The Book of Last Letters by Kerry Barrett

Read an exclusive extract of The Book of Last Letters, the moving and compelling historical novel from Kerry Barrett, inspired by an incredible true story.

Bracing myself I pushed open the door to the outside and went out into the chilly evening air.

It was pitch-black, of course, but the darkness felt heavy with smoke. Every now and then the sky was lighting up with flashes as bombs exploded in the distance, and there was a red glow to the night air in front of me that I knew meant something, somewhere was burning. There were tall trees around the perimeter of the hospital grounds, and as the sky brightened with the explosions they appeared, silhouetted against the light, and then disappeared.

I shivered, wishing I’d thought to bring my coat out with me and wondering if I had enough time to run back to the staff cloakroom and grab it. But then there was a rumble from the road and I could see the faint outline of the bus-turned-ambulance coming. It pulled into the hospital grounds and stopped in front of the doors where I was standing. The driver, a woman about my own age with a streak of dust across her face and a tin helmet like mine, jumped down from the front of the bus. ‘Three casualties,’ she said. ‘Two men, one woman. Crush injuries.’

I nodded and next to me, two other nurses I knew by sight added their voices to mine. The bus doors opened and there was a flurry of activity as we got the patients out of the ambulance and into the hospital.

‘Will there be more?’ I asked the driver as I signed the sheets she gave me, and she signed mine, in a vain attempt to keep track of patients. She rubbed her nose with the palm of her hand and nodded.

‘Oh there will definitely be more. It’s a bad one. This lot are all from the same place – direct hit on a pub full of dock workers. They were all in the basement but it collapsed.’

And then she pulled herself up into the driver’s seat and started the engine. With the help of a porter, a lovely chap called Frank who we were all ever so fond of, I took my patient along to the ward and we got her settled. The poor woman was in a bad way. She had been crushed by a falling beam that had pinned her to the ground. One of her arms was broken and needed to be set and put in plaster. It was in a sling with a splint holding it firm, and I was glad that the ambulance team had managed to do that at least. Her other arm, though, was simply a terrible mess. It was covered in blood and hanging limply at her side. Clearly the emergency team hadn’t thought it was worth even trying to fix it.

‘She’s going to lose that arm,’ Phyllis said as she helped me take the patient’s vitals.

I nodded grimly. ‘Sooner rather than later too. Don’t want it infected.’

The woman’s eyes flickered open and I grimaced. I hoped she hadn’t heard us talking about her like that.

‘My kids,’ she croaked. ‘The kids.’

We were used to families being separated. ‘We’ll find them,’ I told her, frowning slightly because hadn’t the driver told me the casualties were all from a dockers’ drinking den, which didn’t seem like somewhere children would be. I looked at her notes. ‘Violet is it? Where were your children, Violet? Were they with you?’

She shook her head slowly. ‘They’re in Wales.’ She groaned in pain, trying to sit up. ‘They were evacuated.’

‘Stay still, Violet. The kids are safe – don’t worry.’

Violet gritted her teeth. ‘But they won’t know what’s happened or where I am.’

‘You can write to them when you’ve had your op, and you’re in the convalescent hospital,’ Phyllis said cheerfully. I kicked her, hard, on her ankle, looking meaningfully at poor Violet’s useless arms. ‘Ouch,’ Phyllis grumbled. Her eyes widened as she realised what she’d said. ‘Well, someone can write for you.’

‘I’ll do it,’ I said. ‘Do you know the address?’

‘Course I do.’

I felt in the pocket of my apron for a pencil and then got a fresh sheet of paper out of Violet’s notes. ‘Tell me.’

She reeled off the address, breathy and clearly in pain but determined to pass on the information.

‘What are your children’s names?’

‘Winifred, Ray and Jimmy.’

I scrawled that on the top of the page. ‘I’ll write to them as soon as I’m finished on the ward,’ I promised. I saw Violet relax a little bit.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

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