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Mrs Gregson's elderly voice, raised in its never-ending vendetta against the nurses making her bed, penetrated throughout the entire ward; it even penetrated Sister's office, so that its occupant rose fromher work at her desk with a sigh, opened the swing doors and made her way down the long ward to where her troublesome patient lay. She was a very pretty girl, tall and slim and nicely curved in her navy uniform. She had corn-coloured hair, cut short and swinging around her neck, with a fringe over her blue eyes and a nose which tilted very slightly above a softly curved mouth so that despite her twenty-six years she reminded anyone meeting her for the first time of a small eager girl wanting to be friendly with everyone.
She reached the bed just as its occupant, sitting in a heap in the middle of it clutching a blanket round her frail person, drew breath to begin on a fresh round of abuse. 'Yer ter leave them blankets,' she shrilled, 'me bed's fineit don't need making.'
'And what is our Doctor Thorpe going to say when he comes presently and finds you in that untidy heap?' Phyllida Cresswell's voice was quiet and quite unwor-ried by Mrs Gregson's tantrums.
"E won't saynothin', 'e'll be too busy looking at yer pretty face.'
Phyllida wasn't in the least put out. 'There you go again, making up stories. You just wait until I tell his wife!'
Mrs Gregson cackled happily. 'Just me little joke, Sister dear, though you mark my words, some feller'll come along one day and run orf with yer.'
'It sounds exciting,' agreed Phyllida. 'And now how about this bed?'
'Well, if yer say so '
Phyllida smiled at the old lady, smiled too at the two student nurses and started off down the ward again. It was a good thing that Philip Mount was the Surgical Registrar and rarely came on to her ward; Mrs Gregson's sharp eyes would have spotted that they were rather more than colleagues within minutes. Phyllida frowned slightly. Philip was getting a little too possessive just lately. It wasn't as though they were engaged. Her frown deepened; perhaps it would have been better for them both if they had been, although she couldn't remember that he had ever suggested it, merely taken it for granted that one day they would marry. And he was a good man; there weren't many like him, she knew that; not particularly good-looking, but well built and pleasant-faced and rarely bad-tempered, ready to make allowances for everyoneshe wasn't good enough for him and she had told him so on several occasions. But he had only laughed at her, refusing to take her seriously.
She went back into her office and sat down at her desk again and picked up the telephone. There was the laundry to warn about the extra sheets she would need, the dispensary to argue with over the non-arrival of a drug she had ordered, the office to plead with for the loan of a nurse because one of her student nurses had gone off sickshe sighed and lifted the receiver.
The day went badly, with no nurse to replace the one who had gone off sick, two emergencies, Doctor Thorpe's round and him in a nasty temper and not nearly enough clean linen returned from the laundry. Phyllida, a sunny-tempered girl, was decidedly prickly by the time she went to her midday dinner, a state of mind not improved by her friends wanting to know why she was so ratty, and made even worse by one of her friends demanding to know if she had had words with Philip.
'No, I have not,' she declared crossly, and thought suddenly that a good row with him would be better than his even-tempered tolerance when she was feeling ill-humoured. She added rather lamely: 'I've had a foul morning and Doctor Thorpe was in one of his tetchy moods; the round took for ever.'
The talk became general after that and presently, back on the ward, she regained her usual good nature so that Mrs Gregson stopped her as she was going down the ward to say: 'That's better, Sister dear. Black as a thundercloud yer've been all morning.' She grinned, displaying impossibly even false teeth. 'We ain't such a bad lot, are we?'
Phyllida had stopped to lean over the end of her patient's bed. 'You're the nicest lot of ladies I've ever met,' she assured her.
Mrs Gregson nodded, satisfied. 'Going out this evening?' she wanted to know.
Phyllida said that yes, she was and she still had a lot of work to do as she went on her way. She and Philip were going to have dinner with his elder brother and his wife. They lived in Hampstead in a pleasant house; privately she found them a dull couple with two dull children, but they seemed content enough and she had, upon occasion, detected a gleam of envy in Philip's eye at the sight of their comfortable home with its neatly kept garden, well-behaved dog, gleaming furniture and shining windows. She frowned a little as she bent to take her newest patient's blood pressure. It wasn't that she didn't like cleanliness and order and furniture polish, but somehow there was too much of it. She thought with sudden longing of her own home, an old rambling house in a village near Shaftesbury, standing on high ground so that it creaked and groaned in the winter gales and captured all the summer sun there was on its grey stone walls. Her father was the village doctor with a practice scattered miles in every direction and her mother ran the house with the help of old Mrs Drew who was really past it, as well as coping with the large untidy garden, two dogs, a variety of cats, an old pony and some chickens and over and above these such of her four children who might happen to be at home, and they usually brought friends with them.
It was late March, thought Phyllida, neatly charting her findings; the daffodils would be out and the catkins, and in the wilder corners of the garden there would be violets and primroses for the picking. She had a week's holiday due to her, only a few days away now. The thought cheered her enormously and she felt guilty at the relief of getting away from Philip for a little whileperhaps while she was at home she would be able to make up her mind about him. And really, she chided herself as she went from bed to bed, with a nod and a word for the occupants, there should be no need of that. He was a splendid man, generous and honest and thoughtfulhe would make a perfect husband. He would be dull too. She wiped the thought from her mind as unworthy and concentrated on his good points so that by the evening when she went off duty she was almost eager to see him.
She took extra pains with her face and hair as she changed out of her uniform and then poked around in her wardrobe. She had clothes enough, for unlike many of her friends she had no need to help out at home, but now she dragged out one dress after the other, dissatisfied with them all, until, pressed for time, she got into a grey wool dress with its matching long coat, tied a bright scarf round her neck, caught up gloves and handbag and skipped down the austere staircase of the Nurses' Home. Philip was waiting in the hospital yard. That was another nice thing about him; he never kept her waiting and he never grumbled if she were late. She smiled widely at him as she got into the elderly Rover he cherished with such care.
'I've had a foul day, Doctor Thorpe was as sour as vinegar and they sent up two chest cases. What about you?' she asked.
'Oh, quite a good list, one or two tacked on, of course, but Sir Hereward was in a good mood.' He turned to smile at her. 'Shall we go to Poon's?'
Phyllida didn't really like Chinese food, but she agreed at once. Poon's was well away from the hospital and not expensive, and although Philip wasn't mean, he hadn't anything other than his salary. They drove through the City, cut into Long Acre and into Cranbourne Street and turned into the Charing Cross Road. There was a good deal of traffic as they turned into Lisle Street and found a parking meter, and the restaurant was crowded too. Phyllida sat down at the corner table found for them and let out a long contented sigh.
'This is nice. I love my work, but it's good to get away from it. I've got a week's holiday in a few days, too.'
'Going home?' Philip was studying the menu.
She chose sweet and sour pork before she replied. 'Yes.' She gave him a questioning look.
'I've a couple of days owing to me ' His nice face beamed at her across the table.
'Then come down for them. I'm going on Sunday eveningwhen can you manage to get free?'
'Wednesdayuntil Friday midnight. Your mother won't mind?'
Phyllida laughed. 'You know Mother, she loves a house fullbesides, she knows you well enough to hand you a spade and tell you to dig the gardena nice change from whipping out appendices!'
They spent a pleasant evening together, although thinking about it afterwards, Phyllida had a feeling that they had both been trying too hard; trying in a self-conscious way to turn their rather vague relationship into something more tangible. She couldn't think why, not for herself at any rate. She was fond of Philip but she was almost sure that she didn't want to marry him, and yet her sensible brain told her that he was so right for a husband.
She lay awake for a long time thinking about it and then overslept so that her breakfast was a scrappy affair of tea and toast, and for all the good her sleepless night had done her, she might just as well not have given Philip a thought, and indeed she had no time to think about him at all during the morning. She still had no student nurse to replace the one who had gone off sick and one of the three remaining nurses had gone on holiday. She took the report with outward calm, had a few succinct words with Linda Jenkins, her staff nurse, picked up the pile of post for her patients and started off on her morning round, casting a practised eye over the ward as she went. They might be short-staffed, but the girls were managing very nicely; the beds were being made with all speed and those ladies well enough to get up were being settled into the armchairs arranged at intervals down the long ward, a scheme intended to encourage the convalescent ladies to get together and enjoy a nice chat among themselves. Phyllida had discovered long ago that they became so interested in swapping their illnesses that they forgot to grumble at their own aches and pains, the awful food, the tepid tea, the unfeeling nurses None of which was true, but she quite understood that they had to have something to gossip about. She paused now by a group and listened to Miss Thompson, a pernicious anaemia who ruled the new patients with a rod of iron since she had been in and out of the ward for years now, describing the operation her sister-in-law had just had. Miss Thompson had the bloodcurdling and quite inaccurate details of it so pat that Phyllida's lovely eyes almost popped out of her head. When Miss Thompson paused for breath she asked drily: 'Did she recover, Miss Thompson?'
She knew that she shouldn't have asked the question; now she would have to listen to a long-drawn-out blow-by-blow account of the unfortunate lady's return to health and strength. She passed around her letters and began a mental assay of the off duty for next week while she stood patiently. When Miss Thompson had at last finished, Phyllida, mindful of hurt feelings, merely remarked that some people had remarkable experiences, admonished the ladies to drink their mid-morning coffee when it arrived and went on her way. She recounted it all to Linda over their own coffee later and chuckled her way into a good humour again, so that when she thought of Philip during a rare few minutes of leisure later that day it was with mild pleasure at the idea of him spending a couple of days at her home.
She only saw him once before she started her leave, and for so short a time that they could only exchange a brief remark as to when he would arrive. She still felt pleased about him coming, but her pleasure was a little dimmed by his matter-of-fact manner, and his 'See you, then' was uttered with the briskness of a brother. True, they had encountered one another in the middle of one of the busiest corridors in the hospital, with nurses, porters and housemen milling up and down, but, thought Phyllida, suddenly annoyed, 'if he loved her as much as he said he did, he could surely have looked at her with rather more feeling?' She left the hospital the following evening, glad that she hadn't seen him again.
She drove down to her home in the neat little Vauxhall Astra, a present from her parents on her twenty-first birthday, five years ago, and although she could have afforded to exchange it she had never felt the need; it went well and she understood it as well as she would ever understand any car. She fastened her seat belt, gave a last glance at the rather grim hospital behind her and drove out into the busy street to meet the London traffic.