by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Alan tossed the question back. “What about you? Have you never thought of getting trained? You’d earn more money…”
“Not that much more. Not for what we are doing right now. But I would have been able to apply for staff-nurse jobs, maybe in time to become a charge-nurse. You know – the male version of Sister.”
“Oh I dunno,” said Alan, “I’d go for ‘Sister Poonawala’ if I had the chance. It has a certain ring about it…” They both laughed.
“Now ‘Matron’ – that I would go for.”
“Come the day…!” Nobody could envisage a man as Matron any more than a woman as Prime Minster.
Poonawala continued what he was saying. “Added to that is the satisfaction it would have given me, doing the job properly.”
“Did I hear you right then?” said Alan, “Would have given you…?”
“Yes you did. Two years ago, last summer, I was doing my training for RMN at Leybourne Grange.”
Alan looked up from the bed in astonishment. “Why did you give it up?”
“Because my wife had given birth to a lovely baby boy. I love my little boy! But I could not afford to carry on training. And at the end of my training I would not have been getting much more than I am now. But while you are training they pay you much less. You cannot support a family on it.”
Alan hadn’t known this. It shocked him. He hadn’t thought of the job as a particularly highly-paid one – though for someone single of his age, it was higher-paid than anything else he could get in the town. It was over twice what he’d got as an apprentice electrician.
“That doesn’t provide people with much incentive to get trained!”
“Indeed it doesn’t. That is why the Mental Health Service runs mainly on untrained staff. You are supposed to have trained staff to administer drugs. But at Hellingly, I’m told, nursing assistants – senior ones of course – administer drugs without supervision.”
“We don’t do it on this ward. We have Sister Fearon and Charge-Nurse Baker, and Staff-Nurse Hoggarth, whom you haven’t met yet. There is always someone on-duty during the day who is qualified to administer drugs. But apart from the drugs, there is nothing that a trained nurse does which we nursing assistants do not. That is why they pay us much more than nursing auxiliaries or ward orderlies. Nearly as much as trained nurses.”
That silenced Alan. It had given him something to think about.
They pulled back the covers on the next bed.
“Steam.” Poonawala smiled with pursed lips. “What did you think it was?”
“Well – really, Mr Hall! – he cannot read, he cannot listen to the radio, he cannot chat with his neighbour. What would you do in bed all day?”
Alan shook his head without a word and commenced detaching the draw-sheet.
Sister called Alan into her office. “It’s the end of the month, Mr Hall. Pay-day. Go off to lunch five minutes early and on the way you can collect your pay packet from the office. Mr Poonawala is going too and he can show you where it is.”
As they were crossing the road, Alan remarked “I thought I was going to get paid at the end of the first week. That’s what my porter friend told me originally. But I’ve had a whole month to wait. Good job I’m not trying to bring up a family on my wages.”
“Ah – that is because it isn’t wages that you are being paid but a salary.”
“What’s the difference?”
“All the difference in the world. Wages are paid weekly and you get cash in the pay packet. But if you’re salaried, they pay you at the end of the month and you get a cheque.”
“Why are the two different?”
“Ah well – you see we nursing assistants are of a higher status than mere ward orderlies and porters. They are just ordinary workers and the law says they must be paid weekly in cash. But we nursing assistants are on a level with office staff, white-collar workers, the same as nurses. We are expected to have a bank account and to be able to sign our names – and so they pay us monthly by cheque.”
“Come the bloody revolution…” laughed Alan without mirth. “Meanwhile I’m privileged to wait another three weeks for my money!”
They reached the wages office and collected their pay packets from the hatch in the wall. But when Alan opened the little brown envelope, his eyebrows shot up in surprise.
“Hey! There’s less than half here what I’m expecting! Is it all the deductions? Are there that many?”
“Only for superannuation – and for laundering uniform. That is assuming your deductions are the same as mine. Shall I take a look…?”
Alan stretched out the payslip between thumbs and forefingers. Poonawala pointed to it. “Aah… I think I see what has happened. According to this you are Std/N Anna Hall, not N/Asst Alan Hall. You had better give them that pay packet back and ask for yours.”
But of course – they didn’t have Alan’s pay packet. They had already given it to Student-nurse Anna Hall. The pay clerk looked up her ward and picked up the phone.
“Don’t wait around, Sanjay, this might take a while,” said Alan. “Silly for us both to miss our lunch-break.” So Poonawala went off to lunch and Alan waited by the pay hatch.
Within five minutes a girl his age in the green uniform of a student-nurse – a pretty girl Alan thought – marched up to the pay hatch and slapped down a brown packet.
Alan approached her. “It seems we share the same surname…”
She put her hand to her mouth. “I’m awfully sorry – I’ve gone and opened your pay packet!”
In the Year of Grace, 1960, the pay you received each month ranked alongside your sexual proclivities as personal information of the most critical cast, potentially shameful – and thus to be kept secret.
Without having been introduced, without so much as having seen each other before or even knowing of the other’s existence, they had been thrust into a closer relationship than brother and sister. Closer than many lovers or spouses – for those closest to you were often the last people you wanted knowing your financial details.
They looked at each other with the bemusement of strangers unexpectedly waking up naked in bed together. Alan quickly surmised there was some backtracking to do.
…to be continued.