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It was quite ten minutes after a ragged chorus of church bells had tolled the hour of five before Phoebe tapped on the office door and when bidden, entered. Sister Evans was at her desk, looking as fierce as usual, and without glancing up she asked briskly: 'Yes, what is it?'
Phoebe didn't allow the eagerness she felt to sound in her voice. 'I've finished, Sister— I'm off at five o'clock.'
'Very well, Nurse Creswell.' It was a surprised Phoebe who heard Sister wish her a pleasant evening. She thanked her politely and whisked herself out of the office and back down the ward. Almost at the doors old Mrs James sat up in bed. 'Nurse, nurse— I feel sick!'
There wasn't another nurse to be seen. Busy in the sluice or the kitchen or even having a cosy chat in the linen cupboard— it was such a safe time on a medical ward, not time for evening medicines, far too early for the getting ready of suppers, a most unlikely hour for a houseman to do a round and Sister safe in her office. Phoebe sighed, nipped into the sluice room for a bowl and hurried back with it. Just my luck, she thought silently, proffering it and arranging a towel in a strategic place, just when she needed at least an hour to get ready before Basil expected her. A precious ten minutes went by before Mrs James decided that she felt better and consented to be tucked up once more.
The hospital, hedged in by East End streets lined with small grey houses, was old, added to from time to time, regardless of level floors or unnecessary staircases, so that Phoebe was quite out of breath by the time she reached her room in the nurses' home, a state not helped by the speed in which she flung off her uniform, showered and then began to dress. She had given a good deal of thought to what she should wear, Basil had mentioned casually that the party was being given by a cousin of his— a real swinger, he had called her, and possessed of stunning good looks. Phoebe, surveying her own very ordinary features in the mirror, wished wholeheartedly that the cousin would spare some of her good looks for her. There was nothing wrong with her face, she supposed, but it would never set the world on fire. And mousy hair did nothing to help, and since no one had ever pointed out that her eyes were beautiful grey and heavily fringed, she set no great store by them. She sat down and did her face and then her hair, twisting it up in a neat knot and pinning it carefully before getting into the new separates she had bought in the January sales, a pleasant shade of green and of a fine jersey, just right for a spring evening. She had only been out with Basil three times, and she was still secretly surprised that she was going out with him and that he seemed to like her. He was one of the most popular housemen and could have taken his pick of any number of girls far prettier than she. He was good-looking too, and never at a loss for conversation. Phoebe thought he was marvellous, and she had a perpetual daydream, in which he fell in love with her, married her and became a successful consultant with a Harley Street practice with her running a flat-fronted Regency house and entertaining his rich patients in a little something from Bellville Sassoon. Nonsense, she told herself firmly several times a day, while a tiny corner of her mind persisted in denying that.
She put on the plain court shoes she had saved to buy, found her velvet jacket and, with a couple of minutes to spare, made her way round to the car park at the back of the hospital where the staff kept their cars.
Basil's car was there— an elderly Triumph, its vivid red needing a good clean— but Basil wasn't; he was at the other end of the row of cars, leaning on the bonnet of a sleek Rover, talking to Staff Nurse Collins whose father was well-heeled enough to keep his daughter in a style quite inaccessible to a nurse living on nothing but her pay. Phoebe stayed where she was, not sure whether to join them or look as though she hadn't seen them. She decided on the latter, and presently was relieved to hear Basil's voice remarking that there she was and why hadn't she given a shout.
She mumbled something or other, bereft of words as usual when she was with him, although her smile made up for that, and when he opened the car door, she got in. She had hoped he would say something nice about her outfit, but he hardly glanced at it, merely said that they would have to step on it if they weren't to miss the best of the food.
The cousin lived miles away, near Croydon. What with Basil taking a wrong turning and all the evening traffic, the party was in full swing by the time he had found a place to park the car and they had walked back to the rather staid-looking house in a quiet street. Although neither the house nor the street were quiet; the din met them as they opened the old-fashioned iron gate and pushed open the half-open door.
The moment they were inside, Phoebe saw that she was dressed quite wrongly; there were dozens of girls there, wearing slinky black dresses with deep vee necklines and no backs worth mentioning, and those who weren't wearing black were in tight pant suits, glittering with gold and sequins. The girl who came to meet them was wearing black satin, skin tight and short; she wore one very large dangling earring and there were pink streaks in her dark hair. She flung her arms round Basil, kissed him with great warmth and then looked at Phoebe. 'Girl-friend?' she enquired, 'Basil, I can't believe it?'
The amused look she cast at Phoebe sent the colour flying into her cheeks, and it stayed there because Basil looked at her too with a faint derisive smile. 'Hardly that,' he said, but he took Phoebe's arm and squeezed it, and the smile changed so quickly that she thought that she might have imagined it.
The girl grinned, 'I'm Deirdre,' and when Phoebe said politely: 'How do you do? I'm Phoebe,' she said rather impatiently: 'Well, come on in and meet everyone.' Somebody went past with a tray of drinks and she caught him by the arm. 'Have a drink for a start.'
It tasted like sugared petrol, but Phoebe sipped it obediently, keeping close to Basil because she didn't know a soul there. True, he threw names at her carelessly from time to time, but faces came and went so rapidly that she never caught up with them. And presently she found herself against a wall and Basil at the other end of the room surrounded by a crowd of people all laughing their heads off. She had hidden her glass behind a great vase filled with lilac and was trying to look as though she was enjoying herself; not that that mattered, because no one noticed her. It seemed like hours later when Basil reappeared, a glass in his hand. 'Hullo there,' he began carelessly. 'Having a good time? I say, this is some party— haven't enjoyed myself so much in years.' He looked at her and frowned. 'You look a bit of a wet blanket, darling— it's not quite your scene, perhaps.'
She was anxious to please him. 'Oh, it's lovely,' she assured him. 'I came here just for a minute or two, to get my breath.'
He dropped a casual kiss on her cheek. 'Oh, good. There's masses of food in the other room, but I daresay you've had all you want.'
He slid away, leaving her with her mouth watering; she was famished, now that she came to think about it. Hunger sent her edging her way through the people milling round the room. She found a plate and collected tiny sausage rolls, smoked salmon on slivers of brown bread and butter, tiny vol-au-vents, a stick of celery— hardly a meal, but it would keep her empty insides quiet for a little while— then she found a chair in a corner of the room, and was surprised when presently she was joined by another of the guests. A thin, pale man, in a good grey suit, looking, she had to admit, as much like a fish out of water as she did.
'On your own?' he asked.
'No, but I've— that is, the man I came with has heaps of friends here— and of course he wants to talk to them.'
He gave her a long considered look. 'Not quite your sort,' he commented. 'Not mine either— a lot of layabouts with too much money and nothing to do. You look as though you earn your own living?'
It was hardly a compliment, but it was so nice to talk to someone that she felt no resentment. 'Yes, I'm training to be a nurse.'
'Good Lord— who did you come with?'
'Basil Needham. He's a houseman at St Coram's.'
Her companion said, 'Good Lord,' again, and gave her another faintly pitying look. 'I'd never have believed it of him.'
She misunderstood him and said earnestly: 'Oh, he's very clever— I expect he'll be famous one day.' Her eyes shone with delight at such a prospect and the man looked vaguely uncomfortable.
'Not very old, are you?' he observed.
'Twenty-two.' She looked around her. 'Are people beginning to go? I must find Basil '
'Oh, they'll go to a night club.'
'Well, I'll have to find him just the same— we'll have to get back to St Coram's.' She added politely: 'It's been nice meeting you. I expect you're going to a night club too.'
He got to his feet. 'God forbid— I live here.' He walked away, leaving her gaping after him, and then she forgot him as Basil pushed his way through the people leaving.
'There you are. We're all going on to a disco '
Phoebe wasn't listening. 'Who was that man?' she asked. 'He said he lived here.'
'Well, of course he does, you little idiot, he's Deirdre's husband. Get your coat— it'll be a bit of a squash in the car, but that won't matter.'
'We're going back to St Coram's?'
He gave her an impatient look. 'Good God, no! Do get a move on.'
Phoebe, a mild-tempered girl, didn't budge. 'I'm not coming,' she said mulishly.
'Don't be a fool! You've no way of getting back on your own.'
Which was true enough. She had thrust a handful of small change into her purse, probably not enough to get her back to St Coram's. Her mind boggled at the long walk ahead of her, even if she could get a bus for part of the way.
'If you could lend me some money for a taxi?' she suggested diffidently.
'No way. I'll need all I've got with me. Get a bus.' Just for a moment Basil looked uncertain. 'You won't change your mind?'
She shook her head, willing him to change his, but he didn't; he turned on his heel and left her without so much as a backward glance. After a minute or so Phoebe followed him, to find the hall empty. She picked up her coat for a moment, pausing, then put it on and went to the door. She was on the point of going through it when the man she had spoken to during the evening came into the hall.
'Yes. I'm just.that is.thank you for a nice party.'
'Not going to the disco?'
'Well, no. I'm going to catch a bus.'
He had come to stand beside her. 'I'll drive you back to your hospital.' He muttered something under his breath, it sounded like, 'It's the least I can do.' But she wasn't sure of that.
Phoebe said politely: 'It's very kind of you to offer, but you have no need.'
For answer he took her arm, banged the door behind them and crossed the pavement to a Mercedes parked at the kerb. Phoebe got in, since there seemed no point in protesting further, and was whisked across London without further ado. Her companion didn't say a word until they had reached the hospital, and when she thanked him he said carelessly: 'Not at all. I'd better go and look for my wife, I suppose.'
Phoebe couldn't think of anything suitable to reply to this; she murmured goodnight and smiled uncertainly. It surprised her very much when he leaned across to say to her: 'Give him up, my dear— he's not for you.'
He had driven away before she could think of an answer to that one too.
And it seemed as though he would be right. Phoebe didn't see Basil at all the following day— nor, for that matter, for several days to come. And when at last she met him face to face as she came back from the Path Lab he gave her a cool nod and would have walked right past her if she hadn't stopped him with a firm voice which surprised her as much as it surprised him.
'Didn't you worry?' she asked. 'Leaving me to get back on my own from that party?'
He flushed a little. 'Worry? Why should I worry? A sensible girl like you— you're hardly likely to attract unwelcome attentions, are you?'
His faint sneer made her wince, but all the same she asked: 'Why not?'
She knew the answer; she supposed that because she had thought that she was in love with him, it was going to hurt, however nicely he put it.
But he didn't bother with niceness. 'My dear girl, you're not silly enough to imagine you're pretty?'
'Then why did you take me out?'
Basil laughed. 'An experience, shall we say— a very unrewarding one, I might add.'
Phoebe didn't say anything to that: she stood on tiptoe in her sensible black shoes and smacked his cheek hard.