Once breakfast had been fully consumed, we waited the few minutes while the group of seven who were late finished theirs in indignant silence. Matron had not yet come in, and we had seen nor heard any sign of anyone coming to take us to the training room.
It was not until ten minutes after the second group had finished their breakfasts that none other than Sam Jones walked in, and told us he was to deliver us to the room. I narrowed my eyes, and evidently he saw as I noticed him grinning at me more than once. Every time I looked over at him, in fact, he was either smiling like an idiot or examining me carefully in a way that made me quite uncomfortable.
It was not a long walk to the room, but still Victoria managed to sidle up to the blonde-haired boy, and I spent a lot of time watching long, red hair very close to short blonde hair, with long blonde hair on the left and long brown on the right. It seemed that the events of the morning had in no way discouraged Victoria, Matilda and Charity from attempting to do the most outrageous things they could. It was clear, however, that Victoria had taken charge, and once the other two saw her whisper into Sam’s ear in what I thought was a positively sickening way, Matilda and Charity hurriedly dropped the batting of lashes, leaving Sam to Victoria. We got to the room eventually, and though I suspected Sam had taken the long way no one else had seemed to notice, and in Victoria’s case, wanted to notice. He did have to leave us somewhere, and while it half looked like Victoria was going to follow him, she did come in and sit down with Charity and Matilda.
It was a square room, with a long, hip-height table at the front. Groups of desks sat in rows right to the back of the room, and the whole set-up rather reminded me of my school days, but the nurses’ equipment on the table at the front and the anatomical posters and diagrams that covered the walls provided the contrast. My eyes were captured by all the scientific diagrams, and it seemed most of the others’ were too. We all sat as close to front as we could, and we filled hardly more than half of the seats. There were bookshelves adorning the walls around the door, and covering the back wall which seemed to contain half the hospital’s library. I was itching to go and inspect the collection, but I assumed the rather stern-looking man at the front of the room would not appreciate my curiosity.
The desks were arranged in semicircles, with four desks creating a group. I sat with, of course, Katie and Olivia, and Prudence Wilson from the first floor joined us. She introduced herself, but I had made it my mission to discover everyone’s first and surnames and whether or not they were paying. The latter I could guess, mostly by their clothes, but a lot of asking at the tea table yesterday let me discover the former. Prudence told us she was not paying, which I had guessed correctly, and she also instructed us to call her ‘Pru’. She was adamant it was spelt with no ‘e’, and we all assured her it made her sound very sophisticated. She seemed happy with this answer, and we turned to the front as the man started clearing his throat. He was not a tall man, and while he was not particularly short, he was on the short side of average. It seemed he was either constantly in a bad mood, as his crinkled forehead certainly made it look so, or either he was simply frustrated at being in a cold room teaching 20 young women. He was old, but not ancient. I guessed he may have been around 60 years of age. He had very strange eyebrows, which were white and were mostly normal until the ends, where they curved outwards and up, almost as if he curled them every morning with a hot towel. They were quite impressive, really. His entire head was white, with a good lot of hair. He had excellent posture, and I suspected a military background. He seemed very fit for a man of his presumable age, and I guessed he had been a military doctor if he was now teaching medical practice.
He cleared his throat, frowning and making his eyebrows crinkle and pull into strange shapes. He leaned forward, placing his palms on the table in front of him considering us all, his eyebrow wings moving as his eyes examined the class he was facing.
“Good morning. My name is Dr Jeffries, and I am a friend of Miss Nightingale’s from her time in the Crimea. I was a doctor at the hospital that was built there temporarily, and Florence asked me, after my retirement from attending to the wounded at war, whether I would like to come and teach at the school. I said yes.” He glowered even more at us, suggesting he was regretting the decision. I shifted uncomfortably, anticipating many hours with this man. Olivia beside me sighed, and I glanced at her, expressing my agreement with her impatient sigh. A silence fell over the room, and none of us made a sound, no one wanting to break the quietness. Of course it was Victoria, though, who did.
“Sir, what shall we be doing today?” She turned on the tap that poured sugar into her voice, into the creamy, sweet, sugary sound that had the doctor instantly captured. She cocked her head and raised her eyebrows, adding a little touch of innocent to the concoction. I rolled my eyes, wondering who it was she had had to practise on. Her parents, most likely. The man actually smiled, which I could already tell was a feat, and we had not even been here five minutes.
“Well, Miss...” He trailed off, looking quizzically at her. “Miss Victoria Fitch.” She said, smiling sweetly.
“Well, Miss Fitch, today we shall be talking about the basics of nursing, and Miss Nightingale’s most prominent value. Hygiene and sanitation. This is a topic we will be covering thoroughly in the coming weeks.” Victoria smiled in delight.
“Oh, how wonderful!” She looked and sounded genuinely excited, but I could see directly through the façade she had donned. I narrowed my eyes and shook my head in disgust. Katie rolled her eyes in agreement and Pru watched us thoughtfully.
The doctor continued on to hand out books, small notepads that were named clearly. He then gave us fountain pens, which, of course, we were to use to write in the books. He instructed us to write the basics of hygiene and how to keep a wound clean in the books. He then told us to share our ideas, and I really was the only one other than Edith Thorpe to have answers of any use. He nodded as we read them out, seemingly pleased. Victoria, however, looked darkly at me as I listed my third point, and I managed to catch a glimpse of her book. She had only one small scribble. I smiled with satisfaction.
After that, the morning continued with Dr Jeffries lecturing us on The Importance of Hygiene and Sanitation in the Workplace. I was sure that he said this phrase at least six times, and so in my notes abbreviated it to TIHSW, which I found was much quicker and easier to write. Sam again came to fetch us for lunch, interrupting Dr Jeffries in the middle of explaining the statistics of deaths and infection in an environment with 1% more dirt than another. It was truly fascinating, I am sure, to the average medicinal professor at Oxford. Otherwise, it was quite frankly a bore, but to gain good marks and not make an enemy of the teacher I sat upright and interested all through the morning. Sam knocked on the door and rudely strode right up to the front of the classroom, drawing all attention away from Dr Jeffries and almost yelling the he was to take us to the hall. He walked to the back, and let Dr Jeffries at least instruct us to study our notes and be ready for the next day. I almost felt sorry for the old man as he desperately tried to catch our attention again, but really it was no use, as most of the class had picked up their things and were heading eagerly toward Sam. I took my time, and looked at the man as he told us to study, but I was the only one. Katie nudged me and Olivia tapped my arm, urging me to hurry, so I picked up my things and exited at the back of the group, leaving Dr Jeffries sighing in the room.
Sam did not seem to be worried about leading the way, finding himself so caught up with Victoria that the whole group began to slow, and eventually impatient girls began leaving to find their own way. I would have been happy to have done the same, but Olivia insisted on staying behind with Sam, who she thought would know the way better than anyone. I raised an eyebrow at the excuse but said nothing.
We were moving at an incredibly slow pace behind Victoria, Sam, Matilda and Charity, and were close enough to hear their conversation. I heard Victoria tactfully move the subject onto ages.
“So, Samuel, how old are you? I would guess at least 26.” She purred. He stopped, looking at her strangely.
“What makes you say that?” He said gruffly.
“Well,” she said innocently, “We are all older than 25, as are the rules, so you must be older.” I frowned, wondering if she was trying to get him to expose me. But how could she possibly know about the connection between him and I? He cocked his head to look at her, but she was glancing at me. Hurriedly, she looked back at him. He frowned minutely, just a tiny crinkle of his brow, as he looked between me and her. He raised an eyebrow slightly, asking a question of me. I looked down, shaking my head ever so slightly and hoping he would get the message.
“Yes, I am 27 in December.” Victoria raised an eyebrow. I knew she had her doubts, but she was not going to confront Sam straight away. He grinned cheekily.
“What about you, eh Victoria? How old’re you?” Superiorly, she smiled and raised the other eyebrow.
“Younger than you!” She said. Sam chuckled and managed to place a hand on her hip. I winced and shook my head in disgust. I was quite offended, really, at how forward and, quite frankly, disgusting Sam was being, but Victoria did not seem fazed at all. I had had enough, and stepped around the group. It seemed Olivia had seen Sam’s action, and she followed me quite readily. We pushed past them and continued on the dining hall. We were quite close, and found our way back easily.
Lunch was Shepherd’s pie, followed by shortbread, which, I must say, rivalled Eden’s. The meal was lovely. Sam ate with us, and I was slightly confused about this for a while, but then more staff began filling the empty seats. I saw Laura from the front desk come in, and gestured for her to come over. She did, smiling, and Laura, Olivia, Katie, Pru and I all sat and ate together. I introduced Laura to Olivia, Katie and Pru, but they recognised her from yesterday. We asked her what it was like working there, and generally badgered her with questions. Good-heartedly, though, she answered them all, and eventually began asking her own.
We had all finished when the bell rang, and most of us realised this meant we were to follow Sam, again, to the new location where our practical sessions would be held. Unfortunately, this time we had no clue where we were going, and so were required to follow Sam, but if I had had the choice I would have been far ahead. He was so ridiculously soppy and Victoria equally so, that I took to facing my friends completely as we walked so as to avoid the horrible sights that were unfolding subtly in front of us. It was less than two minutes before we reached the place, but even so, it was almost unbearable.
The place Sam left us was a large, white, high-ceilinged room with wooden benches fixed to the floor. Two stools sat at each, and Katie and I sat at one, with Pru and Olivia at the one in front of us. Victoria, Matilda and Charity dragged a stool over to another bench so as to be together. I rolled my eyes. How pathetic.
Once everyone was seated, a stern-looking woman emerged from a door at the far-right of the front wall of the room. She looked relatively nice, but I could tell she would be strict when needed. I was pleased - this type of teacher was very good, in my experience, which, admittedly, was far from extensive. She was wearing a long white coat, and a black, practical skirt. Her hair was brown, but grey and silver streaked it, and it was pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She strode confidently into the room, and waited at the front for quiet to fall. Once it had, she introduced herself.
“My name is Miss Reading. I will be your teacher of practical studies at this school. I hope you enjoyed your lunch?” We all murmured yes, and she nodded.
“Excellent. We shall start with the dissection of a pig’s stomach, then.”
The afternoon was interesting, with many students - particularly the paying ones, I might add - trying to resist the temptation to run out of the room screaming in disgust. Most of the girls with whom I associated - namely the non-paying ones - were mostly interested and immune to the sights which we uncovered. Miss Reading walked around the class, instructing and teaching as she did. I found it most educational and interesting - I had not known anything about the stomach before.
The lesson ran until three o’clock, whereupon which we had packed up the instruments and washed the benches. Sam collected us once again, and we followed him back. We had just come to the door of the house and everyone in front of us had gone in, when Sam drew to the back of the group, where I was. He glanced at me, before briefly pressing a note into my hand. I was about to exclaim and drop it when he made eye contact, and shook his head as I had done earlier. Something made me stop - whether it was habit or curiosity I had no idea - but I did, and tucked it under the cuff of my sleeve, walking into the house as if nothing had happened.
I walked up the stairs with Olivia and Katie, and we spent a while in Katie’s room discussing the events of the day. We complained about Victoria, Matilda and Charity, imitating what they had sounded like when they saw the stomach at the start of the lesson. It came time, though, when we moved back to our own rooms, and I remembered the note tucked up my sleeve. Curious, I drew the folded square of paper out and unfolded it, smoothing it on top of the dresser.
Such events have passed that we must converse. I shall see you outside the apple tree in the courtyard once it is one hour and a half past the time when everyone else has fallen asleep. If you are not sure, glance out of your window, and directly down. I will be there.
I read the note twice. Surely this meant sneaking out of the house at midnight, or some such outrageous hour. I discarded the note, intending to gain a full night’s sleep and not wait until midnight for the boy I used to be tormented by.
I went to tea with the rest of the house, and again Laura and the other staff were there, including Sam. I saw him glance questioningly in my direction, and so avoided his gaze for the rest of the meal. I managed also to escape without running into him, and went back to the social room with the rest of the non-paying girls. We congregated in the downstairs one, where the majority of the ‘commoners’ resided, and the ‘ladies’ went to the one upstairs. We chatted politely and subtly complained about our paying counterparts. It was a most enjoyable evening, and I even added to the collection of books I had upstairs.
At about 9 o’clock, we wandered back to our own rooms, and I undressed and washed in the bathroom while no one else was there. I decided to use the same dress the next day, as it was not dirty and did not smell. We had been given aprons at the practical, so our clothes were not covered in blood. I retired to bed with a book, and intended to read for an hour. This plan, however, was somewhat forgotten when I finished the book to find it was far past an hour and somewhere between the hours of eleven o’clock and midnight. I cursed under my breath when I closed the book, and immediately placed it on the ground next to the bed and slipped under the blankets. I could not sleep, though, remembering Sam who must be waiting outside. I imagined him standing there, hugging himself in his jacket, glancing up at my window and waiting as his breath rose in clouds. I sighed, cursing, and picked up the thin cardigan that lay on the chair, wrapping it around myself. I opened the door, slowly, and peered out into the corridor. There was no movement, and the silence reminded me of how improper this all was. If I was to be caught by someone just for doing this, my training here could very well be over. Nevertheless, I crept over to the staircase and began descending, remembering to skip the third stair after the landing just as I approached it. I heard no sign of the matron, either, and made it into the hallway unheard. I unbolted the door, pausing after each bolt slid from its latch, waiting for footsteps to sound in the hallway, but none came, and I opened the door and closed it again successfully. I looked over to the right, where I saw a figure next to a tree. I walked cautiously over to Sam, who was clothed in a jacket and trousers and did not seem to be at all cold.
“Lydia.” A quiet fell over the previously-silent courtyard. “What is it you would like to ask?” I whispered.
“Why - and how - are you here?” I sighed.
“Ah. Mostly luck and persistence, if I am honest.” He frowned. “But the minimum age is 25?” I sighed again.
“I had nowhere else to go. I applied, and when I was interviewed the lady knew my age and let me in anyway. If anyone was to find out, though...” I bit my lip simply thinking of the consequences. He nodded, considering this.
“And so why did you ask me to cover for you?”
“Cover for me? I said nothing of the sort.” I spat, outraged. “I shook my head, a slight sign which you could have interpreted in any way possible.”
“And I interpreted it as a request for help.” I shook my head, and turned away. “The only reason I am here is because I could not find refuge in sleep. It seems I made a mistake in coming down.” I began walking away, and Sam grabbed my arm. I froze, and remembered the night all those months ago when he had done the same.
“I thought I told you not to do that ever again.” I said coolly. He removed his hand.
“I know, but why are you so disgusted by Victoria? I see when you look at her.” I sighed.
“I think she knows.”
“Knows that I am not yet 25. I have a suspicion she overheard the conversation I had with Mrs Dale, the woman who let me in despite my age.”
“How do you know?”
“I came out, and she was standing there, and said: ‘This is a very thin door, don’t you think?’ or some such comment.”
“But why would she be so intent on you?”
“Her motive I have no idea of.”
“You haven’t met her before?”
“Well you were with me in Karori - she wasn’t there! And I have been in England no more than a month. I did see her once, though. My grandmother and I went to the post office on the strand to apply, and she was the attendant.”
“Oh, I see. But you had no contact with her?”
“No - well, we had second thoughts and went back to ask her not to put the application in, thinking she would do it, as one would. Apparently, though, she didn’t.” I looked at Sam. “You do not seem particularly upset?” He looked surprised.
“Well, as you seem to fancy her so much I should think you would be more defensive of her.” It was dark, but I could still see how uncomfortable he suddenly became.
“I- you see... Well, the truth is I do not really like her.” I could not understand him.
“You do not like her? Then why were you so ... intimate with her today?” He looked away.
“No reason. I thought I should get to know all the girls.” I shook my head, not believing a word.
“I do not have any interest in knowing what you get up to with Victoria, but-” I frowned. An idea flashed through my head, and I pulled it back into my mind by its tail, just grabbing it in time. Sam was looking at me expectantly
“Yes?” He said. I looked at him more intensely.
“You said you do not really like Victoria. Can you act reasonably well?” He looked rather confused, trying to connect these two thoughts.
“I-well, Lydia, what are you trying to say?” I shook my head, ready to explain, but I caught a glimpse of a candle’s light illuminating a room upstairs, and I froze.
“Up there.” I hissed at him. He turned and saw it.
“Same time on Friday night.” I nodded, and hurried off inside. I slipped through the door, and shot the bolts once more. I had no time to be cautious, but after the bolts were secure, I crept over to the foot of the stairs and began to ascend them. I skipped the third step from the landing, and continued on, the silence of the house filling my ears. As I reached the top of the stairs, the deafening silence was interrupted, a small creak piercing the cloud of quiet and it vanished. All that was left was a ringing, and I caught my breath. I heard nothing further, however, and I took another step toward my room. The door was unresisting, and I opened it without noise. I hurried into the room, and closed the door behind me. I shrugged off my cardigan, and draped it over the back of the chair where it had been previously. I slipped into bed for the second time that night. Turning over and facing the wall, I curled into a ball to get warm. I was tired, but from the rush of nearly being discovered I lay still, considering the wall for a while. Eventually, though, I must have fallen asleep, for I woke at the sound of the bell as it was ending.
I knew I must rise if I was to remain unscathed after Matron Phillips checked the attendance at the social room in a few minutes. I sat up and swung my legs down to the floor, pulling myself up and turning around to pull the blankets up until they were smooth, folding over the end to expose the white of the sheet underneath. I patted it down and plumped the pillow, then walked over to the dresser and drew out my dress and pinafore, slipping each over my head and placing the cap on my hair, which I pinned up into a simple, quick style. I exited the room and walked down the stairs into the social room, where Katie and Olivia already were. I joined them in the corner where they were sitting, and they looked slightly concerned as I approached.
“You look tired - did you sleep well last night?” I considered lying, but told them half the truth.
“I was reading, and one hour blended into another, and before I knew it everyone was asleep. I did get to sleep after that, though.” Each of the girls expressed their sympathies, and we retold stories of unintentional late nights until Matron nodded at us. This, we presumed, meant we could make our way to the dining hall. It seemed most staff did not have breakfast at the dining hall, which made sense, as most would most likely be at home, having returned to their houses after work had finished. I spotted Laura though and guessed that at least a few workers would have rooms at the hospital. Sam seemed also to be one such worker, and he sat with Jimmy, who had been accompanying him when I fell onto him. They were both laughing and watching Victoria, Matilda and Charity, who, now that they had seen there was another man to impress were batting their eyelashes furiously.
We finished breakfast, and now that we were familiar with the route to the classroom we made off at different times, but all at least within ten minutes of each other. We were the first ones to reach the classroom and we chose to sit at the front. I hoped the lesson would be more entertaining than yesterday’s, but I said nothing and assured Dr Jeffries I had gone over yesterday’s notes, which, of course - I had. Pru again sat near us, and as Dr Jeffries called everyone up on how much they had absorbed from yesterday’s lesson, I sat smugly, content in the knowledge I had consumed and remembered all the vital points made yesterday. There were various awkward silences when Dr Jeffries called upon some students, and they were lost for words, unsure of the answer. I listened, and even Victoria, who seemed the queen of being right was uncertain when she was asked. I smiled at the professor as I answered my question, and he beamed at me when I recited it. I heard dark mumbling from behind me, and once I had finished and the professor’s attention had been cast elsewhere, I turned and smiled sarcastically at the group of three who were glaring at me, then turned back and settled into my chair.
The lesson expanded slightly on yesterday’s, and I copied down the main points into my notebook, reminding Olivia and Katie of points they missed. The morning passed quickly, I thought, and we were heading for lunch much faster than it had seemed we had the day before. Lunch again was Shepherd’s pie with peas, and we made our way once again to the practical room, where we again donned aprons and explored the inside of a rat’s intestine.
We finished quickly, or so it seemed compared to yesterday, and we wandered back to the house where I decided it was time to enquire into my family’s wellbeing. I selected a few sheets of paper I had noticed in the social room, and sat down at my desk and began writing.
Tuesday, 25th July 1865
Dear Grandma, Grandpa and Eden,
How are you all doing? I am doing very well, here, and enjoying it most thoroughly. It is only the second day of lessons, but I can tell I will enjoy it here. I can hear you saying how right you were, Grandma! In the mornings, we start with lessons and lectures until noon, and then we have lunch, which, I might say, is very good. From a quarter to one until half past three, we do practical sessions, that have been most interesting, but quite stomach-churning. I have managed to keep down my lunch, though!
And what have you done in my absence? I often forget I have only been away for three days - it does feel like so much longer. Indeed, after all the new things I have done I feel quite changed!
Do tell me of what you have been reading, Eden! I would so like to know. And Grandma, is Mrs Saddler well? Grandpa, how is work treating you?
Well, do reply soon, I would like to hear from you. I have made friends - Olivia Munro and Katie Martin - but I do miss you, and would love to see you as soon as I can.
All the best,
Kenneth was now sober and horrified. He was breathing heavily, his eyes wide and bloodshot. Mrs Barrett was helping the captain to his feet, and as she did, he looked up. Kenneth expected to see rage and anger in his eyes, but instead he saw sympathy.
“Kenneth.” He said simply, walking over to him, his cheek all but forgotten.
“I know how hard it is. Stay here, with your wife. The doctor will remain, and Mrs Barrett, and Mrs Ward. I will be on deck if any of you need me.” This last sentence he announced to the room, and Mrs Barrett nodded.
“Of course, Captain. Your cheek is alright?” He nodded, and climbed back up the ladder, telling his men to prepare for a funeral.
Below decks, Kenneth stumbled over to the bed his wife was lying so weakly on. He knelt beside the bed and rested his head on the pillow next to hers. He began to sob, heartbroken as he was. Lydia, hearing her father, stood and walked over to him, kneeling beside him and resting her head on his shoulder. There they stayed, as Marie-Alice’s face grew slowly whiter.