Read an Excerpt
It was a blustery October evening, and the mean little wind was blowing old newspapers, tin cans and empty wrapping papers to and fro along the narrow, shabby streets of London's East End. It had blown these through the wide entrance to the massive old hospital towering over the rows of houses and shops around it, but its doors were shut against them, and inside the building it was quiet, very clean and tidy. In place of the wind there was warm air, carrying with it a whiff of disinfectant tinged with floor polish and the patients' suppers, something not experienced by those attending the splendid new hospitals now replacing the old ones. There they were welcomed by flowers, a café, signposts even the most foolish could read and follow…
St Luke's had none of these—two hundred years old and condemned to be closed, there was no point in wasting money. Besides, the people who frequented its dim corridors weren't there to look at flowers, they followed the painted pointed finger on its walls telling them to go to Casualty, X-Ray, the wards or Out Patients, and, when they got there, settled onto the wooden benches in the waiting rooms and had a good gossip with whoever was next to them. It was their hospital, they felt at home in it; its lengthy corridors held no worries for them, nor did the elderly lifts and endless staircases.
They held no worries for Ermentrude Foster, skimming up to the top floor of the hospital, intent on delivering the message which had been entrusted to her as quickly as possible before joining the throng of people queuing for buses on their way home. The message had nothing to do with her, actually; Professor ter Mennolt's secretary hadcome out of her office as Ermentrude had been getting into her outdoor things, her hours of duty at the hospital telephone switchboard finished for the day, and had asked her to run up to his office with some papers he needed.
'I'm late,' said the secretary urgently. 'And my boyfriend's waiting for me. We're going to see that new film…'
Ermentrude, with no prospect of a boyfriend or a film, obliged.
Professor ter Mennolt, spectacles perched on his magnificent nose, was immersed in the papers before him on his desk. A neurologist of some renown, he was at St Luke's by invitation, reading a paper on muscular dystrophies, lecturing students, lending his knowledge on the treatment of those patients suffering from diseases of the nervous system. Deep in the study of a case of myasthenia gravis, his, 'Come,' was absent-minded in answer to a knock on the door, and he didn't look up for a few moments.
Ermentrude, uncertain whether to go in or not, had poked her head round the door, and he studied it for a moment. A pleasant enough face, not pretty, but the nose was slightly tip-tilted, the eyes large and the wide mouth was smiling.
Ermentrude bore his scrutiny with composure, opened the door and crossed the room to his desk.
'Miss Crowther asked me to bring you this,' she told him cheerfully. 'She had a date and wanted to get home…'
The professor eyed her small, slightly plump person and looked again at her face, wondering what colour her hair was; a scarf covered the whole of it, and since she was wearing a plastic mac he deduced that it was raining.
'And you, Miss…?' He paused, his eyebrows raised.
'Foster, Ermentrude Foster.' She smiled at him. 'Almost as bad as yours, isn't it?' Undeterred by the cold blue eyes staring at her, she explained, 'Our names,' just in case he hadn't understood. Awkward, aren't they?'
He had put down his pen. 'You work here in the hospital?'
'Me? Yes, I'm a telephonist. Are you going to be here for a long time?'
'I can hardly see why the length of my stay should interest you, Miss Foster.'
'Well, no, it doesn't, really.' She gave him a kind smile. 'I thought you might be a bit lonely up here all by yourself. Besides I rather wanted to see you—I'd heard about you, of course.'
'Should I feel gratified at your interest?' he asked coldly.
'No, no, of course not. But they all said how handsome you were, and not a bit like a Dutchman.' She paused then, because his eyes weren't cold any more, they were like blue ice.
He said levelly, 'Miss Foster, I think it might be a good idea if you were to leave this room. I have work to do, and interruptions, especially such as yours, can be annoying. Be good enough to tell Miss Crowther on no account to send you here again.'
He bent over his work and didn't watch her go.
Ermentrude went slowly back through the hospital and out into the wet October evening to join the queue at the nearest bus stop, thinking about the professor. A handsome man, she conceded; fair hair going grey, a splendid nose, heavy-lidded eyes and a firm mouth—which was a bit thin, perhaps. Even sitting at his desk it was easy to see that he was a very large man. Still quite young, too. The hospital grapevine knew very little about him, though.
She glanced back over her shoulder; there were still lighted windows on the top floor of the hospital; one of them would be his. She sighed. He hadn't liked her and, of course, that was to be understood. She had been ticked off on several occasions for not being respectful enough with those senior to her—and they were many—but that hadn't cured her from wanting to be friends with everyone.
Born and brought up in a rural part of Somerset, where everyone knew everyone else, she had never quite got used to the Londoners' disregard for those around them. Oblivious of the impatient prod from the woman behind her, she thought of the professor sitting up there, so far from anyone… And he was a foreigner, too.
Professor ter Mennolt, unaware of her concern, adjusted his spectacles on his nose and addressed himself to the pile of work on his desk, perfectly content with his lot, careless of the fact that he was alone and a foreigner. He had quite forgotten Ermentrude.
The bus, by the time Ermentrude got onto it, was packed, and, since it was raining, the smell of wet raincoats was overpowering. She twitched her small nose and wondered what was for supper, and, after a ten-minute ride squashed between two stout women, got off with relief.
Five minutes' walk brought her to her home, midway down a terrace of small, neat houses in a vaguely shabby street, their front doors opening onto the pavement. She unlocked the door, calling, 'It's me,' as she did so, and opened a door in the narrow hallway. Her mother was there, sitting at a small table, knitting. Still knitting, she looked up and smiled.
'Emmy—hello, love. Supper's in the oven, but would you like a cup of tea first?'
'I'll make it, Mother. Was there a letter from Father?'
'Yes, dear, it's on the mantelpiece. Have you had a busy day?'
'So-so. I'll get the tea.'
Emmy took off her raincoat and scarf, hung them on a peg in the hall and went into the kitchen, a small, old-fashioned place with cheerful, cheap curtains and some rather nice china on the dresser shelves. About all there was left of her old home, thought Emmy, gathering cups and saucers and opening the cake tin.
Her father had taught at a large school in Somerset, and they had lived in a nearby village in a nice old house with a large garden and heavenly views. But he had been made redundant and been unable to find another post! Since an elderly aunt had recently died and left him this small house, and a colleague had told him of a post in London, they had come here to live. The post wasn't as well paid, and Mrs Foster found that living in London was quite a different matter from living in a small village with a garden which supplied her with vegetables all the year round and hens who laid fresh eggs each day.
Emmy, watching her mother coping with household bills, had given up her hopes of doing something artistic. She drew and painted and embroidered exquisitely, and had set her sights on attending a school of needlework and then starting up on her own—she wasn't sure as what.
There had been an advertisement in the paper for a switchboard operator at St Luke's, and she had gone along and got the job.
She had no experience of course, but she had a pleasant voice, a nice manner and she'd been keen to have work. She'd been given a week's training, a month's trial and then had been taken on permanently. It wasn't what she wanted to do, but the money was a great help, and one day her father would find a better post. Indeed, he was already well thought of and there was a chance of promotion.
She made the tea, offered a saucer of milk to Snoodles the cat, handed a biscuit to George the elderly dachshund, and carried the tray into the sitting room.
Over tea she read her father's letter. He had been standing in for a school inspector, and had been away from home for a week. He would be coming home for the weekend, he wrote, but he had been asked to continue covering for his colleague for the next month or so. If he accepted, then it would be possible for Mrs Foster to be with him when it was necessary for him to go further afield.
'Mother, that's wonderful—Father hates being away from home, but if you're with him he won't mind as much, and if they're pleased with him he'll get a better job.'
'I can't leave you here on your own.'
'Of course you can, Mother. I've Snoodles and George for company, and we know the neighbours well enough if I should need anything. I can come home for my lunch hour and take George for a quick walk. I'm sure Father will agree to that. Besides, Father gets moved from one school to the other, doesn'the? Whenhe is nearer home you can be here.'
'I'm sure I don't know, love. The idea of you being on your own…'
Emmy refilled their cups. 'If I had a job in another town, I'd be on my own in some bedsitter, wouldn't I? But I'm at home. And I'm twenty-three…'
'Well, I know your father would like me to be with him. We'll talk about it at the weekend.'
By breakfast time the next morning Mrs Foster was ready to concede that there was really no reason why she shouldn't join her husband, at least for short periods. 'For you're home by six o'clock most evenings, when it's still quite light, and I dare say we'll be home most weekends.'
Emmy agreed cheerfully. She was due to go on night duty in a week's time, but there was no need to remind her mother of that. She went off to catch a bus to the hospital, glad that the rain had ceased and it was a nice autumn day.
The switchboard was busy; it always was on Fridays. Last-minute plans for the weekend, she supposed, on the part of the hospital medical staff—people phoning home, making appointments to play golf, arranging to meet to discuss some case or other—and all these over and above the outside calls, anxious family wanting news of a patient, doctors' wives with urgent messages, other hospitals wanting to contact one or other of the consulting staff. It was almost time for her midday dinner when a woman's voice, speaking English with a strong accent, asked to speak to Professor ter Mennolt.
'Hold the line while I get him for you,' said Emmy. His wife, she supposed, and decided that she didn't much like the voice—very haughty. The voice became a person in her mind's eye, tall and slim and beautiful—because the professor wouldn't look at anything less—and well used to having her own way.
He wasn't in his room, and he wasn't on any of the wards she rang. She paused in her search to reassure the voice that she was still trying, and was rewarded by being told to be quick. He wasn't in Theatre, but he was in the Pathology Lab.
'There you are,' said Emmy, quite forgetting to add 'sir'. 'I've a call for you; will you take it there?'
'Only if it's urgent; I'm occupied at the moment.'
'It's a lady,' Emmy told him. 'She told me to hurry. She speaks English with an accent.'
'Put the call through here.' He sounded impatient.
It wouldn't hurt him to say thank you, reflected Emmy as she assured his caller that she was being put through at once. She got no thanks from her either. 'They must suit each other admirably,' said Emmy under her breath, aware that the bossy woman who went around with a clipboard was coming towards her. As usual she was full of questions—had there been delayed calls? Had Ermentrude connected callers immediately? Had she noted the times?
Emmy said yes to everything. She was a conscientious worker, and although it wasn't a job she would have chosen she realised that she was lucky to have it, and it wasn't boring. She was relieved for her dinner hour presently, and went along to the canteen to eat it in the company of the ward clerks and typists. She got on well with them, and they for their part liked her, though considering her hopelessly out of date, and pitying her in a friendly way because she had been born and brought up in the country and had lacked the pleasures of London. She lacked boyfriends, too, despite their efforts to get her to join them for a visit to a cinema or a pub.
They didn't hold it against her; she was always good-natured, ready to help, willing to cover a relief telephonist if she had a date, listening to emotional outbursts about boyfriends with a sympathetic ear. They agreed among themselves that she was all right—never mind the posh voice; she couldn't help that, could she, with a father who was a schoolmaster? Besides, it sounded OK on the phone, and that was what her job was all about, wasn't it?
Home for the weekend, Mr Foster agreed with Emmy that there was no reason why she shouldn't be at home on her own for a while.
'I'll be at Coventry for a week or ten days, and then several schools in and around London. You don't mind, Emmy?'
She saw her mother and father off on Sunday evening, took George for a walk and went to bed. She wasn't a nervous girl and there were reassuringly familiar noises all around her: Mr Grant next door practising the flute, the teenager across the street playing his stereo, old Mrs Grimes, her other neighbour, shouting at her husband who was deaf. She slept soundly.