The Facts of Life: A Novel

The Facts of Life: A Novel

by Patrick Gale

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504037655
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 07/05/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 548
Sales rank: 781,899
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester, before attending Oxford University. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End. One of the United Kingdom’s best-loved novelists, his recent works include A Perfectly Good Man, The Whole Day Through, and the Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and the Independent Booksellers’ Novel of the Year award. To find out more about Patrick and his work, visit
 Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester, before attending Oxford University. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End. One of the United Kingdom’s best-loved novelists, his recent works include A Perfectly Good Man, The Whole Day Through, and the Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and the Independent Booksellers’ Novel of the Year award. To find out more about Patrick and his work, visit

Read an Excerpt

The Facts of Life

A Novel

By Patrick Gale


Copyright © 2009 Patrick Gale
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-3765-5


She heard him before she saw him. She was on her round of Godiva Ward, checking on the children, listening to coughs, peering into pinched, white faces, tapping and listening at scrawny chests, when the sound of piano-playing reached her from the day room. There was an old grand piano there, half hidden by potted palms, one of several vestiges of the hospital's former grandeur as a superior hotel. It was rarely tuned and suffered from sea air, being surrounded by so many open windows. Someone accompanied the carols on it at Christmas, the children played musical statues to it at birthday parties and occasionally a charitable local artiste would subject them to a recital of pieces with evocative titles like War March of the Priests, Rustle of Spring or Moscow Bells. Pub-style sing-songs were, of course, out of the question, given the ragged state of most inmates' lungs, but patients chancing on the venerable instrument for the first time sometimes lifted the lid out of curiosity to pick out a melody with one erratic finger. Vera Lynn songs were popular – White Cliffs of Dover and We'll Meet Again – but Sally had noticed that it was the older, less overtly morale-boosting songs that people thumped out time and again – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes or You've Got me Crying Again.

The music this morning was serious stuff, played sitting down, and with both hands. She knew little of proper music – her father always switched the radio off when a concert was broadcast – but she recognised a waltz when she heard one. Gentle, lilting, ineffably sad, the sound made her pause as she was questioning a nurse about one of the more pathetic, long-stay patients.

'Brahms,' said the nurse, who had also cocked her head to listen. 'It's probably all he knows.'


'Edward the Gerry. Funny that. Edward.' The nurse tried the name out in her mouth like an alien sweet. It's not a Jewish name at all, when you think about it,' she added. 'More English, really. But you can tell he is. Jewish, I mean. Tell at a glance. But then I can always spot them.'

'When did he arrive?'

'Last week. They transferred him from that military hospital at Horton Down.'

'Is he Forces, then?'

'Only just. He'd only started his basic training when he was diagnosed. How he got through his medical is anyone's guess. I suppose they were less fussy towards the end. Like I say, he's German. He was in that internment camp at Westmarket, on the racecourse, and he reckons that's where he contracted it. Pretty rough down there by all accounts. Criminal really. I mean, it's not as though he was likely to be a spy, but I suppose they couldn't be too careful.'

No-one in the hospital referred to tuberculosis by its proper name or even its abbreviation. Even now that there was a cure and a vaccine, there was still a sense of it being a dirty disease. 'It' was quite sufficient, in any case, because few patients were brought in for any other illness.

'Isn't Horton Down closed now?' Sally pursued.

'He was one of the last patients.' The nurse dropped her voice. 'I think they'd rather forgotten about him, poor lad.'

She saw him for the first time the next day. Unlike the children's ward, where a dormitory had been imposed on what had once been a huge, ground floor saloon, the men's and women's wards afforded patients more privacy. Long wings were flung out on either side of the main body of the building. The bedrooms, forty in all, now sleeping two or three apiece, were ranged along their seaward sides. The incongruously well-appointed bathrooms across each corridor faced inland. A broad balcony linked the bedrooms along the front of the building and, during the conversion to a hospital, this had been scantily glassed over so as to afford a bracing promenade. Here those patients too weak to take even gentle exercise in the windswept grounds were expected to take the air for hours at a time. Swathed in dressing-gowns and blankets, they lay in tidy ranks on wooden reclining chairs, gossiping quietly, reading, playing cards or staring mournfully out to sea and gulping the salt air like so many beached fish. A trellis partition, painted an unpleasantly acidic green, which stretched half-way across the floor at the promenade's middle, was intended to indicate where the men's ward ended and the women's began but did little to prevent fraternisation between the sexes.

Beside the trellis, on the men's side, crouched an imposing radiogram, its wood bleached by the sun. It was turned on after breakfast and only silenced after the evening meal. It was tuned to Worker's Playtime when Sally emerged from the landing. She was struck afresh by the resemblance of the scene about her to the deck of some liner, tourist class. She had never been on a cruise, but she had seen them in plenty of films and during the war she had worked briefly on a hospital ship pressed into service from the Cunard Line.

A young nurse approached her, rubber soles squeaking on blood-red linoleum.

'Can I help you, Miss?'

Most nurses found it hard to call another woman Doctor.

'Yes. I'm looking for Edward Pepper.'

'He's up at the end there.'

'The one on his own, writing at the table?'

'That's the one.'

He looked far younger than she had expected. He was thin, but he had thick black hair which curled slightly and the sea air from the open windows all around him had touched his pale cheeks with a surprisingly deep pink. He worked intently at a pad of paper with a ruler and pencil. His forearms and wrists, off which he had pushed his dressing-gown sleeves, were thickly furred. As she drew closer, she saw that he was writing music. She stopped at his elbow.

'Mr Pepper?'


As he looked up, his eyes ran over her and his lips parted slightly.

'I'm Dr Banks.'

'Are you another specialist?'

'Nothing so exalted, I'm afraid. I'm somewhere between houseman and consultant. We've been chronically understaffed since the war and the hierarchy's crumbled rather in the effort to get things done. Can I sit down?'

'Of course.'

She took the other chair and opened his file.

'How are you feeling today?'

'Better. A little tired.'

'You're one of the lucky ones. We got hold of you in time.'

'So everyone keeps telling me. How much longer will I have to stay here?'

'Two or three weeks.'

He sagged with disappointment.

'That long?'

'The virus has left you very weak. You feel tired and you've only just got up. It'll be some time before you're as strong as you used to be, Mr Pepper. You must know that. Your left lung is permanently damaged. A touch of bronchitis that would have other men reaching for cough mixture will probably lay you up in bed struggling for air. For now you need rest, good clean air, nutritious meals and just enough exercise to strengthen your cardiovascular system. Have you been taking walks?'

'I walk for an hour after lunch. Round and round.'


'It is extremely dull.'

'But you aren't letting the boredom get you down.'

She indicated the pad of paper on his table which he had covered in lines and little marks.


'Can I ask what you're working on?'

'It's a string quartet.'

'Oh.' Her mind went blank for a moment, then all she could picture was the three old women sawing away in the foyer of the Grand in Rexbridge, where her mother liked to go for tea on special occasions. 'Do you play?' she asked.

'No. I write. Well. I try to.' He smiled to himself. His eyes were sleepy and slightly hooded, the skin of the eyelids darker than his pale brow.

'Wasn't that you playing the piano yesterday?'

'Yes. It's very out of tune.'

'It's all we've got. Play all you like. It's a treat for the others. Presumably there wasn't a piano for you at Horton Down.'

'No.' His face hardened. 'There was nothing.' For the first time his choice of words sounded foreign, a little too precise – like a spy in a film. His light accent was entirely English; a parson's or a solicitor's. 'I couldn't even get proper paper. At least this is large enough but ...'

'But what?'

'Well. I have to draw in my own lines to make up the staves and it gets confusing because they overlap with the lines already printed. You see? I need proper score paper with the staves already printed in.'

'Would a stationer sell that? There's one down the road, in Wenborough.'

'No. You have to go to a music shop. I mean, one would have to. I didn't intend that you should ...'

She pushed back her chair, closing his file.

'Let me see what I can do,' she told him. 'But I can't make promises. And don't tell anyone, or I'll end up running errands for the lot of you.'

As he said his thanks, she could feel him reassessing her as all the men there did. Seeing a white coat and stethoscope, tidy brown hair and un-made-up face, their first reaction said spinster. When she healed or calmed them, dealt with their pains and assumed responsibility for their helplessness, they looked at her again and their second reaction said mother. Generally they saw the nurses as angels of mercy, the doctors as angels of death. The female patients, inured to such nonsense from the cradle, were more tolerant of her status but also more shy.

She found a music shop on her next free afternoon when she rode on her motorbike into Rexbridge to find new slippers for her father's birthday. They had only five books of score paper left, handsome things with green marbled covers and black spines. She was unsure how many he would need, so she squandered her money and bought all five. She had to haggle slightly – the assistant sensed her ignorance and tried to ask a stupid price – and still it was more than she could afford. Money was short – the hospital paid her meagrely – and she had decided to be quite brisk about presenting him with a receipt and asking for her money back. But instead, she surprised herself by telling him to repay her by taking her to a concert once he was discharged.

'Yes,' he said, as they laughed, both startled at her boldness. 'Yes. I will. I should enjoy that. But you must let me give you the money too.'

As for so many women, the war had brought her a spell of social freedom, and with peace came a disappointing return to convention and what was suddenly declared to be a woman's proper sphere. She had returned to her parents' house because they lived conveniently close to the hospital, it was cheaper than living on her own and because reasoning with them as to why she should do otherwise was too daunting a prospect.

Sally's father had been laid off from work as a mechanic when she was still a child. A hoist had given way and a lorry engine had fallen on him, crushing his pelvis. He could still hobble about, with two sticks, but going back to his old work was out of the question. He kept himself in beer money by fixing small household appliances – toasters, alarm clocks, gramophones – which he dismembered across the kitchen table. The compensation settlement from his employers had been derisory and her mother was forced out to work at a canning factory where she put in long shifts, sickened by glue fumes as she stuck labels on cans of the rich local produce – apple slices, pears in syrup, rhubarb, peas and beans. Her father had got Sally ready for school, washed, fed and dressed her. When her mother was on night shifts, Sally would not see her for days on end, going about the little terraced house on tiptoe for fear of waking the short-tempered breadwinner. When she worked during the day, her mother would return exhausted and fractious and, more often than not, would nod off in her chair half-way through Sally's account of events at school.

Sally did well, very well by her parents' standards. She won a place at Rexbridge Grammar School – entailing long walks and bus journeys and even earlier rising – and there caught the attention of one of the school's governors. Dr Pertwee, the formidable unmarried daughter of a famous suffragette, singled Sally out as one who could go far. Heedless, it seemed, of what the child herself might want, much less the child's parents, she used her influence to find her scholarships, thinking this would stop her parents resenting any stretching out of Sally's education. She encouraged her interest in science and she coached her, in person, for a place at Rexbridge's medical school.

Since he had played a mother's role, Sally underestimated and overlooked her father, as her friends did their mothers. When he relinquished his sticks for a wheelchair, she found she ceased to even think of him as a man.

She was always torn, however, dreadfully torn, between the antithetical worlds education and her family represented for her. She frequently went straight to Dr Pertwee's rooms in Rexbridge after school. Dr Pertwee served her nutritious sandwiches, fruit and milk like any mother and pressed her through her homework but she also encouraged Sally to discuss subjects like death, politics, religion and marriage that were tacitly accepted as undiscussable at home. Dr Pertwee lent her books outside the school syllabus, and taught her the facts of life in the same calm fashion she used to explain the reproductive systems of horse chestnuts and crested newts. She gave her tea out of bone china cups so fine Sally saw the light through them, and took her on weekend excursions to examine Greek vases and doomy Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the Sadlerian Museum. Sally harboured the curious images and forbidden subjects, the crustless sandwiches and perfumed tea like things stolen and therefore unsharable. What else could she do with them? They sat as awkwardly on her home life as a mink cape would on her narrow, bony shoulders.

For better or worse, her home life was still the one she was born with and demanded a kind of genetic loyalty. She was as keen to please her parents as any child and as eager for their love. With the onset of adolescence and her mother's hasty lessons in how to wear the uncomfortable belt that held her Dr White's towels in place, she longed to emulate her mother's poise and savvy. She knew enough to suspect that her mother's chic was a cheap thing, worked up from images of Gloria Grahame and Lana Turner, but at the age when everything about her own body appalled her, she sensed too that her mother's way of inhabiting a dress or lighting a cigarette might, in certain circumstances, prove a stronger currency than Dr Pertwee's unsensuous wit and desiccated culture. Looking back on those days, Sally was astonished that the two women had never met. Sally's mother had no time to waste at school open days or prize-givings, even had she wanted to attend them, and Dr Pertwee was hardly going to join her mother for a darts match. Sally dared not suggest they invite her for a Sunday lunch, the way they sometimes did her parents' relatives, for fear of creating extra work for them to complain about.

In becoming her friend and patroness, however, and in opening Sally's eyes to a wider realm of possibilities than her parents' outlook dared encompass, Dr Pertwee alienated her from her home. As she grew towards school leaving age, Sally found her parents increasingly prudish and ignorant, while their pride in her achievements was tempered by an almost superstitious fear of what they took for arrogance and ambition. Around her sixteenth birthday, she finally raised the subject with Dr Pertwee during one of the discussions Sally no longer found so daring.

'I don't mean to upset you, Sally,' Dr Pertwee said. 'I would never ever aim to supplant your mother. But you must see that a sapling sometimes needs to be transplanted a little way off from the parent tree if it is to grow to its full potential. Would you rather I saw less of you?'

'No!' Sally exclaimed. 'Of course not,' and the heat of her denial made her accept that whatever changes Dr Pertwee had wrought within her were as irreversible as if the perfumed tea and cucumber sandwiches had been the tools of bewitchment.

Sally had not quite qualified as a doctor when war broke out, but staff shortages were acute. She served her houseman years in the Red Cross. First in London amid the horrible thrill of the Blitz, then on the hospital ship in the Mediterranean, then in a military hospital in Kent. From there she was transferred to the old isolation hospital on the East Anglian coast at Wenborough, a few miles' motorbike ride from her childhood home.


Excerpted from The Facts of Life by Patrick Gale. Copyright © 2009 Patrick Gale. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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