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A Modern Woman
A Modern Woman

A Modern Woman

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“If you survived the war, you can survive this,” Helen told herself as she dry heaved into the pail, but her stomach disagreed. The captain had warned them the seas would be rough approaching the Cape, but she’d never expected it to be this bad. Nor had she expected to be seasick on the calmer seas. That pail had become all too familiar on this voyage.

Great Aunt Maud in all her exotic stories of travel to India had forgotten to mention how awful the voyage was. The berth was small, its bathroom miniscule, and it never stopped rocking. The only consolation was that she didn’t have to share the tiny space. Her friend Karen should have come along, but at the last minute she’d decided that she couldn’t leave her family. Mother, whose Victorian sensitivities hadn’t entirely been destroyed by the war, hadn’t liked the idea of Helen travelling unchaperoned, but Helen was unconcerned; She was a modern woman, she’d survived the war. Helen was confident she could manage just fine on her own! Besides, if Aunt Maud could do it, so could Helen.

Aunt Maud was now in her eighties, but Helen had grown up listening to her adventures, traveling out to India with the East India company, marrying Uncle William. “So many handsome men in uniform to choose from.”

“What else did she expect? She went over on a fishing fleet,” Helen’s mother had once added waspishly. In childhood innocence, Helen had thought it strange her aunt had travelled on a fishing ship. It was only later she’d discovered the ‘fishing fleet’ were English girls who’d been unsuccessful in the marriage stakes in England, and went out with the East India company to find a husband among the officers in India.

Helen had no intention of being part of a modern ‘fishing fleet’ even though ‘the war to end all wars’ had robbed them of so many marriageable men. Like so many of her peers, she’d accepted spinsterhood. Women outnumbered men now, and so many of those who had returned from the front were too damaged to be good marital prospects. Helen had nursed their physical injuries, helped them recover, but the damage ran deeper. Seeing their blank, unstaring eyes windowing emptied souls, and hearing their screams in the night, she’d doubted some would ever find peace. One could only hope that it truly was the last final war.

Helen had loved nursing, and discovered a natural aptitude for it. Before the war, she’d only been allowed to learn arts, social and decorative skills, how to manage a household when she married. But the war had shown what women were capable of. With a surge of pride she thought of how women had kept the factories and farms going, doing work they’d never been allowed before. It had felt good to be useful, to have purpose. But now, the men who returned wanted their jobs back, and expected women to stay home again. It was too late to put that genie back into the bottle! Helen wanted more than to be just a wife and mother. She wanted a career. The modern woman could have it all.

Helen had seen the advert from the Overseas Nursing association, recruiting nurses for the colonies. Aunt Maud’s stories had echoed in her mind, and Helen knew she had to go. She’d been eagerly accepted by the recruiting office – perhaps a little too eagerly. They had provided additional training. Now, here she was, on her way to India to work in a hospital in Bombay. The boat heaved again, and Helen’s stomach heaved with it. She’d been so excited about this opportunity, but now Helen wondered how she could survive the journey. A booming crash echoed through the ship, throwing her across the tiny floor. The ship rolled again, and she rolled with it, banging her head on the edge of the bed. Blackness enveloped her.

Sunlight was streaming through the portal when Helen woke. Her head throbbed, and she touched it gingerly, feeling the bandage. She sat up, wincing as the pain stabbed again.

“Good, you’re awake. How are you feeling?”

“My head is aching, but I I’m alright.” She paused. “The nausea is gone!”

“I should hope so. We’re in port, in Cape Town. The ship sustained some damage in that storm, so we’re going to be here for a while. As soon as you feel up to it, you’ll be able to go ashore. Some fresh air will do you good.”

The thought of dry land was more galvanising than smelling salts, and Helen was soon dressed. She replaced the bandage with a smaller dressing, hiding it under a wide brimmed hat. The sun shone blindingly bright, and as soon as she stepped onto the gangplank, she felt the blazing heat, smelled the fishy docks. They bustled with activity, dark skinned children running, wearing only short pants, or skimpy cloths about their hips. Adult men wore little more, bare black skin shining in the sunlight as they carried sacks into a warehouse. Their women worked alongside them, carrying heavy bags on their heads. Helen marvelled at how their necks bore the weight. Some carried the additional burden of a baby strapped to their backs.

“If you’re going ashore, do be careful, miss,” advised one of the crew, as he helped Helen from the gangplank onto the docks. “It may be wiser to wait for one of the groups, and go with them. My shift ends at four. I’d be happy to show you the sights,” he smiled, his eyes twinkling with hope.

“Thank you, but, I’m sure I shall be alright. I need some air, and to walk on solid ground for a while.”

“Don’t wander too far, miss.”

Helen’s legs felt wobbly and unsteady, and for a moment, she thought she might stumble. A strong arm reached out to steady her.

“It’ll take some time to get your land legs again,” said the owner of the arm, in precise, clipped tones that Helen recognised. Her first steps in Africa, and she had found an Englishman.

“Are you going into town?” he asked.

“I hadn’t decided. I needed some fresh air, and I wanted to have a look around.”

He frowned slightly, a quizzical look in amber eyes. “Is it your first time in Africa?”

“Yes. It’s my first time out of England.”

“Then perhaps you’ll allow me to escort you? Henry Tomlinson, at your service.” He held out his hand. Helen took it, surprised at the strength of his grasp.

“I’m Helen Wilkinson. Thank you, but I’m sure I can manage on my own. I shall be quite fine.”

“I’m certain you shall, but perhaps you’ll allow me the honour of showing you the sights, Miss Wilkinson, It’s not often I am able to walk around Cape Town with a pretty girl on my arm.” Blue eyes twinkled at her, and she thought she detected a smile smothered by his moustache.

When he put it like that, it seemed churlish to reject his offer, and Helen accepted his outstretched arm.

“Welcome to the Union of South Africa, Miss Wilkinson.” Helen fell into step beside him. “What brings you so far from home?” Helen explained about her posting in India, and the voyage.

“It’s awfully brave of you to come so far. We could use more women like you out here. There is always a need for nurses. Our Somerset hospital is desperately short of good nursing staff.”

“It’s very rewarding work. How did you come to be here?”

“I came out to find my fortune in the gold and diamond mines up north, but when I arrived in Cape Town, I decided I’d much rather stay here. I have a small vineyard and farm near the city.”

“Have you been here long?”

“Nearly five years. It’s a beautiful place. That’s Table Mountain,” he indicated.

“It’s easy to see why it was given that name.”

“Yes, when the clouds hang low, they resemble a tablecloth.”

“Is it possible to walk up the mountain?”’

“Yes, but it is rather a long and difficult walk. The view is magnificent. They’re building a cable way, and then it will be easy to reach the top.”

“Is it always this hot?” Helen asked, conscious that her blouse already felt sticky.

“Oh no,” he said and Helen sighed with relief. “This is only the start of winter. It’s much hotter in the summer.”

“Goodness, in England, this would be regarded as a beautiful summer’s day.”

“Indeed. One of the wonderful things about living in Africa is the sunshine.”

To Helen, the heat felt stifling, and she felt as if she were wilting. Henry noticed her pale face.

“Perhaps we should rather take my motor, and find a hotel for some refreshments. You’re not acclimatised to this weather.”

Helen perked up as they drank iced lemonade in the Mount Nelson. “I’m not usually such a wet blanket, but I’ve been so seasick that I feel quite weak.”

“Forgive me, I should have realised. Would you allow me to order a light luncheon perhaps?”

“Thank you. That would be lovely.”

The food arrived and Helen ate hungrily, listening as Henry talked. Several acquaintances stopped to greet them, and Henry introduced her, sotto voce pointing out the notable and notorious of Cape Town society. She was surprised at the lengthening shadows, and approaching dusk.

“I’d better escort you back to your ship,” Henry said noting the time on his gold pocket watch. “When do you sail for India?”

“I’m not sure. The ship needs repairs. They said it would be a few days.”

“Then would you allow me to see you again tomorrow, Helen? Perhaps I could take you for a drive along the coast, and show you my vineyard?”

“I’d like that, Henry,” Helen agreed.

Helen woke from a deep sleep to sunlight streaming into her cabin. A kernel of excitement stirred in her. Henry would be collecting her shortly. She dressed carefully in the lightest cotton dress in her wardrobe, fixed her hair in a neat chignon, and put on her widest brimmed hat. She smiled as she stared at her image in the mirror, a pleasure mirrored in Henry’s eyes when she met him by the gangplank.

In the days that followed, Henry showed her beautiful sandy beaches and cool mountain forests. They ate local foods, Helen delighting in the Cape-Malay combination of tastes and spices. He took her to hotel dances, and showed her round the large department stores. Helen was surprised at the range of items on sale, although the fashions were a year behind London. But it was his vineyard that she loved most. Sitting on the veranda drinking white wine he’d made, looking at the mountains surrounding them, the vines nestled in the valley; Helen thought she’d never known anything more beautiful. No wonder he never wanted to leave.

“Leaving,” the thought made her spirits sink. Somehow her dream of nursing in India had become so distant. But the repairs had been completed, the ship provisioned and they would be sailing the day after tomorrow. She shuddered as she remembered the pitching seas and debilitating nausea. She was dreading the journey. She had made a commitment, she had a career, and was going to make a new life as a modern women.

“Why so glum?” Henry asked.

“I was thinking that I shall miss this when we sail. I’ve had a wonderful time exploring and I’m grateful you’ve shown me so much.”

“It’s been my pleasure. I will be sorry to see you leave.”

The night before sailing, Henry took her back to the Mount Nelson for Dinner. “Don’t you feel like eating?” Henry asked as Helen pushed food around her plate.

“I’m afraid that if I eat too much tonight, I’ll only be ill when we sail.”

“Then why go? Why don’t you stay here?”

“I made a commitment and took on a post. I came here to be a modern woman, with a career.”

“They’re desperate for nurses here – you can easily find a post. Look, Helen,” he ran his fingers through his curly hair. “This is awfully forward of me, but I’d like more time with you, to court you properly. I think we may have something special. Or is my cause a lost one?”

“No, it’s not.” Helen sighed. “I don’t want to leave, but I have to go.”

“Can’t a modern woman change her mind, and her plans?”

“I need to think about it.”

“There isn’t much time, the ship sails tomorrow.”

Helen didn’t sleep that night, but instead tossed and turned weighing the choices. She liked Henry, liked the country. She could find a nursing post as easily. But she hadn’t come all this way to find a husband. She’d come to make a career, live a life that meant something. Watching Henry waving from the docks as the ship sailed away was one of the most difficult moments of her life.

The seas were calmer, and the dreaded seasickness didn’t return, but Helen felt listless. Bombay shocked her. The orphans and beggars clustered around her in muddy streets, feral and abandoned animals tugged at hear heart. The poverty and misery drained her more than the upset stomach and fever she contracted. Lying shivering and sweaty in crumped sheets, she rued her choices. “Why hadn’t she stayed in Africa? But I have choices,” she realised. “Perhaps that’s what it really means to be a modern woman.”

Slowly she recovered, and returned to her duties, finding some fulfilment alleviating the misery of others. She thought often of Henry, and when one day she turned to see him standing in the doorway of the ward, she thought he was an illusion. But he opened his arms, and ran into them, finding her place. “Would you like to come back to Africa with me?”

And a modern woman made her choice.

Author Notes: Denice is a freelance writer, who works part time as a research administrator, and teaches English to people in China using a virtual classroom. She lives in England with her husband, and kowtows to the five cats, who are their furry children. Follow her on twitter @denicepenrose or through her blog:

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9 Apr, 2019
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