It was then that Grandma walked in to find me gazing into the photograph.
“Have you decided, dear?” She said as she watched me put it down. I took a breath.
“I think so.” She nodded, watching me. “I would like to accept the offer that was proposed to me by letter.” A small smile crossed her lips and stayed on her face.
“I will arrange for the neighbours to take you to Westminster Bridge Road in the morning.” She crossed the room and pulled me into an embrace. My arms encircled her back, and I pressed my cheek to her shoulder. I had missed doing that.
“My little trick is growing up.” She whispered, her voice heavy.
“You have not called me that in so long - no one has.” I smiled and tears of happiness and nostalgia ran quietly down my cheeks. I could feel Grandma’s own tears on my back.
“I love you Lydia. I hope you know that.”
“Of course.” I breathed. “I love you too.”
We walked into the dining room and even though the decision had been such a quick one in the end, I felt as if someone had lifted the weight that I was carrying on my shoulders. My posture straightened and I lifted my head as I walked around. A roast meal had been served and was on the table, steaming. Eden and Grandpa were sitting down, eyeing the succulent pork that was lying uncarved in the middle of the table. My mouth watered and I sat down eagerly.
“My, Grandma! You have outdone yourself!” She smiled bashfully.
“Thank you, Lydia.”
“Yes, Josie - this is incredible! Nothing like I have had in a long time.” Grandma turned and batted him playfully over the head with an oven mitt.
“What do you mean by that?” She said, hands on her hips.
“It was meant to be a compliment!” He said indignantly, covering his face with his forearms. She tried, but couldn’t keep her smile off her lips. Eden giggled.
“Grandpa!” She giggled again and hit his arm. “Apologise to Grandma!”
“What for, then?” Eden bit her lip and searched for an answer.
“Annoying her terribly!” This comment set us all into laughter, such as I had not heard in any household I had been in for too long. Once recovered, Grandpa carved the pork and we all began eating happily.
The next day I woke unreasonably early, so wrecked with nerves was I. Grandma and Grandpa’s neighbours, Mr and Mrs Taylor, had a horse and cart and when it was proposed to them they reluctantly agreed to drop me at Westminster Bridge, but only because Mr Taylor had some errands to run. I was to find my own way home, however. When they told Grandma this she grumbled for a good half hour in the house, but it was better than nothing. I was to first ask at the hospital if anyone was going that way, and if no one was, “Well, then, ask and look forlorn until they do.” I smiled, but was worried. What if I could not find a ride home?
It was a while to walk, and I had not a clue which way to go. Or perhaps, I would ask to much and be reconsidered for the space? I was up early worrying over all the vague facts. I bustled about the house, trying to be as quiet as I could. I made shortbread, and dithered in the kitchen until everyone else was up. Then, I made porridge, but Grandma saw how stressed I was and firmly told me to go and lie down until it was time to go. I complained, but she was adamant. Reluctantly, I retired to my room, but I could not lie still. I changed outfits multiple times, but as I did not have very many, really I ended up trying and re-trying on dresses. I watched from the street-facing window what little traffic there was go past, and eventually I opened the door to go into the living room, thinking surely it must be time to go. I was right. Grandma was smiling as she left me with the unhelpful neighbours, but I was not. Mr Taylor may perhaps have been a nice man, but I learned from Grandma that they had just lost a child, and I knew exactly how they must be feeling. We spoke little on the ride to St Thomas’ hospital, but to exchange pleasantries about the weather. He was a gruff man who I could tell had been plump, but had lost so much weight since, I assumed, his son died, that he looked rather like an empty shell now. I pitied him, and I knew that the raw grief must have faded, but the lingering, dull ache would still remain. I was familiar with that feeling. I had faced it twice in my lifetime, and very much hoped I would not have to face it again before it was due.
The journey I spent thinking, and worrying. Thankfully, it ended soon, but when he left me in front of the big, brick, building I was shaking with nerves and was considering leaving then and there. But I thought of Mother, and I strode through the doors into the reception, whereafter I would not be able to turn around.
It smelt typically of hospital, disinfectant and a slight odour of salt. I walked up to the lady behind the desk, and told her my name and what I was there for. She nodded me over to the seats along the wall, where only one other girl was waiting. I smiled at her, and she grinned, rather unladylike. I tried to disguise the expression of mild distaste my face had curled into. It did no difference, however, and the girl stood and walked to the seat next to me, turning to me eagerly.
“Hello!” She said. “My name is Emma - Emma Dylan.” I smiled politely and looked away, subtly trying to imply I did not want her company. “Are you here for the nursing school as well?”
“Yes.” I replied quickly, and looked away again. She must have been at least 25, but she did not seem to be the brightest, especially for her age.
“I was well pleased when I got the letter! Ma didn’t think I would get in. But I surprised her, didn’t I?” I gave up trying to be subtle.
“Yes, apparently.” I shifted a few seats over. “I can see why.” I muttered. She did not hear me, and moved over the two seats after me. I sighed audibly, and when her name was called I could not have been more relieved. I did not particularly want to insult anyone, but she was a hard one to shake.
I waited about twenty minutes, within which another girl came in and said her name at the counter. She looked much older, I would guess in her late twenties, and very attractive. She kept away from me, in my plain, brown tartan dress, and glanced flirtaciously at the young doctors who wandered by, not so subtly taking their time to walk past. I was slightly disgusted. I was amused, though, when one particularly slow doctor, who I guessed was in training, walked by very closely, and an older nurse caught up to him and saw him staring. Promptly, she hit him over the head with the clipboard she was holding. He yelped, and with one last fleeting glance at the girl, he scuttled off. Thankfully, my name was called soon after, and I did not have to tolerate the yearning sighs of the girl as she watched men go past.
A young woman with square spectacles waited for me at the counter. She wore a crisp, starched suit jacket and skirt, and looked very official in it.
“Good afternoon, Miss Clark.” I inclined my head in her direction. “If you will come with me?” She set off without waiting for an answer, and I followed her. She walked into a hall beside the reception, and we walked past many doors on each side. The corridor turned right, and we kept going, and I noticed the doors had begun to have name cards on them. Most simply said a role, but as we went further into the hallway they began to depict names, male and female. We stopped in front of one door, and I recognised the name on it from the letter.
“This is Mary Dale’s office. She is in charge of all applications and student selections. I do not know if the letter said, but this is an interview with you. Ms Dale has chosen forty possible probationers, but is conducting these interviews in order to choose the total 20 that will make it into the school.” I nodded, and took a step forward to go in. “I might also add,” she said, and I stopped. “That you will very likely be chosen. She will want to discuss your financial arrangements and such.” She gave me a curt smile and clacked off back down the corridor in her high heels. I turned back to the door, and considered it for a short moment, before taking a breath and pushing open the door. It was a reasonable sized room, with no windows but plenty of light. A desk sat facing the door, and a woman looked up from what she was reading as I came in. She stood.
“Hello, my name is Mary Dale. I look after all the probationers’ selection at Florence Nightingale’s School of Nursing and Midwifery.” I nodded, and smiled as she extended a hand over the desk.
“Lydia Clark.” I said, taking it and shaking.
“I know who you are.” She smiled almost slyly, and looked back down at the papers on her desk. “Lydia Rose Clark, birth date 25th June 1840, which makes you 25 last week. I wish you a happy birthday, and congratulate you on the looks of youth still in your skin.” I smiled, and she continued. “You are currently residing at 12 Marchmont St. Who lives there with you?”
“I live there with my sister and grandparents, the parents of my mother.”
“And your mother died...” She flipped over a page, “On a ship journey in childbirth.” I nodded.
“That is correct.”
“I am sorry. Why do you not reside with your father?” I cleared my throat.
“He died after several bouts of pneumonia in New Zealand. I made the decision to migrate back here with my sister in search of our grandparents.”
“You are rather old to be living with your grandparents.” I blushed, realising if I had in fact been 25 this would have been true.
“I, er- yes, I suppose.” She looked at me with piercing blue eyes.
“You are not 25, are you?” I frowned, and my heart raced. How could she have known so quickly?
“Yes, ma’am, I assure you I am-”
“Lydia, I have read your story and I know that if you migrated to New Zealand when you were ten, it would have been 1850. I doubt your parents would have wanted to settle in so new a country when the politics and especially the savages there would have not been under control. It is common sense, dear.” I gulped, and stuttered for a moment, trying to think of an excuse. I sighed, realising the journey was over before it had started.
“You are right. I am only 18.” She frowned.
“18?” She repeated. “You are very young to have gone through so much.” At least she was not shouting. I chuckled, realising I had thought a very similar thing of Eden in New Zealand.
“I suppose I should find my own way out.” I sighed resignedly, and stood.
“No, just a minute.” She motioned for me to sit back down. I frowned, not knowing what she was going to do, but slid back into the chair.
“Yes?” She sighed.
“I know this would be breaking many rules,” My frown deepened even more, “But I would like to offer you a place here anyway.” I was shocked. She could be arrested for that, surely! Or at least be thrown out onto the streets. “And if you do not find nursing the profession you would have liked it to be, you will surely find refuge as a writer, for your submission was very touching.”
“I- thank you, ma’am, but aren’t you taking too large of a risk on my behalf?” She smiled wearily.
“I am getting older. I do not worry about such things anymore. It would be my pleasure to be thrown out of this job if I knew I had helped someone fulfill their dreams.” I smiled.
“Thank you, so very much.” She smiled.
“It is my pleasure. I will think of you as my project.”
“I would be honoured to be thought of in such a way.”
“It is settled, then. You will come here at 8 o’clock in the morning on Sunday the 23rd of July, this week. We start on a Sunday because we give all probationers a day to settle in and become familiar with their surroundings. I got the impression that you are not from a wealthy family?” I shook my head. “Educated and wealthy ladies who can afford it buy their position, funding the school, but common women such as yourself get a little money each month, and then a larger sum at the end of your training. You will be placed in a hospital or wherever you are needed once it has ended.” I nodded, following it all. “No questions?” I shook my head. “Excellent! Thank you, Lydia. I will be seeing you on Sunday.” I nodded, and stood before I remembered my request.
“Ms Dale, I was wondering if anyone here was doing anything over near Marchmont St? Only, I do not have a ride back to our house.” The lady smiled.
“Of course. I will write you a note.” She ripped a leaf of paper from a pad on the corner of her desk. “Give this to Abigail at the front desk.”
“Thank you.” I took my leave of the office, and I felt the older woman’s gaze on me as I shut the door. I clicked the door closed, and turned to face the sly-looking orange-haired girl who had been in the post office. She had a strange look on her face, and for some reason unknown to me I was frozen to the spot under her gaze. She raised an eyebrow, then looked pointedly toward the door.
“That is a very thin door, don’t you think?” Her voice was creamy and sugary, like melted caramel. I narrowed my eyes at her. How long had she been listening?
“Is it? I had not noticed. I do not usually endeavour to listen to others’ conversation.” I smiled sweetly, and added: “And I also usually try to fulfill customers’ wishes once they express they do not want something.” Her lip curled, her smooth expression wrinkled in annoyance. I smiled again, and brushed past her. As soon as I reached the end of the corridor I let out a shaky breath. I may have acted confidently, but my heart was still racing from the exchange. I hurried over to the front desk, as Ms Dale had instructed me, and gave the receptionist the note. She smiled.
“Of course, Miss Clark. If you would just wait over there.” I nodded, and went over to sit where I had before. No other girls were there, and I assumed that the red-haired girl had been the latest. It was only a few moments before I was called, a young man in uniform coming over. He had blonde hair, covered with a navy blue, black and gold cap with matching jacket and trousers. He walked over to where I was.
“I am to take you to 12 Marchmont St?”
“Yes, thank you.” As he raised his arm for me to take it, I gasped in amazement. It was Sam Jones.
“Samuel!” Immediately, I shook his arm off mine in a reflex action.
“Hello, Lydia.” He grinned at me, and I got the impression he had known it was I who he was to take. I sniffed in his face.
“Are you going to take me to the cart or shall I stand here and watch you grin like an idiot?” He cleared his throat and led the way out of the doors. I followed him, very much wishing I had gotten some other driver, but I could not very well go in and complain after all Mrs Dale had done for me. Sam, over dramatic as always, bowed down as low as he could as I climbed into the cart. He climbed up afterwards, and I ignored him as best I could, but could not help wondering how he had come to work at the hospital, and travel over in such a short amount of time. I considered asking him, but imagined I would be seeing enough of him in the coming year, so I would ask him when he was perhaps less annoying. I watched as the buildings went by, and the horses and pedestrians wandered past. It seemed that we were going much faster than anyone else. I narrowed my eyes.
“Samuel! Slow down!” He chuckled from the front, amused, and I tutted to myself. If he wanted to be stopped by the police and have it cost him his job, let him. I wanted no part of it. We continued at such a pace that I was worried the cart would tip over, but we got to Marchmont St in good time. I climbed down from the cart before Sam could have the chance to help me, and hurried inside. I thought I heard a distant ‘Goodbye!’, but I couldn’t have been sure.
Mrs Barrett knew she needed to feed the child, but she herself had no milk and the mother was in no fit state to feed her. She knew of another mother with a little milk, for she had given birth just before the ship sailed, and was still breastfeeding the child. She would be in her cabin, but she needed someone to fetch her, because she did not want to leave the little girl.
“Lydia!” She turned, and seeing the older girl on the floor, bent down to find that her eyes were opening. “Lydia, darling, can you hear me?” Lydia peered at the blurry face above her, but nodded. All the happenings came flooding into her mind, and she sat up abruptly, dizziness readily pushing her back down again. “Gently, dear, gently. Do not sit or stand until you are ready.” Lydia took a deep breath, and then sat up once more. She was wobbly, but managed to stay up. It was a few more moments before she could kneel, and then more before she could stand. By the time she was up, Mrs Barrett had gone back to the baby. Eventually, though, she was on her feet and relatively stable.
“Lydia, I need you to fetch Isabella Ward, who is the young mother with the baby who was born just before we left. Do you know where she is?”
“I think so, Mrs Barrett.”
“Good girl. Bring her back as soon as possible.”