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It was Monday morning and the occupational therapy department at St Alkelda's Hospital was filling up fast.
Not only were patients being trundled from the wards to spend a few hours painting and knitting, making paper chains ready for a distant Christmas, learning to use their hands and brains once again, but ambulances were depositing outpatients in a steady flow, so that the staff had their work cut out sorting them out and taking them to wherever they were to spend the morning.
The occupational therapist was a large, severe-looking woman, excellent at her job but heartily disliked by those who worked for her, for she had an overbearing manner and a sarcastic tongue, always ready to find fault but rarely to praise. She was finding fault now with a girl half her size, with an unassuming face, mousy hair and a tendency to slight plumpness.
'Must you be so slow, Henrietta? Really, you are of little use to me unless you can make more of an effort.'
The girl paused, an elderly lady on either arm. She said in a reasonable voice, 'Neither Mrs Flood nor Miss Thomas can hurry, Mrs Carter. That's why I'm slow.'
Mrs Carter looked daggers, but, before she could think up something to squash this perfectly sensible remark, Henrietta had hoisted the elderlies more firmly onto their feet and was making for the room where the paper chains were being made.
Mrs Carter stared after the trio. Really, the girl was impossible, making remarks like that, and always politely and in a tiresomely matter-of-fact voice which it was impossible to complain about.
Not even trained, Henrietta was a mere part-timer, dealing with the more mundane tasks which the qualified staff had no time forhelping the more helpless of the patients to eat their dinner, escorting them to the ambulances, setting them in their chairs, finding mislaid spectacles, and, when she wasn't doing that, showing them how to make paper flowers, unravelling their knitting, patiently coaxing stiff, elderly fingers to hold a paintbrush.
Doing everything cheerfully and willingly, thought Mrs Carter crossly. The girl's too good to be true.
Henrietta, aware that Mrs Carter disliked her and would have liked to get rid of her if possible, was glad when her day's work ended.
The last of the elderlies safely stowed in the last ambulance, she began to tidy the place ready for the next day, thankful that she wouldn't be there tomorrow. Three days a week was all that was required of her, and although it was hard to make ends meet on her wages she was glad to have the job, even though there was no guarantee of its permanence.
The last to leave, she locked the doors, took the keys along to the porter's office and went out into the cold dark of a January evening. The side-door she used opened out of one side of the hospital, and she began walking over this deserted area towards the lighted forecourt, only to stop halfway there, arrested by a very small mewing sound. It came from a tiny kitten, wobbling unsteadily towards her, falling over itself in its anxiety to reach her.
Henrietta got down on her knees, the better to see the small creature. 'Lost?' she asked it, and then added,
'Starved and dirty and very frightened.' She picked it up and felt its bird-like bones under the dirty fur. 'Well, I'm not leaving you here; you can come home with me.' She rocked back on her heels, stood up, stepped backwards and discovered that she was standing on a foot.
'Whoops,' said Henrietta, and spun round. 'So sorry ' She found herself addressing a waistcoat, and looked higher to glimpse its ownera large, tall man, peering down at her. Not that he could see much of her in the gloom, nor, for that matter, could she see much of him. 'It's a kitten,' she explained. 'It's lost and so very thin.'
The man put out a hand and took the little animal from her. 'Quite right; he or she needs a home without a doubt.'
'Oh, that's easy; he or she can come home with me.' She took the kitten back. 'I hope I didn't hurt your foot?' When he didn't answer she added, 'Goodnight.'
He watched her go, wondering who she was and what she was doing there. Not one of the nurses, he supposed, although he hadn't been able to see her very clearly. He would remember her voice, though, quiet and pleasantserene was the word he sought for and found.
Henrietta tucked the kitten inside her coat and walked home. Home was a bedsitting room in a tall, shabby old house ten minutes away from the hospital. There was nothing fashionable about that part of London, but for the most part it was respectable, the houses which lined the streets mostly divided into flats or bedsitters. It was lonely too, for its inhabitants kept themselves very much to themselves, passing each other with only a brief nod, intent on minding their own business.
Henrietta mounted the steps to the front door, entered and went up the staircase in the narrow hall to the top floor, where she unlocked her own door. It opened directly into a large attic room with small windows at each end of it. A large, rather battered tabby-cat got off the window-sill of the back window and came to meet her.
'Dickens, hello.' She bent to stroke his elderly coat. 'You want your supper, don't you? And we've got ourselves a companion, so be nice to him or her.'
She put the scrap down on the shabby rug before an old-fashioned gas fire. Dickens first backed away and then began to examine the kitten. He was still sniffing cautiously when she went back with his supper, turned on the fire and fetched a towel to clean some of the dirt off the kitten. Then she offered it a saucer of warm milk, which it licked slowly at first and then with speed.
'There's plenty more,' said Henrietta, and went to hang her coat behind the curtain screening off the far end of the room. There was a divan bed there too, with a bedside table, and under the front window another table covered with an old-fashioned chenille cloth.
There was a small easy chair, two wooden chairs at the table and another basket chair enlivened by a bright cushion. Nothing matched; they looked as though they had come from an Oxfam shop, or one of the second-hand shops close by. As indeed they had.
Still, it was home to Henrietta, and it had certain advantages. Beyond the back window there was a small balcony, sufficient for Dickens's needs, and she had a pot of catmint there, another of grass, and a cut-down branch which she had tied to the iron railing surrounding the balcony so that he could sharpen his claws. In the spring she planted daffodils in an old broken-down earthen pot which she had found unused in the back garden of the house.
She had been there for a couple of years now, and as far as she could see she had little chance of finding something more congenial. Rents, even in that shabby-genteel part of London, were high, and it was an effort to make ends meet. Her hospital job barely covered the rent, gas, electricity, and the most basic of food, and she relied on her other job to keep the wolf from the door.
Each morning she left the house just after six o'clock, took a bus to the block of offices a mile away and joined a team of cleaners, working until half past eight and then going home again. On the days she worked at the hospital it was rather a rush, but she worked there from ten o'clock until the late afternoon, and so far she had managed to get there on time.
Her days were full and sometimes tiring but, despite her smallness, she was strong and healthy and possessed of a cheerful disposition, and if at times she thought with longing of a home life and a family she didn't dwell on them.
She couldn't remember her father or mother; they had both died in an air disaster when she had been no more than a year or so old. She had been left with her grandparents while her mothertheir daughterhad accompanied her father on a business trip to South America, and, since they had stubbornly refused to countenance her marriage and had agreed only with great reluctance to look after their small granddaughter, any affection they might have felt for Henrietta had been swallowed up in resentment and anger at their daughter's death.
A nursemaid had been found for her and she had seen very little of her grandparents. When her grandmother died, her grandfather had declared that he was quite unable to care for her and, since there had been no relations willing to have her, Henrietta had been sent to a children's home.
She had been almost six years old then. She'd stayed until she was eighteen and, since it had been a well-run institution and the supervisor a kind and intelligent woman, Henrietta had taken her A levels and stayed on for three more years, teaching the little ones and making herself useful. It had been a restricted life, but the only one she'd known, and she'd been tolerably happy.
Then the supervisor had retired and her successor had been able to see no point in keeping Henrietta there. She had been told that she might go out into the world and earn her living like everyone else. 'You can teach,' she'd been told. 'There are plenty ofjobs if you look for them.'
So she'd left the place that she had regarded as home for almost all her life and, armed with the small amount of money that she had been given to tide her over, she'd gone looking for work. In this she had been lucky for the first job she'd gone afteroffice cleanerhad been hers for the asking.
She'd taken it and, helped by one of the other cleaners, had rented this attic room, eking out her wages with her tiny capital, taking on any job to keep her goingserving at a stall at the market on Saturday afternoons, babysitting for her landlady's daughter, distributing circulars. Bit by bit she'd furnished her room, and, since she had a nice dress sense, had acquired a small wardrobe from Oxfam. She'd acquired Dickens, too
Things had looked up; she'd answered an advertisement for an assistant at the occupational therapy department at the hospital only a few streets away, and she had been there for more than a year now. There was always the hope that one or other of the full-time workers would leave and she would be able to apply for the job.
She took another look at the kitten, wrapped in an old scarf, and left it to sleep, watched by Dickens, while she got her supper.
Later, when she turned the divan into a bed ready to get into it, she lifted the kitten onto the end where Dickens had already curled up. It made a brave effort to purr, scoffed some bread and milk and fell asleep, and Dickens, who had a kind heart under his ferocious appearance, edged closer so that the small creature could feel his warm and furry body.
Henrietta got into bed. 'You're a splendid fellow, Dickens,' she told him as she put out the light and heard his raucous purr.
She had to be up early, of course, but once she was dressed and on her way even on a miserably cold and dark morning it wasn't too bad. She would go home presently, and have breakfast and do her small chores, initiate the kitten into the pleasures of the balcony and do her careful shopping.
The other cleaners greeted her cheerfully as they started their work but there wasn't time to gossip, and once they had finished they wasted no time in getting back home. Henrietta, standing on a crowded bus, thought of her breakfasttoast and a boiled egg and a great pot of tea
The cats were still on the bed, but they got down as she went in. She lighted the fire and, since the room was cold, gave them their breakfasts and fetched the cardboard box lined with old blanket that Dickens regarded as his own. She watched while he got in, to sit washing his face after his meal, and presently, when the kitten crept in beside him, he took no notice. Then, his own toilet completed, he began to clean the kitten and, that done to his satisfaction, they both went to sleep again.
Henrietta, lingering over her own breakfast, was doing her weekly sums. Each week she managed to save somethingnever very much, but even the coppers and the small silver mounted up slowly in the jamjar on the shelf beside the gas stove in one corner of the room. It was a flimsy shield against the ever present threat of being out of work.
Presently she tidied up, got into a coat, tied a scarf over her head and went to the shops, where she laid out her money with a careful eye. Since the shopkeepers in the neighbourhood liked her, because she never asked for credit, the butcher gave her a marrowbone to add to the stewing steak she had bought, and the baker threw in a couple of rolls with the yesterday's loaf she bought.
She bore her purchases home, fed the cat and kitten, ate her snack lunch and set about cleaning the room. It didn't take long, so that presently she drew the armchair up to the fire and opened her library book, waiting patiently while Dickens made himself comfortable on her lap.
When he had settled she lifted the kitten on too, and he made room for it, rumbling in his hoarse voice in what she hoped was a fatherly fashion. Apparently it was, for the kitten curled up as close as it could get and went to sleep at once.
Henrietta worked at St Alkelda's on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday of each week and did her cleaning on each weekday morninga monotonous round of dull days enlivened by her free Sundays, when she took herself off to one of London's parks and then went to evensong at any one of London's churches. She was by no means content with her lot, but she didn't grumble; she had work and a roof over her head, and things would get better.
She was saving every penny so that she could enrol at night school and learn shorthand and typing. The course didn't cost much, but it meant bus fares, notebooks, pens and pencils, and perhaps hidden extras that she knew nothing about. Besides, she needed to have money to fall back on should she find herself out of work. She had as much chance of being made redundant as anyone else.
It was a good thing that the owner of the fruit and vegetable stall at Saturday's market had taken her on in the afternoon. He paid very little, but she didn't blame him for thathe had to live as welland he allowed her to take home a cauliflower or a bag of apples by way of perks. The jamjar was filling up nicelyanother six months or so and she could start on plans to improve things.
'A pity you haven't any looks worth mentioning,' she told the looking-glass hanging above the rickety chest of drawers. 'No onethat is, to speak plainly, no manis going to look at you twice and whisk you off to the altar. You have to become a career girl, so that by the time you're thirty you'll be carrying one of those briefcases and wearing a tailored suit and high heels.' She nodded at her reflection.