I first met Matron Pomfrey, in February, 1956. I had been nursing at a local village hospital in a mining area of Yorkshire when the Senior Sister, who was in charge of the small cottage hospital, suggested that I should make an appointment with the Matron of the main hospital in a nearby town and ask for an interview, with a view to training as a State Registered Nurse.
I hadn’t the heart to tell Sister Clarke that I had recently failed a nursing entrance exam in the City of Leeds. She smiled at me as she said, “You are working very well Nurse Connolly, and I shall be sorry to see you go, but I’m sure you will be much better off in every way if you enter the February Preliminary Training School (PTS) in Harrogate. You may use the telephone in my office, Nurse. Do it now, before I change my mind.”
I made the appointment, and re-lit Florence’s Lamp. I didn’t have time to worry about the interview because Matron agreed to see me the next day at 10 am. The following morning, I cadged a lift on the medical supply van. There were bottles of saline solution, and all kinds of pessaries and suppositories to study, and as the van driver seemed to be the strong silent type I contented myself by rehearsing the speech that I hoped would convince Matron I’d prove a worthy enough candidate for her to risk her shirt on me in the February PTS intake.
It was a short journey and when the van screeched to a halt, I emerged from the welter of surgical appliances and was helped out by a man who had quite forgotten that he was carrying a passenger. His voice was gruff as he said “Sorry Nurse, I clean forgot you were in’t back”. He stared at my legs, “D’you know that you’ve got a wicked ladder in yer stocking?”
I groaned. It had been a tiny ladder, which I thought I had stopped with some clear nail varnish before I’d set out. I looked over my shoulder at the back of my right leg. It was a very wicked ladder now and, unless I was prepared to stand in such a way that to onlookers I would have appeared deformed, there was nothing I could do – short of going into town to buy a new pair. I decided to say, if asked, that I had caught my stocking on a sharp edge in the supply van. I walked to the large main doors of the hospital thinking of various excuses for the ladder. “I’m most awfully sorry Matron, but it wasn’t really my fault…” No, too much like crawling…Take a firmer stand and pass the blame… “Matron…you really must do something about the interior of the medical supply van…look at the state of my best stockings!” Hopeless! Nurses are not allowed to take lifts in hospital vehicles unless they’re accompanying a patient. No, best to pretend that I hadn’t noticed it; after all, if the van driver had not pointed it out to me, I could have walked on in blissful ignorance.
There was a large woman standing at the Enquiries Desk and a younger woman, wearing jam-jar spectacles, was trying to deal with her as she remonstrated in a loud voice and refused to give details about her child. Her voice rose to a yell. “Bloody ‘ell lass, what’s ‘is date o’ birth got to do wi’ ’im bumping ‘is ‘ead? Eeh, poor little bugger could be dying! Ne’er mind abaht ‘is address, where’s bloody medical staff?”
The “poor little bugger” was tucking into a Mars Bar; he had a large head, but there was no visible sign of injury. His face was streaked with dry tear-stains and his mouth ringed with chocolate. I hoped that I would be there long enough to hear the outcome of the row, but a Staff Nurse walked over to the desk and asked if a Nurse Connolly had arrived. The large woman snapped at the Staff Nurse “Wait yer turn, my kid’s an emergency, I was ‘ere first!” The Staff Nurse looked loftily down her nose at the large woman. I volunteered my name, and she ushered me down a dark, winding passage. As we galloped discreetly along, she asked me in a whisper if I knew that I had a large ladder in my right stocking? I replied, also in a whisper, that I had laddered it on the way over. Her voice was almost oily, “Oh dear, you surely know Nurse that you shouldn’t take lifts in hospital vans?” She smiled, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. She sighed. “It’s such a pity, you see Nurse. Matron and the Assistant Matron both set great store on neatness in uniform or mufti” (clothes other than uniform).
Mentally, I blew out Florence’s Lamp and resigned myself to life in the village hospital. Staff gave me another frosty smile and went on whispering about how strict the rules were and how high the standards of the hospital entrance exam. By this time we had arrived at a large office door with an enter sign, which was unlit. “I’ll let Miss Pomfrey know that you are here, Nurse.” She knocked gently on the door and went into the room, closing the door behind her.
I was seriously considering running away, when a huge rag-bag of a cat ambled round the chair legs. It yawned, showing a ferocious set of fangs, stretched its claws which were magnificently curved offensive weapons then, narrowing a pair of wicked amber eyes, it leapt up onto my lap where it turned round two or three times before settling down to pummel my thighs. Absentmindedly, I began to stroke its back and it set up a noise between a snore and a buzz-saw. As it wallowed in luxury, opening and closing its claws, I felt another run begin in my other stocking. “Well, thank You, God. You really know whose side You’re on today, don’t You? Cheers!” The door opened, and the Staff Nurse informed me that Matron would see me now. Her jaw dropped when she saw the cat on my knee. “Did Tangles get on your lap, or did you lift him up?” Her tone was surprisingly hostile. Before I could reply, the enter sign on the door lit up, telling me to go in. I tried to launch Tangles on to the floor, but he shot out a crafty paw and hooked himself to my shoulder. I shrugged and grinned at the Staff Nurse, “I think he loves me”. She glared at me, and walked swiftly away.
I turned the door knob and entered the office, the cat draped over my arm like a fox fur. Matron was attending to some paper work so she did not look up straight away. Tangles’ loud purring reverberated round the small room; it grew to a trill as I absentmindedly stroked his matted fur. Matron lifted her head and beamed, at me or at Tangles, I couldn’t be sure.
“Do sit down, Nurse Connolly; I see that you have met Tangles.” She clucked lovingly at the cat, who dug his claws ever more firmly into my arm, and narrowed his eyes affectionately at her. I seated myself carefully, and Tangles slid obligingly down on to my lap.
Matron smiled as she said, “Now my dear, I see from Sister Clarke’s letter that you recently failed an entrance exam in Leeds Would you like to tell me why you think that happened? Take your time.”
I could feel the blood rising in my face. So, Sister Clarke had known all the time! I felt shocked and betrayed. I played for time by fondling Tangles’ fur, he made himself ready for some serious petting by rolling onto his back and inviting me to tickle his tummy. Matron looked a little alarmed. “Oh do be careful Nurse, you touch his bits and bobs at your peril! He’s a sensitive creature and won’t hesitate to draw blood.” The cat’s fur was so thick and tangled that I couldn’t see any bits and bobs, but I slowed my petting and moved away from the danger zone. Smiling fatuously at Tangles, Matron handed me a paper. “Do you think you could cope with the mathematics paper, Nurse?” I skimmed through the form; thank You, God! There were fractions and decimals, but no logarithms. I was sure that I could manage the paper, if I could do some swift revision. It was my turn to beam. “I’m confident that I can tackle that, Matron.” The cat, sensing my happiness, wriggled joyfully and I saw a large flea leap from his neck to his ear. Matron pretended that she hadn’t seen it.
“Jolly good, Nurse! The English paper shouldn’t present you with any problems. I’ll write to Sister Clarke and let her know when you should attend here for the entrance exam. Good luck Nurse, I’m sure the test will be a mere formality. In the meantime, you may as well go and see Mrs Beavers in the sewing room, to get measured for your student uniform.” She rose to her feet and took Tangles from me. “Tangles approves of you Nurse, and he is seldom wrong.” I smiled reverently at Tangles’ rump, and as I reached the door Matron got a good view of my self destruct stockings. “Oh, and Nurse Connolly; please call at the Enquiry Desk, and ask Anne Fisher to reimburse you for a new pair of stockings.”
I left her crooning to Tangles, telling him he was a naughty, naughty darling, for laddering poor Nurse’s stockings. I floated on air all the way to the Enquiry Desk, where Anne Fisher turned out to be the girl in the jam-jar glasses. She gave me some money and also directions to the sewing room. The fat woman was still apparent, tucking into a Mars Bar and holding forth to all the other patients. She pointed to her little boy, who was busy trying to undo the wheel nuts on an invalid chair.
“’E’s ‘ad a hexray, I telled ‘em there were nowt broke, but yer know what they’re like, they allus know best, wasted an ‘ole morning fartin’ abaht wi’ doctors an’ nurses, they aren’t real doctors yer know, they’re learning on us, experimenting, that’s what!”
A Senior Sister detached herself from a group of colleagues and came over and asked the woman to please lower her voice. The large woman looked the sister in the eye, then, hands on hips, she retorted, “Shut yer rattle, you. I didn’t ask fer yer opinion, you might be Miss bloody Clever-clogs round ‘ere but I know yer aunt, they call her Lamplight Lil, down our end, an’ yer grandma were no better, every tally man fer miles around beat a path to ‘er door, yer cheeky sod!”
The Senior Sister retired wounded, and the triumphant fat woman stared delightedly round the Casualty Department. She grabbed her son, spat on her handkerchief and scrubbed his face; then, dragging him howling behind her, she sailed out of the main door. The fun was over, so I scampered off to the sewing room. On the way I almost collided with the whispering Staff Nurse, who gave me another glacial smile. I made a mental note to avoid her for the entire training period – always assuming that I passed the entrance exam!
Lesley Atkinson was born in Owlsmoor, Berkshire in November 1936. The second daughter of an Army family – her Dad was a Regimental Sergeant-Major – she grew up with her elder sister Pat and younger brother Terry in a variety of scattered locations across the South of England, Wales, Germany, and eventually, Yorkshire. Here she married Kenneth, and settled down to raise a family of three fine lads (the eldest being a particularly outstanding young man), and to pursue successive careers in nursing and teaching. Her mother, Winifred, was my favourite grandparent, a grand old lady who smoked like a chimney and told me amazing stories of her days in service. “When Winifred Died”, to be found elsewhere on this blog, tells the story of the day Nan passed away.
Thanks to my wonderful Mum for being the first guest writer on my humble blog, and of course for so very much more than that. I really hope you’ll be back at the keyboard very soon xxx