It’s the spring of 1937, and the student nurses’ home has a new ward maid. But Jess Jago isn’t like the other domestics at the Nightingale Hospital. She has big plans to get away from her notorious East End family and better herself. But with her ne’er-do-well relatives dogging her every step, can she ever escape her past and make a brighter future for herself?
New student nurse Effie O’Hara is also keen to make a new start. She’s looking forward to the bright lights of London after leaving her tiny village in Ireland. But like Jess, her family is never far behind. In Effie’s case, it’s her older sisters, Katie and Bridget. They’re both nurses at the Nightingale and determined to make their wayward younger sister toe the line. But they reckon without Effie’s capacity for mischief…
Third year students Dora Doyle and Lucy Lane have been bitter rivals since the day they started at the Nightingale. But as their final exams approach, they both find themselves harbouring secrets that could end their careers. As they struggle to cope, they find themselves relying on each other for help. Could their worst enemy turn out to be their best friend..?
‘Your duties will begin at five o’clock sharp. You will lay the fires, draw the curtains and make sure the boiler is lit. You will then wake me at precisely half past five with a cup of tea and my breakfast. I like two boiled eggs and buttered toast. Lightly boiled, mind. I can’t abide eggs like rubber.’
The Home Sister glared at Jess as if she doubted she could ever be equal to such a task. Jess smiled back, her tongue rammed in her cheek to stop herself answering back. She didn’t want to lose this job before she’d managed to get it.
‘At six o’clock you must wake the students,’ Sister Sutton went on. ‘Once they have gone, you will clean the bathrooms, sweep, dust and polish all the halls and stairs, and clean the students’ sitting room. The nurses are supposed to keep it tidy, but they tend to be rather careless.’ Her nose wrinkled with distaste. ‘I will carry out my inspection at midday, so I expect everything to be in order by then.’ She stared at Jess, her eyes as tiny and dark as raisins in her doughy face. ‘You have been in service, you say?’
Jess nodded. ‘Since I was thirteen.’ Although none of the houses where she had been employed as a maid of all work were anywhere near as big as the student nurses’ home. With its grand entrance, sweeping staircase and long passages, it was like one of the great manor houses she had read about in her favourite Jane Austen novels. Except there were no works of art on the drab, brown-painted walls, and the floors were covered in polished lino and not Turkish rugs. But the ornate plasterwork on the high ceilings still whispered of the house’s elegant past.
As the Home Sister continued to list the maid’s duties, Jess gazed up at the twisting plaster vine leaves and carved bunches of grapes and wondered how she would ever be able to reach up there with a duster.
‘Are you listening to me, girl?’ Sister Sutton’s sharp voice interrupted her thoughts. ‘I hope you’re not daydreaming? I have no time for daydreamers.’
‘No, Miss. Sorry, Miss.’
‘Please address me as Sister.’
‘Yes, Miss – I mean, Sister.’
Jess bobbed her head. She wasn’t easily intimidated, but Sister Sutton was as imposing as the house she presided over. She wasn’t much taller than Jess, but at least three times as wide, her grey uniform stretched over her solid bulk. Wisps of wiry silver hair escaped from beneath her starched white bonnet, tied in a bow amid her quivering chins. A Jack Russell terrier pranced around her feet, yapping up at Jess. The din filled the echoing passageway where they stood, but Sister Sutton seemed oblivious to it.
‘It says in your references that you’re a hard worker and quick to learn.’ The Home Sister looked doubtful as she consulted the letter in her hand.
‘I am, Miss – Sister.’
‘Your previous employer seemed very satisfied with you. So why did you want to leave?’
‘I want a live-in job, Sister.’
‘Really?’ Sister Sutton’s brows rose. ‘Most young girls seem to want to live out these days.’
Most young girls don’t come from where I do, Jess thought. ‘I would prefer to live in,’ was all she said.
The terrier scrabbled at her leg, its claws digging through her stockings. Jess bent to stroke it but it lunged forward, snapping at her outstretched fingers. She snatched her hand back sharply.
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you. Sparky is very fussy about people,’ Sister Sutton said.
Jess eyed the dog. He stared straight back at her with hostile black eyes, as if he knew exactly who she was and where she had come from.
The front door opened and two students came in, chattering together. As soon as they spotted Sister Sutton they froze and fell instantly silent. They tried to slink towards the stairs, but the Home Sister wheeled round to confront them.
‘You two! Where do you think you’re going?’ she demanded.
The girls exchanged nervous glances. They weren’t much older than Jess, one pretty and blue-eyed with dark curls, the other brown-haired and sharp-featured.
‘Please, Sister, it’s eleven o’clock,’ the dark-haired girl whispered. She had a lilting Irish accent that was as sweet as her round face.
‘I can tell the time perfectly well, thank you very much. Why aren’t you on your wards?’
‘We’ve been sent off duty until one, Sister,’ the other student explained. Her voice was clear and crisp, each syllable perfectly pronounced, like one of the lady announcers Jess had heard on the wireless.
‘I see. Why couldn’t you have said that, O’Hara?’ Sister Sutton swung her bulk around to face the Irish girl again.
‘I – I – sorry, Sister,’ she mumbled.
‘I should think so, too. And look at the state of you. Crumpled apron, grubby collar – and is that a pin I see sticking out of your cap?’ She drew in a sharp breath. ‘Tidy yourself up immediately or I shall cancel your half-day off.’
Jess stared at the Irish girl as she fumbled with her cap. Jess couldn’t see why Sister Sutton was making so much fuss. The girl looked immaculate to her, in her blue-and-white striped dress and spotless apron. But she couldn’t imagine how hot that heavy fabric and those woollen stockings must feel on such a warm April afternoon.
Jess caught the brown-haired girl’s eye and gave her a sympathetic smile. The girl tossed her head, stuck her turned-up nose in the air and stalked straight past her towards the stairs, the Irish girl hurrying behind with her head down.
Charming, Jess thought. She pulled a face at the girl’s retreating back, then quickly stopped when she realised the Home Sister was watching.
‘Are you sure you’re capable of this kind of work?’ she said. ‘You don’t look as if you could lift a broom.’
Jess knew what Sister Sutton was thinking. At seventeen years old, she was still as slight as a child.
‘I’m stronger than I look,’ she promised, squaring her shoulders. ‘Just give me a chance, and you’ll soon see what I can do.’
Sister Sutton pursed her mouth. ‘You’re certainly good at speaking up for yourself, I can see that.’
Jess pressed her lips together. Trust her to let her temper get the better of her! And she’d tried to be so careful not to put a foot wrong.
But then Sister Sutton heaved a sigh that shook all her chins and said, ‘Very well, you may have a trial. One month and then I shall decide whether you’re up to the job or not.’
Jess untwisted her cramped fingers from the folds of her skirt. She had been keeping them crossed since she arrived on the doorstep of the nurses’ home. ‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘Thank you, Sister,’ Sister Sutton corrected her. ‘You must refer to me and the other nursing sisters correctly at all times. You must also remember not to speak to anyone unless they speak to you first, and to stand up whenever a sister enters the room. And you must keep your distance from the other girls here. They are student nurses at the Nightingale Hospital, and as such they are your social superiors. They must be treated with due deference.’
Jess thought about the sharp-featured girl, tossing her head so haughtily and walking past Jess as if she didn’t exist. But after four years in service, she was used to being treated like part of the furniture.
And if that was what it took to escape from her home, then she would willingly become invisible.
‘Now,’ Sister Sutton went on, ‘I will show you to your room.’ She bustled off down the passageway, a bunch of keys jingling from her belt. Reaching the door at the farthest end of the passage, she took the keys in her hand and held them close to her face, squinting at each in turn until she selected the right one.
‘Here we are,’ she said, unlocking the door and throwing it open. ‘The room’s small, but perfectly adequate for your needs.’
Jess stepped inside. Sister Sutton was right, itwas small. Scarcely bigger than a cupboard, with just enough room for a narrow bed and a chest of drawers. But to Jess, it seemed like a palace. There was even a small shelf above the bed where she could keep her books.
She stepped inside, breathing in the clean smell of furniture polish and fresh linen. Spring sunshine flooded the room, making everything bright and cheerful.
Jess went over to the window and gazed out over the garden. It couldn’t be more different from the grim tenement she lived in now. Living here would be like waking up in Victoria Park, surrounded by grass and trees and flowers every day.
‘It’s beautiful,’ she breathed.
Sister Sutton huffed. ‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ she said. ‘But as I said, it’s perfectly adequate for a maid’s needs.’
Jess looked around her again. Whatever the Home Sister might think, to her it was perfect. Almost too perfect. Jess Jago didn’t usually get that kind of luck.
Perhaps 1937 was going to be the year everything changed for her, she thought.