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The corridor was long and austere, its walls coloured a dreary margarine, its paintwork brown varnished, the floor a shiny lino, cracked here and there, the whole very clean and uninviting despite the early April sunlight streaming through its long, narrow windows along one side. But to Nurse Philomena Parsons it was fairyland; the whole world was fairyland, for in her pocket was the letter informing her that she had been placed on the State Register; she had passed her finals, she could wear a silver buckle on her belt now and the world was her oyster. If it hadn't been for the fact that Commander Frost, RN retired, whom she was wheeling to X-Ray in a chair, was in one of his nasty tempers, she might have broken into a gay whistle or danced a few steps as she pushed, but the old gentleman was in a crusty mood that morning and although she was so happy herself she had a soft heart which sympathised with his jaundiced outlook on life; probably, she conceded, at his age and in his circumstances, she would be crusty too, so she agreed with his mutterings about the inconvenience of being taken to X-Ray at eight o'clock in the morning in a low gentle voice which did much to soothe his feelings, smiling to herself as she spoke, thinking of the letter in her pocket. The smile was a charming one, lighting her mediocre features to prettiness and bringing a sparkle to her lovely green eyes, fringed with preposterously long lashes; her one beauty, unless one counted the honey-gold hair, long and thick and fine and pulled back into such a severe bun that its beauty, for the most part, was lost.
It would be necessary to take a lift down to X-Ray; there were two halfway down the corridor and she could see that there was someone waiting by them. The lifts were old and shaky and no one other than patients and their attendant nurses or porters was allowed to use them. The man waiting didn't appear to come into any of these categories; he was leaning against the wall, his hands in his pockets, his eyes closed. He was very goodlooking, Philomena considered, and very large; even when she unconsciously drew up her five feet three of nicely rounded person, she still had to look a long way up to him. She brought the chair to a smart halt in front of the lift and fell to studying him; good shoes, beautifully polished, a tweed suit which wasn't new but of a masterly cut, a sober tie blue eyes were staring at her, so she said good morning politely. "Good morningand should there not be a porter to push that thing?" he asked.
She smiled at him. "Oh, usually there is, but the porters are on an hour's strike about something or other." She hesitated and added: "Perhaps you don't know, but they're awfully fussy about anyone but patients and nurses using the lifts; they don't work very well, you see, and if they get overloaded they break down."
For a moment he looked as though he was going to laugh, but his deep rather slow voice was quite serious. "Kind of you to tell me, but don't you think that I should come with you in the lift to give a hand with that chair?"
The lift had arrived, making a dim, drumming sound as it settled in a wobbly way, and a very tall nurse carrying a small girl got out. Her "Hi, Philly, congrats," was called over her shoulder as she swept past them, and as the man manoeuvred the wheelchair into the lift he asked in an interested voice: "Getting married or engaged or something of that sort?"
He set the chair just so, smiled at its occupant and then looked at Philomena, closing the doors. "Me? Gracious, no."The smile she couldn't suppress burst out again. "I've passed my finalsI've just heard."
His congratulations were sincere as he pressed the button and their unsteady conveyance began lurching downwards. "Cause for celebration," he added kindly.
The smile faded just a little. "Well, I don't expect I shallIdon't go home very often, it's rather a long way away, and the other girls who passed have all got someonefamily or boy-friends "
His eyes were very kind. "Hard luck, but very exciting, all the same."
The lift wobbled and stopped and Commander Frost, deep in his own thoughts, said suddenly: "She puts me in mind of my dear Lucylistens when I say something and then gives me an intelligent answernot pretty, of course." He gave Philomena a surprisingly intelligent look. "You'll make a good wife, my dear."
Philomena blushed, a regrettable shortcoming which she had never been able to overcome. "Thank you, Commander." She was pulling back the doors as she spoke and didn't look at either of her companions. The big man wheeled the patient out of the lift and into the passage for her and got back into the lift. "You really oughtn't to,"pointed out Philomena. "Supposing you get caught?" She added: "Thank you for your help."
He smiled and began to close the lift doors. "A pleasure." The doors closed and he was away again. Philomena sighed gently; she would have liked to see more of him, he looked nice and he had been friendly and helpful. Probably he was going to the Private Wing to see one of the patients; she decided to forget him.
"He would make you a splendid husband," observed the Commander, apropos nothing at all.
The morning was busy, but it had its moments; Philomena was bidden to the Principal Nursing Officer's office, congratulated, informed that she was the Gold Medallist for her year and it was intimated by Miss Blake that when a vacancy for a Ward Sister occurred, she would be invited to apply for it. She went back to her ward telling herself that she was the luckiest girl alive and went on telling herself so while she worked her way through the dressings to be done before dinners. Only she wasn't quite the luckiest, she admitted, allowing the thoughts she kept tucked away at the back of her head to air themselves for once; the luckiest girl would have a family to tell her how clever she was and how proud they were of hermoreover, she would have someone bearing a marked resemblance to the man in the lift waiting for her when she got off duty, eager to take her out and celebrate. She popped her thoughts back again where they belonged and turned an attentive ear to Mr Wilkinson's cheery Cockney voice while she deftly removed the stitches from the complicated wound which Mr Dale, the consultant surgeon, had so meticulously stitched together.
"Going out to celebrate, Staff?"Mr Wilkinson wanted to know. "Live in Wareham, don't you? Family coming up to make a night of it?"
She snipped a particularly complicated piece of Mr Dale's needlework. "It's a bit too far." She made her voice cheerful. "And my stepmother hates driving long distances "
"No sisters or brothers?" he asked sympathetically. "Oh, yestwo stepsisters." Both of them excellent drivers, both owning their own cars, neither of them caring twopence whether she passed her exams or not, not because they disliked her, it was just that they had nothing in common. Both they and her stepmother gave her a tolerant affection which stopped short at putting themselves out in any way for her. They had never put themselves out for anyone, although they had loved her father, not very deeply but with charming demonstration so that Philomena, who found it difficult to be deliberately charming, appeared reserved towards him, and yet, when he had died a year or two previously, her sorrow had been deep and genuine whereas they had quickly adjusted to life without him in the pleasant roomy old house on the outskirts of Wareham.
They had been well provided for and neither they nor her stepmother had been able to understand why Philomena hadn't left nursing at once and adopted the pleasant leisurely life they led. But she hadn't wanted to do that; she loved her home, but she loved nursing too, so she had stayed at Faith's, making a successful career for herself and happy too, for she was well liked and had a great number of friends. She went home, of course, and her stepmother and Miriam and Chloe welcomed her affectionately, but they never asked her about her work; hospitals smacked to them of the more unpleasant side of life. They arranged a party or two for her, took her with them when they went riding or driving to visit friends, and then after a day or two took it for granted that they had done their share of entertaining her and drifted off with their own particular friends again, leaving her quite happily to garden or drive herself around in the little Mini her father had given her when she had had her twenty-first birthday. And if she felt lonely she never admitted it, even to herself.
She removed the last stitch, sprayed the scar, said "There, as good as new, Mr Wilkinson," collected up her instruments, and nipped down the ward, just in time to help Sister Brice with the dinners. The ward was full with not an empty bed in it, and that afternoon there would be several cases for theatre. Philomena, spooning potatoes on to the plates with the expertise of long practice, reflected that she would be lucky to get off at five o'clock. Not that it would matter, she wasn't going anywhere.
The afternoon was even busier than she had anticipated. The first case for theatre turned out to be a leaking abdominal aneurysm, which had presented symptoms very similar to an appendix and needed a good deal more surgery; the patient returned from the recovery room an hour later than she had expected, consequently the other three patients were all tardy too, and over and above that two beds had to be put up down the centre of the ward to accommodate street accidents. Five o'clock came and with it Sister Brice, but there was no hope of getting off duty; it was almost an hour later when she finally gave her report and started on her way to the changing room, and before she reached it, Potter, the Head Porter, stopped her to tell her that she was wanted in the front hall.
For a moment she hoped that it was her stepmother or her sisters, a hope to be dismissed immediately as nonsense; they had never been near the hospital, and besides, they didn't know that she had had her results that morning. It could be one of her friends from Wareham, in London for a visit and calling on the offchance of seeing hertaking her out, perhaps. She pushed her cap back a little impatiently on her still neat head and retraced her footsteps. Old Mrs Fox, perhaps, who had been a friend of her mother's years ago, or Mary Burns, in town to shop, or that boring Tim Crooks She whisked round the last corner and saw that it was none of these people, so she stopped and looked around her, for the only person there was the man she had met in the lift that morning, lounging against the window of the porter's lodge, apparently asleep. But he wasn't; he straightened up and came towards her, and when she said uncertainly: "Hullohave you seen anyone "
"Not a soul,"he assured her blandly, "I'm the only one here."
"OhI expect it was a mistake; Potter said that someone wanted to see me."
"Correct, I do."
She raised bewildered green eyes to his and asked simply: "Why?"
He smiled very nicely. "I wondered if you would take pity on me and come out to dinnerunless you have other plans."
"No, I haven't." She added cautiously: "I don't know your name "
"Walle van der Tacx."
"Oh, Dutch, are you not?" She held out a hand and he shook it gravely. "I stayed in Amsterdam for a few days with my father "
"I'm afraid I can't claim to live there, my home is a mile or so from a small town called Ommen, twenty kilometres or so to the east of Zwolle and roughly a hundred and thirty from Amsterdam. I have a country practice there."
"Oh, you're a doctor!" The relief in her voice caused his firm mouth to twitch. "Well then, I'd like to come very muchbut haven't you anything better to do?"
The twitch came and went, but his blue eyes were kind. "I can think of nothing better. I'm hungry and I hope you are too; dining alone can be extremely dull."
"Haven't you any friends here?"
"Several, but none of them free this evening." His voice was casual and she believed him. "Shall we meet here in half an hour? We might try one of those restaurants in Soho."
Philomena was halfway across the hall when she turned back. "Why me?" she asked.
"We did meet this morning," he reminded her. "Besides, you have a good reason to celebrate, haven't you, and I hoped that would decide you to come."
Such a sensible answer that she agreed happily.