'I slept like a hibernating bear'

It was agony - and good practice for a future agony aunt. In 1945 the War was over but 14-year-old Claire Rayner was a prisoner in a household that was emotionally like Colditz but without the Red Cross food parcels. Mr and Mrs Rayner were clearly the parents from hell, although today Claire points out in mitigation that they married too young. (85 would have seemed about right.)

One day Claire was daydreaming of a Great Escape to a job where she was useful and people were pleased to see her. "In my daydream, I suddenly see myself in a hospital, wearing a nurse's uniform." That, anyway, is how she put it in her autobiographical How Did I Get Here From There? but last week she rationalised her decision by saying that she needed a career that provided accommodation away from her prison of a home.

Her break for freedom took months of scanning the nursing press and writing job applications. She gave the local post office as her address, in case her parents intercepted the correspondence. The result was an interview at Epsom Cottage Hospital. "I knew as soon as I walked into the hospital that everything felt right." The Matron asked one question: "And how old did you say you are?"

"I took a chance and said '17'," remembers Claire. "I was tall and well built." This turned out to be the right answer and she was hired as a "cadet" or untrained nurse. It was such hard work that "I slept like a hibernating bear". She scrubbed, she cleaned, she spooned soup into sick mouths and carried out the "Last Offices" on the dead.

The job went up in smoke when the Matron received a desperate call for help from Claire's 13-year-old sister, who had been left alone with her 11- and five-year-old siblings to fight off the bailiffs while the parents went on a week's holiday abroad. Other nursing jobs followed. "Five glorious years. I trained as a nurse and midwife. Then I thought I'd try medicine - as a doctor. I got my First MB, which is like A-levels."

When she met Des, she was aware that marriage was not permitted to medical students, especially not to females. "I had to make a choice. Either I turn my back on this chap - or I didn't. My hormones chose Des."

She carried on nursing until the first baby put paid to full-time work. Stuck at home, she began tapping out articles and then books: "Forty-five fiction, 45 non-fiction and my autobiography. Write about what you know: the non-fiction is entirely medical and social, while the novels have a strong medical content. When people are ill, they talk to you a lot, especially on night duty. There is a lot of whispering to the night nurse."

Claire is now president of the Patients Association ( www.patients-association.org.uk).

jonty@jonathansale.com

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