Authors: Jane Yeadon
‘Thanks for asking how I got on,’ I said, catching it, reading its title and promptly holding it in such a way that people could see it and think I was a medical student. ‘I didn’t know you were studying adenoids.’
‘It’s actually Virgil’s
– if you’d bother to read properly,’ Beth chuckled. What a little rib tickler my sister could be.
‘You don’t fancy a cup of tea here? There’s a café near the entrance.’
Beth looked horrified. ‘No thank you! It’s the last place on earth I’d want to visit. Hospitals give me the heebie jeebies. Honestly, Jane, I think you must be nuts wanting to spend any time at all in there. Look at it, it’s just like a prison.’ She swallowed nervously and hugged her bag close as if to ward off evil.
‘Yeah, that’s what I thought until I went inside, but it’s a different place altogether.’
Already I felt territorial about the place but Beth wasn’t convinced so we made for a nearby bus stop. Despite the best efforts of some dedicated smokers, my initial impression of Aberdeen, became clearer from the front of the double-decker taking us into town.
A cheerful conductor whistled ‘Annie Laurie’ as he winked at us, then punched out half fares. The coins clinked in his bag as he took the stairs two at a time and in time. As yet, The Beatles weren’t around to expand his repertoire. Maybe I could become a clippie, I mused. I could count, practise the whistling, I’d be good at stair jumping and the conductor sounded as if he was happy at his work.
‘Now tell me how you got on.’ There was a book on psychology on Beth’s lap. What about becoming a case history?
‘The written bit was ok. I don’t think they’re looking for an Einstein, but put it like this Beth: if I needed the kiss of life and yon Matron had the chance to do it, I think she might turn down the offer.’
‘Ah!’ said Beth in an understanding way, then the bus jolted, throwing us together enjoying a collective mirth. It was great when she appreciated my jokes and didn’t pursue unpleasant subjects. For a moment, the interview and exam were forgotten and I could just enjoy the bus ride.
Below, and behind their glass frontages, shop haute couture mannequins adopted improbable poses. That malicious wind had more luck plucking at the clothes of the pavement people as they hurried past. Whilst a boy dressed in fifties Teddyboy style seemed better attired for the weather in his thick brothel creepers and long jacket, the girls in their short skirts should have had medals for endurance.
‘This is a great way to window shop,’ I said but Beth was already on her feet, gathering her possessions and plunging down the aisle.
‘Come on, if we’re quick, we’ll catch the traffic lights. It’ll save a big trek to Marks & Spencer and you owe me a pair of stockings, though I’d prefer tights – they’re the latest thing.’
‘So how did you get on?’
It was amazing. Mrs Davidson’s bell had fallen silent whilst Sister Gordon was fully occupied at the far end of the hospital with a new patient. I’d a nag-free moment to spend with happy people.
‘I don’t know why you’re asking.’ Mrs Spence’s sightless eyes gazed into the distance like those of a mystic. ‘Jane’ll have come up with all the right answers. She’s a natural comedian too,’ she leant forward and a note of excitement crept into that gentle voice, ‘but tell me, does Marks & Spencer really sell black underwear?’
Mrs Fotheringham chuckled, ‘I don’t know about that but if you’re wanting any, Miss Kerr’ll give you some of hers.’
There was a huge chainlike affair above her bed. It looked like a gallows, was called a monkey pole and gave her a handy grasp for pulling herself up. It clanked as she hoisted into full chat mode.
Breathless with the effort, she wheezed, ‘Elsie Kerr’s got to come into hospital every now and then. She lives at the back of beyond in a house with no running water. Sometimes she lets herself go, doesn’t eat, then gets admitted so we can build her up. She doesn’t like it but it’s for her own good.’
Mrs Fotheringham had been in hospital so long she regarded herself as a member of staff. Maybe it made her incarceration bearable and certainly she bore it with greater grace than Mrs Davidson. Perhaps I should go and investigate. The silence was beginning to shout for attention.
Anxiety was well founded. The room was as full of snores as the bed was empty, its usual occupant located by a pair of bunions sticking out from under it.
‘Mrs Davidson! What on earth are you doing there?’ It was difficult trying to reach her and worrying that a snore was the only response.
She felt cold and must be unconscious because she wouldn’t want anyone to see her with her fallen teeth grinning beside her and a nightdress hugging her neck. There wasn’t much point in ringing for action. I’d be ringing myself.
It must be my fault she’d fallen out of bed. Even if she did complain, maybe I should have tucked her in better. Sister Gordon would be furious but I’d just have to find and tell her. I threw a blanket over Mrs Davidson and hurried to get help.
Funnily enough Sister Gordon, with a patient looking a long way from cooperation, was having problems of her own. She seemed almost pleased to have a bigger better emergency on her hands.
‘There wis nae need for that bath. Look! Ah’m shivering. I’ll get ma death o’ cold.’
This must be Miss Kerr. She was minute with a hook nose and the ferocious look of a trapped hawk. Black nails which must have escaped Sister Gordon’s attention curled over her fingers.
‘Leave me alane, ye brute!’ She pulled on her dressing gown cord with a force suggesting a strong free mind.
Having seen the poor thermal quality of a flimsy nightie on a patient currently under a bed nearby, I thought that even if the dressing gown Miss Kerr was wearing was held together by grease, she should keep it on. But Sister Gordon, backing out the door, had other ideas: ‘After you’ve given her a cup of tea and tidied the bathroom, we’ll lend her a hospital dressing gown. That one needs a wash. Now I’ll see you later, Jane, but right now I’d better go and sort out this
problem.’ Her tone was grim.
‘An’ dinna come back,’ called Miss Kerr, looking pleased.
I picked up some towels. Sister Gordon must have given Miss Kerr a wipe down before getting her near the bath for they were as black as flue rags.
‘Now what about something with your tea?’
‘Hiv ye bananas?’ Miss Kerr sounded hopeful.
Compared to her alleged staple diet of week old porridge, maybe they held a touch of the exotic.
‘Pop into bed and I’ll see what I can do, but you’ll have to give me that dressing gown first.’
Like a trophy, I carried it and the towels under my arm and hurried to the washhouse before Miss Kerr could change her mind. There was a pile of soiled draw sheets waiting to be sluiced down but they were left to the side as I filled the deep stone sink and added enema soap.
Along with its usual use it was supposedly ideal for fragile fabrics, a fact disproved by the dressing gown, which, even if it was a sad cerise, leaked colour like a haemorrhage.
‘Mighty me! I came to put away my rake and what do I find but a bloodbath.’ Henry had arrived and sounded so shocked you wouldn’t think he’d been a war veteran.
He stroked a lantern jaw. ‘Are you doing operations here as well?’
‘Blast!’ I lifted out the sopping heap. ‘Here, hold this please. I’ll need to change the water.’ I foraged for the plug but in haste tipped the sheets into the water.
Their change to pink was immediate and could have been a magical transformation had their future not been so clinical.
‘A bonny colour,’ said Henry fatuously, laying down the dressing gown and beginning to edge away. Whilst it looked diminished, the other stuff soaked up the dye like blotting paper.
‘You can’t leave me now, Henry,’ I wailed. ‘This is an emergency. Who ever heard of pink hospital linen?’ But he’d evaporated and I was alone with only two singularly unattractive pink bundles for company.
We could have had a shared joke about cabbage patches but with Henry gone after suffering an unusual attack of diligence, I’d to deal as best I could in a sort of single parent way and, feeling disappointed in them, hung my children out on the washing line.
‘Well I see we’re in the pink.’ Evelyn had arrived and was rubbing her eyes. ‘I’ll say one thing about you, Jane, at least you bring a bit of colour to our lives but this is carrying things a bit far surely. Actually I came out to tell you we’ve managed to get bananas, and that Miss Kerr’s shouting for her tea but maybe I’ll get Irene to do the needful, give you time to hide that lot. If Gordie sees it, she’ll have a fit – and so will Miss Kerr.’
With a sepulchral cough and sigh so big it should have dried everything, she went back inside whilst I shoved my problem children into a bag, stashed it under the sink, then went to get a good relaxing row from Sister Gordon because I hadn’t had one for a while.
‘Your trouble is you’ve no common sense,’ my mother sighed when I went home with a tale of laundry smuggling and a missing patient. ‘I suppose it’s all in there apart from the lady under the bed.’ She nodded at the poacher’s bag. ‘It’s a wonder you weren’t caught taking it out of the hospital.’
I followed her into the scullery and watched her fill the Baby Burco recalled from its usual W.R.I. tea urn duty. ‘We’re not going to boil the dressing gown as well, are we? It might leave a horrible flavour.’
‘Watch and learn.’ Mum was testy. ‘The dressing gown should go on the pulley. It’ll be dry by tomorrow. I think it’ll be fine.’ She considered it thoughtfully. ‘Shabby chic actually. Now, hand me that other stuff.’ She threw it in, bringing the mixture to a nice rolling boil and stirring with an unusual cooking enthusiasm until at last the sheets gave up and went back to white.
‘That should do.’ She dried her hands on her apron. ‘You do the finishing off and then you can make the tea, but Jane, I hope to God you get accepted for your training soon, I’m not cut out to be a laundry maid and neither, obviously, are you.’
Miss Kerr had been reunited with her dressing gown and Mrs Davidson with her bell, but whilst Miss Kerr had begun to bloom, Mrs Davidson’s grip along with her speech, had gone, taken by a left-sided paralysis.
Sister Gordon was brisk. ‘For goodness sake, Jane, don’t be so melodramatic. Her landing under the bed had nothing to do with you. She’s had a stroke and couldn’t help herself falling. One side of her body gave way. That’s all. Now that she actually needs nursing I must go and attend to her.’
Personally, I’d rather be looked after by a piranha. No wonder I fretted, and even though my activities were confined to cleaning her room and she lay in bed so quietly, I was unhappy to see complaining Mrs Davidson reduced to a dumb impotence.
Then, one morning, I went to clean the room and found it empty.
‘Gone,’ said Wilma on a floor-polishing constitutional. She switched off her machine, sighing at the interruption and my distress. ‘Went last night.’
‘The way you talk about her you’d think she was catching a train and surely somebody might at least have mentioned it at breakfast. The poor woman’s dead. I thought she’d have put up a better fight.’
‘I never get that involved with the patients,’ declared Wilma, pulling on the flex and looking righteous, ‘saves a lot of grief. Anyway, I expect the nurses discussed it at their report and that doesn’t include you, Jane.’
‘I suppose not but maybe one day.’
Wilma was frosty. ‘There’s worse things than being a ward maid. Why don’t you look on the bright side? Without that damn bell ringing all the time, think how much more time we’ve got to get on with the real work. Here, pass me the floor polish and tell me what d’you think I should wear tonight. Billy says he likes me in pink.’
‘You could ask Miss Kerr to leave you her dressing gown. She doesn’t like its colour – prefers grey I suppose.’
‘Well at least she’s likely to be getting home and not leaving in a box.’ Wilma dismissed the subject with a flick of her duster.
‘I hope I never get that hard hearted,’ I said, returning home one day and reeling off a litany of complaints, ‘but at least Matron’s back and bringing more than sunshine with her. Honestly, Mum, the place is different when she’s around. I’d love to be like her.’
My mother looked distracted and pointed to the mantelpiece.
‘Let’s see if you get the chance.’
There, behind the canary yellow clock painted to match its surroundings, was an official-looking envelope with an Aberdeen postmark.
Dry mouthed, I lifted the letter as if it were a bomb and with shaking fingers opened it.
Bob, snoozing by the fire, yawned largely, showing the teeth of a dedicated carnivore, then returned to the rabbits of his dreams whilst in the yard hens clucked as if in disapproval. I looked at my hands so Lysol worn they could do serious damage and stretched my neck. Somewhere in the distance came the cough of an unhealthy sounding tractor keeping Dad well distant.
I scanned the paper, kicked a log to a safer place in the fire and dropped my shoulders. It had been such a long time since I’d passed any exam I wasn’t used to success, then looking down on fire flames leaping, dying and rising again, remembered Mr Matheson, grateful for his memory which too must have played a part in my acceptance.
‘Yes! I’m off to Aberdeen and I
going to be a nurse.’ I waved the paper in triumph and hugged Mum.
‘Och I knew you’d be fine,’ she said and uncrossed her fingers.
Sister Gordon would have disapproved of the air punching, and even if all the other staff were delighted, she wasn’t about to change tack.
‘What do you think you’re doing?’
I was back in harness and she’d appeared at my shoulder. ‘Since when were you allowed to test urine?’ Tucking her fingers under her belt she beat out a drum roll, a sure sign of displeasure. ‘You’re supposed to be cleaning the clinic floor. You’ve nothing to do with anything above it.
‘Ssh! I’m counting.’ I measured five urine drops into a test tube. ‘Now, ten of water. Yes, Matron said I could.’ I dropped a tablet into the test tube and watched as it fizzed and changed colour. ‘She said it’d be good practice for when I’m training.’ It was hard not to sound smug. ‘And look! Good news. It’s blue.’ I consulted a colour chart on the wall. ‘Negative. Mrs Spence’ll be pleased. There’s no sugar.’