Authors: Jane Yeadon
‘I thought it was her appendix.’
‘That as well.’ Kathy snipped, scissored the air, then put aside the trousers. ‘This should sort out that lech.’
The next operating day, we got near Dr Stewart and his anaesthetic machine. After the usual ogling, he knocked over a couple of rolls of strapping.
‘Oh, dash! Pick that up, you two, will you?’ He pushed his wheeled chair back, crossing his arms, ready to enjoy the view.
They went some distance but we dashed to get them, handing them over just far enough away for him to have to stand up to get them.
‘Oh!’ Suddenly, and in embarrassment, he clutched the trousers and stumbled from theatre.
‘Oh dear, I think he must have dropped something.’ The auxiliary was merry-eyed and innocent.
‘Who loosened Dr Stewart’s buttons?’ asked Sister afterward on one of the rare moments that she left the surgeon’s side and came out from behind her mask. She seemed amused.
Jo’s theatre work wasn’t like mine. Apparently she’d been allowed to hold forceps, and presumably the fort, whilst the surgical team drifted off for a break or the next bus home. At this rate, she would soon be dispensing with the formalities and disappearing with the best of them herself.
I was never going to reach these levels, but now that Dr Stewart was concentrating more on his patients and the saucy columns of his magazine, I was managing some crash-free days and even darting the odd glance at the wielded scalpel.
‘At last, Nurse Macpherson! You shine so.’ Staffie pattered round in an approving fashion. ‘Another six weeks and you will make the hay.’
‘Not here, sadly,’ I tried to sound regretful, ‘I’m going on holiday next week and then it’s another shift, but at least your next student can’t be worse.’
‘But we need the rain too,’ said Staffie in her gnomic way.
‘Where are you going next?’ asked Kathy, pondering the Mintlaw bus timetable.
‘After my holidays, it’s night duty.’
‘Well if you go dancing in Inverness and meet that Johnny, just you tell him Kathy’s asking for him but she’s got a new boyfriend from the country, a steady boy – and, Jane …’
‘I’ll miss you.’
‘And I’ll miss you, Kathy, but not Theatre Nine.’
It was good to be home. I’d forgotten how quiet it could be, and apart from the usual tractor breakdown, the most dramatic event of the week was Tommy arriving with his van and news.
When he did, I asked about Mrs Spence and Mrs Fotheringham.
‘Oh, fine, fine. Always cheery!’ he said. ‘Sending their love and hoping you’re on your way to getting plenty letters after your name. You should go and visit them. They say they miss your breezy voice.’
But Grantown seemed a lifetime away and I didn’t go. Instead I was entertaining Maisie who’d come to stay for a spot of country life far away from the seagull city.
We didn’t miss its noise and bustle. Over the next few days, we walked the hills around and discussed our lives and futures, whilst at night we enjoyed sitting, having a meal at a table for only four, and by way of contribution, delighted in recounting some of our finest hospital stories.
‘I don’t think your parents appreciated that story about the patient and the suppositories,’ Maisie said as we tramped towards another stunning view. Far away, the Moray Firth marked the horizon with an indigo coloured and glittering shawl whilst a lark opened her throat and sang high up in a cloudless sky. For the moment our own horizons looked no further than the next joke.
‘The one where he put them in his ears? Ha ha!’
“Yeah – but I noticed your Dad went off his food a bit. Of course, it could have been that story about the boil and how far a burst one can go.’
What a laugh! We’d look out a few more rib ticklers bound to entertain. How dull meal times would be when we left.
‘I think we’ve heard quite enough about bowels,’ my mother eventually snapped, ‘surely you must have some clean stories.’
We were stunned. How could anyone possibly not be entertained? These stories and jokes were, in the face of occasionally grim medicine, what kept nurses in touch with humour. Everybody loved them, not least in the Nurses’ Home where they would make their rounds, corridor after corridor, bursts of raucous laughter marking their journey.
Maisie thought hard. ‘What about the time I went to spray a wound with Acriflavine spray. It’s a bright yellow antiseptic and I missed because my nose got in the way. I’d to put up with jokey “Lady of the Light” comments from the whole ward until it wore off.’
This story got the approval ratings and Dad, perked up and showing interest for the first time, asked if Acriflavine would help cure orf, a sort of impetigo affecting sheep.
‘I’ve been putting on gentian violet,’ he said, ‘but it’s awful messy.’
Maisie gurgled, ‘But you’ve the world authority on that. She’ll tell you how to do it. She’s not called Gentian Jane for nothing.’
Oh good! Another clean story from Maisie. How hilarious.
‘So you could help me with the sheep?’ Dad asked once Maisie had gone to spread sunshine with her own folk and he was herding me towards his flock. ‘It’s really a two-man job.’
Maybe I should have chosen to do art, I thought, dabbing on the gentian. Yet there was the same satisfaction helping an animal as a patient and I watched, heartened, as those treated reconvened in a bleating purple-faced group. They seemed surprised but pleased as they started, with an exploratory nibble, to be able to graze again.
‘So you’re enjoying the nursing? Truth to tell, your Mam and I didn’t think you’d stick it,’ my father admitted as he straightened his back and shared the view.
Bob lay on the ground bright-eyed, with lolling tongue and alert for the next herding whistle, but Dad was waiting for an answer. It’d been good helping on the farm again. I’d forgotten my home’s freedom of space and the loveliness of its surrounds, where even the animals seemed to sense my familiarity and trust it. Life in the city and training in the hospital was a world away. I could hardly imagine that hectic place, let alone that I lived in it.
And then I remembered why I’d left home in the first place. How could I forget the patients, friendships, everyday dramas and parties, and when Douglas had been around, his reminder there was also a life beyond nursing.
‘Yes, Dad, it’s awful hard work and there’s some bits I’ve hated whilst other bits have been great and yes, it’s still what I want to do and I’m going to stick it. I think I’d like to be a district nurse; we’d a talk from a right cheery one. She was the happiest of the folk who came to give us career ideas and she had a car and a dog and a house.’ I’d been impressed.
‘Good girl. I think that’s a grand idea. Right! Bob! Let’s round up another patient.’
The holiday had come at the right time and even if I was blue about the nails, it was time to look forward. It would be night duty – a whole new world with long hours, but also good time off to explore those elusive Swinging Sixties.
‘So how’s the Highlands?’ asked Sister Cameron, welcoming me back in her bright way and handing over a new bedroom key. ‘The sun would have been shining and the midgies biting.’ She slapped her arm as if just bitten. ‘You can use the lift to take up your stuff; it’s a fair old haul to the night duty top floor.’
‘No thanks,’ I said, trudging past and fully loaded, ‘I don’t trust it.’
She laughed. ‘Once bitten eh? But suit yourself. What ward are you going to anyway?’
‘Och now! You’ll be needing all your strength for that. Sister there runs a very tight ship.’ In a cloud of peppermint, she hurried away as if she had already said too much.
We’d a couple of day hours to get to know our ward’s layout, the patients and how the ward sister liked her place run. Mine was partial to a ward tidy as a miser’s larder, with patients enclosed in clutter-free zones, their lockers bare and preferably angled out of their reach. Happiness was really an empty ward where no one could kick the bed wheels out of alignment or disturb the regulation sixteen-inch sheet turnover.
Sister’s love of order didn’t bode well for a naturally untidy person, but at least I was getting to know the patients and earning some brownie points by strategic bed wheel kicking. Whilst sluices tended to announce their own presence, oxygen for the breathless patients was a ‘Must See’ item, as was the drug cupboard.
Sister held up a bunch of keys padlocked to her. ‘These are for the drug cupboard and your senior will carry them except when she has her break. Then you’ll have to look after them.’ She didn’t say it was an honour but I got the message.
I wanted to ask more, but there was something about this steely sister with her cap perched on hair like corrugated iron that discouraged questions and kept patients immaculately pinned to their beds. ‘And please remember that when I come on duty in the morning I like to see a tidy ward.’ As I left, she added, ‘I hope you’ll get some sleep as you’ll need all your wits about you if you want to keep daytime standards.’
All the woes of a cleaning staff using their clattering brushes to tidy up their working rights were outside my bedroom, but I was polite.
‘Excuse me, but this’s my first night of night duty and I really need to get some sleep. Do you think you could talk elsewhere?’
‘Sorry,’ they said, before resuming dialogue.
‘Would you lot belt up,’ cried Rosie, jerking her door open. She stood in the Highland Fling first position then stamped her feet. ‘I can’t get a wink’s sleep,’ she cried, then slammed her door shut with such a bang you might have thought she was somebody important.
The cleaners, looking suitably chastened, crept away and I thanked the stars Rosie was my next-door neighbour and back in harness.
In bed, I tossed and turned and worried about not sleeping now when I might be very good at it later on. The alarm clock was so loud I felt like shutting it off but how would I then count the minutes? The hours drifted past until at last the bell went off and I dressed feeling sluggish and ill prepared, with the companionship of Isobel working on the male side the only cheering prospect.
‘Well?’ I asked Maisie, as accompanied by Rosie we headed for supper.
‘Never slept a wink,’ she sounded bitter. ‘And you with your shouting match didn’t exactly help, Rosie, and I’m also worried about these.’ She pushed her spectacles up. ‘I’m hoping they won’t mist up when I put on a mask.’
Smarting, Rosie replied, ‘At least if there’s an operation on, there’ll be no danger of you falling asleep.’ I was amazed that Maisie’s anxiety about working in the emergency theatre was just confined to her sight.
In the dining room, we joined our group at their table. But for Isobel and Hazel looking frail and needing a month’s vacation, it was as if it was our first day again and we were all together apart from Sheila still in Woodend – and not even on night duty.
‘I wish she was here,’ said Isobel, ‘I haven’t seen her for ages. She’s really good at keeping us calm and she’s so sunny too. I don’t know how she does it. I’m beginning to think she’s further away than Morag in Tain.’
‘Oh for goodness sake, you’ll be fine. I don’t know what you’re worried about.’ Rosie maintained her course, fluffing her feathers and ready to take on the world. ‘After all, we’re going to be the juniors in the ward, so somebody else will be taking the hassle.’
Obviously not cheered by the prospect, Jo ate steadily and silently, then held up a finger as a charge nurse appeared and conversational buzz dropped.
He strode into the middle of the dining hall with all the majesty that a clipboard conveys and got immediate attention. He cleared his throat and started calling out names like a school roll.
‘Daddy says that for night duty, we only need to keep our patients alive, comfortable and nightmare free,’ whispered Hazel, who was finally admitting her insider knowledge owed much to her doctor dad, ‘and I suppose that’s why there’s fewer staff around but they do need to be sure everybody’s here.’
‘What do they do then?’ I asked, half listening and waiting for my call.
‘Panic, paperwork and twice as much work for the suckers who answer the call. Oops! You nearly missed it.’ Hazel stopped for a moment to allow me to quaver my presence, then continued, ‘Of course, there is one Night Sister for emergency back-up.’
‘What constitutes an emergency?’
‘If you’re about to murder your patients,’ Hazel gave her laryngeal laugh, ‘and you’re feeling brave enough to tell her.’
‘Joking apart, the total ward responsibility must be a hellish burden,’ I suggested, trying holiness to catch out Hazel.
‘Huh! Don’t you believe it. She manages stress by snoring away the trying hours between her ward rounds and then she wakes up to look for patients who might come from Banchory, her hometown. Believe you me,’ Hazel stretched luxuriously and yawned, ‘you’ll soon find out what a good address means.’
‘Nurse Green! Medical ward,’ called the charge nurse. A heavyset girl put up her hand.
‘I wouldn’t like to meet that one on a dark night.’ Rosie cocked her head to one side as if considering a threatening cloud too large even for her.
‘Well, Jane’s about to and she certainly looks grim,’ Maisie observed. ‘Maybe it’s the prospect of working with her new junior.’
‘Or maintaining her standards,’ I retorted, cross to be the reason for such unusual harmony.
Personally, I was hoping for a relationship based on equality, but that’s not how Nurse Green saw things. When we met in the cloakroom, she made status her first responsibility, whilst putting the final touches to a smile-free zone with her powder compact mirror.
‘I’ve heard about you, Nurse. You sound disaster prone.’ She drew down her black monobrow, passing a licked finger over it to maintain the line. She mouthed a sad little mist over the glass. ‘Let’s hope you can work.’ She snapped the compact shut.
We weren’t going to be on first name terms, or even second come to that. I was just Nurse and I thought of her as just Green – no wonder she was so sour.
At the respectful distance I would give to Dad’s horned cattle, I followed her into the ward where Sister gave us the day’s report. Nothing had changed since daytime except now she seemed particularly offhand. Maybe it was on account of Nurse Green’s gum chewing, scant attention, and lack of interest on the subject of bed wheels.