I had been dreading, and hoping for the night to come. I had packed all the clothes I had, which were not many, but Mrs Dale had said there would be a uniform required to be worn at all times, so I presumed I would not be needing them terribly often. Indeed, I was worried to wear them in fear of what the other girls might think, or say. I was sure there would be a few paying ‘ladies’, and I knew that they had far better clothes for everyday wear than I had for best wear. I would wear my Sunday dress, a cream fabric with simple, faded pink edging and a rose kindly crocheted by my Grandmother to match the colours. It would be simple in the eyes of the others, but I knew there would be other girls who came from humble - perhaps humbler - backgrounds such as mine. I rather imagined it would be a situation of the rich and the poor, the ‘commoners’ becoming friends, and generally avoiding the ‘ladies’, who would be the same. Perhaps, though, I was simply imagining it all. These are proper women! I told myself. They are 25, and far beyond the petty clique-forming that you imagine they will be. You will have to follow their lead, as you are meant, also, to be 25. I, now, was also worried by this prospect. Perhaps I would be far too immature to pass for a 25-year-old young lady? I could hardly pull off the looks, as it was. Mrs Dale had complimented me on the gift of youth. I sighed. I must be strong. It would be no use turning up and pulling out at the last minute. I will do this for my mother. I thought. I would do it for Ma.
The dinner table that evening was first happy, excited, and then quite sombre. The air was crisp, almost, charged with my imminent departure, none of us knowing whether to be excited or apprehensive, myself included. I tried to lighten the air, and my attempts, thankfully, worked, and soon we were all laughing and happy. We went to bed quite content, but I woke many times in the night, scared, and apprehensive, but not regretful. I would not be regretful. The morning came, and I was awake at dawn. The neighbours, now, were more generous than they had been previously, and would be taking me to St Thomas’s. We had agreed, Grandma and I, that I would be dropped off by myself, as if I was 25 I surely would have made my own passage. Grandma did feed me a good breakfast, and waited by the gate, waving farewell as long as I could see her. Again, Mr Taylor was not very sociable, and once we were out of sight of the house I turned to the front. I felt quite numb, all the worry that had grieved me so had vanished in the shadow of what was happening. Surely, I thought, that would have made it more prominent, but apparently it was not so.
The ride was slightly quicker than the last one, as early as it was. At this time in Karori, I reflected, the road would be busy, small as it was. It was largely a farming village, and so many of its residents woke early. In comparison, London was almost deserted for what I assumed was usual. In the middle of the day the traffic would have been almost unbearable, but at this hour - and in my opinion it was hardly early - there was no one about but for the men walking to the factories. We drew into the part of the city I seemed to remember from the previous trips to St Thomas’s. The landmarks became more recognisable as we drew closer, and small drops of nerves whined for attention in my stomach. I tried to ignore them, for I knew that if I paid any attention to them they would become not drops, but the large waves that I could see bouncing against the stone walls of a fountain in the park we were driving past. Finally, we reached the turn for the hospital. I closed my eyes, and tried to focus on inhaling and exhaling, rather than holding my breath which I am sure is what I otherwise would have been doing. The horse pulled us along, and we reached the hospital. I waited as long as I could inside the carriage, just looking at the brick building which was to be my home for the next year. Mr Tyler, however, became impatient and confused, and turned around, a frown on his face.
“Are you going to get out or shall I turn around?” He exclaimed frustratedly. I shook myself.
“Sorry.” He nodded, his lip curled, and I guessed he was not going to be so generous next time my grandmother asked the family for a favour. I felt bad, but nothing could be done about that. He nodded as he turned the horse around, and I nodded back. Taking another breath, because I decided that breathing was good, I closed my eyes and turned around. There it was. I seemed to see it in a different light, now I would be spending so much more time there. Bravely, I strode over to the doors, and before I could hesitate, I pushed them open. But they would not open. I pushed again. They stayed firm. I frowned. They had been open last time, but it was earlier this time. Perhaps I should wait. But no, I could see shapes moving behind the frosted glass. Thinking I must just not have pushed hard enough, I put down my bag, and, feeling slightly foolish, I gripped the long handle and pushed, bracing my feet against the stone behind me and leaning into the door. At the moment I was pushing as hard as I possibly could, a shape from inside came close to the door. At the time, I did not see it. The man did not see me, either, as he was talking to his friend, and absentmindedly pulled the door from inside. I fell into the foyer as the door opened. He fell on to his back as the immense force that was me pushed the door open, and the momentum carried onto his back. I closed my eyes as I ungracefully flew into the room, falling onto the man. He grunted as I landed.
“Bloody sticking door.” He growled. The he opened his eyes and looked me in the face. He laughed. “Lydia!” I opened my eyes. I was lying on Samuel Jones. I gasped and rolled off. He grinned as I stood up, watching me still from the ground. I felt warm pinpricks flood my cheeks and looked up, which was clearly a mistake. All the people who had been walking, or standing, or sitting in the foyer were now looking straight at the door, and the commotion that was going on in front of it. I turned and quickly fetched my bag. I knew I could not turn around and leave, so I simply walked up to the front desk as if nothing had happened. The receptionist winced in sympathy as I approached the desk.
“Sorry about that.” She said, looking clearly at the door. I followed her gaze. Sam was being helped up by his friend, who were both laughing and sending sly glances my way. My eyes narrowed in disgust and I turned back to the receptionist. Her eyes were narrowed and her lips were pursed, showing just as much dislike as I. She was about my age, I guessed - my real age. She rolled her eyes at me, and shook her head.
“That door needs to fixed - gets jammed frequently. And those two...” She growled. “The blonde one is new here, just as I am, but the other one, Jimmy, he has been here a while and was a troublemaker even before Sam came along.” I nodded.
“I have had experience with Sam before.”
“Oh?” She cocked her head, surprised. “Did he drive you back?” I nodded.
“And he used to live in the same village as I in the New Country.” She raised her eyebrows.
“That must have been a nightmare.” I nodded.
“Although he has matured since I saw him there.” I watched him thoughtfully.
“He has been witlessly chased by most of the nurses here - and they are much older than him.”
“Oh? He was chasing all the girls in my village - not vice versa.” She sighed.
“What time can do... I say, what can I do for you?”
“I am here for the nursing school.” She nodded, shuffling through some papers.
“Lydia Rose Clark.” She nodded.
“Here it is. You will need to sign at the bottom, and then take this top page over there.” She nodded toward the seating I had sat at those few days before. “And wait with the others until the group of you are here. Then, you will need to give the matron this top page.” She smiled, and I considered her. Deciding, I leaned over a bit, and lowered my voice.
“Could you tell me the name of another student, by any chance?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Perhaps. Who were you wanting to know the identity of?” She said dramatically.
“She has vivid red hair, and a very long, sly face.” I said, mimicking her mysterious tones. She chuckled.
“I think I know the person you speak of.” I smiled.
“Excellent. Who is she?” She rifled through a few more papers, and just a few pages after where mine had been she stopped. She looked at it for a minute.
“The others and I have been speculating about her. She does not look terribly nice, does she?”
“She isn’t.” I said, knowingly. “What is her name?”
“Victoria Fitch.” She declared in mutter.
“Victoria Fitch.” I repeated, thoughtfully. “Suits her!” The receptionist chuckled.
“It does.” She was silent for a few moments as I read her profile.
“Laura Whitcombe.” She said, extending a hand.
“Lydia- Well, you do know my name already.” She nodded, smiling.
“It is pleasure to meet you. I am sure I will be seeing you soon.”
She smiled mysteriously, but her face relaxed into a pleasant, customer-serving face. I took the hint, and retired to the seats on which I had already spent some time. I noticed a plump girl in a brown coat with black buttons, and I recognised her red face as Joanne Reynolds from the forms. I sat a few seats away from her, on the end of the row. She smiled at me as I sat down, and I did not want to make enemies on the first day, so I smiled back, but sat down and angled my knees away, facing toward the reception. I watched as orderlies, doctors and nurses hurried through the room looking flustered. Is this what I would do for the rest my life? Perhaps. But I knew that was what I wanted. I could help people who would have perhaps been in the same situation as I, but their lives would not be wrecked and torn apart. I would become a nurse, and I would like it.
Another girl came in, a brunette with an expensive-looking overcoat and slight heels. I narrowed my eyes. I knew she would be one of the paying ladies. She flounced over to the counter, and she really did flounce - exaggerating each step so her behind moved in ways I assumed would look appealing to any watching males. She drew near to the desk, and I could almost hear Laura snort as she leaned lazily against the countertop.
“Matilda Moore.” She said breezily. “Matilda Anna Moore.” She seemed to have announced this to the whole room, and the young men doctors glanced at her greedily. I shook my head, and looked away. Perhaps not such a good idea. Victoria Fitch was gracefully gliding through the door. I tensed, for some reason unknown to me, and felt the urge to fidget. I remembered from her form that Victoria Fitch was a paying lady, but I had seen her working in the post office, which hardly made sense. I shrugged, knowing I did not know the whole story. Perhaps her father owned the post offices. She scanned the room as soon as she stepped through the door, her unusual green eyes picking out every detail, including me. Her eyes landed on me, and once there they did not leave. She cocked her head slightly, and walked to the front desk without looking away. I kept her gaze, and I thought I may have seen a flicker of uncertainty, but I could not have been sure. She reached the counter as Matilda Moore left. Before she looked at Laura, she raised an eyebrow and sent a cold smile my way. I sneered at her, but I suspected she did not catch my look. Laura watched her with a distasteful expression curling her lip, but once Victoria looked toward her her face melted into the same pleasant expression she had served Matilda with. I was quite impressed with the nonchalant way she addressed everyone. I would find it very difficult, as a person with many emotions. Laura, though, seemed to be a very effective receptionist. Once Victoria had collected her sheaf of paper, she walked over and, thankfully, sat as far from me as possible. In fact, she walked over and sat next to Matilda Moore, both of whom I thought would compliment the other very well. Victoria did look at me, but it was not the evil, ever-lasting glare that she had seemed so intent on when she first entered. I tried to avoid her gaze, but when I did glance at her she was either looking at Matilda or me. She and Matilda seemed to be getting on well, and I wondered if they had met previously.
As I watched, more students approached the counter, and I examined each of them. About half of them seemed to be in situations similar to mine, wearing plain dresses and carrying not much. Only one other I recognised from a glance at the sheets, and as the minutes progressed I realised how early I had been. Eight o’clock came and went, and still not all the students were there. It was only a quarter past eight, though, when what seemed to be the last girl walked in. She was a paying student, but a straight-backed, proper one with spectacles. I assumed she would try to be the best academically.
Once the last girl was seated, a plump lady bustled out from one of the main corridors which led off from the room. She was clothed in a practical, white dress, with a starched white cap. I assumed this was some kind of variation on what our uniform would be. I was quite surprised to find myself looking forward to receiving it. She hurried out to stand in front of us.
“Good morning girls.” A few of the girls murmured good- mornings, but most remained silent. “My name is Matron Phillips, and I will be your matron for this year. Before we leave to the accommodation, let me cover the rules that have been laid out for you. First, you will each be given uniforms. These must be kept washed and clean at all times. Secondly...” The matron listed over 20 rules, all of which I listened to but without much interest. They all addressed issues with personal hygiene, sleeping hours, meal time and general housekeeping. I knew we may be questioned on the rules later, so I did listen and pay attention, which was more than most of the others did. Matilda and Victoria seemed to be pretending to pay attention, but I could tell that they were not. The last girl who had walked in seemed to be very interested, and I could tell she would be constantly snitching on those who were not following the rules. Most others were either doing what I was doing or what Matilda and Victoria were doing. The matron did go on for a while, always expanding on each rule and giving examples.
“And finally,” she said. “I expect you all to be proper young ladies and endeavour to excel in your studies. Now, if you will collect your bags and we will proceed to where you will be staying.” There was sighing and a slight rise in volume as we all stood and pulled our bags from under our seats. The matron watched, and when we were ready she nodded and led us through corridors. We crossed a courtyard, and entered a villa, from which we could see the hospital. I was surprised to find we had our own rooms. They were small, but private, and I am sure we were all grateful for that. We also had two sitting rooms between the 20 of us, and it was stressed to us that we may use these as often as we liked. I planned to use them quite a lot, as they had a generous selection of books lining the walls. The room I would be staying in had a floral pattern, the wallpaper light blue with accents of navy. I liked it very much, and I had seen some of the other patterns and thought myself very lucky to have this colour. Some of the others seemed to be faded, or had water or sun damage and what may once have been a nice, pleasant colour was now a faded, less vibrant colour. Matilda Moore had one such room, and was almost hysterical and demanded to be moved to a more tasteful one. The matron, whom after which I very much liked, was very firm with her and told her to pull herself together and reminded her of how very ugly the lack of wallpaper in the poor’s rooms would be. This shut her up, which implied she at least had a sliver of empathy. I was one of the last placed in my room, and so observed much of this drama. My room had white skirting board, and a window which was directly opposite the door. White lacy net curtains provided a bit of privacy but let in light, and there was a blind which would provide darkness at night. I put my bag down as the matron shut the door and continued with her room allocating, and walked over to the window. It was on the second storey, which did not quite give me a view over the hospital. It looked down into the courtyard, and I could see the lichen-covered cobble in much detail. I quite liked the view, and felt for the other girls who must have simply a view onto the back of another building, which was what the rooms on the other side faced into. The whole house was filled with rooms, as our meals were cooked in the hospital. We would eat in what had been a dormitory for the hospital’s staff when the hospital employed more permanent workers. The small hall had been long abandoned now, though, and was perfect for the school’s uses. After we had been given a tour of the place, we were sent back to our rooms to unpack and settle in. We were to be in the lower-storey social room by eleven o’clock, and we would be told what to do after that.
Once back in my room, I neatly folded all my outfits into the small dresser that was pushed against the wall opposite the bed. There was still plenty of room in it when I finished, but I could hear Matilda (who, unfortunately, was posted across the hall from me) complaining about the tiny size of the dresser in barely concealed tones. I tutted, astounded that a young lady of such age, who had been brought up in what was most likely a respectable family, was complaining at being in such a prestigious position. People like her disgusted me. I spent the remaining half hour looking absently out of the window and contemplating the values of the rich. I had quite forgotten my humiliating entrance, and the worry I had been so consumed with before I came in. Indeed, I had even forgotten my unfortunate encounter with Sam, which in itself I thought was a feat. At eleven o’clock I heard others leaving down the stairs, and followed. Most of the downstairs girls were already in the room, chatting and socialising quietly. We joined them, and not long after Matron Phillips entered, clapping her hands to catch our attention.
“Girls! Here with me today I have the very founder of this institution. Miss Nightingale will not address you terribly often, and indeed it is a very great privilege that she is doing this introductory speech for you here. Miss Nightingale.” Dramatically, as if she was revealing royalty, Matron Phillips bowed low and swept her arms out as the woman entered. She did not look awfully old, perhaps forty-five or so, but I could see the great things she had seen. Her life had brought her woe, and tragedy, and I could see them in her eyes. But I could not see them on her face. She stood tall, straight backed, proper. She observed us for a moment, her eyes flitting around the room resting on each person’s face. Matilda Moore she skipped over quite hastily, and on Victoria Fitch her eyes narrowed, just slightly, but on me she looked the longest. I could not tell what she was thinking as we examined each other’s eyes. Finally, she looked up.
“Good morning.” Her voice was young, but old as well. It had been relatively well brought up, but had the ever so slight lift of poverty plucking certain syllables.
“I was given a lot of money for helping my country. I decided to do this with it.” She looked up into the eaves of the room, and I knew she saw much more than any of us did. “I did not waste it on nice things.” At this, she glanced at Matilda. The girl looked away. “Or gift it simply to a charity.” She looked at me. I looked down into my lap. “I wanted to do something useful with it. I made a school for doctors of the female gender, whom others call nurses, for lack of other schools. I learnt through my mother, but I knew others had not. How could the male doctors doctor if they had no nurses? How could hospitals and infirmaries function if doctors could not work? They could not. And so, with the extraordinary amount of gold and silver I was given, I made a school. I made a school that would, in the long term, benefit both the public and the interests of hospitals. I like to think that this school will continue without me, but I do not know what will happen in the future.” She looked at us all once again.
“I know everyone would like to be remembered. Perhaps that is what I have founded this school for. My name is on it, and if it does continue without me, my name will most likely remain on it. But for the moment, I am here, and you are here to learn, and help the hospitals and infirmaries. I wish you all the luck, and remind you that not every student will find nursing their true calling. Goodbye.” Quite promptly, and before we could clap, or react, she turned, and left, leaving us all quite astounded. I breathed out, the sigh almost the loudest thing in the room.
“What a woman!” I heard from someone behind me and to my left, and other such comments arose from the group. Matron Phillips returned from the hallway, and smiled smugly at us. She seemed to be quite the supporter of Miss Nightingale.
“That, ladies, is Miss Florence Nightingale.”
Lydia returned with the woman who was quite worried for the child, and understandably so - after having given birth herself just a few months ago. They emerged into the small, shared cabin and Mrs Barrett hurried over to Isabella Ward, gripping her firmly by the arm and taking her over to the baby. Mrs Barrett explained in low tones what was happening, and Ms Ward nodded, baring her breast to the child, holding her and rocking her as she fed. Mrs Barrett was pleased to see the child was suckling without problem, and after the child was established on the nipple she attended to Lydia, who was sitting on an upturned barrel and staring into the distance, her face pale and drawn.
“Lydia, dear, come here.” Mrs Barrett knelt, and the girl looked at her, a blank, distant expression on her face, but her eyes expressing the most fear and worry Mrs Barrett had ever seen. “Lydia,” she whispered, moving forward and pulling the smaller girl to her. Once there, Lydia melted to the shape of her body, relaxing into it and leaning her cheek on the older woman’s shoulder. She was silent, but Mrs Barrett felt the moisture of a single tear drop onto her shoulder. As she pulled the girl closer, more came until the scratchy fabric was wet with salty drops.
“Mama is going to die, isn’t she?” Mrs Barrett was silent for a moment, but Lydia pulled back and searched the woman’s eyes desperately. “Isn’t she?” Mrs Barrett looked away.
“She is.” Such final words, such certain words from the mouth of such an innocent, sweet ten-year-old broke the heart of the life-worn woman.
“Yes.” She whispered. Lydia looked into her eyes again, and this time, Mrs Barrett did not break her gaze. Then the girl simply lay her head on her shoulder again, and they sat like that.