Monday, June 28, 2021

Charge Nurse

By Hilary Neal 
(pseud. Olive Norton), ©1965

Nurse Kit Jessop took an immediate dislike to the male charge nurse who replaced her beloved Sister Carlin on Orthopedic Ward—but she had much to learn from Mr. Briscoe, and not least an understanding of her own heart’s desire.


“When we’re old and grey, and nobody loves us, we must live in adjoining almshouses. Very companionable. You could darn my socks and I would chop your kindling.” 

Kit Jessop, just shy of her 21st birthday and in her final year of nursing training, is an effective and capable nurse rotating through the orthopedics ward with gumption and humor when she is thrown off her game by the arrival of Tom Briscoe, who is the new charge nurse—and a man!!!!—replacing Sister Carlin, who’d had an easy-going and approachable manner. Not like this new guy at all! Who changes all the usual protocols just because he feels like it and is snippy to Kit—but the real shock is that every time she complains to someone about him, they all seem to take his side. Which makes you think that Kit just has an unnatural prejudice, and since he is always speaking to her in a manner that comes across as complete disinterest, we know he shares that same unnatural prejudice.

She does have the hots for Dr. Charles Gillan, a tall, suave fellow with a reputation of being something of a cad, but she pants for him nonetheless—and finally, he asks her to dinner. On their way there, though, they are involved in a car crash in which Kit is paralyzed. But in a curious turn, it turns out her paralysis is psychosomatic, having to do with her impression of the driver of the car that hit them, though she fights the psychiatrist mightily about what it is about that driver, and it isn’t until much later we learn what that’s all about. But Kit eventually sorts it out and gets better, and in her recovery she dates her longtime friend Dr. Ian Madison. “I usually did enjoy myself with Ian. It was a very pleasant arrangement. There were no strings, and we both knew it. Ian had survived one disastrous affair and he was in what he called a resting phase. I too was lying fallow. He was quite content with what he termed our beautiful friendship, and the odd kiss cost neither of us very much. It was pleasant, and it meant nothing, except that we were both a little lost.”

There’s a big dance shortly after she goes back on duty, but the rumor is that Charles is taking someone else. She agrees to go with Tom Briscoe, who asks her only because he might as well go with someone, and there she is in the hall, so why not? But then Charles calls up with the old didn’t-you-get-my-note routine so she dumps Tom to go with Charles—and learns that the OR nurse whom he’d invited first had just sprained her ankle that afternoon. Kit’s not unaware of what’s going on, so when later it turns out that Charles has proposed to the OR nurse, she isn’t completely heartbroken, and she has Ian to cheer her up. Unfortunately, that’s not so simple, either: She finally figures out that Ian is in love with her after all. She feels really badly about it, but says she just doesn’t love him. “He rested his free hand on my shoulder for a moment, and then walked away, and I stood there thinking of all the things we had never said. It was the saddest little end to something that had never had a chance.” I was truly sad to see Ian go, because he was the most interesting of all her men.

The next declarations of love we hear emanate from the long-expected Tom Briscoe, who finally tells Kit that she looks exactly like his dead wife. “I was so afraid that it was simply because you were like Ina,” he says. “And then I found that you were nothing like her at all. You were a different person, and it was you, not a likeness, that I loved.” So it’s OK!

After some tender kisses, Kit admits that she, too, found him very much like someone from her past—her father, if you can stand it. The driver of the car that crashed into her and Charles looked like the two of them, and somehow this muddle made her paralyzed for a couple of weeks, because “as long as you can lie in the hospital you don’t have to make any decisions, and that simplifies everything,” as her uncanny shrink divined. “It was as though the you-cum-Father thing was all wrong. Unnatural. You know?” Yes, we do, and we’re still not entirely clear why she’s gone for Tom, or why she was so shocked by seeing this driver caused her to become paralyzed for weeks. But now she and Tom are engaged, and he’s planning to take back custody of his two-year-old daughter Tina, who’s been raised from birth by her mother’s sister, Anna.

Anna comes to offer Kit her congratulations and bursts into tears, believing it to be the end of her custody of Tina, but Kit is firm that the girl will remain with Anna. “If he wanted to do that to you he wouldn’t be the man I think he is,” she tells him, saying she won’t marry him if he wants to take Tina back. It’s a surprising but welcome perspective, that a child can be better off with the adopted family that raised her than with the biological parent—but at the same time, we feel if it were the mother who wanted the child back, we would not be eager to leave her where she is. “Anna’s been her mother, ever since she was born. She loves her!” she tells Tom. “You can’t do this thing to Anna, or to Tina. It’s too late. If you love her you surely want what’s best for her? You want her to be happy, don’t you, and secure? Well, she is.” Also undiscussed is how Kit feels about suddenly becoming the mother of a two-year-old, because I did have to wonder if that played a part in her attitude.

Tom has to think things over, and eventually agrees to allow Anna to adopt Tina—but it’s too late, the fact that he didn’t come up with that answer immediately dooms their relationship. “The fact that you could even imagine taking Tina away from Anna. It—it spoiled everything,” she tells him. “You were going to do a thing my father would never have contemplated.” It’s very perplexing, and when Tom tells her, “I shall never see why you did this to me,” I think most readers are on his side, especially when she drags her father into it. Weird!

Never fear, Kit ends up betrothed in the end, and if I wasn’t disappointed, I was surprised. In Charge Nurse—interestingly named for Tom Briscoe—we get the usual low-grade humor typical of author Olive Norton, here writing as Hilary Neal, that doesn’t always translate well to the Best Quotes section, such as when Kit fumes that sending Sister Carlin to work in administration “was a little like squandering a ten-shilling dose of erythromycin on one of the orderly’s pimples.” We get plenty of medical action on the orthopedics ward and in Kit’s brief stint in the ED, which is always a plus. If the paralysis bit was another peculiar aspect of the story that was never really satisfactorily explained, it’s certainly different! Ms. Norton has given us a good story here, perhaps not quite as fine as the three of her other books I’ve read (Paper Halo, Junior Pro, Factory Nurse), but Charge Nurse is definitely an interesting addition.

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