Authors: Nadine Dorries
It is 1953 and five very different girls are arriving at the nurses’ home in Lovely Lane, Liverpool, to start their training at St Angelus Hospital.
Dana has escaped from her family farm on the west coast of Ireland. Victoria is running away from a debt-ridden aristocratic background. Beth is an army brat and throws in her lot with bitchy Celia Forsyth. And Pammy has come from quite the wrong side of the tracks in Liverpool.
Now they find themselves in a very different world. From formidable Matron, to terrifying Sister Antrobus. From kind housekeeper, Mrs Duffy, to Dessie, who rules the porter’s lads – not to mention the doctors, who range from crusty to glamorous. Everyone has their place at St Angelus and woe betide anyone who strays from it.
But when an unknown girl is admitted, after a botched late abortion in a backstreet kitchen, a tragedy begins to unfold which will rock the world of St Angelus to its foundations.
Liverpool, December 1940
Young Emily Haycock ran like the wind along George Street towards home. She was ten minutes later than usual and her lungs filled with the Mersey mist as she covered the last few yards uphill to the back gate. She had left the munitions factory on time, but had been frustrated by the slowness of the bus, which seemed to take for ever. George Street sat at the top of a sandstone precipice from which well-trodden steps led down to the docks.
Emily knew that no sooner had she set foot inside the door than she would need to collect the food coupons and run back out again, down the road to queue with the rest of the factory workers at the corner shop at the end of Albert Street. She hoped there would be enough bacon and butter left for the family tea by the time she arrived, so that she could feed her younger brothers. Soon, it would be dark, the shop would close and everyone would prepare for the blackout.
Emily’s stepfather, Alfred, had returned wounded from fighting with the King’s Own Lancaster regiment the year before. He now walked with a caliper on his leg and a stick in his hand. His constant pain was obvious to all, although he rarely complained. The day after his full medical discharge, he wasted no time in signing up for the Home Guard, which was where he spent every single night, seven days a week.
‘Hello, queen,’ he said, as Emily almost fell in through the back door. He was sitting on the edge of the sofa. Wooden-framed and stuffed with horsehair, it had taken all their strength that morning to drag it from the parlour to in front of the kitchen range. Here, under a darned and patched blanket, lay the pitifully thin form of Emily’s sleeping mother. Earlier that morning, despite her obvious discomfort, she had insisted on being lifted out of bed and carried downstairs. The air in the kitchen smelt acrid. Of blood and sputum, of unwashed hair and vomit-laced breath.
‘Shh.’ Alfred placed his finger to his lips.
‘How is she?’ Emily whispered as she tiptoed over and gazed down at the once beautiful pale complexion, now the colour of tallow. Her mother’s head was turned to one side, almost facing the back of the sofa. Beads of perspiration rested on her top lip and Emily could hear the gentle sound of her laboured and shallow breathing as she slept the deep healing sleep of the sick. Her dark hair was matted and clung to the side of her face. On one corner of her mouth remained a streak of stale blood she had wiped with her handkerchief during a bout of coughing. The thin, parchment-like skin covering her eyes appeared to have sunk deeply into her skull.
‘Had a good day, love?’ Alfred stroked Emily’s forearm with his hand. A gesture of affection and solidarity in the midst of their shared concern. Emily could not yet answer him; she couldn’t speak. Each time she walked into the house, she required a brief period of adjustment before she could step into her life as it now was, and not how it was supposed to be. She was only just sixteen and during the daytime, as she worked at her factory bench, she was able to pretend that this new situation, with an ailing mother and an injured stepfather, did not exist. She could imagine that life was still as it was, before the war, before the TB, before the days when she was forced to abandon her plans to train as a nurse at St Angelus.
‘The doctor came today. He said he wants her to be admitted into the sanatorium, over the water, in West Kirby, and she promised to think about it. He said he would move hell and high water to get her a bed. He’s a good man, you know.’
Emily nodded in agreement. She had met the specialist with her mother a number of times, and liked him a lot. It seemed to her as though he was kindness and concern itself.
‘How do I pay for your visit?’ she had heard Alfred ask, after his first call.
‘You don’t,’ the doctor replied. ‘The government cover this under a special scheme and even if they didn’t, you wouldn’t have to pay.’
After he left, Emily had read his list of instructions.
Bedroom window to remain open.
Complete bed rest elevated on five pillows for at least six months.
No anxiety or excitement.
One visitor at a time only wearing a face mask of quadruple tightly folded muslin.
Hands of attendants and visitors to be washed in a diluted solution of Dettol before leaving the house.
Contact the hospital should symptoms worsen.
It was at that moment Emily had known her dreams of becoming a nurse were over.
‘She doesn’t want to leave the house or the kids, but whatever you said to her this morning, it’s had an effect,’ Alfred said. ‘Dr Gaskell wants her to have another X-ray and then he wants to collapse her bad lung, to rest it. He’s stuck as to what else to do, because the total bed rest doesn’t seem to be working. She can be so stubborn, your mam.’ As he spoke, he gazed down at his wife with a look so tender, it was painful for Emily to see. Emily knew what he meant. Only that morning she had asked him to call in the doctor again. She had been concerned at what had appeared to be a rapid deterioration. Instead of coughing up blood a few times a day, it seemed as though this morning it had been every five minutes.
‘At least she agreed to the total bed rest. She has stuck to that.’ Emily was clutching at straws and Alfred knew it.
‘She also agreed to go and visit Dr Gaskell at his St Angelus clinic tomorrow. He’s a good man, coming out here to the house to see her. She trusts him, and he’s the biggest man in Liverpool when it comes to this, you know. He knows what he’s doing all right. I think he’s going to try and persuade her, once she has had the X-ray, to be admitted straight to the sanatorium. He told me he’s worried now that the second lung is badly affected. The trouble is, so many of the sanatoriums have been shut down because of the war. The waiting list could be months. There may not be anywhere for her to go.’
Alfred’s voice trailed away. Both he and Emily knew that if her mother had agreed to consider leaving her young sons, she must be ill.
‘We have to be at St Angelus at ten in the morning,’ he said after a moment.
Emily squatted down and took her mother’s hand, bony and blue-veined, like a bird’s claw, and kissed the back. She hid her face. Alfred must not see her cry. He had enough to deal with and she must be his support, not a burden.
Emily’s parents laboured under the impression that she had no idea how bad things were. They were mistaken. She had heard them, in the dead of night, when they thought she and the younger children were asleep, talking, whispering, crying.
She had heard her mother’s coughing, seen her shiver and sweat, bring up blood, collapse into a chair, swamped with fatigue. The swollen ankles and the painful chest. She had seen enough people in the same condition while she was growing up on Liverpool’s dockside streets during the 1930s. She knew.
Early that morning, as Emily washed her mother and took her her morning tea, she had made her decision.
‘I’m going to stop work at the factory, Mam. Rita’s been great helping with the kids, but until you are better I think I had better stop here at home. After all, the doctor says you’re only allowed to get up to go to the toilet once a day. I have to be here, Mam.’
There was a catch in her breath. Emily was closer to tears than she had been aware. Her mother had tried to reply, but instead began a fresh bout of coughing. Emily saw the bright red frothing deposit that her mother did her best to conceal in her handkerchief.
‘I think that’s best too, love,’ her mother had said, grimacing through the pain, as Emily lifted her arms to wash them, gently taking the handkerchief from the thin fingers as she did so.
‘That’s not a good sign, I don’t think, is it?’ she said, inclining her head towards the crimson stain.
‘Oh, I don’t know, love. I think maybe it is a good sign, you know: get the badness out and then you can heal properly.’ Emily’s mother had no idea where the words came from as she tried to reassure her daughter. Put there by an ancient memory, or the ghost of a passed relative, or simply invented to help her in her hour of need as she struggled to reassure her family. To hold them together.
‘I’ll ask Da to call the doctor in, and I’ll let them know at the factory that I’m needed at home. Next Friday can be my last day. We have to get this better, Mam. Will you please go into the sanatorium?’
A weak smile passed between mother and daughter. Emily bent down and kissed her mother’s cheek. ‘I have to get on, Mam. Can you hear the kids?’
Again, they shared a glance of understanding tinged with affectionate exasperation as the sound of breakfast squabbles wafted up through the floorboards. ‘I’ll drop them at Rita’s on my way to work – that’s unless I drop them on their heads first, mind. I have to go in half an hour or I’ll be late. Alf and I are going to move the sofa into the kitchen, like you asked, and then Alf will help you down the stairs. You are right, you know: it is warmer down there, but you are not allowed to referee the boys.’ Emily knew that was exactly why her mother wanted to be moved downstairs, and that there was nothing she would enjoy more.
‘You go on, love, and thanks,’ said her mother. She squeezed Emily’s hand, but as Emily reached the door, she called her back. ‘Emily, come here.’
Emily slowly turned to the bed. Through her mind ran the words, ‘Don’t, Mam.’ She didn’t want her mother to tell her what was wrong. Much better that they both went on pretending that things would soon improve. For Emily, it was easier that way.