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Once For All Time

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«Once For All Time» - Бетти Нилс

Clotilde Collins has worked with Dr. James Thackery at busy St. Alma's Hospital in London for three years, but she's never considered their relationship as anything more than solidly professional.Then tragedy strikes and James steps in to take charge of Clotilde's shattered world, offering her his unhesitating comfort and support.How easy it would be to fall in love with him. Except he's already committed to another woman….
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Once for All Time Betty Neels

“Do you know what that is?” he asked her.

Clotilde took a steadying breath and did her best to behave normally, which was difficult in the circumstances. “No,” she managed.

“That’s my farewell salute to Sister Clotilde Collins.” He grinned at her. “You can think about that until I see you again, Tilly.”

He was gone—just like that, leaving the office door open. She wanted to shout a dozen questions at him. Did he know she was leaving?

Or was it, she wondered, an oblique way of telling her he had decided to marry Dr. Mary Evans after all?

Romance readers around the world were sad to note the passing of BETTY NEELS in June 2001. Her career spanned thirty years, and she continued to write into her ninetieth year. To her millions of fans, Betty epitomized the romance writer, and yet she began writing almost by accident. She had retired from nursing, but her inquiring mind still sought stimulation. Her new career was born when she heard a lady in her local library bemoaning the lack of good romance novels. Betty’s first book, Sister Peters in Amsterdam, was published in 1969, and she eventually completed 134 books. Her novels offer a reassuring warmth that was very much a part of her own personality. She was a wonderful writer, and she will be greatly missed. Her spirit and genuine talent will live on in all her stories.

Once for All Time

Betty Neels




Title Page









WOMEN’S MEDICAL was quiet, for the Senior Consulting Physician’s round had just begun. Dr Thackery was already at the first bed; a large man and tall, with lint-fair hair thickly sprinkled with grey, and blue heavy-lidded eyes. Oblivious of the admiring gaze of his patients fastened upon his handsome head, he bent over the elderly woman he was examining, his own gaze fixed on the wall behind her bed while he prodded gently.

Presently he said over his shoulder: ‘Sister, I think we’ll have another X-ray.’ He had a deep deliberate voice, and his newly appointed House Physician drew in her breath at the sound of it and closed her eyes in a lovesick fashion. Clotilde handed over the appropriate form and gave her a quick amused glance as she did so. Everyone—that was, everyone female fell for Dr Thackery; such a silly waste of time too, because he was quite oblivious of their adoring looks. She had worked for him for three years now and never once had he cast an eye, even faintly interested, at any one of the nurses, sisters or women doctors working at St Alma’s. He wasn’t married, although he had been seen on numerous occasions with a variety of girls—and good luck to him, mused Clotilde, briskly handing the signed form to Dr Evans, who received it as though it were a gift from heaven, blushing heavily. He was nice, kind and thoughtful and almost annoyingly placid, although she had upon occasion felt acute pity for whoever he was hauling over the coals in that calm courteous voice, chilly with icy displeasure. But never with her; they enjoyed a pleasant relationship, a detached friendliness which was quite impersonal. Away from the ward she knew nothing about him, nor was she curious, and if he was to have called her Clotilde instead of Sister Collins she would have been dumbstruck. That he mostly looked at her as though he didn’t see her properly didn’t vex her in the least; she was a pretty girl with dark thickly fringed eyes, a straight nose and a wide curving mouth and hair as dark as her eyes, inclined to curl and which she screwed into a bun on top of her head, adding another inch or two to her tall and splendid figure. Possessed of these attributes, she had never lacked attention from men, and now that she and Bruce were engaged, she had little interest in anyone else.

Dr Thackery made his leisurely way to the next bed and she went with him, notes ready to hand, her mind now wholly on her work; which was more than could be said for Dr Evans, or, for that matter, his patient.

Miss Knapp was fiftyish, thin, refined and with a tongue as sharp as her equally sharp nose. But during Dr Thackery’s round the sharpness was hidden under a die-away behaviour calculated to attract his sympathy.

Only it didn’t. His manner towards her couldn’t be faulted; Clotilde had to admit that his bedside manner was flawless, he had examined her, asked a few pertinent questions, assured her that she would be going home within a few days, and passed on to the next bed before she could squeeze out a single tear of self-pity.

A different kettle of fish here. Old Mrs Perch lay quietly, seldom speaking, and then only to thank someone for whatever they had done for her. Leukaemia, held at bay by Dr Thackery for hard fought months, was at last catching up with her; she knew it and so did he, but he sat on the edge of the bed, engaging her in cheerful talk between his questions, and was answered with equal cheerfulness. ‘And this dear girl,’ whispered Mrs Perch, nodding at Clotilde, ‘always there when she’s wanted—you have no idea what a treasure she is, Doctor.’

He dropped the lids over his eyes. ‘Oh, but indeed I have, Mrs Perch. Sister Collins is my right hand, although I shall have to find myself another one when she marries.’

Mrs Perch chuckled, it sounded like paper rustling. ‘There’ll be plenty wanting to be that; you’ll be able to take your pick, Doctor.’ She glanced at Clotilde. ‘I doubt you’ll find her equal.’

‘I doubt it too, Mrs Perch. And now I must bother you for a moment while Dr Evans takes some blood.’

He went to the end of the bed, listening to what his registrar, Jeff Saunders, had to say, half turned away from his patient. Which didn’t prevent him seeing how Dr Evans fumbled so clumsily with the syringe that Clotilde took it gently from her, took the required amount of blood without fuss and handed it wordlessly back. He said nothing; it wasn’t the first time Clotilde had given a helping hand. He stood impassively while Dr Evans transferred the blood to a test tube and then went back to his patient to bid her goodbye.

He was not to be hurried; Clotilde knew better than that. It was more than an hour by the time they had completed the round, and even then he paused at the end of the ward to discuss something with his Registrar. Clotilde thought longingly of her coffee and heaved a sigh of relief when he was at last finished and they could go to her office. The little party broke up, the social worker to go to her office, the radiographer to the X-ray room, Staff Nurse Wood to see that the ward was tidied and the patients comfortable and to send the nurses to their coffee, and Dr Thackery, Jeff Saunders and Dr Evans crowded into Clotilde’s office where she dispensed coffee and biscuits, offered bits of information when asked for them and collected the pile of forms Dr Thackery had signed. And all the while she listened carefully to his instructions; he never gave her time to write them down. She said: ‘Yes, sir,’ at intervals and relied on her excellent memory.

Finally he had finished. The small party left her office, crossed the landing and were ushered out into the wide corridor connecting the men’s and women’s medical blocks. Clotilde stood and watched them go, Dr Thackery towering over his companions, his head a little bent, deep in thought. He really needs a wife, thought Clotilde, then wondered why on earth she had thought that.

She spent the next hour with Sally Wood, making notes, seeing that the right forms went to the right departments, making sure that the instructions she had received were passed on, and by the time that was done the patients’ dinners had arrived and they both went into the ward and served the complicated diets suitable for ulcers, heart failures, kidney disease and diabetes, and that done, Clotilde left Sally to dish out the puddings while she went from bed to bed, making sure that the ladies under her care were eating their dinners, listening patiently to complaints, encouraging poor appetites, laughing at the jokes some of the convalescent ladies were making in their cheerful Cockney voices.

She went to her own dinner then, with two of the student nurses, leaving Sally and a second-year nurse to begin the business of settling everyone for their nap. But she didn’t go straight to the dining room. Bruce would be in the entrance hall waiting for her. He was on the surgical side, one of Sir Oswald Jenkins’ team, already marked out as a promising surgeon. She started down the last of the stairs and saw him standing with his back to her, talking to Sir Oswald. He was a little shorter than she was, dark-haired and good-looking, and Clotilde paused to admire him. He was ambitious, but she didn’t hold that against him—indeed, when they married, her father had said he would buy him a practice as a wedding present, and Bruce had accepted without demur. Deep inside her she had been a little unhappy about that; foolishly so, she had told herself, for it was important to him to be successful. Sir Oswald had already hinted that he might be given a senior appointment at the hospital, and that, combined with a partnership in some well established practice, would be a splendid start.

She waited quietly until the two men had finished talking, and when Sir Oswald had been ushered out of the doors to his waiting car, she nipped down the last of the stairs. ‘And what was all that about?’ she wanted to know, and was a little taken aback by Bruce’s quick frown.

‘Nothing much, just general chat.’ The frown had gone and he smiled at her. ‘Had a good morning? Old Thackery’s round, wasn’t it?’

Clotilde nodded. ‘He’s an easy man to work for. He’s got a new house doctor— Mary Evans—she’s Welsh and head over heels already. You’d think he’d notice, but he really doesn’t.

I daresay he’s got a girl somewhere or other and that makes him immune…’

Bruce said rather impatiently: ‘Must we waste time talking about him?’ And then: ‘Has he ever made a pass at you, Tilly?’

She gave him a look of utter astonishment. ‘Heavens above, no! What an idea. Whatever made you think of that?’

He shrugged his shoulders. ‘Well, you’re a pretty girl…’

She dimpled at him. ‘Why, thank you, Bruce.’ She smiled, her lovely eyes on a level with his, and at that moment Dr Thackery sauntered out of a passage and into the entrance. He passed them with a placid greeting and went through the glass double doors, and they both turned their heads to watch him.

‘Lucky devil,’ observed Bruce, ‘driving a Bentley—he must be making a packet.’

Clotilde, watching Dr Thackery driving away with the minimum of fuss, said thoughtfully: ‘Possibly he is, but he works hard and he’s so nice to his patients.’

Bruce said sourly: ‘He can afford to be; I expect his waiting room in Harley Street is packed with rich old ladies.’

Clotilde said bracingly: ‘Well, my dear, probably in ten years’ time you’ll be doing exactly as he is doing now.’ She sighed soundlessly, for Bruce did harp rather too much on the financial success of his future and not enough on the satisfaction of being a good surgeon. After all, he would be able to earn quite enough to keep them in comfort, and she didn’t expect more. Her father, a retired Army man, had always had enough; they had lived in the nice old house in Essex, she and her parents and her elder sister, married now and living in Canada, and she went home regularly to Wendens Ambo, sometimes with Bruce, sometimes alone, although she was going to miss that for a while, as they had left only a week ago to drive to Switzerland. Standing there watching the faint discontent on Bruce’s face, she thought she might go home for her days off, just to make sure that everything was all right. And if Bruce could come with her, so much the better; it might serve to remind him that he wasn’t marrying a girl without expectations. After all, her father had made them the handsome offer of a partnership, and surely after the first stepping stone, Bruce would shoot ahead.

‘I must go,’ she said. Are we doing anything this evening? I’m off at five o’clock.’

‘I’m free around six—we’ll have a drink somewhere, shall we? I’m on call for the next two nights.’

‘I’ll have days off— I’ll go home, I think and see if Rosie’s all right.’ Rosie was elderly and had been with her parents ever since she could remember. ‘Mother and Father don’t expect to be back for another two weeks.’

They parted quickly and Clotilde, already very late, hurried back to the dining room, where she joined her friends at the table set aside for sisters and ate the shepherd’s pie put before her while discussing the morning’s work.

‘What did you do to upset our James Thackery?’ asked Fiona Walters, sister on Men’s Medical. ‘Very terse this morning, in a placid way. Though I daresay it’s that new house doctor mooning over him.’

‘She’ll get over it,’ observed Clotilde comfortably ‘they all do in time, after all, he never encourages them.’ ‘Men don’t like to be chased’, declared a small dark girl at the end of the table. Mary Evans was the acknowledged chaser in St Alma’s and the table erupted in laughter.

Clotilde went home two days later. She hadn’t seen Bruce since their few hours together in the evening, but she hadn’t expected to. He had no time to himself when he was on call; it was a state of affairs to which she had become accustomed. She drove herself, leaving early in the morning. The sky was dull and grey and it wasn’t quite light, because there was a touch of winter about October already, but the traffic wasn’t too heavy and she pushed the Mini ahead, making for the A11. Once clear of the city traffic and with Epping behind her, she sent the little car along at a good speed. She would be home in time for coffee for the journey was less than fifty miles. She and Rosie would sit at the kitchen table and gossip, then while her lunch was cooking she would take Tinker, the old retriever, for a walk. There had been a card from her mother the previous evening. Clotilde smiled, thinking of the ecstatic remarks about the Swiss Lakes, and the wonderful time they were having. She would have to see that she had days off when they got home so that she could be there with Rosie to welcome them.

She was through Bishop’s Stortford by now, nearing the turning to Wendens Ambo. Saffron Walden was only two miles further on; perhaps she would go there tomorrow and have a look for a dress, something pretty for the occasional evening out she spent with Bruce.

The village, even under a grey sky, looked charming. Most of the cottages were whitewashed and thatched, their small gardens full of chrysanthemums and last snapdragons and roses. Clotilde turned off the lane to the church and went slowly along an even narrower lane and then through an open gateway, to stop before a fair-sized house, whitewashed too but with a lovely tiled roof and a handful of out-buildings. She got out of the car, to be greeted by a delighted Tinker and then by Rosie, throwing open the door, already talking. Coffee wouldn’t be a minute, and what a lovely surprise, and had Clotilde heard from her mother and father?

‘I had a card this morning,’ Rosie declared, leading the way indoors. ‘Having a lovely time, by all accounts, but it’ll be nice to have them back. You’ll stay the night?’

‘Two,’ said Clotilde contentedly. ‘I’m not on until one o’clock, so I can go up in the morning after breakfast. Rosie, its lovely to be home, and I’m famished!’

She put her things down on the oak settle in the hall and followed Rosie into the kitchen, where for the next hour they sat gossiping.

‘And when will you marry, Miss Tilly?’ asked Rosie at length.

‘As soon as Bruce can find the practice he likes.’ Clotilde frowned a little. ‘The thing is to find the right one—it’s got to be in a good neighbourhood you see.’

Bruce was adamant about that; how else was he going to be successful as a surgeon? he had wanted to know reasonably, after he had rejected several partnerships in small suburban practices; he had no intention of filling his days with run-of-the-mill patients on the NHS. Sir Oswald was the senior in a large partnership; it would be wonderful if he were to offer Bruce a job, thought Clotilde wistfully. She sometimes wondered if that was what Bruce was hoping for. He had turned down one or two quite good partnerships which would have enabled them to marry. His excuses had been flimsy ones and Clotilde had argued hotly with him each time. He had smoothed her down, though, and made her see how sensible he was being.

She passed her mug for more coffee and twisted the diamond ring on her finger. It was a solitaire, not big, but good. When they had bought it Bruce had said laughingly that it had to be presentable so that when he was established as a well known consultant surgeon, she wouldn’t need to feel ashamed of it. Clotilde, who wasn’t keen on diamonds, chose the ring he pointed out. It was impossible to tell him that she would never be ashamed of his ring, even if it was brass and glass.

She drank her coffee, helped to tidy away the mugs and went up to her room. It was a pretty place, furnished with an assortment of furniture she had chosen for herself years ago—a small brass bedstead, a dressing table of yew and a triple mirror she had discovered in the attics. The small crinoline chair had come from the attics too, and her mother had had it upholstered in the same chintz which covered the bed and draped the window. Everything was a little shabby now after so many years, but the furniture shone with Rosie’s vigorous polishing and the carpet, worn in places, was an original Moorfields. She put away the few things in her overnight bag, brushed her hair in a perfunctory fashion, and went downstairs, to whistle Tinker, call to Rosie that she was going for a walk, and leave the garden by the wicket gate in the high stone wall which separated it from the fields beyond.

There was a thin mist shrouding the distance and the grass was damp underfoot, but it was heaven after the narrow crowded streets round St Alma’s. Clotilde took the footpath away from the village and then circled round to return past the church, call at the stores to buy the chocolate Rosie loved, and go back home to steak and kidney pudding and lashings of vegetables, followed by one of Rosie’s treacle tarts.

‘I’ll get fat,’ smiled Clotilde contentedly.

‘A great strapping girl like you, Miss Tilly? There’s enough of you to carry a few pounds more. Your dear ma always wanted to be a big girl.’

‘Oh, well, she had me instead; goodness knows I’m big enough for the two of us. Rosie, when we’ve washed up I’m going into Saffron Walden. Do you want to come? And if you don’t, is there anything you want?’

‘Some more of that wool I’m using for my niece’s sweater. I’ll put my feet up while you’re gone and we’ll have a nice tea when you get back.’

Saffron Walden was bustling in a gentle way. Clotilde parked the car, bought the wool and then did a little shopping on her own account—tights and toothpaste and make-up and a crêpe blouse which would go rather well with the velvet skirt she sometimes wore when she and Bruce went out for the evening. She searched, not very hard, for a dress and then decided that she would wait until she went shopping in London, then since the dull day was fast turning into a thickening twilight, she drove back home to eat Rosie’s scones round the fire in the comfortable sitting room. Rosie hadn’t wanted to share her tea, she was old-fashioned and had strong views about keeping her place, but Clotilde wheedled her into the sitting room into the chair opposite hers and switched on the TV. There she ate almost all the scones and encouraged Rosie to talk about her youth, while Tinker lay with his head across her feet. She hadn’t felt so content and happy for a long time. St Alma’s seemed to be in another world, even Bruce seemed a vague figure, an outsider in the cosiness of the room. Nonsense, of course, she told herself briskly. He was very much part of her life, and when they were married they would come to her home together and sit round the fire and eat scones and talk…

‘A nice cheese omelette for your supper,’ Rosie’s voice stopped her dreaming, ‘and there’s a trifle. It’s nice to have someone to cook for.’

‘You’re spoiling me, Rosie. I hope you cook for yourself when you’re here alone.’

‘Course I do—and your ma told me to have Mrs Grimshaw from the Post Office up for supper whenever I want to.’

Clotilde woke the next morning to the smell of frying bacon and it was so tantalising that she got up at once, dressed in an elderly pleated skirt and a jersey and went down to the kitchen. Rosie looked up from the Aga.

‘I guessed that would bring you down smart like, Miss Tilly—just you sit down and we’ll have breakfast.’ She opened the door and Tinker came rushing in, damp from the drizzle outside. ‘Not much of a day,’ she added.

‘I’m going for a walk anyway,’ declared Clotilde. ‘I’ll go down to Audley End and cross the park, then come home through the woods. It’ll be good for Tinker.’

It took her the best part of the morning, but she didn’t care. She made easy work of the miles, not bothering about the steady drizzle, and coming back through the village she met several people she knew and stopped to chat. She got back with a fine colour and a good appetite, dried Tinker, tidied herself and ate the dinner Rosie had ready. And afterwards she did the ironing, saw to the plants in the conservatory built on to the back of the house and then retired to the sitting room fire to read while Rosie had her nap on her bed. Later, going to bed, she thought happily that it had been a lovely day, no hustle or bustle, no Miss Knapp constantly complaining, no phone calls, no rounds. For no reason at all she found herself thinking about Dr Thackery; he would be a pleasant companion with whom to walk in the rain. She suddenly was brought up short, feeling disloyal to Bruce, who hated rain anyway.

She said goodbye to Rosie and Tinker with regret the next morning. ‘But I’ll be back next week,’ she told them. ‘Mother and Father will be back on Thursday, won’t they? I won’t be able to get away before two o’clock, but they won’t be home much before tea time. I’ll bring some flowers with me.’

She waved goodbye and shot into the lane and through the village on her way back to St Alma’s. She had hung about, talking to Rosie, and if she didn’t hurry she would be late on duty. A nuisance; she had intended to go to the Surgical Wing first in case Bruce was there. Now she wouldn’t have the time.

There was barely twenty minutes left as she turned into the hospital forecourt. She ran the Mini round the side of the sprawling building and parked it, and as she got out Dr Thackery’s Bentley slid silently into the next parking lot. He should have parked in the consultants’ reserved spaces and at her look of surprise, he said: ‘I’m in a hurry and this is nearer. Have you had a pleasant time?’

‘Yes, lovely.’ She smiled at him. ‘I’m late,’ she told him.

‘Then for heaven’s sake don’t let me keep you.’ He spoke in his usual friendly fashion and turned to get his bag out of the car. But Clotilde paused to look in at the rear window at the Jack Russell sitting in the centre of the back seat. ‘Is he yours?’ she asked.

‘Yes, and he’s a she— Millie. She cadged a ride at the last minute.’

She smiled widely. ‘She’s rather gorgeous. You look as though you ought to have a Great Dane.’

His firm mouth twitched. ‘But I have. His name is George, and he’s car-sick.’

Clotilde gave a delighted chortle and then remembered the time. ‘I must fly!’ she exclaimed.

She was racing for the side door leading to the Nurses’ Home when she bumped into Bruce, but before she could speak he said crossly: ‘What was all that about? I’ve been standing here…’

She pulled up short. ‘Oh, Bruce, I’m so sorry— I was admiring Dr Thackery’s dog. A Jack Russell… I didn’t see you.’ She added unnecessarily: ‘I’m late.’

‘Then you’d better get a move on,’ said Bruce loftily.

Not the best start to the rest of the day, thought Clotilde, tearing off her suit and getting into uniform. Now she would have to try and see Bruce that evening—hours away. But by then he might have forgotten about it, and after all, she told herself reasonably, one didn’t ignore someone one worked with, especially someone as goodnatured as Dr Thackery.

The afternoon was busier than she would have liked, with two emergency admissions, Miss Knapp choosing to have an attack of hysterics just as teas were being served, and Miss Fitch next to her going into a diabetic coma. Not the easiest of days, thought Clotilde, drinking a hasty cup of tea in her office before starting on the medicine round, and to crown it all Dr Evans had been on the ward, throwing her weight around, annoying both nurses and patients. Usually Clotilde had found the women doctors easy to get on with; they cheerfully looked after themselves if they saw that the nurses were busy, but Dr Evans had had other ideas.

She insisted on having someone in attendance, and that in the middle of the bedpan round…

Clotilde went off duty at last tired and irritable, glad that the day was over. She gobbled her supper in the company of those of her friends who had just come off duty, then she went down to the lodge to see if Bruce had left a message. Old Diggs the porter looked up from his paper.

‘Dr Johnson said he’ll be free at half past nine and you was to go for a drink together.’

‘Thanks, Diggs.’ She felt suddenly much better; it would be late before she got to bed, but that would be a small price to pay for an hour of Bruce’s company. She went back to her room and changed into a dress, and since it was damp and dreary outside, a raincoat. There was no point in dressing up; the local pub was used by almost everyone at the hospital and it was so near that all one needed to do was slip on a coat or a mac.

Clotilde was prompt and it was five minutes before Bruce arrived—and not in too good a temper, she saw, her heart sinking.

‘Hallo.’ His greeting was abrupt. ‘A pity you’ve not bothered to get into something decent, now we’ll have to go to the Lamb and Thistle, I suppose.’

‘It’s a bit late…’ She didn’t know why he was in a bad temper; too much to do, probably. A drink and a quiet chat should put that right.

But it didn’t; he was edgy and ill at ease until she said forthrightly: ‘What’s the matter, Bruce? Had a bad day?’

‘Nothing’s the matter.’ He covered her hand with his and gave it a squeeze. ‘And the day was no worse than others. I had a long talk with Sir Oswald—he’s offered me a junior partnership.’

‘But that’s marvellous Bruce, absolutely wonderful— I can’t believe it! Of course you accepted?’

He shrugged. ‘How can I? I’d have to buy myself in.’ He mentioned a sum which sent her dark brows up.

‘But that’s twice what Father said he’d give us, and I don’t honestly think that he could manage any more. Do you know anyone who’d lend it to you?’

‘Yes, as a matter of fact, I do—at least, I’d have to do it through someone I know.’

‘Not moneylenders?’ asked Clotilde sharply, and got laughed at for her pains.

‘Silly darling—no, of course not, and I won’t do anything until I’ve talked to your father. He might be able to manage.’

‘I’m sure he can’t. He never talks about money, but I heard him talking to Mother about some shares that had dropped and he sounded worried.’

‘Well, it can’t be as bad as all that.’ Bruce sounded uninterested. ‘They’ve gone on holiday, haven’t they, and the house isn’t kept going on peanuts.’

He began to talk about his day and Clotilde, who would have liked to have made plans for their wedding, listened cheerfully. She wasn’t tired any more; it was splendid news that Bruce had been offered a partnership with Sir Oswald—something he had always wanted. She had wanted it too, of course; it made their future together a good deal nearer, and after all, she was twenty-five, almost twenty-six, and Bruce was thirty. They went back presently and parted in the entrance hall. Even though there was no one there, only old Diggs, they didn’t kiss. Bruce had said it was a bad example for the students.

They barely saw each other for the next couple of days. Clotilde had to be content with a quick wave from a distance and a note left at the lodge telling her that he was too busy to meet her. She accepted it more or less cheerfully; his work came first and when he was free he would be too tired to want to go out. She washed her hair, did her nails and went to the cinema with some of her friends. Bruce had said he would be free on the following day and she assumed that they would spend as much of it together as they could manage. It was Dr Thackery’s round in the morning, but she had given herself a half day and she would be free after dinner.

The round went smoothly. Clotilde was ready and waiting, with Sally beside her, loaded with case notes and X-rays, when the ward doors were opened and Dr Thackery, hedged about by Jeff Saunders, the Evans woman and the rest of them, came into the ward. His ‘good morning’ was pleasant, impersonal and brisk and Clotilde was equally brisk. After the few years they had worked together, they appreciated the fine line they had drawn together between friendship and getting on with the job. Miss Knapp was dealt with with smooth competence and a quite definite decision that she might go home on the next day, the emergency cases which had been admitted during the week were examined at some length and Mrs Perch, almost at her last breath now, was gently teased and chatted to, just as though Dr Thackery had no other patients to see.

Presently they moved on to the next bed— Mrs Butler, a mountain of a woman, propped up in bed against her pillows, puffing her way through an asthmatic attack. She took a great deal of time too, and Clotilde felt a twinge of impatience. Her delightful nose had caught the first whiff of dinners; they would never be finished on time—which meant that she would be late off duty and Bruce would have to hang around…

An urgent tap on her sleeve broke her train of thought. Clare, the ward clerk, gave her a scared look because no one was supposed to interrupt the round. She stood on tiptoe to reach Clotilde’s ear. ‘There’s a phone call for you in the Office, Sister. Urgent—they wouldn’t give a message.’

‘Did they gave their name?’ Clotilde’s whisper was almost soundless.

Clare looked helpless. ‘I didn’t ask, Sister.’

‘It might be as well if you dealt with the matter yourself,’ said Dr Thackery suddenly. ‘We’re almost finished, aren’t we?’

He looked round and smiled at her and she found herself smiling back at him, even while she deplored his eavesdropping. She nodded to Sally to take her place and hurried down the ward. It would be anxious relations of one of the patients, she had no doubt. It was a favourite ploy to ring and say it was urgent and not give a name, because that made it necessary for her to go to the phone herself instead of letting the ward clerk deal with it. She lifted the receiver and said, ‘Hullo?’ then because there were sounds of distress at the other end, she added encouragingly: ‘This is Sister Collins.’

Rosie’s voice sounded in her ear—a voice thick with tears and distress. ‘Miss Tilly—oh, Miss Tilly, however am I going to tell you? Your dear ma and pa…’

Clotilde felt her insides go cold. She asked in a rigidly controlled voice: ‘There’s been an accident, Rosie—where are they?’

‘Oh, Miss Tilly, they’ve been killed! In a car crash in France, on their way home. The police came,’ and then in a bewildered voice: ‘What am I to do?’

Clotilde felt the ice inside her spreading, her arms felt leaden, her face stiff and her brain frozen solid. She said carefully: ‘Don’t worry, Rosie, I’ll come home and see to everything.’ After a pause she added: ‘You’re quite sure, aren’t you, Rosie?’

‘Yes, Miss Tilly. Will you be long?’

‘No, a couple of hours, perhaps less.’

She put the receiver down carefully and sat down behind her desk. There was a lot to do, but just for the moment she was quite incapable of doing it.

It was ten minutes or more before Dr Thackery and his entourage reached her office. He opened the door, glanced at her frozen, ashen face, and turned round so that his bulk filled the doorway.

‘I believe Sister has had bad news,’ he said quietly. He nodded to his registrar. ‘Start the round on the Men’s Medical side will you? Staff Nurse, take over for the moment, will you, and bring some brandy here as quickly as you can.’

He didn’t wait for them to answer but went into the office again, shutting the door after him.

Clotilde hardly noticed him, but when he came close and sat on the edge of the desk in front of her chair and took her icy hands in his she said politely: ‘So sorry I didn’t finish the round, but I— I’ve had some bad news.’ She took a deep breath. ‘My parents have been killed, somewhere in France—they were on their way home from Switzerland. They go most years because Mother likes it there.’

The hands holding hers tightened. ‘My poor girl!’ Dr Thackery’s voice was very gentle, he went on holding her hands and when Sally came in with the brandy, nodded to her without speaking. When she had gone he picked up the glass. ‘You’re going to drink this because you need it,’ and like a child she did so, coughing and spluttering and catching her breath, but there was a little colour in her cheeks now.

‘That’s better. You want to go home, of course? We’ll settle that first.’ He didn’t let go of her hands, but dialled the Nursing Supervisor and presently put down the receiver. ‘That’s settled,’ he told her. ‘You can go home as soon as you want to. You have a car? Not that you’re in a fit state to drive. Is Johnson free?’

And when she nodded he picked up the phone again. Clotilde, her shocked mind dulled by the brandy, only half listened; it sounded as though there was some difficulty. She leaned forward suddenly and said: ‘Let me,’ and took the receiver from Dr Thackery. Her voice sounded odd but it was almost steady. ‘Bruce, I’ve had some bad news about—about Mother and Father. Would you drive me home?’ She added tonelessly: ‘They’ve been killed.’

His voice came over the wire very clearly. ‘I say, I am sorry—how simply frightful! Of course you must go home straight away. The thing is I simply can’t get away…’ and when she interrupted with: ‘But you’re free today,’ he went on: ‘Yes, I know, but Sir Oswald’s asked me to lunch and I simply must go—it’s my whole future. I’ll come down just as soon as I can afterwards. Why don’t you go and lie down for a bit—get someone to give you a sedative. You’ll feel more able to cope and later on we can get things sorted out.’

She didn’t speak, only gave the receiver back to Dr Thackery, her face stony and whiter than ever. She said: ‘I’ll be quite all right to drive myself. Bruce can’t manage…’ She stopped and looked at him from huge dark eyes. ‘He’s having lunch with Sir Oswald,’ she told him.

Dr Thackery said nothing at all to this, only gave her the rest of the brandy to drink and picked up the phone again. When he put it down he said with calm authority: ‘Home Sister is coming here for you, you will go to your room with her and pack a bag.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘I’ll be at the front entrance in twenty minutes. I’ll drive you home.’

The brandy had made Clotilde feel peculiar, numb and still unable to think. She stared back at him and nodded obediently.


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