About the Author

Donna Douglas lives in York with her husband and two cats. They have a grown-up daughter. When she is not busy writing, she is generally reading, watching Netflix or drinking cocktails. Sometimes all at the same time.

About the Book

It’s Christmas, 1945. The war is over, but its scars remain.

Matron Kathleen Fox has the job of putting the Nightingale Hospital back together. But memories and ghosts of those lost fill the bomb-damaged buildings, and she wonders if she is up to the task.

In the name of festive cheer Kathleen decides to put on a Christmas Show for the patients. The idea is greeted with mixed feelings by the nurses, who are struggling with their own post-war problems. And the rivalry between newcomer Assistant Matron Charlotte Davis and ward sister Violet Tanner isn’t helping matters.

However, as rehearsals begin, it seems the show isn’t just a tonic for the patients – could the Nightingale Christmas Show be just what the doctor ordered for the nurses too?

Also by Donna Douglas

The Nightingale Series

The Nightingale Girls

The Nightingale Sisters

The Nightingale Nurses

Nightingales on Call

A Nightingale Christmas Wish

Nightingales at War

Nightingales Under the Mistletoe

A Nightingale Christmas Carol

The Nurses of Steeple Street Series

The Nurses of Steeple Street

District Nurse on Call

title page for The Nightingale Christmas Show

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

Epub ISBN: 9781473539013

Version 1.0

Published by Arrow Books 2017

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

Copyright © Donna Douglas 2017

Extract from The Nurses of Steeple Street © Donna Douglas 2016

Cover photography by Colin Thomas except background © TopFoto

Donna Douglas has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

First published in Great Britain by Arrow Books in 2017

Arrow Books
The Penguin Random House Group Limited
20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London, SW1V 2SA


Penguin logo

Arrow Books is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9781784757137


Like the Nightingale Christmas Show itself, this book could not happen without a diverse cast of characters. So my thanks go to the team at Random House, especially my editor Viola Hayden, Cassandra Di Bello, the designers for the great cover, my publicist Jasmine Rowe and the unsung heroes in the sales department who make sure the book gets on the shelves.

I would also like to thank my wonderful agent, Caroline Sheldon, and my family for their support. Especially my daughter Harriet, who is far more brutal than any editor I have ever worked with, and who made me change the ending. For the better, I have to say.

To Ken, with love as always





30th November 1945

A battered wooden sign hung over the crumbling remains of the old Casualty department. It swung lopsidedly from a single nail over what was left of the doorway, creaking in the cold wind.

The paint was peeling from the wood, but Matron Kathleen Fox could still read the words:

The Nightingale Hospital – more open for business than usual!

‘I don’t understand it, Matron.’ Miss Davis, the Assistant Matron, looked perplexed. ‘Why did it say the hospital was open for business? Surely that would have been obvious?’

‘It was supposed to be a joke,’ Kathleen said.

‘A joke?’ Miss Davis’s small face puckered into a bewildered frown.

‘I had it put up the day after the hospital took its first big hit during the Blitz. The bomb blast blew a hole in that wall over there.’ Kathleen pointed to the other side of the courtyard. ‘I thought it might be amusing to put up a sign, to remind people we were still here in spite of everything.’

Four years ago, she had stood in the same spot in the courtyard as she did now, smiling to herself as she watched the porters nailing the sign into place over the gaping hole where the doorway had been. She could remember the men laughing as they put it up, and the grins on the patients’ faces as they passed underneath it. God knows, they’d had precious little else to smile about back then, with the East End taking the worst of the bombing night after night.

She remembered that day as if it were yesterday, but somehow it also felt like a lifetime ago. Now she could barely recognise herself in that proud, defiant woman. The Luftwaffe’s bombs had destroyed her fighting spirit, as surely as they had destroyed the old Casualty building.

‘I see.’ Miss Davis did not crack a smile. ‘Well, it can’t be left hanging like that. It might fall down and injure someone. I’ll speak to the men in Maintenance and have it fixed right away.’ She took out the notebook she always carried in her pocket and scribbled a reminder to herself.

Kathleen held herself rigid, trying not to give in to her irritation. Even the scratch of the Assistant Matron’s pen on paper grated on her.

She didn’t know why she disliked Charlotte Davis so much. It certainly wasn’t like her to take against someone so fiercely. And Miss Davis had hardly given her any reason to resent her. The young woman was bright and keen, she worked hard and she was eager to please. Even her appearance was inoffensive, her slight figure always immaculate in her dark blue uniform, a perfectly starched headdress framing her unremarkable face.

And yet there was something about her that set Kathleen’s teeth on edge.

‘Don’t bother,’ she said. ‘We might as well take it down. We don’t need it now, anyway.’

‘As you wish, Matron.’ Miss Davis crossed out a few lines in her notebook and wrote in some more words in her tiny, spidery handwriting. ‘They’ll be pulling it all down soon, anyway, once they’ve finished building the new block.’ She turned her gaze to where the work parties of German POWs were toiling under the wintry sky. ‘Look, they’ve nearly finished the roof. It won’t be long now, I’m sure. Then all this lot can be cleared away.’

Kathleen winced at her brisk tone. She couldn’t blame Miss Davis. The Assistant Matron had only been at the Nightingale a few weeks; she had no fond memories of the hospital as it had once been. She had never witnessed the defiant spirit and the courage of the doctors and nurses who risked their lives day and night during the war. All she saw were the remains of bomb-ravaged buildings needing to be swept aside to make way for the new.

But Kathleen saw a different picture.

‘I remember the night it got hit,’ she said. ‘It had just turned nine, and the night shift had come on duty. I was in my flat in the sisters’ home when I heard the explosion, but I knew straight away what had happened. I came straight back, and—’

She paused for a moment, gathering herself at the memory of seeing those smouldering remains for the first time. Even now, when she thought about it, her heart started to hammer with panic, remembering how she had fought her way through the thick fog of smoke, choking on dust and the sickening stench of cordite, while all around her the air was filled with shouting and running footsteps and the screams of the dying.

‘Were there many casualties?’ Miss Davis’s crisp voice broke into her thoughts, jarring her back to the present.

‘Four patients were killed, as well as a young medical student and a second-year nurse. Devora Kowalski.’

‘You remember her name?’ Miss Davis sounded surprised.

‘I’ll never forget it.’ It was imprinted on her mind as clearly as the devastated faces of Nurse Kowalski’s parents when Kathleen had broken the news to them that their only daughter was dead. ‘I remember them all. Everyone who died in the service of this hospital.’

‘Of course,’ Miss Davis said. ‘Such a shame.’

Kathleen glanced sideways and saw the look of polite sympathy on the Assistant Matron’s face. She didn’t understand, Kathleen thought. She did her best to look as if she cared, but there was a kind of detachment about her that Kathleen found chilling.

Charlotte Davis had come to the Nightingale after resigning her commission with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service. She must have witnessed some terrible tragedies of her own while serving in Europe. And yet she seemed curiously untouched by it all.

Kathleen wondered if that was what she didn’t like about her. There was no warmth or empathy about Miss Davis. Even her pale blue eyes were like ice.

Even now, the Assistant Matron was consulting her watch, keen to move on, to push past their emotional conversation.

‘It’s past ten o’clock, Matron,’ she said. ‘They will be expecting us up on the wards.’

Kathleen bit back the retort that sprang to her lips. She wanted to remind Miss Davis that she had been Matron of the Nightingale for more than ten years, that she did not need anyone, least of all her new assistant, to tell her what she should be doing and when. But instead she managed an icily polite, ‘Thank you for reminding me, Miss Davis. What would I do without you?’

The sarcasm was lost on her, as usual. Miss Davis straightened her shoulders and looked pleased with herself. ‘Thank you, Matron.’

It had rained the night before, and the morning chill meant the broken cobbles of the courtyard were glazed with ice. The evidence of the war was still all around them, in the gaping holes in the brickwork and the roofs jagged against the dirty grey sky, with chimney pots missing, and sections of roof blown out.

As they passed the main building, Kathleen automatically averted her eyes. Four years on, she still couldn’t look at it without remembering the night her former Assistant Matron Veronica Hanley died.

She had thought she would die that day, too. Those last hours, when she and Miss Hanley had been buried in a tomb of fallen rubble, masonry and twisted steelwork, would haunt her forever.

The outside of the hospital might still bear the scars, but from the inside no one would have ever known there had been a war at all. The staff who had been evacuated down to Kent when the war began had all returned now, and the wards that had housed military patients were now filled with the usual winter bad chests, rheumatism and routine operations. The ceilings might have been cracked and the walls missing chunks of plaster here and there, but the floors shone, the windows gleamed and the air was filled with the scent of disinfectant and polish.

They visited each ward in turn, where the ward sister, her staff nurses and students were lined up at the double doors, like soldiers awaiting inspection. At every ward, Kathleen greeted the nurses and took report from the sister about any new cases that had come in, and those that were due for discharge. Then she went from bed to bed, speaking to the patients. As it was the last day of November and less than a month until Christmas, most of them were eager to know when they could go home. It had been seven years since the last peacetime Christmas, and everyone wanted to spend it with their families.

Miss Davis followed behind, but as usual she was more interested in the state of the ward than the people in it. She brandished a measuring stick, which she used to check the turned-down top sheets. She ran her finger along the bed rails and window sills, and sniffed the water in the flower vases on the bedside lockers to make sure it was fresh.

But never once did she pay any attention to the patients, Kathleen noticed.

Once again, she fought to keep her irritation in check. Inspecting the ward was supposed to be her job, but Miss Davis seemed to have taken it upon herself to do it. And from the hostile glances the ward sisters sent the Assistant Matron’s way, it was clear they did not like her any more than Kathleen did.

They reached Jarvis, the male medical ward. Violet Tanner was waiting for them outside the double doors, tall and straight in her grey ward sister’s dress, a sliver of raven black hair visible under her linen bonnet. She was flanked by two staff nurses and one shy-looking student, her eyes cast demurely down at the ground.

‘Miss Tanner,’ Kathleen greeted her.

‘Matron.’ Violet kept her expression formal, but the hint of a smile gleamed in her dark eyes. She and Kathleen had been friends ever since Violet joined the Nightingale as Night Sister ten years earlier. She had been evacuated down to the country with the rest of the Nightingale staff, but she had returned just before VE Day and taken over the running of the newly opened male medical ward.

If Kathleen had had her way, she might have been her new Assistant Matron. But the Board of Trustees had had other ideas.

Jarvis was identical to the other wards in the hospital, a long, high-ceilinged room with tall windows and two rows of twenty beds down its length. In the centre of the room stood a desk, and a table adorned with flowers where the patients who were well enough to get up took their meals. At the far end, beyond the tall, glass-fronted equipment cupboards, was a short stump of corridor that led to the private rooms, the kitchen and the sluice, and beyond that to Sister’s office and her private sitting room.

They stood at Miss Tanner’s desk while she gave her report. But all the while the ward sister was speaking, Kathleen was conscious that Miss Davis scarcely seemed to be listening. Instead her narrowed gaze roved around, up into the ceiling around the light fittings, over the windows and floors and along the lines of beds and lockers, looking for flaws.

Finally they began their inspection. As Kathleen would have expected from Sister Jarvis, the ward was spotless. But Miss Davis seemed to be on a mission to find fault. She strode off purposefully down the ward, brandishing her measuring stick.

‘Aye aye,’ one of the men laughed as she approached. ‘Watch it, Percy mate. You know where she’s going to put that stick, don’t you?’

His friend in the next bed sighed. ‘I’ve had that many enemas and Lord knows what else up there, I don’t suppose it’d make much difference.’ He grinned at Miss Davis, showing off an array of gaps where his teeth had been. ‘I hope you’ve warmed it up first, Sister!’

Miss Davis pulled her slight figure up to her full height. ‘It’s Assistant Matron to you.’

‘Ooh, I beg your pardon.’ The man pulled a face and gave her a mock salute. ‘I didn’t know I was in the presence of royalty, I’m sure.’

‘Take no notice of him, Miss, he ain’t got no idea how to behave.’ The man in the next bed shook his head at him. ‘I wonder, do you think you could pick up my Racing Post for me? It’s slipped on to the floor.’

Kathleen and Violet glanced at each other with amusement, both knowing what was coming next. But Miss Davis seemed to have no idea as she sighed and bent down to pick up the newspaper. As she did, the man leaned over and slapped her smartly on the backside.

Miss Davis shot upright with a gasp of outrage. ‘How dare you?’

‘Sorry, Sister, I couldn’t resist it.’ The man grinned.

‘Reg! It’s Assistant Matron to you,’ his companion in the next bed reminded him sternly.

They were still chuckling as Miss Davis stalked away, back up the ward. Her narrow shoulders were rigid under her grey dress, her face flaming.

‘Oh dear, I am sorry, Assistant Matron.’ Violet Tanner sounded sincere, but looking sideways at her, Kathleen could see her friend tucking in the corners of her mouth in a desperate attempt not to laugh. ‘I should have warned you, Mr Donnegan and Mr Church do like their little jokes.’

‘That man is a menace!’ Miss Davis snapped.

‘He’s quite harmless, really. I suppose when you’ve been stuck in bed for six weeks you tend to find ways to amuse yourself. Most of the nurses have learned to take it in good part.’ Violet smiled at her. ‘I’m sure you got used to dealing with male patients when you were a military nurse?’

‘I most certainly did not!’ Charlotte retorted. ‘I would never have tolerated such behaviour. The men would have been punished.’

‘Yes, well, we can hardly make poor Mr Donnegan get up and run around the courtyard, can we?’ Kathleen said, impatience getting the better of her.

‘More’s the pity!’ Miss Davis snapped. She straightened her shoulders, trying to hold on to what was left of her dignity, and headed off back down the ward, still clutching her stick. As she passed Mr Donnegan’s bed, she made a point of looking the other way.

‘Oh dear,’ Violet whispered. ‘I do hope she finds a cobweb or something, just to cheer her up.’

‘If she doesn’t, it won’t be for the want of looking. Honestly, I don’t think that young woman has any sense of humour at all.’

‘She does seem rather a cold fish, I must admit. Perhaps she just needs time to come out of her shell?’

‘I hope you’re right.’ Kathleen turned to Violet. ‘Are you still free this evening?’

‘For our night out? I’m looking forward to it.’

‘So am I. Shall we take a taxi, or catch the bus?’

‘Let’s splash out and take a taxi, shall we? We can pretend we’re wealthy ladies of leisure.’

‘If only that were true!’

‘Kathleen Fox! Are you telling me you’d like to be a kept woman?’

Before Kathleen had time to answer, Charlotte Davis was heading back towards them, her measuring stick tucked under her arm.

‘The top sheet on bed ten is turned down twelve inches, not fourteen,’ she announced with malicious satisfaction.

‘Oh, I do apologise, Assistant Matron. I will have the bed remade at once.’ Violet nodded to the student nurse, who jumped to attention immediately. Once again, her face gave nothing away, but Kathleen could see the gleam of mirth in her dark eyes.

Just at that moment, the double doors swung open and a second student nurse came in, staggering under the weight of a cardboard box full of Christmas decorations. She stopped dead when she saw Kathleen and Miss Davis standing there, her cap askew on her blonde head, knees buckling under the box’s weight.

‘Ah, there you are, Philips,’ Violet said. ‘Do put that down before you drop it. You found everything, then?’

‘Yes, Sister.’ The girl dropped the box and quickly straightened her cap and brushed the cobwebs off her apron, her fearful gaze still fixed on Kathleen.

‘You see? There was nothing to be afraid of, was there?’

‘No, Sister.’

‘Then go and put the box in the cupboard. We’ll start putting up the decorations later, when I can get a porter to bring a ladder.’

‘Yes, Sister.’ As the girl went off, still staggering under the weight of the box, Violet turned back to Kathleen. ‘She was terrified of going down to the basement. The nurses all reckon it’s haunted.’

‘Ridiculous!’ Miss Davis snorted. ‘Everyone knows there are no such things as ghosts.’

‘I agree with you, Assistant Matron. But I must admit when I was Night Sister here I did hear some strange things in the dead of night. Creaks and bumps and faint moaning sounds, and the like.’

‘Probably the wind whistling through a loose roof tile,’ Miss Davis dismissed. ‘All old buildings make odd noises. Wouldn’t you say so, Matron?’

‘What?’ Kathleen turned to see her assistant looking at her expectantly. ‘Yes. Yes, I suppose so.’

But she was lying. She knew only too well that ghosts haunted the Nightingale. She had seen and heard them herself.

They finished their rounds with a visit to Wren, the gynae ward, and the maternity ward next door. Kathleen always left Maternity until last because she knew it would lift her spirits.

There were no sick people here, no tragedies waiting to unfold. It was full of new mothers, or women waiting to have their babies, which meant there was always an air of irrepressible anticipation, despite the ward’s tight regime.

Miriam Trott, the sister of Wren ward, was waiting with her nurses. She lived up to the name of her ward. She looked exactly like a bird, with her tiny frame, beaked nose and dark, inquisitive eyes. The hair under her cap was a thin, dusty brown colour, like a sparrow’s wing.

‘Good morning, Matron, Assistant Matron,’ she greeted them. ‘Everything is ready for you.’

Miriam Trott was even more of a stickler for order than the other ward sisters, and as Kathleen looked down the ward all she could see were two lines of freshly scrubbed faces, hands placed carefully on the top of their immaculate coverlets. Even the babies were silent in their nursery at the far end of the ward behind a firmly closed door.

The ward was spotless too, the polished floor gleaming, reflecting the wintry light from the windows.

Beside her, she heard Miss Davis’s sigh of approval. She and Sister Wren were much of the same mind. Kathleen felt sure the Assistant Matron would find no badly turned-down beds or dusty corners here.

But nor would they find a great deal of laughter or fun. Miss Trott discouraged such things.

Before they could begin their inspection, Miss Trott gave her report.

‘We have a new patient on the ward: Mrs Goodwood,’ she said. ‘She was admitted last night for observation due to high blood pressure and oedema.’ She paused, then said, ‘Perhaps you remember her, Matron? She was in charge of the local WVS during the war.’

Kathleen nodded. ‘I do indeed.’

‘Mrs Goodwood helped to organise a mobile canteen here when our dining room was bombed,’ Miss Trott explained to Miss Davis. ‘Such a wonderful woman. I don’t know how we would have ever managed without her.’

‘Indeed,’ Kathleen said. But her memories of Mrs Goodwood were not as glowing as Miriam Trott’s. She recalled a very bossy woman, bustling around giving orders in her green uniform, thoroughly enjoying every moment of her new-found power.

‘We struck up quite a friendship during that time, actually,’ Sister Wren continued. ‘She’s such a refined woman, not like some of the types we get in here.’ Her thin mouth curled.

Mrs Goodwood was sitting up in bed waiting for them, the coverlet smoothed over her wide bump. She was a no-nonsense woman in her thirties, straight brown hair cut practically short to frame her square face. Even in a flannel nightgown, she still gave off an air of self-importance. She was busy making notes in a book propped up in front of her, while her knitting lay half-finished on her bedside locker.

‘Good morning, Mrs Goodwood,’ Kathleen greeted her. ‘You seem very busy?’

‘Good morning, Matron. Yes, well, I have things to do.’ Mrs Goodwood laid down her pen with the faint irritation of someone who resented the interruption. ‘I must say it’s rather a nuisance to find myself here when I have so much I could be getting on with.’

‘Perhaps you’re doing too much?’ Kathleen suggested. ‘Have you considered your raised blood pressure might be nature’s way of telling you to slow down?’

‘Well, it’s most inconvenient,’ Mrs Goodwood said briskly. ‘We’re supposed to be having a Christmas fête to raise funds for the church roof repair, and that won’t organise itself.’

‘I’m sure there are others who could help out,’ Kathleen said.

‘I hardly think so!’ Mrs Goodwood looked put out at the suggestion. ‘If you want something done properly, you should do it yourself, that’s what I always say.’

‘I’m sure you do.’ Kathleen felt for the poor church roof committee. At least they might be able to breathe during Mrs Goodwood’s absence.

‘How long do you think I’ll be here? No one seems to be able to tell me.’

‘That’s really up to the doctor,’ Kathleen said. ‘When is your baby due?’ She went to pick up the notes hanging from the end of the bed.

‘Not until the end of January,’ Mrs Goodwood said.

‘Another two months?’ Kathleen consulted the notes.

‘You seem rather big for your dates.’ For once, Miss Davis said what Kathleen had been thinking.

Mrs Goodwood shot her a dark look. ‘Yes, well, I can’t help that, can I? Big babies run in my family, so my mother says.’

Miss Davis frowned. ‘Nevertheless, you do seem very large. Are you sure you’ve got the dates right?’

Mrs Goodwood’s face reddened. ‘I should say I have! My husband didn’t come home until May.’ Two bright spots of colour stained her cheeks. ‘I do hope you’re not suggesting anything – improper?’

Kathleen looked away to conceal her smile. The idea of Mrs Goodwood doing anything improper was too amusing for words.

Miss Davis shook her head. ‘No, no, of course not … I wouldn’t suggest …’ She looked helplessly from Sister Wren to Mrs Goodwood and back again. Both women glared back at her, tight-lipped. ‘I was only saying—’

‘Perhaps it might be best if you didn’t, Miss Davis,’ Kathleen said politely. ‘Mrs Goodwood’s blood pressure is already high. We don’t want to push it up even further, do we?’

‘I—’ Miss Davis opened her mouth then closed it again.

But she would not let the matter drop, even as they returned to Kathleen’s office after the inspection.

‘I still think that baby is too big for her dates,’ she muttered under her breath as they made their way back down the winding corridors.

‘I agree,’ Kathleen said. ‘But you heard what she said. The baby couldn’t possibly be due before January. And Miss Trott doesn’t seem to think that it’s anything out of the ordinary.’

‘Yes, but—’

Kathleen stopped, so abruptly that the Assistant Matron cannoned into the back of her. ‘How many babies have you delivered, Miss Davis?’ she asked.

Miss Davis blushed. ‘A few, when I was training,’ she mumbled.

‘And how many since then?’

Miss Davis lowered her gaze. ‘None.’

‘Quite. Whereas Sister Wren has delivered more babies than you and I put together. So I think we should allow her to know best, don’t you?’

Miss Davis’s blush deepened. ‘I’m sorry, Matron,’ she said stiffly.

They walked back to Kathleen’s office in silence. She was aware of Miss Davis quietly simmering beside her, but she ignored her.

Of course she knew that Mrs Goodwood was too big for her dates. She was also fairly certain that the baby would be born well before January, possibly even before Christmas. But she chose to accept Miss Trott’s judgement, partly out of support for her ward sister, but mostly because it was another reason to disagree with her Assistant Matron.

When had she become so petty? she wondered. It really wasn’t like her at all, but Miss Davis seemed to bring out the worst in her.

But by the time they returned to Kathleen’s office the Assistant Matron had started up again, this time on the subject of the new linen supplies.

‘When will they arrive, Matron?’ she wanted to know.

‘I’m not sure. I ordered them last month.’

‘Then surely they should be here by now?’

‘I really couldn’t say. The suppliers were making parachutes until six months ago. I daresay it will take a while for them to get back into the swing of things.’

‘Yes, but the supplies we have are running low, and they’re already in such bad condition. We need new linen urgently.’

‘I am well aware of that, Miss Davis,’ Kathleen replied tightly. ‘But as I said, we must just be patient.’

Miss Davis paused for a moment, and Kathleen could almost see the words ticking around in her brain before they finally came out.

‘Perhaps I should telephone them and find out when—’

‘You will do no such thing!’ Kathleen cut her off. ‘I told you I had placed the order, and the linen supplies will arrive when they arrive. Now, I’m sure you have other things you can be getting on with, besides chasing after me and making sure I’m doing my job properly!’

‘I’m sure I didn’t mean to suggest—’

Kathleen closed the door on the Assistant Matron before she could say another word.

She leaned against the door, breathing out a deep sigh. Just being with Miss Davis exhausted her. It wasn’t the young woman’s energy that drained her, but the effort of controlling her temper.

How dare she question her? Did she really not think that Kathleen was well aware of the woeful state of the linen cupboards? She and her nurses had been struggling with the inadequate supplies for years, trying to make ends meet throughout the war, when everything was scarce.

And now Charlotte Davis had turned up, so fresh and smart and full of ideas, and acted as if she was the only one in the world who had ever noticed the problem.

You mustn’t be too hard on the girl, you know, Matron. She is doing her best.

Kathleen looked up at the sound of the familiar voice. ‘I might have known you’d be on her side!’

She turned to look into the shadows in the corner of her office, but there was nothing there.

I really don’t understand why you’ve taken against her so much, Veronica Hanley’s voice came into her head again, as clearly as if she had been standing at Kathleen’s shoulder. If you want to know what I think—

‘I don’t,’ Kathleen said out loud. ‘But as usual, I’m sure you’re going to tell me.’

I think you’re resentful because you didn’t choose her yourself.

‘Perhaps,’ Kathleen conceded. ‘I certainly would have preferred to be consulted about it. We do have to work together, after all.’ But as it was, the Board of Trustees had appointed Charlotte Davis without a by your leave to Kathleen about it. By all accounts Major Hugh McLaren, one of the six board members, had pulled some strings to secure the position for Miss Davis.

‘If it had been up to me I’d have chosen one of the senior nurses. Someone who knows the hospital well.’ Although there weren’t many left to choose from. Kathleen recalled all the senior nurses who had not returned to the Nightingale for one reason or another. Some, like Sister Blake, had got married when the war ended; others, like the Home Sister Agatha Sutton and Sister Tutor Miss Parker, had decided to retire.

And then there were the casualties of war, like Veronica Hanley herself. Kathleen had clashed so many times with the former Assistant Matron when they worked together, but she could never have imagined how much she would miss her.

But it would have taken more than death to keep the formidable Miss Hanley from her duties.

Kathleen couldn’t remember when she had first become aware of her presence. Almost from the moment she died, Kathleen seemed to hear Miss Hanley’s voice, see her shadow moving out of the corner of her eye. At first she thought she must be imagining it, but she knew the words that came into her head were not of her own making. Miss Hanley gave her advice freely, just as she had in life. And more often than not, they clashed with Kathleen’s own opinions.

I suppose you would have chosen your friend, Miss Tanner?

‘Yes, I think I would. She would have made an excellent Assistant Matron.’

She makes an even better ward sister. Such a waste to have her chasing linen orders and drawing up work rosters when she should be nursing.

‘Whereas Miss Davis is so good at that sort of thing,’ Kathleen said, tight-lipped.

Miss Davis has many excellent qualities. She’s hard-working, efficient, sensible –

‘You’re only saying that because she reminds you of yourself!’

No, indeed, Matron. She reminds me of you.

Kathleen swung round to look at the wall behind her. The curtain shivered in a draught from the window. ‘Nonsense. She’s full of rules and regulations. I was never like that.’

She’s also full of energy and purpose, just like you were when you first arrived. Do you remember, Matron? You had no respect for traditions. You were never interested in the way things ‘had always been done’, only in how the hospital could do them better.

Kathleen smiled reluctantly. ‘Goodness, I sound quite insufferable.’ No wonder Veronica Hanley hadn’t liked her very much to begin with!

Over time, however, they had adjusted to one another, and as the war went on Kathleen had come to appreciate her Assistant Matron’s loyalty and courage. They might have made a good team, if only …

Now is not the time for self-pity, Matron. Miss Hanley’s voice was brisk in her head. Especially when there is so much work to be done. The Nightingale needs to be rebuilt, restored to its former glory.

But am I the one to do it? Kathleen thought. Her gaze moved to the top drawer of her desk, where the letter she had received last week was concealed.

You’re still thinking of taking the job, then?

‘Why not?’ It was perfect for her. A country hospital in Lancashire, close to where she had grown up. An idyllic little market town, largely untouched by the ravages of war. Not like the East End, which still bore its scars in every bombed-out building and empty space where a street had once been. ‘I’d be closer to my sister and her family, too.’

And what about the Nightingale?

‘What about it?’ Kathleen said defensively. ‘I’ve been here for nearly twelve years. I saw the hospital through the war, during the times when the building was falling down around our ears and no one else thought we could go on …’ She stopped, pulling her emotions back together. ‘I gave everything to this hospital, and now it’s time I started thinking about myself.’

I seem to remember you saying those words before, and yet you stayed.

‘Only because you talked me out of leaving!’

And do you regret your decision?

‘Sometimes.’ In fact, she often wondered what would have happened if she had followed her heart and run away with James Cooper. The war had thrown her together with the handsome consultant, and they had fallen in love. Their affair was as passionate as it was forbidden. They had made plans; he was going to leave his loveless marriage and they were going to start a new life together. But after Miss Hanley’s death, Kathleen had decided the Nightingale needed her. The last thing the Assistant Matron ever did was to persuade her to stay. ‘But it’s different now. It’s the right time to go.’

Then why haven’t you written your letter of resignation yet?

‘I – I haven’t got round to it.’ But that wasn’t strictly true. She’d heard from the hospital over a week ago but had told them she needed time to think about the offer, and they’d given her until Christmas to decide. Now, even though she’d already made up her mind and was set on leaving the Nightingale behind, putting pen to paper was proving more challenging than she’d first thought.

Why don’t you write the letter now, if you’re so set on leaving?

‘All right, then, I will!’ She flung open her desk drawer and pulled out a sheet of notepaper, then picked up her fountain pen. Miss Hanley’s voice fell silent, and Kathleen could almost sense the Assistant Matron holding her breath, waiting for her.

‘You don’t think I’m serious, do you?’ Kathleen said, just as the door opened and Charlotte Davis walked in.

Kathleen looked up at her sharply. ‘Don’t you ever knock?’ she snapped.

Miss Davis’s pale blue eyes widened in shock. ‘I did,’ she said. ‘Perhaps you didn’t hear me? You seemed to be talking to someone?’ Her eyes scanned the empty room.

‘I was speaking on the telephone,’ Kathleen said. ‘Was there something you wanted?’ she added, before the Assistant Matron could argue.

‘Um, yes.’ Miss Davis dragged her quizzical gaze away from the telephone and back to Kathleen’s face. ‘I wondered if you had managed to look at the duty rosters I wrote out yesterday?’

‘Not yet.’

‘Do you have any idea when they might be done?’

‘I’ll get to them as soon as I can.’

‘It’s just I promised to take them up to the wards this afternoon, and—’

‘I said I’d do them as soon as I can!’ Kathleen saw Miss Davis flinch. ‘I’m not going to achieve anything with you bothering me every five minutes, am I?’

‘No, Matron. I’m sorry.’ Miss Davis retreated, subdued.

Seeing her face gave Kathleen a pang of guilt. ‘Miss Davis, wait—’ she started to say, but the Assistant Matron had already closed the door.

She laid down her fountain pen and sat back in her chair with a sigh. Poor Miss Davis. Irritating as she might be, it wasn’t her fault that Kathleen was so weary.

Perhaps Miss Hanley had a point. Maybe the reason she found it so difficult to warm to the Assistant Matron was because she reminded her of how she had once been, before the war sapped her of her energy and her will.

‘I suppose you think I was too hard on her?’ she addressed the air of her book-lined office. But the leather-bound volumes on the shelves remained stubbornly silent. The only sound was the wind outside, shivering the branches of the plane trees in the courtyard.

Kathleen took the letter out of her top drawer to read through it again. The job offer could not have come at a better time. She was weary, and she had achieved as much as she was going to at the Nightingale. Now it was time to hand it over to someone else. Someone who might be able to make a difference.

Why don’t you write the letter now, if you’re so set on leaving?

She put the letter away and closed the drawer. There would be time enough to write her resignation another day. For now, she had to get on with the duty rosters before Charlotte Davis arrived to nag her yet again.

image mising

After she had come off duty that evening, Kathleen met Violet and they took a taxi up west to Charing Cross. Kathleen could feel the tension leaving her as they left Bethnal Green, heading for the city of London.

‘I’d forgotten how good it feels to get away from the hospital for a while,’ she said, massaging the stiff muscles in the back of her neck.

‘It sounds as if you’ve had a hard day?’ Violet smiled sympathetically. She looked different out of her uniform, her make-up subtly enhancing her beautiful bone structure and the darkness of her eyes. Her stylish red coat contrasted with her sleek black hair. Violet had always dressed well, even when clothes were hard to come by, thanks to a wardrobe of elegant, expensive outfits from the life she had once had, but now never liked to talk about.

‘Every day is hard at the moment.’

‘Oh dear. Any particular reason?’

Kathleen caught her friend’s look of concern and forced a smile. This was a rare night off for both of them; it would be wrong to burden her with all her troubles.

‘Take no notice of me. I’m just feeling a bit under the weather, that’s all.’

‘It sounds as if a night out might be just what you need,’ Violet smiled.

‘You may be right.’ Kathleen looked out of the window at the buildings of the city rumbling past. She tried not to notice the ugly gaps where the Luftwaffe had left their mark, and instead concentrated on the great dome of St Paul’s looming ahead of them. Despite the German air force’s best efforts, it had remained miraculously intact. A sure sign that God was on their side, some said, even though it hadn’t always felt like it when the bombs were raining down and half the city was ablaze.

‘Isn’t it lovely to see the streets all lit up again?’ she said, changing the subject. ‘It’s so festive.’

‘You wait until we get to the Strand,’ Violet said. ‘The shops and restaurants all look so lovely, I nearly cried when I first saw them.’

Kathleen saw what she meant when they got out of the taxi at Charing Cross. To see lights in shop windows and all the Christmas displays lifted her heart. They had lived in darkness for so long, stumbling along the streets in the blackout, with nothing but the dimmest of torchlight to show the way. But now the lights seemed dazzling in every window, more than making up for the lack of Christmas wares.

Violet crossed the road towards the station and led the way down a narrow little street that ran down to the Thames. Kathleen caught a whiff of dank river water and hesitated.

‘Are you sure you know where we’re going?’

‘Of course.’ Violet tucked her arm in Kathleen’s. ‘Come on, it’s this way.’

They picked their way carefully down the cobbled street, following a throng of other well-dressed people all heading in the same direction. There certainly seemed to be quite a crowd there, pouring towards what seemed to be a domed railway arch set into the brick wall.

Kathleen and Violet had visited the Players Theatre Club several times during the war in their old premises in Mayfair, and some of the players had been kind enough to travel out to the East End to entertain the military patients at the Nightingale. Now the club had a new home, and Violet had managed to get tickets to the opening night.

‘I didn’t realise it was going to be such a grand affair,’ Kathleen said, as they finally managed to squeeze inside and handed their coats to the cloakroom girl.

‘Oh yes, it’s quite an occasion. I’ve heard there’s already a waiting list to become members here.’ Violet looked around at the sea of bobbing heads. ‘You never know, we might spot someone famous. Or someone we know, at any rate.’

As it turned out, they didn’t see any famous faces. But Kathleen hardly cared because the show was so entertaining. Act after act took to the tiny stage, and she soon forgot her troubles as she laughed at the comedians’ lively patter and sang along to the old Victorian music-hall songs, clutching the song sheets they had been given on the way in. Suddenly the Nightingale, Miss Davis and her future in Lancashire seemed a long way away.

But all too soon it was time to go home.

‘Thank you for suggesting I come out with you tonight,’ she said to Violet as they left the theatre and stepped into the freezing night.

‘It was such fun, wasn’t it? I loved that woman who led the singing, all dolled up in Victorian garb and a huge feathered hat.’

‘Oh, that hat! I thought she was going to poke the conductor’s eye out when she bent over! And the things she came out with!’

‘She was a bit saucy, wasn’t she? It was like watching Marie Lloyd herself.’

‘I do love a bit of old-fashioned music hall,’ Kathleen sighed. ‘There’s nothing quite like a good laugh and a sing-song to make you feel better.’

Violet smiled. ‘Remember the Christmas shows we used to put on at the hospital for the patients before the war?’

‘How could I forget? I think Mr Hopkins’ endless monologues might stay with me forever.’

‘Oh heavens, yes! The Head Porter and his recitations. But he wasn’t the only one trying to hog the limelight, was he? Do you remember the ward sisters’ choir, and how Miss Trott always insisted on having a solo?’

‘“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”?’ Kathleen rolled her eyes at the memory. ‘She sang it every year.’

‘And it never got any better, did it? No one had the courage to tell her she couldn’t sing, until Miss Hanley said she sounded like a cat sliding down a blackboard by its claws!’

‘Miss Hanley always was rather blunt!’ Kathleen smiled.

‘Perhaps we should do it again?’ Violet said, as they stood shivering on the Strand, waiting for a taxi.

‘Put on a Christmas show, you mean?’

‘Why not? I’m sure we could get some of the staff to join in if we asked them. They always used to be keen, as I recall. In fact, I’m sure the performers enjoyed it more than the audience!’ Violet grinned. ‘Go on, it would be such a tonic.’

Kathleen considered it. ‘Perhaps you’re right,’ she said. ‘Heaven knows, I think we could all do with something to lift us out of the doldrums.’ She smiled. ‘As you say – why not?’

‘That’s the spirit,’ Violet said. ‘Although I would suggest we try to dissuade Mr Hopkins from yet another monologue …’

But Kathleen was no longer listening. She had caught sight of a face in the crowd spilling out of Villiers Street opposite. He was arm in arm with a woman in an extravagant fur coat.

For a moment Kathleen could only stand there, pinned to the spot by a lightning bolt of long-forgotten emotion. She wanted to look away but somehow she couldn’t drag her eyes from his face.

And then, as if he knew he was being watched, he suddenly turned and looked at her, and she saw her own shock mirrored on his handsome face.

The woman noticed her, too. Her eyes narrowed, then the next moment she was making her way determinedly across the road towards them, dragging her companion with her.

Kathleen was consumed with the sudden urge to run away. But it was too late; she could only stand there helplessly as James Cooper and his wife approached.

‘Why, Mr and Mrs Cooper!’ Violet greeted them with delight, unaware of the tension. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’

‘Good evening, Miss Tanner. Miss Fox.’ James nodded, his eyes not meeting hers.

‘Mr Cooper.’ Kathleen’s body was as stiff as a marionette’s. ‘Mrs Cooper.’

‘How delightful to see you again.’ Simone Cooper’s voice was husky, with a hint of her native French accent. She was a brittle beauty, darkly exotic, with hooded eyes and jet-black hair caught up in a brocade turban. ‘Have you been to the club, too?’

‘Yes, we have.’ Violet answered for her, as Kathleen’s tongue seemed to stick to the roof of her mouth. ‘Such fun, wasn’t it?’