written by John Bart
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Sweport - synopsis

The fight for women’s rights continues. Woodie and Brian have been forced to leave the hospital service. She is now a district nurse, visiting patients at home, and he has become a G.P. Together with his senior partner, Dr. Van, and helped by Woodie’s mother, Barbara, they have devised a simple method of providing women with access to contraceptive advice and safe abortions in a town where these are proscribed.

Their enterprise energises and infuriates the local powers-that-be who work diligently against it, using ways that threaten to be effective. The pair have to use initiative to circumvent these, but it is not easy.

In addition, Woodie is part of a small group of women who are trying to get radios put into the fishing trawlers that sail from Sweport, to help ensure safety of the crew. This was the thrust of Lilly Bilocca’s efforts in Hull. The problem comes to a head for Woodie and her friends when a trawler makes ready to leave Sweport, though it is the depths of winter when it is most dangerous to go fishing.

Dr. Van’s past is recounted. A terrible wrong is exposed. A new way of continuing the fight for women’s rights is revealed.

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Sweport - sample from the book

Woodie, Sweport, 1973

Marta, the old woman, lay quiet on the bed, blankets drawn back over her right thigh, exposing the incision. Above the plain wooden headboard was a framed cross-stitch sampler with a blood red, weeping tear at each corner. In its centre the legend “For Thou Art Worthy” had been picked out in large, pale blue letters. Underneath, in tiny stitches, was a quotation in a foreign language. The letters, spiked at their corners, looked as if they had been copied from an ancient manuscript.

The sampler was the only wall decoration in the bedroom but there were two decorative pillows with colourful, hand-stitched covers. Woodie was sure the old lass had done them herself, partly out of pride and partly to save money.

There was a smell of urine but the sheets were not soiled, just worn thin. Woodie wondered if the chamber pot was still under the bed, and took care with her feet as she leaned over and cleaned where surgical stitches had failed because of post-op infection. The wound gaped, reminding her of knife slashes or broken bottle cuts seen after street fights in the days when she worked Casualty, but this eye-catching effort had been made in an operating theatre.

On first seeing the problem Woodie had called the surgeon, who said, “She’s on routine antibiotics, so she should be okay… providing the wound is cleaned regularly. The damned thing will heal by ‘primary intent,’ though that’ll be slow. Make sure you keep me informed, nurse!”

So here she was, three times a week, with a saline swab in her gloved hand to keep flesh clean and help eliminate infection, the complication feared by all orthopaedists. The wound was indeed closing, filling up from bone as the surgeon had wanted…but in its own sweet time.

She swabbed pale yellow pearls of fat embedded in sparse muscle and saw that the area was healthy. Small black crusts showed where blood vessels had been fritzed closed by a touch with a thin electric rod during the op, the surgeon pressing the “on” switch with his foot. A sizzling sound, a tiny puff of smoke, a momentary smell of burning, and the capillary was sealed. Sometimes, during an op on an obese patient, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a fast-food kitchen.

Feeling the woman’s steady gaze, Woodie asked, “What language is that in the needlepoint over your head?”

“It is German. That is where I was born. I am from Hamburg, the great port of Hamburg.” The guttural twang of German, overlaid by East Yorkshire, could still be heard in her words.

“How did you end up here, Marta?” Woodie asked.

The old woman laughed.

“It was because of my bum!”

“What do you mean?”

“A country cousin came to visit. She was prettier than me but a bit shy. I wanted to show her clothes she’d never see at home. We were window-shopping when a bunch of American sailors, on leave from a warship in the harbour, walked past. One of them ran his hand along my bum, slowly…oh so slowly!... as I stood looking. I was very young and got such a shock I didn’t know what to do. I blushed, my cousin too, which made them laugh.”

She shifted slightly at the memory, adding, “Then they were not nice. But, lucky for me, my husband, Eric, and a couple of friends came to our rescue…and the rest is history. I say ‘lucky’ because in those days, between the Wars, trawler men did not holiday abroad. But Eric had been sent to collect machinery for his boss, he was that trusted.”

Woodie laid bandages over the wound and began to seal them in place. Moving the leg caused Marta pain, so, to take her mind off it, Woodie asked, “You moved here as soon as you married, didn’t you?”

“Yes, and had my son straightaway, which was not clever. But in those days…”

Woodie, working as gently as she could, said, “Everyone had their children early then. Still do around here.”

“But they didn’t lose their husband at Dunkirk, and they were not Germans living in England at the outbreak of war with Germany!”

“You couldn’t have known what was coming,” Woodie said. “Life took a bad turn.”

Marta grunted. “I was the enemy for a lot of people. But I was lucky again. The policeman who had to check up on me regularly…”

“Why did he have to do that?”

“I was an enemy alien, wasn’t I? I could have been a spy… rubbish… rubbish!” she snorted, adding, “as I said, I was lucky. He and his wife took me under their wing. They were kind.”

Woodie knew that Marta’s son, Henry, was a policeman, and wondered if that kindness had born unexpected fruit. Her work finished, she started to clear up, saying, “I’ll be back in a couple of days.”

No longer in pain, Marta’s tongue loosened. “But I’m English now, and better than that, I’m a Yorkshire lass!” The last said with a loud laugh, in a jovial Yorkshire accent.

Woodie had heard that the old lady had earned her credentials the hard way, raising a son alone in Sweport, with little help. She had never remarried and worked all hours in a bakery to prove her worth. There had been talk of a “friend” or two, but nobody really cared enough to gossip. Her husband’s family certainly did not and that’s where rumour would have started.

Pointing up at the sampler Marta continued, “It is an exact translation. In school where I grew up it was important to be exact.”

“What does it say?” Woodie asked.

Seek not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” 

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