Excerpt: Holding Their Place


More morphine.

Dr. Helen Connery dipped her pen in the inkwell and signed her name on the first of several requisition orders, then sighed as she stared at a stack of reports left to review and complete. She was tired, but the late evenings were quiet, and she could concentrate without interruption.

She worked at a small table in her room in the Abbaye du Montpatre, a 13th-century monastery in northern France the British army had recently commandeered for use as a hospital. Originally used for a monk’s cell, the room was small, with only one narrow window in the center of the exterior wall. Having lost track of the exact date, she adjusted the wick in the oil lamp and glanced at the calendar hanging from a rusty nail on the plastered wall: FridayApril 2, 1916. Britain had been at war with Germany for nearly two years, with no end in sight.

A soft knock at the door sounded, and Jinx, her Welsh terrier curled up on the bed, woke out of a deep sleep. The dog stared at the door, growling quietly.

“Come in,” Helen said.

“Would you like a cup of tea, Doctor?” came the familiar voice of Julia March.

“Heavens, would I ever.”

Dressed in the blue wool uniform of a Volunteer Aid Detachment ambulance driver, though with the rather unorthodox substitution of breeches and puttees, the leg wrappings used by infantrymen, instead of the regulation long skirt, Julia stepped through the doorway with a white enamelware cup in her hand. Jinx jumped to attention, her stubby tail a wagging blur.

Helen unhooked the wire-rimmed glasses from her ears and rubbed her temples where the metal pressed against her skin. “Thank you, Miss March. How kind of you,” Helen said as Julia set the cup in front of her.

Julia studied her with an empathic tenderness, an understanding sadness, and before Helen realized what she was doing, Julia had stepped behind her and picked up where Helen left off. Moving in small circles, she pressed her fingers against Helen’s temples, then slowly moved them behind her ears and down to her neck, careful not to pull her hair out of her neatly arranged chignon.

Helen stiffened but quickly relaxed under Julia March’s skillful fingers that almost drove her into a hypnotic sleep.

“Is that better?” Julia asked in a gentle tone after a few minutes, then came back around.

“Much better,” Helen said while rolling her head and stretching the muscles in her neck. “You might have missed your calling, Miss March. You have the hands of a healer.”

“I wasn’t always an ambulance driver, and I don’t expect to remain one.”


But before Helen could ask Julia what she hoped to do after the war, Julia interjected, “Anything else I can get for you, Doctor?”

“Do you have a chocolate biscuit on that tea trolley?”

“I do. Last one, in fact.” Julia stepped back out into the hall.

Helen appreciated that Julia March had always called her “doctor.” Assumed to be a nurse or an administrator, she was habitually called “matron” or “miss.” Although graded and compensated at the rank of captain, she was denied the Royal Army Medical Corps commission automatically granted to her male counterparts.

Julia returned with a chocolate-covered biscuit on a small plate for Helen and a plain one in hand.

“Thank you,” Helen said.

Julia gave a playful wink and turned toward the terrier standing at attention on the bed.

“Here you go, pup,” Julia said as she gave Jinx the plain biscuit and rubbed her head. The wiry black-and-tan terrier quickly consumed the treat and sniffed around for any crumbs left on the wool blanket.

Delivering late-night tea and biscuits was an orderly’s task, but Julia March, with her bright eyes, easy smile, and good nature, commanded respect without demanding it. Little things, like bringing tea and biscuits—and also massaging sore templesunasked for, it seemed—generated a considerable amount of good will among the staff.

“Would you like to sit and have a cup of tea with me?” Helen asked, but did not expect her to stay.

Julia stopped petting Jinx and turned to Helen, her hazel-green eyes shining. “You know, I’ve been delivering tea for nearly an hour but haven’t stopped to have one myself. Thank you.”

The intensity of Julia’s gaze caused a frisson of emotion that Helen didn’t fully understand, and she watched Julia with curiosity as she went to the trolley, poured herself a cup of tea, and then sat on the edge of the bed next to Jinx.

Julia gestured to the stack of papers in front of Helen. “It never ends, does it?”

“It certainly feels like a Sisyphean task,” Helen replied, and took a bite of the biscuit.

Julia looked at her blankly for a moment, apparently not understanding. “Oh, you mean Sisyphus, the fellow who rolled a boulder up a hill every day only to find it back at the bottom of the hill the next morning?”

“Yes. That’s the one.” Helen put a hand on top of the stack of papers. “This is both my hill and my boulder. So, tell me, Miss March, have you heard any interesting news from the motor pool?”

“If by news, you mean scuttlebutt,” Julia raised an eyebrow and gave her a sideways glance, “why yes, there is some. Rumor is we’ll be active again very soon. A new offensive is about to begin. The source of the rumor is a reliable one.”

“Very soon? I wonder what that means. A week? Two weeks?”

“More like days,” Julia said soberly.

Helen sighed. “One day ‘the next offensive’ will be the last one.”

“Yes. And let’s hope we’re on the winning side of the battle on that day.”

“Do you think we might not find ourselves on the side of victory?”

Julia shrugged. “I do my best to consider only a positive outcome.”

“That is a very good approach to life, Miss March.” Helen sipped her tea.

Julia shrugged again as if to say, what else can we do?“Well, for now we have work to do, Doctor. You have your boulder to roll, and I have my trolley to trundle.” Julia gave Jinx one last pat and stood. “Thank you for the tea,” she said with a mischievous grin.

You brought the tea, Miss March.”

 “Ah. So I did.” Julia laughed and repeated herself, obviously enjoying her joke. “So I did.”

“Good night, Miss March,” Helen said as Julia stepped through the door.

“Good night, Doctor Connery.”

Eating her biscuit, Helen listened to the trolley rattle as Julia pushed it down the hall. Surprisingly, the tension in her neck and shoulders had vanished, and Helen could not recall having been massaged quite like that before. Julia’s touch reverberated throughout her entire body, a strange but far from unpleasant feeling. Helen sat up straight, squared her shoulders, and returned to her requisition orders and inventory list.

 The rate at which they were using painkillers and antiseptics at the Casualty Clearing Station, the military term for a hospital like hers near the front, increasingly alarmed her. Soldiers, most of them no more than boys, were being delivered to them with injuries the likes of which she had never seen before joining the war effort—limbs torn off at the joints or shattered beyond recognition, shredded tissue that even the best surgeon could not properly mend. Thankfully they had not yet received men exposed to gas attacks. While working at the Endell Street military hospital in London, Helen had seen the results of contact with gas, and the soldiers, blistered and gasping like landed fish, had fought for air as their lungs and trachea mercilessly constricted. They could do little for them except ease their pain with morphine.

 Sometimes Helen wondered why she had come to witness such horrors that would live on in her mind long after the many critically wounded soldiers were dead. Two years ago, in the spring of 1914, she had recently passed her examinations to practice medicine and was working in her family’s small hospital. Although she was a fully licensed physician, she was, in truth, an increasingly frustrated surgeon unable to obtain a hospital post simply because of her gender.

Both Helen’s mother and father were physicians, and her mother, when she was a young woman, had encountered the same impasse Helen faced. Raised in an English household where the bookshelves sagged under the weight of the works of John Stuart Mill, the philosopher, economist, and member of Parliament who argued in favor of individual liberties and the rights of women, Helen believed in progress and social equality. She was dismayed to come of age and find herself in a situation no better than her mother’s had been decades previously.

 Her mother’s strategy had been to work around the system rather than within it, and after obtaining her medical license, she attended pharmacy school and became a licensed pharmacist. She married Helen’s father, and the two of them established a modest thirty-bed hospital that served working-class women and children in London. Their social standing increased along with the success of the hospital, and they lived well, raising a family with incomes bolstered by their inheritances.

In March of 1914, Helen had been on an extended visit in London attempting to make the social connections necessary in her quest for a hospital post. Shortly after she arrived, the newspapers exploded with stories about a woman named Mary Richardson who had entered the National Gallery and attacked the Rokeby Venus. Called a “hatchet fiend” by the press, she shattered the protective glass covering the famous painting by the great Spanish Baroque artist, Diego Velázquez, and struck the painting repeatedly, slashing the canvas seven times before she was stopped and arrested.

It was one of many acts the Women’s Social and Political Union orchestrated to draw attention to the fight for granting women the right to vote and social equality. The case holding the crown jewels in the London Tower had already been smashed, and the stone-throwing suffragettes had shattered countless windows. Every day new stories appeared about the militant women being arrested and re-arrested under the Cat and Mouse Act of 1913. In prison, they went on hunger strikes and endured tortuous conditions and forced feedings. Museums were closed, the government was feeling a financial pinch, and London felt on edge.

“You must always keep a cobblestone in your pocket,” Helen’s friend, Dorothie King, had urged her while they had tea one day. “You must always be at the ready.”

But Helen was not convinced that violence was the best method, and her discussion with friends like Dorothie sometimes became heated. Helen considered herself a suffragist, someone who wanted peaceful change, and not a militant suffragette who used violent actions to demand change.

Helen had tried to explain her reasoning. “I am a doctor. I cannot condone violence. Besides, I fear militant action will not work in the long run. If it goes too far, the backlash will damage the movement and it will all be for naught.”

As she recalled, Dorothie shook her head in response and looked disappointed.

Even Helen’s own mother had begun to side with the suffragettes when she reminded Helen that forty years of gentle persuasion had yet to yield fruit. She understood the frustration personally. The men in power were using the same twisted logic to keep women disenfranchised and to deny a hospital position to a well-trained, licensed surgeon.

Ironically, it was not the suffragettes’ violent acts that forced the changes in society that gave Helen new opportunities to practice medicine. The atrocity of war achieved what the women couldn’t. By the end of the summer of 1914, on the fourth of August, England declared war against Germany, and on that day the suffragettes ceased their attacks on the government, threw their support behind the war effort, and found ways to work from within. Women offered their services to the country, and though the Home Office initially rejected them, the government eventually had no choice but to grudgingly accept the fact that England could not win the war without them.

Helen eagerly joined the Women’s Hospital Corps, an organization founded by two suffragette doctors in London, and in a rather curious, circuitous fashion, she arrived at the abbey hospital near the front line in northern France in time to ring in the new year, even though she did not anticipate a good one.

Helen’s thoughts wandered to Julia March. What had compelled her to serve as a frontline ambulance driver, a notoriously dangerous job. Was Miss March also a suffragist? The breeches she was known for wearing might indicate that she was a militant suffragette, but…suffragist? suffragette? Those designations didn’t really matter much anymore. Such women now all channeled their energy toward purposeful service during this time of war, hoping they would change hearts and minds and, eventually, laws.

Helen recalled the exquisite feeling of being touched, of Julia’s fingers working in slow circles that somehow both relaxed and awakened her senses. She took a deep breath and returned to the matter at hand, then examined the nib of her pen. While she was lost in thought the ink had dried. She wiped it with a wet scrap of paper and dipped it into the inkwell. She wrote the date after her signature and then perused the inventory list once more.

Want to read more? 
Download this novella from Bold Strokes Books or Amazon.