by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
“Are you – er – going to lunch?”
She nodded. Just below her eyes she pinked slightly.
He held out his hand. “I’m Alan. May I call you Anna?”
She nodded again. It was a bold approach – especially for Alan. But the situation, virtually an emergency one, had left them both without social landmarks. He was moving about in numbing smoke. A naked guest, guiding another to the fire escape.
In the canteen they each collected a tossed salad from the serving hatch. Anna cast her eye round the room and led them to an empty table. She noted with relief that there were no other student-nurses at this sitting. Otherwise she knew she’d have to face determined questioning later on, being seen tête-à-tête with an unknown boy. And what was worse, a mere nursing assistant – or so his uniform proclaimed.
“When I saw the cheque,” she admitted, “I nearly fell over backwards. I’ve never had so much money in my life.”
“What a disappointment it must have been for you.”
“I was thinking of keeping it,” she said with an impudent grin. “But it would have been touch-and-go if the bank had accepted it.”
“I’d have been after you,” laughed Alan.
“I had no idea they paid you people so much!” She was having to come to terms with the idea that this young man was simultaneously of higher status than her – for the amount he earned – and lower, for the fact of his being an untrained grade of staff.
“I think they keep it quiet,” said Alan.
“You bet! If they knew about it at the nurses’ home there’d be a revolt!”
“You live at the nurses’ home?” He knew the place by sight. It was over the Ward 14 side of the road, on the perimeter – a newish building, like a student hall of residence. Certainly newer than the Victorian pile all around them over this side.
“Have to. They insist on all the student-nurses living-in – and they make the appropriate deduction from salary for rent, as you’ll have noticed. So there’s not a lot left when I get the cheque.”
“Mine must have staggered you.”
“Yes, it did. It’s nearly as much as I’ll get when I’ve finished training.”
Alan nodded and smiled knowingly. “My colleague Mr Poonawala was telling me that. He had to give up his training and become a nursing assistant, just to support his young family.”
Anna’s eyes opened wide. “That’s dreadful!” Her face relaxed again. “But it doesn’t surprise me.”
Catching the eye of Poonawala, sitting by himself several tables away, Alan discreetly raised his hand. “He’s sitting over there in fact. We were on our way over to lunch when this mix-up happened.”
“Do you want to go and join him?”
Alan was about to take up the suggestion when a voice inside his head told him that Anna would not accompany him if he did. “No – it’s you I’m sitting with.”
He knew Sanjay would understand – in fact a glimpse of his colleague’s laughing eyes showed he’d taken no offence. Though maybe he was “understanding” all the wrong things about Alan’s lunchtime encounter.
They ate in silence for a while. Alan thought he’d probe a little. “Might we possibly be related?”
“Have you lived in Seagate all your life?”
“No,” replied Alan. “Only for the last seven years. We moved down here from London. My father is Scottish. Everyone knows him as Jock – he’s a licensed victualler.”
“What’s that?” Nobody ever knew, but it was how his father insisted Alan refer to him in conversation. “Publican” was something to go with “sinner”.
“He’s the landlord of the Green Man in Prince’s Terrace.”
Oh no! – she thought. The son of a publican. This is getting worse and worse! But god! – he’s so dishy…!
“My people have lived in this town for as long as I’m aware,” she said. “I think I know everybody who’s related to me.”
“I suppose Hall is a fairly common name.” There wasn’t much more to be said. Which was both good and bad – it would be terrible to get engaged and then discover they were long-lost cousins. Alan didn’t know why he was thinking so far ahead.
He cast around in his head for something else as a topic of conversation. “What’s it like living in the nursing home?”
“Awful! It’s like a convent. There’s no freedom. Since there are so many girls from far away – Ireland mostly – the wardens think they have to be foster parents and insist that we are all in by ten-thirty each night.”
“So there’s a curfew – and they lock you in, do they?”
She made a wry face. “Mind you, they have to, with some of the girls. Occasionally the young doctors try to get in through the windows. Instant dismissal if you’re found with a boy in your room – and he’s not your brother.”
She had helped herself to a tiny portion of salad and it was soon finished. She got up to go.
“Excuse me – I’ll have to get back to Female Surgical. Sister’s a bit of a dragon. This isn’t really my sitting for lunch. But I thought I’d get away with it, since it was Payroll that had me hauled off the ward – and it could all have taken a while.”
Alan nodded. “Well, it’s nice to have had the chance of talking to you.”
With her tray in her hand she hesitated before reaching a hasty decision. “Would you like to come to a bottle party tonight? We’re having one in the nurses’ home.”
“Are you? Do they let you do that?”
“Now and again. We have one every other month, on pay-day. We’re allowed to bring one guest. Will you be mine for tonight?”
“I’d love to!” said Alan. “When shall I come?”
“Come to the home at seven-thirty. Say you’re with me. Bring a bottle.”
With that she was gone.
Alan’s head was all a-buzz. An entrée to the nurses’ home – things were hotting up! Wholly unasked-for, his mind began toying with some altogether impractical notions. Like whether, seeing as they had the same surname, she’d be able to pass him off as her brother and they could do a bit of incest…
Back on the ward, Alan asked Poonawala just why, in the chronically underpaid National Health Service, they were paid so much in comparison with other grades.
“Is it to attract the staff?”
“How do you attract anyone to a job like this?”
“Well, why then?”
…to be continued.