A Hospital Summer(2)

By: Lucilla Andrews

At last I said, ‘I’m sorry, Sister, but I’m afraid we have to have a fire. I can’t light the coal without wood, and these twigs are too green to burn without help.’

‘But this is May ‒ and my duty-room. So will you be good enough,’ she demanded coldly, ‘to allow me to choose if I wish for a fire or not?’

I began again. ‘It is not just for keeping the room warm, Sister. I’ve got the breakfast eggs to boil; they are over there in that iron pot on the serving-table. And the milk has to be heated for the men’s porridge, and the porridge warmed when it gets here. The porridge and the tea will be up soon, and we have no other means of heating anything in this Block.’ As she said nothing I added, ‘We’ll need it after breakfast too, for any poultices ‒ things like that ‒ and to boil the kettle for the M.O.’s tea.’

She seemed to have grasped only one of my points. ‘Poultices? You can’t put a kaolin poultice on an open fire! It’ll get covered in soot.’

‘We heat the kaolin pot in a saucepan of water and then spread it.’

‘Why’ ‒ it appeared that she found difficulty in speaking ‒ ‘can’t you heat the poultices on the lid of the sterilizer?’

I looked at her. ‘We haven’t got a sterilizer, Sister.’

‘Surely we at least have a fish-kettle and a couple of “Primuses”?’

‘No, Sister.’

‘Then ‒ how ‒ do ‒ we ‒ sterilize?’

I nodded at the vast bottle of methylated spirits that towered over the rest of the equipment on the table marked ‘Surgery.’

‘We flame everything in a large bowl.’ I did not tell her that had she come in a few minutes sooner she would have seen me dangerously throwing meth. at my wretched fire. I had come on duty to find the Block polish-tin empty, the green twigs soaking, and was desperate. One of the patients, a Scot called Gabriel, had come to my rescue. It was Gabriel who had produced the twigs during the night: he had the reputation of being able to scrounge anything, from anywhere, at any time, and had come back after a three-minute absence with a new tin of polish, which he had said he had got from the O.C.’s batman. Knowing the Archangel, as he was inevitably nicknamed, I did not doubt this.

Miss Thanet was temporarily speechless. She walked to the surgery table and examined the contents. ‘This should not be in here, with the kitchen utensils on one table beside it, and my desk with the men’s papers on the other side. It must be moved to one of the bathrooms. I did not get a chance to see them last night, but the bathroom most convenient to this room will do. Will you see to it’ ‒ she swallowed ‒ ‘directly you have your fire going?’

I was becoming quite sorry for the poor girl. ‘We haven’t any bathrooms in this Block, Sister.’

‘No bathroom?’ She drew her poise acquired in training round her like a cloak of dignity. ‘How many beds have we got? Isn’t it seventy-two?’

‘Yes, Sister.’ The fire was crackling now, the coal had caught; so I was able to relax and give her all my attention.

‘Then how do our patients have baths? Aren’t most of them up-patients and capable of bathing themselves?’

‘Yes, Sister. They seldom stay in more than a few days; often less ‒ only part of a day.’

‘And they do not have baths automatically on admission?’

‘Officially no, Sister.’

A faint smile removed the shocked expression from her eyes. ‘And unofficially, Nurse?’

‘Sister Dirty Surgical upstairs is very good about not noticing the Ob. Block men in her bathrooms. The D.S. Block has seven bathrooms, and most of their men are bed-patients, so they can generally lend us a couple of bathrooms on the quiet.’

She looked at the fire. ‘Would floor-polish be the unofficial official fire-lighter?’

I decided I was going to like Miss Thanet. ‘Yes, Sister.’

She turned to me thoughtfully. ‘How long have you worked in this Block, Nurse?’

‘Three months, Sister.’

‘I see.’ She studied her feet now. ‘So you must know all about the work here?’

I walked mentally round that one. ‘I’ve got used to it, Sister.’