Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Old Nurse Reid, Rhubarb Wine And The Truant Boy.

How long does a person have to live before they are qualified to be known by the prefix 'old'? A long, long time I would think.
Years ago, actually it would have been 1960, when I was a boy of thirteen, and living in Scotland, I had a lovely friend. Everyone referred to her as 'Old Nurse Reid'. I have no idea just how old she was but to my young eyes, and despite the twinkle in hers, she looked fairly ancient. She had served as a nurse in the first world war. So in the 60's she had certainly been around for a while.
Old Nurse Reid's hair was short, straight, pure white, and brushed back in the no nonsense kind of way, that seemed in those days to be the badge of the professional woman. Her face had a happy plumpness about it. She shone with that rare look, which made you want to confide in her.
Despite having retired from the position many years before, she was nearly always to be seen in the uniform of the District Nurse. Which in those days was a job that carried authority, and great respect. She must have had a good supply of those uniforms because she always had a freshly starched look about her.

By the age of thirteen I had just about given up on school. I was always sent off on time in the mornings but sometime between leaving the house and reaching the school yard I would somehow or other manage to get sidetracked. Often it would be in the company of my friend Doddy, another inveterate truant.
On these occasions we would spend the day fishing or shooting things with air rifles or catapults, or collecting birds eggs or butterflies. Anyway, whatever we got up to, it generally involved some carnage to wildlife. Thank God that most of today's youngsters are taught to respect nature. In my childhood we were nowhere near as aware.
It was on the day's when I was on my own, that I would find myself gravitating to the area of Old Nurse Reid's house. Where I would hang around idling the time away, in the way that only kids can. Climbing trees, balancing on walls, scratching rude words into any surface susceptible to my penknife, seeing if it would be possible to hit that greenhouse with this stone. Oops! Sometimes it was. All those kind of things which I see kids doing today and frown disapprovingly at, before remembering that I was young once.
Eventually Old Nurse Reid would see me loitering by her gate and invite me in. Which was what I had been waiting for. The usual routine on these occasions was for me to be given a broom and asked to sweep the path or maybe take a wet chamois leather and a bucket of water with vinegar in it, and give her kitchen window a clean. I loved doing odd jobs for her. Strangely I had entirely the opposite reaction when asked to do a chore at home.
When I had completed my tasks, Old Nurse Reid would bring out the cake tin and we would share a slice or two and a cup of tea, while she told me stories about her life, and listened to me complaining about mine. After a while she would ask me to fetch two glasses from the polished oak sideboard, whilst she fetched a bottle of her homemade rhubarb wine from the larder. It was so nice to sit at the table in her cosy little parlour sampling the wine and looking at her collection of photo albums. Where every picture was brought to life by her powers of memory and description.
The rhubarb wine was potent stuff and she would limit my consumption of it, but not before the alcohol had reached my brain and bathed me in it's warm glow.
Today Old Nurse Reid would no doubt be castigated for giving alcoholic drink to a child. Indeed I don't think I would be pleased to hear that my children had been given any, but I liked her and felt good in her company. I like to think that she felt the same about me.
Looking back now there was a conspiratorial air to our little wine sampling sessions, a touch of secrecy. I was all for being rebellious in those days. Maybe Old Nurse Reid felt the need to rebel also. How old do you have to be before you can say with authority, "stuff convention!" Certainly ancient enough to have earned the prefix, 'old'.


  1. Nurse Reid was a valuable friend for you. Every child needs someone special like that in their lives. For a lot of us, it was a grandparent or an uncle or aunt. Overlooking the rhubarb wine, she was obviously a necessary part of your youth.

  2. Boys (and girls) will be boys. It's a sad fact that those who should remember being young frown upon today's youth. I wonder if that's why the kids rebel?

  3. I also gave up on school at around the same age. I started 'bunking off' the odd day at 13 and by the time I was in my final year I didn't go at all. I hated the place. I guess I was a rebel, too, but it doesn't appear to have done me too much harm, but then nobody offered me rhubarb wine ;-)

  4. wonderful essay. i was given the occasional sampling of dandelion wine at home. never tried rhubarb wine. sounds yummy.

  5. I think everyone should have an old nurse Reid in their life

  6. I sometimes wonder how old is old too. My hair is the color of a person twenty years older than me. I sometimes wonder if I'll be prematurely labeled as old.

  7. When I was in high school, we had 3 new teachers come in one year. They were young, cool and hip. So far from what we were used to. One day one of the teachers (female) and I drove to a larger city for what I can't even remember now. But my parents were OK with it so we went. On the way home she got some wine and we drank wine flips (wine and 7up). That certainly could have got her fired. But I never told and we remained friends for a while after I graduated. Fond memories of a teacher being a bit rebelious.