As a toddler, most things that happen to you are in the daytime, with mothers being the likely fillers of later memory gaps – especially in the 1950s, when hands on mothering was encouraged. My mother was never a reliable witness though, due to her diminishing grasp on reality, so the caulking for this tale has been periodically provided by my brother.
I had just had my second birthday and Brubby was nearly ten: it was December, it was cold, and my mother was ironing in the only heated room of the house. We were with her. Brubby was up to some familiar and apparently annoying antic, causing our mother to shout at him. The sound made me jump and I lost my balance, putting my hand out for the nearest thing – the fireguard. Being the common type we had in those days, it was designed only to keep sparks from the room, it slipped away casting me into the fire.
My mother snatched me up and ran to a neighbour, whilst Brubby was left to fend for himself. It seems he had the presence of mind to unplug the iron, or things might have been worse. Perhaps he stayed to mind the house, or perhaps another neighbour took him in. Either way, he must have been worried about me and, perhaps, blamed himself for what had happened. By chance, my left hand landed high on the baffle-plate at the back of the fire, saving me from falling face down into the grate. The palm and fingers of my hand were, however, completely seared. Now, I don’t remember any of this, and most definitely don’t remember any pain although it must have been severe. I do, though, have an enduring memory of the months that followed.
I was rushed, by whatever means, for medical attention: probably from the District Nurse, who lived at the other end of the village. Certainly, it was she who regularly changed the dressings: a yellow square of camphor and lanolin soaked gauze, carefully taken from a flat metal tin, was placed onto the palm of my hand using tweezers; a layer of soft lint followed and a light binding of gauze held it in place. Then, I was tightly bandaged from the finger tips to the elbow, using thicker gauze bandages that had no give in them. This was to stop the air from getting in and me from flexing my hand. It must have worked well, because I remember not being able to play with my toys properly. I also have a vague recollection of one of Brubby’s long socks being used, to cover the bandage and keep it clean. I don’t think I minded, as I looked forward to seeing Nurse Ashby: I was captivated by her bright eyes and bouncy brown hair. As she painstakingly dressed my hand, she kept smiling at me and then, one day, she gave me a present. It was a book. She had bought it especially; I thought she was lovely.
After a few weeks, the tight gauze bandage was exchanged for a crepe one and I was able to move my fingers, the tips of which now peeped out. They were pink and plump and shiny, like new born mice. I still couldn’t pick things up, but I was pleased: this bandage gave some room for me to sniff at the ointment soaked dressing. I loved that smell. In fact, I became so attached to it that, when the last dressing was removed, I cried and cried. I shouldn’t have worried, the smell had permeated my flesh; I slept happy, my hand to my nose, every night for weeks.
With no disfigurement and no mental scars from the incident, I have never blamed anybody. Why would I? The care was excellent and the action so prompt, I was saved from a skin graft; because I was so young the distinctive whorls returned to my finger ends and I have a lifeline as does everyone else. Of course, my mother said it was her fault; mothers blame themselves for lack of vigilance and beyond that I thought she meant because she’d yelled. Years later, though, she said it had been done to punish her. Why she thought she might be punished, and by whom, was not then clear.
For a long time there’ve been more modern ways for treating burns but, just sometimes, I’ve caught the smell again – it always triggers visual flashes of Nurse Ashby, and a feeling of being content. How lucky!