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A SNEERING MARCH WIND WAS blowing down
Primrose Hill Road, driving everyone and everything before it, but there was one battling figure struggling into its teeth—a young woman, hurrying along at a great rate, her head bent, her hair, whipped out of her head-scarf, blowing around her face. Presently she turned down a side road and pausing only to tuck her hair away out of her eyes, hurried on, faster now in its comparative shelter. It was a pleasant enough street, lined with tall, late-Victorian houses, nicely maintained still, each with its narrow railed-off area steps leading to a basement, and each, too, with its heavy front door, bearing an impressive brass knocker. Halfway along these superior dwellings the girl stopped, darted up the steps, put down the basket which she was carrying, opened the door with some difficulty, whisked up the basket and went inside.
The hall she entered was chilly and rather dim, with a polished linoleum floor and a table, flanked by two chairs, against one wall. There was a handsome vase on the table, empty, and a scrupulously clean ashtray. The stairs were covered with lino too, and although everything was spotlessly clean and free from dust, it held neither warmth nor welcome. The girl paused only long enough to close the door behind her before crossing the hall and making her way down the stairs beyond a small archway at the back. She had reached the bottom and had her hand on a door in the narrow dark passage beyond when she was halted by a voice. It called sharply from the floor above: 'Olympia, come here at once!"
The girl put her basket down and went upstairs again, opened one of the massive mahogany doors in the hall, shut it quietly behind her, and waited near it, looking across the carpeted floor to where her aunt sat at her desk. Miss Maria Randle was a large woman, approaching middle-age but still handsome despite her severe expression. She looked up briefly now. "You have been gone a long time," she observed coldly.
"There was a good deal of shopping..." 'Nonsense—when I was a girl of your age, I thought nothing of twice the amount I ask you to do." She sighed, "But there, you are hardly capable of a normal girl's work; if I had known when I adopted you, gave you a good home and educated you at such expense, that you would repay me in such an ungrateful fashion, I would have thought twice about it."
Olympia had heard it all before; she sighed sound-lessly, and her face took on the wooden expression which concealed her hurt feelings and which her aunt referred to as mulish. It was a pleasant face, although it had no startling good looks; grey eyes, nicely fringed, a short straight nose, a wide, softly curved mouth and a determined chin didn't quite add up to prettiness. Her hair was a warm brown, hanging round her shoulders rather untidily; it caught Miss Randle's annoyed eye and enabled her to voice another grievance. "And your hair!" she declared severely. "Surely you can do something about it? You're a disgrace— if any of the doctors were to see you like this I'm sure I don't know what they would think."
Olympia said nothing at all; she was perfectly well aware that her aunt knew as well as she did that the doctors only saw her when she was in uniform, her hair smoothed back into a neat bun under a plain cap. Maybe her aunt remembered this too, for she didn't pursue the matter further, but: 'You are on duty in ten minutes—leave the shopping in the kitchen, and see that you're not late. You must try and remember that my staff are expected to be punctual, and that includes you, Olympia." She frowned heavily. "Such a ridiculous name," she added crossly.
Again Olympia said nothing; she rather liked her name, although she was aware that her appearance hardly justified it. She should, she had always felt, have been a voluptuous blonde, and strikingly beautiful, instead of which she was a little on the short side and thin with it, her features were pleasantly ordinary and her hair, soft and long though it was, and tending to curl nicely at the ends when it was given the chance, was usually too severely dressed. But her parents were not to have known that when she was born—probably she had been a very pretty baby, and since they had both died in a motor accident before she could toddle, they had never known how wrong they were.
She went quietly from the room, took the shopping to the kitchen where she handed it over to Mrs Blair, the hard-worked daily cook, and returned to her room to change into uniform.
The room was like the hall, bare and clean and chilly. She shivered a little as she took off her things, donned the blue dress and white apron, fastened the blue petersham belt round her little waist, and finally smoothed her hair into its demure bun under her cap. She had a couple of minutes to spare still before she needed to go on duty, and the thought crossed her mind that a cup of coffee would be nice; but Mrs Blair was already cross; by the time she could coax her into giving her a cup it would be too late. She tied the laces of the sensible black shoes her aunt insisted upon and went back upstairs.
The nursing home catered for twenty patients, and it was always full; a number of the rooms held three beds, in some cases two, and on the first floor there were three single-bedded rooms, commanding high fees for that very reason, and usually inhabited by wealthy patients who demanded a great deal of attention, and because they could pay, usually got it, however trivial.
Olympia passed these three doors now and entered a small cupboard of a room where a middle-aged woman in nurse's uniform was sitting. She looked up as Olympia went in and smiled. "I've just made a pot of tea," she greeted her. "I bet you had to spend your off duty shopping,'and at Olympia's nod: 'I thought as much—and now you're on duty until eight o'clock this evening." She produced two mugs. "It's really too bad; if I didn't need the money so badly and live almost on the doorstep, I'd be tempted to try my luck somewhere else in protest, but much good that would do; you'd get all my work to do as well as your own."
She spooned sugar into their teas and they sat down side by side at the desk.
"How's Harold?" asked Olympia. Harold was Mrs Cooper's teenage son, suffering from muscular dystrophy, and the reason why she went out to work— he was the reason why she stayed at the nursing home too, for it was only a few yards from her flat, and because nurses were hard to get, Miss Randle had reluctantly allowed her to work during the hours which suited her.
"He had a bad night,'said his mother, getting to her feet. "There's nothing to report; they're all much as usual. Doctor Craddock came and changed Mrs Bright's medicine... I'll be in at two tomorrow." She went to the door. "Mrs Drew's making beds upstairs, and Miss Snow is getting Mr Kemp up. So long, dear."
Left to herself, Olympia read the report, tidied away the tea things and started on her visits to the patients. They were all elderly geriatric cases; her aunt would take nothing else, since more acute nursing would mean more staff and trained nurses at that. As it was, she got by very well with Olympia and Mrs Cooper, and Mrs Drew and Miss Snow, who had had no training at all but looked like nurses in their uniforms. During the night she managed with two more nursing aides, good and competent and hard-working, and if anything needed the skill of a trained nurse, why, there was always Olympia to get up and see to things.
The three patients with rooms to themselves were nicely settled for the time being; she climbed the stairs to the floor above, where she gave out the medicines, did a bed bath, made a couple of beds, and then considerably later, climbed the last narrow flight. Here the rooms contained more beds; one held four old ladies, the other three elderly men, and although they were adequately lighted and warm enough, they were entirely bare of pictures or ornaments. The patients here had little money; just enough, with the help of relations who were horrified at the idea of sending their old folk into hospital, for the fees to be paid, leaving little over for spending. Olympia longed to tell them how much better off they would be in a geriatric unit in any of the big hospitals in London; they would have company there, and the telly, as well as the library ladies coming round twice a week and more old ladies and gentlemen to talk to. She went from one to other of them now, stopping to chat, admire knitting, discuss the weather or look at some picture in a paper. She always stopped longer than she should on the top floor, because the poor old things were mostly incapable of getting down the stairs for themselves, and Aunt Maria, although she paid them a daily visit, rarely stopped for more than a few moments. Olympia, tidying beds and listening with half an ear to their occupants, reflected for the hundredth time on the improvements she would bring about if she could take Aunt Maria's place and run the home herself. Not that she liked geriatric nursing; she had loved her three years' training at a large London hospital and she had done well there. She had wanted, above all things, to specialize in surgery, but she had given her word to her aunt before she began her training, and she hadn't broken it, although sorely tempted to do so.
She knew now that Aunt Maria had been quite unscrupulous and totally unfair towards her. True, she had educated her well, bought her sensible, hard-wearing clothes which had been agony to wear in the company of her better dressed friends, and instilled into her, over the years, the fact that she must never cease to be grateful to an aunt who had taken her as a toddler and devoted her life to her upbringing. And when, at the age of fifteen or thereabouts, Olympia had expressed a wish to take up nursing, her aunt had agreed readily, at the same time pointing out that Olympia, as a grateful niece, could do no less than hand over the bulk of her salary, when the time came, to an aunt who had spent a great deal of money over the years. Moreover, she had extracted a promise that upon the completion of her training, Olympia should return to the nursing home and work for her aunt at a very modest wage indeed, because, it was made clear to her, she would be living free, and what girl in these days was lucky enough to have a good home where she could live for nothing?
Olympia, at that age, hadn't known much about that; she promised, only asking: 'And may I never go back to hospital? I think I should like to be a surgical nurse, and perhaps in a year or two, when I've trained, I could get a Sister's post."
Aunt Maria had laughed. "Why should you wish to leave?" she wanted to know. "You have a duty to me, you know."
"Supposing I should want to get married?" Olympia, almost sixteen, had been a romantic.
Her aunt had laughed again, a little unkindly, and had taken her time in replying. "My dear," she had said at length, "I cannot imagine any man wanting to marry you—you aren't the marrying type." She had picked up her pen to signify the end of the interview. "But if such an unlikely event should happen, then naturally you may leave."