In the next part of the series we learn a little more of Matron’s past.
By Tara Patterson
Tara stood before Matron Taylor in her new uniform. As was usual at Queen Anne’s it was everything you would expect from a traditional nurse’s uniform; a burgundy short-sleeved dress with white piping on the sleeves, a white elastic belt and a starched white hat. Along with the uniform, Tara had been instructed to wear a pair of sheer stockings and white plimsolls. Matron had even included a silver nurse’s fob watch and a brooch with the school logo.
“The plimsolls are so you can move around the corridors after lights out without being heard,” quipped Matron Taylor. “Didn’t you ever wonder why I was able to catch you up to no good so many times? You look quite the part though. We thought burgundy would be the ideal colour, seeing as you are not a qualified nurse. Your first aid qualifications are more than adequate for your duties as my deputy though. How does it feel for you Under-Matron Patterson?”
“Like poacher turned gamekeeper, if you must know, Ma’am,” Tara replied. “I never would have imagined that one day you and I would be working together, or even that I would be back here at Queen Anne’s as a permanent member of staff. We had our battles in our time, didn’t we Matron?”
“Quite,” smiled Matron. “Although as a schoolgirl and even as a young nurse, I was more like you than you realise. I had a rebellious and independent streak too. Shall we move to my sitting room? It’s more comfortable there and I have cake. I’ll put the kettle on; it must be time for a wet.”
Matron’s sitting room was next door to her surgery. Its decor was rather dated. In the centre were two sofas with chincy floral covers. Around the mantel piece and on the walls were many framed photographs.
“Make yourself at home, Tara,” called Matron from her small kitchen. “And in here we are off duty, so please call me Meryl.”
Tara gazed at the photos on the wall. ‘The whole of Matron’s life so far,’ she thought. In pride of place on the mantle were two framed photos, one of young Meryl on a steam locomotive with a man who Tara assumed to be her father. Next to it was a photo of a much younger looking Matron Taylor standing in front of the school being presented with a set of keys by an older matron. The photos on the wall were a mix of steam locomotives and group photos of military Nurses, each was captioned with headings like: ‘Carnforth 1968’, ‘Nursing Staff RNAS Yeovilton 1974’, and ‘Naval Hospital Singapore 1976’. Two pictures in the centre puzzled Tara, though. One was a large painting of a single-funnelled passenger liner in a stormy sea captioned ‘HMHS Emphatic 1982’, and the other was a small uncaptioned portrait of a world war one era nurse.
Matron returned from the kitchen carrying a tray with two steaming mugs of coco and two large slices of rich fruit cake. She noticed Tara staring at the pictures. She set the tray down on the coffee table and looked at her photos.
“These are all the people and places that have inspired me. That’s my dear old Dad and me back home in York, and the Matron, that’s Matron Routledge. She was my predecessor and the Matron here during my school days. She used to put the fear of god in to me when I was a girl. We had a similar relationship to you and me. Her strap was a constant feature of my youth. Matron Routledge presented it to me when she retired. It’s the same one I use now, when I have to. The same one I used to use on you, Tara.”
“Ouch,” smiled Tara. “It’s seen plenty of use then? I take it the group pictures are where you got posted during your nursing career, but I am a little puzzled by the ship and the old photo of this young nurse.”
Matron smiled with pride.
“My great aunt Mary. My hero. She served as nurse in France during the Great War and she is the reason why I became a military nurse not a civilian one. And the ship. Have you not heard of Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship Emphatic? I served on her long ago. She took me to war, in 1982, right down to the Falklands, not that I saw much of the islands. I only went ashore once.”
* * *
Nursing Sister Devine looked up and down at the tired dishevelled character that stood to attention in front of her desk. One of her nurses, not in her usual uniform but dressed in a dirty pair of green Army fatigue trousers and a green Royal Marines jumper. Her boots were mudded and had left a trail into Sister Devine’s cabin. Her auburn hair was tucked up in a black woollen hat.
“What the devil were you thinking? Who gave you permission to go ashore? You know the secretary of state has forbidden female nurses to go into the combat zone.”
Meryl was tired from being awake for twenty-seven hours and what she had seen at Ajax bay, the main British field hospital. Her voice croaked as she spoke trying to explain her actions.
“Well, Sister, the Surgeon Commander wanted volunteers to go and help ashore with the wounded from the Sir Galahad. I just got caught up in the frenzy of it all and went. The girls on the ward offered to cover my watch so I wouldn’t be missed. I felt it my duty to help those poor burned boys out there, and I suppose I was trying to live up to the memory of my great aunt. She did just the same in her time and, well, she gave her life doing it. No harm came to me though; the boys at Ajax saw to that.”
“An honourable sentiment,” the sister replied. “However you went ashore in direct contravention of Naval orders, away from the protection of the red cross too. Yes, Taylor, you could have been killed just like your Aunt; most reckless. And not only that, what would have happened if your Wessex had been shot down and you had been captured? I dread to think what a bunch of sex-starved Argentine conscripts would have done with you! Well then, what to do with you, now your guilt has been established? Consider yourself confined to your cabin unless you are on duty. I will be signalling Plymouth for further orders regarding the correct course of action. What you have done is classed as desertion of duty. They could more than likely order me to arrest you and have you flown home for court marshal on the next available evacuation flight, in handcuffs!”
* * *
A week later, Nurse Taylor stood before the Captain of HMHS Emphatic and Sister Devine. This time she was wearing her full nursing uniform. Sister Devine looked at her notes and addressed her.
“You will be pleased to note their Lordships in Plymouth feel that having you escorted back to the UK with an armed escort is, under the current circumstances, a waste of naval resources. They have suggested your case be dealt with under the WRENs procedure for punishment abroad. They did point out that such procedures have not been used since Aden in 1942. It is also a suitable way for us to address your transgression without the matter being reported by the media or coming to the attention of the Red Cross or the Enemy. As you have admitted your guilt for the two charges it is now my duty to pass sentence. For entering a restricted area, namely dressing station Ajax Bay, in breach of Red Cross directives, six strokes of the slipper. Charge two; for desertion of duty on HMHS Emphatic, six strokes of the cane.”
Sister Devine continued.
“Due to the fact the Emphatic was a schools ship before requisition, we have been able to obtain a suitable cane from ships stores. Your punishment will therefore be executed forthwith. Marine Brutnel, please secure Nurse Taylor and escort her to the nominated punishment cabin.”
Meryl had not noticed the Royal Marine Bandsman standing by the door. He moved over to her and firmly secured her hands behind her back in a pair of handcuffs. The walk through the ship to the cabin designated for Meryl’s punishment was so humiliating; every member of the ship’s company they passed stopped work and looked at Meryl, even before they saluted the senior members of the escort party. Meryl hung her head in shame and began to dread her forthcoming punishment.
* * *
Nurse Taylor stood before a vaulting horse in the middle of the large cabin. Marine Brutnel removed her handcuffs, saluted the assembled female officers and then left the cabin. Sister Devine spoke.
“For this punishment, regulations state that you must bare from the waist down. So, remove your belt and all of your lower underwear. You may keep your dress on for now to preserve your dignity.”
Meryl reluctantly began to follow the instruction. First she bent down to untie her plimsolls, then she unclipped the belt from her uniform. She reached under her dress and one by one unclipped her stockings from the suspenders of her girdle. As Meryl took off each garment she passed them to Sister Devine who folded them carefully and placed them in a brown cardboard box.
“Now, Nurse Taylor, the first part of you punishment, six strokes of the gym shoe.”
“Prisoner assumes punishment position,” ordered a WREN chief petty officer standing by the vaulting horse. Meryl bent over the horse. She found two hand-holds on a lower part of the structure. She gripped them tightly. Behind her, she could feel hands lifting up the back of her uniform dress.
“Prisoner will count strokes,” came the order from behind. “Punishment will commence.”
With that the WREN officer picked up a plimsoll and delivered a hard stinging blow to Meryl’s left bottom cheek.
“Owww! One, thank you Ma’am,” Meryl gasped.
All went well until stroke number four. It seemed harder than the rest, or perhaps Meryl’s stamina was waning. She forgot to count and just lay over the vaulting horse sobbing.
“We will take that stroke again, seeing as you forgot to count,” said Sister Devine.
After the sixth stroke Meryl was commanded to stand by Sister Devine. “And don’t you even think about rubbing your bottom. It will be hurting a lot more yet when we have finished with you.”
Sister Devine then began a long lecture about the importance of military discipline and following orders.
Meryl wasn’t listening; she gazed at the wall thinking of home. Before she knew it her right hand had wandered down to her throbbing bottom. Meryl tried to give it a gentle rub to ease the pain.
“What did I say about not touching your behind? Another order disobeyed,” shouted Sister Devine. “You have just earned yourself another two penalty strokes; now, not another word. Bend back over the vaulting horse. Do not make a sound, move, or touch your bottom until we have completed your punishment in full. We will keep caning you until we have delivered eight strokes to my satisfaction. There will be no need to count this time.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” said Meryl as she positioned herself for her caning. This situation was terrible; never had she been punished twice in such close succession. Her bottom was still throbbing from the stinging swats of the plimsoll, and now for the cane. Meryl gripped the hand holds and prayed that her treacherous mouth wouldn’t let her down.
The WREN officer delivered four hard stokes with ferocity and precision. Meryl gasped at the shock and tried be quiet.
“Half way now, nurse Taylor,” said Sister Divine.
The officer changed sides and positioned herself again.
The strokes came more slowly this time. The pain was so intense, much worse than anything Meryl known before.
The final stroke was again by tradition the hardest of them all.
“Punishment complete, Ma’am,” barked the WREN.
“You may stand now, Nurse Taylor,” commanded Sister Divine. “Put your hands on your head so you won’t be tempted to rub your bottom again. Now, what have you got to say for yourself?”
Meryl saluted as she stood, before she placed her hands on her head and faced the sister.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am, it won’t happen again. It is much more severe and painful than anything that I have received before, even during my schooldays at Queen Anne’s, Ma’am. M-may I have some cold cream to ease the pain a little?”
“Certainly not!” Snapped Sister Devine. “That is a luxury; one that is not permitted at this moment. You will be assisted back to your cabin. May I suggest that you prepare yourself for bed and have an early night? You are relieved of your duties until tomorrow.”
With that, two WRENs who had been standing by the cabin door took Meryl firmly by the arms and half carried her back to her cabin where she crawled into her bunk and began to cry.
* * *
Meryl didn’t know how long she had been asleep but it was dark outside when she was awakened by the cabin door opening.
“Stanley has been liberated,” chirped her roommate, Nurse Casely. “It’s all over. We will soon be home.”
Meryl stiffly sat up in her bunk. Her bottom ached.
“You need a nurse to look at that, mate,” quipped Nurse Casely. “Sister has sent you some cream down. Oh, and this is for you, a nice hot ‘wet’ complements of Commander Jolly at Ajax. He flew in earlier with some more casualties. He has heard you have had a rather ‘arduous duty’ today after your little trip out to help him so he has insisted that you have a ‘tot’. He did ask me to pass on his thanks for what you did.”
Nurse Casely handed Meryl a large steaming enamel mug of coco. Meryl sipped the hot drink and she instantly began to feel better, as the tot of rum did its work.
“Much needed,” she smiled. “Home; at least I get to see it again.”
Meryl picked up a framed photo on her bedside table and looked at the black and white portrait.
“I just didn’t want to let you down, Aunt Mary.”
© Tara Patterson 2015