Monday, 21 June 2010
The Raft family tree grows thus: Great Granny, Granny, Nana, Mummy, Dadder, Baba.
Many years ago Nana Raft was ill. In those days abdominal surgery involved the dangerous procedure of being opened up and consequently the patient was in bed for a month afterwards.
The doctors corrected the problem and Nana Raft rested for a few days under strict supervision. When it came to time for her discharge, the matron did what we would now call 'an assessment' by asking what the situation was on Nana Raft's craft.
The position was this; Granny Raft had to go home and Dadder Raft had to stay at work, him being the sort who only got paid if he did the job. If Dadder Raft didn't work, the ship would sink. This left the flotilla of little Rafts in the care of a woman who wasn't supposed to set foot on the deck, except to visit the heads, lest her stitches came undone. If Nana Raft had to move about, the Matron wasn't prepared to discharge her.
Don't come here with arguments about hospital not being a prison; in those days Matron decided when you could go home and saw herself as a deputy angel with a flaming sword, standing guard over her stricken patient, and she wasn't about to let a single one of them burst open and undo all Doctor's hard work. The Social was called, although I can't remember what the department was named in those sepia-tinted days.
The Social dispatched their agent, the aptly name Mrs McClean, to take charge of the Raft Raft. She berthed alongside us, a white bowsprit bosom billowing below her blond-grey hair and stone-blue eyes, and from the moment I saw her I knew we were saved to harbour. Mrs McClean was a Home Help, which does not adequately describe how vital her work was because without her we probably would have had to go in to care or at least been split up and distributed over a wider family, or we might have starved to death or fallen overboard.
Mrs McClean did not do counselling, which hadn't been invented and she wouldn't have done it if it had. She had Opinions, chiefly in the matter of the necessity of cleanliness, and her opinions were Right. Her Catholicism was betrayed only by a small golden cross round her neck and tightly pursed lips when heathenish views and practices were mentioned. Mrs McClean was of the Opinion, although she never said so, that there were few disputes insoluble in a decent bar of green soap, and this she applied to demonstrate the point. Cleanliness was next to Godliness, an' sure didn't Our Lord make that very point when he washed the feets of some mucky devils?
If it was good enough for the Son of Man, it was good enough for Mrs McClean, and she set about her work. Children were washed, fed, and washed again, being sent either to school or bed, as the situation demanded. Nana Raft was washed, fed, and tucked up in her bunk with an improving book. The pillows, pillow cases, sheets, blankets and candlewick bedspread all washed and monumentally constructed around the bed-cage which kept the weight off Nana's surgical wound, the way a snowy cloth is spread precisely over an altar stone.
Nana was to be presented as an Offering to the District Nurse, who came in to Check the Dressing. How would it be if the Nurse found Things Untidy? Unthinkable, unallowable. Mrs McClean would never be found dozing if the Son of God came by, and the District Nurse was His deputy, so it followed that they would both be treated the same, except that the District Nurse could keep her sensible lace-up shoes on and the Son of the Father should take his mucky sandals off and change in to a nice clean pair of slippers at the end of the gangway, unless he came in his Holy Ghost form and whafted about. If God had meant us to wear our shoes onboard, he'd wouldn't have given us slippers, would he?
Dadder Raft was the miserable beast of burden in this tableaux, and thus to be treated kindly. Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn, Deuteronomy 25:4, so he received egg and chips. She didn't go so far as to wash him and give him a quick once-over with a curry-comb, but there would be a basin, the soap and towel standing ready when he came home. "There's hot water, you'd better use it before it gets cold". Besides, oxen attended Our Lord's birth and if it's good enough for the Newborn King, then it's good enough for Mrs McClean, so Dadder Raft was allowed back on board, but he'd better take off his boots before he set hoof on deck.
Here Mrs McClean gave her lips an extra-tight puckering. She approved of children, of course she did, even godless little heathen ones like us, who might yet be Saved. She approved of marriage, which is ordained by God, and you can't get a higher recommendation than that, and it's better than heathenish practices, polygamy and I don't know what the By Our Lady savages gets up to, which is why she worked so hard to shore up marriages. She approved of families, and sure wasn't it good enough for Our Lord, so it's good enough for Mrs McClean. But she didn't approve of women being Bothered by men in general, and definitely not those Women Who Had Stitches in particular.
It might properly have been the business of God's deputies, the Doctor and the District Nurse, but Mrs McClean had her own flaming sword - as she feared did Dadder - and she felt that the very saintliness of God's deputies might prevent them dealing with this most earthy of subjects, especially when talking to a pagan and one who might, she suspected, really have hairy goat legs and cloven hooves, going by the great quantity of boywool in the wash basin. Deuteronomy 25:4 is specifically about mouths. Moses neglected to mention other muzzles, a typically slipshod oversight when law comes from men and not God. At least, she hoped it was an oversight and not a deliberate omission.
She fixed Dadder Raft with her eye as blue and hard as marble.
"She's not to be Bothered" she commanded.
It would have been pointless for Dadder Raft - long since gone to Valhalla under his shield on his fiery longboat - to protest that he had no intention of Bothering anyone, which probably would have earned him a clout over the snout with a broom for talking filth. He was mostly baffled, but he took the hint and found himself a billet up the other end of the Raft, padding along in his darned socks.
After a few weeks Nana Raft recovered and when the District Nurse said the stitches were healed, and the Doctor agreed, our angel McClean sailed away to save other children, another woman, leaving the smell of soap and the glow of polish, a lingering blessing from a woman who left no fingermarks or footprints.