An Imperfect Life.
Chapter 11 Making Progress
It was so exciting having Maddie’s baby to look forward to. My favourite job on the wards was to be ‘baby nurse’ where two of you looked after six babies and did everything for them. Often at the 6pm feed when the baby and I were both pretty tired, I’d look at the helpless little creature snuggling in my arms, making funny little snuffling sounds and smelling so sweetly that I longed for the day when I could have my own. That would be at least three years away. Mum and Maddie were both married at this age and I hadn’t even got a serious boy friend.
Jamie and I were still corresponding and he suggested that when I came down to visit the new baby – due in February - he should be available to show me around and take me to a show or two. I was getting to know him and like him more and more so that seemed a great idea. I couldn’t help but feel had I been allowed to attend the Commem Ball our relationship would have moved on a notch but with my ineptness and Jamie’s diffidence we’d be back to square one in March.
“Pat! Have you seen the Notice Board?”
Ginny grabbed me as I was going to see if I had any post.
“Come and have a look!”
There it was – another change in our lives – we were both going on night duty.
“We’re not on the same ward – you’re on Wrigley – surgical -and I’m on Borchardt.
“You know there is a ghost on Borchardt don’t you?” Ginny had a wicked glint in her blue eyes.
“No Ginny – but you’re going to tell me aren’t you?”
“Sometimes she’s known as ‘the Grey Lady’ but in fact she was a student nurse on night duty and she hanged herself in the sluice because she had miscalculated a drip and a child died.”
Ginny saw the look of horror on my face – sometimes the responsibility of looking after very sick children was overwhelming.
“It’s probably just an old wives tale. The good thing is we have nine nights on duty and then three nights off and we have Sunlight,” Ginny tried to reassure me.
There was indeed a Sunlight Room where originally Probationers had to attend several times a week for foot exercises - picking up bean bags with their toes and learning how to care for their feet unused to rubber soles and under floor heating. They also had to wear shoes of glace kid with patent toes as part of the unifom. This was before our time. The sunlight was provided by machines which made a faint humming sound. We had to strip from the waist upwards and protect our bosoms with triangular pieces of cotton.- bright green in colour and attached round the neck and mid-riff by tapes. And to complete the alluring picture we wore goggles. As we toasted in front of the machines our skin emitted a - not unpleasant - oily smell. I’m sure it kept us healthy but the honey, golden brown tan we longed for never quite made it.
I had just experienced my first death. As well as being extremely ill this poor little toddler had thrush which we treated with gentian violet. This caused the child to have purple staining all round her mouth making it difficult to see any change in the her colour but she was carefully monitored and was placed right beside Sister’s desk.
Sister was one of the older, very caring Sisters and she was concerned about the effect the death would have on two young, inexperienced girls. She was a very down to earth person – nothing remotely ‘airy fairy‘ about her and we believed her when she said we shouldn’t feel sad about the little girl as all her problems were over now and she had gone to a better place. Where else would a child go but to Heaven?
Later on night duty we lost a child to leukaemia and I had to assist Staff Nurse with the Last Offices and was comforted by what Sister had said. The little girl was gone and we had to do this last task for her as carefully, as professionally and as reverently as possible. RIP.
At home Gran was much in demand she had been out in the States to help Auntie Janet with her new baby but she promised to return for Maddie’s confinement in February. That meant there would be no room for me at Maddie’s so I had better start saving up. Actually in my nursing days I never stopped saving up and it amazes me – looking back - on what I managed to achieve and I don’t remember ever feeling deprived.
I had recently joined the Student Nurses Association and found myself elected to be chairman. If you ever have to be on a committee, being chairman is not as onerous as it sounds; the secretary does all the work and it’s quite fun being in charge. Calling Matron to order was heady stuff as I discovered. Two of us were deputed to accompany Matron to a conference in
a big get together of Paediatric Nurses.
We travelled on the overnight sleeper – a thrill for us in itself. I remembered the scene in the film ’I know
where I’m going’ when Wendy Hiller looked out from her luxurious sleeper and
saw the Scottish hills swathed in tartan.
Matron travelled in a single sleeper fitting to her station but our
compartment was just four bunks with a moggy looking blanket each. We quickly donned our nighties - mine was a
pretty flimsy pale blue one- inherited from Auntie Janet - before the other
occupants arrived. We spent a sleepless night. Edinburgh-
“How did you sleep Nurses,” Matron demanded as we joined her in her taxi next morning?
“We found the blankets a bit scratchy on our skin Matron.”
“You didn’t undress Nurse?”
She was quite horrified when I told her and she explained the difference between a sleeper and a resting compartment. No wonder we got some funny looks from the other two passengers.
Tired of years of wearing dreary clothes emblazoned with the dreaded utility symbol we yearned for a bit of glamour so when we discovered that Dorothy Lamour (rhymes with glamour) was appearing in Edinburgh we decided to skip tea the next day and see her at the stage door after the afternoon session and before the final party. It was fascinating meeting fellow nurses from all over the country and we all felt inspired when the Matron of Great Ormond Street declared in a rousing speech:
“I would rather have an RSCN nurse my mother than have an SRN nurse my child!”
As would be Registered Sick Children’s Nurses we heartily agreed. You have to think for a child.
As soon as the afternoon session was over we scooted off to the theatre and positioned ourselves by the stage door. We waited and waited and waited.. Way past our dead-line it was obvious that either Miss Lamour was indisposed or there was another entrance. Looking back I feel a little guilty: I was senior to my companion and I suspect I was the driving force in this escapade. Disappointed and chilled we hot-footed it back to the Hospital hoping we could slink in to the party without Matron noticing but she towered above the crowd and her gimlet eyes spotted us immediately. We froze as she strode towards us with the small rounded Matron who had given the rousing speech clinging to her arm.
“You mustn’t be cross with them Jane. They are only young once.”
“Where have you been,” Matron glowered?
“We’re so sorry Matron, we went to see Dorothy Lamour at the stage door but she didn’t turn up.”
Peals of laughter erupted from the little one and Matron’s lips twitched and her eyes became very twinkly. The diminutive Matron was the head of
Ormond Street- the crème de la crème. She was an absolute honey and slipped us ten
bob each when she thought Matron wasn’t looking but Matron missed nothing.
Night Duty was interesting. I soon got used to sleeping during the day. We slept on the Night Nurse’s Corridor which was kept fairly quiet and were wakened each night by the maid- Emily’s clarion call: “Five past seven Nurse!” BANG as she slammed the door. The four words were sung – a different note each word bur always the same delivery. By the time you had heard this twenty odd times you were well and truly awake. I wonder how old Emily was. She was white haired but sprightly with muscular arms. Her rhythm never deviated.
On the ward there would be at least two nurses – one a senior. Overall was Senior Night Sister who I liked. A dark haired sturdy Scot; she was totally in charge without any bluster, hard working and funny. She had massive responsibilities and could be summoned from all over the hospital by her personal buzzer. One night we had to summon her and there was an unusual, slight delay before she appeared.
“Can’t I even pee in peace,” she demanded?
The Junior Night Sister was a character. She had heavy rimmed glasses, thick straight hair, a sarky manner and a big behind. She swaggered around the wards and I suspected we wouldn’t get on. I was right. One of my duties in the morning was to get the children’s breakfast and after chatting to some of the children decided it might be a nice change to mash the bananas in the porridge. It was more work but the children liked it. JNS hit the roof and sent me to Matron. This was an unfortunate punishment for me as I had been sent the week previously. The thermometers had mercury in them and one had to shake them vigorously to get the mercury down so it was fairly easy to break them which warranted a visit to Matron. The next time this happened I decided to pay for it myself rather than face Matron again.
When I went to see her about the porridge she just sighed and told me to stick to the normal diet.
It was time for our set to come off the wards for an intensive revision block. In October we sat the State Preliminary Exam. Success meant you never had to repeat the first year so that General training would be two years instead of three. In November we learned that most of us had passed - we lost some of the original 21 but all my close friends got through. We could throw away our grey belts and wear blue with pride.
There was no shortage of young men- I just hadn’t met Mr Right and I seriously wondered if I would be left on the shelf. Ginny and I went to the NAFFI in
and met two
Welsh soldiers. One of them – Harry -
wrote me a lovely poem, but a few days later they called at the hospital,
asking for us- an absolute NO-NO- so they were history. Manchester
I arranged to have a week’s holiday in March and - as Gran would be staying with Maddie- booked myself a room at The Girl’s Friendly Society which was in Oxford itself and more accessible for Jamie.
We were so lucky to have Gran with all her midwifery experience and her capacious bosom was a bonus –especially for the children. As a child when she came to visit I would be waiting for her at the door and would say;
“Cum in Gyan! Sit down! Beya!”
‘Beya-ing’ was resting a child on her bosom and gently rocking to and fro and sucking her teeth in time. Bliss for babies and toddlers alike. There was never any boiling of bottles, teats or comforters in our family. All babies were breast fed and then were supplemented with ‘pobbies’- pieces of white bread soaked in hot milk and sprinkled with sugar. Its strange fragrance instantly evokes my childhood.
1948 was coming to an end- a year that had seen the Olympics held in London where Fanny Blankler –Koen of the Netherlands won 4 Gold Medals, Israel became independent, Ghandi was assassinated in Delhi and the film de jour was ‘Easter Parade with Fred Astaire and Judy Garland.
We were all looking forward to the Christmas Ball – Balls really because we had two – one in December and one in January- we could choose which one. I chose the later one in order to have something to look forward to but most of my pals chose the early one so I had lots of help getting ready and had my pick of accessories. These were such fun times – sometimes more fun than the event.
There were the usual pre- dance nerves; I didn’t have a partner- suppose no-one asked me to dance and I ended up a wall-flower? I finally got a grip and drifted in as the music was starting and was immediately asked to dance by the handsome consultant Mr Haxton, followed by Doctor Feldman. There was a different partner for every dance and I started to relax and enjoy it. I noticed a bunch of naval officers that Matron had invited, looking debonair in their uniforms and a dark haired one came over and asked me to dance. As we squared up to each other I felt an instant attraction and when he drew me closer and I felt his hand on my waist and his face close to mine I felt a warm tingly glow. His name was Andrew and he said the officer I had met at last year’s Ball had told him to look out for me. I asked him how he had recognised me and then grimaced when he told me. I still hadn’t learnt how to accept a compliment graciously. He wasn’t as tall as Jamie but somehow that made him seem closer. Physically I was drawn to him and he was so much fun. It didn’t seem to occur to us to separate at the end of the dance - why would you? The evening flew by and at some stage we went out for air- in spite of the snow. We walked and talked and kissed three times and arranged to meet the following day. At this stage Jamie and I were friends who were attracted to each other. We corresponded, had only met twice and hadn’t seen each other for almost a year so there was no sense of commitment. I day dreamed all through the next day whilst getting lecture notes up to date. I met Andrew at 7pm and we went to the flicks to see ‘The Winslow Boy.’ My diary notes ’It’s nice to be kissed by someone who knows how.’
Then there was a hiatus. I got a message that Andrew couldn’t make our next date as he had tonsillitis. He had a spell in sickbay- had a tonsillectomy and then went back to
leave. Meanwhile Maddie had a bouncing
boy – I was booked in at the GFS in Wales
and Jamie had awarded me a blue for sending him a requested photo. Oxford
As it says in the song: ‘There may be trouble ahead.’