Chapter 6

Life in Rochford

Sadie and I settled into life in Acacia House, a three story apartment in the main street of Rochford. The bottom floor was occupied by the medical registrar at Rochford Hospital, Rod Ledwich and his wife, both from the north, and Chrissy, about three.

On the second floor lived an Indian family – the Carrs. Doctor Carr (he never did tell me his first name) was the geriatric registrar and was short, tubby and boisterous. His wife was also a doctor and befriended Sadie, for which we were grateful. They had a little girl, Shiela, about seven, who had just started at a Catholic school and played with Stevie Fisher. The Carrs, I think, were Hindhu, but Sheila Carr was being indoctrinated into the Christian beliefs at school, so Sheila and Stevie made poor little Chrissie be the Devil in their games. They would then run away from him, causing him to bawl on top note.

Rochford Square with Acacia House on the left

Doctor Carr had his Membership of the Physicians College as I remember and was planning to return to India in the near future. He had purchased his own ECG machine.

‘How noble of you to return to India to help your fellow countrymen in a place where they will be unable to pay’, we said to him. ‘Oh no’, he said, ‘They do not respect your qualifications and ability if you do not charge top rates!’

He had brought his wife’s sister, Sumate, to England to train as a radiographer, intending to take her back to India with him and be part of his megaclinic. She had not been warned of the bitter climate and ventured forth shivering in her thin sari. I realised that one of his lurks in being geriatric registrar was the not inconsiderable income it generated from signing cremation certificates for undertakers in order for them to legally dispose of the aged remains. So much for altruism!

On the third floor was John and Lesley’s comfortable little flat where Lesley was still breast feeding baby Sarah. John in his kindness had negotiated with the hospital authorities for us to occupy a bedsit on the second floor opposite the Carrs. It contained a gas fire and gas stove and had access to a bathroom with a large bath. This bathroom had steam pipes running through it so was always a warm place to be in the bleak English winter.

Picnic with the Fishers, Essex, 1962

How lucky we were to be looked after so well by the Fishers, arriving as we did in the midst of a very cold winter. I immediately set about studying again for the primary and Sadie applied for a nursing job at Rochford Hospital. She was immediately successful and was allocated a medical ward.  On her first day the ward sister exclaimed, ‘Oh, an RN (Registered Nurse) at last – I’m taking the day off’.

Sadie was thus left in charge of a large ward on her first day with no knowledge of the running of an English hospital. In addition, it was a ‘take’ day, which meant that all the emergencies for that day came to her ward. At the end of the busy day she discovered a whole bay of patients she hadn’t realised were under her charge.

Several weeks after our arrival, I set off for Glasgow by train to once more tackle the Primary exam. It was bitterly cold and I had time to reflect as the train was stationary at Carlisle, an old Roman border town and train junction, before the slow ascent to Glasgow for my second visit.

In Glasgow, I had booked in to a spartan hotel in Bath Street, the Bath Hotel. It was adequate enough and its most redeeming feature was an enormous bath in which I could wallow without touching either end. The faucet was like a circular fire hydrant and filled the bath with steaming water in seconds. My recollection of the dining room is of coming down to breakfast and being barely able to see the far side of the room through the fog which sat eerily around the electric lights.

The exam consisted of written papers in anatomy, physiology, histology, and embryology followed by vivas over succeeding days. The results were not immediately available and were to be posted a week or so later. I returned to Rochford.

Our funds were getting low. Sadie’s wage was a meagre £8 per week. I applied for a job examining ‘ten pound Poms’ in Australia House in The Strand which resulted in work for one day each week. It wasn’t hard and for that one day I received an income of £10 tax free, better than Sadie could earn for the whole week. It was pleasant travelling up to London by train and dining out for a lunch of sausages and mash at Joe Lyons corner house.

About a week after returning from Glasgow I was due to do my weekly stint at Australia House. The mail for the whole of Acacia House was dropped through the front door of the apartment and lay scattered in the front hall. I came down the stairs and noticed a letter addressed to me from Glasgow. I grabbed it, stuffed it in my pocket, and continued on to the Rochford Railway Station. The carriages in those days were of the old ‘dog-box’ design with separate doors to each ‘dog-box’. I chose one that was unoccupied and sat down and with tremulous hands opened the envelope.

It was not happy news:

Anatomy – failed

Physiology – failed

Histology – failed

Embryology – failed

What to tell Sadie? Two goes at that wretched exam and I was yet to pass one subject. I had transported myself all the way to Toronto and worked in an anatomy department for a year –conscientiously, so I thought. What to do? We were broke so I could not afford the luxury of doing the London course at the Royal College of Surgeons, which was very expensive.

I was devastated and angry. I tore the results into a hundred pieces, pulled down the carriage window and hurled them into the frosty Essex countryside. Just as well I had the day to myself in Australia House to cogitate on our parlous predicament.

On arrival back in Acacia House I broke the news to Sadie. ‘Unsuccessful again,’ I said in cheerful tones. ‘Managed to pass anatomy this time though,’ I lied. She took it well as we mulled over the implications during our meagre evening meal .

There was never any question but that I would try a third time. Clearly though, I had to change my approach to the exam. We would have to carry on with much the same arrangement. Sadie would continue working at the hospital, I would work day and night in our little flat, redoubling my efforts.

But there had to be some additional strategy. We knew Trevor Pickering was having the same difficulty so thought perhaps we should combine our academic resources and study together to our mutual benefit .

I contacted Trevor at Aylesbury in the north London county of Buckinghamshire where he was working as a Senior House Officer and we arranged to spend weekends together and thrash our way through the course. This turned out to be hugely beneficial for both of us – for me to have access to the material Trevor had from attending the Primary course at the Royal College of Surgeons and for him to verbalise his knowledge with a like-minded person in myself. We would agree on which topics to cover before each weekend and prepare beforehand.

Meanwhile, the bleak English winter dragged on. I sat at a table in our tiny flat looking out on the bare trees, the rain, and the sleet.  From the window I could just see Rochford Airfield with the nonstop flights and noise of cross channel air ferries.

Cross-Channel car ferry

These car ferries carried about three cars and their owners across the channel. They were in service during the 60s before being made obsolescent.  

Poor Sadie continued her daily grind as a staff nurse at the hospital on meagre pay and I continued my weekly trip to Australia House to examine potential migrants – very easy work and well paid. Sadie had her main meal of the day at the hospital and I fried myself sausages in a tiny pan. At least it broke up the day.

         ‘Oh, to be in England now that April’s there.

          And whoever wakes in England sees, some morning, unaware,

         That the lowest boughs …’

So wrote Robert Browning in Home Thoughts From Abroad, but I looked in vain out of my Rochford room throughout April, then May and finally June before there was sign of a tree bursting into leaf.

In April, 1962, Lesley and John and their small family departed England to return to Australia. Sadie and I accompanied them to Southampton, all packed in the tiny Thames van. John drove, with Lesley alongside nursing and feeding baby Sarah en route. Sadie sat between them straddling the gear lever while Steve and I were packed together with the luggage. It was a very uncomfortable trip from Rochford to Southampton.

We became the proud owners of one small Thames van, it being bequeathed to us by John for a token amount in his usual, generous style. They, too, were as poor as church mice!

I remember that during this time I developed a chest infection and felt very sick. Sadie was having to change my pyjamas every night because of night sweats.  My sickness coincided with a visit from Sadie’s sister Jenny and her new husband Rob Nairn who were on their way to Canada, where Rob had a job in Toronto. I dragged myself from the ‘sick bed’ one weekend and Rob drove the four of us in their hire car to spend the day at Windsor, where we had lunch at The Cockpit. It was bitterly cold and Rob drove like a maniac with me sitting terrified and coughing in the back seat.

After they had departed on the ship across the Atlantic, Sadie asked the Medical Registrar, Rod Ledwich, to check me out. He organised a chest xray and then quietly told Sadie he didn’t like the look of an area in one lobe which he thought could be cancer. Naturally this delivered her morale a severe blow as she pictured herself being a widow stuck by herself on the other side of the world with no money and no friends! It was undoubtedly a small patch of pneumonia and I reassured her by telling her Rod was an idiot registrar physician who would probably never pass his physician’s exam and to ignore his opinion. I eventually fully recovered.

In June, it was time for Trevor and me to take ourselves back to Glasgow to do battle with our examiners once again. This time we travelled not by train but in Trevor’s comfortable Triumph sedan. Accompanying us was Cecil, a friend of Trevor’s, who was sitting the Primary for the twelfth time – yes, he had attempted the exam on eleven previous occasions. His presence did not inspire us with confidence.

Lord Lister, 1902

Back to the Bath Hotel for the third time and back to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, a famous institution where Lord Lister had done all his ground work in antisepsis with his carbolic spray, changing the course of medical history.           

This time Trevor and I were on the same wavelength as the examiners, both in the written and the oral, and we both passed. Poor Cecil failed for the twelfth time. Whereas we could have had a memorable celebratory trip down from the highlands into the low country, it was a somewhat sombre affair as we commiserated with Cecil. I never saw him again and have no idea if he persevered with his surgical ambitions.

This was the turning point for both Trevor and me. The academic part of our careers was behind us. The second part of the exam we knew we would pass eventually as we would be acquiring practical knowledge in our day-to-day employment on the wards and in the operating theatre.          

Nevertheless, Sadie and I remained mindful of our first six months in England. They were hard days. We ate one good meal a week, usually on Saturday night after we had been shopping at Supersave in Southend. Traditionally, Sadie cooked chicken Maryland with banana and we finished with English strawberries and cream – my mouth waters even now when I think about those meals. For the rest of the week, Sadie had her main meal in the middle of the day at the hospital and I fried sausages on the gas stove in our bedroom cum living area cum kitchen! I remember that when I finally passed the Primary Examination we were overdrawn by £20.

READ Chapter 7

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