Authors: Betty Neels
She sat up straight and faced him squarely, her plain face animated into near beauty by her rage.
“How dare you?” Her pleasant voice was a little shrill but well under control. “Until you came, I had my life planned and everything wasâ¦ Can't you see you've stirred me up? I was happy before.”
“Happy? With your broom and no chance of a glass slipper?” He got up and pulled her out of her chair and held her hand in his.
“Tabitha, shall we not be friends? After all, I expect to see a great deal of you in the future.”
Tabitha stared ahead of her at his white drill coat. She was thinking that, when he married Lilith, it would be so much more comfortable if they all got on well together.
She said in a bewildered voice, “Could we be friends?”
Tabitha felt his hands tighten on her own. “Yes, Tabby.” He let go of one hand and lifted her chin and gave her a long look, then kissed her on the cheek.
A nice brotherly kiss, thought Tabitha.
Romance readers around the world were sad to note the passing of
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, and her spirit and genuine talent will live on in all her stories.
THE BEST OF
opened the door of Men's Orthopaedic ward with the outward calmness of manner for which she was famed throughout St Martin's Hospital, although inwardly she seethed with the frustration of having to leave her half-eaten supper, combined with the knowledge that within half an hour of going off duty after a tiresome day, it would be her almost certain lot to have to remain on duty to admit the emergency she had just been warned of. She had already calculated that the patient would arrive at about the same time as the night staff, which meant that she would have to admit him, for the night nurses would be instantly caught up in the machinery of night routine and the night sisters would be taking the day reports.
She frowned heavily, an act which did nothing to improve her looks, for her face was unremarkable enough with its undistinguished nose, wide mouth and hazel eyes, whose lashes, of the same pale brown of her hair, were thick enough but lacked both curl and length. Her hair was one of her few good points, for it was long and thick and straight, but as she wore it tidily drawn back into a plaited coil, its beauty was lost to all but the more discerning. Not that many of those she met bothered to look further than her face, to dismiss her as a nice, rather dull girl; if they had looked again they would have seen that she had a good figure and quite beautiful legs. The fact that they didn't look for a second time didn't bother Tabitha in the leastâindeed, it gave her considerable amusement, for she was blessed with a sense of humour and was able to laugh at herself, which, she reminded herself upon occasion, was a very good thing. She had plenty of friends anyway, and although she was considered something of a martinet on the ward, the nurses liked her, for she was considerate and kind and didn't shirk a hard day's work.
Nurse Betts and Mrs Jeffs, the nursing auxiliary, tidying beds at the far end of the ward, watched her neat figure as she walked towards them, and Betts said softly:
âYou know, Mrs Jeffs, she's got a marvelous shape and a lovely
voice. If only she'd do something to her hairâ¦' She broke off as Tabitha reached them.
âAn emergency,' she said without preamble. âWill you get one of the top beds ready, please? We'd better have him near the officeâit's a compound fracture of tib and fib. He's eighty years old and he's been lying for hours before he was discovered. They're getting some blood into him now, but they won't do anything until tomorrow morning; he's too shocked. I'll lay up a trolley just the same.' She smiled a little and looked almost pretty.
The trolley done, she went back into the ward to start her last round, an undertaking which she always thought of as the Nightingale touch, but the men seemed to like it and it gave her the chance to wish each of them an individual good night as well as make sure that all was well as she paused for a few seconds by their beds. She started at the top of the ward, opposite to where Nurse Betts and Mrs Jeffs were still busy, coming to a halt beside a bed whose occupant was displaying a lively interest in what was going on. He was a young man of her own age, recovering from the effects of a too hearty rugger scrum, and he grinned at her cheerfully.
âHullo, Sisterâhard luck, just as you're due off. Hope it's someone with a bit of life in 'em.'
âEighty,' said Tabitha crisply, âand I fancy he's the one you should be sorry for. How's the leg?'
He swung its plastered length awkwardly. âFine. Pity old Sawbones is out of commission, he might have taken this lump of concrete offâI bet the new bloke'll keep it on for weeks. What's he like, Sister?'
âI haven't an idea,' said Tabitha, âbut be sure you'll do as he says. Now settle down, Jimmy, there's a good boy.' Her voice was motherly and he said instantly, just as though she were twice his age: âYes, Sister, OK. Goodnight.'
Tabitha went on down the neat row of beds, pausing by each one to tuck in a blanket or shake a pillow and now and then feel a foot to make sure that its circulation was all it should be.
The ward was almost aggressively Victorian with its lofty ceiling and tall, narrow windows, and the faint breeze of the summer's evening seemed to emphasise this. Tabitha had a sudden longing to be home, instantly dismissed as she fetched up by Mr Prosser's bed. Mr Prosser had two broken legs because the brakes on his fish and chip van failed on a steep West Country hill when he was on his
way to the more remote villages with his appetising load. Tabitha's nose twitched at the memory of the reek of fish and chips which had pervaded the ward for hours after his arrival. Even now, several weeks after his admission, the more humorous-minded of his companions in misfortune were apt to crack fishy jokes at his expense. Not that he minded; he was a cockney by birth and had migrated to the West Country several years earlier, satisfying a lifelong urge to live in the country while at the same time retaining his native humour. He said now:
â'Ullo, ducks. What's all the bustle about? Some poor perisher cracked 'is legs like yours truly?'
Tabitha nodded. âThat's rightâbut only one. How are the toes?'
âAll there, SisterâI wriggled 'em like you said. How's 'Is Nibs?'
âAs comfortable as possible. I'll tell Mr Raynard you enquired, shall I?'
âYesâ'e's been 'oist with 'is ownâ¦' he hesitated.
âPetard,' finished Tabitha for him. âHard luck, wasn't it?'
She spoke with genuine sympathy. It was indeed hard luck for the senior orthopaedic surgeon to have fallen down in his own garden and broken his patella into two pieces. He had been brought in late that afternoon and had largely been the cause of Tabitha's tiresome day, for whereas his patients were willing to lie still and have done to them whatever was necessary for their good, Mr Raynard had felt compelled to order everyone about and even went so far as to say that if he wanted his damn knee properly attended to he'd better get up and do it himself, which piece of nonsense was properly ignored by those ministering to him. He had had the grace to beg everyone's pardon later on and had even gone so far as to thank God that he was in his own ward and in Tabitha's capable hands. Having thus made amends he then demanded the portable telephone to be fetched, and ignoring the fact that the staff were longing to get him settled in his bed, had a long conversation, his share of which enabled his hearers to guess without much difficulty that he was arranging for someone to do his work. He laid the receiver down at length and fixed Tabitha with, for him, a mild eye.
âThat's settled. A colleague of mine has just given up his appointment prior to going on a series of lecture tours, he's coming down tomorrow to see to thisâ' he waved an impatient hand at his splinted knee. âHe'll take over for me until I can get about.' He
grinned at her. âHe's an easy-going chapâhe'll be a nice change from me, Tabby.'
She had said, âOh yes' in a neutral voice, thinking privately that probably the new man would be even worse than the other old friend of Mr Raynard's, who had come for a week when he was down with 'flu. He had been easy-going tooâhis rounds had been leisurely and totally lacking in instructions to either herself or the houseman, but hours later, usually as she was preparing to go off duty, he would return to the ward, full of splendid ideas which he wanted to put into operation immediately.
She walked on slowly down the ward, passing the time of day with each patient while she wondered why Mr Raynard chose to lie in discomfort and a fair amount of pain until this colleague of his should arrive in the morning, and then remembered that George Steele, his registrar, was out for the evening and wouldn't be back until very late, and there really wasn't anyone else.
She was on her way up the other side of the ward now and there were only Mr Pimm and Mr Oscar left before the two empty beds at the top of the ward. She stood between the two men, each of whom had a miniature chess board balanced on their chests, and Mr Pimm rumbled:
âHe's got me, Sisterâit's taken him the whole evening, but he's finally done it.'
âHow?' asked Tabitha, remembering with a grief she still felt keenly the games of chess she and her father had played before he had married again. It was one of the memories she tried her best to forget, and she thrust it aside now and listened intelligently to Mr Oscar's triumphant explanation before wishing them a cheerful good night and going finally into the cubicle outside her office.
Mr Raynard was waiting for her, looking bad-temperedâsomething which she ignored, for she had long ago learned not to mind his bristling manner and sharp tongue. Now he asked; âIs there something coming in?'
She told him briefly and added: âIf you're quite comfortable, sir, I won't stayâthere are several thingsâ¦I hope you'll sleep well. You've been written up for what you asked for and I hope you'll take itâyou need a good sleep. Nothing after midnight, either, in case you go to theatre earlyâthat depends upon your colleague, I imagine. I shall be here at eight o'clock anyway, and your pre-meds are written up.'
Mr Raynard snorted. âAll nicely arranged. You'll go with me to the theatre, of course.'
Tabitha raised her eyebrows. âIf you insist, sirâthough I must remind you that it's theatre day tomorrow and there's a list from here to there; you made it out yourself last week.'
Mr Raynard looked sour. âWell, you've got a staff nurse who's quite able to carry out your pernickety ideas.' He added reluctantly, âYou run the ward so efficiently that it could tick over very well by itself.'
Tabitha looked surprised. âFancy you saying that,' she remarked cheerfully. âI'll be getting too big for my boots!' Her too-wide mouth curved into a smile. âJust for that, I'll take you to theatre, sir.'
Her quick ear had caught the sound of trolley wheels coming down the corridor. âThere's our patient, I must go.'
The old man on the trolley looked like Father Christmas; he had a leonine head crowned with snow-white hair and his handsome old face was wreathed in whiskers. He groaned a little as he was lifted on to the bed, but didn't open his eyes. It was a few minutes later, after he had been tucked into the warmed and cradled bed and Tabitha had checked his pulse and turned back to take a second look at him, that she encountered his startlingly blue gaze. She said at once: âHullo, you're safe and sound in hospital. How do you feel?'
His voice came threadily. âNot badânot bad at all, thank you, Sister.'
She smiled. âGood. Then will you close your eyes and go to sleep again? Presently, when you've had a rest and a little nap, one of us will answer any questions you may want to ask. Unless there's anything worrying you now?'
He closed his eyes, and Tabitha looked to the drip and checked his night drugs and was on the point of turning away when he said in a voice which was a little stronger: âThere are one or two questions. What is the time?'
She told him and he frowned so that she asked quickly: âIs there someone who should know you are here? We got your address from your papers in Casualty, but there was no one home when the police called.'
âMy catâPodgerâhe'll wonder what's happened. My landlady won't bother. He can't get outâhe'll starve.'
âIndeed he won't,' said Tabitha instantly. âI'm going home in a
very few minutes. I live quite close to you, I'll feed your cat and see what arrangements I can make, so don't worry.'
He smiled a little. âThere isn't anyoneâ¦' he began. He closed his eyes and Tabitha waited for him to say something more, but he didn't; Pethedine and shock and weariness had carried him off between them to a merciful limbo.
It was almost ten o'clock by the time she left the hospital in her small Fiat. A few minutes' drive took her through the main streets of the city and into the older, shabbier quarter where she found her patient's house without difficulty. It was one of a row of two-storied Victorian houses which at one time would have been described as desirable family residences, although now they were let out in flats or rooms.
The woman who answered Tabitha's knock, had a flat Midlands accent which sounded harsh to Tabitha's West Country ears. She said stridently:
âWhat d'yer want?' and Tabitha felt a sudden pity for the old man she had just left, and for his cat. She explained why she had called and the woman stood aside to let her in with casual cheerfulness. âUpstairs, dearâback room, and I 'opes no one expects me to look after 'is room or that cat of 'is. I've enough ter do.'
She opened a door and shuffled through it, shutting it firmly on Tabitha, who, left on her own, went briskly up the stairs and into the back room. She switched on the light, closed the door behind her and looked around. The room was small and very clean, and although most of its furniture was strictly of the sort found in furnished rooms, she was surprised to see what she took to be some good pictures on its walls, and several pieces of Wedgwood and Rockingham china on the mantelpiece. There was a desk in one corner of the room tooâa beautiful piece of furniture which she thought to be Sheraton; it bore upon it a small ormolu clock and a pair of silver candlesticks which would probably have paid the rent for a year. It wasn't her business, anyway. She set about looking for Podger.
He was squeezed under the bed, a large black cat with a worried expression on his moonlike face. She gave him bread and milk which he gobbled noisily and then looked at her for more. It was impossible to leave him alone, at the mercy of anyone who chose to remember him. She gathered him up easily enough and went downstairs and knocked on the landlady's door. Podger cringed a little as
it was opened and Tabitha said more firmly than she had meant to: âI'll look after the cat. Perhaps you would be good enough to lock the door whileâ¦'