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The young soldier stood looking doubtfully up at the unlabelled entranceto ward X, his kit bag lowered to the ground while he assessed thepossibility that this was indeed his ultimate destination. The last wardin the compound, they had said, pointing him gratefully off down a pathbecause they were busy and he had indicated he could find his own way.Everything save the armaments his battalion gunsmith had taken from himonly yesterday was disposed about his person, a burden with which he wasso familiar he didn't notice it. Well, this was the last building, allright, but if it was a ward it was much smaller than the ones he hadpassed along his way. Much quieter, too. A troppo ward. What a way toend the war! Not that it mattered how it ended. Only that it did end.
Watching him undetected through her office window, Sister Honour Langtrygazed down neatly divided between irritation and fascination. Irritationbecause he had been foisted on her at a stage when she had confidentlyexpected no further admissions, and because she knew his advent wouldupset the delicate balance within ward X, however minutely; fascinationbecause he represented an unknown whom she would have to learn to know.Wilson, M. E. J.
He was a sergeant from an illustrious battalion of an illustriousdivision; above the line of the pocket over his left breast he wore thered-blue-red ribbon of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, mostprestigiousand infrequently awarded, together with the ribbons of the 1939-1945Star, the Africa Star without an 8, and the Pacific Star; the almostwhite-looking puggaree around his hat was a relic of the Middle East andbore a grey-bordered divisional colorpatch. He was weanng faded greensneatly laundered and pressed, his slouch hat was at the regulationangle, chin strap in place, and the brass of his buckles shone. Not verytall, but hard-looking, the skin of his throat and arms burned dark asteak. He'd had a long war, this one, and looking at him, Sister Langtrycouldn't begin to guess why he was scheduled for ward X. There was asubtle aimlessness about him, perhaps, as of a man normally wellaccustomed to knowing his direction suddenly finding his feet pointingdown an utterly unfamiliar path. But that any man coming to any, newplace might feel. Of the more usual signs --confusion, disorientation,disturbances of comportment or behavior -- there were none. In fact, sheconcluded, he looked absolutely normal, and that in itself was abnormalfor ward X.
Suddenly he decided it was time to act, swung his kit bag off the groundand set foot on the long ramp which led up to the front door. Atprecisely the same moment Sister Langtry walked round her desk and outof her office into the corridor. They met just inside the fly-curtain,almost perfectly synchronized. Some wag long since recovered and goneback to his battalion had made the fly-curtain out of beer bottle capsknotted on endless yards of fishing line, so that instead of tinklingmusically like Chinese glass beads, it clashed tinnily. They mettherefore amid a discord.
"Hello, Sergeant, I'm Sister Langtry," she said, her smile welcoming himinto the world of ward X, which was her world. But the apprehensiveirritation still simmered beneath the surface of her smile, and showedin the quick peremptory demanding of her hand for his papers, which shehad seen were unsealed. Those fools in admissions! He'd probably stoppedsomewhere and read them.
Without fuss he had managed to shed sufficient of his gear to saluteher, then removed his hat and gave her the envelope containing hispapers without demur. "I'm sorry, Sister," he said. "I didn't have toread them to know what's in them."
Turning a little, she flicked the papers expertly through her officedoor to land on her desk. There; that should inform him she wasn't goingto expect him to stand like a block of wood in front of her while shedelved into his privacy. Time enough to read the official story later;now was the time to put him at his ease.
"Wilson, M. E. J.?" she asked, liking his calmness.
"Wilson, Michael Edward John," he said, a tiny smile of answered likingin his eyes.
"Are you called Michael?"
"Michael or Mike, it doesn't matter which."
He owned himself, or so it seemed; certainly there was no obviouserosion of self-confidence. Dear God, she thought, let the others accepthim easily!
"Where did you spring from?" she asked.
"Oh, further up," he answered vaguely.
"Come on, Sergeant, the war's over! There's no need for secrecy now.Borneo, I presume, but which bit? Brunei? Balikpapan? Tarakan?"
"You couldn't have timed the hour of your arrival better," she saidcheerfully, and walked ahead of him down the short corridor which openedinto the main ward. "The evening meal's due shortly, and the kai's notbad here."
Ward X had been thrown together from the bits left over, parked like anafterthought down on the perimeter of the compound, never intended ashousing for patients requiring complex medical care. When full it couldhold ten beds comfortably, twelve or fourteen at a pinch, besides whatbeds could be fitted on the verandah. Rectangular in shape, it was builtof unlined ship-lapped timber painted a shade of pale brown the mencalled baby-cack, and it had a hardwood plank floor. The windows mightmore accurately have been termed large apertures, unglazed, with woodenlouvers to shut out the weather. The roof was unlined palm thatch.
There were only five beds in the main ward room at the moment, four downone wall in proper hospital rank, the fifth oddly out of place, for it...An Indecent Obsession. Copyright � by Colleen McCullough. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.