Authors: Jane Yeadon
‘I’m Mrs Low and delighted to be your practical work instructor. I know we are going to enjoy these three months together and that you will leave here able to take your places as caring representatives of this P.T.S. That is of paramount importance.’ She clasped her comfortable bosom and looked upward with such sincerity she should have been accompanied by a burst from a heavenly choir.
‘Now our first practical lesson is,’ her inhalation could have hoovered up the dust particles dancing round her halo, ‘how to properly fill a hot water bottle. Yes! A hot water bottle! It is of paramount importance,’ a waggish finger waved, ‘that we learn to do the simple things well. We can then proceed. We shall do this in the practical procedure room. If you would follow me please.’
‘This is heavy stuff,’ grumbled Jo, as we cheeped light discontent in the tutor’s comfortable wake. ‘My brain’s going to burst with the challenge. Still, she’s a friendly old soul. I wouldn’t like to upset her.’
The other classroom was large, light and full of draughts, with a life-size doll in a state of advanced decline in the hospital bed placed centre stage. There were cupboards, sinks and enough trolleys to mobilise the entire caring concept. For the patient’s view, long poorly-fitted windows gave out onto seagulls tap dancing for worms on an unbroken length of stunted anaemic-looking grass. Somewhere in the distance, the city grumbled, its moans carried by a chilly wind through the windows and demanding a presence in the room. It wasn’t the best prospect for a patient exposed to the care of a novice army.
Mrs Low gathered us round the bed.
‘I want you to pay close attention to my technique. It is of paramount importance,’ Maisie dug me in the ribs, ‘that you tell the patient what you are about to do, otherwise they can get an awful fright. I know this personally.’ She put her hand on her heart and rolled her eyes with the drama of a prima donna. ‘You see, Nurses, I was once a patient and had to have my appendix out. As soon as I was admitted, a nurse came to my bedside with a razor. In my anxious state I thought she was going to do the operation right there and then.’ She winced at the recall, then, ‘You see, Nurses, she didn’t
‘So what did she want to do?’ asked Isobel.
Mrs Low’s look was as sharp as the alleged razor, but Isobel’s look of dedicated interest sent the tutor on a mission to explain about cleanliness and how being shaved from stem to stern guaranteed hygiene for an operation.
‘And six months stubbly discomfort,’ murmured Isobel, lips fixed and looking dreamy.
Still, Mrs Low’s lecture was long enough to stop anyone wanting to hear more. There were no further questions.
Our tutor now advanced upon the dummy, face aglow and arms outstretched.
‘Good Morning, Mrs Brown. I hear your hot water bottle’s cold. Now I know it’s not easy for you to move, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just get it out for you. I think it’s under the bedclothes somewhere.’
We watched, becoming interested, as she prepared to climb aboard whilst Rosie went red and searched for her hanky.
Mrs Brown, plainly overcome by the exertions of her carer foraging, clucking and explaining, flopped drunkenly to the side.
Jo frowned at Rosie who was having some difficulty in breathing. Meanwhile, the rest of us were mesmerised by the sight of Mrs Low’s sturdy calves and the sound of her voice muffled under the blankets.
‘Goodness me, Mrs Brown, I think you must be hiding it!’
When all but the tutor’s heels had disappeared Isobel gave a gentle cough. ‘Excuse me, but is this what you’re looking for?’ She pointed to a bottle lying on a table beside the sink.
‘And doesn’t this just prove how important it is to have a real dialogue with your patients? Listen, listen and listen!’ Not missing a beat, Mrs Low emerged, fixing her cap in a composed way and beaming at her patient. ‘Isn’t that so, Mrs Brown?’
We looked again at the dummy and thought Mrs Low should spend more time with real people, especially as we now had to emulate her demonstration. Under her dedicated eye, we explained, we listened, oh how we listened and filled the hot water bottle as a water-play bonus. Time tripped by, and we got wet and bored enough to stop pretending our patient was capable of dialogue.
‘You will have a written examination on this on Friday just so that I’m quite sure you understand this procedure.’ Mrs Low momentarily sounded as fierce as Miss Jones. ‘So you see it is important to concentrate.’ Then she smiled and normal service was restored. ‘But I can see you’ve all been working very hard and with a little diligence you will manage very nicely. I think you’ve earned your break.’
As she left the classroom, Isobel stretched and, waving her fingers to the ceiling, sighed, ‘This could be a long week.’
She was right, for, whilst Miss Jones filled the days juggling, levering and raining anatomical wonders up to a bilious point, Mrs Low continued to smile and radiate benevolence and paramount importance. Subjected to so much care, Mrs Brown seemed to have uncooperatively aged decades and begun to leak stuffing. Morag agonised over every move and filled reams of paper in her neat handwriting, but as I had filled a few hot water bottles in my time, I figured a question on Mrs Brown’s one would be a doddle.
I wondered what I should wear to Beth’s party.
‘Are you nervous about tomorrow’s exam?’ Bored in the evening with bedroom and study, I went next door where Maisie was lying on her bed surrounded by a pile of books with her eyes shut and the occasional twirls of her mules to indicate life.
‘I’m sick to death of Mrs Brown, our tutors and the great and good works of the kidney.’ Maisie, reaching out for her spectacles, knocked over her bible. ‘Damn!’ She swung her legs over the side. ‘Tell you what, Jane, I really fancy going to the pictures. Fancy coming?’
‘Great idea. What about the others?’
‘Let’s just go,’ Maisie was already up and throwing on outdoor clothes, ‘otherwise Rosie will turn it into a military manoeuvre and I don’t want to be marched into town.’ She thought for a moment then bobbed her curls. Cheerful as they might look, they were also signs of determination. ‘Why don’t we take the lift? Then we’ll avoid seeing anybody and having to explain where we’re going.’
‘Do you think we should?’ I was doubtful. I hated that lift but didn’t want to appear soft in front of a worldly twenty-one-year-old fae Peterheid.
‘Honestly, they treat us like kids around here.’ Maisie applying lipstick like a guided missile caught my worried look in the mirror. ‘What’s the big deal about this lift? Anyway, I wouldn’t put it past Rosie to be out patrolling her floor and I for one think we all need a break from each other.’
‘What about Morag then? She’s in a permanent state of anxiety. When she hasn’t got her nose in a textbook, she’s down at the kiosks with her ear to a phone. I think she’s really homesick and we should ask her. We’re supposed to be learning to be members of a caring profession. We could practise on her.’
‘Ok. Just go and see if you can find a whole pair of stockings and get your coat.’ She blew herself a kiss in the mirror. ‘We’ll just nip into the lift and go down to her floor.’
Like burglars, we stole along the corridor and pressed the lift button as if it were red hot. Slowly, like a wakening monster, it creaked into view.
‘Sshh!’ I covered my ears whilst Maisie opened the gate then, as soon as we stepped in, crashed it shut. ‘Quick! Turn off the lights – we don’t want to be seen.’ I screwed my eyes shut in case throwing the switch light off hadn’t worked.
The descent was painfully slow.
‘We’d have been quicker taking the stairs,’ I grumbled, ‘and why are we stopping here anyway?’
‘Because I’ve pressed the stop button,’ said Sister Cameron glaring through the latticed ironworks at us. ‘The pair of you. Get out, now!’
‘We’ve just had an awful row.’
Apart from a framed photograph of a tweedy-looking guy on her bedside table, every other surface in Morag’s room was covered with handwritten notes and books whilst bean-shaped illustrations enlivened the walls. Instead of the dreaded suit hanging like a repressed clerkess on the back of a chair, Morag had changed into an Ovalteeny in her flannelette pyjamas.
It wasn’t easy finding room to sit and, plainly getting ready for bed, she looked flustered at our visit.
‘Crumbs! You’ve been busy.’ Maisie perched one cheek on the side of the bed. ‘We were actually coming to take you away from all this to the pictures when Sister Cameron found us in the lift and sent us packing.’
Maisie didn’t add that, instead of going to a quiet prayer meeting she’d invented as the reason we were leaving so discreetly, we’d been roundly told to do something a little more Christian.
‘I’m worried about that nurse from Tain,’ Sister Cameron had said. ‘She’s homesick enough to leave. Just you go and give her a bit of your company instead and don’t let me ever see you in this lift again.’ She’d put her back against the door as if barricading it.
No problem, I’d thought.
So here we were, back where we intended to be, but with the extra baggage of a lie between us.
Doubling it, I offered, ‘We thought we’d take the lift for a laugh.’
Morag looked shocked at the very prospect of fun and the lift in the same breath. ‘I’d have persuaded you not to take it. Honestly, you’re a right pair of rascals. I’d have thought you’d have been studying anyway.’ She nodded at the beans, ‘I just hope I remember where to put the ureters tomorrow.’
‘Well, maybe we’ll get back to our studies too.’ Maisie squinted at the drawings and looked startled. ‘Is that where they go? In that case I might have a problem with mine. Maybe we should get back to our studies after all.’
Next morning, Miss Jones handed out paper with the smug expression of somebody with all the answers. ‘Now I’ll find out who’s been paying attention and grasped the concept of study. There will be no speaking throughout the examination and remember, it’s facts we’re after.’ She pointed to the wall clock. ‘You will have half an hour for each question.’
The kidney question didn’t come as a surprise and already Sheila was using coloured pencils with artistic skill: cute cartoon-like figures having personalised her notes all week.
‘They’re sperms,’ she’d explained. ‘Affa easy tae draw.’
I hoped she didn’t feel Miss Jones needed the same light touch on her exam paper, but since I didn’t want her bored, I wrote about the great and good works of the kidney, recommending one with plenty ureters as the best plumber in town.
The hot water bottle question was so much easier, we considered it an insult to our intelligence. Still, we didn’t want to disappoint Mrs Low and wrote with a diligence surely enough to please her.
Gathering the finished papers, Mrs Low beamed upon us. ‘Now, Miss Jones and I want you all to have a lovely weekend and to come back fresh, rested and ready for next week. We’ll be doing lots of practical procedures and we must get them absolutely perfect, or Mrs Brown will be asking for the Complaints Book, won’t she?’
‘Tae pot wi Mrs Broon.’ Sheila’s artwork had obviously consumed her, leaving her wilting and homesick. ‘Ah canna wait tae get the bus hame an’ I’m nay sure if ah’ll be back.’
‘Oh surely you will,’ Hazel said, chucking her under the chin. ‘Don’t you let that old Jonesie put you off.’
‘Ah’ll see.’ Sheila, looking unhappily into the middle distance, picked at a cardigan button and sighed. ‘Ah’m nay makin’ any promises an’ whativver happens, Ah’m only buyin’ a single ticket.’
‘I know what you mean but Tain’s too far and I can’t afford the fare.’ Morag’s little face was creased in misery. ‘Anyway, I’ve made such a mess of that exam I’ll be asked to leave without sitting any more.’
‘Ah doot it but fittaboot coming tae Inverurie wi’ me, we’ve great dances on a Saturday an’ at least it’d tak yer mind off yer studies?’ Sheila was already brightening but Morag looked aghast. ‘I couldn’t possibly. My boyfriend wouldn’t like me enjoying myself, especially when he’s saving to come and visit me in Aberdeen next weekend. No thanks, Sheila, I’ll just stay put.’
Maisie however had no such reserve. ‘Well I’d fancy some fun. Could anybody come?’
Sheila was pleased. ‘Aye an’ fittaboot you other quines? We could mak a right do of it. Ye could a’ come oot in the bus tomorrow night.’
But Maisie was the only taker and having consulted the runes about timetables and fixing up a time, said she was already getting excited and what about us all going to the cinema to celebrate it was the weekend.
‘There’s a good film on.
‘No. I’m going home to see my dog. Anyway, I don’t think it’s my style.’ Rosie fluffed her curls. ‘It’s supposed to have a sad ending.’
Linking arms with Morag, I said, ‘Well in that case it sounds perfect. Come on, a nice bit of gloom will do us the world of good.’
Next morning, smoke was issuing from the pantry on our floor where Maisie, hedgehogged in rollers, was throwing charred remains into the sink.
‘Quick! Shut the door.’ She turned on the taps and let the toast sigh into sappy oblivion. ‘There! That sorted that, I don’t want Sister Cameron thinking there’s a fire.’
‘Coo, Maisie, you live dangerously.’ I watched as she slung more Sliced Pan into the still glowing toaster.
‘Don’t worry.’ She was supremely confident. ‘It’ll be fine. Just relax. It’s Saturday, we’ve got this super wee place so we don’t have to go trailing into the hospital for breakfast, and with a bit of luck, Sister Cameron’s off duty.’
She cleaned her hands on her dressing gown, then rubbed them together in glee. ‘Isn’t it great it’s Saturday? I can’t think why you’re even dressed. Cuppa?’ She switched on the kettle, looked out two thick white cups and banged them down on the formica-topped table.
I wished I’d such a leisurely approach to time. All week I’d been looking forward to a lie-in, yet I was already up and ready for action in a young day, unsure if I’d time for that cup of tea.
Maisie said, ‘Go on! You can do it. Take a chair and while you’re at it, tell me about Beth’s digs.’