Alice Bancroft, late leaving the ward, knew that the routine paperwork waiting in her office would make it later still before she’d be able to leave the floor. Not that Alice minded. She had worked her shift unremittingly, her mind focused on her duties. Nor did she mind the reporting to her of a domestic problem in the kitchen area. At another time the sheer overload generated by shortage of staff and heavy organisational duties might all have been less than welcome. But not today.
She’d been given a splendid box of crystallised fruits which she’d said she’d share and she set this open on the common room table with a note of explanation, and when there was no further request for Sister Bancroft and there really was no need for her to sign another paper she made her way almost reluctantly to the staff cloakroom to change into the clothes she had brought with her that morning.
She was scarcely aware of what she was doing but the result was good for all that. Her suit, cream and very plain, had cost a month’s salary. So, almost, had the white and cream and gold square, a drift of silk that along with her sunglasses had come from a famous London store. But she shouldn’t, she thought, have chosen today to wear this particular outfit, which had all been meant for a honeymoon. But first the honeymoon had been postponed, and then it wasn’t to happen at all.
This is hopeless, she thought, foolish. She’d simply triggered reflections on what might have been, so now she must snap out of it and use some common sense.
But she couldn’t. Not today. She gritted her teeth. Tomorrow, she told herself, tomorrow she’d again be her sharp, unselfconscious, responsible self. She brushed her fair hair into a bright halo, then checked her bag for her keys, her phone and her invitation. And when she was sure that were there she closed the locker door, examined her appearance with a half turn in front of the single long mirror, then fled the room. A minute later she was crossing the main concourse and on her way to the Old Hospital Buildings.
The air was pleasant, fresh with the smell of early summer, but Alice didn’t notice because she was reflecting little wryly on her situation. When what had happened had happened Alice had supposed part of her heart had been broken. Or, numbed as she was, that she’d think so later. She’d swallowed her pride and kept her pain to herself. Now, on what was to have been her wedding day, she’d been surprised by an odd, sick shakiness and a hurt disappointment which earlier had lessened only when she was concentrating hard on her work. Which was what she’d been successfully doing until she’d left the ward to change.
She walked quickly. She’d agreed to accept the invitation, had sent a reply and fully intended to turn up, but now that she was actually only steps away, she knew, lightheaded, that she couldn’t. She couldn’t possibly.
Distractedly, Alice turned away from the main concourse. The hospital occupied the whole of what had once been a private park and at the west end of the grounds a series of fine arcaded buildings, built on the under croft of an ancient chapel and including the whole of an ancient hospice, now housed some of the administrative and academic staff and a certain amount of non‑clinical research. She walked along the paved track to a sombre building beyond a low limit fence of black painted iron chain. She could go into the computer room, which she knew would be closed up. She had a key, and there she could get her breath.
Her mind resolved, she hurried. Jacobus Galloway, the very happily married Professor of Clinical Medicine, had a set of rooms in this, the oldest part of the building. Originally the set had been living accommodation for a resident research scholar, and although those days were gone, there was still a sofa bed in the closed off room to the right of the main door. Jacob being the man he was, the bed was most often piled to the point of landslide with borrowed books and files which were to be returned to wherever they had come from in the first place. There was also a bathroom of sorts and a separate lavatory, both of which for no reason Alice had ever discovered had been beautifully decorated in the previous half year. By contrast in the computer room the paper was falling from the wall and had been thumb tacked back more than once. Today the whole work area seemed even creakier than usual.
Alice let herself in and sat down at Jacob’s desk. But now her hands were shaking. She could scarcely go to the reception if there were any likelihood of her drawing the wrong sort attention to herself. That wouldn’t do her or the hospital any good. The visiting artist scheme was, after all, part of a programme of community support, and it had been made clear along the grapevine that it was important for anyone going to convey a reassuring impression of total competence. Well, it hadn’t been put in those words, but that was what had been meant. And for a representative of one of the Accident and Emergency surgical wards to show signs of emotional instability, wasn’t at all what was wanted.
She blinked. Why should this be happening now? True, the day itself was a reminder of what might have been but this . . .emptiness . . . and where was her handkerchief? Biting her lip, she struggled with the catch of her bag. She was fighting a threatening prickle of tears at the outer corners of her eyes when she heard the door to the next room open, and her skin seemed to tighten. As she turned it was as though some invisible force hit her, rather like a wave of pins and needles but not quite. Her eyes met, unprepared, the tall and broad-shouldered figure of a yawning man who was still pulling on a rather wonderfully laundered shirt. His dark hair was dishevelled and he seemed at first to have got something of a shock while she, too startled to speak, pushed her sunglasses further up the bridge of her nose as she recovered her breath. Then in the next second he gave a soundless grunt.
‘God,’ he said unhelpfully, then, ‘I see it’s you.’
Alice was aware of critical, confidence-shrivelling appraisal as she forced herself to meet the cool grey of eyes of Jacob Galloway’s cousin, Lowell North. At least Alice thought they were cousins. Or were they half cousins? Not that she was sure what half cousins were. Second cousins, perhaps.
He wasn’t smiling. ‘You do remember me?’
Certainly she remembered him. He wasn’t someone one would forget.
‘Yes,’ she said, disturbed. ‘Of course I remember.’ They’d first met three years before. He’d been back from America, and Jacob had briefly introduced them. Lowell North had seemed scarcely to notice. Alice had been new to the area, and though later Jacob had explained what Lowell had been doing and how long he was staying it had all been over in a couple of minutes. Lowell North had gone on to Cambridge, and then a year after that he’d returned to the United States.
Now he said, ‘He isn’t here.’
They stared at each other as Alice’s thoughts whirled. She masked her uncertainty. ‘Jacob? I know. He’s on--’
He waited. ‘A field trip. So am I, you might say.’
Neither understanding nor questioning, she nodded silently.
‘Are you,’ he asked her, and his gaze seemed to analyse her presence in the room, ‘still on the patient survey?’
Until now it hadn’t occurred to Alice that information about her might have gone casually to Lowell North. Furthermore, he now seemed plainly to be questioning quite what she was doing at Jacobus Galloway’s desk. She put her handkerchief away and stood up. The possibility that he might have seen her struggling with tears was the final humiliation.
For a moment he didn’t speak. Then, perhaps because it was clear that she wasn’t about to say anything either, he pushed his shirt under his belt and fastened the narrow buckle. ‘I’ve been asleep and when I heard you I thought you might be Olivia. I know that Jacob sometimes comes in at night.’ It was a sunlit six o’clock. ‘And at weekends.’ He was frowning. ‘Do you always wear sunglasses indoors?’ He ran his fingers through his tousled hair. ‘Sorry. I’m still not quite with it.’ He was smothering a yawn, but despite that his manner had an incisiveness which Alice couldn’t bring herself to ignore.
‘I’ll go.’ He’d given her time to pull herself together and really she hadn’t succeeded. She had no idea what was happening here and she felt too flustered to say something conventionally polite. This man was, after all, hardly a total stranger. They’d met once or twice. She’d seen him, heard about him from a distance. She’d worked out, gathered, that he was about thirty‑six and wasn’t married. ‘I’ll go now.’
‘No need. Why don’t we start again?’ He put out his hand. ‘Hello, Alice.’ S/R S/R
She suppressed a gulp. He was taller than Jacob, a tougher build all round, but not that of an athlete exactly. A team player, perhaps, a quarter back. Jacob was just about fit enough to shuffle a deck of cards. Michael had trained, relentlessly.
Before she was quite aware what had happened he had released his grip on her shocked and tingling fingers. He had moved to reach behind the room door and now began pulling on his jacket and she watched him, absorbed, her expression a little set. Jacob had occasionally referred to his cousin’s work. They shared an interest in treatment methods which connected their specialist areas, and Jacob passed across any useful material that came to hand. It was all quite informal.
He said quietly, ‘Get on with whatever you were doing.’
For the moment she’d forgotten quite what had brought her into the room at all. ‘I was on my way to the Main Hall.’ She struggled to explain. ‘It’s been turned into a gallery.’ She twisted the gilt fastener of her small purse, blinked, then brushed her hair from her eyes. ‘It’s just for just a short time.’ He probably didn’t know what she was talking about.
To her surprise he did. ‘Then it’s as well you came in because otherwise I’d have slept through the whole evening and I was supposed to go along there with Olivia. She sent me Jacob’s card. It’s over there on the desk somewhere. One might almost say that your coming here is nothing short of providential.’ His eyes gleamed appraisingly and Alice’s skin prickled. ‘Because she can’t get here so give me a minute and we’ll go along together. I’ve got a tie somewhere.’
She was tempted to give a quick refusal, but before she had a chance to reply to his retreating figure the door had closed. She pressed her lips together hard and stared at the fine moulding of the heavy oak frame. There was no reason why she shouldn’t go with him to the show. It made no sense to be too negative. If she could manage to walk around the small exhibition, and she told herself that she would manage perfectly well, then by Monday she could come in to work and go on with her life as though her engagement to Michael had never happened. But just to think of that whole failure sent a wave of disillusion washing over her, and she stood in bitter dignity until the sound of a cupboard closing sent her swiftly towards the small cloakroom at the furthest end of the set of rooms. She could at least check that her eyes weren’t smudged.