Authors: Jane Yeadon
The hospital was set in grounds where there were fir trees, crouching shrubbery and a summerhouse. There was a thing like a smart henhouse jutting out at one side of a low-slung building whilst a modern square extension had been built on at the other end. With its small rather mean looking windows, air of watchful quiet and empty car park, the Ian Charles didn’t exactly shout Emergency Ward Ten.
I was nervous. I’d never left home before but with no other option, I took a firm grip of my suitcase and rang the bell.
Outside it might have looked like a hermit’s retreat but inside it was different. With its blue lino making a glittering river along a corridor the length of the hospital and paintwork a brilliant white, it felt warm, welcoming and definitely clean.
Having answered the door, Matron, by way of introduction, gestured to the mixture of polish and graft which had made every conceivable surface glitter.
‘Hello, Jane, we’re just hoping you can keep up these standards. Cleanliness in hospital is crucial and the first line of defence in medicine. So you see how important you’re going to be.’ She spoke in a rain washed voice, so soft and attractive it made you listen. I thought Mr Shanks could have learnt a thing or two from her about voice projection.
‘Well now, our last ward maid had to leave to look after ill parents and we’re anxious to replace her as soon as we can. So it’s good you’ve been able to come at such short notice.’ Behind the gold-rimmed spectacles, her eyes looked kind even if she seemed distracted. ‘We’re pretty busy just now so the quicker we get you going, the sooner you’ll learn the ropes. Ah! Here’s Sister Gordon.’
A figure bustled towards us. She was in a lighter blue than the navy so royally encasing Matron; and instead of the frilly confection cap, she had a nun-like veil, the similarity ending with lips red cupid painted, impossibly black hair and a waist-crunching waspie belt.
‘Sister Gordon, this is Jane our new ward maid,’ Matron gave a gentle shove. ‘She’s going to start tomorrow.’
‘Is she now?’ Sister Gordon had a sharp nose, which she twitched as if scenting trouble. She looked me up and down, then doubtful, ‘Let’s hope she’s a good worker, because our standards are very high, aren’t they, Matron?’ She sounded as if she’d been force fed lemons. ‘Well, I suppose she’d better come with me and I’ll show her round the place. I know you’re needing all your time to get yourself ready.’
Matron chuckled like a young girl, ‘That’s right. Very soon, I’m having a six-week sabbatical and going to Canada, leaving our Sister Gordon in charge and nobody could be more capable I know.’
Our Sister’s chest visibly expanded. ‘Well, I’ll be looking to keep up her very high standards. We don’t want her coming back to bedlam.’ She narrowed her eyes, ‘Like Matron I only expect the very best. Now come along and we’ll let her get on with more important things. Quickly now!’
Recognising my place and frightened into silence, I padded a few paces behind her, worried that linoleum so highly polished could constitute a hazard – but now, even if as Matron said I was an important member of staff, might not be the time to say so.
Still, despite the perils of shiny floors, it must be a good thing to have all the patients on one level, even if they were at each end of a corridor which seemed to stretch forever. There were other rooms off it too but Sister Gordon seemed oblivious to the low whimpering sounds coming from one and surged past until at last she ran out of corridor and turned sharp left.
‘This is the female ward.’ She barged through a set of double doors as if they didn’t exist.
Here it was less immaculate with the smell of baby powder competing with that of rubber and ammonia. Heavy-duty grey metal lockers on spindly legs flanked iron beds with blindingly white bedding tethering in the occupants. Whilst windows on one side gave out onto the hospital car park, the others offered a glimpse of the summerhouse full of stacked chairs. Beginning to get my bearings, I realised that through the door at the end must be the hen house.
Ignoring the patients and ten sets of eyes swivelling in her direction, Sister Gordon pointed, ‘Through there’s the sluice. You’ll be responsible for keeping it spotless.’
I wanted to stop and speak to the subdued presences lying so quietly in their beds, but already we were retracing our footsteps.
‘Male ward,’ a pointy finger marked a ward opposite, ‘same layout as the female – sluice likewise – but of course the boys,’ she sounded almost fond, ‘will smoke their pipes, so you’ll have their sputum mugs, spit boxes to you, to empty as well.’
Between the male and female wards there was a two-bed unit with bigger windows and better views. The sound of friendly chat coming from it faded as we headed back along the corridor, whilst Sister Gordon said, ‘They use commodes in there but if the patients are back in bed you’ll have to get them bedpans from either of the sluices.’
Understanding we were on a toilet tour and that any interaction with the patients was going to be bottom-up, I postponed the idea of having a wee chat with the bed occupants and searched for something intelligent to ask, ‘And the cleaning material?’
‘In the sluices of course,’ was the reply. ‘Where else?’
The single rooms at the other end had adjacent toilets and bathrooms. ‘They’re for the fitter, difficult and sometimes private patients,’ Sister Gordon explained. ‘You’ll not have much to do with them,’ she gave a mirthless laugh, ‘you’ll be too busy cleaning around those who can’t move, and of course, that’s the outpatient department,’ she nodded at the square extension part. ‘The doctors come in the morning to treat them. Naturally, that’s a medical and nursing responsibility and nothing to do with you.’
I was still carrying my suitcase. It gave the feel of a commercial traveller but unsure where to put it, I had to ask.
‘Your bedroom’s above the female ward. Silly girl, I didn’t notice you still had it. Why didn’t you say?’ She clicked her teeth in exasperation, ‘You could have left it at the stairs beside the female ward. There’s a staircase leading up to staff quarters.’ Taking in my figure, she screwed her face, ‘I’ll have to go and see what I can do about a uniform. I wonder if we’ve one that’ll fit.’ She sounded doubtful, then, pointing in the direction we had come from added, ‘Off you go now. It’s easy enough to find, and remember you start at six-thirty tomorrow and you’d better not sleep in either.’
My bedroom was a surprise. It was a sweet little
Anne of Green Gables
affair with low eaves, white painted furniture, and a wallpaper pattern of autumn leaves so richly coloured you might feel transported to a New England Fall. Through the small-paned window the fir trees moved restlessly whilst their cones bobbed in a dance as if trying to free themselves from their green and branch webbed captivity. In the distance the Cairngorms rose in blue unencumbered splendour.
Somewhat nearer were Wilma and Irene who shared the double room next door, and hearing noises, had come to interview the latest recruit.
‘I’m the kitchen maid – I help Evelyn the cook,’ said Irene by way of introduction. She was young with brown curly hair and had a cheerful managing way with her. ‘But Wilma here’s a ward maid like you. She’s going out in a minute with her steady – been going with him for ages.’
Irene sounded envious but I was more impressed with Wilma’s mop-holding capacity than her boyfriend-keeping power. With her slight figure and pale face she must be responsible for that acreage of cleanliness downstairs. I only had time to glimpse her hands, red and swollen before they swung behind her back on hearing Sister Gordon. ‘I see you’ve met the girls.’
She hurried in with a large pink dress hanging over her arm. ‘This’ll have to do until the other frocks come back from the laundry – it’s probably a bit big, but it’s all we have at the moment.’ She slung it over a chair. In her hand she had something white, plastic and round, ‘You’ll need it for a collar.’ She placed it over the frock, gave it a pat of approval, ‘Now that’s you sorted.’
Sartorial matters achieved, she nodded at Wilma. ‘Now Wilma is a good worker and will keep an eye on you – show you what to do. Isn’t that so?’
‘Uh-huh,’ said Wilma in a non-committal way. She turned to a mirror as if seeking acknowledgement from the pallid reflection. ‘Is she starting tomorrow? I won’t have to waken her will I?’
‘No,’ I was keen to be part of the conversation, ‘it won’t be a problem.’
It was a foolish thing to say. I’d no difficulty waking early, but should have risen even earlier to deal with the problem of fastening the neck button of the frock to include the plastic collar, a four-hole conundrum. Listening hard for sounds of activity from next door I was eventually able to rouse Wilma to help.
Yawning and stretching, with love bites on her neck, she looked at my unmarked one with disfavour. ‘It’s a bit thick – no wonder you can’t get the collar fixed.’ She took such a firm grip of my collar I began to feel light-headed.
‘Don’t strangle her,’ said Irene, looking alarmed, meanwhile climbing into a comfortable striped frock, and making a stirring gesture in her head’s direction by way of hair care. ‘Thank God I don’t have to worry about dickeys. Evelyn wouldn’t put up with them. Come on, you’ll meet her in a minute and Wilma, count yourself lucky Gordie’s off duty – she’d kill you if she saw that neck of yours.’
Wilma gave a mournful sniff. ‘I know and I think you’re going to have a hard day in that uniform, Jane, it’s much too big – Gordie must’ve thought you were twice the size.’
There was a reveille-like sound of pans clattering coming from the wards as we passed.
‘Night staff on bedpan round,’ Wilma explained, ‘then as soon as they get a cup of tea it’ll be time for another round and it’ll be our turn to dish them out.’
Her gloomy tones didn’t exactly herald a bright new dawn but at least Evelyn, in a kitchen fiefdom full of steaming pans and running taps, was cheerful and welcoming. ‘Well hello, Jane. And it’s a fine morning for a first day too,’ she said. She was buxom and bonny with a large teapot in hand. High heels castanet-clicking on the stone floor, she went to a row of mugs and started to fill them. ‘You’ll get breakfast later on but this should give you a jump start,’ she said. ‘Biscuit?’
I shook my head, retiring in the face of her oncoming bosom, ‘Tea’ll be lovely.’
In the wards, I’d an awful feeling I might see its return, for when Wilma and I got to them, I knew what our first task would be. Unsure if, this early, my stomach was up to the job, I followed her into the female ward sluice.
It was a small gloomy affair where bedpans were stacked on shelves as if on display whilst rubber mackintoshes were draped over rails to dry. The sinks were huge with one having a drainage hole apparently designed to cope with a flood, whilst nearby was a thing like a washing machine gaping its maw like a starving dragon.
‘That’s the bedpan steriliser,’ said Wilma banging the door shut with her foot, pressing a button and tutting. ‘There’s a bedpan in it – night staff must’ve forgotten to do it.’ The sound of rushing water playing on metal accompanied her as she took an armload of chrome from its shelf. ‘Watch what I do,’ instructed my minder, as she swished hot water over the pans, then with the expertise of a silver service waitress, placed a white cloth over them and returned to the ward. She’d a way of covering the ground at a tremendous speed in an effortless way. Whilst her top half looked immobile, her feet travelled with swift steps as precise as those of a windup toy. It was a struggle keeping up with her.
In the corner were wheeled screens covered in a nondescript and worrying colour of beige. With a deft flick of her ankle, Wilma manoeuvred them round each bed.
As she started to give out the bedpans, I thought she’d have as much trouble getting her patients up on their silver thrones as a lion tamer with his big cats at the circus. But within five minutes they were all enthroned and, now at the same level as Wilma, more aware of her neck than the job in hand.
‘Good gracious, Wilma, have you been trying to hang yourself?’ An old woman, her voice as creaky as her bones, struggled to point whilst squinting through spectacles greasy with finger marks.
‘Mrs Grant, you’re needing them cleaned,’ Wilma declared pointing back, ‘Jane here’ll do them for you. Her first cleaning job, ha!’
The ward’s attention changed direction subjecting me to the same scrutiny as Wilma’s neck.
‘New, eh?’ It sounded like a croon, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll keep you right. Just don’t be like Wilma. We thought she’d a brass neck, but just look at it!’
Wilma was in charge of the electric floor polisher. It was kept in a special place unlike the other cleaning material far more readily accessible in each sluice and there for my complete attention. After reminding me of my importance in the cleansing department, Wilma headed off to maintain that lustrous gleam on the corridor.
‘I won’t hear any bells with the machine going so you’ll have to answer them and as it’s usually for bedpans you know how to do them now,’ she’d said, apparently pleased with an unconventional training session where patients encouraged, Wilma disparaged and I’d got rather wet. ‘And one good thing about the male ward,’ she went on, ‘is you haven’t to do so many. Just be sure and clean their spit boxes, Gordie’s really fussy about that.’
But not, I figured, about the atmosphere. Here, and despite the high ceiling, it felt overly warm with an all-pervading smell of tobacco smoke.
Fresh air might help, I thought, and feeling bold threw open a window. ‘Good morning,’ I said, all hearty.
‘Shut that bloody window!’ shouted an old man, his hand placed firmly over his bonnet as if it might blow off. ‘It’s freezing in here.’
Oblivious to this exchange, another cried, ‘Nursie, nursie,’ and beckoned with a finger the colour of a keen tobacconist, ‘come ower here.’
I might have been a little crushed at so little appreciation for my toning up a ward’s ambience, but delighted with such an early promotion to nurse status, I rushed to his bedside.
‘How can I help?’
He furrowed his brow in real anxiety. ‘It’s ma bools. Ye see – they’re nay working.’ He patted his head as if to check it was still there.