New Zealand painter-poet Gregory O’Brien has just published a new collection of essays and art; pitched as a “field notebook … my whale survey”, Always Song in the Water drifts from his own front lawn in Hataitai, up to Northland and way, way across the Pacific. It’s the sort of book that slows you down, reminds you to breathe, and every so often flipper-slaps you with a great little yarn. This extract is called ‘A Kindness’.
Shortly after returning from a trip to England in March 2012, I was talking with my mother over the telephone, describing an in-flight movie I had watched, My Week with Marilyn – the true story of a young film-maker who had been assigned the task of looking after Marilyn Monroe on location in England sometime during the mid-1950s. My mother took a surprising interest in hearing about the film and then told me about two nights of her life in England presumably around the same time.
Signed up with a reputable nursing agency, my mother had found herself eminently employable in post-war London. There was always work – good work – available to New Zealand girls like her, on account of their comprehensive training, work ethic and physical prowess. She had made the most of the twelve months she had already spent in Britain and even managed to get herself invited to a Royal Garden Party – at that time the Holy Grail of stories-to-send-the-family-back-home. From said engagement, a photo survived down the years, in which my dark-skinned, blackhaired mother is standing, best-friend-fashion, with the Queen Mother on the lawn at Windsor Castle, both of them with glasses in hand. On account of what must undoubtedly have been a ‘large’ afternoon, my mother retained a life long enthusiasm for the gin and tonic. No episodes from her charmed nursing life would ever eclipse that story – not even an afternoon spent watching cricket at Lords with Benjamin Britten.
Until I mentioned the Marilyn Monroe movie, my mother had never before spoken of her employment at a central London hospital – ‘the one where all the Royal Babies were born’, by her recollection. As a contract nurse, she was always being bounced around from hospital to hospital, all over the city, with the same frequency, although for a different set of reasons, that Marilyn Monroe bounded in and out of an assortment of hospital rooms throughout her adult life.
On account of a particularly harsh British winter, during which my mother’s health had reached a state of near collapse – her constitution was never strong, on account of a childhood bout of scarlet fever – she spent a week in Dublin with nursing friends. While the rest of the rowdy contingent continued onwards to County Kerry, my mother’s ailing condition necessitated an early return to London, by ferry and then train. Arriving home, she was met by one of her nursing flatmates who, after the briefest of greetings, excitedly informed her that there was a shift available that night, looking after a ‘special’ patient at St Mary’s. It was a wellpaying but undemanding assignment. My mother’s friend was already signed up for a shift elsewhere, otherwise she would have leapt at this one. My mother resolutely pulled herself together, as much as she could. On top of everything else, she told me, she was suffering severe menstrual bleeding. But she needed the money.
Before being admitted to the patient’s room, my mother was taken to an adjacent office, where the nature of the night’s care was outlined. Her employment had not been arranged through the hospital – this was a separate, private contract. My mother was told that the patient was an American actress, who had earlier in the day received surgery to her feet. She was asked to sign a document or two concerning the assignment, specifically regarding the identity of the young woman in the hospital bed, who had been admitted under an assumed name. My mother complied without hesitation. Keeping a secret had never been a problem for her. She reminded me of another of the great virtues of New Zealand nurses: they were always as good as their word.
The nature of the surgery, she was told, meant that a considerable amount of pain relief had been prescribed. (My mother recalled, from her earlier career at New Plymouth Base Hospital, that pain after foot surgery was often excruciating.) With the actress as her sole charge for the night, my mother was to ensure the patient was kept warm and as comfortable as possible. If the pain became too much, a duty doctor was to be summoned. She was to remain awake, bedside, to keep an eye on things generally and also to ensure no unauthorised persons entered the room.
Having crossed a stormy Irish Sea less than twelve hours earlier, a residue of seasickness lingered – on top of whatever else my mother was suffering. (Within a few days, a doctor-friend – also a New Zealander – wrangled a nursing placement for her in Devon, where the fresh air, sunshine and pace of life would be much closer to that of her native Taranaki. The month spent there worked wonders.) Soon enough she was seated in a comfortable chair close by the bed, staring into the blonde hair of her sleeping charge and surveying, in the half-light, the well-appointed room. It was one of the best in the hospital, with large south-facing windows and good furniture.
When I asked my mother if the woman struck her as beautiful, she said that the actress was, at the time, very famous – although not quite as famous as she would be a few years later. Even my mother, not a frequent movie-goer, had recognised her instantly. She added that the actress’s appearance was perhaps a little ‘artificial’ – a word I had never heard her use before, in any context. My mother could not recall in detail any conversation that passed between them, although she could recall the woman’s sleeping head, her deep, narcotic breathing. To which she added, after further thought: ‘Oh, she was striking, yes, you could say that.’ A slight but significant revision of her earlier appraisal.
At a certain point in the night, with her charge drifting in and out of sleep, my mother herself fell into a deep slumber, from which she did not awaken until the following morning. It must have been 6am. The first thing she noticed was that one of the blankets had been removed from the bed and wrapped neatly around her. During the night, the actress had, with some considerable effort – of this my mother was certain – leaned across and, with great care, tucked her in.
The patient was, herself, asleep now. Mortified, my mother could not believe what had happened. How could she – one of an esteemed company of Commonwealth nurses – have slept while on shift? A short while later, a doctor and another nurse entered the room. It was at this point that my mother’s duties came to an abrupt end. She exited the room, distressed, nauseous and certain that her inattention would be reported to the powers that be. Word of such inexcusable, unprofessional behaviour would get back to the nursing agency. She wondered if this was the end of her nursing career in London.
Having returned to her flat and crept into bed, she fell into a swirling, convalescent sleep, from which she was roused, late afternoon, by the same nurse-flatmate who had arranged the previous night’s commission. Was my mother available for another shift? her friend asked. The patient from the previous night had placed a personal request that she be tended by the same New Zealand girl as the previous night. My mother was aghast.
About the second night, my mother had less to say. Her apologies would have been profuse but, one suspects, unnecessary. Early in the shift, my mother diligently handed over the painkillers – a formidable array, she observed, silently – and the requisite glass of water. She remained awake throughout the night, staring with girlish fascination at the face of the actress. For the most part, her charge slept comfortably, my mother fine-tuning the blankets and sporadically adjusting the pillows. At one point, she pulled her up in the bed – a manoeuvre my mother performed with great aplomb, as I myself learnt during a long, asthmatic childhood.
Close up, my mother stared at the actress’s face, her downy skin, the slight variations in her complexion, the ordinariness of her nose, her eyelashes – the features which, 60 years later, my mother would remember as ‘artificial’. In the dim light of the nightroom, she listened to the actress’s breathing. An audible twitch. The slightest of moans. The sound that lips make. A light, barely audible snoring which made my mother smile. Occasionally a few words were muttered in the almost-darkness. But, as my mother related, this was probably only the medication speaking. No secrets were forthcoming.
With dawn breaking in the trees outside the brick building, a doctor knocked on the door. He told my mother that later in the day the actress was being transferred, as planned, to a private country house. My mother then related to him, in unnecessary detail, an hour by hour account of the night that had just passed.
A little later, as my mother sidled quietly from the room, the actress was sleeping soundly. Just clear of the crumpled sheet, her shoulder rose and fell in time with each breath. She might have been walking or wading or swimming, my mother recalled – with a steady, deliberate rhythm, as if moving uphill or windward. Her pale neck and shoulder, pursed lips. Accompanied by the faintly oceanic rustle of her sheets. And that was where my mother left that undulating movement – until the morning 60 years later when she related this story to me, at which point the waves resumed their listless motion, a movement which now continues onwards and outwards by way of this further recounting.
Always Song in the Water: an oceanic sketchbook, by Gregory O’Brien (Auckland University Press, $45) is available at Unity Books.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.