Shy, spotty, nineteen, and new; easy fodder for junior doctors who thought they knew everything; easy fodder for hospital porters who knew everything and everyone.
I patently didn’t, and so I was easy fodder for Sister Eva Branicka who ruled the Admissions Block at the hospital with a rod of steel. I never saw it, but I glimpsed the alloy tip reflected in her frostbitten eyes and its sharpened edges scaffolding her profile. I heard it in the rasp of the rhotic /r/ as she fired commands in my direction.
‘Test the urrine… Put away the laundrry… Fetch a trrolley… Trransfer the patient.’
‘I am Sister Brranitska, not Brraneeka!’
My Auxiliary Nurse uniform was beige, a better match for Sr Branicka’s complexion than her Max Factor Cream Puff palette; and beige was the perfect backdrop for my frequent blushes and distinctive nervous rash. By comparison her Royal Blue uniform with freshly starched collar and sister’s cap with a frilled trim oozed an unruffled professionalism that brokered no nonsense.
Several years later when I was promoted, I wanted to find her and deliver a carefully crafted and rehearsed speech, standing proud and professional in my blue dress and white sister’s cap.
‘Sister Branicka, it has taken a long time for me to gain the courage and the confidence to tell you that for two years you made my life hell, you hard-faced bitch, and I hated you for it!’
But each time I played the scene over I had to stop there, because I would remember patients like Jack. He had a fungating carcinoma with a stench that rendered even the most hardened porter speechless. A fragile and fearful man whose dignity had been eroded as efficiently as his metatarsals, yet Sister Branicka treated him with all the tenderness of a precious elderly relative as she fussed around bathing and dressing his ruined feet, dispatching me to the doctor’s kitchen to see if there was ‘perhaps a little soup?’
And I would remember my first death; urgent, raised voices, instructions I didn’t understand and wasn’t meant to as the well-practised routine clicked smoothly into place, side-lining me to observe with a horrid fascination the emergency resuscitation protocol. The adrenalin-boosted high quickly dissipated as the crash team left with all their equipment and team talk, leaving me with a body that somehow filled the room, trapping me in the corner. It was Sister Branicka who rescued me with sweet tea and a slight softening of her icy gaze, who taught me about compassion, dignity and death as we washed and wrapped the body.
I never did find her, and perhaps if I had, I would have remained silent as I once more glimpsed the steel in her eyes and in her sharp profile and remembered that just once I had seen its serial number tattooed on her left breast.