Read an Excerpt
Under an early morning September sky London was coming awake; the sun shone impartially on stately Regency houses, high rise flats and any number of parks. It shone too on St Anne's Hospital, a sprawling red brick edifice cramped by the mean streets around it, although not all were mean, in some of them the early Victorian houses, tall and narrow, each with its railed off area and attic windows, had made a brave effort to overcome shabbiness and were let out in flats or rooms. Even the attics had been converted into what were grandly called studio flats with tiny kitchens and showers squeezed into corners under the rafters.
The windows of one such flat, half way down a terrace in a side street lined with dusty plane trees, were open wide now, allowing the sun to shine in. It shone on the woman sitting in front of a rather battered dressing table, allowing her to take excellent stock of her reflection in its mirror. It was a charming one, although its owner didn't appear to like it overmuch. She had her hand up to her hair, tugging it this way and that, peering at it intently.
'There are bound to be some,' the woman said loudly and with impatience, 'I dare say the light's all wrong.' She abandoned her search and scrutinised her face, looking for wrinkles. But there weren't any of those either; her reflection frowned back at her, a lovely face with a creamy skin to go with her fiery hair and large green eyes. 'Well, there ought to be,' said the woman, 'the first grey hairs and wrinkles show up at thirty,' she added gloomily, 'next year I'll be thirty-one '
She left the dressing table and crossed the room to drink the rest of a mug of tea on the table at the other side. She was a tall woman with generous curves, and despite her thirty years, looked a great deal younger. She finished the tea and began to dress and presently, in her dark blue sister's uniform, sat down in front of the mirror again and did her face and brushed her thick bright hair into a chignon. She had wasted time looking for the wrinkles; and there was only time for another pot of tea and some toast before she went on duty. She made the divan bed along one wall while the kettle boiled and then sat down at the table to drink the brew and munch her toast, wasting no time. Ten minutes later, the breakfast things stacked tidily in the sink in the tiny kitchen she let herself out of her room and locked the door, then with her cape slung over one shoulder ran down the three flights of stairs to the front door. No one else was about yet in the quiet street but once at its end she turned into a wider thoroughfare, bustling with morning traffic and early morning workers. It was a shabby street, with tatty shops and run down houses, and it led straight past the hospital gates, a mere five minutes' walk. All the same the woman had cut it fine and hurried across the courtyard and in through the imposing entrance, pausing in the enormous, gloomy hall to peer into the head porter's little office.
'Morning George, any letters?'
George, it was said jokingly, was as old as the hospital. He licked the pencil he was holding and on his newspaper made a cross by the name of the horse he intended to back later on that day before he answered. 'Good morning, Sister Mitchell, nice post for you this morning, too. Got a birthday?'
'As a matter of fact, I have.' She beamed at him and took the handful of cards and letters, longing to open them at once, but they would have to wait until she had taken the night nurses' report. She made for the stairs, taking them two at a time since there was no one except George to see her.
There was though; standing at the top of the wide staircase was a very large man with wide shoulders and a distinguished air, much heightened by the elegance of his clothes. He had dark hair, greying at the temples, dark eyes with drooping lids, a formidable nose and a mouth which was firm to the point of grimness.
Sister Mitchell, not expecting anyone on the half landing, skidded to a brief halt. Her good morning was brisk and friendly; she had no time to dally, not that Professor van der Wagema ever dallied
He glanced at the thin gold watch on his wrist. 'Late, Sister Mitchell?' His voice was bland and had a nasty edge to it. 'Don't let me keep you from completing your gallop.'
'Oh, I won't, sir,' she assured him cheerfully and raced up the right hand wing of the staircase, reflecting as she went that it was a great pity that he was such an irritable man; so good looking, at the top of his profession and possessed, so rumour had it, of far more wealth than he needed. That was all rumour had been able to discover about him though. His private life was a closed book to all but his closest colleagues at the hospital, and they weren't likely to tell. 'Why's he here, anyway?' she muttered.
'Eight o'clock in the morning ' She went through the swing doors of the Women's Medical and crossed the landing to her office.
Three girls were waiting for her, her senior staff nurse, Pat Down, a quiet sensible girl with a pleasant face, and the two night nurses, one tall and fair with a pretty face and her junior, a small mouselike girl; all three looked flushed and harassed.
Sister Mitchell sat herself down at her desk. 'Good morning. Have we had a case in during the night?' She smiled at them. 'You all look worn out and I passed Professor van der Wagema on the stairs.'
'He was sent for at half-past six, Sister, I'm to tell you that he will be back later in the morning.' The senior night nurse answered.
'Splendid, shall we have the report then?'
The night nurse looked disappointed; in common with any number of the nurses at St Anne's, she considered Professor van der Wagema the answer to any ambitious girl's prayer, he might no longer be young like their numerous men friends, but he was infinitely more handsome even if he had a bad temper and wasn't above reducing them to tears with his sarcasm during lectures. All the same, she began on the report obediently; Sister Mitchell in her own small way, could be just as unbending, besides everyone knew that she and the professor didn't like each other.
'Miss Thorpe,' began the night nurse, 'Raynaud's disease '
There were twenty-four patients, the report took quite a few minutes before the new admission could be mentioned; Mrs Collins, admitted in a coma of unknown origin at four o'clock. Examined by the medical officer on duty and by the medical registrar. Since she didn't respond to treatment Professor van der Wagema was called, who diagnosed a suspected cerebral embolism. 'Nothing's back from the Path Lab yet.' She added nursing details and Sister Mitchell asked: 'Relatives? Anyone come in with her, Nurse?'
'No, Sister. She lives in a room in Belsize Street and works in a factory in Limehouse; she didn't go to work and someone went round to see why not. No one seemed to know anything about her, so they got a policeman to open the door and found her on the floor.'
Sister Mitchell nodded slowly. 'Poor soul, let's hope someone turns up. The police have the details?' Her generous mouth curved in a smile. 'Thanks, Nurse, off with you both then. You're both on together tonight? Who's with Mrs Collins, Pat?'
'Nurse Wells, Sister, the other three are clearing breakfast and starting on the BP round.'
'Then let's go and take a look.'
Sister didn't hurry down the ward; she never appeared to do so, but she always managed to be where she was wanted. She went calmly, wishing any of the patients that caught her eye a good morning, and slid behind the cubicle curtains. She wished Nurse Wells a pleasant good morning, asked a handful of pertinent questions and bent to look at Mrs Collins, a lady of middle years and extremely stout. She was still deeply unconscious and after a minute Sister turned away. 'Let me know if you see anything, Nurse,' she warned and went back to her office; the morning's work would go on as usual; the student nurses would have to come to the office while she read the report to them and Pat kept an eye on the ward, she would have to get on to the Path Lab and get the results of the blood sugar and blood urea tests; it was far too soon to get the lumbar puncture results. There was the post too and her morning round
The student nurses filed in, and she spent ten minutes going over the report with them and then allotting ward duties. That done, she was free to go back into the ward, armed with the day's letters and start the routine she never varied. The patients counted on her slow progress from bed to bed, it gave them a chance to air their grievances, complain about sleepless nights, ask questions about their condition and enlist her help over knotty problems they couldn't solve from their beds. She came to the last bed; Mrs Winter, a diabetic who had never quite grasped what was wrong with her and therefore spent a good deal of time in hospital being stabilised. 'I bin awake since four o'clock, Sister,' she said, avid for news of the new patient. 'Proper poorly, isn't she? All them doctors and nurses and the professor here, without his breakfast, I dare say, poor man.'
Julia Mitchell looked surprised. She had never thought of the professor in that light and certainly she had never pitied him, although now that she came to think about it, she was sorry for him although she wasn't sure why.
She said now in a soothing voice: 'Oh, I shouldn't worry, Mrs Winter, I expect he's got a wife to look after him.' A poor down-trodden creature, probably, never saying boo to a goose let alone to the professor. 'Did you eat all your breakfast, Mrs Winter?'
'The 'am, Sister dear, but I couldn't stomach the bread '
'Did you eat none of it, Mrs Winter?' Julia asked calmly; whichever nurse had seen to the diabetic breakfasts would have to be spoken to.
'Then I'm going to bring you two cream crackers and you're going to eat every crumb. Will you do that?'
'Anything to please yer, love,' said Mrs Winter obligingly.
Julia went to the kitchen, found the crackers, put two on a plate and bore them to the ward. She hadn't quite reached it when she heard the swing doors open and close behind her and turned her head to see who it was. Professor van der Wagema, unsmiling as usualperhaps he hadn't had his breakfast after all; she had no idea where he lived, but even if it had been next door to St Anne's which she very much doubted, he wouldn't have had time. She waved the plate of biscuits at him. 'I'll be right back, sir, Mrs Winter must have these nowshe didn't eat her bread.'
She disappeared through the ward door and when she returned found him standing in the middle of the landing, still frowning.
'Mrs Collins is still unconscious, I've just had a quick look. The Path Lab are sending up the results within the next half hour. Do you want Doctor Reed?'
Doctor Reed was the registrar; a nice quiet little man who loved his work. He had a very large wife and any number of small children. The fact reminded her that she was feeling sorry for the professor.
'Would you like a cup of coffee?' she offered, and she added persuasively, 'and a biscuit?'
'You are thinking "Feed the brute",' said the professor, surprisingly.
'Nono, of course not. Only night nurse said you were here early this morning and you can't have had much time for breakfast.'
He looked down his domineering nose at her. 'I can see no reason for you to concern yourself about my meals, Sister Mitchell. If it is convenient to you, I should like to see Mrs Collins.'
She didn't feel sorry for him any more. With her head high, she swept down the ward. Never again, she promised herself silently, would she offer him refreshment of any sort; of course the obligatory cup of coffee after his twice weekly rounds would have to be given to him, but that hardly counted. She slipped behind the curtains, nodded to Nurse Wells to go, and took up her position on the other side of the bed from the professor.
He bent over his patient, examining her with great care and presently Doctor Reed joined him. 'Difficult to determine hemiplegia,' muttered the professor, 'but I'm pretty certain it's a cerebral thrombosis.' He straightened up and glanced at Sister Mitchell. 'Have you any news of Mrs Collins' family or friends, Sister?'
'None,' said Julia, 'I've 'phoned the police and they've drawn a blank so far.'
'We must hope that they will have success before very long, it would be of considerable help to us. Now, as to treatment ' The professor never hummed and haa'd, he knew what he wanted done and made his wishes known concisely; what was more, he didn't like having to repeat his instructions, something Julia had discovered more than three years ago when she had taken over the ward. She had a good memory and was familiar with his ways; she listened carefully, said 'Very well, sir,' in the colourless voice she used on his ward rounds, and followed the two men out of the cubicle, beckoning to Nurse Wells to return as she did so.
She accompanied them, as custom dictated, to the ward doors and once through them wished the professor a brisk good morning, to be rewarded by a dark stare. 'I should be glad of a cup of coffee, Sister.'
Julia gave him a limpid look. 'Why, of course, professor,' she spoke in the tones of a much-tried hostess, 'do go into the office and I'll see about it.' She looked at Dr Reed and said warmly, 'You too, Dick?'