Authors: Jane Yeadon
‘Drat! Look, Jane, you’ve got a ladder in your stockings.’ Good old Mum. Perfect for boosting confidence, and how could she know that whilst sitting in the front and looking straight ahead? I’d counted and actually had several but at least she’d channelled my thoughts into a more immediate problem. I’d need to buy a pair in Aberdeen; was it not full of shops with wonderful bargains?
I boarded the train and waved as it steamed away from the station. They might have shouted something but it was lost in noise, clamour and the beating of my heart. Looking back, I suddenly saw my parents looking young and carefree, enveloped in the smoke as if in a cloud. How very strange. It wouldn’t have happened with diesel.
‘That’s a nice suit, killer shoes though. You’ll never last a day in Aberdeen with heels that high and look at your stockings already.’ Beth was waiting at the other end and handed over a new packet as she spoke. All very well for her; being small and elf-like means there’s less to maintain.
‘How did you know?’
‘I just knew. You’re predictable in many ways and I suppose you’ve lost your comb too?’ She scrabbled in a bag almost as big as herself. ‘Here. Now come on, you’ve just enough time to change and make yourself tidy and then we’ll get a taxi. You’ll be late otherwise.’
The station waiting room was ill lit with a mirror reflecting so many freckles in an ashen face it was surely fly spotted as well. Aberdeen was cold and so were the toilets with a searching wind reaching through the gaps under the doors and blowing in a scrap of paper.
‘For God’s sake put these stockings on carefully,’ Beth shouted. ‘They cost me an arm and a leg.’
‘Guy loves Meg,’ declared a wall scribbler.
‘Bully for Guy,’ I said standing on one leg, handling the stockings with care and wondering if the visiting bit of paper also had a message. Already the shoes were beginning to pinch.
Out in the city the wind pounced on us, with the bustle of crowds and the roar of traffic overwhelming, but Beth seemed oblivious to it as she grabbed me and darted across a busy road.
‘Are you trying to kill me?’ I asked Beth and the shoes.
‘Taxi!’ Beth’s imperious gesture stopped a cab in a squeal of brakes.
‘Hurry up! We’re stopping the traffic. Get in!’ She shoved. The door slammed behind me.
‘Are you not coming with me?’ My cry was puny.
‘No, you’re a big girl now and I’ve classes to go to but I’ll be up later and I’ll be at the entrance. Foresterhill!’ she cried, giving the door a bang like a starting gun. The taxi shot off. Aberdeen rattled past. In my agitated state it looked as if every building was hunched into one bleak granite blur until at last, the taxi pulled up at a complex of seriously grey buildings.
Set in their square jaws were barred windows suggesting captivity and surely if this was a hospital, the grounds would have more flowers and less tar?
‘I’m sorry. There’s a mistake. I didn’t want to go to a jail.’ Further along from the main building was another but smaller. Even if there was no barbed wire, it too looked like a fortress.
The taxi driver laughed and pointed to it. ‘Well, some folk might call it that but it’s actually the Nurses’ Home.’ He opened the door and pointed again. ‘That nearest building’s where you want to go. Look, it says Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. A.R.I. to us Aberdonians.’ He sounded proud. ‘Now the main entrance is below that funny looking thing like a cooker lid. I think it must be there to let in some light. Once you’re in you’ll see it’s a fine place. Oh, thanks!’
At least the tip was right and once through the hospital’s revolving doors I saw that so was he, for as much as it might be grey and cold outside, inside, warmth and colour made it the very opposite.
Green lino, stretching so far it looked like a long street, had a shine sufficiently impressive to have Wilma fainting with approval, whilst the commemorative plaques on the white walls were so bright whoever polished them deserved a mention there too.
Along the corridor came a gentle buzz of human traffic. Busy people all in different garb were going along on various life-saving missions; you could tell by their air of purpose. Nurses went along singly or in groups and were part of a world that I realised, with a sudden jolt, I was desperate to join.
Behind my mop, I’d watched and envied the comfort that the trained Ian Charles staff brought to their patients, and for all her sharp tongue and pointy nose it was obvious Sister Gordon knew something about care and a lot about nursing. My career prospects were being decided today but if I didn’t get to be a nurse maybe I could relocate and ward-maid here. I’d love to be any part of a place that felt so alive and exciting.
Now where was Matron?
‘Could you tell me where reception is please?’
The only person who looked as if he’d time to stop was a porter who directed me to something resembling a sentry box. ‘Straight ahead, quinie. It’s by that notice asking folk nay tae wear stilettos.’
‘Thanks. I’ll tiptoe there.’
I gave my name to a receptionist who spoke through the slatted window whilst ticking my name off a list.
‘I hope there’s not a mistake. A porter called me quinie.’ I was anxious.
She laughed, ‘You’re lucky. If you’d been a young man, he’d have called you a loonie. It’s just Aberdeen speak. Now, your interview’s due any moment. Matron’s room is up those stairs and to the left. You’ll see her name on the door. Her secretary’s office is just beside it and you’ll need to see her first.’ Her grin was impish. ‘Just be sure and give a good knock, her secretary’s hard of hearing and,’ she leant over and whispered, ‘them’s funcy shoes! Good luck, quinie.’ She was young, bright and so cheerful I couldn’t help but feel encouraged.
It was easy finding the door next to the oak-panelled gold-lettered one and which I now gave the prescribed thump.
‘OK, OK!’ shouted a harassed looking secretary all tweedy and short and yanking the door open as if she were pulling a tooth. ‘I’m not deaf you know. That wee brat of a receptionist downstairs must think I’m daft – she does it all the time – the joke’s wearing a bit thin.’ The Cairngorm brooch on her jacket winked at her outrage. She checked a wall clock, then her watch, a stout affair with a man’s strap, whilst I toyed with the idea of asking for a loan of her sensible brogues.
‘Well, you’re on time at least. Take a seat,’ she nodded at an adjacent bench, ‘you shouldn’t have too long to wait. Matron’s someone in just now but he’s due out any minute. In the meantime, you’ll need to excuse me. I must get on.’ She sped back into her den.
I hoped she didn’t have to sit on that hairy tweed skirt too long. It’d put anybody in a bad mood.
Time dragged by. The early breakfast was such a long way away, I thought I might faint with hunger, but then a man in a white coat with blue epaulettes came out of Matron’s office and distracted me, leaving with so much bowing and scraping I wondered if we’d been relocated to Balmoral.
‘Yes, Matron, I’ll see to that right away. Yes, I realise this is important. Yes, immediately!’ A snowstorm of dandruff landed on the epaulettes. He closed the door, righted himself, then barrelled in to the secretary.
Not fussed about privacy, he shouted, ‘I’m afraid you’re going to have to change tonight’s rotas, there’s a lot of staff shortages tonight. You’ll need to phone the reserves list and’ – jerking his head, he allowed another fresh fall – ‘she wants it done
The secretary’s hand was poised between the phone that she had picked up and a box of chocolates that she put down. ‘Yes, Matron, she’s here and I’ll tell her to come in.’ As she nodded to me she carefully replaced the box lid then said in even tones, ‘I think we should have this discussion with the door closed.’
Suddenly it seemed safer in Matron’s office.
Matron sat at the far end of a room on a throne of padded red leather behind a desk big enough to rule the world from. She had the manner of a bored hostess filling in time until her proper guests arrived.
‘Ah! Miss Macpherson, take a seat please.’ She’d left her training days a long time ago and was plump, with a tinkling voice and a vague smile.
Her small fingers fluttered at the chair opposite as if they were practising fresh air arpeggios. How had such soft looking little sausages with their pale pink varnished nails ever survived sluice work?
I tried a soft shoe shuffle but on the parquet floor the stilettos moved in staccato. It felt as if she was a mile away and, oh God! There was something running up my leg, another ladder: and worse, I’d forgotten to curtsey.
‘I hope you’ve had a good journey?’
Easy! Meanwhile, Matron sent her fingers on an improving mission checking her frilly collar, cuffs and a cap which on a lesser person might have resembled a meringue. Pinned on her Cresta run of a bosom was a medal. It shone like gold. I wondered had she herself polished it and if so, and I didn’t get the next bit right, might she, before I left, be kind enough to share some handy cleaning tips.
‘You realise that you’re applying to become a member of a most noble profession. Yes indeed! And as you’ll no doubt be aware, this is a very busy place. I’ve a lot of people to interview and time’s at a premium,’ she picked a sheet of paper from a neatly stacked pile on her desk, then anchoring those busy fingers together and arching perfectly shaped eyebrows observed, ‘so I’ll get straight to the point. You haven’t any academic qualifications so you’ll have to sit an exam after this interview. Your entrance depends on those two things.’ She brandished her digits in the victory sign.
Swallowing hard, I tried for a reassuring tone, ‘Well I hope that working in the Cottage Hospital has given me an insight into the profession and I’ve certainly learnt more about nursing there than, dare I say, I would have done in school.’ I spread my hands as if to imply huge experience.
‘Nursing’s not just about practical skills, and if we accept you for training, you’ll find this out in a very short time indeed. Many have come through this door thinking care and compassion are all that is required and had to leave because’ – like an orchestra tuning up, her voice was interrupted by the odd squeak ‘they couldn’t accept the discipline of study.’ She shook her head in disbelief whilst the fingers burst from release and fluttered back into action over the desk.
All round the room hung portraits of what I presumed were patrons, looking worthy if not quite dead: surely poor advertisements for a hospital. A small draught disturbed the chandelier right above her and chinked its dripping icicles as if conveying disapproval.
‘Being a nurse is my dearest wish,’ I tried.
Matron suddenly leant across the desk with the smile of a tiger baring teeth. ‘Why?’
The question was predictable. I’d been preparing for it for all the years I could remember. Yet when the reply came, it was as unrehearsed as it was terrifying.
‘Brown boots. Old shiny brown boots.’
Matron’s eyebrows raced upwards at the same time as her jaw dropped. Even the oil paintings looked shocked and the chandelier was silent.
I plunged on, ‘They belonged to a Mr Matheson. He was an old shepherd who was admitted to the Ian Charles. You know, where I work. He was pretty confused but if you could imagine you were out on the hills with him, he made sense. Sometimes he’d put the boots on and sit in his hospital pyjamas trying to get the other patients to herd his long-ago sheep, but of course, they weren’t interested.’ My laugh was fond if trembling. Matron was now looking bemused but at least she was listening. Were we moving out of the land of permafrost?
I struggled on. ‘After all, as you would understand, they’d their own flocks to mind. The boots were hidden because the staff thought they just added to his confusion but I thought they were so much part of his personality that it was a shame. Then he had a stroke and we never heard him speak or whistle again.’
‘And the boots?’ Matron picked up a pen and held it like a gun over a clean sheet of paper.
‘When Mr Matheson died, I’d to pack his belongings. He didn’t have much, but the boots were his and they just lay there as if waiting for him to put them on. I hadn’t realised how fond I was of him. The boots seemed to echo a sadness I didn’t know I had and I wished I’d had nursing skills to look after him. I’d have felt better about him dying.’
For a moment even Matron seemed to accept that death was a force mightier than her as she gazed heavenward in silent contemplation. Then her knuckles went white as with renewed vigour she squeezed the pen. It spluttered into life to allow her to dash out a scrawl.
‘Right! Well thank you, Miss Macpherson, I’ll let you go now but,’ she consulted her watch, ‘have you any questions?’
‘Will it be long before I know if I’ve been accepted?’ I couldn’t think of anything cleverer to say.
‘No,’ she said and arrow-aimed a smile at the door.
The secretary was hovering outside. She greeted me with a grin reminiscent of a whist player with a winning hand. She must have won that rota row.
‘Now for your written.’ She took me past a girl, her church-going hat and lacing shoes making her an ideal candidate with matching academic qualifications because, tussling with syntax and number questions, I sat the exam alone and in a small airless room.
‘You’ll be glad that’s over; it can be daunting.’ The secretary’s unexpected kindness made me blink. ‘Why don’t you go and have a cup of tea? There’s a café downstairs and I do hope you have a safe journey home.’
Returning along the main corridor and unsure of my future, I considered throwing myself under an oncoming trolley. At least I could stay in this bustling and exciting place, even if it was at the receiving end being put back into shape. There were nurses passing by, so casually and at ease, they didn’t seem to realise how lucky they were to be in uniform, here, in this fabulous place.
Meanwhile, a cross Beth was waiting at the entrance, her bag loaded with learned-looking tomes.
‘Come on!’ she said. ‘I’ve been waiting ages. These books weigh a ton. See!’ She took one out and thrust it at me.