Pamela had never been one for asking for help. She supposed at least some of it was the way she was raised. Her mother was a single Mum in times when that was even harder than it is now, and had got used to people telling her that she had made her bed and must lie on it and other such remarks. She was by no means an unkind woman, but Pam had grown up thinking and believing that in the end, you couldn’t rely on others and had to be able to sort your problems out and find a way forward, or at any rate, around, without expecting others to provide you with a helping hand or a safety net.
That philosophy hadn’t made Pamela uncaring. For decades she had been a nurse, and though she was of the brisk rather than the touchy-feely kind, hundreds of patients and their loved ones testified that she had been a godsend to them . Some of them had even used the term “angel” or “guardian angel”, but that irritated Pamela. She always insisted she saw it as a job to be done and done well, rather than some quasi-mythical calling.
She had prepared for her retirement. She was in no hurry to retire, but neither was she one of those people who thought there was anything especially praiseworthy about working until you were in your nineties and ending up more of a hindrance than a help. Anyway, she had no choice. Her local health authority enforced the retiring age, and that was that. She enlisted for courses with the University of the Third Age and finally got round to sprucing up her house a bit, though she had no intention of slavishly following those magazine articles where everyone ended up living surrounded by beige or magnolia walls and had to sacrifice at least 90% of their books and ornaments. She took more holidays, but had never felt much inclination to go on a world cruise or the like.
She would still preferred to have been on the wards, being useful. Pamela didn’t glorify the mystique of the matron – in her early nursing days she had worked under excellent ones, but also under control freaks who made the whole ward fall under a shadow when they entered. But she did firmly believe that no matter how senior you got, the place for a nurse was with their patients and not in an office. But she couldn’t, not any more, and that was that.
She didn’t fall into the stereotype of medical practitioners ignoring their own health, but nor was she obsessed with it. She would have acted on actual symptoms that she recognised better than most, but her appendicitis seemed to come out of nowhere – the kind of nebulous terminology that made her impatient when others used us. She had no “grumbling appendix” and no bouts or nausea or stomach cramps. One minute she was absolutely fine, watering her plants and thinking about what she was going to write in that assignment for the University of the Third Age, and the next she was bent double with agonising pains coursing through her stomach. She diagnosed herself, and managed to make a phone-call, keeping remarkably calm and working on auto-pilot.
She awoke to her old colleague Dr Brierley – (whom she remembered as a medical student and still called Tony when they were in private) sitting by her and saying, “You really can’t keep away from the place, can you, Pamela?”
He had spoken lightly, but she knew him well enough – and knew enough about medicine – to know that it had been pretty serious. “If that were all, I’d just put in extra hours in the volunteers’ shop in Outpatients,” she said, summoning up a shadow of her old crispness. “How about you tell me the truth, Tony?”
“Fair enough. It was – well, touch and go, Pamela. It ruptured, and we were worried about peritonitis. You’ve been very ill. You’re out of all danger now, but I’m afraid it will be a while before you’re anything like your old self.”
Her first inclination was to snort and say something along the lines of “You’ll see! I’ve no intention of being an invalid!” But both her medical knowledge and her own body told her that he was telling the truth. She felt as if all the strength had been siphoned out of her. Acute appendicitis was never to be taken lightly and – though she hated admitting it, much as she always claimed that she wasn’t going to be silly about age – in an older person, that applied even more so. You could be as feisty and determined as you chose, but if your body thought otherwise then your body tended to win.
“I want to discharge you as soon as possible, Pam,” he said, “I’m not sure if it’s always true that doctors and nurses make the worst patients, but we certainly don’t make the best ones, and it would be the best place for you to convalesce, though you need someone to keep an eye on you and help out. You do realise that you have to take things easily for several weeks!”
Pamela was on the point of saying “I don’t do taking things easily!” but realised that in the first place that might make him less likely to discharge her, and in the second place, and oh, how that annoyed her, it was undeniably true.
“I’ll see what I can do about getting someone to help you out,” he said.
She submitted though to do so meekly went entirely against her nature. The same day he said that it was positively fortuitous (why did people use words like fortuitous when they knew you were not happy with a situation nor likely to be) that a young woman called Jodie, who lived on the same street, would be more than willing to pop in and help.
Pamela liked to think she had no prejudices, but still tended to believe that the only place any sensible person had pierced was the ear. Jodie had a chin piercing and also a tattoo (not just a discreet little heart, but a full-flung dragon) on her left arm. She also greeted her with “Hi there, Pam!” Pamela had no objections to being addressed by her first name, and would probably have invited her to do so, but that wasn’t the point. “I prefer Pamela, if you don’t mind,” she said, frostily. She supposed that “I prefer Miss Halliday” would have been going too far, and was not even necessarily true, but she had to establish her authority.
“Fair enough, Pam!”
Pamela gritted her teeth and tried to tell herself the girl wasn’t doing it on purpose. The simple truth was that she resented having this tattooed and pierced stranger in her house and doing things she ached to be able to do for herself. At times she told herself, this is my house and I can just tell her to sling her hook if I want to. The trouble was, she still felt so damned weak and Jodie was, at least (and in her heart of hearts, for a nurse of many years service like Pamela that would never be at least) surprisingly efficient. If she cleaned something, it was clean. If she was asked to do something, she did so effectively and willingly and often didn’t even need to be asked. But there was that annoying way she “upspoke” the end of every sentence, as if asking a question, and her incessant humming of things that would have been irritating enough on the radio but were even more so when done by an amateur. Pamela’s patience had its limits. When Jodie, for the fourth time that visit, was “treating” her to It’s Raining Men, she snapped and exclaimed, “For pity’s sake, stop it!”
“Stop what, Pam?” she asked, seeming genuinely puzzled.
“I swear you don’t even know you’re doing it! But that doesn’t stop it grating on my nerves. The singing, for want of a better word!”
“Oh – sorry! It just helps me keep my spirits up.”
“Is nannying me really so onerous? Well I can tell you I’m not so keen on it either, and the sooner I feel stronger, the better I’ll be pleased!”
“But – but I like doing it, Pam!” she exclaimed. Pamela realised, as much by the movement of the chin stud as anything else, that Jodie was fighting back her tears. Like her mother, Pamela was not unkind. She never knew quite how to behave around people who were weeping and wailing (though the relatives of people who had passed away often said that Nurse Halliwell had been wonderfully compassionate in her quiet way) but nor did she like to think she was the cause of it. “Now don’t take on,” she said. “I may have spoken out of turn ….”
“No – it is an annoying habit I have. My own Mum used to tell me off about it.”
Pamela noticed her use of the past tense. The girl must have lost her mother when she was very young. That was a shame, and no denying it.
“But I was so chuffed when Dr Brierley told me about this!” Pamela didn’t say, “Carry on,” or “Why” – it was up to Jodie if she chose to tell her more or not. But she hoped her expression indicated that she was certainly open to listening if Jodie did want to tell her.
“I always wanted to be a nurse,” she said, “I was about to start training when Mum was killed,” Still with a keen ear for language, Pamela realised she had said “was killed” and not “died” but again, thought she would tell her if and when she was ready. “But – I had two younger brothers, both basically children still, and Dad was – he took it very hard.” She had half-wanted to say that he wasn’t much use, thought Pamela, admiring her tact and loyalty. “He lost his job – he just couldn’t cope – and even with the bursary, I couldn’t really afford to do the training. I got a job at Maple Lodge Care Home, but you know yourself it closed last year and the residents were moved to a home from the same group in Haythorpe. They had to let some of the staff go, and I was one of the last in, so to speak. Now I’m on benefits, though I’m allowed to work a few hours a week. Dr Brierley knows our family GP – they were at medical school together – and when he told me about helping you out, I could have jumped for joy! It’s – not quite the same as nursing. Don’t think I don’t know that! But it makes me look forward to getting up in the morning and being useful. Of course I want you to get better, Pam – I hope I’m not mean! But this has been a chance I didn’t think I’d have. To be honest I was half-thinking about giving up the nursing dream, but – I guess I knew I couldn’t.”
For all her singing and her informal ways, Jodie wasn’t, Pamela realised, one to wear her heart on her sleeve, and it meant something that she had confided in her like that. The two women looked at each other, and Pamela really saw Jodie, didn’t just see the stud and the tattoo. She took her hand, at first tentatively, and then with real warmth. And she didn’t go in for flowery speeches and extravagant praise, though she supposed the latter would have been justified. She said something that mattered far more to Jodie. “I pride myself that nursing is one thing I do know a great deal about. And I can tell you this, Jodie, and will tell anyone who asks, or even anyone who doesn’t. You will make a very fine nurse.”
A couple of months later, when Pamela’s health was fully restored, she and Jodie went out for a coffee together. Though she no longer needed Jodie’s help, they had remained friends – and their friendship had deepened. Jodie was starting her training at the same hospital where Pamela had worked that autumn. “You know, Pam,” she said, between bites of the excellent lemon drizzle cake in Clara’s Café, “You’ve given me lots of good advice but there was just one word that made me believe in myself and go through with this, even though I know it won’t always be easy. You didn’t say would. You said will!”