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'LOOK how many strawberries I picked,' seven-year-old Sarah announced, coming into the kitchen. She placed a wicker basket on the table, filled to the brim with fruit. 'There's loads,' she said, her blue eyes bright with excitement. 'Can we have some for breakfast?'
Alex looked at the lush fruit. 'Yes,' she murmured, 'of course and as there's such a lot, perhaps we ought to take some round to Mrs Marchant next door? I've noticed she's usually up and about at this time of the morning.'
Sarah nodded. 'I'll go, if you like.' She smiled. 'I like Mrs Marchant. She's kind but I think she must be quite old, you know, or poorly? She always looks a bit tired and sometimes she says she has to go and sit down for a while but she's always nice. She gave me some toffees when I took the magazine round there yesterday.'
'I want to take the strawberries,' five-year-old James chimed in, his eyes lighting up at the mention of toffees. 'You went last time.' He glared at his sister and began to tug at the basket.
Sensing impending disaster, Alex intervened. 'We'll all go,' she said, taking hold of the basket and moving it from harm's way. 'Now, finish your breakfast, both of you. We don't have much time before we have to leave for school. And you need to go back upstairs to your bedroom and find your PE kit, James.'
'I don't like that bedroom,' James complained, scowling at Alex across the kitchen table, a lock of brown hair falling across his forehead. 'It's too small. Why can't I have the room with the window seat?'
'Because we talked about this ' Alex murmured. 'And you chose the one that looked out over the orchard.' She inspected the contents of his lunch box and then clipped the lid in place.
'So?' He hunched his shoulders. 'That doesn't matter, does it? I changed my mind. I can swap with Sarah.'
'No, you can't.' His sister batted that one away before the idea could take root, her fair hair quivering with in-dignation. 'I want the one where I can see the garden I chose it and I picked the colours and Auntie Alex has already started painting the walls for me. So it's mine.'
'Perhaps we can rearrange the furniture in your room to make it better for you,' Alex said, glancing at James. She pushed his lunch box into his school bag and closed the zipper. 'I made you egg mayonnaise sandwiches, and there are cracker biscuits with ham and cheese. And don't forget to screw the lid tight on your drink bottle when you use it, or we'll have another mess in your bag like the one we had last week.'
'I don't like egg maynaze.' James's chin jutted and his grey eyes took on a mutinous glint.
Alex held back the sigh that had started to build up in her chest. She raised dark brows. 'You told me it was your favourite.'
He gave her a disdainful glance. 'That was yesterday. Today I like peanut butter.'
'Well, I'm sorry about that, James, but I really don't have time to start over.' Alex flicked back her long chestnut hair so that it settled in a gentle flurry across her shoulders, and handed him the bag. 'We have to get you and Sarah to school, and I have to go to work.' She checked her watch. 'Do you remember what I told you? This is my first day in the new job, and I need to be at the hospital on time.'
'Will you be in trouble if you're late?' Sarah's anxiety sounded in her voice. 'Mummy said she always got an ear bending from the boss if she wasn't at work for nine o'clock.' She frowned. 'I think that must hurt a lot. I wouldn't like it if it anyone pulled my ears.'
'How could that happen to Auntie Alex?' James said in a scornful tone. 'She's the boss. She can do what she likes.'
Alex smiled. 'Not exactly, James. There are several bosses in my department but the fact is, if you're in charge you need to lead by example.show people the right way of doing things.so it's even more important that I get there on time.'
Sarah's face still bore a worried expression, so she added gently, 'Ear bending just means the boss would talk to your mother about where she was going wrong.'
'Really?' Sarah's blue eyes brightened. 'Well, I think he must be sorry, anyway, 'cos he sent Mummy some flowers. There was a card, and it said, Get well soon. '
She frowned again, and Alex gave her a hug. 'We all hope for that, Sarah. At least your mum and dad are in good hands. They're being looked after by the very best doctors.'
For once, James had nothing to say, and Alex sent him a quick, thoughtful glance. He seemed to be coping well enough in the aftermath of his parents' accident, but she suspected his newfound belligerence was all tied up with what had been going on in his life this last few weeks. She would have to keep a keen eye on both children for the foreseeable future.
A few minutes later they left the house and went next door. It was a minute or so before Jane Marchant answered Alex's knock, but when she did her smile was welcoming and she invited them inside.
'We can only stop for a minute or two,' Alex said, following her neighbour into the neat, pine kitchen. 'We just wanted to bring you these strawberries, and to make sure that you're all right.'
Jane stared at the fruit, her mouth dropping open in awe. 'Just look at that fruitso ripe and juicy.' Her eyes glimmered with appreciation. 'I'll enjoy those with my teaand I could make a lovely strawberry sponge cake. You'll have to come and share it with me.' She looked at the children, who nodded with enthusiasm at the suggestion. 'Thank you for this,' she said, embracing all three of them with her smile. 'It was very thoughtful of you.'
'Just don't go overdoing it,' Alex warned her. 'I know what you're like when you get started with the baking. I've been worried about you just lately, especially after that dizzy spell you had the other day. Are you still getting the headaches?'
Jane nodded. 'But you don't need to worry yourself over me, love. I'll be fine. Like I said, the doctor's been trying me with different tablets to see if we can calm things down. I probably just need to take things more slowly, that's all. I've perhaps done too much in the garden. I've been trying to tackle the weedsyou know yourself what a job that can be when you have an acre or so to look after.'
'I do.' Alex's lips made a downward curve. 'I'm still wondering what possessed me to take on that rundown house next door, with its dilapidated orchard and all those outbuildings.' Her mouth flattened. 'It just seemed like a good idea at the time.'
'I love it,' Sarah said. 'The garden's all wild and raggedy, and there's lots of fruit bushes all tangled up. And there's masses of strawberries ' she made a wide circle with her arms '.. just spreading out all over the place.'
'It's like a jungle,' James put in, ignoring Alex's faintly amused groan. 'We can play explorers, hunting the bad people.' He began to make swashbuckling moves with an imaginary sword.
Sarah looked at Jane once more. 'I can help you with the garden,' she offered. 'Any time you like.'
'Thank you, sweetheart.' Jane beamed at the little girl. 'You're a treasure. Alex must be so happy to have you with her.'
'It's true,' Alex agreed. 'Both she and James have been good as gold, helping with the move.' She frowned. 'But as far as your tablets are concerned, I'm not so sure that they're doing the job.' She glanced at Jane. Her neighbour was in her early sixties, a slender woman with brown, wavy hair and pale features. As Sarah had pointed out in her innocent way, she didn't look at all well. 'I really think you ought to go back to your doctor and ask him to do some tests to find out if there's a specific cause of the high blood pressure that might have been overlookedespecially since you're having other symptoms, like the back pain and the muscle spasms.'
Jane looked doubtful. 'I really don't like to bother the doctor any more. I've already been back several times and he's doing what he can to keep everything in check.'
'Even so,' Alex commented, 'as a doctor myself, I think your symptoms need to be looked into a bit more. I worry about leaving you on your own during the day while I'm at work. Is there no one in the family who can come and look out for you?'
Jane shook her head. 'There's only my nephew. We're very closein fact, he's more like a son to me. His parents, my brother and his wife, are out of the country, working on various projects.' Her features softened. 'He's such a lovely young man. I think the world of him and he comes to visit whenever he's able. We often talk on the phone. I'm sure he'd do anything for me, but I know he's busy and I don't want to burden him with my problems.'
Alex's brows drew together. 'Maybe you should think twice about thatafter all, he'd want to know if you were ill, wouldn't he?'
'Of course, but it won't come to that. I'll be fine. Besides, he has enough troubles of his own to deal with right now ' She pulled a face 'There's to be some kind of audit at work, apparently, and he has to figure out how to keep the chiefs off his back. He says they've appointed a new manager to whip the department into shape, and the last thing he needs is some busybody poking his nose into all the corners to see how they do things and then use it against him to turn all his carefully organised systems upside down.'
Alex's eyes widened a fraction, and she let out a small breath. Managers were never popular. 'I see what you mean he does seem to have a lot on his plate at the moment, doesn't he? But I think you're more important than any of that. I wonder if he could find time to help occasionally.with the garden, maybe?' 'Oh, he does what he can.'
James was beginning to show signs of restlessness, wandering about the room, peering at all the fine porcelain plates and glassware on display. He ran his fingers over the smooth lines of a ceramic cookie jar and then began to reach for a chicken-shaped timer, intent on examining its flamboyant red comb and wattles.
'I think it's time we made tracks,' Alex murmured, stopping to give Jane a quick hug. She'd only known this woman for a couple of weeks, but already it was as though they'd been friends for a lifetime.
'Let's go,' she said, handing Sarah her school bag. 'With any luck we'll get to school before the first whistle goes.'
Jane went with them into the hall. 'See you later,' she said.
'I don't like school,' James began as Alex shepherded them out through the front door. 'Mrs Coleman won't let me do painting. She made me sit in the reading corner instead. I don't like reading '
He was still complaining as Alex bundled them into the car. 'It's a shame you're not happy, James, but it's nearly the end of term, you know, and you'll be able to look forward to the summer holidays.' She glanced at him. 'Fasten your seat belt. You know, if you want to paint, you have to remember to keep your brushes to yourself and resist the temptation to daub the other children. Mrs Coleman said she'd explained it to you. Perhaps you could tell her that you'll be sensible if she'll let you have another go.'
'Yeswell, I don't like her, either.' James clamped his lips together and squinted at the road ahead through narrowed eyes.
Alex checked that Sarah was safely installed in the back seat with a good space between her and her brother, and then drove towards the school. It was about a mile away from the house, along a winding country lane, and the drive was a pleasant one, though even that was not enough to calm her increasingly stretched nerves.
Had she taken on too much, making the decision to look after her brother's children? In itself, it shouldn't have been too difficult, but alongside the new job at Oakdale Hospital, and adding in the fact that she'd had to move to Somerset to be close to where they used to live, the stress was beginning to pile up. Her once calm and orderly life had been turned upside down. Everything was chaotic.
Not that there was much she could do about any of it. The car accident that had injured her brother and his wife had wreaked havoc with all their lives.
'Bye,' she said when they arrived at the school. 'Take care. Be good.' She kissed the children and hugged them and then watched for a minute or two as they met up with friends and went to stand in line for their teachers.
Then she headed back along the main road to town and her new place of work. The hospital was a few miles inland from the sea, and she drove towards it now, past the soft, rolling hills of the Quantocks, their slopes richly carpeted with heather and occasional dark oases of green woodland.
At the hospital, she parked in her designated place, and then made her way to the A and E department. She pulled in a deep breath, straightened her shoulders and walked into the main reception area. This was a new challenge, a difficult task that she'd been assigned, and she would need to have her wits about her. She was a little apprehensive about what lay in store, but she was determined to make the best effort she could.
Her first impression of the unit was a pleasant one. Everything seemed relatively calm in there. The treatment rooms were occupied, with patients being tended by medical staff, and the whiteboard showed the status of admissions and stage of treatment.