1962, Islington

She is so excited. She stares at her reflection in the mirror propped in front of her and feels so proud of the badge pinned to her breast pocket which reads ‘Pupil Midwife’ in tight black type. As proud as if it were a medal. One worth far more than those she used to win for her school back home. Everyone she has written to since she passed through Preliminary Training School has received a black-and-white photograph of her in her student nurse uniform – not smiling but her expression and eyes lit by her new stature, half turned to the invisible cameraman as she sits on a stool in a draughty Archway hall.

The crisp, white linen of her dress accentuates the shadows which cast the rest of the room into grey and black. Her notebook is open on the small wooden desk which is the room’s only furniture aside from the neatly made bed, which she will soon tumble into even as the noises outside increase on this grey, North London morning. The pillow on it is the one she brought all the way from the Caribbean. Out of custom, all the Vincentians who travelled overseas carried their own, and she has not been separated from it since she stood on the dock at Kingstown waiting to squeeze onto the Geest ship, which would carry a cargo of migrants and bananas eastwards and onwards to Tilbury.

Each pair of lined pages in the notebook is headlined by the title ‘Delivery No.’ and she is completing her record of the night’s arrivals and observations. Names, ages, number of pregnancies regardless of outcome – the lives of four women mapped through maternity. Five new lives brought into the world, one arriving only after trauma. Duration of labour, sex, weight, length and head circumference all carefully noted. And condition: ‘good, cried at once’, ‘both satisfactory’, ‘mother satisfactory’… ‘baby resuscitated with O2 successfully’.

On the bed is a still unfinished aerogramme – she will complete it when she wakes in the afternoon. She was writing home again. Telling Mummy and her sisters about this cold, cold country. About how she loved her studies and how different it felt to again be a student sitting behind a desk. And that she was working hard to justify the money they had all saved to send her here. She knew they would be interested to know how hard it had been to find Caribbean food until she found out that if she caught two buses, she could get to a place called Hackney and go to Chatsworth Road or Ridley Road markets. She would tell them about the other student nurses, including the West Indians who she spent a lot of time with, a Grenadian girl and one from Saint Lucia. The ‘Windward Ladies’ was what they called themselves, giggling as they chatted in the cafeteria.

One Saturday night they had taken her to a late-night dance down some stairs from the pavement near Alexandra Palace, the first club she had ever been to. She stood by the wall shyly while the other two older girls, who were nearly thirty, flirted and danced. She would not tell Mummy too much about that.

But a tall, skinny boy with a full head of Brylcreemed hair had asked where she was from, and when she replied he had said, ‘Wha’! I is a Vincy too!’ She knew her sisters’ eyes would open wider at that, and they would be gripped by the fact that the boy was from Biabou, not too far down the coast from Georgetown. She already knew a little about his family simply because he had so many brothers and cousins.

He was a country boy, but he told her that he wanted to become an architect, although right now he was working on the railways. ‘Just for now till t’ings come tru, yuh understan’?’ He was a little forward and bold with himself, and after she held his hand on the dance floor, she could smell the oil of the locomotives on her fingers. But he was good-looking, and it felt nice for someone to make her laugh out loud again.
Before taking off her uniform and slipping under the sheet and blanket of the narrow bed, she marked a date in black ballpoint in her small turquoise nurses diary. It would be two more weeks before she would be free on a Saturday night and could go back to the club, but if he was there, she knew she would let him dance with her again.

Windward Family

Alexis Keir

Published: 02 February 2023

‘It took two decades for me to go in search of the parts of myself I had left behind in the Caribbean. What ghosts were waiting for me there?’