Authors: Jane Yeadon
‘Aye – hivna worked for a week. I’m thinking I should tell the doc.’
I gave an easy laugh. This was simple!
I soothed, ‘Now you really shouldn’t be worrying about them, though I suppose you must have a big farm with more than one bull. We’ve only got one on ours. Anyway, since you’re in hospital I expect your family’ll have got in touch with Mr Rafferty the vet.’
‘Jane! That man’s obsessed with his bowels,’ said Irene, coming into the ward with plates of steaming porridge. ‘Come on, it’s time for your breakfast.’ She twinkled, ‘I can’t wait till I tell Evelyn though. She’s going to have a right laugh.’
I didn’t think it was that funny and had a moment’s sympathy for my mother who used to hear this so regularly when she asked me to recall a school day where jokes with my pals in the back row were all that seemed worth remembering. I just knew the bools story would figure at the breakfast table where staff, coming on duty at eight o’clock, assembled.
Separated from the kitchen by a hatch, the dining room had the feel of a best room with some oil paintings depicting Highland cows looking glum, probably because they were up to their knees in water. A cheerier sight was the table set as for a banquet with junket and rhubarb taking centre stage and floured rolls, butter and jugs of cream laid out in generous quantity. Large bowls of porridge were handed through from the kitchen by the disembodied hand of Irene.
‘Have some porridge – good for the bools!’
‘Poor Jane! They’re only teasing,’ said Matron who had appeared looking so serene and unruffled she must have gone to sleep standing up, ‘but I bet you’ll not make that mistake again.’ As she took her place at the top of the table, a bell went off.
‘That’s for you,’ mouthed Wilma. ‘It’ll be Mrs Davidson. She’s in one of the side rooms. She always does that at meal times.’
It was from this room that the plaintive cries had come yesterday so I was curious to see the occupant. There was a red light outside her room, presumably to identify the caller, and it remained there until I was right beside her and had persuaded her to stop pressing the activating buzzer.
‘You’re new aren’t you? Let’s hope you get quicker.’ Red hair streaked with grey was scraped back from a wrinkled face and secured by a ribbon, its red a lot cheerier than her expression. ‘I hope you know why I’m ringing?’
‘Well don’t bring me a cold one or I won’t use it,’ she said, squirming down in bed, ‘and you’ll have to help me with it. I’m completely incapable of moving.’
A splendid ring glanced on her thin fingers. When I returned, it caught me as I tried to hoist her aboard.
‘You’re hurting me,’ she scolded, ‘and your hands are cold.’
‘All that glitters is not cold,’ I joked.
Mrs Davidson looked affronted. ‘What did you say?’
I made to speak but she waved a dismissive hand. ‘Oh, it’s no use arguing. I know cheek when I hear it so don’t bother making excuses. But when Matron comes round I’ll tell her the new girl with the red hair and long frock is too impudent to be on any staff, especially here where you’d expect everyone to have a professional manner and then,’ she gave a wriggle of pleasure, ‘you’ll have to go.’
Sick and worried, I returned to the dining room.
‘Everything alright?’ asked Matron.
‘Yes, Matron,’ I said, feeling like a prisoner at her last meal.
‘Good,’ she said, ‘take a good breakfast now – you’ll be needing to fortify yourself for your work. Sluice duties call for plenty energy.’
Meal over, I shot back to them. They hadn’t felt so welcoming before nor did scrubbing and scouring seem such safe pursuits. Every time I heard a footfall I thought it must be Matron coming to tell me my number was up, but gradually as the morning went on and nobody came, and despite catching my heel on the frock and the collar persistently coming unstuck, I grew confident enough to come out of hiding and move into the wards.
In the absence of Wilma, intent on motoring her machine on the freeway, and keeping her neck out of scrutiny, everybody in the female ward recognised I needed help. The ward buzzed with their comments. All experts on cleaning, they were keen to advise and, making me feel less foolish, recalled their young experiences when they too felt strange and hopeless.
‘But I’ve made too big a mistake and don’t think I’ll be here very long. I tried to make a joke with one of the other patients and she took umbrage,’ I told Mrs Grant, who with the keen interest of a professional was watching me brush the ward floor, ‘She says she’s going to get me the sack.’
‘Some folk are hard to please,’ commiserated Mrs Grant. She crawled out her hand and patted mine. ‘But Matron knows what everybody’s like so I wouldn’t worry if I was you. You don’t look like a lassie who’d harm a fly and the way you’re handling that brush tells me you’re going to be fine but I think you’ve forgotten the dust pan.’
She was doing her best to console. It was humbling to think she could consider such an optimistic future when she herself, a thin body, riddled with arthritis, was stuck in bed and dependent on others for the most basic of needs. I’d never heard bones creak before but hers made a sound like a door needing oiled.
I said, ‘One day when I’ve got the hang of this job, I’ll take you on a tour of the sluice. The chromes will be so shiny, we’ll throw away the mirror, and the U bend so spick and span, you’ll want to take your porridge out of it.’
Mrs Grant laughed, ‘Maybe I’ll be pleased to be so stuck in bed.’ She sighed and looked down on her misshapen fingers fumbling at her sheets. ‘This is what you get from too much scrubbing though, so don’t be a ward maid too long. Go for your training like you say you’re going to, make it as soon as you can and get plenty letters after your name. Then you can come back here as Matron.’ Her eyes crinkled in amusement.
‘There’s a lot of hilarity going on here and who’s taking my name in vain?’ Matron stood in the doorway. ‘This ward’s usually so quiet I thought I’d better see what’s going on and here I find you all trying to get rid of me.’
A spot of pink rosying her cheeks, Mrs Grant retorted, ‘You might go to Canada and never come back, so we’re training wee Janey here – just in case.’
She’d difficulty nodding her head but with a slow movement, she managed it. ‘And she could do with a better fitting dress and one with a collar. Look! One half of her’s being strangled whilst the other’s about to be drowned.’
Matron laughed. ‘Well, it’s obvious you’re on form this morning but I’ll see what I can do – even if I’m a bit pushed for time. I know Sister Gordon had a job finding one.’
‘I bet that crabbed old spinster didn’t try very hard,’ muttered Mrs Grant’s neighbour, but Matron continued as if she hadn’t heard, ‘I’m going away this evening so I thought I’d better come and say cheerio and I’ll be back before you can say you’ve missed me.’
Whilst a universal sigh of resignation engulfed the ward, mine was of relief. At least I hadn’t been given the sack. But after today, with Sister Gordon in charge, I thought we might all be in for a hard time.
A few weeks on, and following Wilma, I increased my stride. Approval ratings from both Sister Gordon and Mrs Davidson were still low but the other patients kept my spirits high, and even if Grantown’s night scene was disappointingly confined to a café, the odd dance and a picture house made me truly happy.
Still it was frustrating that the best I could do was give out glittering, nicely warmed bedpans and wish all patients free from beds with rigid rubber mackintoshes and rubber smells no regular washing or talcum powder dredging could disguise. Since the soft ease of polythene sheeting in the nursing world was still a distant prospect, fresh air might make those sheets less ghastly.
Watching me pass the kitchen, laden, smelling like a tyre factory and heading for outside, Evelyn and Irene called out in cheerful banter, ‘Is that you pretending to wash your dirty linen in public? We know it’s just an excuse to meet Henry.’
Even if I was on my way to sluice down soiled stuff, I quite liked these forays to the grey stone building at the back of the hospital with its big sinks, Henry’s garden implements and a washing line overlooking fields of well fed cattle. Henry had a craggy face, a kindly way and offered an affable diversion discussing his vegetable beds whilst I laboured over a sink sufficiently deep to drown in but blessedly removed from bell toll.
‘How are you doing?’
‘I was thinking I’d take my least favourite patient out here and see if she could swim.’
Henry laughed, ‘No prizes for guessing who you’re meaning. She drives everybody daft. Just don’t mind her.’ He picked up a rake and went off whistling with a blackbird striking up as if in competition.
Other than interspersing the moans with ringing her bell and complaining, I couldn’t see any reason why Mrs Davidson was in hospital, but Wilma had said it wasn’t a ward maid’s business, whilst mastering the vagaries of the floor polisher, scrubbing and high dusting was. Sister Gordon would have said the same but less politely so I asked Evelyn. At least she wouldn’t bite my nose off.
In her tolerant way the cook explained, ‘She’s a lonely old woman – plenty money but too difficult for the family to manage and you’ll notice she never gets any visitors. Shame really.’
It wasn’t exactly a diagnosis. One day when I was a matron I’d keep everybody informed so that at least ward maids would know as much as the gardener and cook. In the interval there was a small matter of training.
Sister Gordon didn’t hold out much chance and used the back-up of an audience to make her point. In Matron’s absence she’d taken over her flat, which was upstairs from the dining room. She didn’t usually appear until well on in the morning but one day she made a surprise early entrance in a fit of fury and a pale blue negligee.
‘This is disgusting!’ A finger stabbed at the cup of coffee ordered to start her day and which five seconds ago I had delivered. ‘It’s just as well I tasted it first. If you’d given it to the patients they’d have thought you were trying to poison them.’
Careless of the attentive gaze of the entire day staff, she took a deep breath, then she was off again, ‘Look here, Jane, if you can’t manage something as simple as a decent cup of coffee what chance is there of you making the grade as a nurse? Honestly, anybody accepting you for training needs their head examined.’
‘What’s all this about?’ Evelyn had come to investigate. ‘Is there something wrong with the milk. I need to know in case it’s off.’
‘It’s not off. It’s weak and cold,’ snapped Sister Gordon drawing her negligee about her with a dawning awareness that she might be a touch underdressed, ‘so please will you make sure you make it so that at least I get a proper cup since I can’t trust Jane to do such a simple thing.’ She stamped off banging the door behind her.
‘Even I’ve never had a row like that,’ said Wilma in a voice just short of admiration, ‘and I don’t want to be a nurse.’
I bit my lip. Honestly that Sister Gordon was the limit. If I was accepted for training, I just hoped there wouldn’t be too many like her. Every time I heard her, my heart would break into a canter – another couple of Sister Gordons might finish me off.
Still, a smug feeling lurked. She didn’t know and I wasn’t going to tell her that my interview was the next day, and since it was on a day off, nobody else in the hospital needed to know either. The secret powered me through work and off duty with a feeling of triumph. I’d show them!
But I’d forgotten the listening skills of the ladies in the double ward.
Mrs Spence was a blind diabetic and Mrs Fotheringham had advanced multiple sclerosis and was only able to get out of bed if helped. For two women so disabled you might think they’d enough trouble getting through the day, never mind collecting news of every colour. Maybe their phalanx of visitors kept them up-to-date whilst staff members under the spell of their sympathetic way and clever questions would unburden themselves of their own domestic affairs and never ask about theirs.
Whatever their methods, the duo seemed to know everything about everybody, but since I was always too busy trying to disengage Mrs Davidson’s finger from her bell, and they were so undemanding, I didn’t see them often. I wasn’t even sure if they knew who I was.
‘Is that you, Jane?’ Mrs Spence, who might be blind, had nothing wrong with her ears. She must have heard my footsteps on the stairs.
‘Good luck for tomorrow!’ she called. ‘We’re keeping our fingers crossed for you.’
Slowly I went into their room.
‘How d’you know about that?’
Mrs Spence smiled and tapped her nose, whilst Mrs Fotheringham chuckled, ‘Didn’t you know we read the cups?’
‘I’m especially good at that,’ said Mrs Spence.
‘There’s a simple answer to that one,’ said my mother when I got home. ‘Tommy, Coopers’ van man must have told them. His wife visits a couple of ladies in hospital. He often talks about them and when he was here on Wednesday I told him. He’s so much news himself, it was nice for me to give him some for a change.’ She got defensive, ‘I didn’t know you wanted it kept a secret. Anyway, you’ve told Beth.’
‘Well she’s in Aberdeen and unlikely to bang into the odd Grantownian. Anyway, I’d be the last person she’d want to speak about.’
There was a long parental sigh. Then, ‘Best get an early night, eh?’
The dew of an early morning had hung pearls on the cobwebbed bushes. It was early autumn and the countryside was beginning to show colour changes but I was too nervous to appreciate a sleepy sun’s promise of a fine day. Had Sister Gordon been around, my heart couldn’t have run faster.
My parents were taking me to Forres. ‘Dad and I want to make sure you catch that Aberdeen train,’ said Mum. ‘Now that suit fits you fine even if it is short and tight. Still, green’s your colour. Just remember not to run to catch a bus. We might even have to help you aboard at the station.’ It was said with a twinkle but I was too nervous to respond.
The road was quiet but as we stopped at a crossroads I thought about my own. Maybe always wanting to be a nurse wasn’t enough and what if Sister Gordon was right and I wasn’t up to the mark? What would I do then? The very thought of her scolding tongue becoming a permanent feature was enough to decide that whatever happened, Grantown wasn’t forever. I’d find a ward maid’s job elsewhere.