A Globe and Mail Bestseller!
Clara Durling, a British widow of the First World War, arrives in Canada as the new superintendent of the Lethbridge Hospital just as wounded soldiers stream home. Lily Parsons is a young, widowed schoolteacher from Nova Scotia who ends up in the same city, managing a brothel called The Last Post.
Set against the backdrop of love, union organizers, amorous bachelors, gamblers, drinkers, and prostitutes, the lives of these two women unexpectedly intertwine when Clara, in the heat of local politics and responding to the highest incidence of venereal disease in the province, establishes the first venereal disease clinic in the province, with Lily’s help. In this sprawling saga, Lily and Clara must confront the city’s conservative thinkers to bring help and compassion to wounded veterans.
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About the Author
Sharon Johnston is the Globe and Mail bestselling author of Matrons and Madams. She grew up in Sault Ste. Marie and graduated with a degree in physical and occupational therapy from the University of Toronto. She completed a doctorate in rehabilitation science from McGill University and ran a horse-training business called Chatterbox Farm. In her many duties as wife of Governor General David Johnston, she has recounted and borne witness to the struggles of Canadian veterans adjusting to life after the Great War. She lives at Rideau Hall, in Ottawa.
Read an Excerpt
London, England, 1918
Sister Clara Durling looked up from her notes as though she had just experienced an electric shock. Maidenhead Red Cross Hospital was so close to London that it received news of the truce almost simultaneously. Clara’s heart pounded when she heard the clipped British voice break with emotion as he announced: “The war is over!” She stood in the middle of the ward, observing the carnage around her. The soldiers were so heavily sedated she could not share the glorious news. Three women from the voluntary aid detachment, tears wetting their cheeks, continued checking on the state of bandages. The strong odour of antiseptic was a stark reminder that lethal bacteria lurked in every wound.
“I need to take a few minutes to digest what this means,” Clara said to the volunteers. All three women looked exhausted. Rationing of food and the absence of all toiletries showed on their thin, pale faces.
“I wish the end of the war meant the end of the wounded,” Clara said, her voice hoarse with fatigue. “Casualties are coming in so fast, the foyer is filled with beds. I’ll take a moment in the chapel if you don’t mind. And the men on the east wing need new bandages. I’ll be back shortly to help you.”
As Sister Durling entered the chapel, she thought of the millions of lives lost for freedom. Sliding into the single pew she looked up at the wooden cross on the altar. Tears of pride, fear, relief, and longing flowed down her cheeks. “I still have my children,” she whispered to no one and wiped her eyes.
She could still picture it as if it were yesterday: five-year-old Billy and four-year-old Ivy burrowing under the sheets on George’s convalescent bed to make a tent. George had been exposed to gas early in the war and suffered repeated lung infections. After the Battle of the Somme, he was sent home to heal and rest. The children would giggle when their father tickled them with his foot, but the moment they heard his raspy breathing, they’d slip out from under the sheets. Clara would put warm steam under his nose and rub camphor on his throat and chest. Her sense of duty outweighed the thought that she was getting her husband well enough to go back to his certain death. Soldiers with damaged lungs rarely left the hospital, but engineers were so desperately needed that even a sick one would, in the parlance of the War Office, give Britain one more fighting chance.
Billy and Ivy would rush off to play and wait for their father to breathe normally again. Some days this did not happen. But on every good day, picnics, safaris, trips to the moon, and treks through the desert had taken place in the convalescent room. George had had a sense of fun that he would not let the war take away. When he was deemed well enough to return to the front, he had the children promise to continue flying to the moon so they could watch over him. Every evening they looked out the window, plotting their lunar adventure.
George returned to France, but his lungs did not hold up in the mud-swamped trenches. He was transported to a coastal clearing station and back to England. Barely able to breathe, he must have prayed, as the horse-drawn ambulance trundled along the railway to the coast, that he would make it home to say goodbye to his family.
When the cortege of Red Cross ambulances from the casualty ships had arrived at the Maidenhead Hospital, Clara had rushed out to meet her husband.
The driver descended from the ambulance and walked toward her. “Major Durling did not survive the journey, ma’am,” he said, bowing his head respectfully. “I have the last letter he wrote. He told me his greatest wish was to make it back for your thirtieth birthday. Major Durling struggled with every breath, but we kept him comfortable with morphine. I’m so sorry, Sister Durling, to have to deliver such sad news on what was to be a special day.”
There were three soldiers who had died in transport. Clara had no illusions; the battlefield was strewn with body parts. The bravest risked open fire to retrieve their blown-apart comrades so there could be a burial. She was grateful to have an entire George. He was buried in Knockholt Cemetery on the outskirts of Woodside. St. Katherine’s Anglican Church had been his family’s parish for generations. Two weeks after his shortened funeral service, Clara took the two-hour train ride back to Maidenhead Hospital. Britain was still at war.
Clara’s quiet reflections in the hospital chapel were interrupted by an alarming thud on the floor above the chapel. She raced up the stairs to find a young soldier who had flipped his iron cot on its side. He was swearing incoherently and swinging frantically at the two orderlies trying to subdue him.
“I want to go home!” he screamed. He was built like a milk wagon, but blind, and his mouth was so disfigured he could not feed himself. His parents said they could not handle him until he could eat properly. Only time and surgery would determine if the young man would ever be reunited with his parents.
Clara gripped the soldier’s hands to avoid being struck. “We’ll get you home, but you must get well first. Let’s start by putting your bed upright.” She placed the soldier’s hands on the iron frame. “One, two, three, flip.” She put her arm around his waist and, holding one hand, walked him to the end of the corridor while the orderlies remade his bed.
She returned to find Dr. Newbury in blood-spattered operating scrubs ready to give the soldier a dose of morphine. He had just finished a bilateral above-knee amputation.
“Great news! Finally!” he said, putting his arm around Clara’s shoulder. “I wanted to say goodbye, Sister Durling, before you go on your well-deserved break.”
Clara smiled. “Thank you. I’m aching to see Billy and Ivy. It’s been four weeks since I’ve laid eyes on my children.”
Dr. Newbury was a Canadian surgeon who had joined the war effort at the age of sixty, despite the War Office considering him too old to enlist. When war broke out, he had just been appointed head of the department of surgery at the University of Alberta. He was small in stature with a booming voice that lifted everyone’s spirits, including Clara’s. I’ll miss him, she thought, when he returns to Canada. He distracted wounded soldiers with ribald tales as they waited for their next shot of morphine. He loved to recount life in Lethbridge, Alberta, where he had begun his surgical practice at the Galt Hospital. During one of these often risqué conversations, Clara heard that the mayor of Lethbridge, a friend of the doctor’s, treated prostitution like any other municipal service, providing the ladies of the night a safe, regulated area close to the hospital. The listening soldiers, in their fog of morphine, vowed to move to the infamous city if they survived the war.
“I’m off to 11 Pickwick Place this evening,” Dr. Newbury said, chuckling. “I spoke with your brother-in-law and he’s offered to open his oldest brandy to celebrate.”
Miff was a successful London solicitor who had married Clara’s younger sister, Addy. He had been rejected for service because of a mild heart condition. As his war effort, he offered free legal services to families of soldiers who had died. He and the Canadian doctor had become good friends. Miff had told Dr. Newbury one of the family’s secrets: his wife’s eldest sister had been sent to Canada at the age of nineteen. The doctor had nodded knowingly, his delicate way of saying: An unexpected pregnancy can happen to anyone.
Clara was six years old and the eighth of the Ives children when her sister had suddenly departed. To her question “what’s Canada?” she received an unsatisfactory response: “Canada is a large, cold country where explorers go to find the North Pole.”“Then why did you send Amelia there?” asked Clara. She never received a satisfactory answer.
The local vicar had arranged for the girl to leave. It was only when Clara eavesdropped on her parents’ conversations that she learned why her sister had been sent away. Amelia had given birth a few months after arriving in Canada. For many years, the sister lost contact with the family until she wrote one day to say that she had married a pharmacist and was living in Nova Scotia with her daughter. Clara herself had no idea where or how Amelia had lived before her marriage. Now, thinking about her Canadian connection, she wanted to write and tell her sister she had lost George. But then my sister wouldn’t even know I was married, she thought. She gave her last set of directions to the ladies and headed for the stairs.
Clara was an experienced nurse who could distinguish a fever due to influenza from a rise in temperature caused by a bacterial infection in a wound. Seeing younger staff overwhelmed by the rapid onset of the highly contagious flu, she had offered to sleep at the hospital for the past month. Now she was finally getting a week’s leave of absence.
At the entrance to the hospital, she stopped to observe the commotion. Eighteen beds were squeezed into the foyer. Outside the main door, a Red Cross ambulance driver and a nurse were unloading four new casualties. Clara removed her cape and began pushing together the iron cots in the foyer to make room for the new arrivals. The volunteer nurse was flustered because they had run out of cots.
“Get mattresses,” Clara snapped. The volunteer sped off and came back with an armful of blankets. “That will do for now,” Clara said in a softer tone. “The men won’t feel the floor through the morphine. Go tell Matron we received four more.”
“Sister Durling, we must get you to the station or you’ll miss your train,” the hovering ambulance driver interjected. With order established, she joined four ambulant soldiers waiting for the outgoing truck. They were helped into the back and Clara stepped up beside the driver. During the one-hour drive into central London, she would have time to plan what she would do with Billy and Ivy during the week. Until the fast-spreading flu, Clara had been home most weekends, but now she had the dark circles under her eyes of someone who had often worked through the night.
On the train, Clara sat beside a young soldier, who, after a few minutes of chit-chat, suddenly began to cry. “I was to be shipped back to the front in two weeks,” he said. “My ma’s already lost two sons and she was terrified. I sent her a telegram right away when I heard the good news. I hope she checks at the post office.”
Clara’s moss-green eyes filled with tears. “Your mother will be overjoyed to know you were in England when the truce was announced.”
“I expect so, ma’am.” The soldier wiped his nose on his sleeve and apologized.
The train buzzed with stories and occasionally audible tears. Clara rested her head on the window and slept until the train whistled her arrival. She dreamt that Dr. Newbury had suggested war widows would have better opportunities to raise their children in Canada. Her response before she woke up was: “I’d never leave England.”
There was a symphony of church bells ringing through the cool air as she stepped onto the platform. Shouts of joy rose from the village square. Woodside was in a frenzy of celebration. Someone began banging a drum. Then an entire band began playing “God Save the King.” What a contrast from the hospital, Clara thought. Tears of joy and sorrow were streaming down beaming faces. Everyone in the village had lost someone. People hugged, sang patriotic songs, and tipped metal flasks to their smiling lips. The occasional face covered with a protective mask was a stark reminder that England’s troubles were not over. She overcame her exhaustion and broke into a run.
Mrs. Drake, wife of the neighbouring farmer, was waiting at the gate with Billy and Ivy. She was a short, hefty woman, suited for farm work. Clara had confessed to Mrs. Drake that her parents could not help her financially. Seeing Clara facing hardship and having to work, she’d offered to babysit during the week. During the month that Clara had remained at the hospital, Mrs. Drake had just moved the children to the farm permanently so she only had one household to look after. At the end of each school day, she stood with the mothers waiting for the children to be dismissed. It was worrying to hear that closing the schools might be necessary to prevent the rapid spread of flu. The health council had sent a notice to all families stating that children were more vulnerable than older adults.
Mrs. Drake’s chubby cheeks broke into a broad smile as she pushed the children forward to meet Clara.
“We made you a cake,” they pronounced simultaneously.
“My husband got us an extra ration of butter and sugar,” Mrs. Drake said with a satisfied smile.
“And did that cost a chicken?” Clara asked, her eyes wide.
“We’re a lucky family to have the Drakes as neighbours. Now, what do we say?”
“Thank you, Mrs. Drake.”
“Oh, I am glad to be home, even for a week.”
“Why do you have to go back to the hospital?” Billy asked.
“Because there are some sick soldiers, and we need money to live.” Clara buried her face in Billy’s thick blond curls. “You’ve inherited my hair gene,” she said, smiling. “Now, let’s go see this special cake.”
Clara relieved Mrs. Drake after the cake ceremony and spent the day joyfully entering into the children’s play. In the evening, to counter Billy’s bedtime negotiations, Clara reminded him that Mrs. Drake had said seven o’clock. “You’re tired and Mummy won’t be far behind you.”
The next morning, as the children gobbled up their eggs, Clara said, “We’re fortunate to live next to a farm. Manners, please.”
“Do I have to leave something for the butler?” Ivy asked.
“Manners would like a small bit of your egg,” Clara said, laughing. Ivy burst into giggles. “Let’s go for a walk in Farmer Drake’s woods. Best to avoid the shops with this flu virus.”
Watching her children scurry about to find their boots, hats, gloves, and raincoats, Clara was struck by how normal her children were in spite of the tragedy around them. She wondered how long it would be before England was normal once more. Children are more resilient than adults, she thought, setting out for their walk in the woods with a new sense of confidence. She felt fortunate to be a nurse and saddened for those women who had filled men’s jobs during the war. Most of them would now be replaced.
Ivy perched on a log at the edge of the woods. “I want to see the birds, Mummy. I promise to stay put.” She bent the rim of her hat back off her eyes and looked up at an enormous flock of rooks. The birds made a deafening noise. Billy dashed into the woods after a rabbit. Clara felt her exhaustion return as she ran behind while he darted around trees and jumped over logs.
After the first day’s outing, Ivy decided to keep a diary. She noted birds, animals, trees, and flowers in her tidy, compact printing. She offered a page to Billy, but he said he kept everything he saw in his head.
Near the end of Clara’s week of leave, she suggested they visit Mr. Drake’s barn at milking time. When they arrived, a young farmhand was sitting on a stool rhythmically pulling at the udders of an enormous black-and-white cow. Ivy wandered to the end of the barn and asked why there was a cow in a cage.
“That one there is a bull. He doesn’t give us any milk,” the farmhand said.
“Then why would you keep him?” Ivy asked.
“Hmm, I think you ought to ask Mr. Drake,” he said. Ivy shrugged and headed off to explore.
“My daughter questions everything,” Clara said, laughing. She turned to find Billy trying to climb from the fence onto a cow’s back. The farmhand managed to remove him without getting kicked.
When they arrived home, Mrs. Drake had prepared a modest goodbye tea. “This was the best I could manage,” she said. “But we still have some of the cake.”
After tea, Billy dragged Clara outside to show her his rose garden. She was always touched that he shared her love of flowers. She had bought him an expensive set of children’s gardening tools, which he used eagerly to tend his roses. “One day I shall own a greenhouse,” he said as he marched her around the outside of the house. The garden was on the west side, next to the farmer’s field. The sun was slipping rapidly below the horizon.
“I see you’ve clipped the stems,” Clara said, running her fingers through Billy’s curls. He gave her such a smile, and she felt a sharp pain in her left breast. “You are a fine gardener,” Clara said. “I wish I didn’t have to go back to the hospital.”
Ivy came rushing out onto the back stoop. “Can we listen to the birds go to sleep?” she asked.
“If you promise not to argue about bedtime,” Clara said laughing. She hugged Billy and Ivy as they sat on the last step quietly watching the moon replace the sun. The chatter of birds gave way to rustlings in the woods.
“We were supposed to watch over Daddy,” Ivy said looking up. “But now he’s looking down on us.”
Clara’s hands brushed over Ivy’s wet cheeks. “He sees us, my darlings. I’m sure of that.”
The aroma of suet pudding, simmering on the stove for three hours, had permeated the house. “Oh, this will taste good,” said Clara. Slow cooking of tough meat encased in a suet crust was part of her childhood. Wartime had restored the pudding to favour.
“Can we visit you at the hospital, Mummy?” Ivy asked. “Mrs. Drake can bring us on the train.”
“I wish that were possible. But there is something very contagious going around the hospital. Not even adult visitors are allowed. I will just have to come home more often.” Clara was grateful her children didn’t detect the doubt in her voice. The sickness had left the hospital short-staffed.
“Give your face the once-over,” Clara said passing each child a warm wet cloth.
“Mrs. Drake makes us have a bum bath twice a week,” Ivy said giggling.
“She doesn’t like to put on the water tank,” Billy added.
Clara feigned disapproval at the rude word, but inwardly she laughed and recalled how she had been spanked for using such a word. She had had to write fifty times “not bum but bottom.”
“Ah, but Mummy gave you a full bath. And I let you splash around until the water got cold.” Clara made an exaggerated shiver. “Brrrr.”
Billy and Ivy pulled their pajamas from under their pillows and began arguing as to whose bed Clara would sit on to listen to them read.
“I won’t listen to anyone until your clothes are folded. Why don’t I compromise and sit on Ivy’s bed first and let Billy start the story.”
“Girls should go first,” Ivy retorted.
“You are a bossy toad,” Clara said.
Billy read a few pages, and then laid the book on his lap. “My eyes hurt, Mummy. I don’t want to read.”
“All right, give the book to Ivy.” She switched over to sit on Billy’s bed and put her hand on his forehead. “Your head feels warm.”
“But I’m cold,” Billy said. Clara tucked blankets around him. There was no thermometer in the house; she had taken hers to Maidenhead when there had been an urgent plea for medical supplies.
Ivy had stopped reading.
“Go on with the story,” Clara urged. “I want to know who’s going to win, the tortoise or the hare.”
“I don’t want to read, either.”
“All right. Both of you snuggle down, and I’ll tell a story after I get something to cool Billy down.”
Clara came back with a mixture of water and alcohol and began sponging Billy’s head.
“Does Billy have flu, Mummy?” Ivy asked.
“Of course not. It must have been something he ate,” said Clara. “It doesn’t surprise me with this shortage of fresh food.”
Billy closed his eyes, complaining of a headache, and promptly vomited.
Clara turned off the lamp and shouted down to Mrs. Drake, who was clattering away in the kitchen. “Edna, call Dr. Westoll. His home number is beside the telephone. His wife will know where to find him. Tell him it’s an emergency.” She wiped Billy’s face and propped him up. “Ivy, wait downstairs until the doctor comes.” Ivy began to cry.
“You’ll be fine, little man.” She knew the symptoms and prayed to a merciful God. Half an hour later, Dr. Westoll came rushing into the bedroom wearing a face-mask. He examined Billy’s pupils and put a thermometer under his tongue. He put on eyeglasses after shaking it. “His temperature is one hundred and two. If it continues to go up, he risks having a febrile convulsion.” Clara stiffened at his words. “All you can do is sponge him to lower his temperature. Billy’s a sturdy six-year-old. He’ll pull through. I’m sure this will be a short-lived virus.”
Mrs. Drake was standing at the bedroom door holding Dr. Westoll’s hat and coat. She followed him down the stairs. Clara sat on the side of the bed wringing out the cloth and sponging Billy’s forehead and chest. Her mind reeled at the rapid onset. Mere hours earlier she had been admiring how he had put his prized rose garden to bed.
After an hour, Mrs. Drake came upstairs to ask if she should take Ivy to her house and let her teenage daughter stand by in case the doctor was needed.
“Yes, I think it best that Ivy leave,” Clara said. Her eyes looked frantic, but her movements were deliberate and slow.
“Put on your clothes, Ivy, and I’ll get your hat and coat,” Mrs. Drake said. Ivy’s face was a frightened mask as she descended the stairs.
Around midnight Billy’s body arched in a severe convulsion. An hour later he had another and Clara called down for the Drake girl to get Dr. Westoll.
“He’s here,” the girl called in reply, and a moment later the doctor came into the room.
“The young lady fetched me after the first seizure,” he said. “Rather than go home I just napped on your sofa. My wife knew where to find me if there was another emergency.” The doctor put his stethoscope on Billy’s chest. He sat down beside Clara and put his arm around her shoulders.
“Prepare for the worst,” he said to Clara. “I don’t think Billy will make it to morning.” His eyes filled with tears. “I brought Billy into the world. I never thought I’d see him out. What have we done to deserve this flu, after losing so many to win the war?”
Billy’s temperature stayed relentlessly high. Clara’s arms had become expert at knowing when a life had succumbed, and in the early morning, one week after the glorious truce, Billy died.
Dr. Westoll told Clara what she already knew: “Had Billy survived such severe convulsions he would have lived the rest of his life handicapped or brain damaged in some way.”
Clara grieved to the point of sickness, but returned nevertheless to Maidenhead Hospital after two weeks, believing she could bury her sorrow. Her country was at war. But trying to save the lives around her only highlighted how helpless she had been to save her own son. As she cared for the wounded soldiers she tried to comfort herself that some mother would be happy. But her drawn face and thin body were visible reminders that she had suffered a double loss. Seeing Clara sobbing in a supply cupboard, the matron ordered her to take more time to grieve.
“Young Ivy will be a comfort to you if you return home for a few weeks,” the matron said. “We can manage.” She unexpectedly put her arms around Clara and smiled. “I know you don’t believe that, Sister Durling.”
Clara’s eyes smiled through her tears.
By late spring, Billy’s death had become a diffuse ache through Clara’s entire body. She scratched about in his small rose garden imagining her son’s delight at the appearance of early buds. Billy would have checked on the new growth repeatedly, not wanting to miss the first flowering. Clara had met her son’s expectant behaviour with “Watched kettles never boil.” The memory of her adage produced a flood of tears, but she brushed them away and forced her thoughts beyond the garden.
Dr. Newbury, preparing to return to Edmonton and seeing Clara’s despair, pressed her even harder to move to Canada. Once back in Alberta, he wrote a letter urging her to respond to the advertisement for a lady superintendent at his alma mater, the Galt Hospital in Lethbridge. He explained that this position was the same as a British matron. “The lady superintendent is responsible for all hospital staff except the doctors,” he wrote.
Clara had spent two weeks discussing the possible move and reflecting on what decision would be better: to try a new life or stay and struggle on in England. Staring at the prickly rose stems, she felt they held the answer. The garden was brown and flowerless when Billy died, she thought, and now it’s ready to bloom again. Clara clipped a rose and placed it in an envelope of parchment paper. Her decision to move to Canada was made, and the rose would be her reminder that Billy’s short life had been a happy one. She wrote to Dr. Newbury asking him to write a letter of recommendation to the Galt Hospital board. Very shortly afterwards, he sent her a copy of the letter he had written to Mayor Harwood. Clara smiled as she read, thinking that all she knew about the mayor was his lenience toward prostitutes. Lethbridge, she mused, will be a challenge.
I hope this letter finds you well and Mrs. Harwood on the mend. Morris has kept me informed about your wife’s illness. Your worries about the Galt Hospital are well founded. Before I left for England, I was quite concerned by the deterioration of the place. Nursing standards had slipped badly, as you know from your own wife’s unfortunate stay in the hospital.
While Acting Surgeon at the Red Cross Hospital in London, I worked closely with a nursing sister, Mrs. Clara Durling. She comes from a lovely family, whom I also had the privilege to meet. I believe she is the person we need to bring back the Galt. I have worked cheek-by-jowl with her, and she is quite simply the best nurse I have ever encountered. She received her training at St. George’s Hospital in London and was Assistant Matron at St. Bartholomew’s until she married her husband, George. Unfortunately, he died before war’s end from gas exposure. In spite of her grief, she continued to work tirelessly. But tragedy did not end there. As the war ended, her six-year-old son died of the flu.
Mrs. Durling remained a consummate professional and faithfully kind to her patients. The soldiers could not have received better care. The one drawback is that she will need someone to be responsible for her five-year-old daughter, Ivy, while she is running the hospital. I might add Ivy is a lovely little girl.
Alistair, I am asking Mrs. Durling to send her résumé directly to you. As hospital chairman, would you be so kind as to send it on to the hospital committee to consider her as the new lady superintendent? I am confident that as matron she will re-establish standards in my alma mater hospital.
I send my fond regards to Mrs. Harwood.
Francis Newbury, M.D.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book kept me interested but I did not feel involved with the characters