by Saffron Marchant
THE YEAR IS 1965. Early morning. At a table in a restaurant in a
hospital, on the wintry outskirts of London, a young woman sits
with a pen in her hand. She stares absently at a coronation
portrait of Queen Elizabeth II that hangs upon the wall. A radio
behind the food counter plays the new Rolling Stones song,
‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’ The air is heavy with the smoke
from cigarettes and the smell of fried bacon, undercut with
antiseptic. The seated woman is my mother, Gretta Cummins, or
how I imagine my mother was, back when she was a student
nurse aged twenty-one.
It is the pocket of time before the start of Mum’s shift on the
Accident and Emergency Ward, or Casualty, as it was known back
then. She’s swigging tea and writing a letter to her own mother at
home in Ireland. Mum’s red hair, clipped close to her skull but still
unruly, curls out from beneath her stiff white cap. Her uniform is
the purple striped dress of the not-yet qualified, a starched white
apron, starched white cuffs, waist nipped in by a purple nylon
belt. I can see Mum so clearly in my mind’s eye, that I can watch
her pale, freckled hand as it moves across the page. The
Supervising Sister likes us starched to within an inch of our lives,
my mother writes. Every time she’s lost for a word, Mum stares up
at the Queen, who’s all crown and ermine, with a scepter that
could take your eye out. My mother pats the bare nape of her
neck. She can’t help but notice that she has the same hairstyle as
this monarch, and she’s not sure how she feels about that, so she
returns to her letter. I won a nursing award, Mam, she writes.
The Rolling Stones continue to wail on the radio, the voices tinny,
the drums small. Mum puts down her pen and sighs. She’s got the
song stuck now, it’s trapped in her head like a bird in a chimney;
she will hum it all day.
Mum doesn’t know this yet, for how could she, but today is an
important one, perhaps the most significant of her life so far. She
expects the day ahead of her to be an ordinary one of broken
bones and burns and blood. Temperature, pulse and blood
pressure. The swoosh-swoosh-swoosh of cubicle curtains pulled
back and forth, the busy squeak of shoes upon the linoleum floor,
the groans and the cries of the patients. A day of bandaging and
stitching and injecting, of catheters and bed-pans and more pulse-
taking. Monitoring, watching, observing and reassuring: There,
there, my dear. Rows of watchful wounded on the plastic seats in
the waiting room. Ambulance men pushing gurneys as they shout
out the stories: Fell off a roof or Hit by a bus or Just didn’t wake
up this morning. The matters of blood: taking, stemming,
A day spent listening to hearts.
But today, there will be all of this and more.
Today is the day when my mother meets my father for the first
Here’s my dad, Johnny Street, in 1965. London-born, aged thirty-
one, with a shock of dark hair, blue eyes, horn-rimmed glasses,
six feet tall. I imagine him standing beside a large wooden bench,
in the back room of a shop, a few miles from my mum’s hospital.
He’s rolled out a sheet of material across this new cutting table.
A child in the War and a National Serviceman as a teenager, my
dad grew up with the Blitz and the army in his voice and his
memories— Doodlebugs and air raid sirens and blown-to-
smithereens—East London’s in his vowels and his glottal stops—
gawdin-bennet and oh-my-giddy-aunt and you-got-to-be-‘avin’-a-
laugh. But now look at my father. He’s packed in his job as a
sausage salesman, sold his car, rented a shop. He wants to be a
self-made man. The sky’s the limit, announces my father to the
empty room. The radio introduces a new song by the Rolling
Stones. I can’t get no what? Johnny asks the dust motes and
rolls of material. Bloody hell, Johnny, concentrate, he admonishes
himself. Dad stares across the cutting table again.
In the future, whenever they hear ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,’
my parents will barrel back through time, to when she was a
student-nurse and he’d just set up shop as a cushion-maker.
Throughout the 1980s, if they are in their car when the opening
guitar riff comes on the radio, they will both reach for the volume
knob and blast their three children on the back seat with sound.
Their eldest child—me—a teenager with a terrible perm, will roll
her eyes. My younger sister and baby brother will bounce around
the back seat, my parents will rhythmically nod their heads. I will
stare stoically out of the car window and sing my own version of
the song ‘(My Family Is) So Embarrassing.’
But that family in that car is years away. Right now, my mum
hasn’t even met my dad. Right now, it is just before nine o’clock
in the morning, a day in 1965. Here’s my mother, in the staff
restaurant of Oldchurch Hospital, a few minutes before the start
of her shift. A cup of tea is cooling on the table in front of her,
the Queen in her furs and glitter is upon the wall. When Mum first
arrived in England, she was half-demented with homesickness.
She’d had no choice but to leave home; everyone was going—
America, Australia, Argentina—there were no jobs in Ireland—
South Africa, New Zealand, Hong Kong. Mum had chosen a
teaching hospital in London, but the city was so concrete and
grey, the people unfriendly. Gretta found that she yearned for her
hometown and the sight of the sea, that distant blue strip of the
Atlantic. She pined for her mother, sent home a tumble of letters.
It’s grand here, she wrote, even when it wasn’t. She remembered
how the tea in the hospital restaurant tasted different, that she’d
sworn she would never get used to the taste of milk from a tin.
She was a farmer’s daughter, only ever had milk from the cow.
Gretta thinks that when she first started studying to be a nurse,
back in 1963, she was in the before of her life. Before she could
stitch or suture. Before she’d seen a dead body, let alone dressed
one. Before she’d known the balm of the newborns on the
Obstetrics Ward, that when you sit in the nursery and bottle-feed
a baby, your own troubles get smaller.
She’d cut off her waist length hair and wore one of her two new
jumpers on the boat across the Irish Sea from Rosslare in Ireland
to Fishguard in Wales. The jumper was awful itchy, tight as a
ligature around her neck. She vomited throughout the night,
leaning out of her bottom bunk with her head over a bucket
provided for this purpose, as the gunmetal sea heaved against
the porthole. Mum can see herself, with all the other student
nurses, a mere two years ago, on the first day in the hospital.
They were all sent by the Supervising Sister, to take a tea-break
in this restaurant. She remembers sitting at this very table and
listening to the other girls, their first day nerves, their high voices
spilling over and into each other, each one of them pink of cheek
and damp of armpit, the Hospital being so deadly hot. They all
doggedly ignored one of the other girls at the table, who was
sobbing enough to produce great strings of snot.
Where d’ye come from? Where ya from?
Hey, I’ve got an aunt in Kilkenny, my pop’s side.
Gretta kept forgetting that she’d cut off her hair. Sligo. Galway.
Derry. She kept reaching behind her for the thick rope of her braid.
When she couldn’t find her hair, Mum had remembered that she’d
left her mother and that old song was caught in her head: Oh
Danny Boy, the pipes the pipes are calling. It was her mother’s
voice she could hear, with its slight falsetto shake in the higher
notes. The summer’s gone and all the flowers are dying.
Kinsale, Gretta said when it was her turn to speak, and the
singing inside her had stopped abruptly. County Cork, she added,
sounding much stronger than she felt.
Johnny Street has rolled up his shirtsleeves and pushed his horn-
rimmed spectacles back up the bridge of his nose. Out comes his
tongue, a pulsing pink triangle on his upper lip, as Dad,
concentrating hard, leans across his new cloth-cutting table and
aligns his new cloth-cutting machine with some brand new bry-
Dad does not notice the proximity of the sharp blade with the top
of his left leg. He pokes out his tongue still further, it’s an arrow
of flesh now, as he pushes a button on the cutting machine. A
whirring pulse reverberates up through his left palm that is
flattened against the table. The blade slices cleanly through the
cloth. Dad gives a little aha of triumph. He changes angle, moves
the machine. An obstacle. He pushes the machine harder. The
obstacle gives way.
Oh, my giddy aunt! shouts my father. Blood seeps out of his
trousers, into the bry-nylon spread across the cutting table.
My mother, still sitting beneath the Queen, shakes her head to
free herself from her memories. She reads the last sentence she
has written: I won a nursing award, Mam. Gretta knows it’s a sin
to show off, but she’s proud of this, has tacked the sash that
reads Nurse of the Year, 1965, to the wall above her bed, beside
the crucifix. When she’d first arrived at the nurses’ quarters, how
she had marveled at that single bed, all to herself. The sink, the
wardrobe, the hanging hook on the back of her own front door.
She’d left behind in Ballinspittle that family bed of knees and feet
and elbows, herself and three, four sometimes five others, piled
into one mattress, the older ones whispering in the dark about
hobgoblins and banshees, the younger ones yelling at them to
She writes God Bless and folds the letter into quarters, slides it
into the airmail envelope, licks the gummed fold. The arms of the
rotary clock move; the ever-present Queen stares towards the
back of the food counter. My mother unpicks the starched cuffs.
Sister O’Brien doesn’t like them to wear the cuffs when they are
working, so Mum will pop them into her locker on the way to the
Accident Ward. The letter she will drop into the post box. She
stands up, gives a little head nod to the Queen.
I imagine my dad, on that everyday morning, so ordinary except
for his blood-loss, sitting in Oldchurch Hospital’s Casualty Ward,
lost in self-criticism and doubt. What sort of idiot slices himself in
the leg with his own cloth-cutting machine? All those hours he’s
spent learning, learning, learning. Over-lock, cross-stitch, hem,
fold. Maybe I should go back to Mattessons. But if he does that,
Dad realizes as soon as the thought hits him, if he goes back to
selling sausages, then he’ll have to start calling other men, sir,
again, just like in the army. And Johnny Street never wants to let
another man dictate his fate—
You wanna make sure you get into cubicle 3, son. The nurse in
there’s a sparkler. The old man on the chair next to Dad’s has an
eye patch adhered over his right eye with a decisive plaster cross.
The uncovered eye, working hard to compensate, whirls in its
Dad says, Nice-looking dolly-bird, is she?
Gorgeous Irish redhead, the man says with a chuckle that
precipitates a hacking, smoker’s cough and a gob of mucus into a
grimy handkerchief. She’s my favorite out of all the girls in here.
The curtains to two cubicles open at the same time. Two nurses
appear, one young, one old.
John Street? The softness of the Irish brogue reminds my dad of
velvet, and the fluff that you stuff into cushions. He stands up as
his mouth stretches into his cross-bow smile. He barely hears the
old man whisper, You lucky git! Look at the battle axe I’ve got!
Alfred! shouts the other nurse peering over the dipped heads in
the waiting room. What you doing back here, already? She shakes
her clipboard at the old man. There ain’t nothing wrong with you.
You’re a malingerer, that’s what.
The younger nurse says, in a louder voice, less soft, John Street?
Johnny’s feet squeak on the linoleum as he walks across the
ward. I’m smiling like I’m a simple fella, he thinks as he stops in
front of her. Red hair curls out from beneath her nurse’s cap.
That’s me, says Johnny. I’m Street.
The nurse raises her eyebrows, delicate, pointed little things, like
the ruffle on a curtain pelmet. She holds back the curtain on her
cubicle. Inside. Let’s be seeing you. They are alone.
(And it starts here, amidst the kidney-shaped bedpans, the
syringes, the catheters, rolls of bandages and tubes of burns
ointment. If a life can be reduced to a list of the lives it
engenders: three children (spaced five years apart like Stalin’s
Plans), five pet rabbits, seven guinea pigs and twenty-eight
What have you done to yourself, Mr. Street?
I was cutting material with my cutting machine. My dad points at
his leg. His trousers are soaked with blood. I’ve set up a cushion
The eyebrows come down Mum’s forehead, the eyes settle
beneath them with a knowing glance. She says: I once knew of a
little girl whose father was a butcher and she put both hands into
his meat-mincing machine. Mum makes fists of her hands and
folds them towards her at the wrist. All she had left were stumps.
Beware the accident at work, Mr. Street. A person could die in
My father nods.
Now. Take off your trousers, please, but leave on your underpants.
And he did, as he has done ever since, precisely as she told him.
Saffron Marchant lives in Hong Kong with her family. She
studied English Literature at Oxford University and holds an MFA
with distinction from Hong Kong's City University. She won a Best
of the Net in 2015 and second and third prize in the Fish
Publishing Short Memoir Contests (2013 and 2015).