“I’m sorry I’m late.” Fiona was still tying the strings of her apron when she emerged from the tiny room which the female staff of the Govan free clinic used as a changing-room, and bumped into the muscular frame of Dr Matthew Usher.
“Did the dragon Mrs Cunningham try to lock you in?” he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
“No, the cable on the subway carriage snapped. I still don’t trust this new-fangled system. Goodness knows what the folk on Heronsay would think of me hurtling round underneath the streets of Glasgow in a wee wooden carriage!”
As usual, Fiona’s heart gave a little flutter as she looked up at Matthew’s handsome face. She told herself that he smiled in just that way at everyone, but she didn’t really want to believe it. With patients and staff, Matthew was kind, gentle and firm. He had a way of talking to people that was friendly without being condescending, so that young mothers, old grandmothers and taciturn ship-workers alike confided in him.
He was a good man and an excellent doctor and there was no denying it, Fiona thought to herself as she walked with him along the short corridor to the waiting-room, she liked him. She liked him quite a lot. And she was pretty certain he liked her, too, not just because of that particular smile, but because he was always seeking her out, always seemed pleased to see her even when they were up to their eyes with patients, and he was, too, always careful never to cross the line in front of the other nurses. A gentleman, Matthew was, of the very old-fashioned kind.
But as Fiona pushed open the door to the waiting-room and the cacophony of sound hit her, all thoughts of personal feelings evaporated. As ever, the room was full to bursting, and as ever, despite the obvious suffering of some, the atmosphere was relaxed and happy, in stark contrast, so Matthew said, to the strictly regimented regime maintained by the parish doctor. This was just one of the reasons that the clinic flourished. The patients didn’t mind the long wait, passing the time swapping stories and sharing news, the women exchanging recipes and remedies as they knitted, one eye on their needles, the other on their bairns.
“Could you help Nurse McKinley with the ante-natal cases today, Fiona? I’ve my hands full and will need Nurse McEwan to help me out. A dreadful case; a riveter from one of the yards had his arm crushed and I’m afraid that it’s become gangrenous. Then I have my consumption trial cases to attend to.”
Fiona knew that Matthew was funding these trials himself, administering the same revolutionary treatment as Francis was being given. The research fascinated her, and she would have relished the chance to be at Matthew’s side to help with the poor shipyard worker, too, but she had no real training, and Nurse McEwan had years of experience, so she must make herself useful wherever she could. And within five minutes, Nurse Evaline McKinley was allowing her to be so useful that Fiona forgot everything else in the pleasure of doing so.
It struck her every time how different these people were from the Cunninghams. It wasn’t just that they were so friendly and so grateful, but it was the way that they got on with the very raw deal life had dealt some of them. Last Sunday, Matthew had taken her on a walk around the streets of Govan. It was Fiona’s first experience of true poverty, and she’d been appalled at the dark and dingy tenements, built so closely together that the limp washing was strung out on lines stretching across the alleyways. It was a million miles from the wide-open, windswept spaces of Heronsay, and yet there was a similarity in the people’s resilience, their tight sense of community. Their pride.
“Though the parish health officer does his best to act on the reports of the sanitary officers,” Matthew had explained, “forcing the landlords to comply with the recommendations is an uphill struggle. Some of the back courts still have ash pits and middens, despite the fact that we know for sure that clearing them out and installing proper communal sanitation has an incredibly positive effect on health.”
Mortality rates, cholera and the spread of infection due to the chronic overcrowding: Matthew spoke with an evangelical enthusiasm about his plans for eliminating them all as they walked through the crowded streets. Around them, children skipped and played, while women sat on the doorsteps watching, nursing their babies. Most of the doorsteps were scrubbed clean, Fiona noticed. Despite the smoke-filled air and the lack of a good drying breeze, the quantities of washing on the lines spoke of the women’s determination to keep their standards high.
“Doctor Usher wants to see you before you leave,” Nurse McEwan said at the end of another busy day, as Fiona tidied herself in readiness for the journey back to the prosperous West End via the dreaded subway. To think it even went under the Clyde. No, best not think about that!
Most likely Matthew wanted to ask her for a progress report on Francis, Fiona thought as she tapped on the door of the consulting room.
The doctor was sitting behind his desk. His hair was dishevelled. He had a habit of running his fingers through it when he was thinking. Euan used to do just the same thing, Fiona remembered with a little stab of pain. She used to reach up and pull his hand away, smoothing down his curls. He would smile at her when he did that, a lop-sided smile that she always found endearing.
A pang of homesickness washed over her for Heronsay, but she gave herself a little shake, and smiled brightly at Matthew, who had jumped up from behind his desk.
“I was worried you’d already left.”
“It’s been a busy day. Nurse McKinley taught me how to listen for the babies’ heartbeats. It was wonderful.”
“You’d make a fine nurse, Fiona. I’ve said it to you before you should think about formal training. Francis won’t need you for much longer, and then . . .”
Matthew took her hands between his. His fingers were warm and long, the nails cut close and immaculately clean. He looked nervous.
An answering flutter started up in Fiona’s stomach.
“Matthew? What are you trying to say?”
“I thought that if you trained as a nurse, you might like to work here, at the clinic.”
“I yes,” Fiona replied uncertainly, confused and strangely disappointed.
“With me, I mean,” he continued.
Matthew took a deep breath. His fingers tightened around hers.
“Fiona, you must know that I . . . that I want to . . . that I think we could . . .” He broke off with a rueful smile. “Fiona, what I’m trying to say is, I’d like to take you home next Sunday. To meet my parents.”