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That Silly Little Dumbbell

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Over breakfast on the day Edith was to move to the nurses' quarters at the General Hospital to start her training it became perfectly clear that her mother still hated the idea. There had been endless discussions since she had first raised the idea, and had successfully presented the argument to her father that if she was just as good and capable as Bill then she was fit to start training to learn a profession in order to support herself. After conceding that she was right he had been supportive, encouraging, just as he had been with Bill, standing up for his decision to start out as an apprentice in an engineering firm to work his way up, except perhaps without the hint of sadness that Bill wasn't interested in following his footsteps into law. Her mother had spoken about the hard work, the long shifts, the gloomy and draughty Victorian building, having to look after patients from all the walks of life, but had failed to make an impression on her: she knew all that and she was confident she would be able to get used to it.

She wanted to do something useful. Her mother had suggested a secretarial course, with the veiled suggestion that it was a more suitable choice for a young woman from a respectable family but after the occasional week or two helping out old Bennett and Miss Taylor at her father's office over the past couple of years and feeling her life drift past her whilst she typed letters, took telephone messages and collected client records from the dusty filing room she was sure it wasn't what she wanted to do day in, day out, for years on end, and had explored other options. When it was time to make a decision, she thought nursing was her best bet.

So now it was stilted conversation over breakfast with no mention of what she would be doing later in the day. It wasn't until after the breakfast, after her father had left for the office and Bill for his apprenticeship, that her mother finally acknowledged the day and told her to visit during her free time as often as she wanted, and that the whole family was expecting her on Sunday. It was better than nothing.

***

She lay in the narrow, hard bed in the small, impersonal room in the nurses' block, listening to the unfamiliar night-time noises of the building. The walls between the rooms were thin and she could hear the rustle of the bedclothes from the room next to hers, footsteps in the corridor, a door opening and closing somewhere nearby, muffled conversation from somewhere above her room and the occasional bell of an ambulance bringing in urgent cases. It was all very unlike what she was used to, in her own bedroom, with only her parents and Bill asleep in their rooms, on a quiet street. She hadn't ever been away to school, so she wondered if other girls had found their first night less strange. Instead of her own things, she could only just make out the outlines of the standard-issue wardrobe and dresser, a straight-backed chair, no pictures and a small number of personal items allowed on display.

But, and she kept coming back to this, this was her life, her future. Tonight felt like the first night of her adult life, as if she, by leaving her parents' house, had put all the childish things aside and started on the road to become somebody in her own right. She wasn't just Edith, the daughter of Edward Adrian the solicitor and his wife Sylvia, not just Bill's lanky kid sister, she was Nurse Adrian too.

***

She had never been that squeamish about blood or injuries, and when they had been younger she had often been the one to clean the scrapes and cuts that Bill had always somehow got when out on his bike with the other boys from the street. After the first couple of weeks on the wards even those in her training set who had been squeamish or nauseous or had fainted the first time had become used to it. What was much harder to get used to was the distress of the patients and their relatives, trying to be calm and comforting when they were not inclined to accept it, to find her way of projecting the authority and experience of a nurse when she was still just a probationer. So much of what they were learning about nursing was about following the standard procedures without much room to find one's own way of dealing with the emotions and give more weight to the projection of authority and fine-honed skill.

She watched the staff-nurses, the more senior probationers, tried to pay attention to how they approached the patients, what Nurse Evans did to make everybody like her and how she always seemed to know the right thing to say. And she wanted to understand how everything always ran like clockwork under Nurse Holland in Ward D even when three new urgent cases were brought in on a busy evening, and why working with Nurse Mitchell was always such an endless string of misunderstandings, too many or too few hands at a task, no clean sterile bowls when they were needed, or some patients going too long before anyone was available to respond to their requests for a drink of water.

***

Sundays were always tense. She did her morning duty on whichever ward she was currently assigned to, got to her room to get changed into her Sunday clothes and headed home. Only the more time she spent at the hospital the less it felt like her home. Without fail, whenever she arrived on a Sunday her mother would fuss about her appearance, saying she was too thin, that her hands, roughened and red after endless washing, were a mess, that her hair looked untidy. It was all true, of course, nothing that she hadn't seen in the glass every time she had been dressing for off-duty: skirts and blouses she'd had before she started her training didn't fit as well as they could have and had done only a few short months ago, her hair looking limp and lifeless and in need of a trim, the tiredness around her eyes that never seemed to go away. Having to wear a uniform that was impersonal, uncomfortable and not very practical, day in day out, and having to look exactly the same as everybody else had become depressing many weeks ago, and made her long for anything that would make her look more distinctively like herself.

Once the fussing about her appearance had been got over with, her mother fussed about lunch and asked too many questions about what had happened in the hospital, and she could never find a way to make appropriately light-hearted yet truthful answers but so much of what passed during the week was just routine, comforting and mind-numbing at the same time but not something that outsiders could understand, or things she'd learned in their classes or swotted over in books during her free time, or about specific patients on the wards where the detail was of the kind that didn't go with her mother's tastes about conversation over Sunday lunch. She was always so relieved when her mother turned to Bill, or her father, or Vera, who was slowly becoming a regular face at the table on Sundays, to invite them to talk about the weeks they’d had.

***

Vera was wonderful. She was perfect for Bill; that became clear the first time Edith met her and had a chance to observe the two of them together. Vera was attentive to their mother and patiently listened to their father's stories, even the long-winded ones, with genuine interest. Vera and Bill had hardly any time they could spend together, what with her job as a typist and his apprenticeship and evening classes, Vera always invited her to join them on a walk or something else on a Sunday afternoon. Edith couldn't help liking her and thought there was nobody else she'd rather have as a sister-in-law, once the day came. It probably wouldn’t be for a while, it would take another couple of years before Bill would be earning the kind of money to support a wife, and if she knew her brother at all he would want to wait until then.

***

Sometimes when she had the evening off, she went out with the other probationers in her year; dancing or to the pictures. There were always boys who somebody knew, or somebody’s friend brought along. It was all just a bit of fun. One of the girls, Wilson, always fell hard for any young man who showed any interest in her; another, Morrison, always made it her mission to get someone to treat her as much as she could and then mocked anyone who read it as an invitation to get too close, too familiar. Edith didn't really understand either of them, but they, and the other girls in the group, were good company. The boys she could take or leave: some were too earnest, some only talked about themselves, some didn't seem to have much experience of talking to girls at all, and the occasional one knew her as Bill's little sister and didn't know how to talk to her as an independent entity, as Edith. There was no one she liked more than the others, but that was all right: she's going out and enjoying herself, making friends, talking, laughing, dancing.

***

It was hard when Vera was ill with pneumonia: it hadn't seemed particularly bad at first, but then she got bad enough to be admitted to hospital, and for a couple of nights she was clinging on by a thread. As an insider to the hospital Edith got to hear more about the nurses' concerns which she knew they wouldn't have let her hear if she had been simply a relative of the patient and not a nurse probationer as well. She woke up one of those nights, realising that she had dreamed that Vera had died, and it took a long time to get over the guilt of having dreamed that. She never told anybody. Thankfully, the worst was soon over for Vera, and she and Bill set the date for the wedding, sooner than they had originally planned, but quite understandably so, having come so close to risk losing what they had.

***

Then there was the war. It had been quietly coming along, but she thought she had been too busy to notice when it went from vague rumblings to a definite possibility to an actual fact, until war was actually declared. Bill was conscripted and went away for training. The hospital around her teemed with preparations for many eventualities that she didn't fully understand, didn’t have time to, anyway, being in her third and final year of probation, busy at wards and working towards her final examinations. There wasn't much time to worry about the future, although the closer they got to the end of their probationary periods, the more often conversations over meals turned to the topic of what one was going to do after, usually with the assumption that nurses were in demand, and anyone who just aimed for a staff post in the hospital was taking the lazy way out when new opportunities were opening up elsewhere.

When she got the job at the EMT hospital in the country, her first real nursing job after probation, Vera gave her an old copy of a book called Testament of Youth. She read it in the fortnight before starting in her new post, and could see why Vera had found it interesting in her own situation with a husband overseas whom she might easily lose. Some of the nursing practices had obviously changed, but some of it she recognised from the hospital she had trained in, and some of it she would probably encounter in the more improvised EMT hospital. It would be hard work but she was looking forward to it.