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It was going to be a lovely day, but Beth Partridge, tearing round the little kitchen, hadn't had time to do more than take a cursory look out of the window; on duty at eight o'clock meant leaving the flat at seventhirty sharp, and that entailed getting up at half past sixand every minute of that hour filled.
She worked tidily as well as fast; the flat looked pristine as she closed its front door and tore down the three flights of stairs, ran smartly out of the entrance and round the corner to the shed where she kept her bike. A minute later she was weaving her way in and out of London's early morning traffic, a slim figure with long legs, her titian hair, arranged in a great bun above her neck, glowing above the blue sweater and slacks. It took her exactly twenty minutes this morning; ten minutes, she thought with satisfaction, in which to change into uniform and take a quick look round the Recovery Room to make sure that everything was just as she had left it the evening before. She rounded one of the brick pillars, which marked the entrance to St Elmer's Hospital, going much too fast and before she could stop herself, ran into a man; fortunately a large man, who withstood the shock of a bicycle wheel in his back with considerable aplomb, putting out an unhurried hand to steady her handlebars and bring her to a halt before he turned round.
She had put out a leg to steady herself, and now, the bike slightly askew, she stood astride it, returning his calm, unhurried examination of her person with what dignity she could muster. He had a nice face; a little rugged perhaps, but good-looking, although the nose was too beaky and the mouth too large, even though it looked kind. His eyes were kind too, blue and heavylidded under thick arched brows a shade darker than his pale hair.
"Oh, dear!"she was breathless. "I am sorryyou see I was on the late side and I didn't expect you." She smiled at him, her rather plain but pleasant face suddenly pretty, her astonishing violet eyesher one beautytwinkling at him.
"If it comes to that," said the man, "I wasn't expecting you, either." He smiled back at her. "Don't let me keep you."
She was already a few yards away when she wheeled back again. "You're not hurt, are you?" she asked anxiously. "If you are, I'll take you along to Cas. and someone will have a look at you."
His mouth twitched. "My dear young lady, yours is a very small bicycle and I, if you take a good look, am a very large maneighteen stone or so. I hardly noticed it."
She beamed her relief. "Oh, good. "Bye."
She was off again, pedalling furiously for a side door, and because she was going to be late, she left her bike down the covered passage which led to the engineer's shop; she would ring them presently and ask one of them to take it round to the shed where the nurses were supposed to keep their bicycles; it wouldn't be the first time she had done it.
She still had some way to go; through the old part of the hospital, across the narrow alley separating it from the new wing, and then up several flights of stairs; she arrived at the swing doors which led to the theatre unit only very slightly out of breath, her face, with its small high-bridged nose and wide mouth, flushed by her exertions.
Sister Collins was in the changing room, buttoning her theatre dress. "Almost late," she commented as she went out, and Beth sighed as she tore out of her clothes. Sister Collins was the kind of person who said, "Almost late," when anyone else would have said, "A minute to spare."
Beth tucked her brilliant hair into the mob cap worn by theatre staff and made for the Recovery Room. There was a heavy list for the day and she wouldn't be off until half past four; she cast a regretful look out of the window at the blue sky and sunshine of the April morning outsideChifney would be looking its best, she thought, on such a morning, but her old home belonged to her stepbrother now, and she hadn't seen it for a long time. Philip had inherited it when their father died, and neither she nor William, her younger brother, had been back since, not even for a holiday. Philip wouldn't exactly turn them out if they chose to go there, but he and his wife would make it quite plain that they were only there on sufferance. She remembered how, when they had been quite small, and he ten years older, he had been at pains to explain to them that their mother was their father's second wife and therefore they would have nothing at all when he died and that he, for his part, had no intention of giving them a home. He had always hated his stepmother, a quiet gentle woman who wouldn't have harmed a fly, and when she had died he had transferred his bitter dislike to herself and William.
And it had turned out exactly as he had said it would. Luckily William had been left just enough money to finish university and train as a doctor, and Beth, bent on being a nurse and having nowhere else to go, had joined forces with him, and for five years now had lived in a rather poky little flat in the more unfashionable part of London, SE. She had been left a tiny annuity too, which helped, especially as William was extravagant, and on the whole they managed quite well. William was doing his post-graduate years now and she had been a staff nurse for two years and there had been hints just lately that very shortly she would be offered a Sister's post. She had nothing to complain of, she assured herself as she went round methodically testing the oxygen, inspecting the trays and making sure that there was enough of everything to keep them going until the end of the list. Harriet King, the third-year nurse who worked with her, had already fetched the blood for the first case and was now, under Sister Collins' sharp eyes, setting out an injection tray. Beth picked up the theatre list, glanced at the clock and went off to fetch the first patient, a middle-aged lady from the Private Wing on the floor below, who, despite her pre-med., indulged, once she was on the trolley and in the lift, in an attack of screaming hysterics, which was rather overdoing things, seeing that she was only having a small nodule removed from one shoulder; a matter of five minutes' work by the surgeon and accompanied by no possible cause for alarm.
Beth soothed her as best she could, chatting about this and that and laying a surprisingly firm hand on the lady's well-upholstered front when she signified her intention of sitting up.
"Now, now," said Beth soothingly, genuinely sorry for the poor scared woman, "here's Mr Todd who is to give you the anaestheticyou saw him yesterday, didn't you? I'm going to hold your hand and he'll give you the teeniest prick in your arm and you'll go to sleep at once."
The patient started to protest, but Mr Todd had slipped in his needle and her eyes had closed before she could frame even one word.
"You're always so nice to them," he said. "Give me that tube, Bethin the bad old days she would have gone to her local GP and he'd have done it under a local and no nonsense."
She smiled at him behind her mask. "But it isn't what's going to be done to youthat's all the same once you're underit's the idea "
She broke off to hand over to Theatre Staff Nurse, and with a cheerful little nod slid back into the Recovery Room; they would be ready in Theatre Two for their first case. She collected a porter and a trolley and set off once more, this time to Men's Surgical.
The morning slid quietly away and had become afternoon before there was a chance to get a meal, and then it was sandwiches and yoghurt sent up from the canteen. And the afternoon went even more quickly, with all four theatres going flat out and an emergency added on to the end of Theatre One's list just as Beth was starting to clear up. She would be home late again, and William, whose free evening it was, would have to wait for the dinner she had promised to cook for him. She was finished at last, though, and changed without much thought to her appearance and making her way out of the theatre block into the labyrinth of passages which took up the space behind the impressive entrance hall in the older part of the hospital. She was negotiating these when she saw her brother ahead of her. He was standing at the junction of four passages, talking to someone out of sight, which didn't prevent her cheerful: "WilliamI'm only just off, so supper will be late. You'd better call in at the Black Dog and have a pint " She had reached him by now and went on briskly: "Why are you making that extraordinary face?"
There was no need for him to tell her; his out-ofsight companion came into view as she reached the cornerthe man she had almost run down on her bike that morning. She smiled at him. "Oh, hullois your back still OK?"
Seeing him for a second time she was struck by his size and by the fact that he wasn't as young as she had supposed him to be. "You don't always feel it at first," she explained kindly, and heard William draw in his breath sharply.
"This," he said in his most reproving voice, "is Professor van Zeust from Leyden University in Hollandhe lectures in surgery."His tone was reverent.
"Oh, do you?" Beth put out a hand and had it gently wrung. "I had no idea."Her engagingly plain face broke into a grin. "And me telling you to go along to Cas.! You could have told me."
"If you remember, you were already late," he reminded her. His voice was kind, but she had the impression that he didn't want to waste time talking to her. She gave him a friendly nod, said, "See you later, William," and went on her way, aware that her brother wasn't best pleased with her.
He got to the flat an hour later, just as she was laying the table for their supper, and being a careless young man, he cast his books on one chair, his scarf on to another and himself into a third.
"You are a little idiot," he began, "talking like that to one of the most distinguished surgeons in Europe."
Beth was at the stove, dishing up. "Oh? Does he live on a pedestal or something? He seemed quite human to me."
"Of course he's human," her brother spoke testily, "but he's he should be respected "
"But I was quite polite."
He agreed reluctantly and went on: "Yes, but do you know what he said after you'd gone? He wanted to know where you worked and then he said that you didn't appear to him to be quite like the other nurses he had met."
Beth bore their plates to the table. "Ah, he noticed how plain I am."
"Well, I daresay," William agreed with brutal candour, "but he could have meant that you didn't treat him with enough respect."
"Pooh," said Beth with scorn, "and you were chatty enough, the pair of you."
William was attacking his supper in the manner of a starving man. "I happened to meet him," he said with a full mouth and great dignity, "and he asked me to take a message about the times of his lectures."
Beth gave him a second helping. "I wonder where he lives?" she wanted to know.
"Haven't a clue. What's for pudding?"
After supper he left her to the washing up and went to his room to study, and when she expressed surprise at his sudden enthusiasm for work, he told her rather sheepishly that old van Zeust was a good enough fellow and knew how to give a lecture. "Besides," he went on, "I happen to be interested in his particular line of work." He gave her a lofty look as he left the room, although he was back again within five minutes to ask if she could lend him a fiver until the end of the month.