For once, the country seemed to be quiet. No planes overhead, no ground-based shelling, no distant explosions. Up on the roof, Adrian dug inside the blue hospital gown, and withdrew a crushed packet of cigarettes. It had been given to him by a grateful villager, who had carried their child over ten kilometres to the hospital. Adrian had managed to save the poor boy's life at the cost of one of his legs. The villager - a father, uncle, grandfather, friend, had nothing to give to thank him except these cigarettes. Adrian had waved his open hands, indicating that he didn't want anything, but the translator had told him that to refuse a gift could cause offence.
Adrian hadn't smoked since he'd been fourteen at grammar school, where all the cool kids used to trudge across the rugby field to what was somewhat optimistically called the "biology pond". The stagnant pool of water had tall trees and shrubs growing all around it, and it had provided excellent cover for the smoking gang. They could see the approach of any teachers from a good hundred metres away, giving them plenty of time to get rid of the evidence, and waft their arms around to dispel any smoke there might have been in the area.
Of course, all of the teachers knew. He and his friends thought they were being so clever, but years on, long after he'd given up the habit, he realised that the smell of smoke hung around a smoker like an invisible cloud.
And now, this packet, this token of thanks, had brought those memories flooding back, and he wondered if, back then, he'd been able to see into the future, would he have chosen medicine as a career?
Probably. With both parents working a two-handed GPs practice, it was practically pre-ordained that he would work hard, study medicine, and work for the National Health Service.
As he slid one of the creased white sticks from the packet, and slipped it into his mouth, he thought again of Stephen, waiting for him to finish this last tour of duty. Médicins sans Frontières didn't normally take people for a fourth tour. They figured three was enough for all concerned. The lack of paediatric care in the area, and the growing numbers of children suffering both crush and munitions-based injuries, meant they had stretched the rules in his case. A final tour, and he'd leave it to others to fill the void. He'd promised Stephen, and this was a promise he wanted to keep.
A lighter came from the same pocket, 'rescued' from one of the bodies and given to him by an orderly, and he flicked the top. As he drew in the smoke from the harsh imported cigarette, his thoughts once more turned to home, and wondered what his sister Abi was doing. She'd had a tough time, turning her back on medicine to pursue a career in the army. Her qualifications and background ensured she had joined as an officer trainee, and despite the tears and protestations from their parents, she threw herself into the job.
Two tours of Afghanistan before the roadside IED had changed her life, killing several of her comrades, and inflicting substantial damage to her legs, provoking a rapid return to the UK and a discharge with pension. She was luckier than most of the others in her platoon, and after a brief spell in hospital and convalescence, a friend had persuaded her to give journalism a try. She'd shown somewhat of an aptitude for it at school, and had been heading for a career in the newspapers until the sudden decision to join the forces.
And she was doing well - 'Story editor' now, although he wished that she could find herself a decent newspaper to work on - one that spent less time finding gossip about celebrities and more time dealing with the real news. But, he thought, everyone needed to make a living.
Gradually, slowly infiltrating into his daydreams, he became aware of a vehicle approaching. He sat up from his position on the roof, and looked towards where the sound was coming from. A beaten-up Toyota pickup, the utility vehicle of choice for this area, and this region of the world, was approaching, swerving to avoid lumps of concrete and potholes in the road.
He dropped the cigarette, and crushed it into oblivion with his shoe. "No peace for the wicked," he muttered.
There was something worse about dealing with young girls. They had the wide-eyed innocence, the inherent beauty, that scared look that implored: Don't let me die.
He didn't know her name. It was better that way, and he made an effort to make sure that, even when he was told, he would forget it soon after. No emotional attachment. The tiny, delicate body in front of him was a human organism, a fantastic machine that had been damaged, and it was he who had been chosen to put it back together again. One leg was twisted in a grotesque parody of a puppet, the end of a broken bone showing through the skin, but her eyes were human, staring up at him, holding back the secrets of a cruel and unfair life. The leg would need to wait, even though she must have been in tremendous, almost insufferable pain.
He began his work.
After an hour, he had used the last of the anaesthetic that they had, opened up her chest cavity, and repaired the damage that had been inflicted inside. It was a mess, but by carefully working through the vital organs - heart, lungs, liver, kidneys - he managed to keep her living and breathing.
Which was when he heard the shouts from outside. At first, Adrian thought it was some disturbance, maybe some traitors had been found, and they were being tortured and killed in the street. It wouldn't be the first time. But then, he heard the sounds of jets, screaming in low over the city, shortly followed by the loud thumps and the ground shaking beneath his feet.
"Doctor, we must go to the shelter." All around, people were picking up valuables, and heading towards the back of the building, where some enterprising person had cleared a path to a basement, which led to another basement under the remains of a block of flats. It was as secure as it could have been.
"You go," he said, looking at the child in front of him. "I just have a few minutes to finish here. I'll join you and bring her in a few moments."
The thumping and crashing got worse, and louder, and the vibrations from the ground increased, like an earthquake. Wide eyes pleaded with him to go with them, but then shouts prompted everyone to run towards the shelter, and within a few seconds, he was alone with the girl, still sedated.
"Okay. Let's just hope they see the cross on the roof, and leave us alone. If we can hear the jets, they can see the cross."
As he began to finish the work, he considered looking at the leg, where the blood loss had been stopped by one of the nurses. But he considered that the safety of the two of them was more important. He picked her up, and listened. The shaking was reduced, he couldn't hear any planes, and he could hear people starting to return from the basement shelter.
As faces reappeared, he put the child back on the operating table. He now had time to do something about the leg. And from above, there came a quiet whistle, becoming louder, as if a kettle was boiling.
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DeceitMystery / Thriller
Abi Gillespie's life is turned upside-down when a bomb destroys a clearly-marked hospital in Syria, killing her brother Adrian and the young patient he was working on. As she is dealing with her grief, a stranger brings evidence that all might not b...