People think nurses get a special calling, like nuns’ or priests’ vocations. That wasn’t the case with me. After five years at boarding school in the convent, I knew I didn’t want to be a nun. I didn’t make the grade for teacher training college like my older sister, and I didn’t like the thought of working in a bank or at a desk in the civil service. There wasn’t much else for a girl to do in the late sixties, was there? I mean, I was never going to the factory. God no. Being a factory girl’d be even worse than being a nun. My mother would never have lived that down.
Jacinta Brolly had all the bumf on nursing at Altnagelvin. Her sister nursed there and the stories of the craic in the Nurses’ Home were mighty. Nights out, boys, smoking fags, no Rosary and no supervision from nuns or parents. Jacinta’s sister completed her form for her and I copied Jacinta’s. So, it was more by accident than anything else that I started nursing.
Three years later, I passed my exams and was now a state registered nurse, an SRN with a silver buckle on my belt, a blue stripe on my hat, a badge to decorate my uniform and a certificate of authenticity proudly displayed on my mother’s mantlepiece at home. The new uniform and stripes gave me a new air of confidence inside and outside of work. I could even give trainee nurses instructions and order supplies needed on the ward.
Anyway, six months after I graduated, a new patient was transferred from the Burns Unit to Medical 3 into the single Isolation Unit on instructions from on high. He came in with an armed military escort. A young man by the name of Emmet. A home-made bomb had exploded prematurely causing extensive burns to his face, chest and upper arms. His hair was singed giving him the look of an African with the blackened burnt skin to his face and the straggly dark hair. He was locked in the isolation room and guarded round the clock by a rota of military policemen who held the key and sat outside his room. Nobody was allowed to enter other than hospital staff.
Over the next couple of weeks, I got to know him and he began to confide in me, telling me about his family in the Creggan, his sister nursing in the Royal in Belfast and about the incident that got him arrested and admitted. He even knew my brother at St. Columb’s College.
From the start, an MP in khaki uniform tried to engage me in conversation as he sat on the chair just outside the isolation room door, rifle resting on his knees.
“Well blondie, back on for another shift I see.” He offered his hand, “Roy’s the name, Roy Swindon.”
I ignored his hand and waited for him to open the door so I could tend to Emmet. When I came out, I went over to Roy and said,
“The name’s not Blondie. Its Nurse McCallion. Staff Nurse McCallion, to you.”
“I’m sorry luv. Didn’t mean offence. No reason we can’t be civil, is there? I mean we’re both in the one boat, stuck here minding that IRA scum inside there, when we could be out on the town.”
“I have work to do,” I said and headed for the nurses’ station.
And a day or two later when I came back to check on Emmet, Roy started again.
“We could go out for a few bevvies, like? What about it then, luv?” in his arrogant, despicable English accent, “go to Dukes Bar in the Waterside. Where do you live? You know, you and me. Get to know each other. I could pick you up if you want.” Jesus imagine, I thought, a Brit soldier calling round to our rented house in the Bogside. Mind you I was tempted to give him an address where I knew he’d get the welcome he deserved.
I’d never forget that Sunday night eighteen months previously when I was rostered for Casualty – 30th January 1972, the date burned in my memory. Bloody Sunday. Twenty-six unarmed civilians shot, including my cousin Helen, and thirteen killed by Roy’s mates. As Roy was locking the door after I came out, I said,
“Listen here, like I told you the other day, my name is not Blondie, and it’s not Luv. I told you already, I’m not interested in going out with you. Is that clear enough for you? And for your information, I wouldn’t be seen dead in an Orange pub in the Waterside, with you or with anybody else.”
Emmet began to tell me details of the incident that landed him in the hospital, charred and burnt, under armed guard. He’d got involved after leaving school two years earlier. No job and no prospect of a job. His father had been injured a few years before by Unionists who attacked the Belfast to Derry civil rights march at Burntollet. He had to wear a colostomy bag ever since. He later became active in local republican politics. Emmet started as a Messenger, later became a Watcher and then underwent unofficial arms and explosives training with the FCA in Donegal. The home-made bomb was his first assignment and the target was Ebrington Barracks. The bomb had gone off as he was putting it into his duffel bag.
He didn’t seem the type to get involved. Thoughtful, intelligent and a lively sense of humour, I thought.
“I know you think I’m nuts Brigid – getting involved,” he told me. “And maybe I am – trusting an amateur bomb-maker. I don’t even know who made it. Or who issued the instruction for me to plant it. The more I think about it, the crazier it seems. Will you help?”
“Depends what it is. I’ll help if I can, but there is a limit,” I said.
“Look, God knows what the Brits will do to me once I get out of here. You’ve heard the stories about Fort George holding centre – the beatings, the kickings, the sleep deprivation, as well as I have. I canny face that. You know what the Brits are like. And jail for God knows how long if I survive Fort George. I need your help to get out of the hospital.”
He asked when he was likely to be discharged. And would I to go to the Lep – we all knew the Lep, the Leprechaun Café – on Strand Rd where we went during our school days down the town. The Lep had the best chips in Derry. I was to ask whoever was on the duty to get Maurice. Maurice would know what to do. If I felt I couldn’t do what Maurice asked, that would be no problem -he’d understand. He wouldn’t ask anything more of me, said I’d done more than enough already. I told him I’d think about it.
I didn’t know what to do. I’d got close to Emmet over the last few weeks. He was a good-looking lad, despite the burns and we got on really well together. But I’m not sure he understood the enormity of what he was asking of me – nor did I, when I think about it now. I was concerned for Emmet’s welfare but afraid of becoming involved, and of being caught. I could end up in Fort George and face the same challenges that Emmet feared for himself. Jacinta’s cousin had got the treatment there and ended up in Gransha, the local mental hospital. Anyway, I went to the Lep that evening after work.
The following week I was on night duty, in charge of the floor for the night. The bold Roy was on the 8.00pm to 4.00am shift. I prioritised the other patients first before going to the isolation room. Emmet was sitting out on a chair reading Walter Macken’s The Scorching Wind.
“Tonight’s the night,” I said.
He leapt from his seat and took my two arms, smiling from ear to ear.
“Really? I don’t know what to say.” Hugging me, “Thanks so, so much Brigid. What time?”
“Between half three and half four, when the MP shift is changing. I hope I don’t regret this.”
At half three, I went to the safe in Sister’s Office, took out the Isolation Room balcony key, popped it in my pocket and went for a stroll around the ward. All quiet apart from the odd snore or crinkling of the plastic covers on the mattresses as patients turned in their sleep. My two students were having tea at the nurse’s station.
Roy was reading a western as I passed. I kept going. Twenty minutes later I went to Emmet’s room, Roy opened the door and locked it after I entered. I took out the key and unlocked the external balcony door. I handed Emmet a package with enough dressings and pain-killers for a week. Emmet kissed me silently on the lips and slipped out the door. A rope was tied to the small balcony railing and he climbed over it clutching his bandaged chest. He gingerly slid down the three floors on the rope, on to the grassy bank below, where his contacts were waiting. I put two pillows under the bedclothes and shaped the covers to look as if someone was in the bed.
Heart in mouth, I waited ten minutes before I knocked on the door. Roy opened it without a word, had a quick look inside, and relocked it as I left.
Hands shaking, I replaced the key in the safe. What was I just after doing? I could do time for this or lose my job and be struck off the nursing register. My lower lip wouldn’t stop quivering. I accompanied the night sister around the ward at 5.30a.m.
“How’s our friend in isolation doing?” she asked as we approached the MP sitting in the corridor.
“He’s on the mend Sister. Another two or three days and he’ll be discharged.” I could hardly get the words out, my throat was so dry.
“Let’s check him out,” she said. The MP opened the door, glanced at the bed, then let us enter.
“Sleeping soundly, I see. Pain must be well eased.”
“Yes, sister,” I managed to say.
I had just arrived at the flat after the night shift when a loud knocking came to the door. Two nervous-looking armed RUC men wearing bullet proof vests. The blood drained from my face and panic rose in my stomach.
“We need you to come to the station. We have queries about an escaped prisoner from the hospital last night. Get dressed we’ll be in the land rover outside.”
They held me until 6.00 pm, then let me go. Not sure they were convinced that I had nothing to do with it, but from what I could gather, Roy was getting much of the blame.
Three months later, me and Jacinta were in the Lep for chips after the cinema. At the till I was handed an envelope addressed to “Brigid.”
“Maurice said to give this to you. “
“Who’s it from?” asked Jacinta.
Intrigued, I opened the envelope. There was a postcard inside.
“Lemme see,” said Jacinta.
Embarrassed, I held the card close to my chest
“Oh my God Brigid you’re blushing, must be from a boy.”
“I am not. Anyway, its none of your business.” She snapped it from my hand.
“Oh my Jesus, it’s from the wee bomber.” I grabbed it back and read.
“Thanks for everything. All Safe and well. In gainful employment at long last in Scannel’s Bar, Clonakilty. Chips not as good as the Lep. You’ll get me there. Come for Halloween. Love to see you and spend some time together. Love, Emmet.”
My heart leaped and the adrenalin flowed. That word. Love.
Where could I tell mammy I was going for Halloween?
Originally from rural North County Derry, Pat now lives at Eadestown, Naas, Co. Kildare. His short stories have been published in a number of magazines and journals including Spontaneity, The Galway Review, Honest Ulsterman, The Bangor Literary Journal, the Luisne an Chleite Anthology and Cuisle Chill Dara Anthology. He was shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story Competition and his entry, “Checkpoint,” was read on national radio. He also writes the occasional poem.