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In the Event of War

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Matron walked in her slow and stately fashion past the off-duty nurses and sisters, who hushed their gossip till she had gone by.  There were inspections; there were the inevitable forms to fill; there was the daily report to the Major.  In each task, she could see parallels to her responsibilities at the nursing home—her nursing home—where she had ruled for nearly ten years.  Mummy would have liked her to marry; but, after the war, there were so few suitable men.  She hadn’t been interested, anyway.

There were definite parallels between the privations of life now and her days as a trainee at the Royal Infirmary in Leicester:  the narrow bed, the dreadful food, the long rows of patients in the wards.  At the nursing home, as Matron, she had had a suite of rooms assigned to her:  she had settled in graciously, making the space decorously her own, with the comforts to which she had been raised.  Also, of course, there was a better sort of patient:  middle-class or better; people who could afford private accommodation for their convalescence.

The E.M.S. hospital was not at all what she was used to.  Why, oh why, had she volunteered for the Reserve?

It was not a true question.  She knew, she remembered, and she regretted it dearly.  Indeed, she had had doubts as soon as the words were out of her mouth—long before her trip to London, to the mandatory interview at the War Office before her acceptance into the Queen Alexandra's Reserve.  It had been Lady Herrick again.  The same Lady Herrick whom Mummy had persuaded to use her influence to get her daughter the position of Matron when it fell vacant.  (Mummy had never liked her becoming a nurse.  Her one great rebellion had been insisting on proper training.) She had been young to be appointed Matron; but then she had been raised to assume such a rank.  She knew how to defer politely to the doctors, converse kindly with the families of the patients, and rule her staff with a firm hand.  Church bazaar, school fête, Girl Guides … nursing home.  Mummy had always been good at organizing, and taught her well.

It was Mummy, of course, who had “organized” the invitation to Lady Herrick’s Spring Ball.  Of that, there was no doubt—nor the motivation, which again was marriage (of course!), to an eligible man of middle years, whether in the church or the army, law or medicine.  A widower, perhaps.  There were a few whom Mummy would consider suitable; and most would attend the party, which was always one of the highlights of year.

The threat to Czechoslovakia had been in the news.  Not suitable party talk, surely.  Yet it was Lady Herrick who had brought up the threat of war—this, of course, was before the Munich Agreement (for all that had proved to be worth)—and reminded all around that she had herself been a V.A.D. in the Great War.  The War Office, she declared, was even now asking hospital Matrons to encourage their best nurses to join the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service.  Or, more accurately, to sign up for the Reserves.

And it was then that Lady Herrick had turned to her, and challenged her to match this patriotic behaviour.

Perhaps it was the eyes of society upon her, awaiting her response.  Perhaps it was the second glass of champagne (for nowadays she never normally had wine with her dinner).  Certainly, the next morning, she felt embarrassed by her quick words.  She would have forgotten them, if Dr Redmond, who had been there, had not congratulated her, in some surprise, on her unexpected turn of patriotism.  Unwillingly, she had felt compelled to write an application.  In truth, she had not expected even to receive a response.  She was qualified, of course—technically, at least.  But she had not personally cared for patients since becoming Matron.  She was, if one might put it so, out of practice.

Several weeks passed; and she had put it all out of mind as folly reprieved.  It was a shock to receive the morning mail, slit the envelopes routinely open, and find herself reading a letter appointing a time and date for her to attend in London.

For a moment, she thought she might simply not go.  However, her heart quailed at the thought of ignoring an official summons.  Instead, she reassured herself again that she was, after all these years, hopelessly out of practice.  Surely, she would fail the interview and be turned down!  She fortified herself with that thought on her long train journey to London—though she more than once regretted coming as she deciphered the route from St Pancras station to the Horse Guards Avenue with the aid of a newly purchased A-Z Atlas.  Her appointment was not till the afternoon; still, she felt compelled to orient herself.  (It would not do to be late.)  Near the War Office itself, her guidebook told her, was the old Banqueting House building.  She duly admired the exterior.  Then, with the aid of her maps, she tried a little sight-seeing and, having thus found some peace of mind, recovered her appetite sufficiently to take a late luncheon in the Maison Lyonses at Marble Arch before returning timely for her interview.

The questions posed by the Matron in Chief, Miss Roy, were searching.  With relief, she realized that the very truth would condemn her as unfit, and spoke freely.  At the end, therefore, she sat back quietly, hands folded in her lap and ankles crossed, confident of rejection.  In shock, she heard instead that she had been accepted.  Matrons, as well as nurses, are required by hospitals in wartime.

A lady does not reveal her feelings.  Speechless, she received a sealed packet, thanked Miss Roy, stood and shook her hand, and made her way whitely out to the street.  The sun was strangely bright.  She walked back to the station, scarcely hearing the traffic.

It was a long trip home, with a change in Leicester.  At one point, when no one else was in the carriage, she took down her bag and had a good look.  “Open only in the event of war,” said the instructions.  Leaving the package still sealed, therefore, she put it back.  The die is cast, she thought; and she could only hope not to suffer the event of war.

No, it had not at all been what she expected.  Nor, when she finally did open her orders and report for duty, did the Emergency Medical Services hospital resemble anything she had imagined, even from Lady Herrick’s tales of the Great War.

At least, she thought, she had her little bedroom cubicle.  Even if the nurses and sisters had to share (and they hated having to share), Matron needed her privacy.  Or perhaps they needed privacy from Matron.  At any rate, she had that privacy, if only for a few precious hours.  Silently, she unclasped her scarlet-edged cloak, stripped off the grey ward dress, and hung them on the hook screwed into the hut wall.  In her night clothes, she knelt and said her prayers.  First for the young men at the E.M.S. Hospital, who had done their duty in France and suffered for it, that God might mend them and send them forth as whole as possible; second for a quick end to this terrible war, survival for those in London (she had heard the news on the radio at tea time), and the well-being of Mr Churchill, and the King and his family; and finally for the continued health and safety of her own family and the friends she had left back in Ashby-de-la-Zouch.  For herself, she asked nothing.  At this point, there was nothing she wanted that God could grant.

She turned off the light.  Darkness blotted the lurid colours of the cheap cotton counterpane; but the mattress remained as hard as ever.  Silently, tears slipped onto the thin pillow, cased in the slip she had brought in her one small suitcase.  Silk, edged with broderie anglaise:  it might be incongruous in a military hospital; but it was balm to her cheek.