Precious Moments

posted in: History, Member Writing Features | 1

By Claudia Collins


Amiens—1918. The hot August air is still.


For once the guns are quiet. For once there is no smell of cordite. For once—no moaning, or screaming. There is an aura of calm, one could almost say peace, even if it is just for these few precious moments, thinks Sister Mathilda Oliphant as she swishes away the odd lazy fly in the summer afternoon heat. Sitting on a wrought-iron bench on the back porch of the decaying chateau which is serving as a hospital, she kicks off her shoes and wriggles the toes of her right foot and then her left. She is tired, so tired. She closes her eyes, just for a moment.

She awakes with a start to the sound of two giggling nurses and the lower voices of the young transport drivers. She leans back into the shadows so that her presence will not impinge upon the enjoyment of the girls, her two best nurses. They worked hard and deserved a little harmless fun.

There were rules against fraternisation but the two drivers brought the hospital supplies and occasionally went out of their way to find a few ‘luxury’ items. They were also responsible for transporting recovering patients to a safe port from where they could be evacuated home to England.  Mathilda is prepared to turn a blind eye. I mean, what harm can there be? Stewart Fairchild, known to all as Piggy, is Henrietta’s first cousin, after all.

‘Give me a hand, mate,’ says Wrong-way Collins and he and Piggy exaggerate the weight of the duffel bag as they heave it onto the wooden table in front of the nurses.

‘You girls would kill for what’s in here!’ Piggy laughs and fiddles with the drawstring to drag out the suspense.

‘Hurry up. We’re simply dying to see,’ Henrietta elbows her cousin.

‘The knot is too tight. I can’t get it undone!’ He winks at Wrong-way and Henrietta’s French counterpart, Lucienne Corbillon utters ‘Sacré bleu,’ amongst a stream of words the rest of them cannot understand.

‘Get on with it before these girls really do kill you!’

Wrong-way seizes the bag. The girls crane forward to see and squeal with excitement as he withdraws the first hat with a flourish.

‘This one is for you, Mademoiselle Lucienne.’

‘Ooh,’ she sighs as she takes the white organdie hat and gently touches the box-plaited picot ruffles encircling the crown and brim. ‘Merci.’ She flutters her long lashes coquettishly and both young men appear to melt.

‘Here’s yours, Brat.’ Piggy passes Henrietta the navy-blue spotted hat with its straight red feather held in place by a badge pinned to the hatband. She removes her nurses’ cap and puts on the hat.

‘Non. Like so,’ says Lucienne and tilts Henrietta’s hat to a more rakish angle.

‘And now the ‘piѐce de résistance’! This is for Ollie!’ The girls gasp at the outrageously broad-brimmed and slightly bent out of shape purple felt hat festooned with silk flowers.

‘Oh, Sister is going to love it! How did you boys know that her birthday is coming up?’

Piggy touches a finger to the side of his porcine nose and grins. Moved by the boys’ thoughtfulness, Mathilda’s eyes glisten with unshed tears. Unaware of her proximity, the young ones continue their conversation.

‘What’s the scuttlebutt, Piggy?’ asks Henrietta using her favourite naval term.

‘Well, the ‘Powers-That-Be’ know you’re short-handed ’cause of the Spanish flu. We’ve brought some new nurses and a doctor. The doctor has one of those x-ray machines. He told us it will let him see inside people’s bodies so that he can find bullets easier.’

‘That Doctor Monty’s a good-lookin’ rooster. Those nurses couldn’t take their eyes off him,’ Wrong-way adds.

‘It’s a good thing they’ve sent more nurses. Kathleen is marrying her soldier boy as soon as the priest arrives. They have to get married—it’s rather sad. She will be sent home, and him—back to the front. Who knows if she’ll ever see Declan again …’

The young men move off to the kitchen to deliver some cheeses and a few bottles of wine they had managed to procure and the nurses hurry back inside to complete their shift. Mathilda is left alone with her thoughts.

The fraternisation rules are set in place for a reason! Kathleen Connacht is not the first nurse to be sent home ‘expecting’, and she won’t be the last. At least she will return to Galway as Mrs Declan O’Mara and not in disgrace. I have no doubt that the young Irish couple love one another, but is their love strong enough to endure their separation? And Declan’s lucky four-leaf clover may well not be enough to ensure he survives the next battle.

And little Lucienne Corbillon—typical of the French. All softness and sensuality, but below the surface she is shrewd and practical. Not for her, a baby conceived out of wedlock! She is having a wonderful time flirting with those young men. I wonder what will happen to their friendship if she ever settles on one of them?

As for the Australian girl, Henrietta, she’s a bit of a mystery. Keeps to herself, mostly. This is the first time I’ve ever seen her really open up. It must be her cousin’s influence, and perhaps the Gallic charm of Lucienne. I hope the friendship between those girls continues to develop. They balance one another.

She wondered what led Henrietta to choose nursing as a career.

Some girls become nurses in the hope of catching a doctor for a husband. She is far too sensible for that sort of nonsense. It’s more likely that she’s running from a broken heart. Whatever the reason, it was the right choice. If ever anyone was born to be a nurse it is Henrietta, but I can’t help wondering what will happen if her walls do come down?

Matilda’s mind shifts sideways and she remembers her own decision to become a nurse. I had a glamourised view of nursing back then. I wanted to be the next Florence Nightingale, and like Henrietta, I found the study of the human body and its ailments fascinating.

And then came the Boer War …

I remember dancing with my young Australian—Captain Reynold Montgomery. We walked out of the ball and into the fragrant Cape Town gardens where we made love under the harvest moon. He swore he would come back and marry me, but he never came back. He was not killed in battle. No, it was typhoid that took him, at Bloemfontein. I had loved him, but now I can barely recall his face. A good-looking blond boy, his face has been superseded by the ghosts of so many other good-looking blond boys—in that war, and this one.

The rumble from the guns sounds like distant thunder. She bends to put on her shoes and rushes to the back door. As she leans forward to grasp the knob, the door flies open and she jumps out of the way as the first team of stretcher bearers rush past her toward the battlefield—Corporal Rex Peel, a stocky, gingery little man of about forty, and his side-kick Steady Eddie who is deaf and mute. French? No one is quite sure where he came from, he just turned up one day looking for a feed and attached himself to the corporal. Unlikely heroes, those two, but worth their weight in gold.

Closer now, the guns boom. A last cry and the birds are gone, and even the flies. A breeze has picked up bringing with it the stench of cordite. Sister Mathilda Oliphant slips through the hospital door. Once inside, she shrugs off her tiredness and hurries to tend those who are moaning with pain or screaming in agony.



Claudia Collins is a 6th generation Australian born in Geelong, Victoria, and educated at The Hermitage and Geelong Grammar. She spent her early years in Highton, before the family moved to a hobby farm in Ceres.

She bought a little cottage in Barwon Heads in 1980 where she raised her family of four children and several dogs and cats. She lived in Barwon Heads for 31 years before selling up and moving to Fyansford.

Claudia always wanted to be an actress or a writer and combined the two to become a singer/songwriter with two CDs of her original material and over 90 songs. In 2014 she wrote a song with the catch phrase ‘because I’ve already said all there is to say’ and she found that she had!

To deal with writer’s block she joined a creative writing group, WriteAbout (now defunct) and later Belmont Page and Geelong Writers thinking she would write poetry. Belmont Page offers Thought Prompter sentences to stimulate the creative juices and these inspired her to write short stories and memoir pieces rather than poetry.

Claudia thought she would write a book of individual short stories but after a while the Thought Prompters led her to write several collections of short stories with common characters so she decided to weave these short stories into chapters and write a novel. This grew into a trilogy. Woven Web,’the first book in the series, is almost finished and she hopes to have it published in 2024.

  1. Charlie

    i loved it
    thank you
    i want to know more about all these characters, especially the nurses – I was one for 15yrs

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