Glasgow, December 1959
Sister McConochie sat in the Nurses’ Home office, going over her reports. She had some good girls under her care this year, and one or two not so good. Carol and Diana were the best of the bunch.
Being a student nurse could be heavy back breaking work sometimes, and Diana was small and fine-boned. Sister had been afraid in the early days that she just wouldn’t be able to cope. But Carol - now there’s my future matron, thought Sister, even if Carol herself wouldn’t believe it right now. You don’t have to be the best nurse to be a good Matron. What you need is good people management skills, and that’s what Carol is already developing. It’s a long time since I had a more promising potential matron. And she’s so like my Grace..............
It was that fateful summer of 1941, and the War was nearly two years old. The Germans were the masters of Europe, and only Britain had stood between Hitler and his dreams.
Sister Sheena McConochie was in charge of the main ward at Dunraven Convalescent Hospital on the banks of Loch Lomond near Drymen. Because of the War they were constantly shorthanded, and always overworked. This suited Sheena fine. She would rather be busy all of her waking hours, than have time to sit and worry about Hamish.
Doctor Hamish McConochie had swept her off her feet when she was just eighteen years old, and the Roaring Twenties were in their infancy. He was six and a half feet tall, strongly built, and had played prop forward for Scotland at rugby. Towards the end of the Great War he had served in Mesopotamia as a young army medical officer. He also got young Sheena McConochie pregnant, in spite of the tight security at the Dunfermline nurses’ home. Being a gentleman ten years older than her - and in love with her anyway - Hamish had married her as soon as she discovered she was ‘with child’, as her doctor had so quaintly put it.
In spite of all the difficulties along the way, Hamish had insisted she complete her training as a nurse. When Sheena finally qualified, Hamish made a State occasion of it, inviting all their friends and relations to the largest hotel in town. She loved him so much it sometimes hurt. When she told him it would be very dangerous for her to have another child, he had called in his most experienced friend for confirmation. Then he had employed the most distinguished surgeon in Scotland to carry out the operation which would ensure she never suffered an accidental pregnancy. After the operation she had wept in the hospital bed. She told him she felt inadequate, now she could never give him the son he wanted. He had taken both of her hands between his, and gazed into her eyes.
“I have you, and I have our daughter. That is all I will ever want or need, and I will love you and care for you all my life.” She had never loved him more than at that moment. It brought them closer together than she had thought it was possible for any two people to be. For sixteen years after that, they had run the Practice together, cared for each other and their daughter, and been blissfully happy.
Now, here she was alone in Drymen. Hamish was Flotilla Surgeon Commander on a cruiser, and it was eight months since they had embraced. Grace was in Edinburgh, in her second year as a medical student. She was determined to be a doctor, and both her parents were very proud of her. She usually managed to come to Drymen at least once a month, to spend time with her mother. These weekends were currently the high points of Sheena’s existence. She was happy to show Grace around the ward, and Grace was interested in the progress of every patient. She even had a mild flirtation going with a R.A.F. squadron leader, who had lost both legs. A wise old ex-commander of men, twenty-three years of age. It was a Tuesday morning when the naval staff car drove up to the hospital. The Commander was gentle and sympathetic, but the world had come to an end
“…gave his life for his country in the line of duty.....”
Sheena wanted to scream; to smash something; to destroy a part of this world which had destroyed her husband. Instead, she marched stiffly to her cottage, waving away all who would comfort her, and subjecting them to a savage glare. Once inside the cottage, she lay on her bed and wept. There seemed no end to the tears accompanied by quiet sobs, for more than hour. “Oh Hamish, how can I go on living without you...”
She heard a long demented wailing, rising to a piercing scream......Suddenly she realised it was coming from her, and closed her mouth abruptly. Rising from the bed, she walked out of the cottage, out of the grounds, towards the loch. She started to run, slowly at first, then ever faster. Until she tripped and fell heavily. The waters of Loch Lomond were close. Less than fifty yards to go. Gently she pushed herself up on trembling legs. In a daze, she barely felt the first ripples, as she walked, then waded in the direction of the centre of the loch.
“Hamish, wait for me Hamish...” The water was up around her breasts when she heard his voice
“Sheena my darling, I’ll wait forever for you. But Grace is going to need you. You must stay and take care of her.” She shook her head, and stood still, gazing blindly out over the loch....there were other voices. Someone put an arm round her waist and pulled her backwards, another one on the other side……………………
Matron had been worried, and took the time to watch the cottage from her upstairs office, with the window open. She was not fooled by Sheena’s hard outer shell. She knew that under it was a woman who cared, and grieved, and needed to give and receive love. She had already told the naval commander that he MUST arrange for Sheena’s daughter to be brought from Edinburgh as quickly as humanly possible. Commander Beattie did not argue, and set things in motion straight away. He had seen the action report, and read the citation. Surgeon Commander McConochie had been a very brave man. He was to receive a posthumous DSO - and it would be his second one. Not many men could lay claim to that.
The moment Matron had heard the faint wailing begin, she ran downstairs and ordered a nurse to fetch the gardener and janitor, and catch up with her as quickly as they could. By the time she was outside, Sheena was already breaking into a run in the distance. Matron followed at a very brisk walk. She was getting too old to run, but she could walk at a fair clip all day.........
Grace arrived that same afternoon, and the surgeon commander’s wife and daughter grieved together. That evening Sheena knelt in prayer beside her bed. “Thankyou Hamish, for giving me the strength and purpose to carry on. I will join you in the Lord’s good time.”
Grace had been preparing for an early lunch in Edinburgh when it hit her out of nowhere; just about the time of Sheena’s scream. Her mother needed her - NOW. She had begun packing an overnight bag, without questioning her instinct. When the naval staff car caught up with her, she was already more than halfway to the station. She slumped in the back seat, and wept at the news of her father’s death. In the middle of the tears, she shouted to the driver “Please drive as fast as you can, I HAVE to get to my mother.” Better than anyone in the world, Grace knew how loving and sensitive her mother could be. Right now she must be hurting more than she could bear.
“Please God, let me be in time” she prayed, at the very moment her mother stopped wading in the loch. From that day on, Sheena McConochie had become even more withdrawn and austere to those around her. Except for the very occasional more intuitive ones, who managed to see through the disguise.
A month later Sister McConochie had received a railway warrant, and a Royal Command to attend an investiture at Buckingham Palace. She wondered if her childhood friend Liz would recognise or remember her. Sheena was the younger by two years.
On the big day she waited in line for an eternity. The palace really was something to see, even without many of its treasures, which had been removed to safety. A stick of bombs had fallen half a mile away ten minutes ago, but nobody seemed to be the least perturbed by it. The Queen had refused to run away from the palace. Indeed, during the darkest days of the Blitz, she had been seen among the ruins, comforting the injured and deprived. This Scotswoman who had married Prince George, was already the most beloved member of the British Royal Family this century. After her brother-in-law’s abdication, she had been catapulted into the public eye as wife of the new King George the Sixth. Almost single-handed, she had pulled the Royal Family up by its boot straps, from the brink of disaster. She had instilled confidence in her shy stuttering husband, and made him a king. And everywhere she went, she radiated kindness and benevolence. Now she stood close to her beloved husband, as he bestowed decorations on his subjects.
At last it was Sister McConochie’s turn to be invested. As she walked forward, she could not resist the temptation to look at the Queen. Sheena had called her Liz, as a girl and young teenager. More correctly she had been Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, and Sheena’s father was one of the gamekeepers on the estate. The Queen glanced at Sister McConochie, then stared.
“Sheena, my dear, I had no idea....”
Queen Elizabeth took two paces forward from beside the king, holding out her good arm, and another legend was born. Placing her hand on Sheena’s shoulder, she turned and said to the king “George dear, this is my childhood friend from Glamys.”
“Goodness me” said King George, “You must be Sheena Logan. My wife has told me of your escapades when you were young together.”
People of Protocol were starting to flutter around like headless chickens, wondering what to do. The Queen noticed, as she did most things. “You see the lady in the white dress with the blue sash” whispered Queen Elizabeth to Sheena. “Go to her after the award, and she will bring you to me later.” She raised her voice “Now we must continue with the ceremony” and took her place once more beside the king.
Sheena would never forget that day. Two and a half hours after receiving Hamish’s DSO, she was shown into the Queen’s drawing room. They had talked and laughed for more than an hour, while the greatest war in history carried on outside. Towards the end, a lady-in-waiting entered, carrying what looked like a briefcase wrapped in cloth-of-gold. The Queen took it, and handed it to Sheena.
“Your husband’s surgical instruments, my dear. I hope you cherish them as much as I will cherish my memory of this conversation in the midst of a world gone mad.”
It was not until later that Sheena began to really appreciate what had happened. Some people somewhere must have made superhuman efforts to get Hamish’s instruments to that drawing room in time. Such is the power of a Royal Command.
Five months later Sheena McConochie received the news that her daughter Grace had leukemia. At first she was devastated all over again. Then she remembered Hamish’s words on the loch ‘Grace is going to need you’
Now was the time to buck up and get moving. It would be a sin to just give up now, without even trying. Together they decided that whatever happened, Grace should continue her medical studies, unless she was physically incapable of doing so. They spent as much time as possible together, but it was quite inadequate.
Sheena appealed to the medical authorities to find her a position in Edinburgh, but for nine months nothing happened. Grace still seemed strong and healthy, except for the dark rings around her eyes. But Sheena knew that soon enough she would start to lose her strength. Then her mother would have to be there to care for her. Matron was sympathetic, but she hadn’t much influence over such matters. She had taken to spending at least one evening a week at the cottage. They discussed problems, timetables, staff strengths and weaknesses. On one such evening she provided the answer.
“Sheena, didn’t you once tell me that Her Majesty asked you to write to her if you ever encountered a problem you were unable to surmount?”
Three weeks later Sheena’s transfer to Edinburgh came through. Not only could she see her daughter more often, but she could help her with her work and studies as well. By the Spring of 1944, Grace had become quite weak and debilitated. But she still insisted on becoming a doctor if humanly possible. It had become an obsession with them both, that Hamish’s daughter should follow in her father’s footsteps, by herself qualifying as a Medical Practitioner. Even when confined to bed, as Grace sometimes now was, she continued studying; until finally in the early summer of 1945 she received her M.D. in her wheelchair.
For eight glorious months Grace ran the Practice in Dunfermline. The house had been closed up for nearly six years, and the first thing that needed doing was a big spring clean. At first Sheena’s heart was heavy at returning here with her husband gone forever. But gradually she got over it, and began to feel at home again. She renewed old friendships from before the War, and many of Hamish’s previous patients came to be treated by his daughter. Hamish’s old surgery was difficult for Sheena to change, and in the end Grace kept it more or less as it had been. It served as a memorial to him, and to the many happy years all three of them had spent in this house.
Sheena acted as nurse, receptionist, and general factotum. Mrs. Robertson, the woman who had helped with the spring cleaning, continued on a month by month basis. Both Sheena and Grace were far too busy with the Practice to attend to housekeeping matters. Sheena just gave Mrs.Robertson an outline of what they liked to eat, and opened accounts at the local provision shops. Mrs.Robertson then saw that they were regularly fed, and the house and surgery kept clean. Sheena was happier than she had been since Hamish’s death. The War was over, optimism was in the air, and it was good to be alive..............
On a cold February day in 1946, Grace Elizabeth McConochie M.D. was laid to rest alongside her father in Dunfermline cemetery. Sheena was shattered. The fact that she had known for years that it was coming didn’t help the pain of loss one bit. She paid off Mrs.Robertson with regret, and for weeks, then months, she wandered around the big empty house, conjuring up memories of happier days. Afraid to leave this place where her life belonged.
Until finally it was Christmas, and the usual card arrived bearing the Royal coat of arms. But when she opened it, this one was different. The Queen had a few suggestions, and the more Sheena thought about them, the more they appealed to her. She didn’t need money now, and she didn’t have to work. Hamish had told her that if anything happened to him, she would be well provided for. She had not at the time appreciated just how well he had provided. The house they had lived in was inherited from his father, as well as eleven others just like it. The others were rented out via an estate agent, along with two more Hamish had bought since.
By the first anniversary of Grace’s death, Sheena had decided to follow Her Majesty’s suggestions, plus some ideas of her own. For the next year she was very busy. Major alterations were made to the house, plus extensions behind, an ambulance bay on one side, increased water supply, etcetera. She placed advertisements in the newspapers, interviewed applicants, applied for a research grant; registered a charity, and finally sent out job applications for herself.
In February 1948 - on the second anniversary of Grace’s death - the McConochie Leukemia Research Institute opened its doors for business. The doctor who had treated Grace for so long was the Director, and all of the other staff had been recruited by Sheena. Doctor Davies thought Sheena had done a remarkable job. The Ministry of Health paid the salaries of himself and two other research doctors. A Royal trust fund took care of the nursing staff, who doubled as laboratory assistants. The rent from the other properties paid for the rates, non-medical staff and supplies. Donations from the public were solicited for research; and Edinburgh University had already expressed interest in supplying funds for joint research studies. Sheena was made Honorary Matron for life.
Then it was time to take up her new appointment at Stormhill General Hospital, since she no longer had a private income, except for the rent from the two houses Hamish had bought.
Sheena sighed in her office at the nurses’ home. She closed the drawer containing the award she had received on her second visit to Buckingham Palace. Sheena Evelyn McConochie MBE decided it was time once more to check on what ‘her’ girls were up to.