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Gemma was at the top of the house making beds when she heard the ominous shattering of glass. The boys were in the garden, kicking a football around, and she wondered which window it was this time. She mitred a corner neatly; news, especially bad news, travelled fast, someone would be along to tell her quickly enough.
It was George, her youngest, ten-year-old brother, who climbed the three flights of stairs to break it to her that it was Doctor Gibbons' kitchen window. 'And I kicked it,' he added with a mixture of pride at the length of the shot and apprehension as to what she would say.
'A splendid kick, no doubt,' declared his eldest sister robustly, and shook a pillow very much in the manner of a small terrier shaking a rat. 'But you'll all have to help pay for the damage, and you, my dear, will go round to Doctor Gibbons when he gets back from his rounds, and apologise. I'll telephone Mr Bates in a minute and see if he'll come round and measure up the glass right awayperhaps he might even get a new pane in before Doctor Gibbons gets back. But you'll still have to apologise.'
'For a girl,' said George, 'you're not half bad.' With which praise he stomped downstairs again. She heard him in the garden a few moments later, arguing with his brothers as to the sum of money required for the new window pane.
Gemma finished the bed and went, in her turn, downstairs. She was a smallish girl and a little plump, but nicely so. Her hair, hanging down her back in a brown tide loosely tied with a ribbon, was the same soft brown as her eyes and although she was on the plain side, when she smiled or became animated, the plainness was lost in its charm. She was almost twenty-five years old and looked a good deal younger.
She went straight to the telephone and besought Mr Bates to come as soon as he could, and then retired to the old-fashioned wash-house adjoining the kitchen, and started on the week's wash; a fearsome pile, but she was used to that; with three boys in the family and two sisters younger than herself, there was naturally a vast amount.
She eyed it with a jaundiced expression; it was a pity that Mandy and Phil had gone to friends' for the weekendof course she could leave it until the next day when they would be back, but the Easter holidays ended within a day or so and it seemed mean to blight their last freedom with a lot of hard work. Besides, it was a lovely day, with just the right kind of wind. She battled with the elderly washing machine and then left it to thunder and rumble while she went to the kitchen to make coffee. It would be a relief when Cousin Maud got back from her visit to her brother in New Zealandfive weeks, reflected Gemma, of holding down a full-time job, running the old-fashioned house and keeping an eye on her brothers and sisters was just about her limit; thank heaven there was only another week to goless than a week now, she remembered happily as she went to stop the machine. She hauled out the wash and shoved it into the rinser, set it going and then filled the tub up again. The two motors, working in unison, made the most fearful noise, but she was used to that, merely reiterating to herself the promise that one day she and Cousin Maud would get another washing machine, as she went back to the kitchen to drink her coffee.
She was back in the wash-house, hauling out the first batch in blissful silence, when a faint sound behind her caused her to say: 'James? or is it William or James? take some money from the housekeeping jar and get some sausages from Mr Potterand don't waste time arguing about going if you want your dinner today.'
She was tugging at a damp sheet as she spoke, and when a strange voice, deep and leisurely, said:
'I'm afraid I'm not the person you thinkmy name's Ross,' she dropped it to shoot a startled look over her shoulder.
She had never seen the man standing in the doorway; a tall, broad-shouldered individual, with pale hair which was probably silver as well, she wasn't near enough to see, but she could see his eyes, blue and heavy-lidded below thick, pale brows. He had a high-bridged nose and a firm mouth and he was smiling. He was a very good-looking man and she stared for a moment. He bore her look with equanimity, laid a football which he had been carrying on a pile of sacks by the door and remarked: 'Your brothers', I believe,' and waited for her to speak.
Gemma disentangled the sheet and heaved it into the basket at her feet. 'You're from Doctor Gibbons',' she stated, and frowned a little, 'but you can't be the foreign professor who's staying with him; the boys said he was short and fat and couldn't speak English '
Her visitor shrugged. 'Boys,' he remarked, 'I've been one myself.' He smiled again and Gemma wiped a wet hand down the front of her jersey and skipped across the floor between them.
'I'm Gemma Prentice,' she told him, and held out a hand, to have it engulfed in his.
'Ross Dieperink van Berhuys.'
'So you are the professor. Do you mind if I just call you thatyour name's rather a mouthful, isn't it? For a foreigner, I mean,' she added politely. 'And thank you for bringing the football. I do hope it didn't disturb youthe window being broken, I mean. They all go back to school tomorrow.' She gave him an unaffected smile. 'Would you like some coffee? If you wouldn't mind waiting while I load this machine again.?'
His thank you was grave and his offer to hang out the clothes ready for the line was unexpected; she accepted it without arguing and he went into the large untidy garden with the basket while she switched on once more and went back into the kitchen to fetch another mug.
The coffee was freshly ground and carefully made; she and Cousin Maud cooked and baked between them and they both turned out what her older relation called good wholesome food; the coffee she poured now smelled delicious and tasted as good as it smelled. Her unexpected guest, sitting comfortably in an old Windsor chair, remarked upon the fact before asking gently: 'And you, Miss Prentice?'
'Me what?' asked Gemma, all niceties of grammar lost; if the boys had disappearedand heaven knew they always did when there was a chore to be doneshe would have to leave the washing and fetch the sausages herself, which meant she wouldn't get her work done before dinner. She frowned, and the professor persisted placidly, 'The sausages bother you, perhaps?'
She gave him a surprised look. 'How did you know?' She refilled their mugs. 'Well, actually, yes ' She explained briefly, adding obscurely: 'I expect you're a psychiatristthey always know things.'
Her companion turned a chuckle into a cough. 'ErI suppose they do, but you did mention sau-sages.I'm an endocrinologist, myself.'
He got to his feet, his head coming dangerously near the low ceiling. 'I should be delighted to fetch these sausages for you while you finish your washing.'
He had gone before she could thank him, and was back again in a very short time, to put his parcel on the kitchen table and observe: 'There is someone repairing the window.'
'Oh, goodthat'll be Mr Bates. I asked him to come round as soon as he couldit's so much nicer for Doctor Gibbons if he doesn't see the damage.'
The professor's lids drooped over amused eyes, but his voice, as he agreed with this praiseworthy sentiment, was as placid as ever.
'I daresay you find it difficult to understand,' she went on chattily, 'but it's impossible not to break a window now and then when there are three boys about the place.'
Her companion made himself comfortable on the edge of the kitchen table. 'I don't find it in the least difficult,' he protested, 'I'm the eldest of six, myself.'
Gemma flung the last of the washing into the basket. Somehow it was hard to imagine this not so very young man in his elegant casual clothes being the eldest of a large familyand they would surely all be grown-up.
Just as though she had spoken her thoughts out loud, her companion went on smoothly: 'I'm thirty-seven, my youngest sister is not quite eighteen.'
'Phil's as old as that the twins are thirteen and George is ten. Mandy's twenty.'
'And you are twenty-five,' he finished for her. 'Doctor Gibbons told me.'
'Oh, did he? Would you like some more coffee?'
'Thanks. I'll hang this lot up while you get it, shall I?'
'Well, I don't know about that,' said Gemma doubtfully. 'You're a professor and all that; I dare say you don't hang out the washing at home so I don't see why you should here.'
His blue eyes twinkled. 'No, I can't say I make a habit of it, but then I'm working for most of my day when I'm home.'
It was on the tip of her tongue to ask him about his home and if he was married, but moving very fast for such a sleepy-eyed person, he was already going down the garden path.
She didn't see him for the rest of that day and she left the house at half past seven the next morning, cycling through the quiet country lanes to get to the hospital a couple of miles away.
Mandy and Phil had got back from their weekend late the previous evening; Gemma had called them before she left the house and they would get the boys down for breakfast and off to school and then get themselves away; Phil to her coaching classes before school startedshe was in her last term and working for her A levelsand Mandy to the library in Salisbury where she was training to become a librarian. Gemma, pedalling down the road at great speed, was aware that it was a glorious May morninga morning to be free in which to do exactly what one wished; she cast the thought aside and bent her mind to the more mundane subject of what to cook for supper that evening, the chances of getting the ironing done, whether the twins could go another week before she need buy the new shoes they wore out with terrifying frequency, and behind all these thoughts even though she kept nudging it aside, the wish to see more of the professor. He had been kind and easy to talk to, and Gemma, the plain one of the family and always conscious of that fact, had been aware that he hadn't looked at her with the faintly amused surprise with which those who had already met the rest of the familyall of them possessing good lookswere wont to show.
She rounded the entrance to the hospital and slowed down to go up the neglected, grass-grown drive, casting, as she always did, an admiring glance at the building coming into view as she did so.
The hospital wasn't really a hospital at all; many years ago it had been a rather grand country house with a fine Tudor front, which had been added to by succeeding generations, so that there was a Queen Anne wing to the left, a charming Regency wing to the right, and round the back, out of sight, and a good thing too, was a mid-Victorian extension, red brick, elaborate and very inconvenient. But with the death of the heir during World War Two and crippling death duties, the house had been sold to the local council and had been used as a geriatric hospital ever since. It was, of course, most unsuitable; the rooms were either too lofty and huge and full of draughts, or so small and awkwardly shaped that the getting of elderly ladies in and out of them, not to mention the making of their beds, was a constant nightmare for the nurses.
Gemma propped her bike against a convenient wall and went in through an open side door, into a narrow, dark passage and up a back staircase. There were two Day Sisters looking after the fifty-six patients; herself with twenty-eight old ladies in her care, and Sister Bell, who was housed with the remainder of them in the opposite wing.
Gemma went up the stairs two at a time, changed into uniform in five minutes flat, standing in a cupboard-like room on the landing, and then, very neat and tidy in her blue uniform and starched apron, an equally well-starched cap perched on her bun of brown hair, walked sedately across the landing into another cupboardlike apartment, which Authority allowed her to use as an office. Both the day and night nurses were there waiting for her to take the report, and she greeted them in her quiet voice, bidding them to sit down as she squeezed herself behind the table which served as her desk. The report hardly varied from day to day; Mrs Pegg and Miss Crisp fell out of their beds with monotonous regularity despite the nurses' efforts to keep them safely inthey had both done so again during the night; there weren't enough nurses for a start and old ladies could be very determined. Lovable too.
When Gemma had given up her post as Medical Ward Sister in a big London teaching hospital, she had done so with many private misgivings; it had been expediency, not choice, which had caused her to apply for the post at Millbury House. Cousin Maud, who had looked after all of them for some years by then, was beginning to show signs of wear and tearand who wouldn't? Gemma had spent all her holidays and days off at home so that she might help her, but it hadn't been enough; once Mandy and Phil were off their hands, things would be easier, but until then, it had become a matter of urgency that someone should help. That was six months ago and although she missed the rush and bustle of the big hospital, Gemma had to admit that she didn't dislike her work; besides, it had made it possible for Cousin Maud to go to New Zealand for the long-dreamed-of holiday with her brother. Gemma, heartily sick of doing two jobs at once, couldn't wait for her to get back.
The night nurse safely on her way, Gemma and Sally Black, the day staff nurse, separated to start their day's work. The main ward was a long room with windows down its length, overlooking the gardens at the side of the house; at one time it must have been a drawing room, for its fireplace, now no longer in use, was ornate, gilded and of marble, and the ceiling was picked out with gilt too. Gemma trod from one bed to the next, having a word with each of her patients in turn, handing out a woefully sparse post, listening to the old ladies' small complaints, and occasionally, cheerful chatter. Almost all of them were being got up for the day; a ritual which they, for the most part, objected to most strongly, so that the two nursing aides who came in to help part-time were constantly hindered. Gemma finished her round, quite worn out with her efforts to persuade her patients that to get up and trundle along to the day room across the passage was quite the nicest way of spending their day, but she really had no time to feel tired. She took off her cuffs, rolled up her sleeves and sallied forth once more to tackle Mrs Pegg and Miss Crisp, who now that they might legitimately leave their beds were refusing, with a good deal of noise, to do so.