stars in battledress

‘I’ve never been what you might call quiet,’ says Elsa, tugging the bedclothes up around her neck. ‘That’s one thing you could never accuse me of. I suppose you’re either a talker or you’re not. You never have to worry about awkward silences with me. It’s just the way I’m built. Like being left-handed. Or having a head for heights…’

I’m waiting with Elsa for the ambulance to come. I’d been sent round for an initial assessment, ECG and bloods. But it was clear as soon as I walked in the bedroom that Elsa was acutely unwell. A closer examination led me to suspect she was suffering a serious internal bleed, so I called 999.

‘They’ll be here soon,’ I told her, putting the phone down. ‘Try not to worry. Meanwhile, I’ll get a few things together…’

*

It’s been a while, now. Three-quarters of an hour.

When I go next door to phone ambulance control for an update, I’m told that they’re doing their best, an ambulance will be dispatched just as soon as one is available – only, people are having heart attacks, strokes…. surely I can understand? I know it’s difficult, I tell him, but the fact remains, we need to get Elsa to hospital as soon as possible. She’s compensating reasonably well at the moment, but I don’t think that’ll last much longer. We’re doing our best, they say. Of course, I say. I appreciate your help.

When I hang up I carefully document the delay.

‘Not long now,’ I tell Elsa, going back into the bedroom.

Before what, I wonder. She looks so fragile, lying on the bed like this, the sockets of her eyes ghosting through the pallid stretch of her face.

‘I’m glad you’re here,’ she says. ‘I wouldn’t want to do this on my own.’

‘I’m glad I’m here, too,’ I tell her, sitting beside her to do another set of obs. ‘So – go on. You were telling me about Stars in Battledress…’

She’d always been mad on the stage, she says. Singing, dancing, doing sketches. And that was what they wanted. A friend of hers put her up to it. She said I was just the kind of girl they were looking for. It was such a shame what happened to her.

‘Why? What happened?’

‘It was a famous murder case. She was on a cruise ship coming back from a show in South Africa and she was murdered by one of the ship stewards. He tried to make out she’d agreed to have sex with him, but then died of a fit or something, and he panicked and shoved her body out of the porthole. They never did find her body. He was convicted, of course. I think he only escaped hanging because of some loophole or other. Died in prison, years later. Funny how these things work out. Poor Gay. She was such a kind girl, a lovely girl. But these things happen, I suppose. On a ship or anywhere else. You’ve just got to be careful and lucky and hope for the best.’

Elsa tells me about the shows she was in. About one in particular.

‘As well as performing, everyone had a job to do. Mine was to put together these wooden steps for the big dance number in the second half. I was just tightening up the screws when someone dropped a curtain pole straight on my head. Knocked me clean out! When I came to there was only a minute to go before I was on. I had no idea who I was or where I was, but the lights came up, they pointed me in the right direction, and I walked out into the light. Anyway, the words seemed to come from somewhere, so it worked out in the end.’

‘When that show was over I moved into the intelligence corps. I remember – we were all lined up in the corridor, six girls in front, about thirty men behind. You can imagine what that was like. I was the last girl to be called forward. When I heard my name I thought – right! I’ll show these men a thing or two! – so I marched as smartly as I could up to the desk, swinging my arms and hips. But you see, what I didn’t realise was there was this rug just in front of the desk, and the floor was highly polished. As soon as my feet touched the rug it flew out from under me and I slid the rest of the way on my aris, disappearing up to my shoulders in the footwell. The Major he stood up and peered over the edge of the desk.

‘Are you alright down there?’ he said.

‘Yes Sir!’ I said, and saluted, flat on my back, and everyone laughed. But it didn’t do me any harm, apart from a few bruises. They took me on.’

The flat door buzzes. I’m relieved to hear it’s the ambulance.

Two paramedics walk in.

‘Alright?’ says one I vaguely recognise. ‘Wait a minute… didn’t you use to work for us?’

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