“Get your hands off of me,” I said again through clenched teeth, carefully enunciating each word.
I was pinned against the wall in a narrow, dirty passageway near the kitchens in Scutari. I had been returning missed dishes from dinner on the ward, items the orderlies had not collected when they had come through.
The orderly was obese, his belly pressing into mine. “Aw, you don’t mean that, do you?” He leaned in closer, attempting to kiss me. His hands tried to lift my skirts. I ducked away and broke free, but he stood in my way. He had that stale, sour smell of fermentation about him, the smell that indicated he was not able or not motivated to clean adequately between the skin folds.
“I most certainly do mean it, Mr. Blige, I can assure you.” I glowered at him, hoping the display of anger would hold back the tears. Do not show weakness. “Now, let me pass or I shall scream loud enough to bring Ms. Nightingale herself running straight over.”
He did not appear to take me seriously. As he laughed, his belly shook. I shoved past him.
“What is wrong? I am not good enough for you? Where is your good doctor, anyway?” he called out after me. Go to hell, you bastard.
I made haste to the dormitory. Madge was already asleep. That was just as well. We never spoke anymore. I spent my days fighting off men and enduring spiteful glares and gossip from the women. The only relief I had was sleep.
Meanwhile on the wards patients were dying, dozens at a time. Not from their wounds. Instead it was a cholera outbreak. The halls were overrun with vomit and diarrhea, the stench was overpowering. The orderlies stopped feeding or cleaning the ones they felt would soon die, leaving them to lie in filthy pools of their own excrement. Wounded soldiers made a 13 day journey aboard tightly cramped ships from the battlefields to the hospital at Scutari. Cholera was starting there and spreading throughout the remainder of the hospital and staff was not immune. The death rate from cholera here was sixty percent. New faces quickly succumbed. Beds were crowded 1-2 feet apart, as there was simply not enough space to house all of the ill. In the morning I would have to find the bodies that had grown stiff in the night and have them removed.
I lay in the bed. Fatigue overwhelmed me but my thoughts could not leave me in peace.
Dr. Jenkins was gone but no one understood what that meant. Only I knew that a man like that does not change. He would have continued to make his conquests, his desires never sated. Now, while the desires may be there, the scar tissues would prevent him from acting on them. Arousal would be too painful. I did not know why he had left or where he had gone, nor did I care. I had no remorse for assisting him afterward. But I was not sure how much longer I could endure this. Fantasies about packing up and moving on began to arise.
Sleep found me.
The following day, I took the few minutes of my noon meal to instead walk along the wharf for some air. I did not get to come often, but the brisk sea breeze and the cries of the gulls helped to clear my mind.
As I was made my way along the sea wall, a dark skinned woman approached. She had stepped off a ship that was moored there, the Hollander. It had arrived earlier this morning with supplies. Deck hands were busy unloading pallets and barrels, their shouts punctuating my steps. I stopped and waited for her as she looked as if she were lost.
“Excuse me. I am looking for a hospital…Scutari. Is this it?” She gestured to the white stone building on the hilltop over my shoulder.
I stared at her. She must have been about fifty. Her accent was strange. Jamaican. But not. I could not see much of her dark, wavy hair because of the expensive stiff, dark brown bonnet tied beneath her chin. She was pleasantly round and had a reassuring, comforting countenance. Her dress was a brown silk made for traveling but exquisitely detailed, nonetheless. She liked nice things.
“Thank you.” She placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed as she moved past.
I watched her go, starting the ascent by following the road the casualties followed from their ships to their doom.
“Wait!” I called. “I will go with you.”
We all wore the same uniform at Scutari, the nurses. A frightful gray tweed dress called a wrapper with a matching jacket, a dark gray short wool cloak, and a plain white cap with a sash that had the word Scutari embroidered in red that was worn like a banner across the chest. While ugly, it showed we were were not part of the group of rowdy prostitutes that resided in the encampment below when we ventured out. I had been promoted to nurse recently, as I had shown aptitude on the wards and was willing to work hard.
I hiked up my skirts a bit so I would not trip, but not enough to be scandalous, and ran to catch up. Breathless, I asked “What is your name?” as I stretched out my hand.
She took it, “Mary. Mary Seacole.” I provided my name and we walked side by side in silence until we reached the hospital itself.
“I must speak with Ms. Nightingale. I have a letter of introduction to her from a Dr. Jenkins whom I met in Malta.”
Malta. So he did not kill himself? Damn. I had held out hope that even though I could not actually kill him, that he or God would do that for me.
I had assumed that she desired to join the staff here, but as I walked her to the tower, to Ms. Nightingales’ office, she told me of her intentions to open a British Hotel at Balaclava. It would provide food and lodging to sick and convalescing officers.
Balaclava was across the Black Sea, closer to the fighting. Away from here. My heart pounded and my palms sweated. Did I dare?
But I said nothing. Instead, I showed her the stairwell and pointed her toward the offices. Then I returned to my duties among the sick and dying.