By Ash Leonard
The stillness of the night air surrounds me, chilling me. I wrap my arms tightly around myself, but it doesn’t do much good. I’ve lost so much weight since the start of the war. We hardly get time to eat, and when there is time, I don’t really feel like eating much. Can’t get the sight of gore out of my mind or remove the metallic stench of blood and decay from my nostrils.
This voyage isn’t long, and I thank every star in the sky above me for it. We replenished our supplies in Sydney and got to touch solid ground again for a brief, glorious moment, before we started to head off again. Darling Harbour was abuzz with activity, so different from life on a hospital ship. We are kept busy, of course, and there’s always plenty of things to do, but it’s a dull monotony of washing and tending.
I should be using this time to sleep, but the restless movement of the Centaur is keeping me awake. You’d think I would be used to it by now, but tonight it won’t let me rest. Nausea is stirring in my gut, and I’m not sure if I’m uncharacteristically seasick, or just filled with a sense of longing. Longing to get back to the ramshackle house shaded by tall eucalyptus trees, where it’s perpetually dusty and a flock of raucous cockatoos screech from atop the tin roof every night at dusk. It’s simple, but to me it seems like heaven. It’s home.
We’re illuminated, so much so that I wonder if they can already see us from Queensland. We should reach our port at Cairns sometime in the morning, giving us time for a quick reprieve before we head off again. Back to New Guinea, I think. Round and round we go.
The green line that rings the boat’s hull makes brief flashes of appearance on the waves as they rise and fall beneath us. Some of the servicemen from the ship are walking about on the deck, not far from me, disturbing the stillness of the night as they mutter to each other, shoes tapping on the deck of the boat.
I should get some sleep. I’ll be expected back on duty soon, and I know I’ll regret not having more rest. I start the descent to my below deck quarters, trying to block out the occasional muffled groan or retch coming from where the wounded soldiers lay, paying the price for their country.
At first, I think I’ve dreamt it. I’m jostled upright as our small cabin fills with debris and screams. I can’t make out what anyone is saying. I shove my arms into my overcoat and scramble to my feet. The nurses around me, women I’ve trained with, nursed with and cried with, are pulling each other to their feet, eyes wide.
The ship is screaming too, as parts of it begin to fall away from the main structure, pulling us all down with it. Thick smoke chokes the below decks as we struggle from our quarters towards the main companionway, where we were previously instructed to assemble in case of an emergency. I had listened at the time to the orders we were given, but with minimal interest. I never anticipated we would have to follow through with them. We’re a hospital ship, full of the wounded. Painted with red crosses.
The stream of nurses merges into a crowd of men, following the instructions they’ve been given and moving towards the main companionway, covering their faces. My eyes are streaming from the acrid smoke, and I can’t see ahead of us. The companionway is too congested, and the ship is already shifting. Sinking.
I glance behind me, and see two of the nurses who were asleep in the same room as me only minutes before. Their faces are pale, eyes darting as they hesitate, their stillness contrasting with the chaos erupting around us. They both make the same decision and turn away from where the rest of us are rushing, trying to get to the main companionway, waiting for our next orders.
Will the ship hold that long?
I don’t wait to find out.
Turning away from the congestion, I follow the two nurses, pulling myself up a staircase that sits to the left of me as the ship gives another creak, the roar of the fire getting louder. There are screams in every direction, and as I make it to the deck, I see them. Flames, swallowing the end of the ship, dancing on the oil slicked ocean.
The red cross is still illuminated.
‘Jump!’ cries an officer near me, reaching for the two nurses who I’ve followed.
The three of them hurl themselves over the ship’s edge, just as I reach the rail. I don’t see them resurface.
My breath is caught in my chest, and I whimper, hoisting a bare foot onto the rail of the ship. I’ve stared death in the face for years in this war, fooling myself into thinking that I am immune to it. It stares me in the face now, beckoning me into rough seas, lit with flame.
I don’t have time to take a breath before I jump. I hit the ocean, kicking as hard as I can, wanting to resurface, debris cluttering my path in every direction.
I’m desperate to drag in a gasp of air.
The sea won’t let me go.