In the autumn of 1934, three very different girls sign up as trainee nurses at the Florence Nightingale Teaching Hospital. Tough working class girl Dora is hoping for a better life for herself – if she can escape the clutches of her evil stepfather.
Helen was born to be a nurse – according to her overbearing mother, at least. Little does anyone know the perfect student hides a secret heartache.
Rebellious Millie is desperate to be more than a wealthy aristocratic wife. But she soon finds life as a nurse tougher than she’d ever imagined.
Through bedpans and broken hearts, the girls form an unlikely friendship. But which of them has what it takes to become a Nightingale Girl?
‘Tell me, Miss Doyle. What makes you think you could ever be a nurse here?’
Growing up in the slums of Bethnal Green, not much frightened Dora Doyle. But her stomach was fluttering with nerves as she faced the Matron of the Nightingale Teaching Hospital in her office on that warm September afternoon.
She sat tall and upright behind a heavy mahogany desk, an imposing figure in black, her face framed by an elaborate white headdress. Her grey eyes were fixed expectantly on Dora.
Dora wiped her damp palms on her skirt. She was sweating inside her coat, but she didn’t dare take it off in case Matron noticed the frayed cuffs of her blouse.
‘Well – ’ she began, then stopped. Why did she think she could ever be a nurse? Living on the other side of Victoria Park from the Nightingale, she had often seen the young women coming and going through the gates, dressed in their red-lined cloaks. For as long as she could remember she’d dreamed of being one of them.
But dreams like that didn’t come true for the likes of Dora Doyle. Like any other East End girl, her destiny lay in the sweatshops or one of the factories that lined the overcrowded stretch of the Thames.
So she’d left school at fourteen to earn her living at Gold’s Garments, and tried to make the best of it. But the dream hadn’t gone away. It had gone on growing bigger inside her, until four years later she had taken her courage in her hands and written a letter of application.
‘What have you got to lose?’ Mr Gold’s daughter Esther had said. ‘You’ll never know if you don’t try, bubele.’ She’d even lent Dora her lucky charm to wear for the interview. She could feel the warm metal sticking to her damp skin beneath her blouse.
‘It’s a hamsa,’ she’d explained, as Dora admired the exquisite little silver hand on a delicate chain. ‘My people believe it brings good fortune.’
Dora hoped the hamsa’s luck didn’t just extend to the Jews. She needed all the help she could get.
‘I’m keen and I’m very hard working,’ she found the words at last. ‘And I’m a quick learner. I don’t need telling twice.’
‘So your reference says.’ Matron looked down at the letter in front of her. ‘This Miss Gold clearly thinks a lot of you.’
Dora blushed at the compliment. Esther had taken a real chance, writing that reference behind her father’s back; old Jacob would go mad if he found out his daughter was helping one of his employees to find another job. ‘Miss Esther reckons I’m one of her best girls on the machines. I’ve got the hands, see.’
She saw Matron looking at her hands and quickly knotted them in her lap she wouldn’t see her bitten down nails, or the calluses the size of mothballs that covered her fingers. Grafter’s hands, her mother called them. But they didn’t look like the right kind of hands to soothe a fevered brow.
‘I have no doubt you’re a hard worker, Miss Doyle,’ Matron said. ‘But then so is every girl who comes in here. And most of them are far more qualified than you.’
Dora’s chin lifted. ‘I’ve got my certificates. I went back to night school to get them.’
‘So I see.’ Her voice was soft, but with an underlying note of steel. ‘But as you know, the Nightingale is one of the best teaching hospitals in London. We have girls all over the country wanting to train here.’ She met Dora’s eyes steadily across the desk. ‘So why should we accept you and not them? What makes you so special, Miss Doyle?’
Dora dropped her gaze to stare at the herringbone pattern of the polished parquet. She wanted to tell her how she helped take care of her younger brothers and sisters, how she’d even helped bring the youngest, Little Alfie, into the world two years ago. She wanted to tell her how she’d nursed Nanna Winnie through a bad bout of bronchitis last winter when everyone thought she’d had it for sure.
Most of all, she wanted to tell her about Maggie, her beautiful sister who’d died when Dora was twelve years old. She’d sat beside her bed for three days, watching her slip away. It was Maggie’s death more than anything that made her want to become a nurse and stop other families suffering the way hers had.
But her mother didn’t like them talking about their personal business to anyone. And it probably wasn’t the clever answer Matron was looking for, anyway.
‘Nothing,’ she said, defeated. ‘I’m nothing special.’ Just plain Dora Doyle, the ginger haired girl from Griffin Street.
She wasn’t even special in her family. Peter was the eldest, Little Alfie the youngest. Josie was the prettiest and Bea was the clever one. And there was Dora, stuck in the middle.
‘I see.’ Matron paused. She seemed almost disappointed, Dora thought. ‘Well, in that case I don’t think there’s much more to say.’ She began gathering up her notes. ‘We will write to you and let you know our decision in due course. Thank you, Miss Doyle – ’
Dora felt a surge of panic. She’d let herself down. She could feel her moment ebbing away, and with it her hopes. She would never wear the red-lined cloak and walk with pride like those other girls. It would be back to the machines at Gold’s Garments until her eyes went or her fingers became so bent with rheumatism she couldn’t work any more.
Esther Gold’s words came back to her. What have you got to lose?
‘Give me a chance,’ she blurted out.
Matron looked up. ‘I beg your pardon?’
Dora could feel her face flaming to the roots of her hair but she had to speak up. ‘I know I don’t have as much proper schooling as the other girls, but I’ll work really hard, I promise.’ The words were falling over themselves as she tried to get them out before she lost her nerve.
‘Really, Miss Doyle, I hardly think – ’
‘You won’t regret it, I swear. I’ll be the best nurse this place has ever seen. Just give me the chance. Please?’ she begged.
Matron’s brows lifted towards the starched edge of her headdress. ‘And if I don’t?’
‘I’ll apply again, here or somewhere else. And I’ll keep on applying until someone says yes,’ Dora declared defiantly. ‘I’ll be a nurse one day. And I’ll be a good one, too.’
Matron stared at her so hard Dora felt her heart sink to her borrowed shoes.
‘Thank you, Miss Doyle,’ she said. ‘I think I’ve heard enough.’