The next day dawned grey and cloudy, quite the opposite of the previous day. It was just after lunchtime, and we were all still full from the marvellous black pudding Grandma had made. Grandpa was at his work, and it was the women of the house left. Grandma’s friend Lynley Saddler would be arriving shortly, and Eden and I were to make shortbread as we had before. Grandma had some old oranges she wouldn’t be using, and so she said we were welcome to favour the shortbread with grated orange peel, and a little juice. Eden was very excited.
Once the biscuits were in the oven, we joined Grandma and Mrs Saddler in the living room, where we found Mrs Saddler a Scotswoman, with an almost incomprehensible accent. Grandma, however, was completely comfortable, and could understand her perfectly.
As we listened, I found her accent to be more understandable, and I joined the conversation. Not long after, the shortbread was ready, and we could smell the orange infused biscuit. I let Eden draw them out, and they seemed perfect. We chose four of the choicest ones, and arranged them on a dish to take out. The others we let cool for awhile, and then we placed them in a tin.
They was very well received, and especially by Mrs Saddler, who claimed it to be the most succulent and tasty shortbread she’d had since her mother died. This remark brought an awkward silence over the room, but Mrs Saddler was oblivious and continued raving about the shortbread. Eden was very pleased with the compliments, and vowed that his was her favourite of all Grandma’s friends. I pointed out that she hadn’t met any others yet, but she dismissed the fact lightheartedly.
Mrs Saddler stayed for a long time, and indeed Grandma invited her to dinner, but she declined, saying she had a husband to cook for. As she left, Grandpa arrived, and her visit was prolonged a further five minutes as she greeted him, then said goodbye at last.
“Quite a woman, isn’t she, Josie?” Grandpa chuckled after she had left.
“I object,” Grandma said indignantly. “She is a lovely woman.”
“Oh, I never said otherwise!” Grandpa defended himself. “Simply that she is very energetic for one of her age.” Grandma eyed him suspiciously, not believing a word of it.
“Grandpa!” Eden tugged on his shirt. “Come and try out shortbread. We made it with orange rind!”
“Oh, very good Eden! Where is it? I must admit, a bit of orange shortbread is exactly what I need right now.” Eden pulled him over to the kitchen, and reached up on the tips of her toes to pull the tin out of the cupboard. She opened the lid, and I could smell the baked-orange scent that emanated in wafts all the way over to the living room. I eyed the crumbly pieces of pale biscuit that lay in the tin, and was tempted to walk over and grab one for myself, but I resisted. If I had less now there would be more for the next few days.
It was a quiet evening, with each of us reading, mending or cooking. We told Grandpa and Eden of our plans for me to go into service, and they each seemed equally sad, but relieved we had found somewhere for me to go.
The days were short, and I knew they would shorten more as the time for my departure neared. Each day we spent mostly inside, enjoying our days together. Every four days, Eden, Grandma and I would walk to the grocery store and buy the supplies for the next four days. These two weeks were very similar to each other, and every day I thought more of my imminent removal from the house I had already spent so little time in. However, I was not sure why I was so worried, because surely I could visit. In the middle of the second-to-last week, both Grandma and I began scouring the newspaper for advertisements which fit the job I was looking for. We had found nothing by the start of the last week, but the Nightingale School advertisement was repeated more and more. The next morning was Tuesday, and I was in the kitchen when I heard a swish-clack of the postman dropping envelopes through the mail slot. I finished pouring the porridge into a bowl, and sprinkled a little of the brown sugar we had bought on top for Eden. I brought out the bowls and a jug of milk to accompany it.
“I’ll just collect the mail, Eden. I think the paper has been delivered as well, so I may be a little longer.” She nodded and waited politely for me.
I walked down the hall, and saw the usual pile of envelopes for Grandma and Grandpa. I bent down and shuffled them into a neat pile, making them easier to hold. I unlatched the door and fetched the paper, flicking through it and scanning the advertisements section. Again, nothing was printed was of any interest. I brought everything back inside and placed the letters on the table in the living room. As I was turning back to the table, I glanced my name written on an envelope at the bottom of the pile. Curious, I brushed the others away and picked it up. I brought it back to the table, turning it over and finding the return address had been smudged, and the ink had run, presumably from the rain that showered London this morning. Frowning, I told Eden she could start, and she happily obliged. I ripped a corner of the paper, and ran my finger along the inside, ripping the crease, perhaps not as neatly as I had hoped. The paper inside smelt of disinfectant, and was crisp and official, not the kind from a friend. I slipped the paper out, placing the envelope on the table and unfolding the paper. The letterhead read ‘Florence Nightingale’s School of Nursing and Midwifery’. My heart sank, and a sigh escaped my lips. What had happened? What had I done? Grandma and Grandpa were in bed, enjoying the sun that was hitting the room.
“Grandma,” I said breathlessly. “Something has happened.” She looked at me over her reading glasses, which were perched on her nose.
“What is it, dear?” I glanced at Grandpa, who seemed still oblivious to the whole exchange, immersed in another book.
“Can we go into my room?” Grandma nodded, her brow creased in concern. We walked through the hall, and entered my room. I closed the door behind her, and I sat on the bed. Wordlessly, I handed the paper to her.
“I only saw the letterhead - I have not read it yet. Please, will you read it for me and say if the news is bad or good?” She saw the text I had seen, and she bit her lip in confusion, but unfolded the paper more and began reading.
Once her eyes lifted from the page, they considered me for a while, her thoughtful gaze causing me to grow impatient.
“What does it say? Is it good or bad?”
“That ... that is it.” She said. “I am not sure whether it is good or bad. It could be either, depending on the way you may choose to look at it.” I looked at her, and then pulled the paper out of her hands.
Dear Miss Clark,
We at Florence Nightingale’s School of Nursing and Midwifery were very pleased to receive your application for our school. We are an acclaimed and sought-after institution which provides only the very best in medical tuition. We can accept only those who will obey our rules and reach our standards.
After reading your application, and learning of the tragedy you went through, we feel you would be an ideal student at our school. If you truly no longer want to feel such frustration at watching others in need, then we believe we can help you complete training and help victims such as your mother.
Please reply to this letter by coming directly to St Thomas’s Hospital, Westminster Bridge Rd, London, at 12 o’clock on Wednesday the 18th of July 1865, and we will discuss with you your instructions for attending the school.
Mary Dale, student supervisor
I looked up at Grandma.
“I knew we should not have trusted that woman.” She was angry, but her brow was creased with worry.
“What do I do?” She shook her head and gazed out of the window.
“I do not know.” She murmured.
“I have been accepted.” I said, almost to myself. She smiled. “Yes, Lydia.” she said. “But you do not have to go.”
“I know,” I said, mournfully, “But really, now I seem to have changed my mind. It would be so great an experience, and you’re right, I would have so many options afterwards.” Grandma laughed.
“Your mind seems to be a very temperamental one.” I smiled, and batted her playfully.
“Yours does not seem set in stone either.” She chuckled.
“No, but I at least know my mind. Yours seems so very big that you have not yet explored it properly.” I sighed.
“Perhaps. But perhaps that is a good thing.” She glanced at me, puzzled. “No, I should not have said that. I don’t know what I mean by it.”
“Well, perhaps now is the time for you to make a decision. Will you go, or will you choose going into service?”
“I do not know! It is too hard to choose. I will sleep on the question, and come to an answer within the morning.”
“You have no time, Lydia! You must choose, for if you choose the school you must go tomorrow. I will give you the rest of the day, but you must tell me by the evening, so if you go, I can organise for a horse to take you to Westminster Bridge Road.” I moaned, and pressed my hands to my temples.
“You put so much pressure on me, Grandma! It is too much.” She smiled.
“I’m sure you have experienced more in your life.” She said gently.
“I suppose.” I said. “I will think on it for the rest of the day,” I repeated, “And I will tell you my answer by nightfall.” Grandma smiled.
“That, my dear, is exactly how you should structure your decisions. Always set a deadline for yourself.”
We went back to the living room, where my porridge was only just warm, and the sugar on top had melted into a golden syrupy substance. Eden looked up curiously as we came in, but she knew enough not to ask anything. Grandma talked to her, asking about her sleep as if nothing had happened. Of course, we had to act as if nothing had. Unfortunately, it had. And it would.
Throughout the day I was constantly absent minded and dazed. Eventually, I retired to my room and read to clear my head.
I emerged from my room at 6 o’clock, still undecided. Should I go to a school I was not legally allowed in, and risk being caught, or should I work for a family? I wandered into Grandma and Grandpa’s room. It was a relatively small, square room, that had a replace on one wall, and two windows across from it. The bed was pushed up against the wall under the windows. It faced the fire, and Grandma and Grandpa had placed a photograph in a frame on the mantelpiece above the fire. I realised I had not seen it before - either I had not noticed it, or it was not there before, I did not know. I walked over to it, and saw that it was of Mother. It must have been taken not long before we left to New Zealand. She was happy, even though she was not smiling. I could tell. That was my mother, who I no longer had. It was that photograph that decided it for me. Perhaps if I had known the skills needed when my mother gave birth, she may still be here. But I hadn’t, and even though I was only ten, I might have. I was going to be a nurse. And if someone found out I was only 18, let them. But I was determined now.
Mrs Barrett took the baby over to the water barrel in the corner. She bathed it, and gently washed the blood off the baby girl. She was unnaturally quiet for a baby, but Mrs Barrett had expected this. After interrupted births, the babies were quite often in trauma, or shock. She did not know for sure. The doctor had pulled the afterbirth out of the mother, and was desperately trying to stem the bleeding. It looked a strong flow, and it did not look like stopping. Mrs Barrett hoped Marie-Alice would survive, but all she could do was care for the baby, and at least give Mr Clark a child.
Lydia had gone numb. All her feelings had bled out of her at the rate the blood flowed from her mother. Her mother was getting paler and paler as more of the red liquid that gushed around her body diminished and left her in increasing volume. Lydia watched, and her breathing rose as the adrenaline pumped around her body but she had no emotion to put it into. Her vision became spotted with black, orange, blue, pink and yellow dots. Her mind became fuzzy and her eyes moved slower than they should have. She fell.
The doctor caught her movement out of the corner of his eye and cursed, but he could not leave his patient. Mrs Barrett was swaddling the baby in rags from the bed, but she would be finished soon. He hoped she would tend to the other girl who was unconscious on the floor.