Saturday, August 10, 2019

Nurse’s Dilemma

By Hilda Pressley, ©1965

Sister Alys had been in love with Doctor Richard Kent for a long time—at a distance. Then she was appointed to the post of Home Sister, which would bring them into contact—not knowing that Doctor Kent considered that particular post a great waste of a trained nurse’s time.


“One tends to think that all teenagers are pop mad.”

“With a woman it’s different, even in our modern times. At least, it is with me. I still want the man to do the chasing. If he showed any sign, of course, I’d meet him halfway. But—well, you know, a girl has her pride and all that.”

From the very first sentence, Nurse Alys Newton is desperately in love with Dr. Richard Kent. She’d run into him at the train station and had snagged the only cab right out from under his aquiline nose, and that plus the swanky fur coat she’d been wearing (dad’s rich) had made him look at her in anger and scorn. There  you have it, the stuff on which passion is built in far too many nurse novels. “It was ridiculous to feel this way, she told herself, about a man to whom she had not even spoken,” and the best thing we can say about this is that at least she understands her foolishness.

But over time she and Dr. Kent begin a speaking relationship. As she is promoted to Home Sister, which is a position that involves supervising all the student nurses as well as filling in around the hospital when they’re short-staffed, she sees a lot of him—and he uses these opportunities to tease her about her cushy job: “What, if I may ask, is someone as  young as you—and obviously a good nurse—doing wasting her time in a position like Home Sister? Surely it’s a job for either the middle-aged or work-shy?” Now he is in her thoughts constantly. “His tall figure striding along the main corridor or across the quadrangle, his uncompromising stare, his way of saying exactly what he liked, and which never failed to spark anger in her.” Ah, true love!

They spar at every meeting, with varying degrees of friendliness, which causes Alys a lot of pain. To her credit, Alys does understand the silliness of the situation “She must be crazy to love this man! Why did she? she fumed inwardly,” after he’s made fun of her again. “It couldn’t be the real thing, anyway. She  barely knew him. It just couldn’t be any more than a superficial attraction.”

In the interim, small items go missing around the nurse’s dorm, and Alys’s suspicious fall on the new nurse, Edna Farrell, who is unpleasant and rude to Alys, though an excellent nurse. Edna had a tragic childhood, spent in orphanages and foster homes, so Alys tries hard to win Edna’s trust. Alys also catches a night nurse with a pair of missing hosiery in her hands, and nurse Halesworth says she’s just found them in the bathroom—indeed, all the missing items turn up eventually. Those of us who have read The Case for Nurse Sheridan understand exactly what is going on here, and indeed the detective who’s brought in to crack the case starts throwing around the K-word: kleptomania! But Alys, for all her suspicions, tells the detective when Edna is caught with a stolen nightie, “What I do know is—Nurse Farrell is no thief.” Eventually the story comes out that Nurse Halesworth, an orphanage friend of Edna’s, is indeed a klepto, and Edna has been returning all the ill-gotten gains.

This subplot very handily absorbs a large chunk of the story, as does Alys’s dating Dr. Ben Chalmers, who is really very nice but not a man she loves. When Ben eventually proposes, we haul out of the closet the threadbare question of whether you should marry a man you like if you can’t have the man you love: “Ben needed her. She sensed it. He needed her far more than Richard did, who indeed did not seem to need her at all, did not appear even to want her friendship. She needed love, needed to feel cared for, to feel sure of someone. And here, in Ben, it was being offered to her. They could fill a need in each other.” You screw up your courage to face her eventual acceptance of his proposal, as per the custom of the county, but we are in for a pleasant treat: As Ben pops the question at a swank restaurant, Richard strolls in with a beautiful but snippy nurse on his arm—you fear the deal is sealed—but Alys turns him down, saying they do not feel “an all-consuming passion for each other.” She’s resigned herself to becoming a vinegary careerist nurse—and about to resign her position as well to get away from the pain of seeing Richard—when the inevitable happens, and you know what that is.

If the prose here is not sparkling or campy, it’s a pleasant enough story that easily passes the time. I appreciated that Alys is self-aware enough to see the silliness of her crush even if she is helpless to shake it off—haven’t we all been there? Pleasant enough and not especially annoying—qualities that make for a fairly decent nurse novel, such as the one we have in Nurse’s Dilemma.

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