It’s 1925, and Agnes Sheridan is a bright, ambitious young nurse with her whole future ahead of her, until a single tragic mistake turns her world upside down. In an effort to redeem herself, Londoner Agnes travels up to Leeds to retrain as a district nurse.
Not that she believes she will need much training. As far as Agnes is concerned, district nursing is little more than giving baths and changing bandages. Her high-handed attitude doesn’t make her many friends among the other nurses at the house in Steeple Street. And it certainly doesn’t endear her to the down-to-earth Assistant Superintendent, Bess Bradshaw. The dislike between them is instant, and Bess decides to teach Agnes a lesson by introducing her to the harsh realities of life in Quarry Hill, a warren of rundown slums in the centre of the city.
Sure enough, fastidious Agnes is horrified by Quarry Hill, and the chaotic lives of the people who call it their home. She knows Bess is trying to drive her away, but she has nowhere else to run. Her only choice is to stay and try to prove herself.
Gradually, as she gets to know the area and the families, she realises there is more to Quarry Hill and its residents than she imagined. She discovers there can be dignity and pride even in poverty, and that salvation can be found in the most unlikely and unexpected places. Most of all, she finds fun, friendship and forgiveness among the nurses of Steeple Street.
The District Nursing Superintendent was late for their meeting.
Agnes Sheridan sat straight backed on a chair outside Miss Gale’s office, her feet tucked underneath her to stop them tapping impatiently on the black and white tiled floor. On the other side of the hall, the large grandfather clock ponderously marked the passing minutes, reminding her how long she had been kept waiting.
It was really too bad, she thought. She had arrived precisely on time for their meeting at three o’clock, and had even gone to the trouble of taking a taxi she could ill afford from the station, just so she wouldn’t be late.
The skinny little maid appeared from the kitchen and scuttled towards her, her head down, eyes averted. She never said a word, but she had been patrolling the passageway at regular intervals ever since she’d opened the door to Agnes.
As she slid past, Agnes cleared her throat and said, ‘Excuse me. Do you know how much longer Miss Gale might be?’
The maid froze, her eyes bulging in her thin face like a terrified rabbit.
‘She’s gone to see t’Miners’ Welfare,’ she mumbled, her Yorkshire accent so broad Agnes could barely make out the words.
‘You’ve already told me that.’ Agnes did her best to be patient. ‘I just wondered how long – ’
‘I’ve got summat on the stove,’ the maid blurted out. And then she was gone, darting back the way she’d come, tripping over her own feet in her rush to get away.
‘Well, that’s nice, I must say!’ Agnes muttered, as the kitchen door slammed at the far end of the passageway. She had come all the way from Manchester, and she hadn’t even been offered a cup of tea.
She looked around, trying to get the measure of her surroundings. The passageway was long and narrow, with steps leading down to the kitchen at the far end. Sunlight streamed through the stained glass window on the landing above her, scattering brilliant diamonds of colour on the staircase below. In front of Agnes was a door with a brass plate marked ‘Susan Gale – District Nursing Superintendent’. There were other doors leading off from the hallway too. One of the doors was half open, and through it Agnes could see settees and chairs arranged around a fireplace, with bookshelves on either side and a piano in the corner. The nurses’ common room, she imagined.
There was a telephone on a small stand beside the front door, with a message book open beside it. Further along, the faded wallpaper was covered by a large noticeboard, to which various lists and rotas had been pinned. Below that was a set of a dozen pigeon holes, mostly empty, but some stuffed with uncollected post.
Agnes took some comfort from the familiarity. It reminded her of the nurses’ home at the hospital in London where she’d trained. Perhaps this wasn’t going to be so different after all, she thought.
A crash came from the beyond the kitchen door, shattering the silence and making Agnes jump to her feet. She was just wondering if she should investigate when a door closed on the floor above her and she heard the heavy stomp of footsteps coming down the stairs.
Agnes looked up to see a woman advancing down the stairs towards her. She was in her mid forties, solid rather than fat, her large body enclosed in a fitted dark blue coat. Wisps of greying hair escaped from under her cocked hat.
‘Take no notice,’ she said briskly. ‘It’s always the same when Dottie’s cooking. I s’pose you’re t’new nurse? Miss Gale said you’d be arriving today.’
There was another crash from the kitchen, followed by a loud cursing. Agnes dragged her gaze away from the direction of the sound. ‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘I’m Agnes Sheridan.’
‘Agnes, eh? Does everyone call you Aggie?’
Agnes winced. ‘I prefer Agnes, if you don’t mind,’ she said.
‘Do you now?’ The woman looked her up and down, an amused twinkle in her beady dark eyes. ‘Well, Agnes, or whatever you want to call yourself, I’m Bess Bradshaw, the Assistant Superintendent. Miss Gale says I’m to take charge of you while she’s away. So you’d best come with me.’
She led the way down the passage and pushed open one of the doors. Agnes followed her into a large, sunny room lined with cupboards and shelves containing various items of medical equipment.
Bess Bradshaw picked up a large black leather Gladstone bag from the row lined up neatly below the window, set it on the wooden counter and undid the clasp.
‘Can’t go anywhere without this,’ she said to Agnes, her Yorkshire accent nearly as broad as the maid’s.
She opened the bag and started checking the contents. As she held up a bottle to the light to check its contents, realisation slowly dawned on Agnes.
‘You mean we’re going out to see a patient?’ she asked.
Bess looked at Agnes, the same mocking twinkle in her eyes. ‘Where did you think we were going, down to the chip shop?’ she said. ‘Now pass me the boracic powder, will you? It’s up there, on the top shelf,’
Agnes reached for the glass bottle and put it in Bess’ outstretched hand, her mind still racing.
This wasn’t right. At the Nightingale Hospital a new staff nurse would have to undergo a thorough interview with Matron and be fitted for her uniform before she was allowed anywhere near the wards. And yet here she was, barely over the doorstep before she was being let loose on the patients. It seemed a very haphazard way of going about things.
Was this what district nursing was all about, she wondered.
‘Shouldn’t I wait for the Superintendent?’ she ventured.
‘The Superintendent is in Wakefield, having a meeting with the Miners’ Welfare Committee. She won’t be back while teatime, and I daresay she won’t be in any mood to see you when she does get back. The Miners’ Welfare always puts her in a bad mood.’ Bess Bradshaw checked another bottle, then put it back. ‘And I’m to look after you, and I’ve got a call to make, so you’ll have to come with me.’
‘But – ’
‘You’ve come here to train as a District Nurse, haven’t you?’ Bess cut her off.
‘Yes, but – ’
‘Well, there’s no time like the present to start, is there?’
Agnes looked down at herself. ‘But I haven’t even got a uniform – ’
‘Oh, stop fretting, lass! It’s a willing pair of hands I’m after, not a starched collar. Now, frame yourself and let’s get going.’
Perhaps this isn’t such a bad thing, Agnes tried to tell herself as she followed the Assistant Superintendent out of the house. Bess Bradshaw was quite right. She had come to train as a district nurse, and the sooner she got started, the better.
After all, she reasoned, it wasn’t as if working on the district was likely to be that difficult. She was a qualified nurse from one of the best hospitals in the country. She could certainly manage giving a few bed baths and changing dressings.
But her nerve failed when Bess disappeared around the side of the house, only to emerge a moment later wheeling two bicycles. She propped one against the wall and nodded towards it. ‘There you are, lass. Your chariot awaits.’
Agnes stared, appalled. ‘You want me to ride that?’
‘Well, you could walk, but you’d be fit for nothing when you got there.’ She was already walking away from her, wheeling her bicycle up the front path. She stopped at the gate and looked over her shoulder. ‘What’s the matter? Don’t tell me you’ve never ridden one before?’
‘Well, yes, but – ’ Agnes examined it gingerly. It must have been at least fifty years old, a real old boneshaker, rusting and ramshackle.
‘Then get on it and start pedalling! There’s work to be done.’