Freeing The Nightingale

As Sarah knelt at her prie-dieu, she reflected on what she was actually asking of her gods. She stared up at the pictures hanging on the wall above her head, and couldn’t help thinking that their contrast reflected the dichotomy of her life.

On the left was the embroidered picture of Jesus, sewn lovingly by her Aunt Melissa at her confirmation and, on the right, the delicate water-colour of Saraswati, Hindu Goddess of learning and culture, painted by her mother, Paronita, the Bengali Hindu that her father had employed as an Ayah for his orphaned son, Simon, and had subsequently fallen in love with, and married.

She thought back to the previous day; to the confrontation between her father and herself. Of the demands he had made that she marry Gareth Lloyd-Winters, the son of his business partner, and her pleas that he forget this, and allow her to train as a doctor. She flinched as she thought of his anger with her at mentioning her dream to him again. The last time she had seen her father that angry, had been when she was six years old; the night her mother had died in childbirth, along with her baby sister. The same night that had begun the journey taking her away from her beloved India, to this cold, grey country of her father’s birth.

Sarah tried to pull herself together. She knew that it would take more than tears to change her father’s mind, especially as his honour, as a gentleman of his word, was now involved. She silently railed at a society that treated women as packages, to be bandied about at the whim of the men in their lives. Sarah sighed, and then bowed her head once more in prayer, hoping that at least one of her gods would be listening to her.

As she concluded her prayers, she heard a noise in the room behind her and, on looking around, saw that her aunt had woken from her nap in front of the fire. She smiled at her, happy at the sight of this woman who had taken her into both arms, and heart, on their first meeting.

As Sarah looked at Melissa, a flood of memories took her back to her childhood. She would always remember the stories, told on cold winter nights, and tucked up on a chair in Melissa’s arms; all the tales of heroism and derring-do that took place during the Crimean War, as her aunt worked beside a distant relative of theirs, Florence Nightingale, and her team.  And then, as she grew older, Aunt Melissa started to tell her the realities of war, and of the conditions they had been forced to work in, to try to save those poor young men hauled off from the battlefields.

This was one of the reasons for Sarah’s determination to become a doctor. All of those tales made one thing absolutely clear to her; the power to change the way things were done would have to come, not with the nurses, who had all the practical experience of looking after the ill and damaged, but with doctors, whose word was the final line between treatment, or abandonment.

As soon as Sarah had heard that women were being accepted for training, she had been determined to be one of them, and her admiration was boundless for Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who had opened the New Hospital for Women, in London. Sarah had set her heart on winning a place there, and she had succeeded.

But, as Sarah thought back to her argument with her father, she remembered his final words: ‘Just remember this, Sarah, you are still only twenty-one, and so need my permission to train, something you will not get. So you will either do as I ask of you, or you will have to wait until you are thirty, when you receive the inheritance your mother’s parents left you. Can you wait that long? Will they accept you then?’

Sarah tried to shake off the despair she felt at remembering this, and she stood up, her knees tender from staying in one position for so long. She limped slightly as she went to join her aunt, sitting down opposite Melissa, and smiling once more at this dearest of ladies.

‘I thought that you would never end your prayers.’ Melissa crooked an enquiring eyebrow at Sarah, something her niece had secretly practiced as a child, but with little success.

‘I’m sorry Aunt Missa. Was there something you wished for me to do?’

‘No, child. It just seemed to me that you were troubled, and I wondered if I could help at all.’

‘I’m afraid even you can’t help me this time.’ Sarah began to shake and, with a rush, she left her chair and sank onto the floor in front of Melissa, placing her head in her aunt’s lap, much as she had done as a homesick child of six.

Sobs burst from her, their intensity a surprise. She felt her aunt’s hand stroking the thick plait that wound around her head; a comforting, and familiar, contact for Sarah.

‘Come, Sarah, be still now. This excess of emotion will make you ill. I had thought you grown out of such tempestuous ways.’

‘Oh, Aunt Missa, I-I am being so sorry for behaving th-this way, after all that y-you have kindly taught me.’

‘Sarah my dear, what is troubling you so badly?’ Melissa’s face showed the disquiet she felt at her niece’s slip back to the Bangla accent of her youth.

‘He wants me to marry Gareth, Aunt Missa.’ Sarah let the mix of anger and heartbreak she felt show clearly in her face; maybe too clearly, as she saw Melissa catching her breath in shock.

‘Oh my dear, you look so like your father right now. Come now, child. Please tell me that you explained to Peter about the place reserved for you at the New Hospital? I thought that the reason for your wish to talk privately to him?’

‘It was, and I did . . . Aunt Missa he was so angry! I haven’t seen such anger in him since my mother died.’ Sarah’s head drooped like a wilting flower, her shoulders slumping, ‘I will never be the doctor I dreamed of. I will end up like Simon; married off to someone he likes, but doesn’t love.’

Her bitter tone had Melissa looking at her in concern, but she quickly drew her niece into her arms, the subtle mix of lavender and musk-rose that she always favoured, giving Sarah a deep sense of reassurance.

‘Dry your tears, Sarah, and we shall put all the considerable wits of the Nightingale female line, into working out a way in which to change your father’s mind. Yes?’ Sarah looked up at her aunt, a new-born hope starting to bud in her heart. She fumbled for a handkerchief, then dried her eyes and went slowly back to her chair. Settling into its comforting depths, Sarah had no doubt that, between them, they would come up with something.

 

*

Over the next hour, Sarah watched Melissa closely, and could almost see the wheels of thought in motion. She knew that she had touched on her father’s honour in her denial of his wishes, but all she could think of, was the possible future ahead if she ceded to him, and this frightened her deeply.

‘Do you know Gareth’s thoughts about all of this?’ Melissa had a strange look on her face, as though she had an idea at the back of her mind. Something tenuous as yet, but, with a bit more information, Sarah felt, Melissa looked capable of moving mountains in her aide.

‘I know he is of the same mind as me.’ Sarah smiled slightly at the thought of the young man in question. ‘The problem is, as Gareth and I were practically brought up together, we look on each other as brother and sister. I don’t think Father and Uncle Josiah have realised this, in their plotting and planning of our lives.’

‘Ah . . . Do you know if there is anyone that Gareth does have in mind as a wife?’

Sarah could suddenly see the direction of Melissa’s thoughts, and she remembered the last ball she had attended with Gareth. As the memory came vividly to mind, she smiled.

‘As a matter of fact, there is someone whom Gareth seems to spend an inordinate amount of time with. It might not be noticeable to those who do not know him well, especially as he is always so careful to interact with her among a group of people, but the fact that he hasn’t spoken of her to me, says more than if he had. How will this help us, Aunt Missa?’

‘I think the first thing we need to do, is to speak to Gareth later, when he comes here for afternoon tea.’ She raised a quieting hand as Sarah was about to speak. ‘No. Give me a minute, child . . . Now, we need to find out just how seriously Gareth is taking his acquaintance, and if he is thinking of matrimony. Then, if he is serious, we will have to persuade him to make this clear to Josiah, in the hope that it will change his father’s mind. If we can get Josiah on to our side, then I am sure that, between us all, we can persuade your father that it is the right thing to do. That way, we have a better chance of getting your father to sign the consent you need, especially when he realises that neither of you wish for this match.’

Sarah sighed silently to herself, knowing just how stubborn her father could be. She sat, hands tightly clasped as she strained to keep the budding hope she felt held inside. She knew Gareth would do his best to help her, and she hoped that the young lady she had seen him with so much lately, was truly the one for him.

 

*

‘Well? Now that we have finished eating, can you tell us how your talk with Uncle Josiah went?’

Sarah looked expectantly at Gareth, impatient at his silence so far. She looked at Melissa, and saw the same eagerness in her eyes. Gareth looked at these two women who had made his childhood such a happy place to be, and the sudden twinkle in his eyes, had Sarah almost jumping to her feet.

‘You did it! You really got Uncle Josiah to change his mind?’ Sarah felt a second’s apprehension, knowing Gareth’s predilection for teasing her but, seeing the triumphant grin that appeared on his face, knew that the battle was half won. Her heart seemed to turn over with the joy she felt at getting this far so quickly. But the thought of her father’s reaction sobered her somewhat.

‘It wasn’t easy, I can tell you.’ Gareth pushed the empty luncheon plate in front of him to one side, and twisted his napkin in his hands. ‘I think it was only because Marie-Claire’s family have such good connections with our fathers’ business, that he would even contemplate talking to Uncle Peter about it. Our marriage was apparently an idea they had after the success of Simon and Anna’s but, when I pointed out that the familial connection was already made between them by your brother and my sister, he couldn’t really use that as an excuse to keep to their agreement. I also found out that the whole idea had been kept informal, which was a great relief to me. If it had been contracted, we would have had a much bigger fight on our hands than we have so far.’

Sarah felt a twinge of worry, as she contemplated the next step; they now had to persuade her father that this was the best thing to do. She looked over at Gareth and Melissa, and found courage in their support. She knew that, although they might get her father to agree that a marriage between Gareth and herself was impossible, it was another thing entirely to persuade him to sign her consent form, and she knew that it would take every bit of cunning between them all to do so.

‘In that case, I think the next step is for the two of you to speak to Peter together. If you show a united front on the matter, it will show him how strongly you both feel.’ Melissa looked at the two young people sitting at the table, and smiled reassuringly at them. ‘Peter isn’t an ogre you know, Sarah. You have always been able to speak to your father about your wants and needs, so you should gain some courage in that.’

‘Yes, Aunt Missa, I admit that you are right in this – except in the one subject of my becoming a doctor, I’m afraid.’ Sarah pulled a wry face, and shrugged helplessly.

‘Take one step at a time, child. Persuade your father to release you both from this arranged marriage first, and then we shall tackle the rest!’

‘In that case, it may be best if we see Father when he returns to his home office this afternoon. The quicker it is done, the better I will feel. What do you think, Gareth?’

‘Yes, you are right. The sooner we do so, the better. I am sure that my father will not have had time to talk it over with him as yet, but we can get the subject aired with him, at least.’

‘Excellent! Now, as that has been decided, let us get back to the more pleasant task of choosing a dessert to go with the delicious luncheon cook made for us.’ Melissa smiled at Sarah and Gareth, and proceeded to steer their conversation to something more innocuous for the rest of the meal.

 

*

Sarah held tight to Gareth’s hand as they stood outside the door to her father’s room. She felt as if she was young again, being called in to explain some misdemeanour to him. She took a deep breath as Gareth knocked firmly on the door, and expelled it quickly, on the swift response from inside.

‘Come.’ Her father’s voice, a pleasant baritone that had guided her life, drifted through the door. Sarah prayed that he would make the right decision for her this time, as he had so often in the past.

‘Chin up Sarah. He won’t eat you.’ Gareth twinkled at her, his eyes showing a mirth she wished she could also feel but, as she watched, his face became serious.

Grasping the ivory handle, Gareth twisted it, and opened the door into Peter’s home office, a twin to his father’s own. Sarah stepped through the doorway besides Gareth, gripping his hand tightly with nerves.

‘Ah, it’s you, Gareth – and Sarah! Good. Does this mean that things have been arranged as they should? . . . Come, sit. Make yourselves comfortable so that we can talk.’

They both sat on the chairs set in front of Peter’s huge old mahogany desk, hands still clasped. Before Peter could say anything more, Gareth sat forwards.

‘I am sorry to disturb your work day, Sir, but I – I should say, we, needed to speak to you urgently.’

Peter waved the apology away, a smile on his face.

‘No need, dear boy. I suppose you wish to talk about the arrangements needed for your marriage to Sarah? I can’t say how pleased I am that you agreed to this, my dear.’

Sarah felt a wash of guilt suffuse her at his smile to her, and felt her cheeks redden hotly.

‘I’m so sorry, Father. You mistake our visit to you.’ She quickly released Gareth’s hand, and held both her hands tightly together in her lap.

‘I apologise, Uncle Peter. This is entirely my fault. I should have told you immediately why we have come to you together.’ Gareth stood up, and took a step towards Peter.

‘What? Do you mean this isn’t about your wedding to Sarah?’ Peter looked at Sarah, and then back to Gareth, bewilderment in his face.

‘I’m afraid not, Uncle Peter. My father will be speaking to you later on today, but Sarah and I felt we should talk to you first. I’m so sorry about this, but neither Sarah nor I wish to be married to each other – Please! . . . Let me continue? . . . We are as brother and sister to each other, having spent our childhoods in and out of each other’s nurseries and schoolrooms, and neither of us has a wish to be anything more intimate to each other. I already have someone in mind to be my bride, and sincerely wish that my father had mentioned these plans to me, before he and yourself made your arrangements, as I would have quickly informed him of both of our feelings towards such a thing.’

Sarah kept her eyes on her father throughout this, and saw the blood drain from his face, as he sat back in his chair. He seemed dazed for a moment, and then she saw the realisation in his eyes.

‘Oh. Dear heavens! What have I done?’ Peter looked between Gareth and Sarah, and then put both hands over his face, as if to hide the shock and embarrassment he felt. Sarah stood up, and rushed around the desk, to put an arm about his shoulders, which shook as he gave way to his emotions.

‘Please, Father, please? All will be well, I promise.’ Sarah couldn’t bear seeing her father this way, and she held onto him, kissing his head, and patting him as if he were a distraught child, feeling helpless as to what she could do to ease him. She looked up at Gareth, and indicated for him to leave her with her father. She knew how humiliated he would feel, to give way in this manner in front of another man – as Gareth had also realised – and he swiftly left the room, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Sarah quickly fumbled at a desk-drawer, remembering that her father always kept handkerchiefs inside and, snagging one, pressed it into her father’s hand. He fumbled somewhat then, swiftly standing, he turned his back on Sarah, blew his nose, and tried to wipe away the tracks of his emotions.

‘Father?’ Sarah stopped, as Peter indicated for her silence, and so she went back to her previous seat, and waited patiently for him to become more composed.

Within moments, Peter had calmed down, and looked, to Sarah, as self-possessed as if the emotional storm had never been but, as their eyes met, she could see that it still raged on inside of him.

‘Father . . .’ She didn’t know what to say to him, what would ease that torment, and she raised a hand to express the helplessness she felt.        Peter came and sat on the chair beside her, and took her hand in his. He smiled at her, a smile she hadn’t seen on his face since she was a young girl; a smile of tenderness that only a parent could bestow on their child, one that could forgive all wrongs, and promise to make all right in that child’s world.

‘I apologise to you for trying to force this marriage on you, Sarah.’ Peter put up a hand to stop the outburst she was ready to make. ‘I think I need to tell you something. Something that broke my heart, but which is relevant to our situation now. The reason why I object so much to you becoming a doctor – so much so, that I nearly made an even worse thing happen.’

Sarah was wise enough to keep quiet at this. She knew there was something in their past that had turned her father from the funniest, most loving father she could have wished for, into the dark, brooding, if still caring, man he had become, and this was the first time he had expressed a wish to tell her why.

 

*

‘It started the night your mother was giving birth to your little sister,’ Peter began, and Sarah listened closely, seeing the intense pain this was causing him. ‘Things were fine at first, and the midwife was coping well. But then something happened – to this day, I haven’t found out what – and she started to panic. She sent word to me that a doctor was needed, and so I sent my secretary to find one, knowing that James was very familiar with the Cantonment, and so wouldn’t get lost while searching.  When he returned an hour later, he was minus a doctor and, when I pressed him as to why, he was reluctant to tell me at first.’

As Sarah watched, Peter stood, his hands clenched into fists. Then he paced as he spoke.

‘Those, bigoted, self-serving . . .  cowards, had decided that my wife wasn’t good enough to be seen by any of them! They feared that the ‘ladies’ in their care would be horrified at one of their own doctors helping a ‘native’.’

Sarah wasn’t as shocked at this as her father might have imagined. She had grown up in this society, and knew how easily a snub could be delivered in front of her parent, without his realisation. She watched him pace up and down the room, as he tried to work the anger out of his system.

‘By this time, both your mother and sister were in severe distress, and it was your Ayah who thought of calling one of her own doctors, one of Indian birth, who had sworn to serve all who needed him. And so I begged her to hurry and fetch him, which she did within a half hour.’

Peter suddenly slumped back into the chair, resting his head back, staring up at the lamp set above his desk.

‘But by then it was too late.’ He said this quietly, sadly. ‘Within an hour of the old man coming, both Paronita, and your little sister, were dead. The old doctor told me that, if they had been seen within an hour of the trouble starting, they could have been saved – but my fellow countrymen, these . . . doctors, hadn’t come when called!’ He looked directly at Sarah, as he said this, and shook his head wearily. ‘This is why I don’t wish you to become one of them, my dear.’

Sarah was saddened at all that had happened, but felt even more determined to do what she felt was right.

‘Father, I am so sorry that you were put through all this pain by those men. I have been told that one of the first things a doctor does on completing his studies, is to take an oath that he will serve all who need him, just as the native doctor did. The fault was in the men themselves, not in the service they were supposed to provide.’ She stood, then perched on the arm of his chair as she used to as a child.

‘I will tell you now, that the main reason I wished to become a doctor was to try and prevent the kind of thing that lead to my mother and sister dying! I know there is much wrong with the way things are run at the moment, but it is people like Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who can see what needs to be changed, and who will help us all to serve our patients better in the future. . . Father, every day there are new discoveries in the field of medicine, and I want to be there when they start to make a difference to everyone – can you see why, now?’

Sarah stared into her father’s eyes, willing for him to see into her heart. It was with gladness that she slowly saw the realisation of all she dreamed of, awakening in him. He cupped his hand to her cheek, and stared deeply into her soul, or so it seemed to Sarah, and then he closed his eyes, sighing in resignation.

‘I think you really mean to do something positive with this, do you not?’ Peter opened his eyes again, looking lovingly at Sarah, and she smiled at him,

‘Yes, Father. I am determined to be there on the forefront of Medicine. I want to see so many things improved and, if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime – well, one day I may have a son, or a daughter, who will continue the work!’

Peter smiled at Sarah, ‘Then you had best give me this form that needs to be signed.’

 

(4,126 words)

 

Written 05/05/2010.

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