Read an Excerpt
March was doing exactly as it should; it had come in like a lamb, now it was going out like a lion. An icy rain driven by a roaring wind was sweeping the streets clear of all but those unfortunates who had been forced to go out. And these, needless to say, were scuttling along, anxious to get within doors as fast as possible.
There was a long queue half-way down the street, an impatient line of people under umbrellas, jostling for position, ready to rush forward when their bus arrived. The girl at the end of the queue edged away from the drips running down the back of her neck from the umbrella behind her and sighed resignedly. It had been a long day and she was tired and home was still a bus ride away; she could not even tell if she would be lucky enough to get on to the next bus
It came, sending great splashes of water from the gutter as it slowed to a halt. The queue surged forward. The owner of the umbrella gave her a vicious poke in the back as the slow-moving elderly man in front of her stepped back and planted a foot on her instep. She gave a gasp of pain and came to an involuntary halt, to be instantly swept aside by those behind her. Which meant one foot, the injured one, in the muddy water of the gutter.
The bus went, taking with it almost all the queue, leaving the girl to lift a dripping foot back on to the pavement and hobble to join it once more. But she didn't reach it; the car which had drawn up behind the bus edged forward and stopped beside her and the driver got out.
He looked even taller than he actually was in the light of the street lamps and she couldn't see him very clearly. He said with decided impatience, 'Are you hurt? I saw what happened. Get into the car, I'll drive you home.'
She looked up from the contemplation of torn tights and a trickle of blood. 'Thank you; I prefer to go by bus.' Her voice was a pretty as her face but there was a decided chill to it.
'Don't be a fool, young woman, I've no intention of kidnapping you. Besides, you look hefty enough to take care of yourself.' He ignored her outraged gasp. 'Don't keep me waiting, I have an appointment.' The impatience was even more decided.
Still smarting from having her Junoesque and charming person referred to as hefty, the girl took his proffered arm and allowed herself to be settled beside him. 'Where to?' he asked, and slid into the stream of traffic.
The girl gave a delicate sniff; the car was a Rolls-Royce and smelled of leather and, faintly, of cologne. She said in her nice voice, still chilly though, 'You should have asked me before I got into the car, which I wouldn't have done if you hadn't been so impatient. Meadow Road, a turning off Stamford Street. That's.'
'I know where it is. Which number?'
'Fifteen.' She added, 'It's quite a long way. You could drop me off at a bus-stop; I shall be quite all right.'
He didn't answer, and after a moment she realised that he wasn't going to. She glanced at her foot; it had left a muddy, watery mark on the car's splendid carpet and it was bleeding sluggishly. Nothing serious, she decided.
They crossed the river and he turned the car into the busy streets around Waterloo station and then, without being told, into Meadow Road, a dingy street which didn't live up to its name for there wasn't a blade of grass throughout its length. Its houses were bay-windowed with steps leading to shabby front doors, and iron railings concealed the semi-basements. Her companion stopped before number fifteen and got out. It surprised her when he opened her door and offered a hand. She stood on the pavement, looking up at him; she was a tall girl but she had to look quite a way.
'Thank you, you were most kind. I hope you won't be late for your appointment.'
'What is your name?'
She answered matter-of-factly, 'Claribel Brown. What's yours?'
'Marc van Borsele. And now that we are introduced, I will come in with you and see to that foot.'
She saw then that he held a case in one hand. 'You're a doctor?'
There seemed no point in arguing with him. 'Very well, though I'm perfectly able.'
'Let us waste no more time in polite chat.'
Claribel opened the gate to the basement with rather more force than necessary and led the way down the worn steps to her front door. In the sombre light of the street lamp its paint shone in a vibrant red and there were tubs on either side, holding the hopeful green shoots of daffodils. She got out her key and had it taken from her
and the door opened. He switched on the light, too, and then stood aside for her to enter.
There was a tiny lobby and an inner door leading to the living-room, small and perforce dark but very cosy. The furniture was mostly second-hand but had been chosen with care, and there was an out-of-date gas fire under the narrow mantelshelf. The one easy chair was occupied by two cats, one black and white, one ginger, curled up together. They unrolled themselves as Claribel went in, muttered softly at her, and curled up again.
'Do come in,' said Claribel unnecessarily, for he was already right behind her.
They stood for a moment and studied each other. Claribel was a pretty girl, almost beautiful with golden hair drawn back rather too severely into a knot, green eyes and a straight nose above a generous mouth. She was tall and magnificently built and looked a good deal younger than her twenty-eight years.
She stared back at her companion, frowning faintly because he was staring even harder. He was well over six feet, she supposed, and big with huge shoulders. He was also good-looking in a formidable way, with dark hair, sprinkled with grey, an aggressive nose, a firm thin mouth and dark eyes. He might be any age between thirty-five and forty, she guessed, and he had a nice taste in dress: conservative but elegant.
'Be good enough to take off your tights or whatever and let me see that foot.' He glanced at his watch. 'I can spare five minutes.'
The arrogance of the man! Someone should take him in hand, Claribel thought as he turned to undo his case. She whipped off her tights, sat down on a small upright chair and held her foot out.
There was more mud and blood; he poked and prodded, remarked that she would have a bruised foot but nothing worse and suggested that she should wash it. 'That's if you have a bathroom?'
She bit back what she would liked to have said in reply and went through the door at the back of the room and shut it behind her. The bathroom was a pokey little place reached through her bedroom; she cleaned her foot and whisked back to find him standing before the watercolour hanging over the mantelpiece.
'Your home?' he wanted to know.
'The west country?'
'Yes.' She had sat down and was holding her foot once more. 'You said you had five minutes '
He sat on his heels, used penicillin powder, gauze and strapping and then stood up. 'You don't like me,' he observed.
'I don't know you. Thank you for your help. You were kind.'
'I am not a particularly kind man.' He closed his case and she opened the door and held out a nicely kept hand.
'Goodbye, Dr van Borsele.' He shook it briefly. 'Goodbye. You live alone?' She was surprised. 'Yes. Well, there are Enoch and Toots.'
'I trust that you don't open your door to strangers or accept lifts from those you don't know.'
Her pretty mouth dropped open. 'Well! You insisted on bringing me home and here you are telling me ' She strove to keep her voice at a reasonable level. 'I never accept lifts and I certainly don't open my door. Whatever do you take me for?'
'The most beautiful girl I have seen for a long time.' He didn't smile. 'Goodnight, Claribel.'
She bolted the door after him and stood listening to him driving away.
'What an extraordinary man,' she observed to her cats, 'and much too sure of himself.'
She went into the kitchenette and began to get her supper, all the while considering ways and means of deflating his arrogance. 'I dare say he's quite nice,' she mused out loud, 'once one gets beneath that cold manner. Perhaps he is crossed in love. Or unhappily married. And what's he doing here in London if he's Dutch?'
She dished up her omelette and sat down at the table in the living-room to eat it. 'I wonder what he does? Private practice, or just on a visit, or at one of the hospitals?'
She finished her supper, fed the cats and washed up, turned on the gas fire and got out the sweater she was knitting, but somehow she couldn't settle to it. Presently she bundled it up and took herself off to bed, where, to her annoyance, she lay awake thinking, much against her will, of the man she had met that evening. 'A good thing we'll not meet again,' she observed to the cats curled up on the end of her bed, 'for he's too unsettling.'
It was still raining when she got up the next morning, dressed, breakfasted, fed the cats and tidied up her small flat. The physiotherapy department opened at nine o'clock and Miss Flute, who was in charge, had put her down to do a ward round with Mr. Shutter, the orthopaedic consultant, at half past that hour. She needed to go through the notes before then.
The bus was jammed with damp passengers, irritable at that hour of the morning. Claribel wedged herself between a staid city gent and a young girl with purple hair arranged in spikes, and reviewed the day before her.
A busy one. Mr Shutter had the energy of two men and expected everyone to feel the same way; she had no doubt that by the end of his round she would have added more patients to the already overfull list Miss Flute brooded over each morning. Besides that, she had several patients of her own to deal with before lunch, and in the afternoon Mr Shutter had his out-patients clinic. It crossed her mind that she had more than her fair share of that gentleman; there were, after all, four other full-time physiotherapists as well as several who came in part-time. There were other consultants, too, milder, slower men that Mr Shutter, but somehow she always had him. Not that she minded; he was a youngish man, an out-of-doors type whose energy was very much in contrast to his broken-limbed patients, but he was kind to them and she had never minded his heartiness. Some of the girls she worked with found him intimidating, but it had never bothered her; she had a peppery man of the law for a father.
Jerome's Hospital was old; it had been patched up from time to time and there were plans afoot to move it, lock, stock and barrel, to the outskirts of London, but the plans had been mooted so often, and just as often tidied away again, that it seemed likely to stay where it was, surrounded by its dingy streets, its walls grimed from the traffic which never ceased around it, its interior a maze of passages, splendid public rooms and inconvenient wards. Claribel, who had trained there and stayed on afterwards, surveyed its grim exterior as she got off the bus with a mixture of intense dislike and affection. She loved her work, she liked the patients and the people she worked with, but she deplored the endless corridors, the dimness of the various departments and the many annexes where it was so easy to get lost. Her kind heart went out to patients who, for the first time, arrived for treatment and wandered in bewilderment all over the place, despite the little signposts none of them ever saw, until someone took pity on them and showed them the way, to arrive, hot and flustered, late for their appointment.
Claribel wished the porter on duty a good morning and went down the short staircase at the back of the entrance hall. It led to a narrow passage used by the electricians, porters and those going to the theatre serving casualty; it was also a short cut to the physio department. She opened the door and went in with five minutes to spare.
Miss Flute was already there, a middle-aged, grey-haired lady with a sharp tongue and a soft heart who led her team with unflagging energy and didn't suffer fools gladly. She smiled at Claribel as she wished her a brisk good morning. 'A busy day,' she observed. 'There's a huge out-patients.'
Claribel paused on her way to the cloakroom they all shared. 'Are we all here?' she asked.
'No. Mrs Green phoned to say that she had a bad cold—we'll have to share out her patients.'
Claribel got into her white overall, gave her reflection a perfunctory glance and went into the office to con the notes. It was indeed going to be a busy day.
The orthopaedic wing was right at the other end of the hospital and Mr Shutter was doing his rounds in both the men's and women's wards. Claribel poked her pretty head round Sister's office door, announced her arrival and joined the social worker, a nurse burdened
with charts and, at the last minute, Sister herself. Just in time, the ward doors swung open and Mr Shutter strode in, bringing with him a great rush of energy and fresh air. Also with him was the man who had given Claribel a lift on the previous evening.
Although she had thought about him a great deal, she hadn't expected to see him again, but if she had she would have expected him to at least give some sign of recognition. As it was, his dark eyes looked right through her. She was conscious of annoyance. Of course, it wouldn't have done at all to have spoken to her, but he could have smiled.
She took her place in the group surrounding Mr Shutter and the round started. There were sixteen patients in the ward but not all of them were having physio. It wasn't until they reached the fourth bed that Mr Shutter said, 'Claribel, how's this leg shaping? Is it going to need much more massage? It looks pretty good to me.' He glanced at the man beside him.
'What do you think, Marc?' He didn't wait for an answer. 'This is one of our physiotherapists, Claribel Brown. Claribel, Mr van Borsele has joined us for a period—he'll be taking over for a week or two while I'm away. Well, what do you think, Marc?' Mr van Borsele had barely glanced at her; only by the slight nod of his handsome head had he acknowledged that she was there. He studied the limb at some length, smiled nicely at the young man lying in the bed and said, 'Might Miss Brown put this lad through his paces? There's considerable muscle wastage.'
He and Mr Shutter studied the X-rays and they watched Claribel as she exercised the boy's fractured leg; it had been taken out of the plaster, the pin taken from the knee and the extension removed only days before, but thanks to her daily visits there was quite a lot of movement. Of course there was muscle wastage, she reflected silently. If Mr van Borsele should ever break one of his legs and she had the task of exercising it. She looked up to catch his dark eyes upon her and a knowing light smile curled his lip. So he read people's thoughts, too, did he?
By a great effort of will she managed not to blush.
The round wound to a close and presently she was able to leave the ward, armed with a great many instructions, and make her way back to the physio department. The waiting-room was full but it always was: people waiting patiently for their turn, holding crutches or walking aids, nursing arms in slings. She uttered a general good morning and went through to the office where Miss Flute was on the phone—admonishing someone severely by the sound of it. She put the receiver down and remarked, 'I have very little patience with some people. Well, I suppose you've collected another bunch of patients. Your Mrs Snow is waiting.' She studied Claribel's face. 'Have a cup of coffee first. Heaven knows when you'll get another chance.'
Claribel sipped thankfully. 'Five more—two discharges to come here three times a week and three on the ward—all extensions. There's a new man taking over from Mr Shutter—did you know?'
'Met him yesterday. Dutch—well thought of, I believe. A bit terse, I thought.'
Claribel put down her empty mug. 'I'll say. Mr Shutter introduced us; he looked right through me.'
Miss Flute said drily, 'How could that be possible?'