In white, like a ghost, I swept along the corridor behind Dr Barr. His shoes kept a clipped rhythm on the stone floor of Block E. I was aware of the bustling and rustling of the wardresses following me. It felt as if their glittering eyes were burning into the back of my skull, wondering who this young thing was.
“Come along, Nurse Hurst, keep up,” Dr Barr called. My chest clenched as he looked back at me with a smile. I knew I ought not think of him as anything but Dr Barr, but he was awfully handsome with his dark moustache … Still, I would remain professional.
“Mrs Beeston,” he continued, “which is the first inmate we are paying a visit to?”
The chief wardress rushed forward, pushing past me. “Oh, Dr Barr, it’s 27 first off,” she piped in a fluster. Until then, I had only seen her square face dour and serious, but now she blushed and fluttered after the doctor like the girl she had once been.
I cringed at how I too had fawned after him, in my mind, at least, and straightened my stiff-starched pinafore. It was comforting and clean, controlled and crisp – all the things I would try to be as a good nurse.
Our flock of striding doctor, crisp me and fluttering wardresses turned a corner, finally coming to the first of the cells. From behind each set of bars, a face stared out, pallid and tired, all watching in silence. They wore green serge dresses proclaiming their status as Second Division inmates, marking these women as separate from the criminal classes in other blocks. I wasn’t quite sure what these women had done, but I had been led to believe that they were, for the most part, quite well-mannered, except for a sorry few, who had decided to reject the gaol’s hospitality.
“Ah, here we are,” Dr Barr clapped his hands together once, in a decisive matter, as if winning an argument with an old friend. “Good morning, 27,” he rapped his knuckles on the dark iron bars of the cell.
I peered over his shoulder at a room of approximately nine feet high, measuring ten feet in length and six in width. It was quite austere, with a bare electric light fitting hanging from the ceiling and an unmade bed covered in a bundle of rags. A small table on the other side of the room was neatly arranged with a few books, a wash bowl and a ball of knitting.
“Come along, 27,” the chief wardress pressed forward again, pulling out a grating rack of keys. With much rattling, she opened the cell door and we filed in. “Don’t you ignore the good doctor, he’s come to help you,” she went on.
I looked around the room in some confusion, attempting to spot the inmate she was addressing. I couldn’t see a sign of a soul until – oh – until I returned my gaze to the funny little bed. What I had taken to be rolled up bedclothes was, in fact, a woman. She sat up now, slowly, a frail creature with severely short hair parted in an old-fashioned style.
“Now that’s a much better show, old thing,” smiled Dr Barr.
The woman looked at him without saying a word, while her eyes showed not anger or repentance or fear, but disdain. I thought that a curious thing – here he was, a doctor come to keep her alive, and yet she looked upon him with such a sentiment, as if she would want him gone again from her sight. In truth, he had not been entirely gracious in his greeting, but his one comment could not cause such an affront, surely? I frowned and adjusted the bow tied around my throat: comforting, clean, controlled, crisp.
The occupant of cell number 27 was around the age of my own mother, 40, but her face looked hollow and her eyes seemed small, circled darkly.
“What sickness does she have?” I murmured to one of the younger wardresses; she had seemed the most friendly of the lot.
“Only hysteria,” she shrugged, placing a white pint jug on the desk.
“one of those who won’t eat ‘til she’s let out or something of the like.”
“No, Maud,” an older, taller wardress spoke up, “she’s a suffragist. Wants the vote for women, see, so she goes around throwing stones at windows. She’s been here four days now and still refuses to eat.”
“That’s what we’re here for,” nodded Maud. I wondered how she could seem so ill and frail if she had only been without food for four days, but my thoughts were soon interrupted.
“Shall we begin, ladies?” the doctor motioned to us. I had the terrible feeling that he had heard us whispering and that I would be in trouble, or at the least have a black mark by my name for being impertinent on the first day. But there it was, a smile, and he didn’t look in the slightest bit cross. “Nurse Hurst,” he motioned, “if you would be so kind as to join me at the head. Ladies,” he nodded to the four wardresses, who gathered around the bed at his signal.
I stood by the doctor, smelling soap and disinfectant and the leather of his case. The inmate looked at us each in turn and sighed as if resigned or too tired to speak or act to stop what she knew was to come.
As one, the wardresses descended upon her, seizing limbs and pinning her down. There was no struggle, just wide eyes looking up at Dr Barr and at me.
“Now, nurse, as this woman refuses to eat, we are being forced to help her help herself,” he sounded as if he was teaching a grammar class; so matter-of-fact. Opening his case, he drew out a tube two yards in length and fixed a funnel to one end.
The chief wardress was squeezing the woman’s cheeks and trying to pry her mouth open. “She’s not cooperating, doctor,” she shook her head as if at a misbehaving child.
“Oh come now, 27, you can’t be playing this game again,” he went back to the case, this time retrieving a large steel implement that I recognised from my studies. “Nurse, hold her.”
I obeyed, trying to be gentle as I held her head. She screwed her eyes shut and clenched her mouth, while the wardresses grunted as she fought.
Dr Barr was cunning and strong, however. He pinched her nose and when she gulped for breath, he forced the steel gag into her mouth, pushing hard. I felt the screeching scrape of metal against tooth and there was an appalling pop as her jaw was forced open to an unnatural angle.
I closed my eyes and realised there were screams; for a moment I feared they were mine. When I looked again, the woman’s mouth had gone from tightly sealed to a mess of torn, bleeding gums. I swallowed down the thoughts that bubbled to the surface. Comforting, clean, controlled, crisp.
Dr Barr began to put the tube into her mouth. I wondered if I should say something – or rather I knew that I ought not to, but felt that I had to. “Doctor, are we not going to check the patient’s pulse?” Every pair of eyes in the room snapped up to mine. The wardresses almost lost their grip on the woman. “It is just that I was taught –”
“You were taught – you were taught? I don’t give a damn what you were taught, nurse, I do not expect to be questioned by my subordinate, by an inferior.” His face turned red and blotchy and his eyes bulged as he glared at me.
“I – please, doctor – I apologise,” I piped, my throat feeling tight. “I was just concerned in case she had a heart complaint and I thought –”
“It’s a nurse’s job to keep her thoughts to herself,” he bellowed before moderating his tone, “consider that your lesson for today.”
Now it was I who kept my mouth clamped shut. I simply nodded, not daring to speak.
“Right,” he took a moment to catch his breath, “now we insert the feeding tube.” The thick rubber pipe pushed down to the back of the woman’s throat, which spasmed at the invasion. “Hold her still, it will pass shortly.” I felt her flinching and trying to pull away, but the doctor nodded at the wardresses and two knees wedged either side of her head. The end of the pipe disappeared; I could still see contractions trying to force it out, but Dr Barr pushed and pushed.
There was a faint gurgling of blood and spit and attempted screams and choking and the tube nearly came out, but a wardress fastened a hand around the patient’s throat and squeezed.
Her tears streamed onto my hands as I held on, frozen in horror at what I was doing, what I was part of. Was a nurse not meant to cure and heal? Blood spattered onto my hand. My mind reeled. She managed to free one hand and clutch feebly at her breast with terrible moans.
The doctor stood on the edge of the bed to hold the other end of the tube high and started pouring the contents of the jug down the funnel. It was a thick pale yellow liquid – a mixture of milk and eggs, I guessed. The wardresses watched as the woman’s eyes fluttered; their eyes seemed blank to the steel holding her mouth painfully wide, the tube inserted, spewing liquid inside her.
When Dr Barr seemed satisfied and his jug was empty, he smiled as if victorious and leapt down next to me and ripped the tube out of the woman’s throat. “There, 27, not so bad now, was it?” He patted her cheek as the pipe finally withdrew. She coughed and spluttered and the milky liquid, tinged pink with blood, disgorged, covering her face and Dr Barr’s white smock. I gasped and quickly removed the gag, fearing she might choke on her vomit, and, more especially, wanting to end the molestation of this woman’s body. With care, I wiped her face with my handkerchief.
The prisoner’s eyes rolled, she seemed near senseless to her surroundings and the wardresses climbed off her, dusting down their pinafores and nodding at a job well done.
© Clare S 2008