It’s 1936, and student nurse Helen Tremayne is six months away from her final exams. Her domineering mother Constance is determined that nothing should stand in the way of Helen’s success, least of all her working class boyfriend Charlie. Poor Helen finds herself torn between wanting to please her mother and following her heart. But then a twist of fate changes her life forever…
Her friends Dora and Millie are facing problems of their own. Society girl turned student nurse Millie is blissfully planning her wedding to her fiance Sebastian, a foreign correspondent. But then a fortune teller’s dire prediction makes her fear she might not get the happy ending she expects.
Meanwhile, there’s no prospect of a happy ending for down to earth Dora. She has to stand by and watch as Nick, the love of her life, weds her pregnant best friend Ruby. For her friend’s sake, she knows she must forget Nick and keep her feelings to herself. But little does she know Ruby is hiding a devastating secret of her own.
‘Pay attention please, nurses. The next six months will be the most important of your lives.’
The classroom instantly fell silent. Florence Parker the Sister Tutor stood on her dais and surveyed the rows of third year students over her pebble glasses. She looked like a sweet old lady with her comfortably plump figure and white hair drawn back under her starched cap. But no student ever made that mistake twice.
‘You have almost completed your three years of training. But you mustn’t get carried away with your success,’ she warned, her Scottish accent ringing around the walls, which were lined with diagrams of the human anatomy. ‘There is still much ahead of you. In October you will take your State Examinations. Once you have passed those – if you pass them – ’ she eyed them severely, ‘you will qualify and be able to call yourself state registered nurses.’
Sister Parker allowed a brief ripple of excitement to run along the wooden benches before going on, ‘After that, you may choose to continue your training in another field, such as midwifery or district nursing, Or you may be invited by Matron to become a staff nurse here at the Nightingale. But I must remind you, this is a very great honour, and only the very best will be selected.’ Her gaze picked out Amy Hollins on the back row, twirling a strand of blonde hair around her finger as she gazed out of the window. ‘Those who are not invited will, of course, be free to apply to other hospitals.’
Not that anyone would want that. The Florence Nightingale Teaching Hospital might be in a humble area of London’s East End, but it had an excellent reputation. Every student wanted the chance to call herself a Nightingale Nurse.
‘And then, of course, there is the Nightingale medal itself, which is given to the most outstanding student in each year,’ Sister Parker gave a nod towards the far wall of the classroom, filled with photographs of previous winners. ‘That is something for you all to aspire to.’
She looked straight at Helen Tremayne as she said it. She sat in the front row of the class as usual, slightly apart from the other girls, tall and ramrod straight, not a hair on her dark head out of place. If she didn’t win the Nightingale prize, Sister Parker would eat her cap.
‘And now, girls, I have your ward allocations for the next three months.’ She went to her desk and pulled out a sheaf of papers. ‘As this is such an auspicious occasion, I thought I would hand them out rather than putting them up on the noticeboard in the dining room.’
She started to move along the rows of benches, selecting papers and placing them down in front of each girl. As she did, she heard the whispered prayers from the other side of the classroom.
‘Please God, don’t send me to Female Chronics. I don’t think I could stand three months of Sister Hyde!’
‘I hope I get Male Orthopaedics. I’ve heard it’s an absolute riot.’
‘As long as they don’t send me down to the fever ward,’ someone else sighed.
‘What about you, Hollins?’ one of the girls asked.
‘I want Theatre,’ Amy Hollins declared firmly.
Then you’d better buck your ideas up, Florence Parker thought as she placed the paper down in front of her. Hollins stared back at her, her blue eyes insolent in her doll-like face. The blonde curls that peeped from the edges of her cap tested the limits of the hospital’s strict dress rules. Perhaps if she put as much energy into her studies as she did into her social life, she might have the makings of a good nurse. But the reports that came back from the wards made the Sister Tutor despair.
She made her way back to the front of the class and placed Helen Tremayne’s paper down in front of her. She didn’t make a grab for it like the other girls. She sat perfectly still, eyeing it warily as if it might bite her.
‘Female Medical!’ Amy Hollins screwed up her paper, her voice full of disgust. ‘That’s so unfair. Everyone knows old Everett is as mad as a bat.’
‘If you’re unhappy with your allocation, I’m sure Matron would be pleased to discuss the matter with you?’ Sister Parker glared across the classroom at her. Amy blushed, her expression still mutinous.
The Sister Tutor turned back to Helen, who had finally steeled herself to turn over her paper.
‘I hope you’re satisfied with your allocation at least, Tremayne?’ she said, peering at her over her spectacles.
‘Yes. Thank you, Sister.’
‘Your mother told me you were very keen to work in surgery. She mentioned you might like to be a Theatre nurse when you qualify?’
Helen looked up at her, and Florence Parker caught a flash of dismay in her large brown eyes before her gaze dropped back to the desk. This was news to her, Sister Parker could tell. Poor Tremayne, always under her mother’s thumb.
‘I’m not sure I’d be good enough, Sister.’ Her voice barely rose above a husky whisper.
‘Och, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble. You are an excellent student, Nurse Tremayne. I daresay we’ll be seeing your picture up on that wall of Nightingale medal winners, before too long.’
‘I daresay Mummy will see to that, too.’ Sister Parker picked up Amy Hollins’ spiteful whisper on the back row. ‘It must be nice, having a mother on the Board of Trustees!’
Helen must have heard it too. She ducked her head, the tips of her ears burning bright red under her smooth dark hair.
Sister Parker remembered her last meeting with Constance Tremayne, when she had strode into the classroom and demanded that Helen be allocated to Theatre. After more than forty years as a nurse, Florence Parker did not scare easily. But Mrs Tremayne had made her feel like a terrified probationer again, being hauled in front of Matron.
She glanced back at Helen, picking at her bitten nails. Whatever Hollins might think, Florence Parker couldn’t imagine it was very nice to have Mrs Tremayne for a mother.