Sunday 16 September 2018

Salisbury Plain, February 1946

by Laura Gray

Manhattan Sour

In the empty theatre, the moth-eaten velvet curtain jerked slowly upwards.  A lone man sat at a table on the brightly lit stage.  White coat over his olive army uniform, stethoscope round his neck. A clipboard and a small torch held upright completed the props.  His form was silhouetted and magnified against the backdrop, the stark light of the spots giving it an air of menace.
            In the wings what could have been a clutch of chorus girls pressed together, awaiting their entrance.  Ranging in age from sixteen to thirty, naked under identical bathrobes with ‘Property of US Army Tidworth’ stencilled on the back. 
          ‘Well, I suppose I am’, giggled Marjorie, just eighteen and looking nervous.  Eleanor stared straight ahead.
            Two Red Cross nurses were attempting to herd them into a queue, with limited success.  In exasperation, one of them barked:  ‘You want to be on that ship to New York next week, right?’  Nods from the women.  ‘ You want to see those Yanks who’ve been fool enough to marry you?  Emphatic nods, indignant glares.  ‘Well, you have to have a medical, and this is it.  Now, who’s first?’
            A brief silence, then Eleanor stepped forward.  Since this was a stage, she would use her extensive experience of Miss Holcombe’s PE class to play the part of a shy teenager stepping into the communal showers, faking bravado to get through the ordeal.  She strode up to the table, chin up, waiting until the doctor raised his head and met her eyes.  ‘Name, please’. 
             ‘Eleanor Mary Snyder’.
               A mark on the clipboard.  ‘Open your robe, please, and step your feet apart’. 
            Eleanor remained unflinching while the torch probed under her arms and shone between her legs.  ‘Thank you, that’s all’.  She forced her shaking knees to carry her into the wings on the other side of the stage, where clothes were piled in a row.  She retrieved her soft cotton dress, lovingly made by her sister.  Annie had used her own coupons to make sure Eleanor had  ‘something nice to travel in’. 
            That was the medical.  The rest of the women, watching Eleanor, turned to each other in disbelief.  ‘What’s he looking for?’ hissed Marjorie. 
                 ‘Sores’ said one woman.
                 ‘Crabs’ said another.  None the wiser, Marjorie took her turn.  As she stood straddling the worn floorboards, the doctor motioned to the Red Cross nurse.  A whispered conversation, and Marjorie, crying and protesting, was led away towards one of the cast dressing rooms.
            Silenced, the rest of the women strode the stage in turn, and then dressed with relief.  As the group left the theatre, a notice board proclaimed:
                        TIDWORTH THEATRE FILM NIGHT
                        THURSDAY 8PM
                        MAIN FEATURE: ‘FANNY BY GASLIGHT’
They stared.  Then one by one, they doubled over, faces running with tears of uncontrollable laughter.
            When they boarded the Queen Mary the following Thursday, Marjorie was nowhere to be seen.

About the author

Laura Gray enjoys attempting short stories and the occasional poem. Most of all, she is enjoying putting together a book based on  the experiences of a World War II GI Bride.


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