I risked putting my hand over my brother’s.
Tim let it rest there briefly. Then with his other hand he pulled open the drawer of the kitchen table, and retrieved two packages tied with coils of old ribbon.
I said, My birthday. It went right out of my mind.
My brother loved me. A tear dropped onto my skirt now.
Tim reached past me for the pencil and notebook. He wrote, Only 30!
I whooped with laughter and wiped my eyes. It’s not that, truly.
Instead of trying to explain, I unwrapped the first box. Four Belgian truffles.
Tim! Have you been hoarding these since the war broke out?
The second package was quite round; under its skins of tissue paper I found a fat shiny orange. All the way from Spain?
Tim shook his head.
I played the guessing game. Italy?
A satisfied nod.
I put the fruit to my nose and drew in the citrus tang. I thought of its arduous journey through the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar and up the North Atlantic to Ireland. Or overland through France—was that even possible anymore? I just hoped nobody had been killed, shipping this precious freight.
I tucked the orange and chocolates into my bag for a birthday lunch while Tim packed up his gardening tools to take to the allotment. In the lane, the slice of dark sky was streaked with pink. He got his motorcycle started on the third try. I’d bought it for him at a widow’s auction of an officer’s goods, though I’d never told him so in case the thought of riding a dead man’s machine bothered him.
I waved as my brother rumbled slowly away, then went to fetch my coat and cape. I lined up my hooks and eyes. Standing beside my bicycle, I drew up my skirts on their strings. It was mild for the first morning of November.
On the way to the hospital, I pedaled past the shackled gates of a school where a freshly painted notice said Closed for Foreseeable Future by Order of Board of Health. If slum children weren’t going to school these days, it struck me that they couldn’t be getting their free dinners there either.
Clouds hissed and billowed from the high windows of the shell factory, which meant the fumigators were steaming the workrooms; maybe they’d been toiling in their sulphurous fog all night. Outside, in a line that snaked from the door, munitions girls shifted from foot to foot as they chatted, hands pocketed against the dawn chill, impatient to get in and get at it.
I cycled faster. Thirty years old. Where would I be at thirty-five? If the war was over by then, what would have taken its place?
Back to this moment, what would be asked of me this morning? Delia Garrett, weeping into her sheets for her stillborn daughter. The gasping, husbandless, pregnant one, Honor White: let her lungs be winning the fight. Mary O’Rahilly: please, her travails over, and a baby in her arms.
I locked my bicycle in the alley.
Passing the shrine to the fallen soldiers, I noticed that a rebel had daubed NOT OUR WAR across the paving stone at its base. I wondered if he could possibly be the same yobbo who’d attacked Tim.
But wasn’t it the whole world’s war now, the rebel’s as much as my poor brother’s? Hadn’t we caught it from each other, as helpless against it as against other infections? No way to keep one’s distance; no island to hide on. Like the poor, maybe, the war would always be with us. Across the world, one lasting state of noise and terror under the bone man’s reign.
I joined a knot of people waiting at the stop, far enough apart to be out of coughing range, but not too far to reach the door of the tram when it drew up. A drunk sang, surprisingly tuneful, oblivious to the scowlers:
I don’t want to join the bloody army,
I don’t want to go to bloody war.
I’d rather stay at home,
Around the streets to roam,
Living on the earnings of a–
We all braced ourselves for the dirty rhyme.
… lady typist, he warbled.
The tram came and I managed to squeeze on.
From the lower level, I counted three ambulances and five hearses. Church bells rang ceaselessly. On a newspaper inches from me, I tried not to see a headline about a torpedoed liner: “Search Continues for Survivors.” Below, the words “Likelihood of Armistice” snagged me. Twice already, the papers had mistakenly declared the war over; I refused to pay any attention until I had proof it was true.
It was a relief to get down outside the hospital in the dawn light and breathe a little before I went through the gates. Nailed up under a streetlamp, a new notice, longer than usual:
THE PUBLIC IS URGED
TO STAY OUT OF PUBLIC PLACES
SUCH AS CAFES, THEATRES, CINEMAS, AND PUBS.
SEE ONLY THOSE PERSONS ONE NEEDS TO SEE.
REFRAIN FROM SHAKING HANDS,
LAUGHING OR CHATTING CLOSELY TOGETHER.
IF ONE MUST KISS, DO SO THROUGH A HANDKERCHIEF.
SPRINKLE SULPHUR IN THE SHOES.
IF IN DOUBT, DON’T STIR OUT.
In I went, in my sulphurless shoes, through the gates that said Vita gloriosa vita.
I wanted to go straight up to Maternity/Fever, but I made myself get some more breakfast first, in case today was even half as hectic as yesterday.
In the basement, I took my place in the queue. I had reservations about what they might be bulking out the sausages with these days, so I decided on porridge.
I listened in on speculations about the kaiser being on the verge of surrender; the imminence of peace. It occurred to me that in the case of this flu there could be no signing a pact with it; what we waged in hospitals was a war of attrition, a battle over each and every body.
A student doctor was telling a story about a man who’d presented himself at Admitting, convinced he had the flu because his throat was closing up. The chap turned out to be sound as a bell—it was just fright.
The others sniggered tiredly.
But wasn’t panic as real as any symptom? I thought about the unseen force blocking my brother’s throat; Tim hadn’t spoken a word since he’d been shipped home.
Our queue shuffled forward, past the latest sign, which said, in strident capitals, IF I FAIL HE DIES.
I ate my porridge standing up in the corner and couldn’t manage more than half the bowl.
No russet head when I hurried into Maternity/Fever; no Bridie Sweeney.
Indefatigable in pristine white, Sister Luke moved toward me, a broad ship. Good morning, Nurse.
I found I couldn’t bear to ask after Bridie, as if the night nurse were the young volunteer’s keeper.
On the stairs last night, though I’d been thinking about what Bridie had told me—how she’d grown up in a house of orphans, and couldn’t stand the nuns she now boarded with for want of anywhere else to go—I’d wasted time chattering about film stars. I realized she’d never actually said anything about coming back, had she? I’d jumped to conclusions simply because I wanted her help so much. It shook me to realize that I’d been counting on her being here today; she was what the poster called a person I needed to see.
Over on the right, Delia Garrett seemed to be asleep.
Mary O’Rahilly, in the middle, was a snail curved around her own bump. After Dr. Lynn had pierced the sac and let the girl’s waters out, it really wasn’t safe for delivery to be delayed too long, in case of infection. I murmured, Any progress there?
Sister Luke grimaced and adjusted the patch over the eye she’d lost at the front. Pangs every eight minutes. Stronger than before, but the doctors aren’t happy with the pace.
I doubted Mary O’Rahilly was, either. Her eyes were squeezed shut, her black hair limp with sweat; even her cough sounded weary.
It occurred to me that Bridie might in fact be here this morning, but in a different ward. The office would assign every volunteer to where she was most needed, of course.
Honor White was telling her beads with bloodless hands, mouthing the words.
That one makes a great show of piety, said the nun in my ear.
My temper flared. I answered, very low: I thought you’d approve of prayer, Sister.
Well, if it’s sincere. But a year of praying did nothing to reclaim her nibs.
I turned to stare. Mrs. White? I whispered. How can you possibly know that?
Sister Luke tapped her nose through the gauze mask. A sister at our convent serves at that mother-and-baby home, and I asked her all about Missus over there. Not six months after release, didn’t she show up in the exact same condition again? She’ll have to stay two years this time. Perhaps she’s incorrigible.
When I saw the red curls coming in the door, the relief staggered me. Morning, Bridie!
She pivoted toward me with her mile-wide smile.
But I shouldn’t have used her first name, not in front of Sister Luke. Bridie didn’t call me anything, I noticed—just bobbed her head.
Have you breakfasted?
She nodded appreciatively. Black pudding and lashings of sausages.
The nun said, Sweeney, sprinkle this floor with disinfectant, and rub it all over with a cloth tied around that broom.
The day shift was mine, so why was the nun giving orders? I pointedly waited for Sister Luke to leave.
She shed her apron and put on her cloak. Have you heard Mass yet, Nurse Power?
That confused me, because it wasn’t Sunday. Oh, for All Souls’, yes.
(God forgive me the lie; I couldn’t bear a scolding from her.)
All Saints’, you mean.
I could hear the pleasure Sister Luke took in correcting me.
On the first, she reminded the whole room, we celebrate the Church Triumphant in heaven, watching over us poor sinners on Earth. Whereas tomorrow, the Feast of All Souls, we honour the Church Penitent–the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
Could she really imagine I wanted a lecture on the finer points of the liturgical calendar? I got on with putting my coat and bag away and scrubbing my hands.
Bridie was cleaning the floor already.
Honor White let out a wet cough.
Sister Luke said, You could try a poultice on Mrs. White.
I reminded myself that the night nurse wasn’t in authority over me. Actually, Sister, in my experience poulticing isn’t much help in these chest cases.
Her visible eyebrow—the one not covered by the patch—disappeared into her coif. In my much longer experience, it will if you do it correctly.
I could tell by Bridie’s shoulder blades that she was attentive to every word of this.
So tempting to point out that much of Sister Luke’s experience, and all her training, was from the last century. Instead I said mildly, Well, as we’re so short-staffed, I believe I’ll use my good judgment.
A tiny sniff.
I told her, Sleep well.
The nun buttoned up her cloak as if she had no intention of doing anything so feeble.
Sweeney, don’t get under anyone’s feet today.
The minute Sister Luke had swept out, Bridie leaned on her mop and let out a snort. You told the old crow, all right. You told her something fierce.
But it would do this young woman no good if I stirred up trouble between her and the nun, given that they lived under the same roof. And besides, patients shouldn’t be made uneasy by dissent in the ranks. So I shook my head at Bridie. But I added, I’m glad you came back today.
A grin. Sure, why wouldn’t I?
I said, poker-faced, Oh, I don’t know. Hard work, stinks, and horrors?
The work’s even harder for us at the Motherhouse, and there’s all the praying on top.
Us, meaning you and the nuns?
Bridie corrected me: Us boarders, about twenty girls. Anyway, of course I came back. It’s all go, here! And a change is as good as a rest.
Her cheer was infectious. I remembered the cut she’d got from the broken thermometer yesterday. How’s your finger?
She held it up and said, Not a mark. That styptic pencil of yours is magic.
Actually, it’s science.
Delia Garrett was half-awake, struggling up in her cot. I checked that her stitches were healing nicely.
She was limp, monosyllabic.
Tell me, is your chest tender today?
A chest binder should help, Mrs. Garrett.
Somehow, flattening the breasts told them to give up making unwanted milk. I fetched a roll of clean bandage. Working blind under her nightdress, I wound the stuff four times around her. Tell me if that’s too tight or if it constricts your breathing at all.
She nodded, as if she barely cared. A hot whiskey?
She probably didn’t need it for her flu, but if I were her, I’d want to sleep these days away.
Honor White was propped up in the right position for a pneumonic, but her breathing was loud and her pallor was greenish. I checked her chart to make sure Sister Luke had remembered her strengthening pill. Sore stomach, beside it; iron so often had that effect. Pulse, respirations, temperature: no worse, but no better.
When I asked, Honor White was still obdurate on the subject of strong drink, so I gave her a low dose of aspirin to see if it might lower her fever, as well as a spoonful of ipecac for her cough. I undid the neck of her nightdress and applied a camphorated rub to her chest.
Incorrigible: the word stung me on her behalf. All Honor White had endured, and once she gave birth next month she’d be facing a further two-year stay at the mother-and-baby home. Could the law really allow the nuns to hold her against her will?
I rebuked myself—for all I knew this silent woman might be choosing to stay there, might have no other shelter.
Mary O’Rahilly was shifting around in the middle cot, so I turned to her and checked my notes. Seven minutes between contractions this time.
I waited till I could tell by her face that it was over, then asked, How are you doing, Mrs. O’Rahilly? Did you catch a few winks last night?
I suppose so.
Do you need the lavatory?
Sister Luke just took me. Will it be much longer, do you think?
Her voice was so softly desperate, I could barely catch the words.
All I could say was, Hopefully not.
(Trying to remember how long after the waters broke before the risk of infection skyrocketed: was it twenty-four hours? If a doctor didn’t come by soon, I’d send for one.)
Let’s get you a hot whiskey. And one for Mrs. Garrett. And a hot lemonade for Mrs. White.
Bridie was mixing up the drinks at the spirit lamp before I reached it. She brought the cups over and set them into each patient’s grasp.
Those graceful, swollen knuckles of hers; I wondered how much her chilblains were hurting. Don’t forget to put more of that lotion on, Bridie, every time you wash your hands.
May I really?
Bridie took down the jar now and rubbed a dab of balm into her reddened fingers. Then put them to her face. I adore this stuff.
That amused me. Eucalyptus? My tram reeks of it every morning. You know it’s a vapour given off by trees?
Bridie scoffed: No trees I’ve ever smelled.
Tall ones, with their bark peeling off, in the Blue Mountains of Australia. On warm days, I’ve heard, they give off a perfumed haze of the stuff, a blue sort of fog—that’s where the mountains get their name.
She murmured: Imagine!
Honor White had her head back and her eyes closed. Praying again? I wondered. Or just worn out by her clogged lungs?
Mary O’Rahilly let out a whimper.
I asked her, Where do you feel the pang most?
Her small hands clawed her back, her hips, her belly; everywhere.
Is it getting stronger?
She nodded, pressing her lips between her teeth.
I wondered if she had that craving to push yet, but I didn’t ask in case I put the idea in her head; she was the meek kind who’d tell one whatever she thought one wanted to hear. Up, dear. Let’s see if we can ease that a bit.
I got Mary O’Rahilly into a chair against the wall, and pushed just under her knees, shoving her legs back in their sockets.
Does that help?
I ... I think so.
I told Bridie to crouch down and fit her hands on the same spot at the top of Mary
O’Rahilly’s knees. Keep that pressure up. If you get tired, sit down on the floor and lean back on her.
Bridie assured me, I won’t get tired.
Honor White was whispering the rosary, gripping each bead the way a drowning woman might a life preserver.
I found myself saying, It just so happens it’s my birthday, ladies.
Bridie said, Many happy returns!
That was a man’s voice. I turned around to see Groyne’s head in the door.
He added, I suppose it’d be a shocking breach to ask which birthday?
I didn’t smile. Can I help you, Groyne?
The orderly pushed a metal crib into the ward on squealing wheels. Sister Luke said this might be wanted today for Mrs. O’Rahilly.
Delia Garrett made a small sound of pain, and turned her back.
Was it the same crib that had stood ready for her baby yesterday? But there was no way to spare her such sights.
Ignoring my question, then, Nurse Power? Groyne sniggered. That’s an answer in itself. I find girls are happy to give the figure, till they hit twenty-five.
I said, I’m thirty years old, and I don’t mind who knows it.
Ooh, a grown woman!
Groyne leaned one elbow on the doorframe, settling in. I suppose you’ll be picking our next members of Parliament and all that. If you’re a female householder, that is, he added mockingly, or an occupier of a premises rated at five pounds?
My name had been down as the householder ever since Tim had enlisted, but I had no intention of discussing my domestic arrangements with this fellow.
Bridie asked: Aren’t you in favour of votes for women, Mr. Groyne?
He let out a scornful plume of air.
I couldn’t make myself stay out of it. I asked, Haven’t we proved our worth to your satisfaction yet?
The orderly grimaced. Well, you don’t serve, do you?
I was taken aback. In the war? Many of us most certainly are serving, as nurses and drivers and—
The orderly waved that away. Don’t pay the blood tax, though, do you? Not like we fellows do. Ought you really get a say in the affairs of the United Kingdom unless you’re prepared to lay down your lives for the King?
I saw red then. Look around you, Mr. Groyne. This is where every nation draws its first breath. Women have been paying the blood tax since time began.
He snickered on his way out.
Bridie was watching me with a one-sided grin.
Mary O’Rahilly moaned quietly.
Unprompted, Bridie pushed on her shins.
When that contraction was over I said, Only five minutes between them now.
Faintly: Is that good?
Very good, Mrs. O’Rahilly.
Over her shoulder, Delia Garrett was watching Mary O’Rahilly with resentful, drunken eyes.
That crib: I didn’t want to set it at the end of the girl’s cot, in case it would make her feel hustled. But over by the sink, it would only get in our way. Besides, it might keep her spirits up by reminding her what all this pain was in aid of. So I trundled it to the end of the middle cot, close to Mary O’Rahilly’s feet. Just getting everything ready, dear.
Her eyes closed and she let out a groan as her head tipped back.
I went over to the supply cupboard, to lay out everything that might be required for a delivery. Bridie was already boiling gloves and instruments in a bag. You never seem to need telling, Bridie.
She liked hearing that.
So when’s your birthday?
Haven’t got one.
I waved that off: Everyone has a birthday.
Well, I suppose it’s a secret.
I said a little huffily, Don’t tell me if you prefer not—
Bridie spoke in a low voice. I mean that no one ever told me.
Just then Honor White coughed so hard, I went over to check the sputum cup, to be sure she hadn’t brought up a piece of lung. I reapplied the camphor rub to her chest.
Then Mary O’Rahilly asked if she might lie down for a while, so I got her into bed, on her left.
When I next had a chance for a word with Bridie, by the sink, I murmured, Didn’t you ever know your people?
Not that I remember.
Are they still alive?
She shrugged in her oddly playful way. They were when I was given over to the home, or taken. They weren’t able, that’s what the nuns said.
What age were you?
Don’t know. From then till four, I was a nurse-child.
My face must have shown I didn’t know the term.
Bridie specified: Boarded out. With a foster mother, see? If I got to four with the use of all my limbs, she must have minded me well enough.
Her rational tone made me feel sick for her, or rather, for the tiny, bewildered girl she’d been.
She went on: Maybe it was her called me Bridie, for Saint Bridget? I’d had another name before. They wouldn’t tell me what it was except that it wasn’t a saint’s.
I was trying to follow this bleak narrative. You mean the nuns?
And the teachers and the minders, at the home. It was called an industrial school, though it wasn’t really any kind of school, Bridie said with scorn. Two nuns were the managers, but they went back to the convent every night and left a couple of lay staff in charge.
I remembered my question about her birthday that had prompted all this. So none of these people ever told you what day you were born, Bridie?
Nor what year, even.
It hurt my throat to swallow. I said diffidently, Share my birthday if you like. Say yours is today too—it might very well be.
Bridie grinned. All right. Why not?
We worked on in silence, at the counter.
She said out of nowhere, You’re lucky your dadda kept you, after your mammy died.
I was taken aback. Why wouldn’t he have?
Well, these three sisters I knew—they were sent to the home because the parish priest wouldn’t let their widowed father have them living with him in the house. Said it wasn’t proper, given their age, she added sarcastically.
I didn’t get it. What, were they awfully young for a man to raise?
Bridie said, No, thirteen and fourteen, and the youngest only eleven.
I flushed as I understood. For a priest to make such a comment—somehow both prudish and filthy-minded ... Do you think they’d have been better off staying at home?
Her nod came fast and unequivocal. No matter what happened.
Surely she couldn’t mean even if their father did end up interfering with them? Bridie!
They’d have had each other, at least. At the home, they weren’t allowed to talk.
I was confused again; some kind of vow of silence? I said, The three girls?
Bridie explained: Talk to each other, I mean. They were told they weren’t sisters anymore.
The arbitrary cruelty of that shocked me.
She changed the subject. So you and your brother ...
I was only four, so I don’t know if anyone objected to Dadda rearing us on the farm, I told her. When I was seven and Tim was three, he married again, a woman with older children. But I was still Tim’s little mammy.
Then something occurred to me.
Though I suppose the shoe’s on the other foot now, since I’m out at work like a mister and Tim’s at home planning the dinner.
Bridie let out a laugh. Nice for you.
I thought of this morning’s poster: Refrain from laughing or chatting closely together. Oh, believe me, I’m grateful.
Nice for the both of you, I mean. Having and minding each other.
Delia Garrett asked, If you chums aren’t too busy, could I ever trouble you for another hot whiskey?
Of course, Mrs. Garrett.
Mary O’Rahilly was weeping silently, I noticed.
I fetched a cold cloth and wiped her face. Will we try you upright in the chair again, with the pressing on your hips?
But in swept Dr. Lynn, in the same collar and tie and skirt as yesterday. She said in greeting, Well, another day of battle, bless us all.
I hurried to collect the three patients’ charts, placing Mary O’Rahilly’s on top.
Delia Garrett cut in before I could say anything, her voice thunderous: I want to go home.
The doctor said, Of course you do, you poor creature. But the hard fact is, the week after delivery is actually more perilous to the health than the week before.
I thought of my mother, holding Tim for the first time. All the mothers on these wards I’d seen smiling over their newborns, before they got the shivers on the second day and died on the sixth.
The young woman pressed the heels of her hands to her puffy eyes. I didn’t even have a bloody baby.
Dr. Lynn nodded. Your daughter’s in God’s arms now, and we must make sure Mr.
Garrett and your little girls don’t lose you too.
Delia Garrett sniffed and subsided.
The doctor listened to Honor White’s chest next and ordered heroin syrup.
Breathlessly: I don’t take intoxicants.
My dear woman, it’s medicinal. We use it to calm a cough in bad bronchial cases.
I murmured, Mrs. White’s a Pioneer.
Dr. Lynn said, So’s my uncle, but he takes what he’s prescribed.
Honor White wheezed, No intoxicants.
A sharp sigh: Aspirin, again, then, Nurse Power, but no more than fifteen grains, and hot lemonade, I suppose.
Finally the doctor scrubbed and gloved up, and went to the middle cot to examine Mary O’Rahilly. I got the girl into position, on her side with her bottom over the edge.
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere!
Dr. Lynn stripped off her gloves.
I helped Mary O’Rahilly onto her back. She stared down at the thrusting prow of her belly.
The doctor told me, She’s reached the pushing stage, so she may have chloroform now that there’s no risk of it slowing things down.
Mary O’Rahilly shut her eyes and made a low hum of protest as the pain came back.
On her way out the doctor added, But do hold off near the end, won’t you?
I nodded; I knew the drug could get into the infant.
I took the chloroform down from the shelf, dripped a spoonful onto an inhaler’s little pad, and handed it to Mary O’Rahilly.
Breathe in some of this whenever you feel the need.
She drew hard on the inhaler.
I told her in a cheery voice, You’re open wide inside, at last.
On your side is best now, with your feet at the top of the bed so you can jam them against this pillow here.
I was moving bedding, tugging it out of the way.
Awkwardly Mary O’Rahilly reversed herself on the mattress.
I’m going to tie this long towel just by your head, so you can pull on it. Wait for the next pang, and be ready to push.
We waited. I had such long acquaintance with other women’s pain, I could almost smell it coming. I said, Look down at your chest, Mrs. O’Rahilly. You’re going to hold your breath and haul on the towel with all your might, like ringing a church bell. Here we go. Push!
She did, the weary girl; set her teeth and gave it a good go, considering that she’d never done it before in her life.
Afterward I said, That’s a start. Now rest for a minute.
She suddenly wailed, Mr. O’Rahilly won’t like me staying away all this time.
My eyes met Bridie’s across the bed and a bubble of laughter rose up in the back of my mouth at the incongruity of the remark. I swallowed it down.
Don’t worry about him, Mrs. O’Rahilly. How can you get his baby out any faster than it comes?
I know, but …
Bridie set her hands around the labouring woman’s, on the looped towel.
I said, Put all that out of your mind. You’ve nothing else to do today but this.
Sweat broke out on Mary O’Rahilly’s forehead and she lashed about in the sheets.
Here it comes. Push!
This story has been excerpted from Emma Donoghue’s forthcoming novel, The Pull of the Stars.