The Nurses Home. My parents left me with my suitcase and meagre pile of belongings and I waited in a queue of similarly aged girls to register at a large desk, with an equally large woman behind it. I was handed two keys – one to the front door and one to my room. MY room. My own room! I had never had a room of my own. As a young child I shared a bedroom in the pre-fab with my sister and my grandmother, my cot squashed against the wall. Later, as the family grew and we moved to a slightly bigger house, I shared with my sister and my brother until my grandmother died and my brother took possession of her room. I shared with my sister until we left home.
There I was, suddenly independent. My room was on the fourth floor and my luggage had already been taken up. Everywhere looked and felt, and smelled, institutional: cream-painted walls, hard floor, dark wood doors, a faint whiff of floor polish. There were high ceilings and nothing soft on the floors to muffle the sounds. The open hallway was noisy with the excited voices of new arrivals; I remember thinking it was like the first day at school after the summer holidays. The lift doors scraped open and shut, porters carried bags backwards and forwards, small groups taken to the upper floors. There was a wide stone staircase to the left with a stern notice in red lettering on the wall: ‘MALE NURSES FIRST FLOOR ONLY’.
Occasionally nurses in blue uniforms appeared on the staircase, walked down and made their way through the crowd of us and out of the front door, crossing the road to the hospital. They wore white caps with a blue stripe and some of them wore navy blue cloaks with a red lining. There was much nudging and looking from the crowd:
‘That will be us soon!’
practically appeared in thought-bubbles above us. They smiled at us, not without a little condescension, probably remembering how awed they had felt themselves on their first day, and enjoying the sudden power over us newbies.
“Walters! June Walters!’ My name was called, and I hurried across to the lift before the doors closed. Squashed inside, there was a moment of embarrassed silence and then half a dozen of us shared tentative hellos.
‘Which floor are you on? Four? I’m on three!’
‘Oh, I’m on four too! I wonder what the rooms are like?’
’Maybe we’ll be near each other?’
It felt, unnervingly, like something out of an Enid Blyton jolly-girls-at-boarding-school book. A lot of fresh-faced, excited girls starting a new term. Was this how it was going to be? Was this what I wanted? What had I done?