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It should have been the quietest hour or so of the night in the hospital, when the ill and the not so ill slept, the accident centre was temporarily quiet and the busy nurses could pause for a snack, meal or a cup of tea. Tonight, as so often happened, an ambulance with its flashing lights brought the staff nurse to her feet, ready to meet the ambulanceman as he got to the doors.
'Coronary,' he told her briefly. 'In a bad way, too.'
The nurse nodded, said over her shoulder to the student nurse on duty with her, 'Get hold of Sister Payne, tell her it's a coronary, ask her to come,' and then she went out to the ambulance.
So it was that Sister Louise Payne, sitting at her desk in her office, her shoes off, a mug of tea at her elbow, and writing the beginnings of the report, put down her pen with a little sigh as the phone rang, lifted the receiver, listened with composure, said with calm, 'I'll be down at once, Nurse. Go back to Staff and help her. I'll get hold of Dr Giles,' and dug her feet into her shoes once more.
Dr Giles, the medical officer on duty, had just got to his bed; he grunted his displeasure at being roused from the brief snooze he had hoped for and, in answer to Sister Payne's firm voice telling him that she would meet him in the accident room, grunted again. She put down the receiver, knowing that despite the grumbles he would be there, and took herself off to the accident room.
Staff Nurse was glad to see her; the man was in a bad way and she hadn't had much experience of coro-naries; Sister Payne took over without a fuss, and when Dr Giles arrived, trousers and sweater over his pyjamas, they worked together.
'Who is he?' asked Dr Giles, not paustng in his work.
Sister Payne didn't pause either. 'Staff?' she asked without turn ing round.
'The ambulance was called by someone who saw him lying in the street. A Mr Tom Cowdrie They found an envelope in a coat pocket. I've not had time '
'No, of course you haven't, Staff.' Sister Payne's glance flickered briefly towards Dr Giles. 'Ted, it's the MP Staff, get the police, will you? Ted should you get Dr van der Linden?'
'Yes. Could Staff take over? Nurse can get the police, can't she?' He looked down at their unresponsive patient. 'No, better notI'll stay here. Let Staff take over from you. You telephone.'
Sister Payne nodded her approval and sped to the phone, dialled a number and waited. The voice in her ear was tinged with irritation, to be expected at three o'clock in the morni ng, but her own remained admirably calm. She didn't waste time in apologies. 'A Mr Tom Cowdrie has just been brought inthe MP. A coronary. Dr Giles would be glad of your advice, sir.'
'Ten minutes,' said the voice in her ear, and the line went dead.
If anyone had had the leisure to look at the clock they would have noted that it was, in fact, nine minutes later when the senior medical consult ant of St Nicholas's Hospital came silent-footed into the accident room. He was a massive man, well over six foot and heavily built, with fair hair already silvered and splendid good looks with a high-bridged nose, a firm mouth and blue eyes half hidden by their heavy lids. He was wearing a thin polo-necked sweater and trousers, but no one looking at him would have known that he had been wakened from a deep sleep, driven his car for the mile through London's streets which separated his house from the hospital, and still contrived to look as though he was on the point of doing an unhurried ward round.
He nodded to Dr Giles, smiled briefly at Sister Payne and bent over the patient, at the same time listening to Dr Giles's brief resume.
He nodded his approval, while issuing his orders in a manner which allowed of no hanging around by his supporters. Whoever was on call in X-ray was to be roused, so too whoever was on night duty in the path lab. 'And, Ted, if the police are here, give them Mr Cowdrie's addresshis wife must be told. Deal with it, will you?'
Dr van der Linden had dragged off his sweater, the better to deal with his patient. 'Warn intensive care, Sister, will you? As soon as he's fit to move, we will get him up there.'
It was more than an hour later when Mr Cowdrie was borne carefully away to the intensive care unit; Sister Payne watched Dr van der Linden's broad shoulders disappear through the door after the trolley, listened with sympathy to Ted Giles's rueful comment that there wasn't much point in going back to his bed, made sure that the nurses in the accident room were starting on the cleari ng up, and went tiredly up to her office; it was very nearly time for her early-morning round, and she still had the report to write. Mr Cowdrie's wife had arrived, but so far hadn't seen her husband; Dr van der Linden would talk to her first, and then in all probability bring her along for Sister Payne to solace with tea and sympathy. She penned the report with the speed of long practice, answered an urgent summons from the women's medical ward with her usual calm, and was just on her way back to her office, expecting to have a quick cup of tea before commencing her rounds, when Dr van der Linden bore down upon her with Mrs Cowdrie beside him. Sister Payne paused, stifling an urge to gallop briskly in the opposite direction; it was all very well for Dr van der Linden; he would in all probability take himself off home to a couple of hours' sleep and a tasty breakfast cooked by a loving wife.
She greeted him pleasantly and Mrs Cowdrie with sympathy; she was a much younger woman than she had expected, fair and fluffy and nicely made-up and dressed with care. Surely, thought Sist er Payne, she wouldn't have stopped to do her face and dress so carefully, knowing that her husband had just been dragged back from death's door, and even now, for that matter, had a foot still inside it?
Mrs Cowdrie was summing her up, too: a handsome girl, tall and with a splendid figure, her dark hair a little untidy. Her large brown eyes had shadows beneath them from tiredness and her straight nose shone; all the same, she had a serene beauty which Mrs Cowdrie would never achieve.
Dr van der Linden watched her from under hooded lids, his face without expression. He said blandly, 'Ah, Sister, would you be kind enough to give Mrs Cowdrie a cup of tea and arrange for a taxi to take her home presently? I have explained that she may remain here if she wishes, but she would prefer to go home.'
There were still fifteen minutes before she needed to start the morning round; Sister Payne murmured suitably and led Mrs Cowdrie away to sit in the office and drink her tea, but only after that lady had taken a fulsome farewell of Dr van der Linden.
'I really must go back home,' she explained to Sister Payne. 'I sleep very badly, you know, and this has upset me. I shall spend the day in bed.'
'Your husband is very ill ' began Louise carefully. 'There is a rest room here, if you care to stay?'
'Well, there is nothing I can do, is there? I have to think of my own health, Sister. Do you suppose that he will recover?'
Louise hid shock behind a calm face. 'I really don't know, Mrs Cowdrie. That is for Dr van der Linden to tell you.'
Mrs Cowdrie put down her cup and saucer. 'He's quite something, isn't he? I'll be off, thanks for the tea.' She looked round the office. 'Is this where you spend your nights? I suppose you knit or read to pass the time?'
She was quite serious; Sister Payne said quietly, 'I do have things to do ' She telephoned for a taxi and escorted the lady to the hospital entrance, then turned her steps in the direction of the men's medical ward, to start her round. The intensive care unit first Mr Cow-drie had a good chance of recovery, she considered. She frowned; Mrs Cowdrie had taken his sudden illness very coollywhat wife worth her salt would worry about her lack of sleep at such a time, let alone go back home until her husband had been declared safely out of danger? She met Dr van der Linden at the door, on his way out, and he paused to speak to her. They had known each other for some time now, and maintained a pleasant, rather cool rel at ionship, each respecti ng the other without showi ng interest. They might, on occasion, hold a brief conversation about the weather or some similar impersonal topic, and at the hospital ball he would dance with her once, something he was obliged to do in common courtesy, but for the most part their talk was strictly professional, concerning the patients.
'Mr Cowdrie should do, Sister. I've left instructions with Staff Nurse. Let me know if you're not happy with anything.' He glanced at his watch. 'You will be handing over within another hour or so?'
He nodded unsmilingly, and walked rapidly away, doubtless to his bed, thought Louise enviously, and then reflected that, unlike her, he had a ward round in a few hours' time, whereas, once the house was quiet, she would be able to sleep.
She was a little late going off duty, since she had to give a lengthy report to the day sister on intensive care. The March morning, although bright, was chilly; she paused at the entrance to shiver. The streets around the hospital were already teeming with traffic and the buses would be full.
The big door swung open behind her and Dr van der Linden came to a halt beside her. 'I'll give you a lift,' he said pleasantly.
'Kind of you, sir, but I can get a bus '
'Yes, I know.' He touched her arm. 'The car is over here.'
A Jaguar XJS, sleekly elegant and powerful. He ushered her into the front seat and got in beside her. 'Fourteen, Bick Street, Hoxton, isn't it?'
She wondered how he knew, but said nothing, only, 'You must be going out of your way.' And, when he didn't reply, 'This is very kind of you.'
Bick Street was almost in Islington; she supposed one would call it shabby genteel, with its facing rows of small villas, brick built and ugly and with mod cons which had been mod at the turn of the century. Dr van der Linden drew up soundlessly before number fourteen, and its front door was flung open to allow three people and a dog to emerge. A girl, small and fair and pretty, a schoolgirl, fair, too, but a good deal taller and not as pretty, though still worth a second glance, and a schoolboy with sandy hair and glasses on his nose. The dog stayed with him, behind the girls; it was a smooth-coated type with a plumy tail and very large pointed ears.
There were no gardens before the houses; they crossed the pavement and peered at Louise through the car windows. The doctor obligingly opened the window and said, 'Good morning.'
Louise said, 'My sisters, Zoe and Christine, and my brother, Michael, and Dusty.'
They chorused their how do you dos, and Dusty barked a brief greeting.
'Dr van der Linden kindly gave me a lift.' Louise spoke briefly, and made to get out. Dr van der Linden got out, too, and opened her door.
'A pleasure, Sister Payne,' he said formally, then got in again and drove away with a vague wave of the hand.
The little group went into the house. 'I say, Louise, do you work for him? Aren't you lucky?' It was Zoe who spoke. 'And I spend my days at that dreary old typing school.'
Louise was in the hall, taking off her coat. 'Well, dear, it's only for another week or two, then you can get a smashing job with a film producer or stockbroker or something.' She followed the others into the kitchen. 'I don't work for himhe's a consultant. I only see him if he comes in for something urgent.'
'All the same, he drove you home.'
'Well, we met at the door.' Louise spoke absent-mindedly, turntng over the few letters the postman had brought. 'ChrisMike, are you ready for school? Away with you, my dearssee you at teatime. Have a good day.'
Alone with Zoe, she sat down at the kitchen table. She was too tired to eat much, but Zoe made fresh toast and another pot of tea, and sat with her for a while until it was time for her to leave the house, too.
'I'm back early this afternoon,' she said as she got her coat, 'so leave everything, Louise. You look as though you need a good sleep.'
Alone, Louise fini shed her toast, poured another cup of tea and opened her letters. Presently she would wash her dishesthe others had already done theirs let Dusty out into the strip of garden behind the house, have a bath and go to bed. For two years now, ever since their mother's death, when she had taken over the reins of the household, they had kept to a routine which on the whole worked very well. The three younger children kept the house tidy, made their beds and laid tables and washed up, and, on her nights off duty each week, she cleaned the little house, did the week's shopping and saw to the washing and as much of the ironing as possible. It left little time for leisure, but at least they were together and had a home. There was no money, of course; just sufficient to live decently, and tucked away in the bank was the small capital her father had left, enough to send Mike to university when the time came.
They were lucky to have a home, however shabby, she reflected, unfolding the first of her letters.
It was typewritten, from their landtord, who had rented them the house when her father had had to go into hospital and her mother, knowing that his illness was terminal, had moved to London, lock, stock and barrel, not to mention her four children, so that they might be near him. When he had died they had stayed on because Louise was half-way through her training, and her mother, with some help from her, could just about manage to make ends meet. When her mother had died, two years previously, they had stayed on; Louise had a safe job, Zoe would soon be working and helping out with the housekeeping and the younger ones were doing well at school, although Louise wasn't too happy about the schools. Sensibly, she didn't allow herself to worry about the future. It was important to get the two younger ones through their exams; only then would she decide what was best to be done. It was obvious to her that, even if she met a man she would like to marry, he would jib at having to provide for her brother and sisters and, whereas while she had been training and her mother was still alive, she had never lacked for invitations from the housemen at the hospital, they had cooled off when they had discovered later that she now had responsibility for the upbringing of the family. She didn't blame them, and if she repined she did it in private, turning a calm face to the world.
Unfolding the letter, she allowed herself speculation as to its cont ents. Another rise in the rent, she supposed; there had never been an agreement. Years ago, when they had first moved there, there had been what the landlord had called a 'gentlemen's agreement,' and when on her mother's death she had asked him about it, he had assured her that since this arrangement had been in force for some time there was no point in altering it. She had agreed with him, and hadn't even had a rent book.
A great pity that she had agreed, she reflected, reading his letter. The house had been sold and the new owner would like to take possession as soon as possible, and since there was no written agreement and no lease to expire he would be glad if she could arrange to leave as soon as she had found suitable accommodation. The letter ended with a brief apologythe price he had been offered for the house was too advantageous to be ignored, and he regretted any inconvenience it might cause her.
She read the letter through again once more, slowly, in case she had missed something. She hadn'tthere it was in black and white. She got up, cleared the table, washed the china, set the table ready for their evening meal, let Dusty in from the garden and went upstairs to run the bath, all the while her tired brain doing its best to wrestle with the news. She could get advice, she supposed, but she was pretty sure that the landlord had the law on his side; it was quite true, there was no agreement as such, and for all she knew when her mother had rented the house she might have agreed verbally to leave if asked to do so. Bick Street hadn't been much sought after; it was only in the last year or so that house prices had soared.