Nadine Dorries shares from the first chapter of The Angels of Lovely Lane.
St Angelus Hospital, Liverpool, December 1951
St Angelus had begun life as a workhouse, proudly facing out towards the Mersey and across the Atlantic. It was built of a dark sandstone brick which had long since succumbed to smog and smoke and the dribbling black soot that ran down the exterior walls like icing on a cake. The many tall chimneys spewed out their lung-clogging smoulder from the basement furnaces which heated the Florence Nightingale wards.
Through the centre of the hospital ran a long, polished corridor that began at the main entrance and ended at the back door. The theatre block, the school of nursing, the medical school, the mortuary and the kitchens were housed in separate buildings dotted around the grounds and had been built at varying times over the past two hundred years. Some were constructed of brick, some more recent post-war additions, such as the prosthetics clinic erected to meet the upsurge in demand for false limbs, had been hurriedly thrown together from prefabricated units and covered with tin roofs.
Each area of the hospital, except those where patients slept, was scrubbed by an army of night cleaners, who shuffled along on housemaid’s knees with metal buckets and brushes. They worked from dusk until dawn for five shillings a shift.
St Angelus gleamed brightly and smelt strongly of Lysol, a smell so distinctive it struck fear into the hearts of the weak and anxious.
Martha O’Brien was the maid in the consultants’ day sitting room at St Angelus and therefore, to anyone of any significance, was entirely invisible. Martha knew it was her own fault. That’s what they would say, anyway. She had broken the rules. What did she expect? A person of no consequence.
Laying the fire, clearing away the newspapers, plumping up the cushions and preparing the consultants’ lunches for one o’clock on the dot. That was her job. She was meant to serve tea, not sympathy, they would tell her. But she had done it because she had felt sorry for him, not because she knew what the effect would be. If she had known, she would have run a mile in the opposite direction as fast as her legs would carry her, or better still, just kept her mouth shut. She had watched him, day after day, sitting in the chair, troubled and worried, and had wondered what it was that ailed him. It wasn’t until Mr Mabbutt popped in for a cuppa and goaded him that the mystery was revealed.
‘So, there are to be two consultants on gynae. Well, that’s something. Yours will be the only department in the hospital with two firms.’
Mr Mabbutt, the orthopaedic surgeon, was addressing Mr Scriven, the obstetrician and gynaecologist. Mr Scriven shuffled in his chair and turned the page of the newspaper he was reading so sharply that it almost ripped. Martha knew all their names and what they specialized in, and given that she was a bright girl and they talked a lot when they met in the sitting room she knew far more about their personal lives than they might have imagined. Apart from Dr Gaskell, who had been at St Angelus for so long no one could remember a time when he was not there, Mr Mabbutt and Mr Scriven were the two longest-serving consultants. The reverence in which they were held by every nurse and doctor in the hospital conferred a godlike status upon both men.
They played golf together on Thursday afternoons, when they had finished their rounds on the private wing, otherwise known as ward five. Once a month, they also took turns to host a dinner, for other hand-picked surgeons, aspiring doctors and their ambitious wives. Due to the length of his tenure and his position on the hospital board, Mr Scriven was regarded as the senior consultant, second only to Dr Gaskell, who was chair of the board. Dr Gaskell sat on the regional TB committee and was respected and revered by all, and his word with regard to St Angelus was law. Mr Scriven had reach, undoubtedly, but not long enough to ensure that the board consulted him before deciding he must share the base of his power and source of unceasing adoration, otherwise known as ward two.
Neither man batted an eyelid while Martha wheeled over the tea trolley, or even appeared to notice her as they waited for a cup and saucer to be placed in their outstretched hands.
There were nine consultants at St Angelus and Martha had only ever needed to be told once how many sugars they took, or how they liked their tea. Martha took her job very seriously. She dressed with care, her apron and frilled cap always spotlessly clean. Her long dark hair was coiled carefully and tightly into a bun, with every strand tucked neatly under her cap.
‘Anyone would think you were the one operating yourself, you’re that fussy,’ her mother Elsie often shouted as she left the house to catch the ten past six bus every morning. It was true: Martha was as proud of the sitting room as her ma was of the parlour back at home.
Mr Mabbutt had collapsed into the comfortable brown leather armchair in front of the fire, opposite Mr Scriven, who, much to Martha’s dismay, still wore his wraparound operating robe, instead of the day suit he wore for clinics and ward rounds. There were two theatres on the top floor of St Angelus, and the two men had been operating simultaneously before finishing for the afternoon, leaving the registrars and housemen to deal with the post-operative checks on the wards.
Mr Scriven’s gown remained gruesomely spattered with blood. None of the other doctors arrived to take their tea in blood-spattered gowns and Martha lived in hope that one day, maybe, one of the consultants would find the habit as offensive as she did and mention that he might like to be a little more respectful towards the room she spent her life polishing and cleaning and making comfortable. Not that she had ever said anything; that was not her place.
If only she had remembered just where her place was. How different things would be. She sometimes wondered if he was showing off when he strutted through the door wearing his theatre gown, when the other consultants took such care to remove their own. She was only a maid, but it seemed to Martha as though Mr Scriven liked to impress, or rather needed to impress, and even someone as humble as she was a worthy audience of one.
Educated by the nuns at St Chad’s, she had learnt well and was a clever girl. Following the war, there were only the two of them at home and so the need to secure work with regular hours and pay was uppermost in her mind when the job vacancy arose. Both her da and her brother had been lost in action and Martha felt a strong responsibility to start earning for her mam and their home as soon as she could, even though it meant abandoning her dream of attending the new secretarial college in town and becoming a secretary in one of the shipping offices.
There were moments when she stopped scrubbing and cleaning and knelt with a cloth in her hand, letting the mixture of gloopy pink Aunt Sally and dark green Lysol drip on to the floor. With a sigh, she imagined herself setting off to work in the morning carrying a handbag, smartly dressed wearing kitten heels and a swing coat, on her way to run a smart office down on the waterfront.
She felt no resentment. She and Mam were happy and Jake Berry, her childhood sweetheart, also worked at St Angelus, as a junior porter. Not that they were a couple officially. No, Martha would not allow Jake to assume that. Besides, they had only been on two dates since leaving St Chad’s and they had been nothing more than to take a turn around the lake in Sefton Park on a Sunday afternoon after the roast dinner. On the last occasion, Jake had taken Martha’s hand and slipped it through his arm.
‘You will be my girl soon, won’t you?’ he had said. ‘You’re seventeen now. We could walk like this every day.’
Martha’s blushes were saved by the musicians on the bandstand striking up a tune. Instead of replying, she gave Jake a shy smile and his arm a little squeeze. It was enough for Jake, who felt as though he would burst with pride, having by his side the girl he had adored since they were both children playing out on the street in rags and tags and shoes with holes.
Martha poured the consultants’ tea and listened closely.
She knew Mr Mabbutt’s tone well. He hadn’t finished with Mr Scriven, she was sure.
Mr Scriven fixed a rigid smile on to his face. ‘Yes, Matron told me last week, after the board meeting.’ Martha could tell that he was trying his best to sound casual. ‘I can barely manage the numbers being referred to my clinic as it is. Emergencies are arriving via the receiving ward in their droves. The women in Liverpool are producing more babies than St Angelus can deliver, along with all the associated problems that can present later, as you know.’
Martha had read as much herself in the Echo, so she knew that wasn’t a lie. Babies were booming in Liverpool. However, after a year of observing Mr Scriven at her leisure, she could also tell this was not a conversation he was enjoying.
She placed the cup and saucer on his upturned palm, but he neither acknowledged her nor said thank you as he picked up the spoon from the saucer and began to stir.
Mr Mabbutt appeared to have spotted a weakness and was openly enjoying himself. He was not about to let the wriggling Mr Scriven off the hook.
‘Hmm, that’s as maybe. Still, not sure I would like it much. My ward is my ward. Sister and the nursing staff know my ways and how I like things done. No, it wouldn’t do for me, I’m afraid. Besides, we have all these new mad keen doctors now. The chaps who interrupted their training to fight in the war. The board favour them, of course, and they’re flying up the ladder. Dr Gaskell’s own son is one of them. He has an impressive war record, so I hear. God, no. I wouldn’t want one of those hungry types working alongside me, trying to jump on my back and take my ward out from under me.’
Mr Mabbutt gave a fake shudder and then grinned. Mr Scriven struggled and failed to smile back. Mr Mabbutt had beaten Mr Scriven at golf four weeks on the run. This latest piece of information was yet another move on the chessboard in the battle for superiority and the unspoken acknowledgement of the position of senior consultant under Dr Gaskell. Mr Scriven took a long and carefully controlled breath. He knew perfectly well that his colleague had not yet finished taunting him.
‘We are busy too, you know. They have allocated me an extra registrar and a houseman. It seems even the working classes are buying motors now. Just operated on a young lad with bilateral femoral shaft fractures from a scooter accident. Reckon there’s going to be a lot more of that in the future. I wonder why they didn’t just increase the size of your firm? Why bring in a new consultant? Regardless of how busy you are, it makes it look as though they don’t trust your opinion, or the quality of your work.’
Bang. It was a direct shot and had hit its mark. Mr Scriven flinched.
He drank his tea to delay answering, because he had no idea what to say. He had asked himself the same question. He almost gave a sigh of relief as the call bell rang. Mr Mabbutt looked up at the consultants’ alert board on the wall and saw it was his light flashing just as the telephone rang. He leapt up from the chair, splashing his tea all over his knee as he did so.
‘Yes, on my way back up,’ he barked down the receiver before slamming it down. ‘Right, that was a short break. My last one is throwing an extended rigor in the recovery room and the anaesthetist can’t raise his blood pressure out of his boots. Neither houseman nor theatre sister is happy. Poor lad, he’s only sixteen. I feared he might not survive the shock. I didn’t even touch the fractures. I was saving them until he was stable. All I did was sew up what cuts I could manage. l must have cleared half the dock road out of his wounds.’
He picked up his cup and swallowed what remained of his tea. As he walked towards the door he couldn’t resist a parting shot. ‘Anyway, do you know if you will be sharing a team, or will the new chap have his own housemen and registrar?’
Even in the midst of an emergency, he was not going to allow his advantage to slip away. He stood holding the door open, waiting for a reply.
‘His own, of course. I told Matron I can’t spare any of my team. We’re working flat out as it is.’
‘Ah, that’s even worse, if you ask me. Competing teams on one ward, who needs it?’
His words hung in the air as the door swung shut.
Martha may have worked at the hospital since she was fourteen, but she was far from stupid. Mr Scriven had attempted to present a brave face to Mr Mabbutt, but Martha could tell he was both seething and miserable. She noticed that his hair, which a year ago had been grey only at the temples, was now grey all over. He had taken to wearing glasses, and she had thought it strange that, if anything, the dark glasses and greying hair had added to his attractiveness.
‘Bastard,’ she heard him mutter under his breath.
Without being asked, she refilled his cup and put two arrowroot biscuits on a plate for him. ‘Nothing like a cup of tea and an arrowroot biscuit to cheer you up,’ her mother had said every time an air raid was over and they slipped back into the house after a night in the shelter. It had seemed to work for her mam.
Mr Scriven was deep in thought. Leaning forward now in his chair, elbows on knees, fingers interlinked before him, he tapped his straightened index fingers repeatedly against his pursed lips.
‘A penny for your thoughts,’ she said, as he automatically reached up to relieve her of the tea.
And that was when it happened. The moment when she crossed the line, broke the rules, set in train the events which would destroy her world and everything she knew in life to be good and true. Those words, that impulsive moment of caring and compassion, would be responsible for pain and deceit, secrets and lies, and, the very worst of all, a death.
It is 1953 and five very different girls are arriving at the nurses’ home in Lovely Lane, Liverpool, to start their training at St Angelus Hospital. Dana has escaped from her family farm on the west coast of Ireland. Victoria is running away from a debt-ridden aristocratic background. Beth is an army brat and throws her lot in with bitchy Celia Forsyth. And Pammy has come from quite the wrong side of the tracks in Liverpool. The world in which they now find themselves is complicated and hierarchical, with rules that must be obeyed. Everyone has their place at St Angelus and woe betide anyone who strays from it. But when an unknown girl is admitted, after a botched late abortion in a backstreet kitchen, a tragedy begins to unfold which will rock the world of St Angelus to its foundations.
Nadine Dorries grew up in a working-class family in Liverpool and spent a great deal of time in Mayo with her Irish grandmother. She trained as a nurse and has been the MP for Mid-Bedfordshire since 2005. She has three daughters. She is the bestselling author of The Four Streets Trilogy and Ruby Flynn.