Walking the dog across the south side of the town on a summer's evening, I glanced up at the old Royal Alexandra Infirmary. Normally I would've walked past the derelict building but sunset casting a glow on the red sandstone drew me into the grounds for a closer look. The smaller buildings had been converted into flats but the main hospital had lain empty for years. Although a masterpiece of its time in terms of function and aesthetics it, like many empty Victorian buildings, was doomed. The windows were boarded up and had been spray painted by rival gangs. Fire and demolition were inevitable. I climbed the steps to the main entrance and looked through the bars. The interior was worse; the elaborate wood panelling showed signs of serious water damage and paint from the walls lay in dusty piles on the Victorian mosaic floor. That floor. Thirty years ago.
Nine o'clock on another summer's evening. I was a bright nineteen year old second year student nurse standing on the mosaic floor. The start of a long shift. Night duty didn't suit me. I found it difficult to sleep during the day, hard to eat during the night and had a childish fear of the dark. Waiting in the hall of Royal Alexandra Infirmary I shifted my gaze between the polished wood panelling and my white moccasin shoes.
The Nursing Officer was about to make her inspection and allocate wards. A third year student nurse, Linda, who I knew a little, came and stood beside me.
‘What do you think of the uniform? I got my sister to take it in.’
Contrary to the ‘Carry On’ precedent our uniform dresses were designed to be as unprepossessing as possible and were made, or rather constructed, of thick white boil-wash proof cotton. The woman who allocated them bore a grudge and supplied us all with uniforms two sizes too big. Linda’s now clung provocatively to her perfect breasts, neat waist and lovely hips.
'Linda, I'm not remotely gay but I think I fancy you...
Do you think you'll get away with that? Why don't you run and get your cape?'
'It's gone nine, I'm too late...'
In those days Nursing Officers were still in charge. They were formidable, no nonsense, unsentimental creatures. Most were sticklers, not only for good nursing practice, but also for appearance. Obvious makeup, inadequately tied back hair and incorrect uniform were dealt with harshly.
'Wonder who'll we'll get tonight,' said Linda.
'As long as it's not Bannerbitch you'll be fine.
The main corridor door swung open. Linda groaned.
'Good evening Nurses.'
'Good evening Miss Bannerman.'
This woman was the strictest of them all. As far as anyone knew she'd never said anything pleasant to a junior member of staff. Nothing got past her. She walked slowly along the line looking closely at each member of staff in turn. We could've been a herd of prize Friesians.
Linda shrank back but it was no use.
Miss Bannerman paused, flushed, inhaled sharply then hissed, ‘Get Out! And come back decently dressed.'
‘But I don’t have…’Linda started.
I gave her my locker key.
‘And you, young lady, are in charge of Ward One!’
‘Okay,’ I murmured, head down.
‘Only, get that hair off your face before you get there!’ she cried.
I shoved more red strands inside the new paper hat with its recently acquired second blue stripe and tried with little success to secure it with a single kirby grip. Some people look good in uniforms; not me.
Arriving at the ward I looked round and smiled at the old man who caught my eye. He winked at me and said,
‘Hello love, yer hat’s skew whiff’
Blushing and fumbling with my hat I turned into Sister’s room for the report. The Sister, a bustling vivacious woman of about fifty, addressed her report to me. I'd never been in charge before and despite having been on that particular ward for four weeks and familiar with most of the patients, I was daunted. A male orthopaedic ward of twenty six beds, it had an unusual layout. Instead of the traditional 'Nightingale' set up with beds down either side of a long room, it was round. All the beds faced the centre. This secondment hadn't been my first encounter with the ward. My father died here thirteen years previously of a life long illness and complications following a fractured femur.
On duty that night with me were an experienced nursing auxiliary, Mrs Kerr and a first year student, Mary. The house officer on call was a slightly built, fair-haired chap called Ian who I knew well and liked a lot. There had only been one admission that day, a boy my age who had suffered leg injuries following a motorbike accident 12 months previously. Although the bony damage had healed he was left with a stubborn infection in his right femur. Infection in bone can be difficult to treat and the wound on his thigh still leaked copiously, causing pain and affecting his mobility. All manner of antibiotics had been tried with limited success. This time he'd been admitted to try a new treatment which involved inserting a chain of antibiotic beads into the wound itself. His name rang a bell. When I went onto the ward I recognised him instantly. We had been in the same class at a local village primary school and later chatted about our classmates and teachers. We laughed from the safety of distance at the awful infant mistress whose methods of discipline included locking four and five year olds in a cupboard and shouting at her infant pupils with such ferocity they wet themselves. Stuart’s wound had been dressed earlier and there wasn’t much I needed to do for him. I straightened his sheets and slid in the bed-cage to hold the covers away from his wound.
Although the ward was cramped to work in and afforded little privacy for the patients I liked the fact that standing in the middle you could spin round and see almost all the patients. There were a few beds in a separate day room for the less acutely ill and the smokers. If you stood at the end of the corridor at the entrance to the ward area, the first few beds on the left were ‘acute’, perhaps that day’s theatre patients. The bed to the right was generally kept for the terminally ill. It was a relief that night to see it empty. Although hardworking, organised and caring, I was, in many ways, unsuited to nursing being squeamish about things nurses are supposed to take in their stride such as unpleasant smells, phlegm, vomit, crepitus (the sound of bone grinding against bone) and death...
A qualified nurse joined me for the drug round and left. Mrs Kerr made hot milky drinks for the patients and helped Mary and I settle everyone for the night. Ian popped in to write up intra-venous fluid charts and sped off again. Miss Bannerman appeared, dropped her cape onto my outstretched arm and asked about the care of a few randomly selected patients. Finding everything more or less in order, she gathered up her cape, turned on her heels and hurried away. I dimmed the ward lights and felt pleased at how cosy the ward looked.
Once all the patients were comfortable Mrs Kerr went for her first break. Mary and I sat down at the desk in the middle of the ward and read newspapers we'd collected from patients. Then, despite being full of anti Rupert Murdoch outrage, we did The Sun crossword and laughed like drains at our combined stupidity. My father had been keen on The Times crossword and completed it every day.
Mary went off to make tea while I checked the patients. Occasionally, alone with no other staff, I would be afraid of the dark and deliberately make a noise hoping to wake someone up for company. But it wasn't just the dark, our training had drummed into us the need for constant vigilance and care. What if someone arrested on my watch? The responsibility was overwhelming. I walked round once more. Everyone was breathing - good.
Standing back at the ward entrance I looked over to bed four where the young patient, Stuart was sleeping, and feeling cold, shuddered. The bed-cage triggered a memory and I realised that thirteen years previously my father had been admitted to that very bed. I saw myself there, age six, on the final ward visit sitting on the bed beside my father. We were going south to my grandparents and I wouldn't see him until after the long summer holidays. Usually we were such easy company getting me to stop talking was the problem but this time I was shy and lost for words. Shortly after we eventually began to chat easily, Sister rang the bell for the end of visiting time. He held me close, then gently relaxed away. I clung on to him and then the bed clothes, crying as I was coaxed and pulled away. He died 5 weeks later. I never did see him again.
Mary touched my shoulder, ‘Are you alright? I gave her the briefest outline. 'Go down to the sluice and have five minutes. If I need you I’ll come and find you.’ She offered me a cigarette - I didn't smoke but accepted. The sluice, where bedpans were disposed of and dirty laundry stored was hardly a place of comfort at the best of times. At night it was dark and cold and smelt of soiled bedlinen and stale urine but hardened by a year of nursing training, I propped myself against the trolley and puffed half-heartedly at the cigarette. It soon made me feel sick so I threw it down the lavatory. Opening the linen cupboard to get a blanket I thought I caught a fleeting glimpse of something and covered my eyes. When I looked again it was gone. Dashing out, I tripped over a bed table and just managed to catch it before it went flying.
Mary handed me a mug of tea and we sat in terrified silence until Mrs Kerr came back. She, a cheery soul who lived on the edge of a rough council scheme and worked night shift to pay for her son's private school fees, soon distracted us with gossip about the staff. Very quickly we were up to speed on who was doing what to whom. A ward sister came to relieve me. Liz, a girl from my class at Nursing School, was in Ward 2 close by so I headed there. All was peaceful so we made tea and amused ourselves by testing our blood sugars before and after the consumption of half a pound of Roses chocolates. Ian arrived with a cup of coffee to join us.
‘You know with a blood sugar as low as 2.1 maybe I was having a hypoglycaemic hallucination.’
'You're definitely looking a bit peaky nurse, I think you need a lie down,' said Ian grinning, 'Feeling a bit tired myself...what about you Liz, sleepy at all? Plenty of room in my single bed for all three of us.'
'Fuck off Ian,'.
'Okay, what about The Craigdhu tomorrow night then?'
The rest of the night was quiet. I made tea and toast at 5.30am and the three of us sat at an empty bed and wrote up the nursing notes. At 6.45 we woke the patients, handed out bottles to those who were bed-ridden and tidied up for the day shift. I gave the day staff the report. As I was about to leave Stuart called me over.
‘Here, I heard you two doing the crossword last night.’
‘Sorry Stuart, did we wake you?’
‘No, I was awake anyway - look what I found in my locker, someone must’ve left it. See if you can finish this.’
He handed me The Times, with the crossword puzzle upper most and almost completed. Blanching, I put it in my bag and left the ward.