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Summer Lane wasn't living up to its name; for one thing it was mid-October and the rain, being lashed down by a nasty chilly wind, was even chillier; moreover it was barely eight o'clock in the morning and gloomy. At that early time of day there were few people about; a milkman whistling defiantly as he dumped down milk bottles, a handful of people scurrying along towards the nearest Tube station and a solitary girl walking away from it, head bowed against the weather, clutching a plastic bag. The street lined with shabby old houses, let out in rooms or flats, was so familiar to her that she didn't bother to look up as it turned a sharp corner, which was why she ran full tilt into someone coming the other way.
The plastic bag, already wet, split and spilled its contents over the pavement, and the girl skidded to a halt which almost took her feet from under her, to be hauled upright by a powerful arm.
'You should look where you are going,' the owner of the arm observed irritably, a remark the girl took instant exception to; she was dog-tired after night duty and in no mood to bandy words with someone who sounded as cross as she felt.
All the same, she said in a reasonable voice, 'Well, that goes for both of us, doesn't it?' and looked up at the man towering over her. He wasn't only tall, he was large as well and remarkably good-looking, and when he smiled suddenly, she smiled back.
He let go of her then and bent to pick up the contents of the plastic bag—knitting, the wool already very wet, a rather battered manual of nursing, two apples and a notebook. He collected them, gave her the book and the knitting and said with rather impatient kindness, 'Do you live close by? Suppose I carry these odds and ends as far as your door?'
'Thank you, but I live down that street…' she indicated a narrow side street a few yards further on. 'I can stuff everything in my pockets.'
He took no notice of that but turned and started walking briskly towards the street that she had pointed out.
'A nurse?' he wanted to know.
The girl trotted beside him. 'Yes, on night duty at Pearson's. I'm not trained yet, I'm in my second year, almost at the end of it.'
She stopped before one of the elderly terraced houses, its gate wedged open, its tiny strip of garden a mass of soggy weeds. 'This is where I live.' She held her arms out for the things he had been carrying.
He didn't give them to her at first but stood looking at her. She wasn't much to look at: small, inclined to plumpness, with a nice little face redeemed from plainness by a pair of fine grey eyes. Her hair under an unfashionable woolly cap was pale brown and very wet. Her coat had seen better days, but it was well cut and her shoes and gloves, as shabby as the coat, were good. He smiled again. 'When do you go on day duty again?' he asked.
'Oh, in another week or so; it will seem very strange after two months. I like night duty, though; there aren't so many people around.'
'People?' He asked the question casually, concealing his impatience to be gone.
'Well, doctors and surgeons and Ward Sisters.' She went rather pink. 'They're a bit frightening, you know. Staff Nurse was telling me that there's a visiting honorary—a surgeon—he's Dutch and everyone is crazy about him. Because he's foreign, I suppose; I do hope I don't go on to the Orthopaedic side.'
'You have no wish to meet this foreigner?'
'No, oh, no. There was a French surgeon in the summer; he shouted at me and asked me to be quick, and I dropped a tray of instruments. I dare say that's why I'm on night duty longer than usual.' She put out a tongue to lick away a trickle of rain running down one cheek. She said breathlessly, 'I'm sorry, I'm keeping you in the rain. Thank you very much. I hope you won't be late for your work.'
She held out her arms for the apples and the notebook, said a hasty goodbye and whisked up the narrow path and in through the shabby front door. As she climbed the stairs she thought vexedly that she had talked too much; probably the man had been bored to death, and what had possessed her to chatter like that? It was quite unlike her. She was universally known at Pearson's Hospital as a quiet girl, friendly enough but shy and studious, reliably calm and collected about her work and guaranteed to give a helping hand without grumbling.
She opened her door, to be greeted by a rotund tabby cat with a slightly battered look, obviously delighted to see her.
It was nice to be in her room again after a busy night. It was small, but its windows, cheerfully curtained, overlooked the narrow back garden and, bare as it was, it was green. There wasn't much in the room: a divan bed, a small easy chair, a table by the window and a small sink and even smaller cooking stove in one corner, but it was her own just so long as she paid Mrs Winter the rent. Of course, a room in the Nurses' Home would have been more comfortable, but then she wouldn't have been able to keep Podge, and she had found him, hungry to the point of starving, several months ago, crouching in an empty doorway, and she had no intention of abandoning him to further misery. Indeed, he saved her from loneliness and was perfectly content to live with her in her cramped room, carried downstairs to the back garden when needful while Mrs Winter turned a blind eye. That lady didn't approve of pets in her house, but Emily had treated a nasty boil for her and moreover cleaned and bandaged a cut finger for one of her numerous grandchildren.
Mrs Winter came to the top of the basement stairs where she lived as Podge was borne in from the garden. "Ere's a letter for yer,' she announced. 'Miss Emily Grenfell, it says—yer pa, I've no doubt.'
Emily took the letter and tucked it into her pocket. Having no letter box of her own, she depended on Mrs Winter to take in any post she might get. 'Yes, it's from my father,' she agreed cheerfully. 'What a beastly morning!'
'And me due at the 'airdresser's. If that Mrs Blake 'as 'er radio on too loud and wakes yer up, just tell me, and I'll give her the rough edge of me tongue.' Mrs Winter eyed Emily's tired face. 'Yer needs yer sleep, by the look of yer.'
There were one or two things to do in the meantime—Emily had had breakfast at the hospital, but Podge needed his; while he ate it she went down to the floor below and had a bath in the old-fashioned bathroom. The bath was in the centre of the small room so that getting in and out was awkward and the geyser made sinister rumbling noises and smelled of gas, but the water was hot. She made a cup of tea before she got into bed and set the alarm for four o'clock; she would need to do some shopping before she had tea and went back on duty. Podge got on to the bed with her; his warm weight was cosy on her feet as she read her father's letter.
She folded it carefully when she had finished it, put it back into its envelope, and lay thinking about its contents.
The letter was cheerful, amusing and totally free from grumbles, something which was a constant source of surprise to her; arthritis had crippled her father for the last two years, so that he was confined to a wheelchair for the greater part of the day, hobbling around his house with two sticks so that he could get his meals, helped by a woman from the village who came in for an hour or so each day. He had been waiting for a year or more to have a prosthesis, first in one hip, then in the other, and it would be another year before his turn would come. He and Emily had discussed it together and he had agreed, reluctantly, that she should continue her training. She had known then what she would do, although she had said nothing to him, and she had set about putting her plan into action without more ado. It meant leaving the comparative comfort of the Nurses' Home with its mod cons and taking a room in Summer Lane; its rent low enough to enable her to save every penny of her salary which she could spare.
She knew to a penny how much it would cost for the operation to be done privately, a considerable sum, but if she could somehow manage to get him into Pearson's… it would have to be one hip until she could save for the second, but once she was qualified she would earn more money, and in the meantime her father would be able to leave his wheelchair, even return to work. But not to his former job as bookkeeper in the large printing firm in the neighbouring town; he had been retired from there with a small pension, enough to live on but not enough to save.
Podge edged his way up the bed to lie on her chest and stare into her face, and Emily put out a hand to stroke him. Even if she were able to do so, she wouldn't go back to the Nurses' Home without him. Later, when her father was able to get about again and she was getting more money, the pair of them would move to a better neighbourhood and she would go home at least twice a month. Podge started to purr, a deep-chested rumble which soothed her busy brain into a quiet which soon deepened into sleep.
It was still raining when she got up. She attended to Podge's needs, had a cup of tea, tidied her room and went out to the grocer's on the corner of the street, where she did her frugal buying and went back home again to eat her supper of baked beans on toast and more tea.
The solid bulk of Pearson's Hospital loomed over her as she left the Underground, its windows lighted, and as she entered a side door, greeting her with a variety of sounds she had come to recognise and ignore. She left her outdoor things in the cloakroom, picked up the plastic bag holding her knitting and study books, and went unhurriedly up two flights of stairs. She was in good time, but then she always was, there was nothing to hinder her; no boyfriend to keep her lingering until the last minute, no visit to a West End cinema to see the latest film, no mother up for the day to shop, nobody to see off home again… Emily didn't allow herself any self-pity and indeed she felt none; she was doing something she had made up her mind to do, and do it she would, without fuss. She was only twenty-three, and in less than a year her father could have his first operation and she would be qualified. Beyond that she resolutely refused to think, although right at the back of her mind was the shadowy hope that one day someone might fall in love with her and marry her.
As she climbed the last flight she thought fleetingly of the man who had bumped into her. It was to be hoped that he hadn't been late for his work. She frowned. He hadn't been the usual type she saw on the streets at that early hour of the morning, he had been well dressed and had had the air of someone unworried by clocking-in machines. In a bank, she guessed vaguely, or perhaps a solicitor.
He was in fact walking unhurriedly along the corridor leading from the Orthopaedic theatre to Sister's office, where, still in a white drill trousers and green smock, he sat himself down at her desk and began to write up the notes of his patient. Someone brought him a mug of coffee which he drank absentmindedly as he wrote, presently to be joined by his Registrar, Henry Parker, and his Theatre Sister, a stern-featured lady who, on hearing that there was to be a Dutch specialist in Orthopaedics for a short period, had declared herself reluctant to work for him. 'I remember,' she had confided to the main Theatre Sister, 'what a terrible time you had with that Frenchman, and I dare say,' she added darkly, 'that a Dutchman will be even worse.' She had drawn such a deep breath that her old-fashioned corsets had creaked. 'Foreigners!' she observed.
The Dutchman, when he arrived, had addressed her in English as fluent as her own, and had treated her with a quiet courtesy which had won her over completely. Moreover, he remained calm while he operated and never left the theatre without thanking her nicely for her services.
Rather grudgingly she had admitted that he was every bit as considerate as Mr Griffiths, the consultant he was standing in for until that gentleman had recovered from a severe attack of shingles. As for Mr Beck, the second orthopaedic surgeon, he was on the best of terms with him, and the housemen and nursing staff considered him to be the very acme of perfection. The nurses lucky enough to work on the orthopaedic wards or in theatre bought new lipsticks, made play with their eyelashes and had their hair done far more often than usual, going to meet him in corridors or on the stairs by deliberate accident, but they were forced to admit not one of them had struck even the smallest spark of interest in him.