I spoke with Frances on her second last day as the nurse at an Oxford college, where she has worked for the past seventeen years. She has also spent several years as a nurse at a shelter for the city’s homeless population.
What are we all doing here? I’ve got this quote – it’s not from me – it’s from Einstein. I found it on the internet: ‘Strange is our situation here upon earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men.’ And that’s all I can think about life. We surely can’t be here just to do things for ourselves.
Going to a convent school probably had a very big effect on me. Like about duty and service. I feel a duty to do things for other people, always to look out for other people. And then when I went to start nursing, the motto round the badge you got when you became a registered nurse was, ‘It is better to give than to receive,’ so there was another kind of, ‘you have to do things for other people’.
The day my ex-husband told me he was going off with someone else, in 2001, I sat on the settee and cried till lunchtime. One of my sons was at home and at four o’clock I said to him, ‘Paul, the day goes so slowly like this, it’s much better to be busy.’ I think that’s how I cope with loneliness. It’s better to get off my backside and do something.
So just before my husband left, we went to see a solicitor and she was explaining to me how I needed to earn more money otherwise it was going to be very difficult to carve up the cake. I got a job first in Headington School, in after-care. That was really nice, because they were sweet girls. But then I realised that actually if I worked as a nurse, I could earn more money. So I just rang up the shelter - the surgery - and I asked, ‘Do you ever want bank nurses?’ They’re kind of like supply teachers. And they said, ‘Yes, come and see us.’ After a little bit they asked me, ‘Would you like to come and work here all the time?’ And I remember saying, ‘I’m not sure if I can do this now, when my life’s sort of extra difficult. I might not be able to manage it.’ Starting to cry, nearly. And they’d go, ‘Yes, you will be able to do it. Just go for it.’ And you think, ‘Well, I’ll just go for it. Have to do something. It won’t be any easier anywhere else.’
I suspect, to be honest, that working at the shelter’s done much more for me than I’ve ever done for it. Because - particularly when I was first on my own - when I sat there talking to people who had nowhere to live, nowhere to go, who had a really grim life, I realised that I had pretty much everything. And it helped me to see my own life. So I think I used it for myself, in that sense, by being with people who didn’t even have a pair of pants. They really don’t.
I’ve always liked homeless people, and before I got married I used to go once a week to help in a shelter in London. I’ve always felt that I’d rather be chatting to homeless people than working in a private hospital. I think because the people are so incredibly honest. If you say to someone, ‘I haven’t seen you for a bit,’ and they have to say, ‘I’ve been in prison,’ it seems to me like there’s nothing to hide any more. Why bother? Whereas if I was working, say, in a private hospital, it would be people showing off - maybe not all of them, of course! - but trying to impress me. At the shelter they don’t try to impress me. And I find that really refreshing. They’re genuinely really nice people who are down on their luck, and it could be any of us. Obviously, some of them brag. Sort of like, ‘I left school at fifteen and I got hundreds of A Levels,’ and then you find out later that they’d been in prison for all that time, so you know they’re just kidding you. But mostly they’re incredibly honest and I find that really amazing. They’re not trying to tell me at home they’ve got a butler and a white Jag or something.
Once there were two people outside, they had a big fight, and the managers of the shelter said they could come in, and one had to lie on his bed, and the other could sit on a chair in the hall. So I gave the one in the hall a cup of tea, and I was going to make the other one a cup of tea, and then I saw them sitting together and shaking hands, and I thought, ‘actually, that’s amazing,’ because they’d just had this really big fight outside. And then another time somebody was very late and there wasn’t any pudding left, and I saw someone chop his pudding in half and give it to the next person. I just thought, ‘actually, they’re so decent to each other,’ and things like paying for each other in the queue if they haven’t got any money…I know some of them are bullies, but they’re largely very, very decent.
People that come to the shelter are largely in three groups - the alcoholics, the drug addicts and the people down on their luck. They’ll come with genuine health problems, like they’ve come from Brighton and they’ve forgotten their medicine, and they’ve got this, that and the other, and they haven’t seen a doctor for years and you’ve got to sort that out. Or they’re actually physically ill, like somebody’s coughing up blood. And then, when they get to know you a bit, they might just come in each evening and chat to you really, just to have your attention. Some of them, they crave attention. They’ll come for a plaster and then they’ll keep coming in and out and telling you it’s dropped off or something, and you say, ‘Why don’t you get a cup of tea and we can have a chat?’ because you’re thinking, ‘Well, what is all this ‘plaster dropping off,’ about?’
It’s only difficult if the people are tricky. I mean really tricky. The kind of person that’s perhaps out of a psychiatric hospital or run away from somewhere that’s very demanding…there was a lady sent a little bit back from another area by a social worker, who turned up at nine o’ clock at night with no shoes on. She was severely mentally ill, and she’d been put on a train and put in a taxi, and she’d burned her house down that day - that was difficult, because one - she was like a frightened rabbit, and two - I couldn’t get anyone to give any help at nine o’clock at night. Not the police, not the psychiatrists, not the doctor, no one would do anything. We managed her for the night, and in the morning I got them to take her to the surgery. At the surgery she got in with the nurse but then she ran out…and eventually they had to get the police to take her to a place of safety. I sort of felt better that not only had I found her difficult, the whole of Luther Street Surgery hadn’t been able to manage any better. Those are the things which are difficult - when you don’t actually know really what to do, and there isn’t an answer. But all the rest is fine, it’s not difficult.
Sometimes I have cried…particularly when it’s young girls…like one young girl not very long ago. Basically she’d lost her flat, she was a heroin addict and her partner had taken the baby with him, and she’d ended up in the shelter. And I found that so awful, that all she had was this crumpled-up photograph of her three-year-old son. I mean, there was no hope, really.
I think that the people at the University and the shelter are the same in both worlds, it’s just that in this world [at the college] it’s a bit more comfortable. They’ve got the same problems. Dons who have been academics all their lives have said to me, when they’ve been ill, ‘You can’t go to eat at High Table if you don’t feel well’. So I might have said to them, ‘Are you going to go to dinner tonight, or shall I just get you something?’ And they’d say, ‘I can’t go to dinner tonight because I don’t feel like the banter, the being on top of it.’ They just wanted to eat in their rooms - and although everybody is civil to each other, if you haven’t got anything to offer they’re not that interested in you. And I realised that actually they’re just as lonely, that they’re just as sad, but they do have money. And their rooms are warm. And they’ve got their own clothes. But they are just as lonely. In fact, they might be more lonely than the chaps in the shelter playing cards, or whatever. They’re probably not so lonely. It’s quite matey. You would be lonely in the shelter if you had serious mental health problems or you were in some way disabled, and you were tricky, you might be lonely, because they might pick on you.
There was one academic, retired now – not the one I told you about who didn’t want to go to High Table – who must have taught a lot of people. And he said to me, ‘In the time I’ve taught, only about three people have come back and said, ‘Thank you and goodbye.’ They’ve just sort of disappeared, and that seems so sad, for a lifetime of teaching.
A lot of the people here at the college would support things like shelter, and when the last Chaplain and I collected clothes for Bosnia in great big metal things that we conned out of Marks and Spencer’s, it seemed like every don emptied his loft, and bought clothes and shoes, and they were really interested in where this stuff was going, of which we collected lorry-loads. I just think that sometimes they get lost in their world of having to produce whatever publications they have to produce. But I do think they’re just as lonely.
I started training to be a nurse at Guy’s Hospital in London in 1965. Why did I want to be a nurse? I don’t know, I just wanted to be a nurse. Sounds pathetic, really. In the 1960s, if you were a girl and you weren’t terribly clever, what could you be? You could be a secretary or you could be a nurse. Well, I’m hopeless at typing, so that really only left nursing, to be honest. There weren’t loads of career opportunities.
I stayed at Guy’s - not completely all the time - until about 1974 when I got married, then had three children. I did keep working as a nurse but obviously I couldn’t work so much. I was just a pair of hands, really. So the career bit had gone. But I was quite happy about that, I’d done what I wanted, been a children’s nurse and been a Ward Sister on children’s wards for nearly three years. Though people would ask you, ‘Would you like to be an administrator?’ I knew quite well that I’d never gone into nursing to walk around with a clipboard.
I realised helping others was a responsibility when I had children of my own, and was trying to juggle being helpful to other people and what you do for them, and perhaps taking on too many things for other people, so you’re a bit ratty with your own children. I do regret that. I don’t think I was vile or anything, but if you’re trying to be too good, you can’t do everything. I remember when I was working in the Christie Hospital in Manchester, it was a children’s hospital, on a children’s ward where they had cancer. I worked one night a week. So my sons, they were quite young then, they’d say, ‘What’s happening to the children on your ward?’ And I’d say, ‘They’ll be watching videos this morning,’ because they were allowed to watch videos before breakfast. And they would say to me, ‘Oh, I wish we had cancer, Mum, because you have such a nice time. And you’re so nice to these children. And you’ll get them anything.’ And, okay, of course they didn’t wish this, they were only about six and eight. I have felt muddled about it, really…maybe I gave to my children on the cancer ward more than I gave to my own children. I didn’t actually ever think anything about it. But now I really do think about how I wasn’t always probably as nice as I could have been…My youngest son always says, ‘You’re nicer to other people than to me.’
I think as a mother I was a bit of a fusspot. I used to be a terrible sort of, ‘is it clean, is it tidy, what’s everyone going to think.’ One thing my husband going off with someone else has taught me is that actually it’s not about being nice and clean and lovely, it’s about being a person who’s basically rounded and OK about life. Once all your life’s been dragged through it, with everyone knowing - well, not all that’s happened to you, but some of what’s happened to you - actually whether you’ve got a clean top on or not is sort of for the birds, really. I can see that’s all nonsense. It’s a middle-class thing…we shouldn’t be judging people like that, and it should be about what kind of person you are.
When my husband left you kind of think, ‘Well, I’m going to have to think about things all a bit differently. There must be other ways to be.’ I think my priorities have definitely changed in the last couple of years. Say about doing caring things for people…Before, I would have done anything for anybody, and not thought about what effect it would have on other people, like at home. But now - particularly now I’m on my own - I know that actually I have to look after myself. What I mean is if I feel a bit funny now I might take off one day from work and get OK, whereas before I would have just always gone…I think I’ve been here seventeen years and I’ve had seven days off. And I think I’ve had three evenings off in the shelter in about two and a half years. I suppose what I’m trying to say to you is, if I really am not all right now, then I won’t drag myself any more. I’ll just sit down and have a rest, or say I can’t do it.
I’d like to be more personally courageous. But I have done a few of the things I was scared to do, I think. Like being brave enough to perhaps put myself a bit nearer the top, to say when I can’t do something, ‘I’m sorry, I actually can’t do that for you today.’ A friend asked me to write a letter saying that her daughter was okay for a flat, and I said to her, ‘I haven’t got time - you write it, and if it’s okay, I’ll sign it.’ Before, I’d have had to beat about the bush, or I would have done it all myself and got in a bad mood.
It wasn’t until I did a counselling course in Rewley House at the beginning of the nineties that I really learned to be honest. I’m not saying that I used to be a liar or anything, but I realised actually being able to talk about yourself, actually being able to have feelings…I don’t think I really knew about these things for the first forty years. I think I was always too helpful and nursey. That was the one thing they used to say about me on the course. We used to sit in these grim groups and have to reveal things about ourselves. They said, ‘Why are you so nursey? Why do you help people?’ and that was the first time in my life that I’d had to think about it, and that was really good for me.
I stayed a Roman Catholic - a sort of fully paid-up Roman Catholic - until a bit after my husband left. And then in about early 2002, I met someone else, and they’re an Anglican. I kind of thought, ‘I’m going to see what it’s like doing something else. I just think I’m going to go down a different path now. My whole life’s completely different.’
I met Brian at a lunch. I don’t know how we got talking. He’s Irish, and he said, ‘Have you ever been to Ireland?’ and I said, ‘Only for a day, when I went on a very quick day trip when the last chaplain became a bishop.’ So then we started talking about the Church of Ireland and one of his relatives had been involved in that. And he said to me, ‘Do you want to see me next week?’ Just from that, two years ago. Amazing, isn’t it? Just a random thing.
I hope I’ll understand Brian better than I did the first time round, with Sebastian. I don’t think I did understand him. Sebastian said something interesting to me the other day. I was talking to him about, what was the difference between his relationship with me and his relationship now, but he’s very bad at answering those sorts of questions, he’ll always ask me how my tyres are on my car or something. And I said to him, ‘Well, I’ll tell you then, I can see differences for me then and with Brian, and I’m not out to make any trouble, but what are the differences? And does Barbara understand you better?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know’. And then he said, ‘Maybe I don’t understand myself’. And I thought that was quite interesting, because he’s not a man who does say very much about himself. It’s always, ‘Is your oil all right?’ And that’s not the point, is it? If my oil’s all right. It’s nonsense.
I don’t feel so lonely now I’ve got Brian, but I think, ‘Well, he will die some day, or I will die, and there will be loneliness again.’ It’s very difficult. I think I deal with it by filling up the time.
I’m going to Cambridge to live with Brian. That’s why I’m leaving. I’ve sold my house, and two of my sons are, well, I’m quite worried about them, but they’re twenty-four and twenty-seven, they’re not babies, I have to remind myself. They were living at home and paying me rent, so we’re kind of having a big move. All of us. And I’m very sad to leave all my friends, to be honest. But I’m optimistic about the future. It’s good. I’m really excited about it.
And what sort of a life will I lead? Well, Brian’s a teacher and he teaches eight to ten-year old children. He lives in a flat, but we’re going to go halves on a house. I shall work as a bank nurse, but now it’s got a new smart name called NHS Professionals!And I’m going to the shelter and see if they want me. They used to have a nurse, they haven’t got one now. I’ll see what happens. I’ve told Brian I want to work in the shelter in Cambridge, but he says, ‘You won’t work so much, will you?’ And I say, ‘No, just a little bit - I think I’ll miss the men if I don’t!’ I hope I’ll be a bit more sensible, not end up in the same situations I have in the past, like with Andy - my son - telling me, ‘You do everything for other people, Mum, but not for me.’ So I can have my little fix of doing something, but I must be careful.
I hope I’ve not made anybody’s life any worse for having met them. I know there are one or two things that I’ve done as a nurse, not on purpose or anything, but I’ve made mistakes. One was with a burnt child. I was about twenty-four, and a Ward Sister in London. The father wanted to take his dead child home to be laid out in the front room, and I suppose because I couldn’t cope with it, I said to him, ‘I wouldn’t do that.’ And I always feel I must have influenced him because he didn’t do it, and I feel he may have regretted it. An eleven-year-old little boy in a front parlour in East London, all his skin was burnt off, the whole of him, ninety-eight per cent burnt. I thought it would just be too grim. And it had gone slightly smelly. I know now that can be dealt with by undertakers, but I didn’t know that then. I regret that, because I feel that he may always wish that he’d done it. I wish I’d given him more choices, or said, ‘Think about it till tomorrow.’ But you’re just not that experienced at that age, are you?
What do you feel you’ve achieved in your life?
Nothing much. I’ve made a few jokes that made people laugh. I don’t really know that I’ve achieved anything, to be honest. I think I’ve just muddled along on the hard shoulder, sometimes getting onto the slow lane, and that’s about it.
A friend of mine working at the shelter in Oxford told me that everyone there thinks you are wonderful. It does seem that people really respond to you and feel good in your company.
…I sort of know it, and that’s really naughty – but that’s come only since I’ve been on my own. When my ex-husband Sebastian asked me, how was I? I said, ‘Actually, Sebastian, you’d be quite surprised. What you did has sort of turned me into a superstar.’ And that’s really awful! I just thought, ‘Well, since you’ve gone, it’s changed everything, really. Perhaps I can be more myself.’