Miss Nightingale’s Owl

Miss Nightingale never told me it would be like this. A wonderful adventure, that’s all I’d imagined – sailing on a great white ship, maybe riding on a camel in the sunshine. I thought maybe there’d be pyramids here. I’d never been on a ship before.

“It’s our divine duty, Lizzie,” that’s what she told me. “God has called us to nurse the sick and wounded soldiers.”

I thought it was the Prime Minister who called us, not God, but maybe they’re one and the same. I wouldn’t know.

Now I’ve sailed halfway across Europe, and a great white ship it was, too, but I got so seasick I thought I’d die for certain. There’s no sign of any camels so far. It’s freezing cold here, with the wind coming off the Bosphorus.

It’s a proper city, you know, Constantinople, but it’s a funny place for a war. There’s streets and buildings, just like London, except nothing is really the same. The houses are a different shape, and the people all draped in bright colours.

They’ve got no pyramids here. Now they tell me. But there’s great palaces where they keep the women locked up in a special room. Not a prison, like – the girls have their very own palace called a harem, but Miss Nightingale don’t think much of that idea, I can tell.

I suppose there might be camels over in the palace. I wonder if the Sultan would let me ride one.

I didn’t really want to come. I wouldn’t have, neither, if I’d known about how there’s no camels and how seasickness makes you want to throw yourself overboard. But when Miss Nightingale decides things, you don’t argue. I don’t anyway. How could I? I owe her everything. She’s given me a home, clothes, food – all a girl needs. She even taught me to read, so she did, from the big Bible in the front parlour. I can read it by myself now. If it wasn’t for her, I’d still be in the orphanage, or out in the streets, in the snow, begging for bread.

So here we are, me and Miss Nightingale and a ship-full of nurses. I don’t suppose she knew what it would be like either, really. Miss Nightingale is many things but she’s no clairvoyant, I can tell you that. I saw her face when we got to the hospital and I swear she was nearly as shocked as me.

She’s seen hospitals before, of course, but not like this. It’s dirty, and the wounded men are all stacked up next to each other, sweaty and horrible, most of them, muttering and thirsty all the time and sometimes they scream. Sometimes they die. I’ve never seen such a business. There’s not enough beds, not enough bandages, and no medicine. Clean water’s hard to come by, and you wouldn’t feed the dinner to a moggy.

Miss Nightingale’s in a fury. She’s writing to the Prime Minister and giving him a good ticking off, and she doesn’t care who knows it. Imagine that – telling off the Prime Minister? I wish I could. I might mention a few other things while I was at it. But Miss Nightingale’s not like me. She’s just sending him a long list of everything we need to look after the patients.

In the meantime, we have to get everything clean as a whistle, that’s what Miss Nightingale says. Lord, the mopping and scrubbing and bathing we’ve had to do. I help, honest to God, and anything Miss Nightingale needs done, gets done, just like always. She’s that sort of woman. You’d do anything for her, and then afterwards you have no idea why.

I’m a maid, not a nurse, that’s what I try to tell them, but it doesn’t matter here. Everyone just has to muck in. Good job Miss Nightingale’s here now, with all her nurses and me, or all the boys’d be half-dead of dysentery and typhus and Lord knows what else by now.

So every day, instead of riding camels, I scrub the floors until my elbows ache, and I sing as loud as I can, and I think about Athena.

When we was still in London, Miss Nightingale had an owl. Athena, her name was, spoilt brat of a thing, she was, too. She came from Athens, so she’d probably have been right at home here in Turkey. Miss Nightingale used to carry Athena around in her dressing-gown pocket in the evenings, or tucked into her cloak during the day. Nobody ever knew she was there. Sometimes, you could hear a faint rustling of feathers, or a little squeak, as if someone had just sat on a mouse. When we left London, Athena wasn’t allowed to come. She looked mighty upset about it, too. Owls have that funny way of looking at you, as if they can’t decide whether to tickle you, or eat you. I wonder how she’s getting on without us.

I’d give anything if I could nestle into Miss Nightingale’s dressing gown pocket and never come out until we get home.

How I wish I could swap places with that funny old owl. She’s the smartest bird out of all of us.

Author’s note:
The world’s most famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, really did have an owl called Athena: you can look them both up on the web at http://www.florence-nightingale.co.uk. Poor Athena was left behind when Florence went to the Crimean War in 1854. If you go to London, you can visit Athena at the Florence Nightingale Museum – if you ever visit Turkey, the hospital where Florence worked in Istanbul (Constantinople) is also a museum.

I have an owl called Athena, too, also from Athens – but this one is made of brass, sits above my desk, and has wild staring eyes.



Header photo: Blue Mosque, Istanbul, 2004

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