Elsa wakes up in the middle of the night, having been dreaming that she was riding on the back of her father’s bike. They were going up a hill, with her father cursing and sweating, but Elsa knew he’d never ask her to get off the bike. Elsa is used to waking up in the night; it’s the only time when she feels alone and peaceful. She likes looking at the lights of the Netting Factory; growing up during the war, she’s always been told not to waste electricity, and it’s extravagant to see a building lit up all night long.
Like Frank, Elsa values solitude, even if it only comes in stolen moments in the middle of the night. Emphasizing her father’s perseverance, Elsa’s dream shows her confidence in and reliance on her family’s protection, even though she’s previously said that she feels independent and distant from them.
Elsa feels relieved to be at the Golden Age. The terrifying and painful nights in the Isolation Ward still feel very close to her. All the girls on the ward share their onset stories, but no one ever speaks about the Isolation Ward, which is like a “terrible dream.” Elsa can’t remember exactly what happened there, but she feels it’s changed her permanently.
In a flashback, Elsa recalls her time in the Isolation Ward. Although she prayed, God didn’t answer her. One night she wakes up in terrible pain and believes she sees a small man sitting on her bed and yelling at her to give up. She can also see her mother, Margaret, standing at the observation window and crying; looking at her, Elsa knows that if she dies, her mother will too. At that moment, she feels that “another person inside her,” whom she calls “the captain,” takes charge of the situation. The captain tells her not to worry about Margaret and only to concentrate on holding on.
In the Isolation Ward, the conventional religion with which Elsa has been raised completely fails her. Rather than receiving supernatural help, the sight of her distressed mother spurs her to find her own internal resources (a sort of inner strength she externalizes as “the captain”) and save herself. Here, personal determination and filial devotion emerge as the most potent weapons against polio.
One day, Elsa wakes up, no longer in pain. The Irish girl in the bed next to her is gone, and Elsa knows she has died. She decides that the small man was the Devil, and wonders if the captain was God. Elsa wonders why she lived and not the Irish girl. Even though polio has taken away her legs, she feels it’s made her more “herself.”
Even though Elsa still believes in God, she’s beginning to understand that conventional religion will never rationalize her suffering or explain why polio claimed the Irish girl and not her. Nevertheless, the experience of trauma has made her more self-aware and mature.
Frank likes to imitate Sister Penny but Elsa, who adores her, protests. Sister Penny touches the children without hesitation, while the nurses in the Isolation Ward all wore masks and gloves. A large woman, Sister Penny looks healthy and strong.
Elsa highlights Sister Penny’s physical strength, which she links to her comforting aura and her skill as a nurse. Sister Penny is also clearly devoted to, and excellent at, her vocation,
Meanwhile, Frank speaks only to Elsa and criticizes the other children frequently. She tells him he lacks Christian charity, and he retorts that he’s not a Christian. Frank follows Elsa everywhere she goes, acting as if they’ve always known each other. Elsa likes him because he’s very clever and knows about lots of things she doesn’t, like classical music. She thinks he’s spent too much time thinking alone.
It’s clear that Frank and Elsa are different in many ways–Frank is sharp and precocious, while Elsa’s charm lies in her reserve and quiet compassion. However, their mutual admiration of each other’s qualities allows them to form a friendship that mirrors the familial devotion they’re both missing.
In the hall, Elsa hears the night policemen checking to make sure that all is well at the hospital. She knows they’ll share a cup of tea with Sister Penny, the only one home since all the nurses have gone to a dance. Elsa feels that the hospital is like a play; she stays still and the different characters come in, “say their piece, and leave.” She falls back to sleep.
Like a theater spectator, Elsa feels immobile, captive while other people act around her. However, this sense of confinement is no longer terrifying to her, revealing that she’s learning to live with polio and the challenges it sets before her.