26. Gender Agendas
The arrangement had been made between Tofu’s father and Bertie’s mother. “Tofu can travel back with us on the bus,” said Irene. “I’ve arranged that with his father. Olive will be coming a bit later.”
Bertie looked pleadingly at his mother. “Do you really think there’ll be time for Olive to come to my house, Mummy?” he asked. “If she comes later, then everything will be finished.”
Irene laughed. “Everything will be finished? You make it sound like a formal dinner party, Bertie! There’ll be a bit of Dundee cake and tea. Plenty to go round.”
“I didn’t mean the food, Mummy,” protested Bertie. “I meant the…the playing. We’ll have finished playing by the time that Olive comes. I wouldn’t want her to be bored.”
Irene did not think that there was much prospect of Olive’s being bored. She was a somewhat busy little girl, she reflected, with a great organisational talent, but she was still a good influence on Bertie, who needed to allow his feminine side to flourish. And she was certainly a good antidote to the somewhat unsavoury Tofu, with his unresolved masculinity; Tofu was certainly not a good companion for Bertie at all, but faute de mieux…
“You’ll both have a lovely time with Olive,” said Irene. “I’ve noticed that her head is full of ideas for games. Positively buzzing with ideas for creative play. What was that game you played when she was last at the house? She had her nurse’s kit with her, didn’t she?” She paused. “On which subject, Bertie, one wonders why Olive chose to have a nurse’s kit rather than a doctor’s kit. One might reflect on that, might one not?”
Bertie thought for a moment. His mother did not know, of course, what Olive had housed in her junior nurse’s kit – a real syringe with which she had forcibly taken a blood sample from Bertie. There had been enough fuss from Miss Harmony when she had heard of that – and of the subsequent test for leprosy that Olive claimed to have conducted on Bertie’s blood sample. Bertie did not want that row to continue, and so he said nothing of that. But why did girls like to have junior nurse’s kits? In his view, the answer to that was simple: some girls liked to play nurses, and some did not. He supposed that boys could play nurses if they wanted to, but Bertie had not met any who did. It was as simple as that.
“I suppose that they have nurse’s kits, Mummy, because girls like to be nurses. They play with dollies and nurse them.”
Irene cast her eyes heavenwards. “Wrong, Bertie! Wrong!”
Bertie said nothing, but looked at the floor. He had simply reported what he had seen, but his mother, for some reason, did not seem to approve. It was something to do with Melanie Klein, perhaps.
Irene sighed. It was a constant battle to explain the evils of gender stereotyping, really it was. “Haven’t you noticed, Bertie,” she began, “how most of the doctors at the health centre are women? Haven’t you noticed that? That doctor who looked at your foot when you hurt it the other day, she was a woman, wasn’t she?”
Bertie thought back. The doctor had indeed been a woman, but then all the nurses at the health centre were also women.
“But all the nurses there, Mummy,” he pointed out, “were ladies, weren’t they? I didn’t see any men.”
Irene thought quickly. “There are male nurses, Bertie. And they are very good at what they do, even if they’re just men.”
Bertie was silent.
“So you see,” went on Irene, “the fact that the shops sell those silly nurse’s kits to girls is just keeping alive these ridiculous preconceptions that girls like to be nurses. They don’t. They’re only nurses because they can’t be doctors. They’ve been conditioned, Bertie, to accept that they must do what’s second best.”
Bertie frowned. “But is it second best to be a nurse, Mummy? I read in the paper that some nurses don’t like people to say that.”
Irene smiled encouragingly. “No, they don’t, Bertie. You’re right. Many nurses nowadays don’t like doing the things that nurses used to have to do. Changing sheets and collecting bedpans – that sort of thing. Nursing has moved on, Bertie.”
Bertie was puzzled. “But if they don’t do that,” he said, “then who does? Do people have to tuck themselves into bed when they’re in hospital?”
Irene was amused by this and raised her eyes again. “Dear Bertie, no, not at all. They have other people now to do that sort of thing. There are other wome… people who do that.”
“So they aren’t nurses, Mummy?” asked Bertie.
Irene waved a hand vaguely. “No. They call them care assistants, or something like that. It’s very important work.”
“So what do the nurses do then, Mummy? If they have somebody else to take the bedpans to the patients, what’s left for the nurses to do? Do they do the things that doctors do? Can nurses take your tonsils out?”
“I think they’d like to,” said Irene. “And I’m sure that they’d be very good at it.”
She patted Bertie on the head. “Enough of that, Bertie! If Tofu and Olive are coming this afternoon, then Mummy must check to see that she has all the ingredients for the Dundee cake. And I must go and see if Ulysses is awake.”
She left Bertie to his own devices. But he just stood there, staring down at the floor. Grown-ups did not understand, he thought. They did not understand how difficult it was being six and having to live with people like Olive and even Tofu. Grown-ups spoke as if the world were simple; as if people behaved nicely to one another. But Bertie knew that they did not. When you were a boy, as he was, and saw the world the way in which boys saw it, it all looked very different. Olive and Tofu would fight because that’s what people like that did: they fought. And it would end up with Tofu spitting at Olive, and Olive screaming and perhaps even trying to stab Tofu with the syringe from her junior nurse’s kit. Bertie could see it coming, but why was his mother so blinkered, so utterly unaware of the strikingly obvious? There was so much that she seemed just not to notice, thought Bertie – obvious things, like the way that Ulysses looked so like Dr. Fairbairn. Little things like that.