An excerpt from

This Queer Angel

Elaine Chambers

A fair-sized bedroom, situated on the first floor of the Officers’ Mess at the British Military Hospital (BMH), Hannover. The whole building is solid, well-built and typically army in its outward appearance. Standard issue, uniformly hideous soft furnishings, magnolia paint on every wall, identically styled wardrobes, chairs, beds and dressing tables - made of wood, functional, built to last. In the corner a large porcelain sink with the original taps, probably dating back to immediately after the Second World War, when the Luftwaffe incumbents were supplanted by British Military Hospital personnel.

The young Lance Corporal is glancing out of the only window, she seems to be deeply embarrassed and cannot return my gaze. When she notices me observing her, we both redden slightly and avert our eyes; I sense a mutual understanding, a recognition.

I look down at my hands, devoid of any adornment as I'm still in uniform - no varnish, wrist watch or jewellery allowed. Nails neatly clipped almost down to the quick, my skin dry from the constant washing and use of paper towels, my cuticles ragged and untended. I find myself idly wondering if I’ll get arthritis in old age as my knuckles are already quite big, and - a smile plays at the corner of my mouth as I recall Kay's lewd remark about my fingers.

My reverie is interrupted by a gruff cough as the Regimental Sergeant Major clears his throat - he starts reading from a printed form, explaining to me that this is the ‘Notice to suspect’. Once again my train of thought careers wildly down another track - 'Suspect? Bloody hell!' My crazed imagination conjures another image - I'm a latter day Atticus Finch, mounting an impassioned plea to a jury of my peers, my eloquent defence causing deeply ingrained, long held prejudices to crumble…

‘We’ll start now, Ma’am’. I look up at him from my subjugated position, sitting on a chair by the dressing table. Although my rank is superior, I am obliged to cede to the authority of the military police; his being a Red Cap instantly makes my Queen’s commission worthless. ‘Yes, of course’ - I feel like Alice, getting smaller and smaller, my voice not seeming to belong to me. ‘Are you happy for Matron to stay as witness, or would you like someone else?’ What a ridiculous question! My heart is pounding like crazy, racing as if about to burst - I don't want anyone to witness what’s happening, let alone that snotty bitch of a Colonel, whose whole demeanour is that of someone who clearly believes me to be the devil incarnate. She can’t even bring herself to look at me; her stern, humourless face, always tight-lipped, is now deeply pained. I know she has already made up her mind as to my evident guilt.

The Lance Corporal is now trying to put on a pair of latex gloves. It may be the stultifying tension or the heat - the window is shut on this hot summer’s evening - but she is clearly struggling. I'm instantly taken back to my earliest days as a ‘baby’ student nurse, convinced there was no way I could ever qualify - three years of training when even the simplest of tasks seemed so impossible. Trying to feel a radial pulse through the thick wrist of some overweight TA squaddie, admitted whilst on exercise - playing at Rambo, yet suspected of having had a minor heart attack whilst trying to run for cover - or constipated because he can’t digest the Compo food rations; reading the seemingly invisible line of mercury in the glass thermometer; trying to measure someone’s blood pressure by holding a stethoscope against the crook of the elbow and manipulating the sphygmomanometer at the same time… even hearing the subtle ‘lub dub' sounds of blood pushing against vessels, let alone interpreting their meaning.

A sharp snap, the cuff of the glove twanging against her wrist, two of its fingers flailing loosely - they’d brought a box of ‘large’ to suit the RSM’s needs. But he was busy, having found the two carrier bags I’d frantically filled with letters, books and cards earlier that afternoon. He was speed reading his way through my life, searching for the words that would help strengthen the case against me.

I sat there, outwardly silent, calm and orderly - knees pressed tightly together, ankles crossed, my dress smooth over my lap, beautifully pressed, medal and shoes gleaming - a perfect example of military training, ready for anything. Inside I was laughing hysterically at the madness of it all.

As they continued their very methodical search of my room, I began to weigh up my options, such as they were. Ultimately, as I knew there was no escape, I tried to buy myself a little thinking time. I decided not to let them know that all the ‘evidence’ they needed was right there on my single bed - nicely bagged up for them by yours truly. No, I sat very still and quiet throughout the three hours they took to ransack my life, though I felt as if I was having a minor emotional breakdown. My thoughts were chaotic and rambling as they looked at every single one of the thousands of photographs I owned; pulled each of the hundreds of LPs and singles from their covers; rooted through all the drawers, both wardrobes and the cupboards, even emptying my laundry bin – talk about airing one’s dirty linen in public! They flicked through the pages of dozens of paperbacks; pulled letters and cards from envelopes; opened the box containing many years’ worth of diaries going back to my teens, long before I’d even thought of joining up. Every now and then, the RSM would emit a little ‘Hmm’ as he read something that hit an investigative chord.

To this day I will never know how I refrained from laughing out loud when he held up three unlabelled VHS tapes and asked, ‘Can you tell me what’s on these, Ma’am?’ My slightly raised eyebrow, à la Roger Moore, gave him no clue, but I so wanted to assume a breathy, pseudo sexy tone and say ‘Lesbian biker nuns on acid’. Instead I heard a slightly bewildered and amused tone: ‘I think it’s a James Dean film and Victoria Wood As Seen On TV - do you want me to play them for you?’ ‘That won’t be necessary’ was the reply, but his facial expression was utterly readable, his disappointment tangible - I was clearly telling the truth, so he wouldn't find some salacious, perverted filth to bag up with the rest of the gathered ‘evidence’ of my depravity.