by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
In 1961 another event poked a needle into Alan’s soul, although it didn’t make the news. At the end of May Leslie gave John his ring back. Now that she was fancy-free, she and Alan began to see more of each other.
She had only been seventeen when she and John had got engaged. Far too young for a lifetime’s commitment. She resented it now, she told Alan, as they lazed on the beach in the overlap of their off-duty hours. John had been so possessive and she’d missed-out on the social life of her un-booked and unreserved contemporaries – she thought of all those parties at the Nurses’ Home. Now she was all set to make up for lost time. To enjoy herself – as was her birthright.
Alan listened to all this, idly stroking the crease on the inside of her elbow. A beautiful crease – it hardly marked the skin. He thought of another crease which he sponged-out daily – one in a twisted grey arm that the owner could never extend for himself. One that daily filled with dead skin that stank.
Pye, doing the Big Change with him, had noticed his revulsion. He had also observed the pain of rejection in Jackie Robb’s face, which Alan chose to ignore. When they had gone to the next bed, he’d muttered “You don’t have to be so brisk with him.”
It was an unpalatable observation and an unwelcome one. Alan, not gifted with the power to see himself as others saw him, had keenly felt the sting. He had been so sure his thoughts were his own. But they aren’t – not when you care for somebody, day-in, day-out. He grimaced as he thought of the greasy crease.
Leslie pulled her arm away. “What’s the matter?”
“Oh – oh, nothing. Just something on the ward last night.”
“Switch off, Alan! You’re not at work now.”
But to his chagrin she wouldn’t let him resume playing with her arm. She was nettled. Having disencumbered herself from the surplus caresses of one handsome lad, she wasn’t for straightaway falling into the arms of another. But she did feel she deserved Alan’s undivided attention. Mostly she got it.
They lay side-by-side, watching an old couple getting tangled-up trying to erect their deck-chairs. If they had been nearer, Alan – dutiful boy – might have got up and offered to help. He glanced at Leslie, caught her expression and grinned back.
When after a sigh he looked up again, the couple had sorted out their deck-chairs without help from anyone. The man’s face was bivvied under a newspaper and his missus was getting on with her knitting.
“How much longer have you got to go before you finish your training?”
Leslie turned on her back and put her knuckles to her eyes. “Another six months. Then… I don’t know. I may go on and do my midwifery.”
“Do they promote you to Staff-Nurse?”
“What? – get-away! There isn’t even the guarantee of a job at the end of it all. They take on less than 20% of the student-nurses that complete their training. The rest have to apply for jobs elsewhere.”
“Sounds like they’re just using you for slave-labour.”
“Yes of course they are. The NHS would collapse if they had to pay us all at SRN rates.”
Alan sighed at the sky. “Why do young girls do it?”
“I ask myself that sometimes.” She looked at him sharply, prepared for the standard quip. But Alan didn’t rise to the bait, so she supplied the answer herself. “It’s not as if I want to marry a doctor, particularly.”
“What do you want?”
She shot him another sharp look. This time she decided she wasn’t letting him get away with it. “Well, you’re a fine one to talk. What do you want out of it? – nursing, I mean.”
“I’ve got my degree course in September.”
She yawned. “In the meantime you could have chosen to be anything else but a nursing assistant.”
“I don’t go a lot on motor-boats.”
“What sort of an answer is that?”
“I mean, I just fell into it.”
“Well – there you are.”
Alan didn’t reply. He listened to the lazy thud of the waves on the shingle.
After a while he said “Have you thought of doing it for life? Making a profession out of it?” (Nursing was always referred-to as a “vocation”.)
“Not really. Have you?” It came back pat, like returning a tennis-serve.
She turned her head to gape at him, then she laughed in his face. “Pull the other one. It’s got bells on.”
“I’m serious. You’d get Sister easily. You might go as far as Matron…”
Again she rolled on her back and rubbed her knuckles in her eyes. “Oh Alan, I couldn’t see myself. I’d hate to get like those old spinsters – all dried-up inside!”
Alan slipped out of bed. First day off night-duty – always bad for trying to get to sleep at a proper time. He had slept till 4 o’clock the previous afternoon, so it wasn’t surprising he felt wide-awake now. Good thick curtains would help reset his circadian rhythm – his mother had said she was making him some.
Taking care not to jar his head on the gable beam – his bedroom was under the eaves – he peered past the curtains over the Victorian domestic backs.
The silent world was bathed in warm indigo syrup. No stars – but the clouds were indeterminate. Glimpsing the outline of one, he saw it was moving fast. But he couldn’t hear any wind in the radio aerial screwed-on above the window frame. As it rocked in the breeze it would make the gable grunt.
His frame felt taut like a wire hanger. He would love to creep down to the beach for a swim in the nude. But the thought of getting out of the house without waking his parents was daunting. Sitting on so much expensive stock, they were painfully afraid of burglars. A single creaking stair would be enough to have his father up and prowling the premises with a heavy poker in his hand.
But why should he let himself be confined to the house, like an oriental wife in purdah? If he was going to put up with that he might as well sleep in the Three-Day Order – he wouldn’t feel so confined there. He had a key to the front door – he was free to come and go as he pleased.
…to be continued.