It’s the winter of 1941, and wartime Britain faces a grim Christmas, as do the nurses of the Nightingale Hospital in London. With so much of the hospital damaged during the Blitz, many of the patients and nurses are evacuated to a hospital in the Kent countryside.
Among them is newly qualified nurse Jess Jago. The tough East End girl feels her place is with her friends and neighbours in Bethnal Green, not out in the middle of nowhere. To make matters worse, she soon finds herself at odds with the Matron of the country hospital, who has a grudge against Jess and her fellow Londoners.
But Jess’ fears that the countryside might prove too dull are proved wrong by the arrival of her old nursing student friend Effie O’Hara. Irrepressible Effie has just come over from Ireland and is determined that the war isn’t going to spoil her fun. It isn’t long before she makes friends with the RAF airmen billeted nearby. But is Effie hiding a secret..?
The war hasn’t been kind to Lady Millie Rushton. With her father and husband both dead, she is forced to run the family’s country estate and bring up her young son. Lost and out of her depth, Millie turns to the only thing she knows – nursing. Her new career gives her a sense of purpose, but the return of a face from her past makes her question her future.
As Christmas approaches, the three girls realise that no matter how far they may travel, the past always has a way of catching up with them…
It was a cold, foggy November night when Jess Jago arrived on the last train from London.
She was the only passenger to get off the train at Billinghurst, a deserted rail halt in the middle of nowhere. Jess dumped her suitcase and gas mask case on the ground and peered around her, trying to get her bearings. The fog was so dense she could almost feel it, like ghostly damp hands pressing on her face.
She laughed nervously. You’re imagining things, girl! It was just a bit of fog, no worse than the gritty, yellowish peasoupers that regularly enshrouded the East End.
She took a deep breath, annoyed at herself for being so twitchy. Honestly, she’d lived all her life in Bethnal Green, grown up among rogues and thieves and God knows what else, and now she was scared because she was in the countryside, with nothing around her but a few trees – and deathly silence…
‘Are you the new nurse?’
The low, gravelly voice came out of the gloom, making her jump out of her skin.
Jess fumbled in her coat pocket for her torch and aimed the beam into the fog. She swung it slowly left and right, then flinched as it suddenly picked out a grizzled old face under a shapeless hat.
‘Turn that thing off, for God’s sake,’ he growled. ‘You’ll have the ARP out, thinking we’re bloody Germans.’ He gave another rattling cough. ‘Well, what are you standing there for? I ain’t got all night, you know. It’s nearly ten and some of us have beds to go to. Besides, this fog plays hell with my chest.’
Jess heard the faint jingling of a harness, and the clomp of heavy hooves on the iron hard ground. As she lowered the beam of her torch, she saw a cart and a fat grey horse, its head curved wearily downwards.
‘Who are you?’ she asked.
‘Father Christmas, who do you think?’ The old man sighed impatiently. ‘My name’s Sulley – Mr Sulley to you – and I’ve been sent to fetch you to the Nurses’ Home. Now are you coming, or not? You’re welcome to walk if you want, but it’s more than five miles, and I doubt if you’d find your way on a night like this, especially since they took all the signposts away.’
Keeping her torch beam low, Jess carried her suitcase round to the back of the cart and threw it on, then went round to the front and climbed up on to the wooden seat beside the man.
‘At last!’ Sulley muttered. He cleared his throat noisily, spat at the ground, shook the reins and they shifted forward slowly, the cart rolling beneath them as they started up the lane. The cold night air smelt of dung and damp earth.
The lurching motion lulled her, and Jess felt her eyelids growing heavier, her head nodding towards her chest. She was bone weary after her journey. The train had been crowded as usual, and seemed to inch down the line, stopping every five minutes to allow another troop train to pass.
Jess had found herself crammed into a carriage with a dozen army boys, all in tearing high spirits. She had shared her sandwiches with them, and they’d made her laugh with their jokes and singing. They reminded her of Sam, full of fun, refusing to take life seriously.
But Jess had nurses enough wounded soldiers at the Nightingale to know the kind of fate that might befall them. Even as she laughed with them, she found herself looking at their bright, smiling faces, wondering how many of them would come home again.
Once again, a picture of Sam came into her mind, and she pushed it away out of habit. She couldn’t allow herself to give in to the fear that prowled in the shadows of her mind, waiting to pounce if she once allowed it.
Beside her, Sulley had started talking. ‘The village is full of Londoners now,’ he grumbled. ‘What with you lot from the hospital and all the evacuees, it’s worse than hop picking season. Hardly feels like it’s our home any more.’
Jess bristled. ‘It’s not our choice to come down here,’ she said sharply. ‘We have to go where we’re sent.’
She certainly wouldn’t have left London if she’d had any choice in the matter. The Blitz had torn the heart out of the East End, and the Nightingale Hospital, and it felt disloyal to abandon it in its hour of need.
But Matron had been insistent. Most of the patients had been evacuated from London to the Nightingale’s temporary hospital in Kent, and more nurses were needed there.
‘It may only be for a few months,’ she had said. ‘But until we can re-open the wards here, you’ll be of more use down there. And I’m sure you’ll welcome the chance of some country air,’ she had added with a small smile. ‘A change might do you good.’
She had made it sound as if she was doing her a favour. If she thinks that then she doesn’t know me at all, Jess thought. She had been born and brought up in the back streets of Bethnal Green, with the tang of smog in her lungs from the moment she was born. She was used to the shouts of costermongers and street vendors, the smell of the docks and the glue factory, the rumble of trams and buses. After two years of war, she was even used to the wail of the air raid sirens, the crump of falling bombs and the reek of cordite and choking dust that followed an attack. She had no time for the country, or the people in it.
An eerie screech came out of the fog. Jess started out of her seat in terror.
‘What the bleeding hell was that?’ she yelped.
Sulley chuckled. ‘It’s only an owl! Bless me, it ain’t going to hurt you.’ He dug in the depths of his pocket for a dog end, clamped it between his teeth and lit it with one hand, the other controlling the fat old horse. Not that she needed much controlling. Jess could have walked faster than her steady plod.
Once again, the motion lulled her. This time she must have drifted off, because the next thing she knew the cart had jerked to a halt.
‘Here we are,’ the old man said. ‘Home Sweet Home.’
Jess peered into the foggy darkness. ‘I can’t see anything.’
‘The Nurses’ Home is through that gate and up the track a way. There was no room for you lot from London at the hospital home, so they had to convert some old farm buildings.’
Jess sniffed. A strong odour of manure hung in the air. ‘It smells like a pigsty!’
‘That’s right.’ Sulley chuckled. ‘I daresay it’s what you Londoners are used to.’ His laughter turned into a wheezing cough, and he spat at the ground.
Jess glared at him. At least I don’t stink like an old goat, she thought. That coat of his reeked of cigarettes and sweat.
She climbed down from the cart and retrieved her suitcase from the back while the old man watched her, drawing on his thin dog end.
‘I’ll be here tomorrow morning first thing to collect you,’ he called after her as she walked away, dragging her case behind her.
Jess turned to face him. ‘You what?’
‘I have to take you and the other nurses down to the hospital. It’s a two mile walk otherwise.’ He jingled the reins and the old horse clopped off into the darkness before Jess could reply.