The Print Petticoat(87)

By: Lucilla Andrews

At thirty-four MacDonald was the oldest and professionally most experienced man on the resident staff. With the single exception of the Senior Night Sister, he was the oldest member of the entire staff on-duty in the hospital that night. Just then his exact age was impossible to guess, as even in the red glow his angular, long-jawed face was grey with fatigue and his dark eyes were bruised with black. He never looked physically strong, but this was generally ignored by those who worked with him, since he had the apparently limitless physical and mental stamina of the strong-minded in their prime. In many ways he was a remarkably shrewd man and he had that disconcerting mixture of great sensitivity and great insensitivity that often accompanies an exceptional talent for surgery. His job as Senior Surgical Officer demanded all his stamina and skill. Last night he had had two hours’ sleep and this morning the theatre had recommenced operating at six. He had lost count of the number of patients he had operated on during the day. (Twenty-three.) He would not have remembered what day it was had his wife not reminded him this afternoon that it was Thursday. ‘You know I always have a half-day on Thursday. The Head was so helpful when I said I simply must come to London to see you. I just had to talk to you after your last letter and you know you never seem to be free to come home these days. The Head was marvellous. She said she’d take my morning periods herself and so long as I was back at school second period after lunch tomorrow she could cope …’

MacDonald brushed a hand over his eyes as if that could brush out the memory and bent over the bed to raise each limp eyelid in turn. He rested a hand on the yellow forehead. ‘He’ll do, for just now.’ He straightened and glanced over the screen behind him. ‘Night Sister’s in the flat.’

‘She’s been there quite a while. Sullivan was there but she got rid of him.’ Nurse Dean kept her calm gaze on her patient. She was far too conscientious ever to risk looking into MacDonald’s eyes in the ward. ‘Obviously waiting for you but can’t be urgent or she’d have come in, and she’s not here for her round as she sent Carter away. I’ll just get Smith to take over here. She seems to have settled Briggs now and Jarvis is asleep again.’

‘Jarvis ‒ oh, yes ‒ your coronary. Right. Better see what Night Sister wants.’ But he didn’t move. He looked at her face, and kept the pain out of his voice but not his eyes. ‘I didn’t like taking it off,’ he said.

She didn’t look up. ‘You had to save his life.’

He grimaced. ‘Christ ‒’ he spat under his breath, ‘would I have butchered him for any other reason?’

Nurse Dean blushed for his bitterness. ‘I’ll get Smith,’ was all she said.

MacDonald walked away slowly as an old man. For a fractional moment she watched the back of his long limp white coat and the truth was in her eyes. Then she drew on the armour of her training and went round to Briggs’s bedside. She was still reporting on the Major to her colleague when they heard another flying bomb, this time unheralded by sirens, streaking inland and on over the river about a mile away. Nurse Dean glanced quickly away from Nurse Smith and watched the sleeping Briggs as she continued to mouth her report. All the night nurses could lip-read. Nurse Smith folded her arms to hide the tremor of her hands and her mouth went so dry she couldn’t have produced a voice, and only just managed to move her lips for the necessary monosyllabic replies. And she could only make them when the bomb was well away.

In the stockroom, Nurse Carter stopped rolling cotton wool balls into dressing swabs, closed her eyes and prayed. In the flat, MacDonald and the Night Sister exchanged resigned glances.

As so often happened in the war, neither the three nurses nor Mr MacDonald heard the one bomb that night that affected all four personally and permanently.

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