What could be more perfect for a twenty-year-old with ‘attitude’ than a live-in job for young women who would like to train as nurses? Discounting the second part, which didn’t interest me, I saw this as a way out for a while. I applied, was accepted, and fronted up to the nominated country hospital for the two-year training (that would lead to a further two years in a big city hospital) as soon as I bought the ridiculous, uncomfortable uniform. This was, of course, while nursing training was in-hospital and not yet a degree course.
No one told me I was expected to live with a group of seventeen-year-old nurses.
The work was demeaning--hands behind your back, don’t speak until spoken to, wash that, calculate that, and on your day off go to lectures. The social life was worse. In those days, the main aim of the seventeen-year-old country nurses I lived with was to fill a glory box—though glory boxes fascinated me each and every time they were gone through and the contents displayed proudly to me. However, I couldn’t discuss the virtues of plastic eggcups compared to porcelain all the time because I needed to study. Yes, of course that’s a lie.
I don’t have a studying gene. My theory is that if something is interesting enough, I’ll remember. This had gotten me through school quite nicely and since I didn’t want to be a nurse, I didn’t care much about the nursing exams, which I expected to sail through. So, to get away from glory boxes and tales of steady boyfriends who’d been around for years, I used to go to the local pub with my library books and take up a position at a table and read. I could have had any table because no one was in the hotel during the day except me and the barman, who kept inventing new drinks that he hoped would take the world by storm.
Fortunately, he had a tester. Me. Since his concoctions were free, I drank them. We became good friends. Okay, I knew he had a crush on me, but he was a country boy and he’d been married since he got his girlfriend pregnant at the age of eighteen. He had two children, although he was only in his early twenties. That’s what they did in the country in those days, all of the aforementioned. I was a judgemental bore out of water, but really, how mature is twenty?
Every now and again, a tourist would arrive in the pub, see a nubile nurse by herself, and think he could move in. The barman whose name wasn’t John would say to leave me alone because the bar was the only place I could study. I think that’s when I got the aversion for drinks being sent to me. John gave me far better tipples and I had no obligation to talk to him unless I felt like it.
But as life goes, the seventeen-year-old nurses turned eighteen and wanted to go to the pub with me. True sophistication. Naturally, the matron of the hospital accused me of leading the younger girls astray. I was pretty well a non-drinker except for the silly things John made for me, I didn’t have a steady boyfriend, and I didn’t have a glory box, so I wasn’t trying to get pregnant and married.
Almost daily I would be called into the Matron’s office for a lecture. I had exploded a can of condensed milk in the hospital kitchen while trying to make caramel after hours. I had drawn a dotted line labelled cut here on the abdomen of a young, nervous, male patient who was awaiting an appendicectomy, I had let a prisoner escape when I went for an unsanctioned break, I had been caught at the end of a queue of nurses getting in the window of the nurses’ quarters after 10pm (yes, we were locked in at 10pm after a body count—we all knew how to make a credible shape in an empty bed), and I had single-handedly broken every thermometer in one go skating across the newly polished floor with the tray held at head height. Added to that, I had caused the resignation of the hospital manager by getting signatures to stop his wife from filling her washing machine until the late afternoon because the nurses on duty early couldn’t get hot water for showers. Unheard of, for nurses to protest in a group.
I didn’t mind being known as a ring-leader. I didn’t mind being called into the office. I was trying desperately not to like the job I was beginning to love and I honestly loved the matron of the hospital. After all, we spent part of every day together, her at her desk lecturing me and me standing there with my hands behind my back, listening. I loved the long-time patients and I cried when they died. I loved the stupid tricks the nurses played on me, and their absolute loyalty. I loved being responsible and my ‘attitude’ disappeared.
On my twenty-first birthday, I requested the day off. My mother and sister planned to travel to see me, but I had a late shift, which really pissed me off. The trip from the city took four hours and they had arrived the night before. Not a single person would change shifts with me and so I spent the morning with my tiny family. They had to leave in the afternoon, but since I had to work anyway . . . I was still pissed off. I worked my designated shift and because I had the next day off, I wanted at least to leave work on time.
Ten o’clock, time to go, and the phone rings. Emergency operation expected. Would I autoclave the instruments and stay on to scrub up? On my twenty-first? I said can’t night-duty do that, but no, it was my shift and so I got the instruments ready and the theatre. Night staff reported on, wandered hither and thither and as soon as I finished one job, I was asked to do something else. I got big attitude.
I only had six months to finish in that miserable place, a hospital where no one cared that a girl only turned twenty-one once and might have wanted to celebrate with her buddies.
Finally, one last job--go to the kitchen and get a pot of tea for the night staff who were having an inordinately long handover. I went to the kitchen to poison the tea and curdle the milk, and the whole place was alight, streamers and balloons everywhere. The adjoining dining room was also decorated and full of people, music, and clinking champagne glasses, and the noise was horrendous. Quiet please, this is a hospital.
Yes. They were waiting for the guest of honour—me. They’d given me a full, perfect twenty-first birthday, the like of which I had never imagined. The whole of the hospital staff was there, from the cooks and the ward maids, doctors, nurses on days off, ambulance staff, office staff. Heavens! People made speeches and gave me presents. My attitude was stifled by the lump in my throat. I loved that place and I hated leaving when the time came.
In the big city hospital we weren’t locked in and no one checked our beds at night. When I left, the matron didn’t hug me and she didn’t know my name until she read it on the paper in front of her. I wasn’t anyone’s star pupil and I wasn’t the first to complete my nurse’s training (after me, only one of the seventeen-year-olds did).
So, what could be more perfect for a twenty-year-old with ‘attitude’ than a live in job for young women who would like to train as nurses? Nothing, actually.