Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Nurse Smith, Cook

By Joyce Dingwell, ©1968

Nurse Fiona Smith was determined to go on looking after her young nephew when he went to Australia to join his father, even though that gentleman had stipulated ‘no females!’ So she pretended to be the new cook instead, hoping that everything would sort itself out in time… 


“‘The bones are not there’—coldly, from Fiona—‘they’re under refrigeration.’ ‘And so,’ submitted Steve, ‘is someone else.’” 

I was a little nervous of this book after reading the last vintage Harlequin romance, Silent Heart, which was a smidge too British for easy reading. Don’t get me wrong—I love the British locutions and slang, but the hospital organization was completely different from the American system and so more than a little confusing. But Nurse Smith, Cook is about a Scottish nurse who relocates to an Australian ranch, completely avoiding the hospital and its alien hierarchy, so I had no trouble with it at all. In fact, I found this a thoroughly enjoyable book. 

When the book opens, Fiona Smith is living with her aunt and in Scotland, and the pair are raising Fiona’s nephew, William Manning. Fiona’s older sister Fenella had married an Australian named Steve Manning, who abandoned her and baby William, and she had died in America. William is six years old and a “withdrawn, uncooperative … truculent, ungrateful, unresponsive, quite unpromising, violet-eyed brat.” So naturally we understand her unswerving devotion to the lad. Fiona sees an ad in a newspaper seeking information about Fenella Manning and responds, and soon she has a large check and a one-way plane ticket for William to Australia. She’s forbidden to accompany him, but due to her overwhelming obligation to him, she spends her check on a ticket and goes anyway. When Steve Manning, who is picking up William, asks her if she is the new cook, who the fortuitously has her same last name, she says she is, and off they go.

The trick is, ha ha, she can’t cook: “Of all the things Fiona could not do, and, as with most people, there were many, the top of the list was cooking. … She had been remarkably successful at producing lumpy arrowroot and curdled egg flip, and to this day there was a strange disc on the rec room wall, and when probationers asked curiously: ‘What is that?’ they were informed solemnly that it was Nurse Smith’s first dry toast.” The morning after she arrives at the ranch she is saved from the stove by an outbreak of scarlet fever, a complication of strep throat, among the ranch’s 24 Aboriginal children (William also gets it, in what is a curious coincidence or the shortest incubation period on record; it’s normally one to four days, with spots appearing 12 to 48 hours after onset of sore throat. The rash appears in only one out of ten strep patients, so it’s another medical curiosity that every child on the place comes down with “scarletina”). As Fiona is instructing Steve on the requirements of her patients, he is naturally suspicious: “‘For a cook,’ his voice was dry, ‘you’ve been told a remarkable lot about medicine.’” 

But those darn kids will bounce back, and then it’s off to the kitchen with her. Her first efforts there yield something that “looked like roofing tiles” instead of bread. But when Flora Macdougall, the head nurse of the region’s hospital, who is also Scottish, calls to check on the scarlet fever cases, Fiona begins sobbing about the baking catastrophe, and the matron talks her through the recipe. Two hours later, out it comes, “golden, crispy, sweet, nutty. Twenty beautiful loaves. Fiona stood beside them, actually crying. Never, she thought, never have I felt like this before, not even when Tommie Fenton haemorrhaged after his tonsils through jumping around too much, and the doctor was away, and I had to stitch him up myself.” So between the ranch’s only cookbook and the Matron on the other end of the phone, Fiona begins to whip up edible suppers. Not without mishap, however: As she puts a ruined Yorkshire pudding on the table, someone asks William what it is. “‘A brick, I think,’ William said. ‘The night we were sick they had cricket balls.’” 

In the meantime, Steve has not acknowledged any sort of relationship with William, and neither has she. Fortunately William is so withdrawn that he refers to Fiona only as “Mismif.” But she is not good at camouflage, and Steve knows something is amiss: “Ask if that unlikely story is acceptable, because it’s not, but it’s a good effort and I’ll pass it over for the time being,” he tells her when she tries to explain her unusual concern for William. Her ignorance about cooking and the medical emergencies that keep popping up don’t help her any. Steve gets the mumps, and she is required to tell him, circuitously of course, that he has to go to bed or risk orchitis, swelling of the testicles that can render a man infertile: “You could have complications. … They could ruin your life. … Your wife’s. … Your—your family. If you ever had one. Now—now do you understand?” As the book progresses, it’s clear that she likes him, and he likes her, but she can’t forgive him for running out on her sister and for refusing to acknowledge his relationship to William, and he also seems to be harboring some misconceptions about her that remain mysterious (“Is it too late for white?” he asks her about a dress). You see their dilemma.  

I was a little concerned initially when the Aboriginal house maid’s eyes “rolled” at Fiona’s red quilted dressing gown, and when the ranch hands’ kids are referred to as pickaninnies, or pics for short. But even William is referred to as a pic, so perhaps this term just means child in Australia? Because once we are over these initial bumps in the road, the attitudes are quite enlightened. William latches on to Harold, who is an orphan Aborigine boy living on the ranch, and moves him into his room in the house. She asks Steve, “ ‘Am I to understand then that Harold is now one of the family?’ ‘Any objections?’ ‘Of course not!’ indignantly.” Steve talks of sending Harold as well when the time comes for William to go away to school. “He appears a bright youngster. Possibly will leave William still floundering in the first grade while he makes the top.” Even outsiders refer to William and Harold as “family” without batting an eyelash. 

This book has a sense of humor, and the dialect is fun, too: “He’s out walkabout with name belonga Harold,” “he plurry well is,” “we like the tucker.” The writing style is different than most VNRNs (though I did have to cringe at a sentence early on that contained—and I counted twice—12 commas). But I didn’t get much sense of Australia or the times; apart from the vocabulary and a cameo by a crocodile, it really could have been set anywhere, at any time before the advent of cell phones. And I wasn’t convinced that it really needed all 187 pages. But if it doesn’t have enough to make it an excellent book, it is easily is a pleasant book plurry well worth reading.

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