BY BRIGID KINSELLA
“Answer that bell,” commands Susan, the night sister in a busy London hospital. It’s three a.m.
Beth started training to be a nurse in 1970. This is her first time on night duty. The ward has full glass panels from ceiling to floor, with no blinds. It was previously used for patients getting treatment for tuberculosis.
Beth hides behind the sluice room door, peeping out slowly. Outside, thunder is raging. The windowpanes shake and rattle, as the lightning strikes make crackling noises. The night sky explodes with rays of light, like fireworks against the ominous dark.
Fellow workers hurry past, shouting in Cockney accents. “Come look at the storm, reminds me of Guy Fawkes night,” as they stand and gaze out the long glass windows.
Electric lights flicker and dim. Bells are ringing all around, as Beth’s legs slowly melt beneath her. She feels sweaty. Barely able to breathe. Her head is dizzy and her mouth dry. “If I was at home,” she thought, “I could hide in the dark wardrobe and put blankets on the bedroom windows…”
It happened when Beth was nine years old.
One hot summer’s day in 1964, she ran from the hay field as her father stopped Bob the workhorse and parked the hay binder on the headland of the Brow field. Her brothers and sisters chased each other home through the long, mossy lane.
The sky got darker, as loud bangs of thunder and explosive flashes of lightning cracked out. Horses neighed loudly and kicked up their hind legs. Squawking hens, ducks and geese ran, as they pushed their way through the iron farm gate.
Beth’s mother shook holy water as she handed them all rosary beads. The last one in got the old, worn, brown beads.
“God save us all,” whispered their mother, as she recited mysteries and litanies.
Kneeling, the children pinched and pushed at each other, to get the best space around the hearthstone. Two huge, black kettles hung on pot racks over the fire for making tea. Beth looked up at the wide, tar-covered chimney, remembering her Granny’s stories of hiding uniforms there for men on the run, when the Black and Tans were in Ireland in 1919. Santa also came down the same chimney if you were good, filling everyone’s socks hanging on a massive beam over the fanners, that kept the fire lighting.
Without warning, a ball of lightning as big as a football came rolling down the chimney, blazing hot fire and hitting Beth’s sister Nan on the elbow as it rolled along the cold kitchen flagstones.
Everyone screamed as the ball of lightning blazed through the house, shooting out the open kitchen door into the storm outside. Their father hurriedly got everyone out as some cried, while others were stunned into silence. Flames and smoke suddenly appeared in the sky as their neighbour’s house went on fire.
Beth hears her name being called to Matron’s office immediately.
Taking deep breaths, she puts on her starched white hat and in full uniform, head up, she marches purposely past the wall of windows and in through the Matron’s door.