by John Bart
It’s 1968. In East Yorkshire, folk hero Lillian Bilocca is spearheading a revolution to ensure safe working conditions for fishermen. Sweport local Helena Woods (known to everyone as “Woodie”) is marching along beside her. Meanwhile, student protests in Paris and Berlin are resulting in a full-on workers’ revolt. Medical student, Brian Davis is at the centre of these protests.
Two years later, Dr. Brian Davis arrives at Sweport Maternity Hospital as a young doctor, intending to leave his days of protest and revolution behind him. But then he meets and falls in love with Woodie, a midwife who has a fire in her belly and an insatiable desire for social justice.
In Sweport, Dr. Davis and Woodie are faced with hospital administrators who are doing everything in their power to prevent the staff from contraceptive advice or abortions. As a doctor and a midwife, the pair comes face-to-face with these destructive policies on a daily basis. In simply trying to do what is right for the patients and the town, they find themselves in the midst of a different kind of revolution.
It was not the rattle of the train that woke me, but a pervasive smell. The fat man sitting opposite was pulling layers of skin off a large Spanish onion which he then chopped into pieces on a tin plate that rested on his knees. He used an expensive knife with a whalebone
The countryside was changing, from soft green trees to pale yellow tawny scrub. An occasional copse broke the Northern flatness, a woody memento left by the South in its retreat. I sat up and shook my head, the collar of my jacket grazing my neck. The train jumped and rattled as we rushed through a station. Its platform was empty except for a porter, who wore a flat cap instead of the peaked ones worn by porters on St. Pancras station. He pushed a barrow on which was a solitary suitcase, and was making much of it. I knew he was badly paid from his attitude. In the past I had behaved the same way and for the same reason.
Once he had a small mound of onion on his plate, the man on the seat opposite wrapped the uncut remainder in greaseproof paper and stuffed it into the shopping bag that sat between his legs. From the pocket of his tweed jacket he pulled out a sandwich. The bread was thickly cut and the crust looked hard. The man bent his head, moving his hands over the food as if he were a conjuror performing a magic trick. He pulled apart slices of bread to reveal a clear cheese cut in roundels that glistened in the light, tainting the air with the clinging smell of unwashed feet. Immune to the rocking of the train, the man deftly slid slivers of onion onto the cheese, put the sandwich back together and took a large bite.
As he chewed he stared across at me with bold, bulging blue eyes. His ruddy features, edged with thinning grey hair, sported a white pencil moustache. He never dropped his gaze as he ate this reeking mixture in our small compartment. “You’ll not be wanting to try it,” he said, tapping the sandwich: a statement, not an invitation.
My head cleared. I rose, feeling stiff and awkward as I opened the compartment door and stepped into the corridor. “I’m for a beer,” I said.
“Aye, I knew it. A Southerner,” the man said. “Booze before food. Suit yourself. Sweport in an hour. You think this smell is bad... Wait till we get there. Nobbut fish guts and sea spray.”
I walked down the corridor. The onion man had the compartment to himself, which had been his aim all along. No doubt he’d pulled that stunt before.
“Not much to see out there,” the barman said, “but bloody churches.” He steadied a glass as the train lurched. The beer foamed. He nodded at the window. “I do this run once or twice a week. Winter and summer, looks as if the whole place has been scraped raw by the wind.”
“You’re not a Yorkshireman,” I said.
"Not a chance…and neither are you.”
“At least a year.”
“You’ll get used to the smell, then. I can’t. Where are you from?”
“This’ll be a change, that’s for sure. Rather you than me.” He flipped the top off a second bottle.
“No thanks,” I said.
“I’ll join you then,” he said. “Barman’s hazard.”
The train reached Sweport. I collected my suitcase and climbed down onto the platform. People hurried past me.
I took a deep breath, and choked—a thick, cloying smell made my eyes water and the gorge rise in my throat.
“S’bugger, isn’t it?” someone said. It was the onion man. “You’ll get used t’it, happen, even though you’re a Southerner. Then again, mebbe not—it’s fish guts, rotting on the dock.” Passing me, he added, “Be quick, or you’ll miss the cabs. Sunday buses are done. This isn’t London.” He trundled an expensive suitcase towards the exit. I heard him say, “Big girl’s blouse,” but I could not make sense of it.
As I walked out of the station a small elderly man got out of a weathered old car and called, “Dr. Davis?”
“Our new houseman. Come to liven up Sweport Maternity. I’ve been sent to collect you.”
“How did you know I’d be on this train?”
He laughed. “My job to know.”
“Who are you?”
“George. General dogsbody, telephonist, porter, knowall.” He pulled a cigarette packet out of his pocket and offered it to me.
I saw the onion man climbing into the back of an expensive car. In the driver’s seat was a good-looking woman.
“Ship owner,” said George, nodding at them.
“Got money, knows what it can buy and knows the worth of everything to the last penny, like all of ‘em. And to prove it, that’s a great car. Got two steel I-beams running the length of the chassis. If you crash into it you’ll crumple but it’ll be untouched.”
I watched the ship owner leave. George lit a cigarette and coughed, his thin body contracting as if ratcheted on a spring. I liked him immediately. His wizened face, dark-lined from cigarette smoke, reminded me of the Parisian workers of two years ago. They had joined us at the end of the Sorbonne riots and then on the first march, wry men with the lopsided smiles of experience, half mocking, half admiring the students who led instead of following their elders and betters.
“The Maternity Hospital’s on the other side of town,” George said. “Hop in.”
“Och, aye.” He rolled down the window. The car started off with a jerk that made its body bounce on the springs.
“Shock absorbers need doing,” said George. “Next on the
George grinned. “Gonna give as good as you’ll get, eh? Thank God! The one you’re replacing was too bleddy soft by half.”
“What do you mean?”
“Couldn’t take it. Wouldn’t fight back. You’ll need that where you’re going.”
“He’d be a big girl’s blouse then,” I said in my best Yorkshire.
“Aye, ‘appen he would,” George shot back.
After a few minutes I said, “That’s the second time we’ve passed this building.”
George shook his head. “We’re two streets over. Just looks the same. Same old houses, same style. Only difference is the supermarket on one street and the Post Office on another. You’ll get used to it. S’all a one way system in Sweport. To get across town you’ve to go back and forth like a shuttle in the warp. ”
We drove on. The streets were deserted except outside a pub where people stood in groups. I heard laughter.
George said, “The road from Leeds to Sweport was built by the Romans. It’s good and wide, but the port itself was cobbled together after the Black Death. They put the buildings as close as they could, for God knows what reason, so the road’s not wide enough for two cars, just horses two abreast.” He threw his cigarette stub out of the window.
I took out my packet and offered him one.
He grunted, lit it and took a long drag. “Mind you, it didn’t have to be this way. The Germans bombed the devil out of Sweport during the war, flattened the docks and most of the town centre. Nothing but rubble left. After the war the council, stupid buggers, rebuilt exactly the way it was before the war. Couldn’t let Jerry dictate, could they?”
The car bounced over a crack in the road, metal groaning. We stopped at a red light.
“Anyway, they like medieval round here. Fits their bill.”
I said nothing. Cigarette smoke drifted out of the window. The car’s leather seat had cracks that fitted me.
“Cut our nose to spite our face,” George added. “But that’s us all over.”
“You’ve a Scots accent. How long have you been in Sweport?” I asked.
“Down from Glasgow twenty-five years ago, for the summer. Still here.”
A seagull cried. I saw three of them swooping against the grey sky. I could smell the sea. It was cold by turns when the wind blew the autumnal air away. We started off again.
The dark brick building formed three sides of a square. The fourth, a low wall with iron railings set in the brickwork, had two tall gates that looked as if they were never closed because long tufts of grass grew through their bars. I caught the tang of the sea in the moist air and, occasionally, the horrid fish-gut smell that had threatened to choke the life out of me.
In the centre of the square several cars were parked in a cobbled courtyard.
“Visiting hours,” said George. “They’ll be gone soon.”
In one corner of the quadrangle stood an off-white Daimler ambulance of World War II vintage, the ribbed chrome of its radiator reflecting the day in warped mirror images.
George walked over and put his foot on the running board. “I love this one,” he said. “Out of place here, like me. We should be in Edinburgh or London, capitalizing. Instead we’re in Sweport.” He opened the driver’s door and sat.
“Why does the hospital need its own ambulance?”
“For the Flying Squad. When there’s a problem with a home delivery out we go, hot foot to sort it, bells ringing,” he grinned.
I looked at the hospital. Through the main doors I saw a nurse hurrying. On a balcony jutting from the first floor, a woman in a hospital gown smoked a cigarette, an i.v. fed into the crook of her elbow. Sweport Maternity had the same air of dilapidated efficiency of other hospitals in which I had worked, beset by snapping Sisters in starched blue and white whose fiefdoms lay at the end of long corridors with chip-marble floors that curved up gloss painted walls, all corners banished.
“Looks good, doesn’t it?” said George.
“That way, Doctor.” He leaned back against the driver’s seat and pointed to a path which ran under the balcony where the woman smoked.
Suitcase in hand, I walked past a sign that read, Doctors’ quarters. Private. Keep Out.