We were miserable, that night. While making the mash, I began to tear up, and Grandma hugged me until I was sniffling and red eyed but able to mash potato. It was a quiet meal, as well. The conversation was little but polite, and kept fi rmly away from sensitive subjects. We talked of all the things we had not been there to witness. There was not much, really, the biggest change being Grandpa acquiring a new job. He would retire, but for now he was thoroughly content with what he had, and Grandma was happy as it kept him out of her way for the day, provided him with something to focus on, and gave a steady income they otherwise might not have had. It was a simple dinner, and the sleeping arrangements had already been organised. I was to sleep in the spare room, and Eden to sleep either with me or on the couch, whichever she preferred.
Grandpa had collected quite a selection of books, from children’s literature suitable for Eden to more advanced novels I was quite looking forward to reading. Eden, after hearing mention of this bookcase found her way over to it, where she selected a book and drifted back to the couch to read. Grandma had put the kettle on, and so we three sat in front of the fire, talking of our old lives as the sky darkened around us and we were together again.
The morning dawned crisp and bright, and I was up to see the sky change from navy to orange to pink to blue. I didn’t know what the day would bring, but I knew it could hardly be worse than anything else that had happened.
I was the only one up, as Eden seemed to have adjusted from the early mornings she and I were accustomed to from the ship. It seemed, however, I could not shake the habit, but I was only two mornings in. Our grandparents were still asleep, so I rummaged through the cupboards and found a paper bag of oats and I put them on to make sure breakfast was ready when everyone woke up.
The stove was warming up so I walked outside to watch the sky. Smoke curled up into the clouds from all over, which was different from in Karori, but it felt more like home. And really, it was. I was with my mother’s parents, and frankly, it was the only place I belonged. My sister was here, I was here, and the only relations I had were looking after us.
It was the first time in a long time, I realised, that I had not been the one looking after Eden and myself or my father, or someone else. It had been so long since I had been able to depend on someone else. I had always been the one Eden - and sometimes even my father had been dependent on. If I hadn’t been there, neither would Eden, and I knew that, and had been there for her. But now, I was so relieved to have that burden taken off my shoulders. The feeling, the feeling that now I could go my way, and not have to ensure the wellbeing of those who went with me was such a different feeling, so strange and alien.
I heard Grandma call from inside. I hurried in and found her stirring in the oats.
“Good morning, Grandma.”
“Good morning, dear. How did you sleep?” I considered this question.
“Very well, thank you. And you?” Grandma nodded.
“Not too badly. Thank you for putting the water on.”
“Grandma, do you remember when you told me the story about the dog that wandered the streets?” She smiled.
“Of course.” I nodded, staring absentmindedly outside. “I might tell it to Eden, I think.”
“Yes, I think she’d like that.” We were quiet for awhile, thinking in the silence.
I remembered that day. It was a Sunday, and we had walked to Grandma and Grandpa’s because Father thought we could do with some exercise. Once we reached the house, I was in a foul mood. I was a small child of merely six, and the long walk had tired me. Mother was tired from dealing with me, and Father seemed to be getting grouchy. We knocked on the door, the grumpy family of three, and were welcomed into the home. I was crying and demanding water, Father shook his head and stepped outside to ease his headache, and Mother simply went to find her father. Grandma calmly got me a glass of water, and took me onto her lap. She told me a story of a dog named Rufus who was cast out from his litter. He was lost on the streets of London, and had nowhere to go. He walked around and around until he found a park, right in the middle of the city. The park was empty, and he walked over to a bench. He was so tired and thirsty that he lay down to sleep immediately. When he woke, he found himself in a nice house, with a bowl of food and a saucer of water. From then onwards, he was happy and lived with his new owners.
I rather felt like Rufus. I had been cast out, on my own and caring for a young girl and a grown man. I had wandered for three years, and then I found my own park, really. Instead, it was a ship.
I went to sleep on that ship, and then I woke up in a nice house with food, water and company. I no longer had that pressure on my shoulders. It had been lifted, and I felt like a girl again. It was amazing.
“Can I help you, Grandma?” I asked. She nodded and pointed me toward last night’s dishes. With such practise I had, I finished them easily, but by the time I went in to check on Eden, I found that she was already awake and avidly reading her book.
I took a cup of tea into Grandpa, who was still in bed waking up. It was a Sunday, and Grandpa did not have work. I fetched the newspaper from outside at his request, and he sat quite contently reading and sipping his cup of tea.
The family was quiet, each of us reading, drinking or simply contemplating the world. It was a typical Sunday morning, and nothing could ruin it.
Except another landlord.
Frankly, I had had enough of landlords for awhile. However, when a man knocked on the door, I answered it, and heard Grandpa’s call from inside the house that the landlord was here. I shrugged to myself, thinking that he must be here for a routine check and perhaps payment. Unbeknownst to me, word had carried that Josie and Charles’ granddaughters were staying with them.
He seemed a nice man at first, and indeed Grandma and Grandpa greeted him with affection, but after he had checked that all was well with the house he asked to sit down with the three oldest in the house. I obliged, as did Grandma and Grandpa, and so we sat in the living room with the landlord, who I found out was called Mr Humphry.
“You, see, Mr and Mrs Neilson, it has come to my attention that you have four people residing in this house presently. I do not know what your plans are, but I will have to tell you that the terms of your rent mean that any charge over the age of 16 must pay their own fee. I know that you have a minor of whose age I do not know, but your granddaughter here,” he nodded at me, “Seems to be over 16. How old are you, my dear?” He asked. I considered lying, and telling him that I was, in fact, 16, but I knew that if he found out I was lying worse consequences would follow, so I decided to tell him the truth, and besides, I have always been told I look far older than I am, so I supposed it would be hard to believe.
“I am 18, sir.” He nodded, triumphant.
“I assume you are not employed?”
“No, sir, I am not.”
“Well, I am very sorry to tell you this, but I am afraid if you don’t have the funds to pay the rent, you will have to vacate the house, unless your grandparents are willing to pay for you.” He smirked. “I have a notice of eviction, and it says,” he pointed to the paper he drew out from his pocket. “That you must move out of the house by the 23rd of July. That’s just under a month.” He clarified. I sighed.
“Of course.” Grandma said dejectedly. “She will be.” I frowned at the floor. Surely Grandma would be at least slightly more indignant than that. Maybe Mr Humphry was more intimidating than I first thought. The silence grew awkward, and Mr Humphry cleared his throat.
“I’ll let myself out.” His smile was watery as he left the house. It was only once the door latched behind him that we relaxed.
“Rat.” Grandma snarled. “He thinks he’s the king, doesn’t he, Charles.” Grandpa’s lip curled in disgust. “Always has.” She added.
“Sounds familiar.” I muttered darkly.
“Oh, my old landlord was not a pleasant man - but he didn’t even try to pretend. At least this man tried.” Grandma raised her eyebrows as she stood.
“Well, what are we going to do with you, Lydia?”
“Eden can stay here?” Grandma tutted.
“Of course Eden can stay here Lydia! We hardly know her, and we would love to see her after all these years!” I smiled.
“No, Lydia,” she placed her knife on the counter. “Thank you.” She murmured. “And I think Charles and Eden will get on very well.” She looked through the hallway to their bedroom, where through the door we could see Eden leaned against Grandpa, each of them reading quietly. My heart warmed at the sight of Eden and Grandpa finding such a strong connection.
We prepared lunch in an apprehensive silence. It seemed Grandma was just as worried about what would happen as I was. We were each trying to think of possibilities, but I knew the options I ran through in my head were all unrealistic. I couldn’t hide in the house - someone would find out eventually, and life would be stressful. Paying my own way was out of the question - or at least very unlikely. It would be a challenge to find a job in such short notice, and I was too young for anyone looking for experienced workers. And I knew without asking that Grandma and Grandpa could not pay for me. By the time the bread and soup was on the table, I had thought and rethought through each option I could, and I was beginning to become desperate. I could only hope that Grandma had thought of better ideas than I had.
Eden talked enthusiastically about her book, and I was pleased to see she had taken so to reading, but I must have seemed distracted, so she turned to Grandpa and began telling him. I was slightly disappointed she had turned away from me so readily, but happy that she was feeling comfortable with Grandpa.
A lull came in the conversation, and Grandma took the chance. “Eden, dear, I’m afraid we have some bad news.” She frowned, her blue eyes looking around the table, calculating. “Our landlord - the man who owns the house and we pay rent to - visited this morning, as you could most likely hear. He said that Lydia cannot live in this house anymore. She’ll have to move somewhere else, in about a month.” Eden’s blue eyes searched the table for answers, or perhaps a joking face. She found none.
“Why can’t Liddy stay?” Grandpa sighed.
“It is to do with money, Eden. Everything is to do with money. People do find it so fascinating.” Her shoulders slumped.
“Why is it always money?” She spat the last words, contempt filling her voice. “People can take my sister away, and they can do that because of money. Why is that?” Grandma considered the smaller girl fondly.
“Exactly, Eden. Why is that?”
Grandpa and Eden retired once again to the bedroom to continue reading, so Grandma called me to the living room to consider our options. I sat down on the purple chair and she faced me on the couch.
“Well, Lydia. We must put forward all our ideas. I know we both were thinking during lunch, and before it, so tell me all your ideas, and I’ll tell you mine. I do not want any left out, no matter how ridiculous they may seem.”
“Well, of course, there was hiding in the house.” Grandma nodded.
“I thought of that one too. Rather risky though.” I agreed.
“And I tried to imagine my getting a job, but I found it rather unlikely I would get much work at this time. And especially if I’m so inexperienced.” Grandma smiled at me.
“You are not so inexperienced as you think, dear. I know you are only eighteen, but you look much older than you are and you have had so much more experience than people will see at first.”
“And... There was one more, but I know that can’t happen.”
“I think I know which one that was.” She smiled sadly at me. “And I am afraid that I cannot happen.” I nodded.
“And so what did you think of?” She smiled.
“I had thought of all those, and one more. I could ask my friend Ida if she had any room in her guest house for a cheap price, perhaps even just as a temporary option. She’s a nice woman, and I am sure she would understand the situation. Afterwards, we may find you a job with a family, as a more permanent position.” That did sound very promising, if we could manage to make that work. I told her so, and we agreed to try and see how far we got. We had finished talking, and Grandma had gotten up to fetch her sewing. I glanced down at Grandpa’s paper that was lying abandoned on the table. A leaf a fallen out of place, and I slipped it out to get a better look at the text.
Florence Nightingale’s School of Nursing and Midwifery Applications
Applications for Florence Nightingale’s School of Nursing and Midwifery are now open. Collect forms from the post office on The Strand, and post them by the 9th of July. The year starts on the 23rd of July. Applicants must be over 25 years of age, and housing will be provided. Payment to be discussed on interview.
I read the advertisement many times over. It was an outrageous idea, and would be breaking many rules. But I would be out of the house, and the dates coincided perfectly. And, I would become a nurse. I would no longer have to feel desperate and helpless when someone I loved needed medical attention, and that was a feeling I would never forget. It was a feeling I hated, and to do this would mean I would never again have to suffer as I watched loved ones die. I would never let that happen again.
I rushed over to Grandma, who was just re-entering the room.
“Grandma,” I said breathlessly, “Read this.” I thrust the paper into her hands. Her eyes scanned the paper and slowly, she looked up at me.
“This may work, Lydia. If everything goes right, it might work. You look old enough, just, and you have enough tragedy in your life to make an exceptional application. We would just have to careful with your age, never telling anyone if we can help it. We’ll go and fetch the application now - if we get it in quickly we may have a better chance.” I nodded. We told Eden and Grandpa we were simply going out, deciding it better to keep all our plans a secret until it was confirmed. It was a long walk to the post office, but it seemed no one else had collected a form. Indeed, we asked the attendant and she confirmed that no one else had been in. The attendant seemed rather antisocial, a sneer on her lip and a calculating glare. She had red hair, and was quite short. Her skin was pale, and for some reason I got the sense she did not much like me.
We continued filling the form out, and almost immediately it was required to fill your date of birth in. We decided I had just turned 25 - less than a week ago. My birthday was the 25th of June 1840, and seven years was a stretch, but Grandma seemed confident I could pull it off. If I acquired the right clothes, and the uniform was mature enough, most people would simply assume I was a very youthful-looking 25 year old. I hoped it would work.
A section was given to write the reasons you or the community would benefit from the programme, and why you wanted to become a nurse or midwife. I had plenty of reasons to write in for this section, and I tried to make it seem I was almost still grieving. Perhaps I was.
We handed in the form, and the red-haired attendant promised she would put it in the box to be collected each day. Once we stepped out of the building, Grandma turned to me, a childish smile on her face.
“This is excellent Lydia! Just excellent. And, if for some reason you’re not accepted, we always have my friend. Once you’ve finished your training, you will be most sought after, from what I can tell of the Nightingales of previous years. Some have even travelled to the United States of America! Think of the opportunities...” She trailed off, lost in her own imaginations of the future. It was exciting, I had to admit, but what if I did not get in? It was a most popular school, from what I had seen, and presumably many girls would be applying. For Grandma, though, I would be optimistic.
The walk home was a quiet one, each of us thinking of what lay ahead. I was rather apprehensive. If I did get into the school, and that was doubtful anyway, I would live in fear of being found out, and what would happen when I did? Surely it must be a when, rather than an if. Perhaps I would be thrown out in disgrace. Or maybe, even worse, I might be arrested for falsifying an official document, or some such charge. What would that do to my family? I was starting to regret the application, now, in afterthought. It would be so dangerous, and not just for me, I realised. If Grandma had been found to have helped me, she would be arrested as well. I couldn’t bear that.
“Listen, Grandma. I think we should withdraw the application. It is much too dangerous, and imagine if I was to be found out? I might be thrown out, arrested even. And if I was to be arrested, surely you would be too, for assisting me or some such lark. I could not bear that.” Grandma stopped walking. She sighed, and turned back to me.
“What other choice do we have?”
“I could stay at your friend’s guest house, like you said. I could look for a job with a family. It would be so much easier. We wouldn’t have to break the law.” Grandma sighed, and bit her lip. “I suppose you’re right. We went in so enthusiastically, so headstrong. We should have stopped, considered. Well, let’s go back and withdraw it.” I smiled.
“Thank you Grandma. I will sleep so much more easily now.” She smiled sadly, and we turned back, making our way back to the post office. It was not a long way, and we made good time.
“Back again so soon?” The attendant raised her thin eyebrows as she recognised us.
“Yes,” I said. “We would like to withdraw the application we put in just before. You have not put it in yet, have you?” She frowned, and gave me a strange look.
“No ... What changed your mind?” She said slowly.
“Oh, another offer came up.” I said quickly, before Grandma could say anything.
“Right, well, I will make sure to put it in the bin.” I smiled.
“Thank you.” I waited, and she made no move. “Are you going to do that now?” She seemed surprised.
“Oh, I ... well, I really mustn’t leave the desk, so I will do it once someone takes over from me.” I understood perfectly, having had to follow the same guidelines previously.
“Of course. How silly of me.” I smiled again, and we left, Grandma muttering behind me. Once out of the shop and up the road, she sighed.
“Are you sure we can trust her? She seemed rather hesitant.”
“What reason would she have to lie?” Grandma seemed satisfied by this answer, and we walked home.
Dinner brought an animated conversation to the table, and with Grandma and I feeling more sure of my future it was relaxed and light, with plenty of laughter filling the house.
Lydia felt such desperation and frustration that she could hold herself together no longer. Her father was drunk insensible, and her mother looked set to die, in such a state was she. A flood of tears rushed to her eyes, and one by one they wound down her face. She did not yell, or cry out, or sob, she simply watched and cried silently for her mother. She did not even care about the child anymore. All she wanted was her mother to hold her, and comfort her, but it was her mother who was the source of these tears. And her father could have comforted her, but he was not here either. She just needed someone to tell her it would be alright. Then, perhaps, she might have courage. But now - now all she had was fear.
Mrs Barrett was still murmuring to the woman. The baby was almost out, and then she could take it and clean it and care for it while the doctor attended to Marie-Alice.
“Keep going, dear, keep going, you are almost there - one more push, and it will be over. One more, one...” The baby was out. It was covered in blood and she cradled it to her breast.
“Scissors, doctor! Scissors!” The doctor scrambled to his case and pulled out the scissors. He placed them in her hand, and Mrs Barrett snipped the cord that dangled from the baby into the mother. She seemed to remember the girl in the corner who now had a sister.
“It is a girl, Lydia. You have a sister.” Lydia, however, had eyes only for her mother, who, after the effort of pushing the baby out, had fallen unconscious again. The doctor had moved over to the bed with his case.
“I will do what I can,” he declared. “But I cannot promise she will live.”