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They really weren’t suited

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They really weren’t suited; she knew that. But something about this particular woman had made Nurse Valentine catch her breath from the first time she had seen her. Matron had rotated the probationary nurses again; and it was Colonna Kimball’s first day on the ward. She had come back from taking one of the patients to surgery to find Sister scolding the probationer about a smashed thermometer. The acid of Sister’s sarcasm dripped onto a bowed head as Kimball wielded dustpan, brush, and damp cloth, clearing the floor of miniscule glass shards. As the weeks progressed, Valentine came to appreciate the exasperation of her seniors when they talked about this young woman. So bright, so talented, so oblivious to the force of her joy and enthusiasm for life which had very possibly pulled Mr Yardley back from the brink one fraught night when his temperature reached crisis point. Someone less able would not have seen that he needed that extra attention; someone more rule-bound would not have given him that extra, stinting other - less critical - patients in the doing. Someone more able would not break so much. Valentine took to keeping an extra thermometer in her breast pocket, carefully hidden from Sister’s view.

* * * * *

She was so petite, Colonna felt a bit like an elephant waiting beside her friend in the theatre queue. Never mind that she knew she didn’t look like an elephant. Her figure was every bit as good, just that much taller. The kind of soft georgette blouse with the low ruffled neckline that suited her companion would only have made Colonna look silly. She knew that, had known it for years. She had never really yearned for the dainty princess look anyway, always preferring to play the prince, even before she went away to boarding school. (And of course once there, the tallest girl in her year, she had always been the one picked for the man’s part in school plays.) A small hand slipped round her arm and tucked itself into Colonna’s jacket pocket, pulling her attention away from her inner musings. She gazed quizzically into the bright eyes of the pocket Venus beside her.

“Let’s not wait for ticket returns.”

“And do what?” Colonna asked. “It was your idea to come to London and take in a show.”

“And now it’s my idea not to.” There was a long pause, and then, “dancing – somewhere we can dance together and no one will think anything of it. Somewhere that’s not a girls’ school.”

Colonna smiled; it seemed they had been on the same wave-length after all. “Come along Rapunzel; I know just the place.”

* * * * *

“Oh that feels good,” Colonna groaned with relief, pulling off her head gear, as she closed the door to Valentine’s room. “Why do nurses have to wear such idiotic get up anyway? Hot, ugly, uncomfortable, and completely without redeeming purpose!”

“I wouldn’t quite say that,” came the calm reply, as capable hands reached for the pins in golden hair.

“Oh....” Colonna’s groan this time held more than just relief.

“Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair,” breathed the sultry contralto against the back of her neck.

“I’m Goldilocks; you’re Longlocks...Oh....” Colonna gave in to skilful hands that guided, gave in to desire.

Stretched out on the Turkey carpet, as she relaxed into the sensuous massage, had she only chosen, Colonna could have studied the rooflines of buildings through the massive mansard window. She could have watched the sunset dip beneath the dome of Town Hall. She could have watched the moon rise. Had she chosen.

* * * * *

She couldn’t help but remember; images came in odd moments, not when one would expect. There had been no thought at Jan’s funeral; Colonna had been more conscious of the itchiness of woollen stockings and discomfort caused by the too tight waistband of her black skirt (old and shrunk from washing, but the only black thing she possessed, suitable for the occasion). Afterwards she had been conscious more of curiosity when she met Vivian’s father. How different he seemed: short, round, fussy, and proper, not at all like Vivian, still less like his dead son. But the next morning, as she opened her bedroom window, the sight of a startled pigeon taking sudden flight, reminded how Jan had fled, swiftly and with complete determination, what would otherwise have been a lingering and slow death. And a week later, not really listening one evening as her lover shared the highlights of her day over a bottle of wine, Colonna found herself shaking with sudden fury.

Why is life better?” she demanded.

“What?”

“You said life is better – why? Why is it better for that woman to live without her legs? Perhaps if she’d been asked she would have said no!”

“But she was asked, Colonna. Whatever are you on about?”

But Colonna couldn’t explain. That, she realised, was the difference: Jan would have been able to explain, she felt sure; able to argue and convince, as he had persuaded her almost without words in those last few moments before she left his bedside. She could only witness; that was what a nurse did, cog in the machinery of the regimented hospital where others were the driving force, shaping events. A nurse watched; and recorded what she saw; applied a bandage, gave a drink of water; and watched some more. At night she would watch in a pool of light from the lamp at the nurses’ desk; while death watched in the comforting warm darkness of the room’s corners. A life of watching, and waiting: life was not always better.

Silently, ignoring the protests of her companion, Colonna rose, pulled on her clothes, and left for her own small room three floors down.

* * * * *

“Have you enough money? I can lend you some if –”

“No need. Mother sent me a banker’s draft at Christmas. Anyway, I’ll be staying with my friend Regina until I find something to do; I won’t need much.”

Colonna didn’t pause in her packing, even for a moment. Her clothes were already in the suitcase. Now she added those few decorations she had been allowed to put up, stripping the room of her personality, reducing it down to just a sterile little cell, identical to all the others on the corridor. Colonna reached for the long red velvet ribbon artistically draped across the wall mirror, carefully coiled it round the fingers of her left hand, before she held it out.

“Here,” she said, “it’s long past time I returned this. Red was always more your colour than mine.”

She had come straight from a long shift direct to Colonna’s room, not pausing one moment to refresh herself or change, reluctant to miss even a second of Colonna’s company. To the casual eye she looked stiff and impenetrable in that starched and sexless nurse’s garb; but the uniform could not armour against such an arrow. Charge-Nurse Valentine – famous for her calm in a crisis, never seen distressed, always in control – dissolved into tears.

“Do you love me so little you do not even want a keepsake?”

Warm arms surrounded, hugging and comforting, as Colonna whispered in her ear, “I do love you; I always will love you. But I also always knew this wouldn’t last – couldn’t last. I stuck it out longer because of you, because I want to be with you so much. But nursing is a straitjacket and I must be free of it.”

The woman who had bandaged her dollies as a little girl, whose vocation had never failed her, who knew mental nursing in her heart, and who could recognise a sick soul at a glance, rubbed her head against Colonna’s shoulder. A butterfly was radiantly beautiful; but it was fragile and easily damaged, not suited to harsh conditions. Not suited to nursing.

She reached up and pulled Colonna’s face down for one last passionate kiss.

“Give me your address. Next time I have a weekend off, I’ll come up to London to join you and we can paint the town red.”

They really weren’t suited; she knew that. She no longer cared.