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Sarah sat behind her desk and watched the first of the patients for Professor Nauta's clinic come in through the swing-doors. Led, as usual, by old Colonel Watkins, recovering for the third time from a stroke and eighty if he was a day. The Professor's clinic started at half-past eight and it had become Sarah's responsibility, although she wasn't sure how it had happened, to come on duty early in order to check his patients; the other two receptionists, married ladies with homes, husbands and children to cope with, were adamant about leaving exactly on time and not a minute later, just as they arrived exactly when they should and not a moment sooner. So that Professor Nauta's clinic, held weekly at eight-thirty, invariably fell to the lot of Sarah, who, being single, living alone and therefore from their point of view without cares, was the obvious one of the trio to come early or stay late.
The Colonel was followed by Mrs Peach, who had been coming for years, and hard on her heels came a pair of teenagers, giving their names with a good deal of giggling, and after them a steady stream of people, most of whom Sarah knew by sight if not by name.
She bade each one of them good morning, made sure that the new patients knew what was wanted of them, and ticked off her neat list. There were five minutes to go before the half-hour when the last patient arrived, and exactly on the half-hour the Professor came through the swing-doors, letting in a great deal of chilly March air. Sarah took a quick look at him and decided that he seemed no more impatient and ill-tempered than usual. He was a very big man, tall and broad-shouldered and good-looking, with fair hair already grey at the temples, a high-bridged nose and a thin mouth. His eyes were pale blue which turned to steel when he was annoyedwhich was quite often, although it was conceded by those who worked for him at St Cyprian's that he was invariably kindness itself to his patients, however tiresome they were.
He went past Sarah's desk with a snappy, 'Good morning, Miss Fletcher,' and a glance so brief that he couldn't have noticed if she had been wearing a blonde wig and spectacles. She would have been very surprised to know that he had taken in her appearance down to the last button as he'd gone past her. Small, a little too thin, pleasant-faced without being pretty, beautiful pansy eyes, a thin, delicate nose, a wide mouth and a crown of hair which took her some considerable time to put up each morning. He had noted her sparkling white blouse, too, and the fact that she wore nothing which jangled, only a sensible wrist-watch. A sensible young woman, he reflected briefly, as neat as a new pin and not given to chat. Not all that younglate twenties, perhaps, although she had the freshness of a young girl. He reached his consulting-room, greeting the nurse waiting for him, and sat down at his desk, dismissing Miss Fletcher from his mind without effort, listening to Colonel Watkins' tetchy old voice complaining about the treatment he was having at the physiotherapy with a patience and sympathy at variance with the cool manner he demonstrated towards the hospital staff.
Sarah, left to herself for a time, got on with the morning's chores until Mrs Drew and Mrs Pearce arrived, and, hard on their heels, the first patients for the Surgical Outpatients; after that there was no time for anything but the work at hand until, one by one, they went along to the canteen for their coffee-break. As Sarah made her way back to her desk she could see the vast back of Professor Nauta, trailed by his registrar and a houseman, disappearing down the long corridor leading to the main hospital. He was walking fast and she felt a fleeting pity for his companions, who while trying to keep up with him were probably being treated to some of his impatient and caustic remarks.
The day, wet and windy as only March could be, darkened early. The clinics were finishing, Sarah and her companions had gone in turn to their cups of tea and, since there was nothing much to do, she had been left to deal with the telephone or any enquiries while they went to tidy themselves up so that, promptly at ive o'clock, they could leave to catch their buses. Mrs Drew lived in Clapham and Mrs Pearce had a long journey each day to and from Leyton, and since Sarah had a room within ten minutes' walk of the hospital it had been taken for granted for some time now that she would be the last to leave. She cleared up, put things ready for the morning and went back to her desk to scan the appointments book. It was quiet now; the nurses had gone and so had the doctors, all but Professor Nauta, who had returned half an hour previously and gone to his consulting-room, pausing just long enough to tell her that on no account was he to be disturbed. She had just stopped herself in time from enquiring what she should do in case of ire or emergency. Leave him to burn to a crisp, neglect to inform him of some dire happening? He would never forgive her. She had murmured politely at his cross face and gone back to her work. And now, in ive minutes or so, she would be free to go home.
The wide swing-doors, thrust open by a irm hand, caused her to look up in surprise. She eyed the elderly lady who was advancing towards her with a purposeful air, and said politely, 'I expect you've missed your way? This isn't a wardjust the outpatients' clinics.
If you will tell me which ward you want, I'll show you the way.'
The visitor stood on the other side of the desk studying her. She was a handsome woman, and dressed with an elegance which whispered money discreetly. She put her handbag down on the desk and spoke. She had a clear, rather high voice and an air of expecting others to do as she wished. 'I wish to see Professor Nauta; perhaps you would be kind enough to tell him.'
Sarah eyed her thoughtfully. 'The Professor left instructions that on no account was he to be disturbed. I'm sorryperhaps I could make an appointment for you?'
'Just let him know that I wish to see him ' She smiled suddenly and her whole face lit up with a faintly mischievous look.
Sarah lifted the receiver and buzzed the Professor's room. 'A lady is here,' she told him. 'She wishes to see you, sir.'
He said something explosive in what she took to be Dutch; it sounded forceful and very rude. 'Good God, girl, didn't I tell you that I wasn't to be disturbed?'
'Indeed you did, sir.' She was suddenly annoyedshe was, after all, only doing what had been asked of her by this rather compelling lady, and if he wanted to use bad language he wasn't going to be allowed to use it to her. 'You should watch your language,' she told him tartly, and was instantly appalled. She would get the sack
'Tell him that I am his mother,' suggested the lady.
'Your mother wishes to see you, sir,' said Sarah, and thumped the receiver back without waiting for a reply.
The Professor, for all his size and bulk, could move swiftly and silently; he was looming over Sarah's desk before she could regain her habitual serenity.
Not that he had anything to say to her. A very rude, arrogant man, considered Sarah, watching him greet his parent with every appearance of delight, then escort her to his consulting-room without saying a word to herself. When Mrs Drew and Mrs Pearce returned within minutes, she got her things and left with them. Normally, she would have told whoever was on duty in the Lodge that the Professor was still there, but just for once she wasn't going to do that. Let him be locked in or want her for something; her hours were nine to ive, on paper at least, and it was already ten minutes past the hour.
She walked back to her bedsitting-room, still put out. His mother could have said at once who she was and saved a good deal of unpleasantness. Now Sarah had been rude to a consultant and, if he chose to do so, he could get her fired. She walked briskly down the respectable, dull street of terraced houses and let herself into the end one, went up the shabby stairs, bare of carpet, and unlocked the door of her bedsit.
It was quite a large room, papered in a dreary green, its paintwork a useful dark brown, its low window opening on to a decrepit balcony with a corrugated roof. It was because of the balcony that Sarah stayed there; Charles, the cat she had befriended as a kitten, regarded it as his own and she had gone to a good deal of trouble to make it a home for him: there was grass growing in a pot at one end, a basket lined with old blanket, water and food, even a ball for him to toy with when he got bored. When she was home he joined her in the room, sat beside her while she ate her meals and slept on her feet. He came to meet her now and, as usual, she told him of her day's doings as she took off her things, hung them behind the curtain in one corner, and started to get their supper.
The room was furnished, after a fashion: there was a divan bed, a table, two chairs, a down-at-heel easy chair drawn up to a gas ire, some shelves along one wall and a small gas stove beside a sink. Sarah had done what she could to improve it with a cheerful bedspread, cushions and a cheap rug on the floor, flowers, even when she had to go without something in order to buy them, and a pretty reading-lamp. All the same, it was a far cry from her home in Kent. It was several years since she had left it and she was still homesick for the nice old house and the quiet country round it. But she had known long before she'd left home that she would have to go; her stepmother had never liked her, and when her father had died she had made it plain to Sarah that she had no longer been welcome in her home. That had been ive years ago and Sarah, twenty-eight years old, thought it unlikely that she would ever go home again.
Nor for that matter, did she think that anything exciting would happen to her. She was in a rut, earning just enough to live on, knowing few people, too shy to join a club of any sort and painfully aware that the girls in other rooms of the house regarded her as rather dulleven if willing enough to lend tea and sugar and listen, upon occasion, to one of their highly coloured lamentations of a love-affair gone wrong. She was aware too that they pitied her for her lack of boyfriends and pretty clothes. She dressed nicely but always with an eye to long-lasting fashion, so that no one bothered to look at her twice.
As she pottered round the room, she talked to Charles. 'In a nasty temper, he was,' she pointed out as she scooped his supper into a saucer. 'I wonder what he's like at home? If he has a home I just can't imagine anyone wanting to marry him. He's to be pitied. . . I wonder why his mother wanted to see him? It must have been something urgent.'
Charles, his furry face buried in his supper, took no notice. 'I'd quite like to know,' said Sarah to his uninterested back.