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IN THE DAYS that followed, the reversion to a strict shift system dispelled the sense of floating timelessness of those first twenty-four hours. She counted herself lucky to be on days, seven till eight with half hours for meals. When her alarm sounded at five forty-five, she drifted upward from a soft pit of exhaustion, and in the several seconds of no-man’s-land, between sleep and full consciousness, she became aware of some excitement in store, a treat, or a momentous change. Waking as a child on Christmas day was like this—the sleepy thrill, before remembering its source. With her eyes still closed against the summer-morning brightness in the room, she fumbled for the button on her clock and sank back into her pillow, and then it came back to her. The very oppos nike air max classic ite of Christmas in fact. The opposite of everything. The Germans were about to invade. Everybody said it was so, from the porters who were forming their own hospital Local Defence Volunteers unit, to Churchill himself who conjured an image of the country subjugated and starving with only the Royal Navy still at large. Briony knew it would be dreadful, that there would be hand-to-hand fighting in the streets and public hangings, a descent into slavery and the destruction of everything decent. But as she sat on the edge of her rumpled, still-warm bed, pulling on her stockings, she could not prevent or deny her horrible exhilaration. As everyone kept saying, the country stood alone now, and it was better that way.
Already, things looked different—the fleur-de-lys pattern on her wash bag, the chipped plaster frame of the mirror, her face in it as she brushed her hair, all looked brighter, in sharper focus. The doorknob in her hand as she turned it felt obtrusively cool and hard. When she stepped into the corridor and heard distant heavy air max footsteps in the stairwell, she thought of German jackboots, and her stomach lurched. Before breakfast she had a minute or two to herself along the walkway by the river. Even at this hour, under a clear sky, there was a ferocious sparkle in its tidal freshness as it slid past the hospital. Was it really possible that the Germans could own the Thames?
The clarity of everything she saw or touched or heard was certainly not promp nike air max 90 sale ted by the fresh beginnings and abundance of early summer; it was an inflamed awareness of an approaching conclusion, of events converging on an end point. These were the last days, she felt, and they would shine in the memory in a particular way. This brightness, this long spell of sunny days, was history’s last fling before another stretch of time began. The early morning duties, the sluice room, the taking round of tea, the changing of dressings, and the renewed contact with all the irreparable damage did not dim this heightened perception. It conditioned everything she did and was a constant background. And it gave an urgency to her plans. She felt she did not have much time. If she delayed, she thought, the Germans might arrive and she might never have another chance.
Fresh cases arrived each day, but no longer in a deluge. The system was takin nike air max 95 g hold, and there was a bed for everyone. The surgical cases were prepared for the basement operating theaters. Afterward, most patients were sent off to outlying hospitals to convalesce. The turnover among the dead was high, and for the probationers there was no drama now, only routine: the screens drawn round the padre’s bedside murmur, the sheet pulled up, the porters called, the bed stripped and remade. How quickly the dead faded into each other, so that Sergeant Mooney’s face became Private Lowell’s, and both exchanged their fatal wounds with those of other men whose names they could no longer recall.
Now France had fallen it was assumed that the bombing of London, the softening-up, must soon begin. No one was to stay in the city unnecessarily. The sandbagging on the ground-floor windows was reinforced, and civilian contractors were on the roofs checking the firmness of cheap nike air max the chimney stacks and the concreted skylights. There were various rehearsals for evacuating the wards, with much stern shouting and blowing of whistles. There were fire drills too, and assembly-point procedures, and fitting gas masks on incapable or unconscious patients. The nurses were reminded to put their own masks on first. They were no longer terrorized by Sister Drummond. Now they had been blooded, she did not speak to them like schoolgirls. Her tone when she gave instructions was cool, professionally neutral, and they were flattered. In this new environment it was relatively easy for Briony to arrange to swap her day off with Fiona who generously gave up her Saturday for a Monday.
Because of an administrative bungle, some soldiers were left to convalesce in the hospital. Once they had slept off their exhaustion, and got used to regular meals again and regained some weight, the mood was sour or surly, even among those cheap nike air max without permanent disabilities. They were infantrymen mostly. They lay on their beds smoking, silently staring at the ceiling, brooding over their recent memories. Or they gathered to talk in mutinous little groups. They were disgusted with themselves. A few of them told Briony they had never even fired a shot. But mostly they were angry with the “brass,” and with their own officers for abandoning them in the retreat, and with the French for collapsing without a fight. They were bitter about the newspaper celebrations of the miracle evacuation and the heroism of the little boats.
“A fucking shambles,” she heard them mutter. “Fucking RAF.”
Some men were even unfriendly, and uncooperative about their medicines, having managed to blur the distinction between the generals and the nurses. All mindless authority, as far as they were concerned. It took a visit from Sister Drummond to set them straight.
On Saturday morning Briony left the hospital at eight without eating breakfast and walked with the river on her right, upstream. As she nike air max 90 passed the gates of Lambeth Palace, three buses went by. All the destination boards were blank now. Confusion to the invader. It did not matter because she had already decided to walk. It was of no help that she had memorized a few street names. All the signs had been taken down or blacked out. Her vague idea was to go along the river a couple of miles and then head off to the left, which should be south. Most pl cheap nike air max trainers ans and maps of the city had been confiscated by order. Finally she had managed to borrow a crumbling bus route map dated 1926. It was torn along its folds, right along the line of the way she wanted to take. Opening it was to risk breaking it in pieces. And she was nervous of the kind of impression she would make. There were stories in the paper of German parachutists disguised as nurses and nuns, spreading out through the cities and infiltrating the population. They were to be identified by the maps they might sometimes consult and, on questioning, by their too-perfect English and their ignorance of common nursery rhymes. Once the idea was in her mind, she could not stop thinking about how suspicious she looked. She had thought her uniform would protect her as she crossed unknown territory. Instead, she looked like a spy.
As she walked against the flow of morning traffic, she ran through the nursery rhymes she remembered. There were very few she could have recited all the way through. Ahead of her, a milkman had got down from his cart to tighten the girth straps of his horse. He was murmuring to the animal as she came up. Briefly there came back to her, as she stood behind him and politely cleared her throat, a memory of old Hardman and his trap. Anyone who was, say, seventy now, would have been her age in 1888. Still the age of the horse, at least on the streets, and the old men hated to let it go.
When she asked him the way the milkman was friendly enough and gave a long indistinct account of the route. He was a large fellow with a tobacco-stained white beard. He suffered from an adenoidal problem that made his words bleed into each other nike air max through a humming sound in his nostrils. He waved her toward a road forking to the left, under a railway bridge. She thought it might be too soon to be leaving the river, but as she walked on, she sensed him watching her and thought it would be impolite to disregard his directions. Perhaps the left fork was a shortcut.
She was surprised by how clumsy and self-conscious she was, after all she had learned and seen. She felt inept, unnerved by being out on her own, and no longer part of her group. For months she had lived a closed life whose every hour was marked on a timetable. She knew her humble place in the ward. As she became more proficient in the work, so she became better at taking orders and following procedures and ceasing to think for herself. It was a long time since she had done anything on her own. Not since her week in Primrose Hill, typing out the novella, and nike air max what a foolish excitement that seemed now.
She was walking under the bridge as a train passed overhead. The thunderous, rhythmic rumble reached right into her bones. Steel gliding and thumping over steel, the great bolted sheets of it high above her in the gloom, an inexplicable door sunk into the brickwork, mighty cast-iron pipework clamped in rusting brackets and carrying no one knew what—such brutal invention belonged to a race of supermen. She herself mopped floors and tied bandages. Did she really have the strength for this journey?
When she stepped out from under the bridge, crossing a wedge of dusty morning sunlight, the train was making a harmless clicking suburban sound as it receded. What she needed, Briony told herself yet again, was backbone. She passed a tiny municipal park with a tennis court on which two men in flannels were hitting a ball back and forward, wa nike air max 1 rming up for a game with lazy confidence. There were two girls in khaki shorts on a bench nearby reading a letter. She thought of her letter, her sugarcoated rejection slip. She had been carrying it in her pocket during her shift and the second page had acquired a crablike stain of carbolic. She had come to see that, without intending to, it delivered a significant personal indictment. Might she come between them in some disastrous fashion? Yes, indeed. And having done so, might she obscure the fact by concocting a slight, barely clever fiction and satisfy her vanity by sending it off to a magazine? The interminable pages about light and stone and water, a narrative split between three different points of view, the hovering stillness of nothing much seeming to happen—none of this could conceal her cowardice. Did she really think she could hide behind some borrowed notions of modern writing, and drown her guilt in a stream—thre cheap nike air max e streams!—of consciousness? The evasions of her little novel were exactly those of her life. Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella—and was necessary to it. What was she to do now? It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.
She left the little park behind, and passed a small factory whose thrumming machinery made the pavement vibrate. There was no telling what was being made behind those high filthy windows, or why yellow and black smoke poured from a single slender aluminum stack. Opposite, set in a diagonal across a street corner, the wide-open double doors of a pub suggested a theater stage. Inside, where a boy with an attractive, pensive look was emptying ashtrays into a bucket, last night’s air still had a bluish look. Two men in leather aprons were unloading beer barrels down a ramp from the dray cart. She had never seen so many horses on the streets. The military must have requisitioned all the lorries. Someone was pushing open the cellar trapdoors from inside. nike air max sale They banged against the pavement, sending up the dust, and a man with a tonsure, whose legs were still below street level, paused and turned to watch her go by. He appeared to her like a giant chess piece. The draymen were watching her too, and one of them wolf-whistled. ③

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