Dedicated to the soldiers who came her way during 1914-18 in the strip of land immediately behind the zone of fire, Borden’s collection of shorts took me from my armchair, seat on the train, bench by the river – or wherever else I may have been sat reading, right into the heart of the conflict.
The Hesperus edition captions the work as being “a nurse’s impressions”, and it is true that many of the sketches and stories centre on nursing. ‘In the Operating Room’ for example captures the intensity and chaos of a bust operating room at the frontline through the form of a play. The constantly overlapping questions and prognoses fill the pages with confusion and you have to scold yourself to remember that what is being discussed is men’s futures as it is all too easy to be caught up in the moment and instead believe the medical staff are cataloguing stock at for a car boot sale. For example, the 2nd Surgeon says “Take that leg away, will you? There’s no room to move here,” and the 3rd surgeon adds to the nurse’s load by saying “take this dead man away, and bring the next abdomen.” (89.) On her return the nurse then rattles off a list, and, given no context, the reader is encouraged to be caught in the moment and read them as presented, as a list of body parts, and forget that in reality the nurse is listing just the latest intake of wounded men: “Three knees have come in, two more abdomens, five heads […]” (89). By abstractly listing the objects, Borden shows the detached (excuse the pun) cold nature which becomes necessary for the wartime medics to cope. In ‘Moonlight’ Borden describes how a good nurse must be in order to cope with the situation:
She is no longer a woman. She is dead already, just as I am – really dead, past resurrection […] Her ears are deaf; she deafened them. She couldn’t bear to hear Life crying and mewing […] Blind, deaf, dead – she is strong, efficient, fit to consort with gods and demons – a machine inhabited by the ghost of a woman – soulless, past redeeming (43).
Alongside the callous depiction of war’s removal of compassion, however, Borden also pulls at the heartstrings with more focussed, personal stories. ‘Rosa’ is such an example. Within this story the narrating nurse is confronted with the emotional scenario of a soldier who failed in his attempted suicide. The story unfolds with the chief medical officer stating that he will nurse the soldier back to health so that he can “be court-martialled and shot” (66). The nurse describes with anguish the moment that the soldier is brought back to consciousness, showing his fight against the doctor’s work:
Life, roused by the menace of the suffocating gas, sprang up in him again – gigantic, furious, suffering, a baited bull. It began plunging in him, straining, leaping to get out of his carcass and attack its enemies. A leather thong snapped, a fist shot out, knocking over bottles and basins. There was a crash, a tinkle of broken glass, a scramble of feet, and suddenly through the confusion I heard a thin soft anguished voice cry as if from a great distance (66).
The man continues his struggle with life, and proceeds with three further attempts at taking his own life. Each time removing the bandage on his head, the only thing that is keeping him alive. The narrator cannot stand to see the man’s continued suffering just for him to be court martialled and shot by his army and she speaks to the nurse who will be on duty that night, telling her not to reapply the bandage when she removes it. The narrator writs that “she looked at me a minute hesitating. She was highly trained. Her traditions, her professional conscience, the honour of her calling loomed for a moment before her, then her eyes lighted. ‘All right,’ she said.” (69.) Contrasting to ‘In The Operating Room’ and Borden’s description of nurses disposition in ‘Moonlight’, the nurses in ‘Rosa’ team together and show compassion to allow a man to choose his own end, defying not just their orders but their training and duty.
Borden also pens other experiences of wartime life with similar mastery, and the post ‘Beyond Nursing’ explores this alongside Brittain’s Testament of Youth. For anyone who wishes for a collection of shorts that transport you into the war, The Forbidden Zone is a safe bet. However, despite being only just over 100 pages, it is not a short read, as you will wish to reread, reread and reread again. 9/10