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Drama Coming of Age Friendship

Nurse Hamden wheeled me down the wood-panelled hallway in a creaking wicker bath chair while I clutched my walking cane and a shoebox of personal effects. At the end of the passageway, she opened a door to reveal a room full of furniture shrouded in dust sheets and tea chests stacked three high. Straight ahead, a frail evening light peeked through French windows and cast the autumnal trees beyond into stark silhouette.

   “Well,” she said, standing before me. “What do we think, sir?”

   “Hmm,” I said, snorting behind my bandages. “It’s got potential.”

   “Let’s see what we can do,” she said, removing a dust sheet from a mirrored dressing table and lighting a galvanised-steel oil lamp. 

   The room’s not ideal, but it offered a modicum of tranquillity compared to the lofty refectory that housed the surviving guardsmen from my regiment. Their painful night-time groans and curses were enough to drive anyone spare, and I admit to banishing murderous thoughts as I’d struggled to sleep. We’re not the first wounded men to seek sanctuary here, and won’t be the last. Holker Hall has hosted hundreds of convalescing soldiers since Lord and Lady Cartmel vacated their home. I assume they agreed to shift all their furniture into my new quarters on the condition it was a safe storage area and they’d return after the war to find their possessions intact.

   “Now,” she said, taking my shoe box. “Let’s make it feel like home.”

   Nurse Hamden knew the routine. She arranged my crumpled pictures, letters and wristwatch on the dressing table and located the glass for my toothbrush. 

She then prodded the smouldering wood in the fireplace until it rekindled with a gentle roar, warming the room and adding a hint of smoke to the air. 

   The wrought iron bed opposite had seen better days, however she turned it down with reassuring precision; tightening the hospital corners and plumping its crisp linen pillows in ‘two shakes of a lamb’s tail.’ 

   “Here we go, Captain McDermott,” she said, bright as sixpence. “Your very own room with a view,”

   “Who could ask for more, nurse?”

   “Will there be anything else, sir?”

   “Well, yes.” I said, squinting my remaining eye. “A new face, if that’s not too much trouble.”

   She bit her lip and turned to leave.

   “That wasn’t called for,” I said.

   “Very good, sir,” she said, avoiding my gaze at the door. “My colleague will be with you first thing to remove your dressings.”

   “Thank you, nurse,” I said, glimpsing my reflection in the dressing table’s vanity mirror. 

   “Just ring the bell if there’s anything else.”

   “I’ll be fine,” I whispered, grimacing behind my blood-crusted bandages.

*  *  *

Despite the cheery flower beds, neat borders, and manicured shrubs outside, there was an eerie presence within my quiet room. As the light outside diminished, I felt the hairs on my spine prickle as my skin goose-bumped. I recall shivering and looked around as if I expected to see someone, but I was alone. I shook my head and nudged my wheelchair closer to the crackling embers. There was a presence nearby that I couldn’t define. I was sure I wasn’t alone.

   The kerosene lamp’s cavorting light sent shadows flitting around the walls and, in my exhausted mind, the white veiled shapes looked like a host of misshapen gargoyles. It was as if I’d stumbled on the brooding members of a disfigured family biding their time in limbo until destiny reunited them with loved ones or disclosed their ghastly fate.

   I wheeled myself over to the dressing table and reached for my watch. My clumsy bandaged fingers were all but useless for delicate manoeuvres and I had to prod the timepiece round with my clawed fist. Craning my neck to check its face, I saw a shimmering movement in the mirror’s reflection. I looked behind me but there was nothing there, except for the Cartmel’s covered possessions.

   Rat-a-tat-tat!

   “Captain McDermott?” A woman’s voice. “I’ve got your ampoule---”

   “Yes,” I said, shaking my head. “Please come in.”

The nurse prepared a syringe as I pulled up my sleeve. I knew I’d never get used to this. My veins had had enough of this junk.

   “Can I get you a glass of---?”

   “These itchy bandages are driving me round the twist, nurse.”

   “It’d be best if they remain until the morning, sir.”

   “Fine!” I snapped, turning towards the mirror. 

   “Will that be all, sir?”

   “Thank you.”

The young woman disappeared from view in the mirror and I heard the door click shut. I recall raising my shaking fists in the air. Tomorrow morning was a lifetime away, and I’d had enough. My men and I had suffered beyond comprehension and pushed ourselves to the limit. We’d followed orders and thrown ourselves at the enemy with every ounce of life in our tired bodies. I brought my bandaged claws down on the table’s wooden surface with a heavy - Thud!

  That hurt. It felt better, but it was painful. My fists were on fire, but I felt a lot better.

   I’d had enough of these bandages and hiding away from life. I wanted to know the truth now. It was going to hurt, but I wanted some honesty.

   I raised my swollen right hand and hooked the tip of one finger under my facial bandage. I yanked and pulled until it loosened up. Gripping it between two fingers, I stretched the fabric until it came adrift and extended my arm. It unravelled like a slack spring, and as I stretched my arm back and forth, it sagged down. I tugged it again and the whole wrapping fell to the ground.

   I couldn’t recognise my reflection in the silvered glass. My scarred face was engrained with ravines of dried blood. As the pain-killer kicked in, I stared into the mirror; absorbed in the details of my mutilated features. My pale flesh writhed like a bucket of snakes; a mass of scales sliding and slithering in sticky phlegm. My narrow eye glistened for a moment as a salty tear burned my eyelid, and its reflection flickered like a flashlight in a dark hinterland; a glimmer of hope in a dreadful space beyond all reason. It was a beacon glinting in uncharted territory, heralding an incoming barrage.

   Ka-Boom! Ka-Boom! Ka-Boom!

A deluge of cannon fire flashes behind me, pounding the earth with mighty incendiaries that blast the ground asunder. 

   Rat-a-tat-tat! 

   Machine gun fire

   Rat-a-tat-tat!

   The terrible music of distant warfare.

   Rat-a-tat-tat!

   We never stood a chance.

   All went silent when the order came to advance. Our side wasn’t stupid enough to shell us as we ventured into no-man's-land. That was the enemy’s job.

At the arranged hour, I recall blowing my shrill whistle – PEEEEP!! - I was the first to climbing up the wooden ladder. I raised my loaded pistol and lead my company of men over the top. 

   Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat!

   The enemy machine guns flashed and sparked like furious Catherine wheels as we approached them across the wasteland. I’ll never forget the screams of my brave men; all mowed down like fields of barley at harvest time. 

   And all the while….

   Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat!

   Faces I recognise assembled behind me in the mirror. Open-mouthed, but silent now. Their screaming faces disappear one by one into the transient void of my new quarters. Lost once more to memory. Young men destroyed. A generation decimated yet again. It’s my daily nightmare. It’ll never go away. Never leave me alone. 

   I reached down for my cane. My straining arm raised it aloft. 

   I bring it down on the mirror - CRACK!  

   The last of those faces disperse into tinkling fragments. 

God knows how I survived. Somehow, I made it, but not intact. 

There are bits of me that are lost in no-man's-land forever.

*  *  *

   Rat-a-tat-tat! 

I open my eye and shudder, looking around my room. I’ve woken up in my bath chair. The chilly dawn air nips my raw face.

   Rat-a-tat-tat!

There’s a hollow knock of bare knuckles on wood.

   “Captain!” It’s a woman’s voice. “Captain McDermott---”

   “Come in, nurse!” My voice was croaky and my head tingled as the blood coursed through my body. I’d survived another night.

   The door creaked open. A young woman I didn’t recognise entered the room. She was carrying a tray with fresh dressings and bandages.

   “Morning, sir,” she said, preparing her supplies.

   “I’m afraid,” I said, shying away from her, “I’m a bit of a mess.”

   “Let’s get you cleaned up, sir,” she said, smiling.

   I turn to see her bright and cheerful face. Her smile is open and honest.

   “I’ve got to say, nurse…” I hesitate. My dry eye feels like it’s covered in grit. “You have a beautiful smile, but---”

   “Thank you, Captain, it’s---”

   “I don’t know how you can bear to look at me.”

   My eyelid tightened and it stings as my withered tear duct released a salty droplet. I shudder for a moment as it tumbled down my cheek. 

My tangled mind screamed out loud inside my head. 

   “Remember to keep that smile,” I whispered.

   “You’re going to be fine, sir.” 



The End


November 25, 2023 01:21

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39 comments

Ken Cartisano
05:08 Jan 27, 2024

The opening paragraph is brilliant. Your descriptions in this story tend more toward horror, not 'coming of age.' (Thank god. I don't go in much for coming of age stories, being already well-aged.) But I complement you on your keen sense of imagery, as it is clear that this soldier is a veteran of WWI, despite the fact that you never actually say as much. The story is quite arresting, a lone survivor, haunted by ghosts, but I felt that the ending was a touch contradictory because of this line: My tangled mind screamed out loud inside my he...

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Bridget Rivera
13:36 Dec 06, 2023

I loved how many details you included in your story. You caught me on the first sentence. Really an inspiring story.

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Howard Halsall
18:39 Dec 06, 2023

Hello Bridget, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. Take care HH

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Bridget Rivera
13:25 Dec 21, 2023

Thank you, you too!

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Roger Scypion
07:46 Dec 04, 2023

Excellent writing with vivid descriptions. I enjoyed how you captured me into the very existence of the captain throughout the story.

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Howard Halsall
08:36 Dec 04, 2023

Hey Roger, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your positive comments; they’re much appreciated. Take care HH

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Andrea Corwin
23:47 Nov 30, 2023

Howard, I got the chills at the part beginning with the cheery flower beds. Wonderful this: a glimmer of hope in a dreadful space beyond all reason. and: There are bits of me that are lost in no-man's-land forever. It is a great story and I'm glad he got a nurse that was more kind and didn't shy away from his injuries. The portion looking in the mirror and seeing his comrades - graphically descriptive but simply said, really good! At the beginning I didn't understand his remark to the nurse: She bit her lip and turned to leave. “That wa...

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Howard Halsall
07:54 Dec 01, 2023

Hi Andrea, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your positive feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed and pleased it had such s profound effect. However, I’ve also caused a bit of confusion for which I apologise and hope it didn’t distract from your experience. Please allow me to explain… 1 - The Captain’s line you noted, “that wasn’t called for,” was a reprimand to himself. He realised that by making the ‘new face’ comment, he’d drawn undue attention to his disfigurement. This had in turn startled the nurse for which he made his brusque and ob...

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Andrea Corwin
04:24 Dec 03, 2023

Thanks much!! 👍

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Howard Halsall
05:19 Dec 03, 2023

No problem :)

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Carolyn McBride
23:30 Nov 30, 2023

I really enjoyed the aura you gave this story, and how you captured the anger and despair of the main character. Well done.

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Howard Halsall
07:29 Dec 01, 2023

Hey Carolyn, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughtful reaction; it’s much appreciated. Take care HH

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Rose Lind
03:22 Nov 30, 2023

I love how you wrote the first half pulled me in like I was there. You have an old Victorian style/feel about you. The rest story was the story, I really enjoyed the first part definite talent there. 🌷

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Howard Halsall
10:13 Nov 30, 2023

Hey Rose, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts, particularly regarding the ‘Victorian style.’ I find it interesting that you should pick up on that aspect because I try to modify my writing to suit a particular time or era. So consequently, a tale about WW1 should have a literary feel akin to that period or thereabouts. However, maybe I’m just overthinking the situation and naturally gravitate to that way of expressing my ideas, who knows? However, I appreciate your comments and hope you’ll enjoy reading future submission...

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Rose Lind
20:32 Nov 30, 2023

I write what I see- feel- etc. Hopefully I can give that experience I have had to others- you- in a constructive manner. A manner which builds you up and propels one forward to fine tuning ones ability for future writes. Yes, an editor. 🪆🌷

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Howard Halsall
20:54 Nov 30, 2023

Thank you Rose, I appreciate your powerful words. Onwards and upwards!!

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Rose Lind
20:58 Nov 30, 2023

Like I said I had this art teacher- she saw talent and nurtured it- I took a leaf from her page and I tell the story of her method to honour her.

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Howard Halsall
21:12 Nov 30, 2023

Strangely enough, I recall an art teacher who hated everything I did and berated me for not achieving her high standard, and my reaction was to prove her wrong, which I did and had a career in the arts for many happy years. In retrospect, I think she chose a risky policy that could have backfired and made me give up. I’m so glad I didn’t. Personally, I would encourage and enthuse a student or colleague, Tough love is too tough :)

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Karen Corr
13:02 Nov 29, 2023

Sad and beautiful, Howard. The setting is perfect and the main character’s anguish over the ravages of war are heartfelt.

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Howard Halsall
18:39 Nov 29, 2023

Hey Karen, Thank you for reading my little tale and sharing your thoughts. I had to dig deep for this one, so I’m pleased you enjoyed it and hope it lingers in your thoughts a while…. Take care HH

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Stevie Burges
04:32 Nov 27, 2023

I liked the 'categories' - in particular friendship! This poor scrap of a man needed his life refreshing after the horrors of the trenches. Friendship must have been so valuable. Thanks for writing.

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Howard Halsall
04:38 Nov 27, 2023

Hi Stevie, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your reaction. I’ve got to admit, the categories on offer are sometimes a bit misleading; it’s a shame we can’t add our own suggestions, wouldn’t you agree? Take care HH :)

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Mary Bendickson
18:21 Nov 26, 2023

Aftermath of battle. Thanks for liking my 'Led into Temptation'

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Howard Halsall
01:30 Nov 27, 2023

Hi Mary, Thank you for reading my story. I appreciate your succinct appraisal :) Take care HH

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Amanda Sessions
18:14 Nov 26, 2023

I think this perfectly captures the entire prompt this week because often, we don't like what is looking back at us in the mirror and facing our own physical reflection can involve facing our emotional selves, as well. Amazing job! <3

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Howard Halsall
02:58 Nov 27, 2023

Hey Amanda, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed it and pleased you recognised some glimmer of a universal truth. It’s interesting how our reflection ages, even if we retain our youthful minds and enthusiasm. However, I think the real wake up call occurs when one is presented with a recent photograph and the image captured is unrecognisable. I think it was Robbie Burns who said, “Oh, would some Power give us the gift. To see ourselves as others see us!.” Take care HH

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David McCahan
09:21 Nov 26, 2023

This is brilliant. Just honest and brutal. A reminder of our individual humanity and war’s disgusting toll on it over and over again. This passage made me pause for a long moment: I’ll never forget the screams of my brave men; all mowed down like fields of barley at harvest time. And all the while…. Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! Rat-a-tat-tat! A wonderfully written story. This one will stay with me for a long time.

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Howard Halsall
03:07 Nov 27, 2023

Hey David, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your positive feedback; it’s much appreciated. The biggest compliment I could hope for is for my idea to linger a while, so I’m glad you enjoyed and pleased it’ll stay with you…. Take care HH

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Helen A Smith
09:04 Nov 26, 2023

A fine story Howard. I particularly liked the paragraph beginning with “The kerosene’s cavorting lamp…” I like the way you used “rat-a-tat-tat” to depict shell shock and the “flesh writhing like a bucket of snakes.” He’s naturally fascinated, as well as repelled by the dreadful changes to his face as revealed in the mirror. Very powerful unveiling. I also felt the compassion and strength of the nurse. An important contrast to his suffering.

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Howard Halsall
03:20 Nov 27, 2023

Hi Helen, Thank you for reading my story and highlighting the areas that worked for you. It’s great to receive your praise, but I also welcome harsh criticism as I’m never happy with my writing and it’s useful to get opinions concerning improvements. However, I’m pleased you enjoyed the piece and picked up on the contrast between the characters, and their reactions to the situation. I was wondering if I’d overplayed the moment, but maybe it’s just fine…. Take care HH

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Helen A Smith
08:13 Nov 27, 2023

Hi Howard Everything worked well for me when I read it. I will look at it again soon and see if there’s anything that doesn’t. I don’t think the moment was overplayed because an experience like that is bound to be overwhelming. I suppose it’s possible the MC could have felt blank. Each individual is going to react differently. The depiction of shell shock for me was effectively done. I will bear in mind that you welcome harsh criticism, but I hope to be constructive. Everyone is different and some people get upset if one isn’t careful.

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Howard Halsall
03:14 Nov 28, 2023

Hi Helen, Thank you for your message and positive feedback. I use the word “harsh” advisedly; “constructive” is a much better idea :) HH

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Bob Long Jr
18:59 Nov 25, 2023

Thank you for that insight.. a taste of reality helps us to appreciate our luxury and yet, to feel for those without.

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Howard Halsall
23:29 Nov 25, 2023

Hey Bob, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad you enjoyed it and pleased it’s provided food for thought. Certainly, it’s important to have a reality check; one can take life for granted at times. Take care HH

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