One Night in LondonBy: Lucilla Andrews
One Night in London
A hospital in wartime
The Jason Trilogy Book 1
The Thames was the colour of blood that night. Venous blood, Nurse Carter registered absently, and emptied her bucket of wet sheets into the damp-laundry bin on the ward balcony. On the opposite embankment the uneven frieze of jagged black shadows and the great gaps that even in the blackout stood out like missing teeth, were splashed with pink, and the face Big Ben turned to the river had a rosy glow. The colour came from the arclights of the rescue squads digging for the people buried by a V2 rocket sometime that afternoon. The diggers had to work slowly. No one knew for sure exactly where all the bodies were or how many of the bodies were still alive.
Nurse Carter glanced at the lights across the river, then turned her head and didn’t look back. She was now twenty-two and before she had been out of her teens she had learnt that she needed both physical and mental effort when she wanted to suspend thought and imagination. Earlier in the war she had only managed to practise this technique consciously, but as the war dragged on and particularly after the last two months, it had become one of her conditioned reflexes. It was two months to the night since she had been transferred from the sprawling conglomeration of Nissen huts sixty miles from London that was the evacuated home of her parent hospital, to work in what remained of St Martha’s Hospital, London. During that time, though fewer V1 flying bombs were reaching London, the V2 rocket attacks had started. Very occasionally she wondered what the V3s would be like, but never for more than a few seconds as that involved thinking of the future. By that night in October 1944 she had long learnt never to think of the future. Today was enough, unless one happened to be a night nurse, and if so, tonight.
She had to go back into the ward, but paused before opening the heavily-battened balcony doors and gulped in the clean cold night air, like a swimmer about to dive under water. Once inside, with the doors quickly closed behind her, she wondered once again how Wally’s patients endured, slept, and more often than not survived in the ward air.
Walter Walters Ward, named after a dead and otherwise forgotten Martha’s physician, had for the past century been ‘Wally’s’ to patients and staff, with two present exceptions. One was the Senior Night Sister, who objected to all abbreviations on principle; the other was Wally’s present night senior, Nurse Dean. Nurse Dean was a staff nurse who had won the gold medal for her year when her training ended and had nothing against abbreviations in general, providing they were nice.
Wally’s had initially been a men’s medical ward, but during the blitzes and again since the flying bombs started, in common with every other ward in Martha’s, London, Wally’s admitted surgical and medical patients. Technically, medicals were on the left, surgicals on the right, unless, as now happened regularly, the surgical overflow swamped both sides and emergency beds were put up down the middle. In normal circumstances Wally’s had forty beds, eighteen in line up each side, two set facing down the ward on both sides of the balcony doors. There was room for ten emergency beds in single file down the middle, but none were up that night and only one of the twenty-nine occupied beds held a medical patient. The long wide ward had once had a window between every bed, but shortly after the first blitz in September 1940, every window in the still usable parts of the hospital had been bricked-in. And every night Wally’s smelt as if it hadn’t been aired since 1940. The hot, stuffy atmosphere reeked of sweat, warm bed mackintoshes, pus, ether, iodiform, carbolic, tobacco, anaesthetics, and, when Nurse Carter came in from the balcony, especially of the sickly-sweet aroma of fresh-spilled blood. Half-an-hour ago one of the senior medical students up from the country hospital that day to start his week in residence as a Casualty dresser ‒ a job that currently trebled with that of unskilled porter and general messenger boy ‒ had heard his first rocket. It had fallen a good way off on either Fulham or Acton, and the vacolitre of whole blood in his hands had fallen onto the ward floor.
‘Jolly lucky it’s Group O,’ said Nurse Dean in a brisk murmur. ‘Cut yourself, Mr ‒ sorry, don’t know your name. No? Jolly good. Press on regardless back to the In-Patients’ Path. Lab. for a replacement ‒ where’s Carter? Oh, there you are. Carter, get weaving on this mess. Any minute now the theatre’ll ring to say the Major’s ready to come up.’