A World Between Us

Spain, 1936. Felix, a spirited young nurse, has travelled to Spain to help the cause of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. But she is also following Nat, a passionate young man who has joined the International Brigades fighting Franco. And George - familiar George from home - is not far behind, in pursuit of Felix ... As Spain fights for its freedom against tyranny, Felix battles a conflict of the heart. With the civil war raging around her, Felix must make choices that will change her life forever.

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5. 4

One last chance. Nat counted the chimes from St Mary’s and walked more briskly. He was earlier this time: he’d left the print shop a full hour before the whistle, without a word to his boss. What did it matter now? Whatever lecture Mr Williams might have waiting for him in the morning, Nat wouldn’t be there to hear it.

Outside the London Hospital he stationed himself under a lamp post, stuck his satchel between his feet, and shook out his copy of the Daily Worker. He settled down to watch and wait.

When a gaggle of nurses came down the steps about ten minutes later, he stiffened, and tried not to stare. They didn’t give him so much as a glance though. They were like a little flock of birds, he thought, as they swept by in formation, giggling and shrieking, capes swinging and white caps bobbing with the movements of their heads. They wore the same uniform as Felix, but she wasn’t among them.

Nat stared at the newspaper again, but he couldn’t read a line of it. Everything around him seemed magnified this evening. Every detail stood out. He couldn’t concentrate on words.

He was due at Victoria in two hours’ time. He’d put on his best suit for the journey, the one his father made for him for starting work. Klaider machen dem mentshen, his dad had muttered through the pins in his mouth as he knelt on the floor sorting out the trouser hem. Clothes make the man.

Three more probationers soon followed, more quietly. One looked over her shoulder, hesitating.

‘Come on,’ said her friend. ‘She said not to wait. We’ll keep her tea.’

Then they disappeared too.

He should have sent a note to the nurses’ home. He was a fool to have left it to chance like this. If there’d been a YCL dance last Saturday . . . something he could have invited her to . . . He should have been braver. She’d given her address, hadn’t she? That must mean something.

Tell no one, they’d instructed him. But he’d let the cat out of the bag already with her. It couldn’t do any more harm to say goodbye. He had to say goodbye to someone.

Nat straightened his jacket and wondered if there was another way out. Maybe she’d slipped out through a side door. He walked across to the next corner, peered down the side of the hospital without success, and turned quickly back to his first sentry post.

And there she was by the railings, looking neater and crisper than before. Her face more guarded. Concentrating, and hurrying. He didn’t move for a breath or two. He wanted to savour this. If she turned away, or was angry, or laughed at him, at least he’d still have this moment. Then he gathered his courage and stepped into her path.

‘What are you thinking about?’

Felix stopped so abruptly that she almost overbalanced. She seemed shocked at first, and a little angry – like a girl getting ready to shake off a stranger. But then she looked around quickly and said softly, ‘I thought you’d gone. Have you changed your mind?’ And instantly he caught the hope in her voice.

‘No. Tonight.’ He watched her face freeze over.
‘Oh.’
‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to. It’s all arranged.’
‘I know. I know.’ This time he thought perhaps she really
did. No good going through it all over again. That wasn’t how he wanted to spend these precious minutes. He touched her arm gently. ‘So, what were you thinking about just then?’

‘Do you really want to know?’

‘Of course I do,’ said Nat. He shifted slightly, so he could protect her from the jostle of passers-by. His shadow fell across her face.

‘Well, as it happens, I’d just left my notebook in Histology and I went back to get it and I noticed a poster in the lab and how pretty the muscle fibres looked in cross-section – sort of pale pink and green and seaweedy – and the blood cells were rather lovely too . . .’ An embarrassed smile twitched her lips, and she finished defiantly, looking right at him. ‘And I was actually thinking they’d make rather a nice print for a summer frock.’

He laughed. He knew it. She wasn’t half as serious as she looked. How he’d love to see her in something other than that old-fashioned uniform. He was right to come looking for her again.

‘I’ll be back from Spain soon, you know,’ he said firmly. ‘You’ll see.’

‘It’ll be over by Christmas?’ she said, stepping back, one hand gripping the railings behind her through her cloak. ‘Isn’t that what they always used to say?’

She kept surprising him with her worldliness. Such a slip of a thing, as his mother would say, but something about her was so sharp.

‘Course it won’t be Christmas, but it can’t be too long. How can it be? They say there are volunteers coming to help Spain from all over the world.’

Felix didn’t say anything. She just kept looking over his face in that searching way she had. Then she reached up with cool fingers and ran them gently across the fading bruise above his eyebrow, softly tracing the edges of the scab in the middle. Tentatively, Nat closed his hand over hers.

‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘Too cold? Or does it still hurt? I can’t see how well it’s healed in this light.’

Nat shook his head. He couldn’t speak so he pressed her lovely fingers to his lips, and breathed in the lingering smell of disinfectant as though it were nectar. The scent of her skin, under the Lysol, was just as he’d remembered it too, though he hardly knew what exactly it was he remembered so well. A smell of humanity. A sweetness. It made his chest swell with an incredible and overwhelming warmth. He felt even taller than usual, but perhaps that was because he had to bend his head so far to reach her upturned face. He couldn’t think how he dared but neither could he stop himself. His arms were round her now, and he could feel her softness under the stiff crackle of starched apron. She still clutched the railings behind, giving strength to both of them.

They stood like that for a few long seconds, Nat labouring for breath, fighting his panic about everything that lay ahead. He wanted to ask her. Did she mind? He couldn’t. He kissed her lips, as softly and as hard as he could.

And, almost immediately, Felix’s head whipped round, and she shrank away.

‘Nurse! Nurse Rose, is it?’ The voice was harsh and Scottish and it was practised in humiliation. ‘For shame! I thought better of you.’

Nat turned to confront a stout woman with a face like lard and the long dark dress and gleaming white cuffs of a hospital sister. Looking through him and his protests as if he were invisible, she addressed herself entirely to Felix.

‘In my office. Fifteen minutes.’

 

What have I done?
What else
could I do?
He can’t look down. Nat walks away from the ravine
with two questions repeating themselves in turn. No answers. His ears are still ringing, and his limbs feel leaden, as if gravity has increased its force. Numbly, he kicks at the tracks, scuffing up the compressed snow, spreading the stains further when he meant to cover them up. Alizarin crimson. Titanium white. He’s making everything worse, he thinks.

He doesn’t know it’s pointless. The flat grey sky above has begun to release a new fall of snow, and nature will soon have done this work for him. Another hour, and there will be little left to betray him. And he will be far away. But all Nat can see is the hatred in Felix’s face before she turned her back. The memory of her eyes grinds into him more piercingly than any shard or shrapnel could.

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