Read Amy Online

Authors: Peggy Savage



Peggy Savage


August 1914

sat alone in front of the long table, watching the men who were sitting behind it. Not one of them smiled or relaxed their grim faces. They were eminent men – certainly. Were they men who believed in justice, or simply too prejudiced even to listen to her? Prejudice, she thought, was almost universal. She had no way of knowing, but, just or not, they held her future in their hands. Was this the end, then? Was this the end of all the effort, all the years, all the struggle?

She tried to catch their eyes, tried to look calm and confident, but only one of them actually looked at her. She thought he had a
face, but he put his finger inside his stiff winged collar and stretched his neck. Then he looked away.

She wanted to scream out, ‘For goodness sake get on with it,’ but they shuffled their papers, inclined their heads and nodded to each other. No women, of course, Amy thought. Women on the General Medical Council? What a joke! How many years would it take – how long before they were really accepted, and not just tolerated? She sat still, rigid on the hard chair.

I can’t bear this, she thought. I really can’t bear it. There was so much at stake, not just for herself but for all the other women doctors in the profession – women she didn’t even know. How would they take it? It would be such a knock to all of them. It already was. The very fact that she was here at all must be a blow to their collective esteem, and to their hopes and expectations. They would – they must – all think
that she had let them down. Very badly. She wouldn’t even have a chance to vindicate herself.

The whole scene began to take on a nightmarish, dream-like quality. The panelled walls seemed to close in and the faces of the men behind the table faded and blurred. She looked down at her hands in their neat black gloves. She pressed them together to stop their shaking. She had taken care to dress for this – occasion – a sober black coat and skirt, a high-necked white blouse, her hair in a severe chignon, and a respectable hat. She raised her head and looked across the room. Sir William Bulford was sitting with his arms crossed, a half smile on his face. He met her eye quite deliberately and the smile changed to a look of private triumph. Amy glared back at him, making no effort to conceal her contempt and bitter anger. How dare he even look at her? He obviously thought that he had won. Perhaps he knew that he had. Perhaps he had been slipped a bit of private information at his club or at a dinner party. Most of them stuck together, had been at public school or medical school together.

The chairman cleared his throat. ‘Perhaps you would stand, Dr Richmond.’

Amy stood up. She tried to look calm and untroubled but she was trembling so much that she had to hold the back of her chair. She heard the words, but at first they didn’t make sense – so awful that her mind would not accept them.

‘The decision of the General Medical Council is that you should be removed from the Register of Medical Practitioners for a period of at least five years, and then not reinstated until you have proved to the council that you are retrained and fit to practise in a reliable and professional manner.’

She put out her hand as if to ward off an aggressor. ‘No,’ she
, ‘Please, no.’

They did not appear to hear her. The chairman murmured a few more words, but she didn’t hear them. Then the one man who seemed to have some sympathy looked up at her.

‘You are still young, Miss Richmond,’ he said. He looked down at his papers. ‘Twenty-seven, isn’t it? There is time for you to put it right.’

‘You realize of course,’ the chairman said, ‘that if you make any attempt to practise during this time you will never be reinstated.’

She didn’t reply. There was nothing to say.

They gathered up their papers and filed out, leaving her standing, clutching the chair. She turned slowly, feeling the blood draining from her face, her mouth dry. Sir William Bulford was almost at the door but he turned and looked at her, his florid face smug and satisfied, his thumb in the watch chain that strained over his stomach. Then he, too, left the room.

She was struck with a feeling of utter helplessness, and rage and frustration that almost choked her. So Bulford had won. Of course he had won. He was an eminent surgeon – a knight. Of course they would believe him. She was only a woman. Because of that simple fact she could no longer do the only thing that she had ever wanted to do. She couldn’t practise medicine. She might as well be dead. And it was all because of Bulford’s lies, lies and deliberate misleading and a
twisting of the truth. She had fallen victim to that man, with his outrageous prejudices and lofty superiority. She had not been able even to mention his sick, sexual advances. No one would have believed her, and it would have gone against her – of course it would. It would have been regarded as a vicious woman’s weapon – sly and

‘Would you come this way, madam?’ One of the council’s servants was holding the door open for her, ushering her out. She crossed the room and left the building, stepping out into the street, into a sunny London afternoon.

For a while she walked blindly, not looking where she was going, stumbling into people on the street. A motor car blared its horn when she stepped unseeing into the road, causing a cab horse to shy and whinny. I don’t care, she thought. I don’t care if I die. I’ve nothing to live for.

Eventually, exhausted, she came across a little tearoom; she sat down inside and ordered tea. ‘No,’ she said to the waitress, ‘thank you. Nothing to eat – just tea.’ She took off her gloves, peeling them away from her fingers. The action reminded her sickeningly of everything that she had lost, of taking off her surgical gloves at the end of an
, of the feeling of exhilaration at a job well done, of a patient who would heal and live. Never again? Would she never do that again?

The tea was hot and strong. It calmed her body a little, but not her mind. What will I do now? she thought. How will I live? She was not
thinking about a roof over her head or her daily bread. She could go home to her father. He would welcome her as ever. He would be
there now, waiting for the results of the council hearing. He would be outraged on her behalf, but he couldn’t change anything. She could keep house for him, eat and walk and read and go to bed, and all the time she would be dead; it would be a living death.

She began to cry silently, dabbing the tears away with her
and hiding her face in her teacup until she could steady herself. She couldn’t think about the events that had led to this. Her mind shied away, skirted around them. She had known all along that Bulford had opposed her appointment, that he had tried to get rid of her. He had belittled and opposed her at every turn. But she hadn’t imagined that even he would go this far. She ordered more tea. She didn’t want to leave the safety and normality of the little tearoom. She couldn’t face the world yet. Eventually the waitress began to look at her strangely.

‘Are you all right, madam?’ she said. ‘Are you not well?’

Amy forced a smile and paid for her tea and went out into the bleak world again. How could this have happened to her when her services would be needed so much, when the news was already so bad? Would she be in the papers?
. When she came to the newspaper stand by the tube station she realized that no one now would have the slightest interest in her problem. It would probably never even be reported. There were other, more
things to worry about. The paperboy was frantically handing out papers, the crowd jostling, throwing coppers into his cap on the
. Amy eased her way through the crowd. One woman was openly crying. The headline on the billboard leapt out: WAR, it said,


‘We’ve got to do something about it. That man Bulford can’t be allowed to get away with it. I can’t believe that any gentleman could behave like that.’

Her father had said more or less the same thing for several days now, over and over. Her own distress was so overwhelming that she had taken several days to truly realize his devastation.

She had moments of resolution. She would fight the General Medical Council’s decision. She would fight Bulford, expose him for what he was, and then her helplessness would destroy her again. Now,
as she looked at her father, he seemed to shrink, to stoop. He seemed to be becoming obsessed. She did not seem to be able to get him to talk about anything else, not even the war.

‘All those years,’ he said. ‘All those years wiped out.’

She knew that her academic successes had given him deep joy; that she had tried to make up for the loss of his son, dying at birth, with her mother. He had lost them both in one terrible disaster. That she should have matched his interests so completely had made an even deeper connection than that of just father and daughter. He had taught her all the science that he had taught the boys at school. Medicine was their mutual goal, jointly achieved, and now, horribly, jointly lost. All those years, he said. All those years of his patient teaching and her eager learning. He had even persuaded his headmaster to let her join in some of the practical work in the laboratories at his school. The boys had been baffled, and then much amused that Mr Richmond’s daughter was going to join them for science lessons. ‘Why do you want to know about Boyle’s Law?’ one of them said. ‘You should be learning to boil an egg,’ and then laughed hugely at his own joke. Typical she had thought. Typical male attitude.

‘Bulford isn’t a gentleman, Father. He’s drunk with his own power and he loathes women doctors. I think he just hates women. I met his wife once when she came to the hospital. She was a grey little thing, too frightened to speak.’

She sat beside her father on the sofa in the drawing-room. She was close to tears. His face was lined with distress, his grey hair ruffled and on end, so unlike his usual careful neatness.

‘We must do something, Amy. Quite apart from your reputation, it’s your career, your livelihood. You know you can’t expect much from me when I’m gone, only the house. All my savings went on your training.’

‘I don’t know what we can do, Father. They won’t believe me. They’d much rather believe Bulford. He’s a man, and a knight – one of them.’ She took his hand. ‘You do believe me, don’t you? You know I wouldn’t be negligent and just carelessly harm a patient?’

He squeezed her hand. ‘Of course I believe you, Amy. I’ve known you all your life. You couldn’t have qualified at all if you’d been
and negligent. And I assume that if you’d made a mistake you would say so and ask for help.’

‘No one is perfect Father, but I didn’t make a mistake on that
occasion, and certainly not the parade of negligent mistakes that old Bulford said I did.’ Utter helplessness filled her again. She felt trapped, hounded. Her eyes filled with tears, more of rage than of weakness.

‘What’s to become of you?’ he said. ‘I won’t live for ever.’ Then he looked suddenly a little more hopeful. ‘Perhaps you’ll get married. You’d have someone to look after you then.’

‘Have you got anyone in mind?’ she said drily, ‘because I certainly haven’t.’

He put an arm around her shoulders and held her against him.

‘My dear,’ he said, his voice breaking, ‘don’t worry. We’ll fight it. We’ll get the best lawyer in London.’

She raised her head and looked at him in alarm. ‘You know we can’t. We haven’t got the money. It would cost hundreds, if not thousands. I had a lawyer anyway.’

‘Much good he turned out to be. We’ll get someone else. I’ll get the money. I’ll take out another mortgage on the house.’

She leapt to her feet. ‘No! No you won’t! I’m not going to let you put the house in danger. You might – we both might find ourselves out on the street. I won’t let you do it.’

He put his face in his hands. ‘I can’t bear to see you hurt like this.’

She knelt beside him, looking painfully at his bent head. His anxiety added to her own and that seemed to rise and expand, half choking her. For days now she had not been able to sleep, lying in bed, exhausted with rage and frustration. Night after night the memory returned, and she would make herself wretched wondering what more she could have done or said to defend herself. When she did take an hour or so of black unconsciousness she would wake feeling normal, and then the fear and helpless pain would be upon her again. In some dreadful synchronicity her own despair was combined with and heightened by the coming of the war. That her dismissal had happened at all was bad enough, but for it to happen now, when she would be so much needed, made it all the more unbearable. What would this war be like? Things had changed, science leapt on. There were so many more ways now to kill.

A few days crept by. She got up each morning with nothing to do, nowhere to go. Her father went to his school every day, so she spent the days alone. She scoured the papers every morning, her heart in her mouth, but there was nothing about her. They were filled almost
with news about the war. The only other detailed reports were about cricket, as if to maintain a tiny breath of normality.

She did the shopping for the house and it became more difficult every day. ‘We have no sugar left, madam,’ the grocer said. ‘People are stocking up on everything.’ The shelves emptied of sugar, rice, flour, tinned stuff. Women hurried from shop to shop, carrying their baskets; groups of men stood on street corners talking in low, urgent voices. She passed a crowd of men, perhaps fifty of them, waiting to get into the recruitment centre. Overnight more uniforms appeared.

I have to find something to do, she thought, over and over again. Anything to be useful. Troops were already moving in huge numbers, ready for battle, and here she was, idle, useless, unemployed.

The advertisement was in
Wanted urgently, orderlies, cooks, cleaners, to join a group of women doctors who are forming a surgical unit in France. Write or telephone
…. She felt as if some kind of salvation had been handed to her. She couldn’t offer herself as a nurse; she had no nursing qualifications, but she could be an orderly, a humble ward orderly. At least she would be there, in France. She hurried out to the post office to telephone. She was given an appointment for the next day in London at a hotel in Russell Square. ‘My name,’ she said, ‘Is Amy Osborne.’

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