Devoted mum Dora thought she’d left her nursing days behind her when she married Nick Riley, the love of her life. But with Nick away fighting in France, Dora also finds herself back in uniform. How will she cope with her return to the wards?
Best friends Cissy and Jen sign up for hospital duties in the hope of nursing handsome soldiers. But their romantic dreams are shattered when they find themselves faces with the harsh realities of war.
For shy Eve, her new job at the hospital provides a welcome escape from the pressures of home. She experiences a newfound freedom, but her troubles aren’t far behind her.
As the Blitz hits the East End, leaving shattered lives in its wake, the nurses find their courage and their friendships tested. Can they keep smiling through?
On the Friday in May 1940 that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and the Germans launched a Blitzkrieg of bombs over Holland, Dora Riley went back to the Nightingale Hospital to ask for a job.
It was six years since she had stood before Matron as a student nurse at the Nightingale. But standing in that book-lined office, with its heavy dark furniture and leather-covered chairs, listening to the slow, ponderous ticking of the mantel clock, her heart still raced like a nervous probationer’s as she faced the woman on the other side of the desk.
The world might have changed a great deal over those six years but Kathleen Fox was as serene as ever, sitting tall and graceful in her black uniform, her face framed by an elaborate starched white headdress. Her calm grey gaze fixed on Dora, weighing her up, just as it had on that very first day they’d met.
‘So, Mrs Riley,’ she said. Her soft, well-spoken voice still bore a trace of her Lancashire roots. ‘You wish to come back to us, do you?’
Dora laced her fingers behind her back and stood up a little straighter, as she had been trained to do when speaking to her seniors. Old habits died hard. ‘Yes, Matron.’
‘How long is it since you were a staff nurse here?’
‘Two years, Matron. I passed my State Finals in nineteen thirty-seven, and I left to get married the following spring.’
She kept her eyes fixed on the top of Miss Fox’s headdress as the Nightingale’s Matron considered the notes in front of her. ‘And why do you want to come back, may I ask?’
‘I want to do my bit, Matron. For the war.’
‘Indeed.’ Miss Fox paused. ‘Your husband is serving, I take it?’
‘That’s right, Matron.’ Dora pressed her lips together, not trusting herself to say any more. She had too much pride to show her true feelings. She was a tough East End girl, brought up in the back streets of Bethnal Green, barely a stone’s throw from the hospital itself. Where she came from, it didn’t do to go around weeping and wailing about your troubles. You just buckled down and got on with it, as her mother and grandmother had always taught her.
But inside she was raw from thinking and worrying about Nick. He had been sent off to France in March, and Dora missed him with every fibre of her being.
That was the real reason she had decided to come back to the Nightingale. She had to do something. Not just to help the war effort, but because she knew she would go mad if she stayed at home, fretting and fearing the worst.
‘May I ask why you have applied to us directly, and not to the Civil Nursing Reserve?’ Matron interrupted her thoughts. ‘Surely that is the proper channel for former nurses wishing to offer their services?’
Dora looked at her squarely. She had a feeling Miss Fox already knew the answer to that one.
‘I did, but they won’t have me,’ she said bluntly. ‘They don’t want mothers.’
‘Ah, yes.’ Matron’s mouth curved. ‘You have twin babies, don’t you?’
Dora wasn’t surprised she knew about Walter and Winnie. Even with everything else going on around her, Miss Fox still managed to keep up with all her ‘girls’, past and present. ‘Yes, Matron,’ Dora confirmed.
‘How old are they?’
‘Just a year, Matron.’
‘They’re still so young. I must say, I’m surprised you want to leave them and come back to nursing.’
Dora said nothing. She could already tell from Miss Fox’s expression that she was going to be turned down again, and braced herself for another rejection.
‘I do admire you for putting yourself forward,’ Miss Fox said finally. ‘But the Civil Nursing Reserve rules are there for a reason. As you know yourself, nursing is a vocation. The hours are long, the work is very hard, and war or no war, we expect our nurses to dedicate themselves to this hospital. It’s no job for a wife and mother.’
‘I’ll manage,’ Dora insisted. ‘I’ve moved back home so my mum can look after the twins while I’m working. We’ve got it all worked out.’
‘I see. And supposing you’re in the middle of your shift, nursing several patients on the Dangerously Ill List, and you receive word that one of your babies is poorly. What will you do then? You can’t drop everything and go home, and you’ll hardly be able to do your job properly if you’re worrying about your little ones either.’
‘I won’t have to worry, if my mum’s there,’ Dora said stubbornly. ‘She brought up six kids of her own, she’ll know what to do.’
Miss Fox gave her an almost pitying look. ‘I think you may find you feel differently about that when the time comes,’ she said kindly. ‘A mother’s instinct is to look after her own children, not someone else’s.’
‘Yes, well, I ain’t got much choice, thanks to Hitler!’ Dora hadn’t meant to snap, but she was sick and tired of having doors closed in her face when all she was trying to do was help. They’d been exactly the same at the Labour Exchange, looking down their noses at her when she’d gone to volunteer. ‘Believe you me, I’d like nothing better than to be at home with my husband and kids, but old Adolf and his mob have put a stop to that,’ she went on, ignoring Miss Fox’s startled expression. ‘Now I can either sit at home, twiddling my thumbs and going off my head, or I can be here, making myself useful. And the way I see it, Matron, you could do with some help. From what I hear, you’re having to rely on nursing auxiliaries with five minutes’ training. I know it ain’t ideal, but wouldn’t it be better to have someone like me working here? I want to be useful, and I know I can do a good job. I’ll work as hard as I can, I promise. At any rate, surely I’ve got to be more use than a volunteer who doesn’t know a bedpan from a bandage?’
Dora caught Miss Fox’s frozen stare, and realised that yet again she’d gone too far. Why did she always have to let her temper run away with her? Matron would never have her back now, not if this war went on for a hundred years. She would have to join the Women’s Voluntary Service, making tea and mending socks for soldiers.
‘I see you are still as outspoken as ever,’ Miss Fox remarked, her brows lifting.
‘Sorry, Matron.’ Dora lowered her gaze to the rug. It wasn’t Miss Fox’s fault. She was just following the rules, the same as everyone else. But the whole world seemed to be rules, rules, rules these days. Posters plastered on walls, leaflets from the government through the letterbox, all telling her what she could buy, what she should eat, where she could go and who she could speak to. Do this, do that, do as you’re told. It was bad enough that they’d taken her husband away from her, without them trying to run her life too. She was sick of the whole lot of them.
She came back to the present when she realised Matron was addressing her.
‘I hope you realise, Nurse Riley, that if you do return to this hospital you will never be able to speak to me like that again,’ she said.
Dora stared at her blankly. She had barely heard what Matron had said, she was too busy trying to take in the fact that she had just been addressed as Nurse. It was a long time since anyone had called her that, and she hadn’t realised how much she missed it. Pride flowed through her, straightening her spine and making her stand even taller.
But still she could hardly trust herself to believe it. ‘Do you mean – I can come back?’ she asked.
‘As you said yourself, we don’t have a great deal of choice,’ Miss Fox admitted frankly. ‘And while I’d argue with you that most of our nursing auxiliaries do know a bedpan from a bandage – ’ Dora withered under her stern expression ‘ – I can’t deny it would be useful to have more staff nurses on the wards.’
‘Thank you, Matron.’
‘But as I’ve said, you must not expect any special treatment,’ Miss Fox went on. ‘You will be treated as any other staff nurse here, although of course you will not be expected to live in. But you will be expected to follow orders and to put your duties first, is that understood?’
Her voice was still soft, but with that underlying note of steel that Dora remembered well.
‘Yes, Matron. Thank you, Matron. I won’t let you down, I promise.’
‘See that you don’t, Nurse Riley.’
Dora stared at the older woman’s serenely implacable face and thought she detected the slightest twinkle in her grey eyes.