Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bush Hospital

By Gladys Fullbrook, ©1968
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

When Ann Royce joined the Voluntary Service Overseas and went to work as a nurse in a bush hospital in Tanzania, she left an unhappy love affair behind her. Was it that previous humiliating experience of love in England that threw her so quickly into the arms of Jeremy when, at the same time, she was so attracted to David? In the hot sun of East Africa, she gradually discovered the answer.


“I had been his ‘steady’ for more than five years; and during that time he had never looked at another girl, though plenty had looked at his handsome face and athletic figure. I was quite certain of this because that sort of thing always gets around, and sooner or later some kind friend will feel that she really ought to tell—for one’s own good, of course.”

“Women and children patients … seem to be tougher than the men, and I’m not surprised as they do most of the work.”

“Fate may intend me to be a career woman. A Sister Tutor, or even a matron of a teaching hospital. I considered this dazzling prospect for a moment, then sighed; for I had to admit that it did not attract me in the slightest. All I wanted was to be a happy, loving wife and mother.”

“I could imagine just how Mother felt, but I did wish she would leave me to manage or mismanage my own affairs, for after all that is what we all have to do in the end.”

“We spent a gay half-hour at the hotel, where, incidentally, very moderate drinking was indulged in, for we all had the new breathalyser tests in mind.”

“ ‘Well,’ I thought, rising jerkily to my feet, ‘the mini-skirt has its uses!’, and after one swift glance round the room, I followed David over the windowsill, and outside.”

I work with a surgeon who possesses something of an unchaste mind, and he has asked me several times if I own a copy of Head Nurse (I do). So when I found this book, I had to bring it to him as a worthy companion to that title. Indeed, under its cover I did actually find it to be slightly more prurient than most VNRNs I’ve read. But in the world of VNRNs, that’s not really saying much.

Ann Royce is a nurse in England, who, having just completed years of training to be a nurse, is now ready to chuck it all and become a housewife for her long-time beau, Mike. After five years, however, he’s rather belatedly getting cold feet. She shows him, and signs up with the Voluntary Service Overseas Organization for a year working in, yes, a bush hospital in Tanzania. She steps off the plane in Dar-Es-Salaam, where mission church “padre” and former surgeon David Ottershaw is waiting for her, showing the effects of the heat: “He was wearing a sort of wide-brimmed felt hat, and I noticed with distaste that it was stained with sweat round the inner edge. His khaki shirt was limp with the same dark stain. Without thinking I moved a little away from him, and suddenly he smiled … ‘Yes, wind’s in the wrong direction,’ he remarked casually.” You just know they’re meant to be together.

The hospital is staffed by Nurse Ruth Harris, and there’s schoolteacher Wendy Ellison, and a few native nurses-in-training, but beyond that this book is as thinly populated as the African wilds. David drops in from time to time and brings Jeremy Dunne, who is working in agriculture nearby for the VSO, to meet Ann. Before too many more pages, she and Jeremy are an item, although from the outset there are clues that Jeremy is not exactly a steady type: “You take your job very seriously, don’t you, Ann?” he asks her, and seems surprised when she answers, “Of course, don’t you?” Nonetheless, when Jeremy proposes and then kisses her for the first time, she accepts, though she seems more enthusiastic about the kissing than marrying Jeremy: “But did I want to marry? Well, of course, doesn’t every woman?”

But after announcing their engagement, Ann realizes she’s in love with David. What to do, what to do? Naturally, she decides to go ahead and marry Jeremy, until he starts dancing with Wendy and cools toward Ann. Eventually she decides she has to break up with Jeremy because “David was the man that I loved truly and for all time … In the depths of my heart I had known for some time; in fact, ever since that magic moment after the operation that David had performed on the man with the smashed leg.” Now all she has to do is pine after David, who has expressed no interest in her and seems increasingly remote.

Her year in Tanzania over, she returns to her parents’ house in England and gets a job in a nearby hospital. But it’s still David, David, David. A friend finally asks her, “Have you told him?” She is all agog, and the friend says, “I suppose nice girls don’t do such things. But believe me, my dear, they most certainly do.” We’ve got another 40 pages to go, so now we struggle through the waffling, the self doubt, “have you got the nerve to force the issue?” Jesus, just text the man and get it over with. But nice girls don’t do such things, and unlimited texting hasn’t been invented yet, so it’s letters to Ruth and from Ruth informing Ann that David is on holiday in a nearby town, then phone calls to Ruth that get cut off by the operator, abortive bus trips to track down a D. Ottershaw, spotting David in a green Austin mini, more letters and phone calls to Ruth that go astray. After 30 pages of this, the man himself calls her out of the blue in a rather anticlimactic conclusion to the ordeal.

Though the romantic aspects of this book are fairly typical, this book is unique in that it acknowledges physical attraction as a stand-alone phenomenon, separate from love. Ann herself is not immune, and recalls “my own passionate response to Jeremy’s love-making.” She eventually decides that her relationship with Jeremy was based on hormones and not much else: “In spite of the strong physical attraction which he had for me I knew, and now he knew, that it was just not enough.” The story itself is more serious than some VNRNs, which I think is typical of the Harlequin imprint. It’s not overtly racist and the descriptions of the African country give you a better impression of the setting than most VNRNs set in Africa. This is the only VNRN I’ve encountered that is presented in the first person, and that did make me wonder why the third person is the It is well-written and has a cute ending, but it doesn’t have a lot of excitement or camp or fun. Since this is first and foremost why I read these books, though there is nothing really wrong with it, I just can’t give Bush Hospital high marks.

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