Authors: Betty Neels
She sat down and saw that there were two cups on the tray.
So he expected coffee. She poured it out and handed him a cup and said at length:
âHowâhow nice. Iâit's a bit unexpected.'
His eyes crinkled into laughter lines. âUnexpected presents are always nice. Have you been busy?'
âYesânoânot too bad. Howâwhyâthat is, you could have brought the chocolates with you tomorrow.'
A muscle twitched at the corners of his mouth. âI had plenty of time to spare. Lilith met some of her young friends in Torquay, they asked us to join them for dinner. She thought it might be rather pleasant. After all, to come back early in the evening as I had warned her we should have to do was a tame ending to the day in face of dancing until all hours.'
Tabitha bit into a sandwich, and then, remembering her manners, offered him one.
âShe stayedâI can't believe it!' She looked at his quiet face and corrected herself. âOh, I see. She thought you would stay despite the fact that you had said you had planned to return early. She must have been surprised.'
Mr van Beek said gently: âErâyes, I believe so. I imagine she is a young lady who usually gets her own charming way.' He gave her a sharp glance. âWhat are you thinking?'
âHow clever you areânone of Lilith's young men stand a chance against youânone of them would have dared to cross her, it will intrigue her. I expect you're very experienced.'
She looked up and found him laughing silently. His voice was bland.
âProbably. How's Podger?'
Tabitha had gone a little red in the face because he had snubbed her, gently it was true, but a snub all the same, and she was sensitive to snubs. She discussed Podger's well-being politely, and just as politely enquired if her companion would like more coffee, and when he declined asked: âWhat is to happen to Podger? Mr Bow is devoted to him. Have youâthat is, do you know anywhere where they can be together?'
Mr van Beek got slowly to his large, well-shod feet. âOh, yes, I've
thought all that sort of thing out. I believe it will work very well. I'll go, you must be tired and I didn't intend to stay so long.'
Tabitha went to the door with him, seething silently because he had snubbed her for the second time. She thanked him once more for bringing the chocolates and added: âPlease thank Lilith for me when you see her. IâI don't go home very often, I'm sure you'll see her before I shall.'
He nodded in a casual manner as he got into the Bentley. His goodbye was equally casual.
Meg eyed the almost untouched sandwiches which Tabitha took into the kitchen.
âYou've hardly eaten a thing, Miss Tabby. What a nice gentleman that was. I felt sure you would want him to stay until you got back from the hospital.' She gave Tabitha an innocent look and Tabitha cried:
âMeg, you didn't say that! You didn't persuade him to stay?'
Meg was indignant. âOf course not, loveâhe just said did I mind if he waited for you, and he looked so pleasant and friendly, I just couldn't imagine anyone not wanting to talk to him. I didn't do wrong, did I, love? Don't you like him?'
Tabitha was at the sink and she didn't turn round. âYes, I like him very much, Meg,' she said, and changed the subject quickly before Meg could ask any more questions.
It was later, as she got ready for bed, that she allowed herself to think about Mr van Beek's visit and its reason. There was only one good answerâhe wanted to get on good terms with her, so that he would have an ally to plead his cause if Lilith should prove capricious. Probably he didn't realize that she and Lilith avoided each other as much as possible, and what reason had he for thinking so when Lilith asked him to deliver chocolates to her stepsister? She could hardly tell him that Lilith had sent them as a token of a triumph which she didn't want Tabitha to miss. It was the kind of gibe in which she excelled, although he would have seen it as a thoughtful gesture from the girl he was attracted to, to a possible sister-in-law. She frowned at the thought; she didn't want to be Mr van Beek's sister-in-law, she wanted to be his wife: The knowledge of this exploded inside her head like a bomb and left her trembling. She said out loud with only Podger to hear: âI must be mad! Whatever induced me toâ¦oh, Podger, what shall I do?'
Podger was asleep; as though she might get an answer from the
mirror she went to it and stared at her reflection, which stared back at her, solemn-faced and sad. He had called her Cinderella; she hadn't much liked it at the time, now it vexed her. She began to hunt through the dressing table drawers until she found what she soughtâa beauty case the nurses had given her last Christmas and which her stepmother had advised her, quite kindly, not to make use ofâas she had pointed out in her light, cold voice, Tabitha's face was better without anything other than a little powder and lipstick, by which Tabitha understood her to mean that it was best not to draw too much attention to a plain face. So she had buried it away beneath a pile of undies and almost forgotten it, but now she opened it, poking among its contents and selecting them with experimental fingers. When she was satisfied with her choice, she fetched the current copy of
opened it at its beauty page, and started doing things to her face.
She was up half an hour earlier the next morning and spent the whole of that time before her mirror, where she repeated last night's efforts to such good effect that when she went down to breakfast Meg gave her a long loving look and said at once: âThat's nice, Miss Tabitha. I like that bit of colour on your eyelids and that pretty lipstick. And your hairâthat'll look fine with your cap.'
Tabitha, gobbling toast, said uncertainly: âReally, Meg? It doesn't look silly?'
âMy dear soul, you couldn't look silly if you tried. You just go like that, all prettied up. It suits you.'
Thus encouraged, Tabitha swallowed her tea, hugged Meg with the enthusiasm of a small girl and departed for St Martin's, to enter her ward shortly afterwards, feeling self-conscious until she encountered Nurse Betts' surprised and admiring stare. All the same, she felt a little shy as she started her morning round, but she held her head high on her slender neck and although the patients stared, none of them voiced their surprise at her changed appearance; only the incorrigible Mr Prosser spoke up, and that in a voice loud enough for the entire ward to hear.
âWell, ducks,' he cried cheerfully, âI always said 'as 'ow you was a nice enough bird if yer let yourself go.' To which remark Tabitha found no answer, so she asked him rather more severely than usual how he did, to which he replied that he did all the better for seeing her all perked up. It seemed prudent to nod her well-arranged top-knot and pass on to Mr Bow.
That old gentleman, beyond giving her a searching look, made no remark about her appearance; he was far too anxious to have a report on Podger, and she obliged him with this while she examined his plastered leg, peering at its little window to make sure all was well beneath it before feeling his toes. It was only as, satisfied as to his condition, she was moving away from the bed that he said:
âThey say that beauty is but skin deep; but there are other kinds of beauty than the obvious one, and they are vastly more important.'
Tabitha, who wasn't sure if he was speaking to her or thinking out loudâa habit of the elderly, she had long ago discoveredâsaid gently: âYes, I daresay you're right, Mr Bow,' and went to say good morning to Mr Raynard who, as usual at that early hour, was feeling bad-tempered. He grumbled âmorning' at her without bothering to look up, but when she bent over his leg and said in her composed voice: âI should think you might be allowed to do more weight-bearing exercises soon', he glanced at her and then, after a first long stare, remarked: âWell, well, Tabby, you've been at the paint-pot.'
âIf you mean,' said Tabitha with dignity, âthat I've used rather more make-up than usual, I have.' She gave him an anxious glance. âDoes it look awful?' she wanted to know.
He studied her carefully. âNoâyou look different, but it suits you.'
âWhat suits who?' asked Mr van Beek from the doorway. Tabitha hadn't expected him, at least, not until after the list that morning. There were several patientsâtwo of them the laminectomies admitted the day before, now lying very quiet and clean in their theatre gowns, awaiting the telephone call which would send them on their way, each in his turn, to the operating table. But before this could happen, Mr van Beek needed to be there, scrubbed and waiting for them. As it was, he was leaning against the end of Mr Raynard's bed, looking so idle and elegant that it was hard to imagine that in half an hour he would be stooping over a supine body, working with meticulous care on that same body's spinal column. Tabitha peeped at him from under her eyelashes; she thought he looked as though he intended doing nothing more strenuous than taking a stroll round the nearest park. He looked up quickly and caught her peeping and held her glance with a bright one of his own which was so searching that she reddened painfully under it, wondering what he was going to say, but when he did speak it was about something quite different.
âI've arranged for Mr Bow's things to be collected this eveningâ I suppose you wouldn't be so kind as to come with me and see them off the premises?' he added vaguely. âIf anything were to get broken or lost,' and then still more vaguely, âwitnesses, you know.'
It sounded reasonable enough, and even if it hadn't been she was well aware that she would have jumped at the chance to be with him on even such a prosaic errand as this one. She said pleasantly:
âYes, all right. I'm off at six, if that's OK.'
He nodded and turned away, lifting a vague hand in greeting and farewell to Mr Raynard. At the door he said in a businesslike way: âI had a look at those two laminectomies last night, the first oneâ Butt, isn't it? seems straightforward; I'm not sure about Mr Dennis, though, I fancy he'll prove to be difficult. I thought you might like to know so that you can deploy your staff accordingly.' He gave her a brisk nod as he went out of the door.
He was right, the second case held everything else up, so that the list dragged to a close at tea time; by then Tabitha was wishing her day at an end, what with Matron's round, the physiotherapists and visitors and Mrs Jeffs not coming because the children had measles, she was beginning to wish that she hadn't promised to accompany Mr van Beek that evening. She spent her tea break re-doing her face and hair at the cost of a second cup, so that by the time she had given Rogers the report and was ready to leave, she was both hungry and thirsty, and in consequence, a little peevish as well.
She hadn't seen Mr van Beek all day; she didn't count his hasty visit to the ward to see his first two cases after dinner, before theatre started its afternoon session, for the only conversation they had had concerned the patients. She went along to the car park, convinced that he wouldn't be there, and found that he was. He settled her beside him and as if he sensed her mood, talked with sympathy about their busy day until he drew up outside Mr Bow's lodgings.
No one came when he knocked on the door; he knocked again and stood back to look at the curtained windows. âThere should be someone at home,' he observed, and in the small silence which followed Tabitha exclaimed: âThere isâat least, there's a funny noise.'
They listened. The noise was faint and irregular, and it was Mr van Beek who said: âI believe it is someone calling for help, do you?'
Tabitha didn't answer; her nose twitched, she said urgently: âI can smell something burning.'
She looked at the calm face of the man standing beside her, wait
ing for him to do something. When he said: âGive me a hairpin, Tabitha,' she did so without question and watched silently while he picked the lock of the front door, opened it, handed her back her pin, and went inside with her closely at his heels. There was no one in the first room they enteredâa sitting room, rather cold and stiff, with unused furniture and a great many artificial flowers in monstrous glass vases; nor was there anyone in the poky little room behind it, which unlike its neighbour was very much lived in, with a large bed against one wall, the remains of a meal on the table, an oppressively large television dominating the room from one corner, and a highly decorative wallpaper which was in direct variance with the carpet. They closed the door with relief and went to the kitchen, where they found the landlady lying on the floor. She appeared to be semi-conscious, but opened her eyes and said âHelp' before closing them again. She looked pale and her hair was sticky with blood.
Mr van Beek got down on one knee beside her and gently tried out her arms and legs before picking her up and carrying her into the little back room and laying her on the bed. He said matter-of-factly, âMy bag's in the car, I'll fetch itâsee if you can find out where the fire is.'
Tabitha went back into the kitchen where the smell was stronger. It was a small room with so many built-in cupboards that there was barely room to turn round to get anything out of them. One of the cupboard doors stood open though, and inside, down among the sugar and tea and flour, was a smouldering cigarette. The fire was still in its embryo stage, but the sugar had caught, which was why the smell was so pungent. Tabitha hauled out the groceries, put the cigarette and the smouldering sugar in the sink and went to join Mr van Beek. He was examining the woman's head and said without looking up: âThere's a torch in my bagâshine it here, there's a good girl.'
There were two cuts, not very deep, but like all scalp wounds, bleeding freely. âA couple of stitches,' murmured Mr van Beek. âYou'll find some scissors in my case. Cut away the hair, will youâ I'll give her a local.'
Tabitha did as she was bid and then went into the kitchen to see what he was doing. âA saucepan,' he murmured, âto boil up the needleholder and so forthâI can't see one.'