Ward sister Frannie Wallace is hoping she won’t have to live through another war like the one that claimed her beloved fiance. But with bomb defences going up all around London, it seems as if her hopes are in vain.
Staff Nurse Helen Dawson wants to find happiness again after the death of her husband Charlie. A handsome stranger seems to offer the chance she wants. But is she looking for love in the wrong place?
Matron Kathleen Fox struggles to keep up morale amongst her nurses as the hospital faces the threat of evacuation. But while everyone else worries about the future of the Nightingale, it’s for her own future that Kathleen truly fears.
As the country prepares itself for war, one thing is for sure – by the time next Christmas comes, nothing at the Nightingale Hospital will be the same again…
The young medical student made a perfect Assistant Matron.
It took all Frannie Wallace’s self-control not to smile as he stood before her on the makeshift stage, grey dress skimming his hairy ankles, arms folded across his formidably padded bosom. Under the starched headdress, his frowning expression was exactly like Miss Hanley’s.
‘I’m sorry, Mr Evans, but it really won’t do,’ Frannie managed, when she could finally trust herself to speak.
Owen Evans looked put out. ‘But, Sister, I’ve gone to so much trouble!’
‘Then I’m afraid you’ve wasted your time. I can’t allow you to appear in the Christmas show looking like that.’
There was a chorus of protest from the other young men gathered around him. Two of them were wearing the striped dresses of student nurses. Frannie shuddered to think how they’d acquired them.
At the other end of the vast dining room, the other would-be performers were preparing, clutching their sheet music, sliding up and down scales to warm up their voices, or huddled in groups waiting to take their turn on the crudely constructed dais where Frannie sat, directing the proceedings.
‘This is supposed to be an entertainment for the patients and their families,’ she reminded the students, raising her voice above the din. ‘I will not allow you to use it as an opportunity to lampoon members of staff. Poor Miss Hanley would be mortified.’
‘Miss Hanley?’ Mr Evans did his best to feign innocence. ‘Oh, no, Sister, I don’t know where you got that idea from. I wasn’t making fun of anyone in particular, truly I wasn’t. Really, I’m rather shocked that you should think that this – this gross parody remotely resembles our esteemed Assistant Matron ––’
The other young men chortled. ‘Come on, Sister, be a sport,’ one of them piped up. ‘It’s only a bit of fun, after all.’
‘Fun, is it?’ Frannie shot him a chilly glance. ‘I would like to see you having fun at one of the consultants’ expense,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you could dress up as Mr Hobbs or Mr Cooper? Or what about Mr Latimer? I’m sure he’d see the funny side.’ The young men shuffled their feet and stared at the floor like naughty schoolboys. ‘I thought as much,’ Frannie said. ‘And yet you find it perfectly acceptable to poke fun at one of the senior nursing staff?’
There was an uncomfortable silence. Owen Evans whipped off his wig. He knew when he was beaten. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ he sighed.
As they shuffled off the stage, one of the young students grumbled, ‘You might let us have some fun, Sister. After all, we probably won’t even be here next Christmas.’
‘That’s true,’ another muttered. ‘I expect we’ll be in a trench somewhere, taking pot shots at Germans.’
A chill brushed the back of Frannie’s neck. ‘Don’t talk like that,’ she said.
Owen Evans stopped and looked at her. ‘Why not? We all know there’s going to be a war.’
‘Everyone except Mr Chamberlain!’ his friend said.
‘No one wants to go to war,’ Frannie said quietly. ‘Not after last time.’
‘Yes, but we can’t ignore what Hitler’s doing in Europe,’ Owen Evans insisted stubbornly. ‘And it’s not going to stop just because he’s signed a piece of paper.’
‘He needs to be taught a lesson,’ another chimed in. ‘You’ve got to stand up for what’s right, haven’t you? If we don’t, it’ll be us next.’
‘Just let him try!’ Another young man, a thickset chap with a pugnacious face, balled his hands into fists. ‘Give me the chance to go over there. I’ll show those Germans what for!’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ Tension made Frannie snap. ‘You think it’s all a big game, don’t you? But war isn’t like a football match. You don’t shake hands and go home when you’ve had enough. Some of you won’t come home at all ––’ She stopped talking, suddenly aware of the line of startled faces staring back at her from the makeshift stage. ‘At any rate, things probably won’t come to that,’ she dismissed, shuffling the sheet music on the table in front of her. ‘Now, about your act. If you want to take part in this Christmas show, you will have to come up with another sketch. That one simply won’t do.’
‘Yes, Sister.’ This time they didn’t argue. They hurried away, whispering among themselves.
‘Well, I think you’ve given them something to think about.’
Frannie looked round to find Kathleen Fox standing behind her.
‘Matron! I didn’t hear you come in.’ She started to her feet, but Kathleen waved her back into her seat.
‘We’re not on the ward now, Fran,’ she said, smiling.
Kathleen Fox had been Matron of the Nightingale Hospital for more than four years now. But it was difficult for Frannie to look at her and not see the girl she’d shared a room with while training in Leeds. The girl she had been was still there in the warmth of Kathleen’s grey eyes and the flash of auburn hair under her starched white headdress.
‘You mustn’t judge them too harshly, you know,’ she said to her friend. ‘You can’t blame them for not understanding what war is like. They’re just boys, Fran. They can’t take it in.’
‘That’s just it, isn’t it? They’re boys, signing up for a lark. Just like –– ’ Frannie stopped herself.
Just like Matthew. And look how that had ended.
‘But we know what it’s really like, don’t we?’ she continued, steadying her voice.
Like Frannie, Kathleen had worked as a voluntary nurse at a military hospital before they’d started their nurse’s training. Frannie had volunteered as soon as she turned eighteen, so that she could feel closer to Matthew. But by the time she was posted to France, he was already missing, presumed dead.
‘All this talk of war is bound to stir up bad memories,’ Kathleen said to her kindly. ‘It’s everywhere you turn, isn’t it?’
Frannie nodded. Owen Evans was right about that, at any rate. The streets were lined with sandbags, and trenches had already been dug in all the parks to shelter people caught in air raids. There was even talk of families being separated and children being sent away from the city.
It was hard to believe that only a few weeks ago the country had rejoiced when the Prime Minister returned from Munich clutching a piece of paper promising peace. That Sunday morning the bells had rung out in churches across the land, and everyone had breathed a sigh of relief that they might not be going to war after all.
But it had soon become clear that whatever Hitler had promised, nothing was going to stand in the way of his ambitions. Gloom and resignation had settled over the country once more. Shortly afterwards, they had lined up to be issued with their gas masks by the council. Frannie’s was still in its cardboard box in her room. She couldn’t bring herself to touch it. Just seeing it on the shelf made her feel ill.
‘I’m sure good sense will prevail eventually,’ Kathleen said.
‘I hope so. I only wish everyone would stop talking about it.’
They were both silent for a moment, lost in their thoughts. Then Kathleen smiled and said, ‘Let’s talk about something more pleasant, shall we? How are arrangements for the concert coming on?’
Frannie grimaced. ‘Much the same as usual, I’m afraid.’
Every year the staff of the Nightingale Hospital put on a Christmas show for the patients and their families. And every year Frannie promised herself she wouldn’t get involved with organising it. But as November rolled around and the festive season approached, she found herself confronted with all those hopeful faces and she couldn’t say no.
Kathleen smiled at her. ‘I’m sure you must secretly enjoy it?’
‘Perhaps I do,’ Frannie agreed ruefully. ‘But not when I have to spend all my time sorting out their squabbles. Not to mention explaining to Sister Wren yet again why she can’t do a duet with Mr Cooper.’
‘Oh, dear.’ Kathleen’s grey eyes lit up with mischief. ‘Perhaps Mr Cooper should just give in gracefully?’
Frannie leaned forward, lowering her voice. ‘Between you and me, Mr Cooper has begged not to be put with her. He was very firm on that point.’
‘Poor Sister Wren!’
‘Poor Mr Cooper, you mean!’ The ward sister’s relentless infatuation with the obstetrics consultant had been going on for several years now, even though he was a married man and clearly not interested.
‘Speak of the devil…’
Frannie followed Kathleen’s gaze to the far end of the room. Miriam Trott, sister of Wren ward, was making her way towards them, sheet music tucked under her arm. ‘Oh, lord. Don’t leave me,’ begged Frannie. ‘Pretend we have some important ward business to discuss.’
‘I can’t, I’m afraid. I have a meeting with Mrs Tremayne in ten minutes.’
Frannie pulled a face, her own problems instantly forgotten. ‘Oh, dear. What does she want?’
‘Heaven knows. I’m just wondering what she can possibly have found to complain about now.’
‘Perhaps she just wants a chat?’
Kathleen sent her an old-fashioned look. ‘I don’t think so. That woman is the bane of my life. And she’s been even worse since she was made Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees.’
‘You’re more than a match for her.’
‘I hope so. But I’m not really in the mood to do battle at the moment.’
There was something wistful about Kathleen’s expression that made Frannie look twice at her friend. ‘Are you all right, Kath? You look rather tired.’
‘I’m quite all right, thank you.’ Her smile was back in place. ‘I just have better things to do than listen to Mrs Tremayne’s complaints. And speaking of complaints…’
Suddenly Miriam Trott was standing beside them. ‘Excuse me, Matron, but might I have a word with Miss Wallace?’ she said, planting herself in front of Frannie and blocking her means of escape.
‘Of course,’ Kathleen said. ‘I’ll leave you to it.’
‘No, really, Matron, there’s no need.’ Frannie sent her a silent, imploring look, which she blithely ignored.
‘It’s quite all right, Sister. I must prepare for my meeting.’
And then she was gone. Frannie watched her making her way towards the dining-room doors, pausing here and there to exchange a few words with the nurses who had gathered to rehearse.
‘Miss Wallace?’ Sister Wren’s voice insinuated its way into her thoughts. ‘I wondered if I could talk to you about my music? I have a few ideas for duets. I thought perhaps Mr Cooper and I ––’