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The dull October afternoon was fast becoming a damp evening, its drizzling rain soaking those hurrying home from work. The pavements were crowded; the wholesale dress shops, the shabby second-hand-furniture emporiums, the small businesses carried on behind dirty shop windows were all closing for the day. There were still one or two street barrows doing a desultory trade, but the street, overshadowed by the great bulk of St Ag-nes's hospital, in an hour or so's time would be almost empty. Just at the moment it was alive with those intent on getting home, with the exception of one person: a tall girl, standing still, a look of deep concentration on her face, oblivious of the impatient jostling her splendid person was receiving from passers-by.
Unnoticed by those jostling her, she was none the less attracting the attention of a man standing at the window of the committee-room of the hospital overlooking the street. He watched her for several minutes, at first idly and then with a faint frown, and presently, since he had nothing better to do for the moment, he made his way out of the hospital across the forecourt and into the street.
The girl was on the opposite pavement and he crossed the road without haste, a giant of a man with wide shoulders, making light of the crowds around him. His 'Can I be of help?' was asked in a quiet, deep voice, and the girl looked at him with relief.
'So silly,' she said in a matter-of-fact voice. 'The heel of my shoe is wedged in a gutter and my hands are full. If you would be so kind as to hold these '
She handed him two plastic shopping-bags. 'They're lace-ups,' she explained. 'I can't get my foot out.'
The size of him had caused passers-by to make a little detour around them. He handed back the bags. 'Allow me?' he begged her and crouched down, unlaced her shoe, and when she had got her foot out of it carefully worked the heel free, held it while she put her foot back in, and tied the laces tidily.
She thanked him then, smiling up into his handsome face, to be taken aback by the frosty blue of his eyes and his air of cool detachment, rather as though he had been called upon to do something which he had found tiresome. Well, perhaps it had been tiresome, but surely he didn't have to look at her like that? He was smiling now too, a small smile which just touched his firm mouth and gave her the nasty feeling that he knew just what she was thinking. She removed the smile, flashed him a look from beautiful dark eyes, wished him goodbye, and joined the hurrying crowd around her. He had ruffled her feelings, although she wasn't sure why. She dismissed him from her mind and turned into a side-street lined with old-fashioned houses with basements guarded by iron railings badly in need of paint; the houses were slightly down at heel too and the variety of curtains at their windows bore testimony to the fact that subletting was the norm.
Halfway down the street she mounted the steps of a house rather better kept than its neighbours and unlocked the door. The hall was narrow and rather dark and redolent of several kinds of cooking. The girl wrinkled her beautiful nose and started up the stairs, to be stopped by a voice from a nearby room.
'Is that you, Sister Blount? There was a phone call for you.'
A middle-aged face, crowned by a youthful blonde wig, appeared round the door. 'Your dear mother, wishing to speak to you. I was so bold as to tell her that you would be home at six o'clock.'
The girl paused on the stairs. 'Thank you, Miss Phipps. I'll phone as soon as I've been to my room.'
Miss Phipps frowned and then decided to be playfully rebuking. 'Your flatlet, Sister, dear. I flatter myself that my tenants are worthy of something better than bed-sitting-rooms.'
The girl murmured and smiled and went up two flights of stairs to the top floor and unlocked the only door on the small landing. It was an attic room with the advantage of a window overlooking the street as well as a smaller one which gave a depressing view of back yards and strings of washing, but there was a tree by it where sparrows sat, waiting for the crumbs on the window sill. It had a wash-basin in one corner and a small gas stove in an alcove by the blocked-up fireplace. There was a small gas fire too, and these, according to Miss Phipps, added up to mod cons and a flatlet. The bathroom was shared too by the two flatlets on the floor below, but since she was on night duty and everyone else worked during the day that was no problem. She dumped her shopping on the small table under the window, took off her coat, kicked off her shoes, stuck her feet into slippers and bent to pick up the small tabby cat which had uncurled itself from the end of the divan bed against one wall.
'Mabel, hello. I'll be back in a moment to get your supper.'
The phone was in the hall and to hold a private conversation on it was impossible, for Miss Phipps rarely shut her door. She fed the machine some ten-pence pieces and dialled her home.
'Sophie?' her mother's voice answered at once. 'Darling, it isn't anything important; I just wanted to know how you were and when you're coming home for a day or two.'
'I was coming at the end of the week, but Sister Sy-monds is ill again. She should be back by the end of next week, though, and I'll take two lots of nights off at once-almost a week '
'Oh, good. Let us know which train and someone will pick you up at the station. You're busy?'
'Yes, off and on-not too bad.' Sophie always said that. She was always busy; Casualty and the accident room took no account of time of day or night. She knew that her mother thought of her as sitting for a great part of the night at the tidy desk, giving advice and from time to time checking on a more serious case, and Sophie hadn't enlightened her. On really busy nights she hardly saw her desk at all, but, sleeves rolled up and plastic apron tied around her slim waist, she worked wherever she was most needed.
'Is that Miss Phipps listening?'
'Of course '
'What would happen if you brought a man back for supper?' Her mother chuckled.
'When do I ever get the time?' asked Sophie and allowed her thoughts to dwell just for a moment on the man with the cold blue eyes. The sight of her flatlet would trigger off the little smile; she had no doubt of that. Probably he had never seen anything like it in his life.
They didn't talk for long; conversation wasn't easy with Miss Phipps's wig just visible in the crack of her door. Sophie hung up and went upstairs, fed Mabel and opened the window which gave on to a railed-off ledge so that the little beast could air herself, and put away her shopping. What with one thing and another, there was barely time for her to get a meal before she went on duty. She made a pot of tea, opened a tin of beans, poached an egg, and did her face and hair again. Her face, she ref lected, staring at it in the old-fashioned looking-glass on the wall above the basin, looked tired. 'I shall have wrinkles and lines before I know where I am,' said Sophie to Mabel, watching her from the bed.
Nonsense, of course; she was blessed with a lovely face: wide dark eyes, a delightful nose above a gentle, generous mouth, and long, curling lashes as dark as her hair, long and thick and worn in a complicated arrangement which took quite a time to do but which stayed tidy however busy she was.
She stooped to drop a kiss on the cat's head, picked up her roomy shoulder-bag, and let herself out of the room, a tall girl with a splendid figure and beautiful legs.
Her flatlet might lack the refinements of home, but it was only five minutes' walk from the hospital. She crossed the courtyard with five minutes to spare, watched, if she did but know, by the man who had retrieved her shoe for her-in the committee-room again, exchanging a desultory conversation with those of his colleagues who were lingering after their meeting. Tomorrow would be a busy day, for he had come over to England especially to operate on a cerebral tumour; brain surgery was something on which he was an acknowledged expert, so that a good deal of his work was international. Already famous in his own country, he was fast attaining the highest rung of the ladder.
He stood now, looking from the window, studying Sophie's splendid person as she crossed the forecourt.
'Who is that?' he asked Dr Wells, the anaesthetist who would be working with him in the morning and an old friend.
'That's our Sophie, Night Sister in Casualty and the accident room, worth her not inconsiderable weight in gold too. Pretty girl.'
They parted company presently and Professor Rijk van Taak ter Wijsma made his way without haste down to the entrance. He was stopped before he reached it by the surgical registrar who was to assist him in the morning, so that they were both deep in talk when the first of the ambulances flashed past on its way to the accident room entrance.
They were still discussing the morning's work when the registrar's bleep interrupted them.
He listened for a minute and said, 'There's a head injury in, Professor-contusion and laceration with evidence of coning. Mr Bellamy had planned a weekend off '
His companion took his phone from him and dialled a number. 'Hello, John? Rijk here. Peter Small is here with me; they want him in the accident room-there's a head injury just in. As I'm here, shall I take a look? I know you're not on call ' He listened for a moment. 'Good, we'll go along and have a look.'
He gave the phone back. 'You wouldn't mind if I took a look? There might be something I could suggest '
'That's very good of you, sir; you don't mind?'
'Not in the least.'
The accident room was busy, but then it almost always was. Sophie, with a practised glance at the patient, sent the junior sister to deal with the less urgent cases with the aid of two student nurses, taking the third nurse with her as the paramedics wheeled the patient into an empty cubicle. The casualty officer was already there; while he phoned the registrar they began connecting up the various monitoring tubes and checked the oxygen flow, working methodically and with the sure speed of long practice. All the same, she could see that the man on the stretcher was in a bad way.
She was trying to count an almost imperceptible pulse when she became conscious of someone standing just behind her and then edging her gently to one side while a large, well kept hand gently lifted the dressing on the battered head.
'Tut, tut,' said the professor. 'What do we know, Sister?'
'A fall from a sixth-floor window on to a concrete pavement. Thready pulse, irregular and slow, cerebro-spinal fluid from left ear, epistaxis.'
Her taxing training was standing her in good stead; she answered him promptly and with few words, while a small part of her mind registered the fact that the man beside her had tied her shoelaces for her not two hours since.
What a small world, she reflected, and allowed herself a second's pleasure at seeing him again. But only a second; she was already busy adjusting tubes and knobs at the registrar's low-voiced instructions.
The two men bent over the unconscious patient while she took a frighteningly high blood-pressure and the casualty officer looked for other injuries and broken bones.
Presently the professor straightened up. 'Anterior fossa-depressed fracture. Let's have an X-ray and get him up to Theatre.' He took a look at Peter Small. 'You agree? There's a good chance ' He glanced at Sophie. 'If you would warn Theatre, Sister? Thank you.'
He gave her a brief look; he didn't recognise her, thought Sophie, but then why should he? She was in uniform now, the old-fashioned dark blue dress and frilly cap which St Agnes's management committee refused to exchange for nylon and paper.
The men went away, leaving her to organise the patient's removal to the theatre block, warn Night Theatre Sister, Intensive Care and the men's surgical ward, and, that done, there was the business of his identity, his address, his family It was going to be a busy night, Sophie decided, writing and telephoning, dealing with everything and the police, and at the same time keeping an eye on the incoming patients. Nothing too serious from a medical point of view, although bad enough for the owners of sprained ankles, cut heads, fractured arms and legs, but they all needed attention-X-rays, cleaning and stitching and bandaging, and sometimes admitting to a ward.
It was two o'clock in the morning, and she had just wolfed down a sandwich and drunk a reviving mug of tea since there had been no chance of getting down to the canteen, when a girl was brought in, a small toddler screaming her head off in her mother's arms, who thrust her at Sophie. ''Ere, take a look at 'er, will yer? Fell down the stairs, been bawling 'er 'ead off ever since.'
Sophie laid the grubby scrap gently on to one of the couches. 'How long ago was this?'
The woman shrugged. 'Dunno. Me neighbour told me when I got 'ome-nine o'clock, I suppose.'
Sophie was examining the little girl gently. 'She had got out of her bed?'
'Bed? She don't go ter bed till I'm 'ome.'
Sophie sent a nurse to see if she could fetch the casualty officer and, when she found him and he arrived, left the nurse with him and ushered the mother into her office.
'I shall want your name and address and the little girl's name. How was she able to get to the stairs? Is it a high-rise block of flats?' She glanced at the address again. 'At the end of Montrose Street, isn't it?'
'S'right, fifth floor. I leave the door, see, so's me neighbour can take a look at Tracey.'
'She is left alone during the day?'
'Well, off and on, you might say, and sometimes of an evening-just when I go to the pub evenings.'
'Well, shall we see what the doctor says? Perhaps it may be necessary to keep Tracey in the hospital for a day or two.'
'Suits me-driving me mad with that howling, she is.'
Tracey had stopped crying; only an occasional snivel betrayed her misery. Sophie said briskly, 'You'd like her admitted for observation, Dr Wright?' and at the same time bestowed a warning frown on him; Jeff Wright and she had been friends for ages, and he understood the frown.
'Oh, definitely, Sister, if you would arrange it. This is the mother?' He bent an earnest gaze upon the woman, who said at once,
'It ain't my fault. I've got ter 'ave a bit of fun, 'aven't I? Me 'usband left me, see?'
Sophie thought that he might have good reason. The woman was dirty, and although she was wearing makeup and cheap fashionable clothes the child was in a smelly dress and vest and no nappy. 'You may visit when you like,' she told her. 'Would you like to stay until she is settled in?'
'No, thanks. I gotta get some sleep, haven't I?'
She nodded to the child. 'Bye for now, night all.'
'Be an angel and right away get the children's ward,' said Sophie. 'I'll wrap this scrap up in a blanket and take her up-a pity we can't clean her up first, but I can't spare the nurses.'