lee was astounded. Who would have thought that people could sit around in a circle and discuss their problems? She knew her conservative, right wing; Christian parents would have scorned such practices. “Psychology is only an excuse for people to avoid talking about their problems with God,” they would have said.

    She wondered if her father would have turned out any differently if this type of “talking therapy” had been available to him after he had returned from being a prisoner of war in the Second World War. He had always been such a hard man. Yet, it had been a different type of war for the rules of engagement had been clearly spelt out and the enemy was obvious and well known to the allied forces. These veterans from Vietnam had absolutely no idea whom they were fighting! Some even described it as fighting a “shadow.”

* * *

    ‘It is important that you have a daily routine,’ Dr Pleasance informed the young veteran one morning.

    Peggy-Lee had been walking past his room and could not help but stop and listen to his consultation. A loose strand of black hair had escaped from her bun but she pushed it back behind her ear and listened in.

    ‘Is that OK, Mr Worthington? You need to start to undertake daily activities. It doesn’t really matter what they are: it could be reading, taking a walk within our grounds – I won’t go on. It’s all up to you.’

    Peggy-Lee scratched her head. Fancy a doctor asking a patient if his advice was “OK?” What on earth was going on in the medical profession these days?

    As the days went on, Peggy-Lee found herself getting closer to the former soldier. His name was Johnny Worthington and he was only twenty-three years old. He spent most of his time staring out the window into the leafy grounds below. His dark hair was in a constant messed up state and his skin was pale. His grey-green eyes seemed to gaze at nothing and were often blackened as Dr Pleasance told her he hit himself in the face due to his trauma. In a way he reminded her of her late elder and very sensitive brother Danny who would have been around the same age had he still been alive.

* * *

    ‘Are you on a break Nurse Williams?’

    Peggy-Lee looked up at the young man before her. She had been sitting on a bench as far away from the smokers as possible. They consisted of several high-ranking doctors and a few of the psychiatric nurses. She set aside her lunch and offered the young man a seat.

    ‘Am I disturbing you?’ he asked as he sat down. His face was a dappled mixture of light and shade, which played upon his face.

    Peggy-Lee shook her head. ‘No. Not at all.’

    She turned and looked at him again. He only had half of his face left. The entire left side of his face was a charred mess. Upon impulse, the young woman reached out and gently touched the young man’s burnt face.

    A tear trickled down the former soldier’s face like a waterfall on a black rock. ‘You have no idea… no idea…’ he started to ramble. ‘What they did to us in boot camp… you have no idea! They turned us into monsters! We were not men! Men don’t kill innocent civilians! Men don’t burn villages! MEN DON’T KILL BABIES!’

    Peggy-Lee’s hand shook as she gently caressed his damaged skin. The patient continued to ramble on and on and rock backwards and forwards. He baptised his guilt and shame of what he had done as Peggy-Lee listened to his words in silence.

    ‘I don’t know who I am anymore!’ he cried. ‘This is not who I am!’ He turned to her and gritted his teeth. ‘I am not me…’ he growled and pointed to himself. ‘I – am – not – me!’

    The young nurse patted him on the shoulder. She suddenly felt scared and had to get away so she gently shepherded him back to his room where he hit the mattress and fell asleep after being worn out from all his crying.

* * *

    It wasn’t until the sixth group session with Dr Pleasance that Peggy-Lee came to understand why Johnny had such feelings of guilt. He finally confessed to the others that he had been riding in a truck with some of his army comrades. Suddenly, they were under attack and he was the only one who survived the gunfire from the Viet Cong. He had trouble resolving his guilt because he thought if he had been the one in the driver’s seat, then he would have died a hero like his mates.

    ‘Your self-criticism is completely unsubstantiated,’ Dr Pleasance told him.

    Johnny shook his head and wiped away his tears. ‘No, you are wrong,’ he said and between sobs he continued on with his story. He explained he had not done everything in his power to protect his men, for he had not followed the orders of his senior officer who had commanded the group to withdraw. He knew his decision to continue on with the mission was reckless, and by doing so, he had put five lives in danger.

    Peggy-Lee nodded as she listened to his story. Her brother Danny also had a habit of not following orders and avoiding responsibility. She wondered if similar situations such as the circumstances Johnny faced, was what drove her elder brother to suicide.

* * *

    Peggy-Lee was finding Johnny’s bouts of depression and fits of rage extremely difficult to handle and wondered if she was in the right job. She wondered what he’d been like before he went off to war to serve his country. He’d probably been a handsome rogue and a lovable larrikin like Danny. Now, he was a messed up individual, one of many who had been used up and spat out by society. He was now a misplaced lost soul who could not find his place in an unwelcoming nation.

    ‘When you are on patrol and on the verge of shitting yourself,’ Johnny began one day in group therapy. ‘When you are crouched there in the jungle… waiting… they’re all the bloody same! Every single one of them! We didn’t know who was who!’

    Peggy-Lee kept noticing that Johnny kept slipping in and out of tenses. It was a though he didn’t know whether he was living in the past or the present. He kept making references to the tough and harsh training of boot camp and how you always had to look over your shoulder whilst on patrol.

    ‘Village after village!’ he kept muttering as he rocked back and forth on his chair. ‘Women and children! Women and children! Attacked! Burned! Killed!’

    Peggy-Lee turned and looked at Dr Pleasance who smiled back at her and nodded as if to say, ‘We are making terrific progress.’

    Two days later, however, Johnny committed suicide.

    It was Peggy-Lee who found him. He had somehow managed to attach his bed sheet to the ceiling, get up on a chair and end his short life.

    It reminded Peggy-Lee of her brother who after years of threatening to do it and attempting it was finally successful when he tied a rope around his neck and kicked a chair from under him.

    That night Peggy-Lee sat in her flat too tired to cry. He may have just been her patient but he could have been her brother. His mental torture was finally over.

    So, this was goodbye.

    She didn’t know what to do with herself so she grabbed pen and paper and started to scribble down words. She’d always received straight As for English and English Literature at school and would have liked to have studied it at university. But working class girls like her couldn’t afford expensive university degrees. It was either nursing or teaching and nursing was what she had been accepted into. Now, here she was writing a poem for a departed former soldier and patient:

I remember you as a young old man,

Who’d had the life sucked out of him.

A vacant stare with those grey-green eyes,

But you left me here with no room for tears.

Perhaps my feelings for you were a little too strong,

Your road to redemption and forgiveness was so long.

You suffered for your sanity,

But you left me here with no room for tears.

No dirt, no meals,

No love, no deals.

Your house is for sale,

You don’t open your mail.

You cut your hair,

You’ve forgotten where you’ve come from,

And how come?

Rip up the photos,

Smash the records!

Run away to another town,

Sell your soul and you left me standing here with no room for tears!

* * *

    A week later found her one of few people at his funeral up on a lonely hill. It was a graveside service and as the minister said, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” Peggy-Lee thought that no lives had been saved today.

    She had placed her poem in an envelope and placed it on his coffin, which was being lowered into the ground. She looked across at the other mourners and saw Dr Pleasance. Their eyes met. They couldn’t save him either.

    The wind started to howl and it began to rain. Peggy-Lee hugged herself from the cold and looked down at the ground.

    When it was all over she turned and walked back down the hill. Dr Pleasance joined her and they walked together in silence.

    Peggy-Lee’s thoughts were on the man who had to fight like all the rest. Though she wished him back she knew he could not see her trembling hands but at least her thoughts were on him and tonight she would light a candle in memory of him. She simply did not understand.

    At least he was a man.

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