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Eustacia bit into her toast, poured herself another cup of tea, and turned her attention once again to the job vacancies in the morning paper. She had been doing this for some days now and it was with no great hope of success that she ran her eye down the columns. Her qualifications, which were few, didn't seem to fit into any of the jobs on offer. It was a pity, she reflected, that an education at a prestigious girls' school had left her quite unfitted for earning her living in the commercial world. She had done her best, but the course of shorthand and typing had been nothing less than disastrous, and she hadn't lasted long at the boutique because, unlike her colleagues, she had found herself quite incapable of telling a customer that a dress fitted while she held handfuls of surplus material at that lady's back, or left a zip undone to accommodate surplus flesh. She had applied for a job at the local post office too, and had been turned down because she didn't wish to join a union. No one, it seemed, wanted a girl with four A levels and the potential for a university if she had been able to go to one. Here she was, twenty-two years old, out of work once more and with a grandfather to support.
She bent her dark head over the pagesshe was a pretty girl with eyes as dark as her hair, a dainty little nose and a rather too large moutheating her toast absentmindedly as she searched the pages. There was nothing Yes, there was: the path lab of St Biddolph's Hospital, not half a mile away, needed an assistant bottle-washer, general cleaner and postal worker. No qualifications required other than honesty, speed and cleanliness. The pay wasn't bad either.
Eustacia swallowed the rest of her tea, tore out the advertisement, and went out of the shabby little room into the passage and tapped on a door. A voice told her to go in and she did so, a tall, splendidly built girl wearing what had once been a good suit, now out of date but immaculate.
'Grandpa,' she began, addressing the old man sitting up in his bed. 'There's a job in this morning's paper. As soon as I've brought your breakfast I'm going after it.'
The old gentleman looked at her over his glasses. 'What kind of a job?'
'Assistant at the path lab at St Biddolph's.' She beamed at him. 'It sounds OK, doesn't it?' She whisked herself through the door again. 'I'll be back in five minutes with your tray.'
She left their small ground-floor flat in one of the quieter streets of Kennington and walked briskly to the bus-stop. It wasn't yet nine o'clock and speed, she felt, was of the essence. Others, it seemed, had felt the same; there were six women already in the little waiting-room inside the entrance to the path lab at the hospital, and within the next ten minutes another four turned up. Eustacia sat there quietly waiting, uttering silent, childish prayers. This job would be nothing less than a godsendregular hours, fifteen minutes from the flat and the weekly pay-packet would be enough to augment her grandfather's pensiona vital point, this, for they had been eating into their tiny capital for several weeks.
Her turn came and she went to the room set aside for the interviews, and sat down before a stout, elderly man sitting at a desk. He looked bad-tempered and he sounded it too, ignoring her polite 'Good morning' and plunging at once into his own questions.
She answered them briefly, handed over her references and waited for him to speak.
"You have four A levels. Why are you not at a university?'
'Family circumstances,' said Eustacia matter-of-factly.
He glanced up. 'Yes, well the work here is menial, you understand that?' He glowered across the desk at her. 'You will be notified.'
Not very hopeful, she considered, walking back to the flat; obviously A levels weren't of much help when applying for such a job. She would give it a day and, if she heard nothing, she would try for something else. She stopped at the baker's and bought bread and then went next door to the greengrocer's and chose a cauliflower. Cauliflower cheese for supper and some carrots and potatoes. She had become adept at making soup now that October was sliding into November. At least she could cook, an art she had been taught at her expensive boarding-school, and if it hadn't been for her grandfather she might have tried her luck as a cook in some hotel. Indeed, she had left school with no thought of training for anything; her mother and father had been alive then, full of ideas about taking her with them when they travelled. 'Plenty of time,' they had said. 'A couple of years enjoying life before you marry or decide what you want to do,' and she had had those two years, seeing quite a lot of the world, knowing only vaguely that her father was in some kind of big business which allowed them to live in comfort. It was when he and her mother had been killed in an air crash that she'd discovered that he was heavily in debt, that his business was bankrupt and that any money there was would have to go to creditors. It had been frightening to find herself without a penny and an urgent necessity to earn a living, and it had been then that her grandfather, someone she had seldom met for he'd lived in the north of England, had come to see her.
'We have each other,' he had told her kindly. 'I cannot offer you a home, for my money was invested in your father's business, but I have my pension and I believe I know someone who will help us to find something modest to live in in London.'
He had been as good as his word; the 'someone' owned property in various parts of London and they had moved into the flat two years ago, and Eustacia had set about getting a job. Things hadn't been too bad at first, but her typing and shorthand weren't good enough to get a job in an office and her grandfather had developed a heart condition so that she had had to stay at home for some time to look after him. Now, she thought hopefully, perhaps their luck had changed and she would get this job, and Grandfather would get better, well enough for her to hire a car and take him to Kew or Richmond Park. He hated the little street where they lived and longed for the country, and so secretly did she, although she never complained. He had enough to bear, she considered, and felt nothing but gratitude for his kindness when she had needed it most.
She made coffee for them both when she got in and told him about the job. 'There were an awful lot of girls there,' she said. 'This man said he would let me know. I don't expect that means much, but it's better than being told that the job's been takenI mean, I can go on hoping until I hear.'
She heard two days laterthe letter was on the mat when she got up, and she took it to the kitchen and put on the kettle for their morning tea and opened it.
The job was hersshe was to present herself for work on the following Monday at eight-thirty sharp. She would have half an hour for her lunch, fifteen minutes for her coffee-break and tea in the afternoon, and work until five o'clock. She would be free on Saturdays and Sundays but once a month she would be required to work on Saturday, when she would be allowed the following Monday free. Her wages, compared to Grandfather's pension, seemed like a fortune.
She took a cup of tea to her grandfather and told him the news.
'I'm glad, my dear. It will certainly make life much easier for younow you will be able to buy yourself some pretty clothes.'
It wasn't much good telling him that pretty clothes weren't any use unless she had somewhere to go in them, but she agreed cheerfully, while she did sums in her head: the gas bill, always a formidable problem with her grandfather to keep warm by the gas fire in their sitting-roomduvets for their beds, some new saucepans She mustn't get too ambitious, she told herself cautiously, and went off to get herself dressed.
She got up earlier than usual on Monday, tidied the flat, saw to her grandfather's small wants, cautioned him to be careful while she was away, kissed him affectionately, and started off for the hospital.
She was a little early, but that didn't matter, as it gave her time to find her way around to the cubbyhole where she was to change into the overall she was to wear, and peep into rooms and discover where the canteen was. A number of people worked at the path lab and they could get a meal cheaply enough as well as coffee and tea. People began to arrive and presently she was told to report to an office on the ground floor where she was given a list of duties she was to do by a brisk lady who made no attempt to disguise her low opinion of Eustacia's job.
'You will wear rubber gloves at all times and a protective apron when you are emptying discarded specimens. I hope you are strong.'
Eustacia hoped she was, too.
By the end of the first day she concluded that a good deal of her work comprised washing-upglass containers, dishes, little pots, glass tubes and slides. There was the emptying of buckets, too, the distribution of clean laundry and the collecting of used overalls for the porters to bag, and a good deal of toing and froing, taking sheaves of papers, specimens and the post to wherever it was wanted. She was tired as she went home; there were, she supposed, pleas-anter ways of earning a living, but never mind that, she was already looking forward to her pay-packet at the end of the week.
She had been there for three days when she came face to face with the man who had interviewed her. He stopped in front of her and asked, 'Well, do you like your work?'
She decided that despite his cross face he wasn't ill-disposed towards her. 'I'm glad to have work,' she told him pleasantly, 'you have no idea how glad. Not all my work iswell, nice, but of course you know that already.'
He gave a rumble of laughter. 'No one stays for long,' he told her. 'Plenty of applicants when the job falls vacant, but they don't last '
'I have every intention of staying, provided my work is satisfactory.' She smiled at him and he laughed again.
'Do you know who I am?'
'No. I don't know anyone yetonly to say good morning and so on. I saw Miss Bennett when I came hereshe told me what to do and so onand I've really had no time to ask anyone.'
'I'm in charge of this department, young lady; the name's Professor Ladbroke. I'll see that you get a list of those working here.'
He nodded and walked away. Oh, dear, thought Eustacia, I should have called him 'sir' and not said all that.
She lived in a state of near panic for the rest of the week, wondering if she would get the sack, but pay-day came and there was nothing in her envelope but money. She breathed a sigh of relief and vowed to mind her Ps and Qs in future.
No one took much notice of her; she went in and out of rooms peopled by quiet, white-coated forms peering through microscopes or doing mysterious things with tweezers and pipettes. She suspected that they didn't even see her, and the greater part of her day was concerned with the cleansing of endless bowls and dishes. It was, she discovered, a lonely life, but towards the end of the second week one or two people wished her good morning and an austere man with a beard asked her if she found the work hard.
She told him no, adding cheerfully, 'A bit off-putting sometimes, though!' He looked surprised, and she wished that she hadn't said anything at all.
By the end of the third week she felt as though she had been there for yearsshe was even liking her work. There actually was a certain pleasure in keeping things clean and being useful, in however humble a capacity, to a department full of silent, dedicated people, all so hard at work with their microscopes and pipettes and little glass dishes.
She was to work that Saturday; she walked home, shopping on her way, buying food which her grandfather could see to on his own, thankful that she didn't have to look at every penny. In the morning she set out cheerfully for the hospital. There would be a skeleton staff in the path lab until midday, and after that she had been told to pass any urgent messages to whoever was on call that weekend. One of the porters would come on duty at six o'clock that evening and take over the phone when she went.
The department was quiet; she went around, changing linen, opening windows, making sure that there was a supply of tea and sugar and milk in the small kitchen, and then carefully filling the halfempty shelves with towels, soap, stationery and path lab forms and, lastly, making sure that there was enough of everything in the sterilisers. It took her until mid-morning, by which time the staff on duty had arrived and were busy dealing with whatever had been sent from the hospital. She made coffee for them all, had some herself and went to assemble fresh supplies of dishes and bowls on trays ready for sterilising. She was returning from carrying a load from one room to the next when she came face to face with a man.
She was a tall girl, but she had to look up to see his face. A handsome one it was too, with a commanding nose, drooping lids over blue eyes and a thin mouth. His hair was thick and fair and rather untidy, and he was wearing a long white coathe was also very large.
He stopped in front of her. 'Ah, splendid, get this checked at once, will you, and let me have the result? I'll be in the main theatre. It's urgent.' He handed her a covered kidney dish. 'Do I know you?'
'No,' said Eustacia. She spoke to his broad, retreating back.
He had said it was urgent; she bore the dish to Mr Brimshaw, who was crouching over something nasty in a tray. He waved her away as she reached him, but she stood her ground.
'Someonea large man in a white coatgave me this and said he would be in the main theatre and that it was urgent.'
'Then don't stand there, girl, give it to me.'