A Hospital Summer

By: Lucilla Andrews

Chapter One

LIFE IN OBSERVATION

The Sister in charge of the Observation Block that morning was new to the hospital and the Army. She had arrived in the camp yesterday afternoon on finishing her brief initiation period of military hospital life in London. She was young, good-looking, and she wore her new uniform with the efficient air of a highly trained nurse. Her name was Miss Thanet; her rank, Sister in the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Military Nursing Service Reserve. Last evening Matron had shown her briskly round the Ob. Block. Mary Frantly-Gibbs and I, the two V.A.D.s on evening duty in the Block, had decided Miss Thanet was a very pretty girl, and the answer to an M.O.’s prayer. We had reserved our judgment on her as a Sister, since, as Mary said, ‘The prettier they are, alas, the bitchier they get. On past showing, Clare dear, I would so much rather have had her look like the back of a bus.’

The door of the hall that served the Ob. Block as duty-room, stock-room, sterilizing-room, and kitchen was wide open when Sister arrived on duty. It was on the ground floor; the early sun that was illuminating the square outside shone through the open door, and made the polish of the hall floor seem dim and drab.

The sunshine was cut off when Miss Thanet appeared in the doorway, and stopped still, surveying with patent horror the prospect before her.

The prospect was me. I was kneeling on the floor in front of the open grate at the far end of the hall, throwing dollops of floor-polish on to the collection of green twigs that one of the patients had scrounged from some garden to serve as kindling.

Miss Thanet recovered herself and walked up to me.

‘Nurse ‒ Dillon, isn’t it? Nurse, what do you think you are doing?’

I said, ‘Good morning, Sister. Lighting the fire.’ I heaved on another handful of polish to show willing.

She shuddered. ‘Nurse Dillon. Did not Matron tell me last evening that you had been six months in this hospital?’

‘Yes, Sister.’ I was sorry not to be able to give her my full attention, but I was too anxious about my fire, which was still only spluttering weakly. I threw on more polish.

‘Nurse!’ Her voice rose slightly. ‘Will you please get off the floor when you are talking to me? And will you please never again let me see you kneeling on the floor ‒ and in an apron! What impression would the patients have if they saw you in this undignified position?’

I stood up, reluctantly. The last handful of polish seemed to be doing the trick, but I did not trust that fire. The grate was shockingly temperamental and if you did not watch it constantly at the early stages of lighting, even if the twigs began to flame, as now, it would produce a sudden draught and blow out the fire without conscience.

‘I’m sorry, Sister,’ I apologized, ‘but you see ‒’

Miss Thanet tapped one elegant foot. ‘Please do not try to excuse yourself, Nurse. There can be no excuse for such unprofessional conduct. And just what do you think you are doing, wasting good floor-polish in this way? Do you not realize’ ‒ I braced myself, waited, and, as she was so new, it came ‒ ‘that there is a war on? Stores are precious, and to be saved. And do you not also realize that it is May, a warm day, and one on which we shall certainly not require a fire?’

I dusted my apron as I listened to her, and kept one eye on my fire. I did not intend to let it go out again. I did not interrupt her lecture, because, as she had just reminded me, I had been six months in the Army, and those six months had taught me, among other things, that when authority was on a soap-box the technique was to listen in silence until authority stepped off the soap-box, and then carry on as before. Sisters had to lecture V.A.D.s ‒ that was their job; mine, at this moment, was to get that fire going properly; so when she finished speaking I apologized humbly. She turned away, and as her back was to me, I carefully dropped another lump of polish on to the smouldering twigs.

Unfortunately, the lump sizzled; so did Sister. She swung round. ‘Nurse Dillon, did you hear one word I said?’

I hesitated. I was wary about the explanation she was forcing me to make, as I knew she was not going to like being taught certain aspects of her new job by an untrained V.A.D., half a dozen years younger than herself.