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The dim and dusty Records Office, tucked away in the depths of the hospital, was hardly a cheerful place in which to work, but the girl going back and forth between the long rows of shelves sounded cheerful enough, singing a medley of tunes as she sorted the folders into their right places with the ease of long practice.
She was a tall girl with a splendid shape, a beautiful face and a head of tawny hair which glowed under the neon lights, wearing a blouse and skirt and a cardigan which, although well-fitting, lacked any pretensions to high fashion.
Presently, her arms full, she went to the table against one of the whitewashed walls and laid them down, still singing—quite loudly since there was nobody there but herself, and she was far from the busy wards. 'Oh, what a beautiful morning…' she trilled, very slightly out of tune, and then stopped as the door was opened.
The door was a long way from the table; she had ample time to study the man coming towards her. He came unhurriedly, very tall and large in a beautifully tailored suit, fair hair already silver at the edges and a handsome face with heavy-lidded eyes. She hadn't seen him before, but then she seldom if ever went up to the hospital. When he was near enough she said cheerfully, 'Hello, do you want something?'
His good morning was uttered in a quiet voice. He laid a folder on the table. 'Yes, I asked for Eliza Brown's notes, not Elizabeth Brown's.'
'Oh, so sorry. I'll get them.' She picked up the discarded folder and went down one of the narrow passages between the shelves, found the folder, replaced the discarded one and went back to the table.
'Here it is. I hope it wasn't too inconvenient for you…'
'It was.' His voice was dry, and she went a little pink. 'Do you work here alone?'
'Me? Oh, no. Debbie has got the day off to go to the dentist.'
'And do you always sing as you work?'
'Why not? It's quiet down here, you know, and dim and dusty. If I didn't sing I might start screaming.'
'Then why not look for other employment?' He was leaning against the wall, in no hurry to be gone.
She gave him a tolerant look. 'We—that is, clerks and suchlike—are two a penny. Once we get a job we hang on to it…'
'Until you marry?' he suggested in his quiet voice.
He picked up the folder. 'Thank you, Miss…?'
'Harding.' She smiled at him, for he seemed rather nice—a new member of the medical staff; a surgeon, since Mrs Eliza Brown was on the surgical landing. He nodded pleasantly and she watched him walk away; she wasn't likely to see him again. A pity, she reflected, making a neat pile of her folders ready for someone to fetch them from Outpatients.
The nurse from Outpatients was in a bad temper. Sister, she confided, was in a mood and there was no pleasing her, and the waiting-room was stuffed to the ceiling. 'And I've got a date this evening,' she moaned. 'At the rate we're going we'll be here all night, as well as all afternoon.'
'Perhaps Sister will have a date too,' comforted Miss Harding.
'Her? She's old—almost forty, I should think.'
The nurse flounced away, and was replaced almost at once by a tall, thin girl with a long face.
'Hi, Olivia.' She had a nice grin. 'How's trade? I want Lacey Cutter's notes. They're missing. I bet Debbie got our lot out yesterday—she may look like everyone's dream of a fairy on the Christmas tree, but she's not heart and soul in her job, is she?'
Olivia went across to the nearest shelf and began poking around. 'She's really rather a dear and so young… Here you are…'
'Well, you sound like her granny. She must be all of nineteen or so.'
'Twenty, and I'm twenty-seven—on the verge of twenty-eight.'
'Time you settled down. How's the boyfriend?'
'Very well, thank you. We'll have to wait for a bit, though.'
'That's rotten bad luck. I say, there's a new man on Surgical—a consultant all the way from somewhere or other in Holland—come to reorganise Mrs Brown's insides. It seems he's perfected a way of doing something or other; our Mr Jenks asked him here so that he can pick up some ideas.' She started for the door. 'He's nice.'
Olivia agreed silently. She didn't allow her thoughts to dwell upon him, though. For one thing she had too much to do and for another she had plenty of things— personal things—to think about. Rodney, for instance. She and Rodney had been friends for years, long before her father had died and left her mother poor, so that they had had to leave their home in Dorset and come to London to live with her grandmother in the small flat on the fringe of Islington. That had been four years ago, and Olivia had found herself a job almost at once to augment the two older ladies' income. It wasn't very well paid but, beyond an expensive education, she had no training of any sort and it was well within her scope. Indeed, after a couple of months she had realised that it was work which held no future, and longed to have the chance to train for something which would enable her to use her brain, but that was impossible. Making ends meet, even with her wages added, was a constant worry to her mother, and she couldn't add to that.
If her grandmother had been more amenable it might have been possible, but Mrs Fitzgibbon, having offered them a home, considered that she had done her duty and saw no reason to forgo her glass of sherry, her special tea from Fortnum and Mason, and her weekly visit to the hairdresser, with a taxi to take her there and back. She had sent away her daily cleaner too, saying that her daughter was quite capable of keeping the flat tidy, but graciously allowed a woman to come once a week to do the heavy housework.
It wasn't an ideal situation, but Olivia could see no way out of it. Nor could she see any chance of marrying Rodney, a rising young man on the Stock Exchange, who had reiterated time and again that once he had got his flat exactly as he wanted it, and bought a new car, they would marry. Four years, thought Olivia, sitting at the table eating sandwiches and drinking pale and tepid tea from a flask, and there's always something—and anyway, how can I marry him and leave Mother? She'll be Granny's slave.
The day's work came to an end and she got into her raincoat, tied a scarf over her glorious hair, locked the door and took the key along to the porter's lodge. She stood in the entrance for a moment, breathing in the chill of the evening, and made for the bus-stop.
It was an awkward journey to and from the hospital, and the buses at that time of day were packed. Olivia, her junoesque proportions squeezed between a stout matron carrying a bag full of things with sharp edges and a small, thin man with a sniff, allowed her thoughts to wander to the pleasanter aspects of life. New clothes—it was high time she had something different to wear when she went out with Rodney; a legacy from some unknown person; finding a treasure-trove in the tiny strip of garden behind her grandmother's flat; being taken out to dinner and dancing at one of the best hotels—the Savoy for instance—suitably dressed, of course, to eat delicious food and dance the night away. She realised with something of a shock that it wasn't Rodney's face on her imaginary partner but that of the man who had asked why she sang while she worked. This won't do, she told herself, and frowned so fiercely that the thin man recoiled.
The street where her grandmother had her flat was suited to that old-fashioned word 'genteel'. The tiny front gardens were all alike—laurel bushes, a strip of grass and two steps leading to the front door behind which was another smaller door, leading to the flat above. All the windows had net curtains and, beyond distant good mornings and good evenings, no one who lived there spoke to anyone else.
Olivia hated it; she had spent the first year that they were there planning ways of leaving it, but her mother felt it to be her duty to stay with Granny since she had offered them a home and Olivia, a devoted daughter, found it impossible to leave her mother there though she disliked it, she suspected, just as much as she did.
She got out her key, unlocked the door, and went into the little hall, hung her outdoor things on the old-fashioned oak stand and went through to the sitting-room. Her mother looked up with a smile.
'Hello, love. Have you had a busy day?'
Olivia bent to kiss her cheek. 'Just nicely so,' she said cheerfully, and crossed the small room to greet her grandmother. Mrs Fitzgibbon was sitting very upright in a Regency mahogany open armchair with a leather seat and wooden arms, by no means comfortable but the old lady had inherited it from her mother, who had acquired it from some vague relation who had been married to a baronet, a fact which seemed to ensure its comfort from Mrs Fitzgibbon's point of view. She said severely now, 'Really, Olivia, your hair is badly in need of a brush, and is that plastic bag you're carrying really necessary? When I was a gel…'
Olivia interrupted her quickly. 'I called in at Mr Patel's as I got off the bus—he had some nice lettuces; you like a salad with your supper…'
She made a small comic face at her mother and went to her room—very small, just room for the narrow bed, the old-fashioned wardrobe and a small chest of drawers with an old-fashioned looking-glass on it. Rodney had phoned to say that he would come for her at around seven o'clock so she poked around, deciding what she would wear, and then, undecided, went to the kitchen to start the supper. Lamb chops, mashed potatoes and carrots. There were a couple of tomatoes in the fridge and a rather wizened apple. She contrived a small salad with the lettuce, laid the table in the poky dining-room beside the kitchen, and went to pour her grandmother's sherry. She poured a glass for her mother too, ignoring her grandmother's sharp look.
She went back to the kitchen and the phone rang. It was probably Rodney, to say that he would be earlier than they had arranged. She turned down the gas and went into the hall where the phone was. It was Rodney. His faintly pompous, 'Hello, Olivia,' sounded rather more so than usual, but it was one of the things she had decided didn't matter.
Her own 'hello' was cheerful. 'If you're coming earlier than you said, I won't be ready…'
'Well, as a matter of fact, I can't come, Olivia— something's turned up and I can't get away.'
'Oh, bad luck. Let's go out tomorrow instead.'
She felt faintly uneasy at his hesitancy. 'It's a long job,' he said finally, 'I may have to go away…'
She was instantly sympathetic. 'Big business and very hush-hush?' she wanted to know. 'Well, if it's going to give you a leg-up, I won't crumble. You don't know when you're going?'
'No, no, nothing's settled yet. I'll give you a ring. Can't stay any longer now.'
She was disappointed but still cheerful. 'Don't get overworked…' His goodbye interrupted her, and she put the phone down with the feeling that something was wrong. My imagination, she told herself, and went to stretch the supper to allow for another person and then tell her mother that she wouldn't be going out after all.
Her grandmother, listening, observed tartly, 'You can't rely on the young men of today. Rodney's eyes are too close together.'
Which was difficult to refute, for they were.
The week wore on. Debbie enlivened the days with her chatter, confiding with a good deal of giggling the carrying on of her various boyfriends, while Olivia patiently did most of the filing and hurriedly resorted Debbie's careless efforts.
'You ought to go out more often,' declared Debbie as they drank their mid-morning coffee. 'Never mind that Rodney of yours,' she added with an unconscious lack of concern, 'it would do him good. He ought to be taking you out somewhere every blessed moment he's free. Give him a ring and say you want to go out this evening; there's a smashing film on at the Odeon in Leicester Square.'
'He's not here. I mean he's had to go away—something to do with his firm.'
'Don't you know where he is?'
'Ring wherever he works and ask for his address. He's not MI5 or anything hush-hush is he?'
'No—something in the Stock Exchange.'
Olivia got up and went back to the shelves with a pile of folders just as the door opened.
Here he was again, as elegant as she remembered him and as calm. She left Debbie to ask him if she could help him.
'Indeed you can. Once again I have here Mrs Elizabeth Brown's notes, but it is Mrs Eliza Brown who is my patient.'
Debbie beamed at him. 'Oh, sorry—that's me. I make mistakes all the time—only Olivia puts them right and covers up for me. It's a dull job, you know.'
'I can appreciate that.' He looked past her and wished Olivia a bland good morning. 'Olivia,' he added, and before she could answer that he said, 'And you, young lady, what is your name?'
'Debbie—what's yours? You aren't on the staff, are you? Have you come here to brush up your technique or something?'
'Or something?' He smiled a little. 'And my name is van der Eisler.'
'Foreign,' said Debbie. 'You wouldn't know it except you're on the large side. Got friends here?'
'Er, yes, I have.'
Olivia, feverishly seeking Mrs Eliza Brown's notes, clutched them thankfully and took them to him. He took them from her with a brief nod. 'I mustn't keep you from your work,' he observed. He sounded as though he had already dismissed them from his thoughts.
As he closed the door behind him Debbie said, 'Olivia, why did you hide? Isn't he great? A pity you found the notes just as I was going to suggest that he might like me to show him round the town.'
Olivia said sharply, 'You wouldn't, Debbie—he might be someone fearfully important.'
'Him? If he were, he wouldn't come down to this hole, would he? He'd send a nurse. I think he rather liked me.'
'Why not? You're pretty and amusing, and you can look small and helpless at the drop of a hat…'
'Yes, I know, but you're not just pretty, Olivia, you're beautiful. Even if you are—well, amply curved.'
Olivia laughed then. 'Yes, I know, and as strong as a horse. Even if I were to faint there wouldn't be anyone strong enough to pick me up off the floor.'