The Print Petticoat(83)

By: Lucilla Andrews

Nurse Dean stayed with him, one hand on his wrist, the other adjusting the rate of the oxygen. The tall black oxygen cylinder stood just behind his locker and she stooped for a closer look at the speed of the bubbles in the flow-meter through which the oxygen passed before reaching the mask. Attached to the last was a green rubber bag that rose and fell with each respiration. She watched the bag until it ceased to flutter and settled into a regular rhythm. Too rapid and too shallow, she thought, but at least steady. She studied his total appearance clinically, uneasily, and remembered the anger in his eyes. The emotion wouldn’t help his heart but it would help his will. She knew from first-hand experience that any patient still capable of anger was a patient still determined to fight for life. From his pulse, his heart was fighting now, but it was a very tired heart. It all depended on how long his will could power his heart and how quiet they could keep him. She was not an imaginative girl but, as her reflexes had been conditioned, at that last thought she glanced instinctively up at the invisible sky.

That one distant rocket remained the only thing to have dropped on London since the night staff took over, when Nurse Carter came in from the balcony just before eleven. Earlier, as the night nurses were streaming sleepily into the dining-room for supper, the air-raid sirens had moaned the Alert that after five years had become as easily ignored as an habitual alarm clock in the morning. No one within a flying bomb’s range needed a warning siren; the noise of the engines and the sight of the fire spitting from the tails provided enough warning; experience taught that the bombs were relatively safe until the engines cut off, the fire went out and the dive started. And then the bombs were deathly dangerous. No sirens wailed to warn the approach of a rocket, as the V2s came too high, too fast, and too silently. The first anyone knew of a rocket attack was when one landed.

A few minutes after the Alert at supper, two flying bombs had fallen on the other side of the river within minutes of each other. The three Wally’s night nurses had heard the bombs explode, but only Nurse Smith still remembered them and even she had forgotten when, or even if, she heard the All-Clear that followed. The deep-throated chug-chug-chug of the engines echoed in her head as she held Briggs’s hand in both hers and listened to his anxious mutters about his wife, ‘… she will come … comes up every day from Guildford, nurse … not right for her … she will come … every day, nurse … worries me, nurse … she will come …’

The sluice and ward bathrooms were up at the balcony end. Nurse Carter took her bucket into the sluice and blinked at the harshness of the white-shaded light accentuated by the white tiles on the walls and green tiles on the floor. Her night was only two hours old, but as it was her fourteenth of the twenty-one consecutive nights worked by all the night nurses, between intervals of three free nights, during their three-month periods on night-duty, her back had already started aching and the usual tentacles of fire were ringing her ankles and shooting down into the balls of her feet. She checked the doorway was empty, then sat on the weighing machine drawn up against one wall. It was of the old-fashioned wheelchair-cum-wheelbarrow variety that someone had produced from some forgotten store after the direct hit on the main surgical stores.

‘Carter! What do you think you’re doing?’ Nurse Dean was in the open doorway.

Nurse Carter bounced up and stifled the urge to retort: Just checking on my TB, nurse. ‘Sorry. Want me?’

‘Why didn’t you answer that ’phone?’

‘Sorry, nurse. On the balcony.’

‘Never mind that now ‒ but you know you’re not allowed to sit down at night unless you’re writing, specialing or having your meal. Do try and be more professional. Just because Jerry’s slack is no excuse for slack nursing. Leave your routine this end and deal with all you’ve got to do down the flat end. Stay there and cope with the ’phone whilst I’m tied up in the ward. Luckily, I just heard it. It was the theatre for the Major’s bed. I’ve managed to scrounge two Cas. dressers to take it down and you needn’t go with it as they’re sending him up with a theatre nurse as the SSO’s coming with him.’