Authors: Jane Yeadon
I eyed her thoughtfully and held up the tube. ‘Now there’s a funny thing. Look! Same colour as your eyes, Sister.’
‘It’s a pity you’re leaving so soon, doubtless in another month, you’d be doing brain surgery,’ her voice was as sharp as a knife, ‘but in the meantime, the toilet in the men’s ward needs cleaning.’
She stopped to look out the window onto the grounds where Matron was speaking to Henry. Tap tap, went the fingers whilst she made a line of her mouth. Gardeners and cleaners must be part of her fiefdom. Maybe he’d lent her his secateurs to cut Miss Kerr’s nails before she went home and Henry needed them back.
She turned on her heel. ‘I’m going to have a word with Henry. Mind and you do that toilet properly,’ she said as she pointed a finger. ‘Your work is so slapdash, I don’t think you’ll find your training such an easy billet.’
I hoped she wasn’t right. It might be hard going back to study, especially as the recommended books were heavy going with illustrations explicit enough to make Dad blench and Mum ban them to my bedroom. Along with some paper nylon petticoats, I’d put them in a suitcase and closed the lid.
Time wore on with the patients clocking a countdown in case I forgot to leave.
‘How time flies!’ they said, as if their days were full of action.
‘Not long now,’ said my parents, consulting the calf feed calendar and marking off the days. ‘One more week.’
What’s in a week? I had known longer minutes.
‘Don’t tell me they’re making you do the washing on your last day!’ Henry, hedge clippers in hand, watched as I pegged it out in his prescribed way. ‘You’ve certainly learnt a thing or two. That’s a perfect line,’ a light breeze got up and made the washing move and dip as if in acknowledgement, ‘and now you’re going and I’m going to have to train someone new. Me and Sister Gordon.’ He scissored the air by way of exercise.
‘I’d prefer you any day, Henry,’ I said and went to say goodbye to the patients.
It was different coming to Aberdeen this time. Had I not been a Grantown sophisticate with a doctorate in cleaning I’d have jumped for joy. Instead, I was cool and soignée, assuring Beth that I’d easily find my own way to the Nurses’ Home.
‘We can catch up at the weekend then,’ she said. ‘We’re thinking of having a party.’
This time I didn’t need to be told I’d arrived. Up a small incline offering an easy view over the hospital, the Home had lost nothing of its barrack-like exterior but as I’d already learnt, outward appearances can be deceptive.
Some yards away was a tennis court disused except by seagulls for target practice. A keen wind whistled through the rusting mesh with a monotonous whine and so chilling to the backbone, I rang the bell fast.
To my surprise, the door immediately burst open and a girl carrying suitcases tumbled out.
‘My mind’s made up and I’m never coming back!’ she called to someone over her shoulder. She was tall but with the defeated slump of a hockey captain whose team had just lost.
‘Why won’t you give it one more go?’
‘No. And it’s no good you trying.’ The girl’s tone softened, and she paused for a moment, the wind tugging at her skirt as if trying to hold her back. ‘Sister Cameron, you’ve been a wonderful support and done your best, but if I did stay,’ she thought for a moment then grimaced, ‘I’d murder Sister Gorightly, and she’s ruined enough of my time already.’
She had startled the gulls into flight, their cries echoing her distress. They wheeled high above as she ran down the stone steps oblivious to the bulk of her luggage.
But she’d fled, going so fast I thought she might overtake my taxi. Her heels clattered down the road until the noise faded into the distance.
‘Yes – well, well – by Jove! Not quite the welcome you expected. I hope you don’t think this happens every day. A clash of personalities – that’s all.’ There was concern in the voice of the small trig woman presumably Sister Cameron though her badge only said Home Sister. She held up the oiling can in her hand. ‘Maybe I should have used this on the lassie instead of the door,’ she sounded rueful, ‘but och, don’t you be looking so worried. Yon nurse was always homesick and I’m thinking Sister Gorightly was a grand excuse.’ She twinkled a welcome and held open the door. ‘Come away, come away.’
I stepped in and the door slammed behind as if on a spring.
‘At least the oil’s worked there then. Now what would be your name?’
The big entrance hall was imposing, impersonal and empty with a bust of Florence Nightingale dead-eyeing proceedings. Sister Cameron’s shoes clicked on the marble floor as she went to her glass-fronted office, like a jailer’s headquarters with all its keys.
She picked one out and ticked a list.
‘Nurse Macpherson!’ She handed over a key marked 321. ‘That should be easy to remember,’ she chuckled as if numbers were hilarious. She picked up a suitcase. ‘Here give me one. I’ll take you up to your room and because you’ve luggage we’ll take the lift.’
There was a classroom and a cloakroom area aggressively bristling with coat pegs nearby. ‘You’ll be there for the first three months. It’s the P.T.S., short for Preliminary Training School. You see they wouldn’t be wanting you near the patients just yet – and you with heather still between your ears.’ She had the bright-eyed look of a Skye terrier.
A feeling of dutiful learning followed us to the lift, an ugly ironwork tucked in a dark corner. Sister Cameron marched towards it holding the suitcase as if it were feather light then, putting it down, gave the door a good shake. ‘It’s not for everyday use. You young girls are fine and fit and the stairs are grand exercise. Anyway, it’s just a touch temperamental.’
A well-aimed kick at the whole contraption seemed to do the trick, though it needed a small ankle nip to get me aboard.
‘Okey dokey!’ sang my minder, following with a carefree spring and clanging the door shut whilst posting herself a pandrop.
Slowly and with a lot of murderous creaks, we inched heavenward, eyeball to eyeball, whilst the suitcases jostled for position: reluctant travellers in a peppermint world.
Meantime and between pandrop crunches, Sister Cameron explained, ‘I’ve put you on the third floor beside another new girl. She’s here already and I’m thinking she’s a wee bit homesick. No medical cure for that you’ll know. I expect the others will be here shortly too but they’ll be on another floor. We like to mix older students with the new but don’t tell them I said that.’ She clapped her hands. ‘There’s actually not so many in your class so you’ll make chums all the sooner for that of it. Ah! Here we are.’
Grateful for survival, I followed as she went along a corridor, which, compared to downstairs, was livelier and brighter with towel-draped bathrooms, cluttered pantries and singing kettles. Behind some of the bedroom doors drifted sounds of transistors, chat and laughter.
‘321!’ With the air of a conjuror, Sister Cameron threw open a door. ‘And it’s all yours.’
Even if it didn’t have the same charm as my Ian Charles room, the yellow curtains, light furniture and red rug made a cheerful statement. Unlike patients, nurses weren’t expected to throw themselves out of windows, which were wide and looked over the city, its granite glitter so clinically clean it could, itself, have been a huge hospital. Beyond was the colourful edge of the North Sea: hard blue in the March light.
‘First and foremost, you’ll need to be reading these.’ An oily finger stabbed at a notice so big it practically obliterated the mirror. ‘We don’t want you burning to death so there’ll be no smoking either, and then you’ll need to unpack and mind you do it tidily, the maids don’t like cleaning up after other folk’s boorachs – it’s a fine Highland word for mess as you may well know. And then you could mebbe call on the lassie next door I was telling you about and don’t forget,’ she consulted her fob watch, ‘tea’s at five in the staff dining room in the hospital.’
With a kindly nod and in a menthol vapour, Sister Cameron headed back to the lift, ears pricked and presumably preparing for the next incarceration.
The suitcases had been dumped at the door and made the room feel temporary. I wasn’t in the mood for unpacking so I threw the rest of my stuff on the chair and sat on the bed savouring my title. Nurse Macpherson! I tried a bounce but the mattress was unyielding. I tried a few times more and was working up to a nice steady rhythm when there was a knock at the door.
A girl with hair even redder than mine stuck her head round the door. ‘Hi! Are you ok? You sound out of breath.’ She had mauve-rimmed spectacles which she adjusted by a combination of finger pushing and nose twitch. ‘I’m Maisie.’
‘I’m Jane and I was just celebrating being called Nurse. I’m trying to knock this bed into shape but it’s resisting. Come on in and have a seat.’ Cheered by the newcomer’s corkscrew curls and pink furry mules, I leapt to clear the chair.
‘Well that won’t fall any further.’ She stepped over the heap. ‘I’d done a fair bit of unpacking and was just starting to wonder if I was going to be the only one here when I heard you and Sister Cameron.’ She thought for a moment then added, ‘Actually the wall’s are so thin, I heard your conversation and then the crashing so I thought I’d better see you were alright. Anyway, I thought it might be your first time away from home too and you’d be bound to find it strange.’
Sister Cameron had hinted that Maisie might be homesick but there was something about her jaw which suggested certainty whilst she looked a little old for this to be her first time away.
‘I’m delighted you’re here. It is all new and a bit scary.’ I didn’t mention the runaway girl in case my new friend escaped as well. ‘It’s such a barn of a place I can’t imagine ever getting used to it.’
Maisie got up, smoothed her skirt and realigned her spectacles. ‘My folks always say not to be frightened of the unknown, maybe offer a wee prayer then go and see what’s what. So why don’t we do that? I’m dying to have a nose. Come on, Jane, there’ll be plenty time for you to unpack later.’ Beckoning, she made for the door. ‘A wee adventure, eh?’
Her giggle was disconcerting but, grateful that I wasn’t expected to fall on my knees, I meekly followed and as we headed for the great unknown, asked Maisie what she used to do.
‘Worked in a corsetry department at home. I eventually got curious about what went on under the whalebones and left before the
All In One
got me.’ Like someone looking for change, Maisie felt about herself then twanged something elastic. ‘Peterhead’s alternative to the strait jacket.’
Her heels clopped gently as we tried the next landing, then stopped at big notices threatening dire reprisals should night staff be disturbed. The corridors were long, dark and so suffocatingly quiet, a snore could have started a riot. I found I was holding my breath.
‘I’ve got a terrible urge to scream,’ whispered Maisie clutching my shoulder. ‘Maybe we should try somewhere else. Let’s go downstairs and see if there’s more action there.’
Everything in the Home was on a big scale except for a small library which wore a learned air with rich blue carpet, red velvet curtains and by the look of their dull covers, improving tomes, stacked wall to wall. The sole occupant was a bluebottle frantically trying for freedom. Frustrated swears filled the room until Maisie threw a window open to free it and let silence back in.
We moved on to a huge sitting room complete with grand piano. The view over the hospital grounds was astonishingly boring unless you liked flat grass with uncomfortable-looking garden seats regimented round it. The indoor chairs were the same, planted and unloved upon a swirly patterned carpet.
‘It’s not very homely is it?’ Maisie tried out a chord on the yellow keys, but the sound was as bad as her accompanying warble whilst the long chintz curtains shivered as if in horror.
‘Next time we’re back, we’ll put on our tiaras. Come on, it’s time for tea.’ I closed the door with its Strictly Private sign. ‘I wouldn’t want to miss it. I’m hungry.’
‘I miss the slippers.’ Maisie’s impressively polished flat black shoes twinkled alongside as we reached the hospital. She looked earnest. ‘I’ve bought two pairs. I hope that’s enough. They say nursing’s really hard on your feet.’
But I was too busy to respond savouring the joy of walking along that green-floored corridor remembered from my interview. Sister Cameron had said we were to go to the
dining room and now we were actually part of it.
We followed the smell of boiled cabbage, went upstairs and found the dining room, a drab hall with dark wood panelling meeting walls the colour of jaundice. A portrait of the Queen took pride of place above the food-serving area. She was dressed for a grander occasion and looking over rows of apparently colour-coded nurses sitting at tables.
‘They’re the staff nurses,’ Maisie whispered as we crept past a line of serious pink with white caps bent over their plates in single-minded concentration. ‘You know the students by the grey uniform and yon stupid hats that look like foolscap. Ha! Dead right! I wonder how they stay on.’
A maid in green noticed us and directed us to a table right at the back where there were others, conspicuous by their ordinary clothes.
‘Come and sit with us. We’re new too,’ a small plump girl beckoned. With blonde corkscrew curls exploding round a red-cheeked face, she was a cherub taking time off from a Christmas card.
‘Come and sit by us.’ With her dimples and little hands a blur of instruction and organisation, she was clearly one of God’s really useful little helpers. ‘Hello. I’m Rosie and,’ the hands whirled into action, ‘this is Isobel, Sheila, Jo and Hazel. See, I’ve remembered!’ She looked round the table in triumph.
‘You forgot me – everybody does,’ sighed a girl patting mousy hair as if to remind herself she was actually present.
‘I have not!’ Rosie was triumphant. ‘It’s Morag and it rhymes with toe rag. See!’
In a sensible grey suit with her self-effacing way it was hard to imagine anybody less like a tearaway, but Rosie’s attention had turned to the mince and cabbage lying in a terminal state at the side of Isobel’s plate. ‘You not hungry?’