Nursing was left to “those who were too old, too weak, too drunken, too dirty, too stupid or too bad to do anything else.”
I didn’t always want to be a nurse. I went through a number of career possibilities and continually exasperated the careers advisor at my failing secondary school. “Marine biologist” was one career choice that I listed, having visions of wearing a swimsuit all day in a sunny climate and swimming with dolphins. When I discovered that much of the work of a marine biologist involved studying plankton off the coast of Wales, I had a rethink. During one summer in Swansea I spent time watching my great-great-aunt gutting catfish in the large kitchen sink; and once I went out on a boat with hairy, gruff and burly yellow-booted men who pissed in the sea and swore continually. I’d also eaten winkles and cockle-bread for break- fast. Marine biology was definitely out.
“Law,” a teacher remarked, when my parents, also exasperated with me by then, asked what I might be suited to. “She can argue all day long.” But I had no aptitude for focused study. Instead I looked toward other animals and conservation. I dreamed of doing photography for the National Geo- graphic, leading to travel in hot and exotic locations where the sun would shine and I would wear a swimsuit all day after all, and live in flip-flops. I joined marches and anti–animal cruelty campaigns, and gave out leaflets in the gray-brick town center of Stevenage showing pictures of dogs being tortured, rabbits having cosmetics tested on them until their eyes became red, and bloody, skeletal cats. I wore political badges that were outdoor-market cheap and came loose, stabbing me until one evening I found a tiny constellation of pin-prick bruises on my chest. I refused to go into the living room after my mum bought a stuffed chick from a flea market and placed it among her ornaments, and instead ate my vegetarian dinner on the stairs in protest, saying, “It’s me or the chick. I cannot be associated with murder.”
My mum, with endless patience, constantly forgave my teenage angst, removed the chick, made me another cheese sandwich and gave me a hug. It was she who taught me the language of kindness, though I didn’t appreciate it back then. The next day I stole a rat from school, to save it from dissection by the biology department. I called it Furter, and hoped it would live safely with my existing pet rat, Frank, which used to sit on my shoulder, its long tail swinging around me like a statement necklace. Of course, Frank ate Furter.
Swimmer, jazz trumpeter, travel agent, singer, scientist . . . Astronomy was a possibility until, at the age of twelve, I dis- covered that my dad, who had taught me the name of every constellation, had made it all up. I didn’t tell him, though; I still let him point upward and tell me his stories, with his enthusiasm for narrative bursting into the sky. “There—the shape of a hippo? You see it? That’s called Oriel’s Shoulder. And that is the Bluebell. You see the shape? The almost silver- blue color of those particular stars? Fishermen believe that if you look to the stars hard enough, they will whisper the secrets of the earth. Like hearing the secrets of the sea inside a shell. If you listen hard, you can hear nothing and everything, all at the same time.”
I spent hours and hours looking at the stars to hear the secrets of the earth. At night I pulled out a cardboard box full of treasures from underneath my bed: old letters, a broken key ring, my dead grandfather’s watch, a single drachma; chewing gum that I had retrieved from underneath a desk, and which had been in the mouth of a boy I liked; stones I had collected from various places, and a large shell. I would stand in my bed- room looking up toward the stars, holding the shell to my ear.
One night, burglars came to steal meat from our freezer, which we kept in the garden shed. Those were the days when people bought meat in bulk at flea markets, from men on giant lorries with loudspeakers and dirty white aprons. Those were the days when police would come at night to investigate frozen-chicken theft, and my star-watching was interrupted by police shouting. The universe had answered my shell-call: vegetarianism mattered. I am not sure which would have been a more unusual sight that night: a few young men carrying a frozen chicken and a giant packet of lamb chops, or a skinny teenager in a moonlit bedroom, with a large shell pressed against her ear.
What I would do—and who I would be—consumed me in a way that didn’t seem to worry my friends. I didn’t understand then that I wanted to live many lives, to experience different ways of living. I didn’t know then that I would find exactly what I searched for (minus the swimsuit and the sun): that both nursing and writing are about stepping into other shoes all the time.
From the age of twelve I always had part-time jobs. I worked in a café cleaning the ovens—a disgusting job, with mean women who used to make the teabags last three cups. I did a milk route, carrying milk during the freezing winter, until I could no longer feel my fingers. I did a paper route, until I was found dumping papers in dog-shit alley. I didn’t make any effort at school; I did no homework. My parents tried to expand my horizons, give me ideas about what I might do and a work ethic: “Education is a ticket to anywhere. You have a brilliant brain, but you don’t want to use it.” I was naturally bright but, despite the tools my parents gave me and their joie de vivre, my poor school-work ethic and my flightiness continued. They always encouraged me to read, and I was consumed by philosophy, looking for answers to my many questions: Sartre, Plato, Aristotle, Camus—I was hooked. A love of books was the best gift they ever gave me. I liked to roam and not be far from reading material; I hid books around the estate: Little Women in the Black Alley; Dostoevsky behind Catweazel’s bins; Dickens under Tinker’s broken-down car.
I left school at sixteen and moved in with my twenty-something boyfriend and his four twenty-something male lodgers. It was unbelievably chaotic, but I was blissfully content working a stint at a video shop, handing out VHS videos to the Chinese takeaway next door in exchange for chicken chow mein, my vegetarianism now beginning to wane, as I concentrated on putting on 18-rated films in the shop and filling the place with my friends. I went to agricultural college to become a farmer and lasted two weeks. A BTEC in travel and tourism lasted a week. To say that I had no direction was an understatement.
I was truly devastated when, after turning up late for an interview, I did not get the job of children’s entertainer at Pizza Hut. It was a shock when my relationship broke down, despite being only sixteen and completely naive. My pride meant that I would never go home. No job, no home. So I worked for Community Service Volunteers, which was the only agency I could find at the time that accepted sixteen-year-olds instead of eighteen-year-olds and provided accommodation. I was sent to a residential center run by the Spastics Society (now called Scope), earning £20 pocket money a week by looking after adults with severe physical disabilities: helping them to toilet, eat and dress. It was the first time I felt as if I was doing some- thing worthwhile. I had begun eating meat and I had a bigger cause. I shaved my head and lived in charity-shop clothes, spending all my pocket money on cider and tobacco. I had nothing, but I was happy. And it was the first time I’d been around nurses. I watched the qualified nurses with the kind of intensity that a child watches her parents when she’s sick. My eyes didn’t leave them. I had no language for what they were doing, or for their job.
“You should do nursing,” one of them said. “They give you a bursary and somewhere to live.”
I went to the local library and discovered an entire building full of waifs and strays like me. I had been to my school library, and to the library in Stevenage, many times when I was much younger, but this library was about more than simply learning and borrowing books. It was a place of sanctuary. There was a homeless man asleep, and the librarians left him alone. A woman on a mobility scooter was being helped by a man who had a sign round his neck that said he had autism and was there to help, reaching a book on a top shelf for her. There were children running around freely, and groups of younger teenagers huddled together, laughing.
I found out about Mary Seacole, who—like Florence Nightingale—nursed soldiers during the Crimean War. She began experimenting in nursing by administering medicine to a doll, and then progressed to pets, before helping humans. I hadn’t considered nursing as a profession before, but then I began remembering: my brother and I purposefully ripped the stuffing out of soft toys or pulled the glass eyes from dolls, so that I could fix them. I remembered my primary-school class- mates queuing for an anaemia check-up; I must have bragged about my specialist knowledge, before lining them up outside school and pulling down their eyelids, one by one, to see if they needed to eat liver and onions; and the endless friends with sore throats whose necks I would gently press with my fingertips, as if on a clarinet. “Lymph node.”
There wasn’t much written about what nursing involved, or how to go about it, so I had no idea whether or not I’d be suitable. I discovered that nursing pre-dates the history books and has long existed in every culture. One of the earliest writ- ten texts relating to nursing is the Charaka-sam·hita, which was compiled in India around the first century bc and stated that nurses should be sympathetic toward everyone. And nursing has strong links with Islam. In the early seventh century, faithful Muslims became nurses—the first professional nurse in the history of Islam, Rufaidah bint Sa’ad, was described as an ideal nurse, due to her compassion and empathy.
Sympathy, compassion, empathy: this is what history tells us makes a good nurse. I have often revisited in my head that trip to the library in Buckinghamshire, as those qualities seem to have been lacking all too often during my career—qualities that we’ve now forgotten or no longer value. But, at sixteen, I was full of hopeful energy and idealism. And when I turned seventeen I decided to go for it. No more career choice changes and flitting around; I would become a nurse. Plus, I knew there would be parties.
A few months later, I somehow slipped onto a nursing course, despite being younger by a couple of weeks than the official entry age of seventeen-and-a-half. I moved into nursing halls in Bedford. The halls were at the back of the hospital, a large block of flats filled with the sound of banging doors and occasional screaming laughter. Most of my corridor was made up of first-year nurses, with a few radiographers and physiotherapy students, plus the occasional doctor on rotation. The student nurses were almost all young and wild, and away from home for the first time. There were a significant number of Irish women (“we had two choices,” they’d tell me, “nurse or nun”); and a small number of men (universally gay at the time). There was a laundry room downstairs, next to a stuffy tele- vision room with plastic-coated armchairs which the back of my legs stuck to, in the heat from the radiators on full blast twenty-four hours a day. I met a trainee psychiatrist in that television room, after inadvertently blurting out that I was stuck to the chair, and he became my boyfriend for a few years. My bedroom was next to the toilets and smelled of damp, and one of my friends once grew cress on the carpet. The kitchen was dirty and the fridge was full of out-of-date food, with a note on one cupboard stating: DO NOT STEAL OTHER PEOPLE’S FOOD. WE KNOW WHO YOU ARE.
There was one telephone in an echoing hallway, which rang at all hours of the day and night. There were arguments, and the sound of heels running and of music being played loudly. We all smoked—cigarettes usually, but the smell of weed was like a constant low-level background noise that you didn’t even notice after a while. We went in and out of each other’s rooms in a communal fashion, and our doors were never locked. In my room Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings of the chambers of the heart were on a poster above my bed; there was a shelf full of nursing textbooks and tatty novels, and a pile of philosophy books next to my bed. Plus a kettle, a radiator that wouldn’t turn down and a window that didn’t open. There was a sink to wash in (bodies and cups), to flick ash in, to vomit in and, for a few weeks when the toilets were continuously blocked, to pee in. To my contemporaries, it wasn’t much; but after sharing a room in the residential center for so long, and previously a house with a boyfriend and his male lodgers, it was heaven to me.
The first night, though, is always the worst. I had no idea what I would be doing as a nurse, and had begun to regret not asking more questions of the nurses who had encouraged me to apply. I was terrified of failure; of the look on my parents’ faces when I announced yet another change of heart. They had been shocked enough about my decision to become a nurse: my dad actually laughed out loud. Despite my work as a carer, they still saw me as the rebellious teenager who couldn’t care less about anyone. It was a far stretch to imagine me being devoted to kindness.
I lay awake that night and listened to the sound of my immediate neighbor arguing with her boyfriend, a moody, lanky security guard who, against all the rules, appeared to be living with her. Even after they were quiet I couldn’t sleep. My head was dancing with doubt. I knew I’d be classroom-based for a while at least, so I wouldn’t kill anyone by accident, or have to wash an old man’s penis or experience similar horrors. But I was full of anxiety. And when I went that night to the toilet, which was shared by those on the entire floor, I found a used sanitary pad stuck on the bathroom door. I retched. Aside from how vile it was, I remembered then that the sight of blood had always made me feel faint.
My queasy nature was confirmed the following morning when we had our occupational health screening. Blood samples were taken from all of us. “To hold on file,” the phlebotomist announced. “In case you get a needle-stick injury and contract HIV. We can then find out if you were HIV-positive already.” It was 1994, and misinformation and fear about HIV were everywhere. The phlebotomist tied a tourniquet around my arm. “Are you a student nurse or a medical student?” she asked.
I watched the needle, the blood filling the tube, and the room began to blur. Her voice sounded far away.
“Christie. Christie!” When I came round, I was lying on the floor with my legs up on the chair, and the phlebotomist above me. She laughed. “You okay now?”
I slowly got to my elbows, regaining focus. “What happened?”
“You fainted, dear. Happens. Though you might want to rethink your career.”