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Chapter Two

Leith Hospital

Has the bowel moved?”

Sister Macdonald spoke with the lilt of the Western Isles. Half propped up in bed, the back of his head pressing up against a pristine pillowcase, James could only gape. It was a question he’d never heard in his life before and was never likely to hear again. A bowel? What was that? How did it move? And why?

Sister Macdonald was a severe woman of about thirty-five with a sour expression, as if someone had forced her to suck a lemon. She wore a white starched cap that by some cunning design remained firmly fixed to her austere, dark bob, no matter how much she moved her head. Peeping over the top of her blue, short-sleeved, starched tunic was a white starched collar buttoned at the neck. Enclosing the tunic was a white, starched, knee-length pinafore with a rectangular top that was attached to the front of the tunic above breast level with two enormous safety pins at each corner. A nurse’s badge was attached to the left-hand pin and a small watch on a chain to the right-hand pin. The pinafore was held snugly around her waist by a wide, blue, stretch cinch belt with a chrome triple buckle. Thick black stockings encased her legs. A pair of black, shiny brogues with flat rubber soles completed the ensemble. So buttoned, belted, buckled, pinned and starched was Sister Macdonald that it was a miracle she could move at all, let alone carry out her nursing duties.

“I said, has the bowel moved? Well has it?” she repeated, hands on hips.

James’s trance-like state continued. His mouth opened and closed but nothing came out. Sister Macdonald, her patience exhausted, approached the bed, bent down and spoke sotto voce in his ear.

“Have you been to the toilet?”

The penny dropped. James hastened to reply but all that came out was a throaty sound. Then he shook his head.

“Very well,” said the Sister. “This is the third day. Time for some castor oil.”

She was back in a trice with a large bottle of thick, ribbed, blue glass. To ensure that there was no doubt about its contents, the label read in bold capitals CASTOR OIL. The Sister produced a white ceramic measuring spoon, poured a full measure and said, “Open your mouth.” James did as he was told. The Sister quickly emptied the contents of the spoon into the open orifice. James spluttered and gagged as the sickly, greasy liquid went down his throat. When he opened his eyes again, the Sister was still there. She had re-filled the measuring spoon.

“And again!” was all she said. James opened wide, steeled himself, swallowed the liquid and gagged again, but this time less. And the spot where his tonsils used to be didn’t hurt so much.

Image by Mary Hutchinson licensed under a CC 1.0 Universal Public Domain