Still, I must hie me to Ward W. I had got my wish. I was in the army at last. In the army one does not argue. One obeys. So, having been directed down an interminable corridor, I presented myself at Ward W.
On entering—I had knocked, but no response rewarded this courtesy—I was requested, by a stern-visaged Sister, to state my business. Her sternness was excusable. The visiting-hour was not yet, and in my unprofessional guise she had taken me for a visitor. My explanation dispelled her frowns. She was expecting me. Her present orderly had been granted three days’ leave. He was preparing to depart. I was to act as his substitute. Before he went he would initiate me into the secrets of his craft. She called him. “Private Wood!” Private Wood, in his shirt-sleeves, appeared. I was handed over to him.
Herein I was fortunate, though I was unaware of it at the time. Private Wood, who was not too proud to wash dishes (which was what he had at that moment been doing), is a distinguished sculptor and a man of keen imagination. At a subsequent period that imagination was to bring forth the masks-for-facial-disfigurements scheme which gained him his commission and which has attracted world-wide notice from experts. Meanwhile his imagination enabled him to understand the exact extent of a novice’s ignorance, the precise details which I did not know and must know, the essential apparatus I had to be shown the knack of, before he fled to catch his train.
He devoted just five minutes, no more, to teaching me how to be a ward-orderly. Four of those minutes were lavished on the sink-room—a small apartment that enshrines cleaning appliances, the taps of which, if you turn them on without precautions, treat you to an involuntary shower bath. The sink-room contains a selection of utensils wherewith every orderly becomes only too familiar: their correct employment, a theme of many of the mildly Rabelaisian jests which are current in every hospital, is a mystery—until some kind mentor, like Private Wood, lifts the veil. In four minutes he had told me all about the sink-room, and all about all the gear in the sink-room and all about a variety of rituals which need not here be dwelt on. (The sink-room is an excellent place in which to receive a private lecture.) The fifth minute was spent in introducing me, in another room, the ward kitchen, to Mrs. Mappin—the scrub-lady.
A scrub-lady is attached to each ward; and most wards, it should in justice be added, are attached to their scrub-ladies. Certainly I was to find that Ward W was attached to Mrs. Mappin. Mrs. Mappin was washing up. Private Wood had been helping her. The completion of his task he delegated to me. “Mrs. Mappin, this is our new orderly. He’ll help you finish the lunch-dishes.” Private Wood then slid into his tunic, snatched his cap from a nail in the wall, and vanished.