Authors: Betty Neels
âNothingâat least nothing to do with the ward. I was wonderingâ' he sounded diffident, âif you're going to see about Mr Bow's rent and so forth, if I might come with you. Perhaps the landladyâ¦?' He paused delicately and Tabitha thought that he must have possessed himself of quite a lot of inside information about Mr Bow's circumstances. It would indeed be helpful if he were to parley with the landlady. She said thoughtfully:
âYes, I think it might be easier if you were to see her. I was going now, on my way homeâI could give you a lift.'
âYour car? Can you leave it hereâwe'll use mine. Are you on duty early tomorrow?'
âNo, not until eleven. I suppose I could catch a bus.'
âRight, that's settled.' He looked at his watch. âTwenty minutes' time, thenâthe staff car park.' He went back into the ward without waiting for her to answer.
Tabitha went to the changing room and changed into the pale blue jersey dress she had worn to work that morning, wishing at the same time that she had worn something more eye-catching. Not that she had any hope of Mr van Beek's grey eyes resting on her for more than a few moments. How wonderful it would have been, she thought, if he had asked her out, not just to show him where Mr Bow lived, but because she was lovely to look at and amusing. She uttered an impatient sigh, tugged the pins impatiently from her hair and re-did it even tighter than usual, taking a perverse satisfaction in adding to the mediocrity of her appearance.
medical staff had a car park of their own on the right of the hospital forecourt. It was almost empty at this time of day, for the normal day's rounds were done and the theatres had finished at four o'clock and it was still too early for any possible extra visits to ill patients. There were only three cars in it, two of which Tabitha instantly recognized; the souped-up Mini Mr Jenkins, the gynae consultant, affected, and the elderly, beautifully kept Austin saloon the radiologist had bought some fifteen years previously and had never found necessary to change. The third car was a Bentley T convertible of a pleasing and unobtrusive shade of grey, in whose driving seat Mr van Beek was lounging. As Tabitha approached he got out, ushered her in to sit beside him and enquired in a friendly voice where Mr Bow lived.
âAbout five minutes' drive,' said Tabitha, and felt regret that it wasn't five hours. âThe quickest way is to turn left into the High Street, down Thomas Street and turn right at the bottom of the hill.'
He let in the clutch. âAre you in a hurry?' he enquired mildly.
Tabitha blinked her thick short eyelashes. âNo,' she said in a practical voice, âbut I should think you would beâyou must have had a hard day and I don't expect you want to waste your evening.' She gave him a brief enquiring look and wondered why he looked amused.
âNo, I don't intend to,' he agreed gravely. âIs this where we turn right?'
They were almost there; Tabitha wished she were Sue, who would have known how to turn even such a short encounter as this to good advantage. She said a little abruptly: âIt's this row of housesâthe fourth from the end,' and even as she spoke he was bringing the car to a gentle halt. They were standing on the doorstep waiting for someone to answer their ring when Tabitha asked: âWhat are we going to say?'
Mr van Beek looked down at her earnest face and said lazily:
âIf you wouldn't mind just mentioning who I amâ¦' The door
opened and the woman she had seen the previous evening stood in front of them. There was a cigarette dangling from her lip and her hair was caught up in orderly rows of curlers under a pink net. Without removing the cigarette, she said: âHullo, you again,' and gave Tabitha an unwilling smile which widened when she looked at Mr van Beek.
âGood evening,' said Tabitha, âI said I should be comingâ¦this is Mr van Beek who wishes to make some arrangement about Mr Bow.'
The woman stood aside willingly enough for them to go in and Mr van Beek thanked her with charm; still with charm but with a faint undertone of command he said: âIf you will be good enough to come with usâ' and when the woman looked surprised, âWe intend to pack up Mr Bow's possessions. He is an old friend of mine and wishes me to arrange for them to be stored; he won't be coming back here.'
Mr Bow's landlady bridled as she opened the door. âNot coming back, ain't 'e? I'll need a week's rent in lieuâand there's 'is washing.'
Mr van Beek was standing in the middle of the little room, looking at everything, his face inscrutable. âYou shall have whatever is owing to you,' he stated, and there was faint distaste in his quiet voice. âBe good enough to tell us which of these things belong to Mr Bow and we will pack them up while you are making out your bill, then you might return, please, and make sure that we have forgotten nothing.'
The woman said carelessly: âOK, if that's 'ow you want it. The silver's 'is and them pictures and the desk; there's a case under the bed too.' She crossed the room to open the drawers in a chest under the window. â'Ere's 'is clothes.' She went back to the door. âDon't take nothing of mine,' she cautioned as she went.
Tabitha already had Mr Bow's case open on the bed. She crossed the room and in her turn, started to investigate the chest of drawers.
âPoor old gentleman,' she observed, half to herself, âhow he must have hated it here.'
Mr van Beek had seated himself upon the table, swinging one long leg and looking around him in a thoughtful manner. âAre you in a hurry?' he asked for the second time that evening.
Tabitha had scooped up an armful of clothes. âNot really,' she
answered cautiously as she bore them back to the bed. Was he going away to leave her to do all the work? Apparently not.
âThen do leave that for a moment and sit down.'
âBecause I think that you are a sensible young woman and we have to get Knotty's future settled, more or less.'
Tabitha put her burden on the bed and perched on the bed beside it, wondering why his opinion of her good sense gave her so little pleasure. She crossed her hands tidily in her lap and said tranquilly: âI'm listening.'
He said unexpectedly: âYou're a very restful girl. Most women are forever patting their hair or putting on lipstick or peering at themselves in those silly little mirrors they carry around.'
She made no answer. She felt fairly sure that doing all of these things would make little difference to her appearance, but there seemed little point in telling him so, for it was surely something he could see for himself. She suspected that he was a kind man, wishful of putting her at her ease. He smiled at her and she smiled back, and when he got out his pipe and enquired: âDo you mind?' she shook her head, feeling at ease with him.
âMr Bow,' he began, âwas my science tutor at university. We struck up quite a friendship, for he had known my father when he was alive and had been to our home several times. He was a keen sailor when he was youngerâstill is, I daresayâand so am I. We did a good deal of sailing together, the pair of us. When I went back to Holland he visited me from time to time, then about five years ago he didn't answer my letters any more and when I went to his home, no one knew where he was. Each time I came to England I made an effort to find him, but without success, and then, todayâthere he was.' He looked round the room. âObviously fallen on bad times, if these few things are all he has left. He's a proud old man, which probably accounts for his silence and disappearance, and he'll be difficult to help. When he's better I think I could persuade him to come home with me for a holiday, but what then?'
Tabitha hadn't interrupted at all, but now she said: âI don't know where you live, but if it's a town of any size, could he not teachâ English perhaps if he's to live in Hollandâjust enough to make him feel independent? I know he's eighty, but there's nothing wrong with his brain.'
âI think you may be right. A holiday first, possibly with one or two othersâBill and Muriel Raynard perhaps. It's worth going into.'
He got up. âThank you for your suggestion. I believe I'll act upon it when the time comes. In the meantime we had better see to this stuff.'
Tabitha got to her feet. âYou'll need something to put the silver and china into. How about the desk drawersâare they locked?'
He tugged gently. âNoâif we can get everything into them, I can get someone to collect the desk.' He roamed around, collecting old newspapers, and started to wrap the silver carefully. Tabitha finished filling the suitcase, closed it, and began on the china. âI'll take the case with me,' she promised, âMr Bow will want some things later.' Her eyes lighted on a pile of books in a corner of the room. âI'd better take those as well.'
âNo,' said Mr van Beek positively, âI willâand the clothes. I'll put them in the car and drop them off at the hospital as I go past later on. Do you live close by?'
She thought he had probably had enough of her prosaic company. âOh yes. A few minutes' walk.' She added, to make it easier for him: âI enjoy walking,' and when he replied: âSo do I,' it wasn't what she had expected him to say. The appearance of the landlady prevented further conversation and Tabitha sat down on the bed again and listened to Mr van Beek putting the woman in her place with a blandness which most effectively concealed his intention of having his own way, so that she presently went away again, clutching the money he had given her and looking bewildered, for she had gained the impression that he was one of those casual gentlemen who didn't bother to look at bills, only paid them.
âThe shark!' observed Tabitha as the door closed upon the lady of the house. âI wonder how many times she charged Mr Bow for laundry which never went.' She got to her feet once more and went round the room, opening and shutting cupboards and drawers to make sure nothing had been overlooked while her companion watched her with a little smile. âNothing,' she remarked unnecessarily and went to the door, waiting for him. He picked up the case and the books and led the way downstairs and out to the car where she said awkwardly: âWell, goodbye, Mr van BeekâI hope your eveningâ¦' She got no further.
âGet in,' he said mildly. âI've no intention of leaving you to walk home.'
Tabitha opened her mouth, but before she could utter, he said again: âDo get in.' She did as she was told then, and when he had settled her in the seat beside him, she said: âIt's up Thomas Street and left at the traffic lights, straight on past the station, and then the first turning on the left.'
They talked only commonplaces during the short drive and when he drew up outside her flat she prepared to get out immediately, longing to ask him in but deciding against it because he might probably accept out of politeness. He leaned across her and opened the door and said casually:
âIt's a full round tomorrow, so I'm toldâwe shall see each other then. Thank you for your help.'
She got out before she answered him. âYesâI'm on for the rounds. IâI was glad to help, although you made it all very easy.' She smiled, feeling a little shy, and was relieved when Meg flung the house door open and called in her soft voice: âThere you are, Miss Tabby, late again!' Which remark made it easy for Tabitha to say: âWell, I must goâgood night, sir.' She stood back and he closed the car door, lifted a hand in salute and eased the big car slowly forward and away. She watched it until a bend in the road hid it from sight, then went indoors to answer Meg's questions.
Mr van Beek arrived dead on time for his ward round, which Tabitha found a refreshing change from Mr Raynard, who had a disconcerting habit of turning up either much too early or so late that the whole ward routine was thrown out of gear. She met the party at the door, looking calm and unruffled and very neat, so that no one looking at her would have believed her if she had recounted just how much work she had already got through, and certainly no one thought to ask; Mr van Beek gave her a pleasant and impersonal good morning and Mr Steele and Tommy Bates, the houseman, had both said âHullo, Tabby,' which was what they always said. In the ward they would be careful to address her as Sister for the benefit of the patients, which was a waste of time anyway, for she was aware that they all called her Tabby behind her back. As George Steele had once remarked, Tabby was such a cosy name. Tabby had shuddered at his words, glimpsing a perpetual picture of herself getting cosier and cosier over the years until someone, some day, would prefix the Tabby with the word old.
This morning, however, there was no fear of thatâindeed, she looked a great deal younger than her twenty-five years, for although
her hair was still screwed ruthlessly into its severe bun, there was a pinkness in her cheeks which gave her eyes an added sparkle, although her greeting was sedate enough. She had already done her morning round, and primed with her mental list of plasters due for changing, extensions that needed adjusting, pains for investigation and several urgent requests from patients to go home, she advanced on Jimmy's bed, where she stationed herself opposite Mr van Beek, handed him the patient's board wordlessly, and waited while he read it.
âThe plaster's due off, I see, Sister.' He glanced at Tommy Bates. âIf Mr Bates would be good enough to do this, I will come back presently and have a look.' He smiled at the jubilant look on Jimmy's face. âThat doesn't mean that you're going to get up and walk homeâbut we will have it X-rayed just once more, and if the result is what I expect it to be, then we'll get you on your legs again. I'll discuss it with Sister presently.'
He turned away, leaving Jimmy grinning at Tommy Bates, who played rugger himself and was already wielding the plaster cutters with a masterly hand. Mr van Beek had reached the next bed when he asked over his shoulder:
âWhere do you play, Jimmy?'
âAh yesâdone during a tackleâ¦'
âRugger player yourself, sir?' ventured Jimmy.
Mr van Beek gave a half smile. âErâyes, but some years ago, I'm afraid.' He turned away and became instantly engrossed in a sub-capital fracture of femur which Mr Raynard had dealt with a few weeks previously, by means of a metal prosthesis. Old Mr Dale was a difficult patient, now he saw a new face to which he might grumble. Which he did at some length, while Mr van Beek listened with an impassive face and Tabitha and George Steele stood impassively by, listening to Mr Dale blackening their characters with no sign of discomfort, for they shared the view that an irascible old gentleman of well over seventy who had grumbled all his life was now too old to change his ways, and as neither of them had done any of the things of which they were accused, they didn't allow him to worry them. Nor, it seemed, did Mr van Beek, for when the old gentleman had at last finished complaining, he said soothingly:
âYesâwe all appreciate how tiresome it is for you to stay in bed, Mr Dale, and how irksome it is for you not to be able to sit in a chair.
I feel sure that it has been explained to you why this is. However, as it distresses you so much, I fancy we may be able to help.' He looked at Tabitha, his grey eyes twinkling. âGentle traction here, I think, Sister, don't you?' He removed his gaze to Mr Steele. âI'll leave you to deal with that, if I may, Steele. A couple of weeks should sufficeâthat will bring us to a month after the operation, will it not? Time enough for the prosthesis to have become firm.'