Read an Excerpt
The early morning sun of a midsummer's day morning shone with warm cheerfulness on to the quiet countryside, the market town tucked neatly into the Cotswold hills and its numerous windows. These included those of the Cottage Hospital, a symbol of former days, fought for and triumphantly reprieved from the remorseless hand of authority, and proving its worth tenfold by never having an empty bed.
Inside the grey stone walls of this Victorian edifice, the day's work was already well advanced. Its thirty beds were divided between surgical and medical patients, with two beds for maternity cases who couldn't make it in time to Bristol or Bath, and one private ward used for any child too ill to move or anyone too ill to nurse in the wards. There was a small outpatients' department, too, and a casualty room where the local GPs could be called to attend any accident. Small it might be, but it did yeoman service, easing the burden of patients on the big Bristol hospitals.
It was staffed by the local doctors, ably supported by Miss Hawkins, who still insisted on being called Matron, two ward sisters and their staff nurses, and four pupil nurses, sent from Bristol and Bath to gain experience.
There was a night sister, too, and a handful of nursing aides, local ladies, whose kindness of heart and willingness to work hard when everyone else was fast asleep more than made up for their lack of nursing skills. Miss Hawkins was nearing retirement age, an old–fashioned martinet who had no intention of changing her ways. Until six months ago she had had the willing co–operation of Sister Coffin on the medical ward but that lady had retired and her place had been taken by a young staff nurse from the Bristol Royal Infirmary, who had accepted the post of sister in preference to a more prestigious one at her own hospital. It was agreed by everyone, even the grudging Miss Hawkins, that she had proved her ability and was worth her weight in gold. She had a happy knack of getting her patients better, coping with emergencies without fuss, carrying out the various doctors' orders faithfully, and lending a sympathetic ear to the young nurses' requests for a particular day off duty.
She sat at the desk in her office now, the sun gilding the mousy hair pinned neatly under her frilled cap, warming her ordinary face, escaping plainness only by virtue of a pair of fine hazel eyes, thickly lashed, and a gentle mouth. The desk was more or less covered by charts and a variety of forms and she had a pen in her hand, although just for the moment she was doing no work at all, her thoughts far away, if rather vague. She was normally a sensible girl, prepared to accept what life had to offer her and not expecting anything very exciting to happen. Indeed, the three elderly aunts with whom she lived had imbued her with this idea from an early age. They prided themselves on their honesty and plain spokenness and had pointed out on a number of occasions her lack of good looks and amusing conversation. They had done their best to dissuade her
from training as a nurse, too, but she had been surprisingly stubborn; despite their certainty that she was too quiet, too shy with strangers, and lacking in self–assurance, she had gone to Bristol, done her training, and emerged at the end of it with flying colours: Gold Medallist of her year, the prospect of a ward sister's post in the not too distant future, and a circle of firm friends. The girls liked her because she listened to the details of their complicated love lives with sympathy. The young housemen liked her because she listened to them, too, about their fleeting love affairs and their dreams of being brilliant consultants. She sympathised with them when they failed their exams and rejoiced with them when they passed and, when on night duty, she was always a willing maker of hot cocoa when one or other of them had been hauled out of bed in the small hours.
But she had declined the ward offered her and had instead applied for and been appointed to the medical ward of the Cottage Hospital in her home town. All because her youngest aunt, Janet, had had a slightvery slightheart attack and it had been impressed upon her by Aunt Kate and Aunt Polly that it was her duty to return home.
So she had come back to the small town and lived out, going to and fro from her aunts' rambling old house not ten minutes' walk from the hospital. And because she was a good nurse and loved her work, she had taken pride in changing the medical ward, with patience and a good deal of tact, into the more modern methods Sister Coffin had ignored. It had been uphill work but she had managed it so well that Matron considered that she had been the instigator of change in the first place. If she regretted leaving her training school and the splendid opportunities it had offered her, she had never said so, but just now and again
she wondered if life would have been different if she had taken the post at Bristol. She would have kept her friends for a start and used her nursing talents to their utmost; and who knew, perhaps one day she might have met someone who would want to marry her.
She stifled a sigh and looked up with a smile as her staff nurse came in. Jenny Topps was a big girl, always cheerful and amiable and with no wish to be anything but a staff nurse. She was getting married in a year's time to a rather silent and adoring young farmer and her ambitions lay in being a good wife. She said now,
'We're ready, Sister. There's time for a quick cup of tea before Dr Beecham gets here. I've sent the little nurses to coffee; Mrs Willsthe nursing auxilaryis in the ward.'
'Good. Yes, let's have tea, then I'll go over to the Women's Medical. It's quiet there and Staff can cope, but I'll just take another look at Miss Prosser. Mr Owen's not responding to his antibiotic, is he? I'll see if Dr Beecham will change it. He might be better off at the Infirmary.' She took the mug of tea Jenny had fetched from the ward kitchen and sipped it.
'You must miss the Infirmary,' observed Jenny. 'It's pretty quiet herebad chests and diabetics and the odd heart case '
She studied Sister Manning's quiet face on the other side of the desk; she liked her and admired her and although she wasn't pretty she had a pretty nameFrancesca.
'Well, yes, I do, but I do need to be nearby my aunts ' She finished her tea, got to her feet and said, 'I'll be back in five minutes. Get the nurses to start making up that empty bed, will you? There is a diabetic coming in at two o'clock.'
The ward was quiet, the men waiting for the bi–weekly
round from the consultant. Most of them were on the mend. Mr Owen worried her a little, and the new patient who had come in during the night, a suspected coronary, might spring something on them. She went slowly down the old–fashioned but cheerful ward, stopping for a word here and there and casting an eye on these two, and then went through the door into the women's side.
Here she was met by her second staff nurse, a small dark girl who like herself lived out.
'All ready for Dr Beecham?' asked Francesca. 'How's Miss Prosser? She was a bit cyanosed when I did the round this morning.'
'Still a bit blue. She's had some oxygen and she's quite bright and cheerful.'
They stood together and looked along the facing row of beds. It was a small ward with pretty curtains at the windows and round each bed, and plenty of flowers. Half the patients were up, sitting by their beds, knitting or reading or gossiping. Francesca walked slowly to Miss Prosser's bed and made small talk while she studied that lady. They had had her in before and she was by no means an easy patient; she would have to talk to Dr Beecham about her. She smiled and nodded at the other patients and went back to her office, tidied the top of her desk, and with a glance at the clock went back to the men's ward. Dr Beecham would be there at any moment now.
He came through the door within moments, a short stout man with a fringe of hair on a bald head and twinkling blue eyes. She had known him ever since she had begun her training; he had been one of the first lecturers she had had and as she became more senior he had occasionally explained some unusual case to her. She liked him and the smile which lighted up her face made it almost pretty.
He had someone with him. Not just Dr Stokes, who was the RMO; a tall man with massive shoulders, fair hair with a heavy sprinkling of grey and the good looks to turn any woman's head. Francesca sighed at the sight of him. She knew him, too: Dr van Rijgen, a specialist in tropical diseases who had come to the Infirmary at regular intervals to lecture the students. He lived in Holland and worked there as far as she knew, although he seemed equally at home in England. Years ago when she had begun her training she had had the misfortune to drop off during one of his lectures; even after all these years, she remembered his cold voice, laced with sarcasm, very quietly reducing her to a state bordering on hysteria. They had encountered each other since then, of course, and she had taken care never to allow her feelings to show, and he for his part had never betrayed any recollection of that first unfortunate meeting. He eyed her now with a kind of thoughtful amusement which made her fume inwardly. But she replied suitably to Dr Stokes and Dr Beecham and then bade him a frosty good morning.
He had a deep slow voice. 'Good morning, Sister Manning. I see that I must congratulate you since we last met at the Infirmary.' He glanced round the ward, half the size of those in a Bristol hospital. 'Hiding your light under a bushel?'
She said in a voice which made his fine mouth twitch, 'If I remember aright, sir, my light was a very small onea mere glimmer.'
He gave a crack of laughter. 'Oh, dear, you have a long memory, Sister.'
'A useful thing in a nurse,' interpolated Dr Beecham cheerfully. 'What have you got for us today, Fran?'
Dr Beecham prided himself on the good terms he en–
joyed with the ward sisters and none of them minded that he addressed them by their Christian names when they were away from the patients.
'Nothing much, sir. There's Miss Prosser ' She didn't need to say more, they both knew that lady well enough. 'And Mr Owen who isn't so well. All the rest are making good progress.'
'Right, shall we see the ladies first? I want Dr van Rijgen to look at Mr Owen.'
The round wound its usual way, first through the women's ward and then the men's, to spend some time with Mr Owen; this time Dr van Rijgen did the examining. At length he straightened up. 'I agree with you, John,' he told Dr Beecham, 'he should be transferred to the Infirmary as soon as possible.'
He sat down on the side of the bed and addressed himself to Mr Owen. He explained very nicely, even Fran had to admit that, with a mixture of frankness and confidence which cheered the patient. 'And if Sister can arrange it, perhaps your wife would like to travel with you in the ambulance?'
He glanced at Dr Beecham who nodded and then turned his cold blue eyes upon Fran. 'Sister?'
'Mrs Owen lives close by, I am sure something can be arranged.'
They had coffee next, squashed in her office, discussing the round, pausing from time to time to alter drugs and give her instructions.
They had finished their coffee when Dr Beecham reached for the phone. 'I'll warn the medical side, Litrik. What about his wife?'
Dr van Rijgen turned to Fran and found her eyes fixed on his face.
'Mrs Owen? Can you get her here so that we can have a word with her, Sister?'
He frowned impatiently when she didn't answer at once. She had never thought of him as having any name other than van Rijgen; the strange name Dr Beecham had said made him seem different, although she didn't know why. A strange name indeed, but quite nice sounding. She realised that he had spoken to her and flushed a little and the flush deepened when he repeated his question with impatience.
'Certainly, sir. I can telephone her, she lives less than five minutes' walk away.' She spoke crisply and thought how ill–tempered he was.
Dr Beecham had finished with the phone, and as she dialled a number he said, 'Right, Fran. We'll go along to X–Ray and look at those films. Litrik, will you talk to Mrs Owen?'
He patted her on the shoulder, said, 'See you later, Litrik,' and went away, taking Dr Stokes with him.
Mrs Owen was a sensible woman; she asked no unnecessary questions but said that she would be at the hospital in ten minutes. 'I'll not ask you any questions, Sister,' she finished, 'for I'm sure the Doctor will tell me all I want to know.'
Fran put down the receiver and glanced at Dr van Rijgen, sitting on the window ledge, contemplating the view. She had no intention of staying there under his unfriendly eye; she picked up the charts on the desk and got up.
'Don't go,' said Dr van Rijgen without turning round. 'However sensible Mrs Owen may be, she'll probably need a shoulder to cry on.'
He spoke coldly and she, normally a mild–tempered girl,
allowed her tongue to voice her thoughts. She snapped, 'Yes, and that's something you wouldn't be prepared to
The look he gave her was like cold steel; she added, 'sir' and waited for his cold calm voice to utter something biting.
'It is a good thing that my self–esteem does not depend upon your good opinion of me,' said Dr van Rijgen softly. 'Would it be a good idea if we were to have a tray of tea? I have found that tea, to the English, soothes even the most unhappy breast. Come to that, the most savage one, too.'
Fran didn't look at him but went in a dignified way to the kitchen and asked Eddie, the ward maid, to lay up a tea tray.
''As 'is nibs taken a liking for it?' asked that elderly lady. 'Not like 'im, with 'is foreign ways.'
Fran explained, knowing that if she didn't Eddie was quite capable of finding out for herself.
'Give me 'arf a mo', Sister, and I'll bring in the tray. Three cups?'
'Well, yes, I suppose so. Mrs Owen won't want to sit and drink it by herself.'
She would rather not have gone back to the office but there was no reason why she shouldn't. Dr van Rijgen was still admiring the view and he didn't look at her when she sat down at her desk. Indeed, he didn't move until one of the nurses tapped on the door, put her head round it in response to Fran's voice and said that Mrs Owen was there.
Fran sat her down: a small plump woman, her round face so anxious. 'It's Jack, isn't it, Sister? He's not so well. I'm that worried.'
Fran poured the tea and said in a quiet way, 'Mr Owen has been seen by Dr Beecham and Dr van Rijgen this
morning, Mrs Owen.' She handed the doctor a cup. 'Dr van Rijgen will explain how things are.'
He had got to his feet when Mrs Owen had been ushered in; now he sat on the edge of the desk, half turned away from Fran. He looked relaxed and unworried and Mrs Owen's troubled face cleared. His explanations were concise and offered with matter–of–fact sympathy; he neither pretended that there was much chance of Mr Owen recovering, nor did he paint too dark a picture of his future. 'We shall do what we can, Mrs Owen, that I can promise you,' he told her finally and Fran, listening, was aware that if she were in Mrs Owen's shoes she would believe him; what was more, she would trust him. Which, considering she didn't like the man, was something to be wondered at.
Dr van Rijgen went away presently, leaving Fran to give what comfort she could, and Mrs Owen, who had kept a stern hold on her feelings while he had been talking, broke down then and had a good cry, her grey head tucked comfortingly into Fran's shoulder. Presently she mopped her eyes and sat up. 'So sorry,' she said awkwardly, 'but it's a bit of a shock.'
Fran poured more tea and murmured in sympathy, and Mrs Owen went on, 'He's nice, isn't he? I'd trust him with my last breath. Funny, how you can feel he means what he says. Though I suppose he has to talk to lots of people
'Oh, yes, I'm sure he must. He's a very eminent doctor even though he's not English, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't understand your husband's case, Mrs Owen, and have every sympathy with you both.'
'And you, you're a kind girl too, Sister. My Jack thinks a lot of you.'