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The girl in the hospital bed

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(i)

It was a quiet night on the ward. The Night Sister had done her midnight round and left Helen to her checks and gauze-folding. The checks, most hourly but half-hourly for the one patient in the corner bed, didn't give much to occupy her brain, but she didn't complain, there would be nights when the patients now sleeping more or less peacefully in their beds would be demanding her attention all at once. She checked the time and got up from her uncomfortable chair. Sitting down was considered acceptable during night-duty, as long as the Sister didn't arrive for her round to find one sitting down, and there were always tasks to keep one's hands busy, sewing or tonight's gauze-folding.

The ward was only half-full, and there hadn't been any new admissions since yesterday, she had been told. She made her way down the ward quietly and efficiently. Miss Lane, the most serious case on the ward that night, was behind screens in her corner, slightly away from the other patients. She looked very small and young in her bed, too young and fragile to be one without any family, according to her notes, to sit with her now for what might be her final hours. Her skin was looking grey in the low light, and didn't give Helen any reason not to take Mr Harper's word that there was nothing he could do for her any more. She took the girl's pulse, and added her observations in the notes. There was no change. When she stepped back from the bed, ready to move on to the next patient, she saw the girl open her eyes.

"What's that?" the girl asked. Helen followed her gaze to the top of the locker.

"It's a letter. It must have been here all day," she said, and picked it up, offering it to the girl. "Don't you want to read it?"

"You read it, do you mind, and tell me what's in it," the girl said.

Helen turned the letter in her hand and opened it. It wasn't the first letter she had read to a patient, and she was faintly curious if Miss Lane did have relatives somewhere after all, interested enough in her well-being to write to her, despite not admitting the existence of any. Unfolding the sheet she realised it was a business letter rather than a personal one, and there was a cheque enclosed.

Aloud, she said, "It's to say that a story of yours is going to be published in September, and will thirty pounds' advance royalty do? I didn't know you were a writer."

The girl smiled weakly. "Nor did I. What's the story called, do they say?"

Helen glanced back at the letter and read it out to her. She said she couldn't remember sending it to the publisher, but happily explained the plot and described the characters. She seemed more animated now, with some colour returning to her cheeks. They talked for a few more minutes, Helen gave her a drink of water, and then continued her round before returning to folding more gauze. The girl didn't stir again when Helen returned to take her pulse in half an hour, nor at any checks later that night.

The next night, when the charge nurse handed the ward over to her, she found that Miss Lane was, in Mr Harper's opinion, on the mend. The infection seemed to be abating, the fever was gone, and she had been awake and alert during the day. Mr Harper was confident she would heal now, although he couldn't see a reason for her dramatic improvement overnight, it was just one of those things that sometimes happened, and often didn't. Helen remembered the girl's smile and wonder at the letter and the news and the recounting of the plot of her story, and thought that might be it. One saw stranger things at hospitals, and wanting to become well again sometimes worked wonders, just as losing the will sometimes hastened the end. She still needed keeping an eye on, but the checks were hourly now.

She was asleep when Helen checked her pulse for the first time, and didn't stir when the Night Sister did her round. There was a new admission, a middle-aged woman who had been operated in the afternoon. The surgery had gone well, according to the notes, and Helen's observations seemed to support that view, but the patient was feeling anxious, and wanted someone to talk to, not the easiest thing to manage in a quiet of a ward at night, and every time any of the other patients demanded Helen's attention, the interruption undid any progress with calming down the woman she had made so far. But eventually sleep won, and the ward was quiet again. It was time for another round of checks, and this time Miss Lane in the corner bed behind the screens was awake. She still looked too thin and pale, but the sickly grey had disappeared. A smile lit up her face when she saw Helen.

"When I woke up this morning," she said, "I rather thought I had imagined all of it, the letter, talking to you. But the letter was there on the top of my locker, and now you're here too."

Helen returned the smile. "I'm glad you're feeling better," she said. And she was. She had said similar things to dozens and dozens of patients before, and meant it, but this felt different. She personally wanted the girl to be better, and be discharged and write more stories about cowboys who had adventures and didn't fall in love and tell Helen all about them. That moment, she felt certain they were going to become friends, and the girl's smile seemed to agree.

(ii)

It was a beautiful summer's day, and she had one of her rare Saturdays off. A group of them had taken an afternoon picnic basket to the park. Its contents had disappeared into eager mouths quickly, and most of the group had settled in comfortable positions on the grass where they were now basking in the sun. Helen, sitting in the shade of a tree, pulled her sketch pad out of her bag, and found her pencil, and looked her around for inspiration. Quickly, with a firm hand, she sketched the two little girls in matching dresses and mousey-brown hair falling out of plaits, playing with a little dog some distance away.

She hadn't sketched anything that wasn't related to human anatomy and her work for longer than she wanted to remember, and she had missed it. Drawing was a useful skill for learning anatomy, she thought, and a houseman who had accidentally picked up one of her muscle sketches had been impressed and spent nearly twenty minutes explaining why. A few days later, he had come back to ask if she had any other pieces, as there was a consultant who had need for an illustrator, and was it all right if he showed him hers. She didn't know if it would ever lead to anything, even if the consultant found her medical drawings worth seeing; she suspected some consultants didn't think nurses were capable of much beyond making beds, changing dressings, or making tea to distressed relative, no matter how many times they had seen nurses doing so much more with their own eyes. She had never given much thought to medical illustration, although of course she knew that there were illustrators, she had seen one or two when she had accompanied patients to theatre, and some of them probably even making a living out it, but it wasn't something she had set out to do when she had left Slade for nursing, although she now saw that it could be a way to combine the two. She knew she was good at her job as a nurse - she never did anything sloppily that she set out to do - but it wasn't a vocation, it had been a solution to a problem of supporting herself, a practical turn when pursuing her artistic ambitions had seemed thwarted.

She finished her sketch of the girls with their dog, and looked at it critically. She could have done better, but it was all right as a quick sketch trying to catch a moment. She turned to a fresh page. Looking up from her paper a movement caught her eye. Harriet and Walter had got up from where they had been sitting with Julia and her usual group of boys, and were withdrawing to a nearby bench. Under another tree not far away, Leo was sitting cross-legged on the grass and talking to Timmy, gesturing enthusiastically. Helen would catch a snippet of the conversation here and there but she didn't put any effort into trying to follow it from the distance - as a result she wasn't quite sure what they were talking about. It was entirely possible that they rambled from topic into another almost at random, as Leo's conversations sometimes did. She loved watching Leo like this, excited, utterly relaxed, herself through and through. In moments like this, she sometimes remembered the grey thin face on a hospital pillow, and the consultant's expectation that Leo wouldn't pull through; it was hard to imagine someone so full of life was the same person she had encountered then, but she was grateful for it.

The warmth of the sun after the food they had had made her sleepy, and resting her eyes on Leo and Timmy for a little longer, she let her thoughts drift. Timmy had been after Leo for a while now, which had made for some amusing scenes for the onlooker over the past few weeks, as Leo seemed completely unaware of it. Helen was never quite sure to what extent she really didn't see, or just didn't want to see, the kind of attention she didn't want, until she was forced to acknowledge it. During the year or so that they had known one another, Helen had seen more than one Timmy fascinated by Leo, but things always ended badly because she wasn't interested in the role all of them eventually wanted to cast her as.

If her friendships with men had gone sour, Leo hadn't done that much better with girls. Vera and Annie had been infatuated and silly and that had seemed to count against them in Leo's eyes although she had happily played her part of the shining suitor for a while. Georgina, Helen thought, had been too much like Leo herself, a tomboy and fiercely independent, and that combination just hadn't seemed to work beyond the first couple of weeks when they had been inseparable. Timmy had detested Georgina, and had been all too pleased to have her out of their circle of friends in the aftermath of her break-up with Leo. But she and Leo had been taking some steps to repair the friendship recently; Helen didn't know if Timmy was aware of it, but she thought he wouldn't be overjoyed. It wasn't that Timmy had seen Georgina as competition, more likely as a distraction to Leo's attention and time. Like many men, he didn't think that a relationship between two women was quite real, and never seemed to realise just how wrong he was there. How little men sometimes understood, even ones who had sometimes gone for men. Her own experiences with women had been brief flings, but they had been just as real and powerful, satisfying and frustrating as her relationships with men. Thinking about the men who had taken her out recently, her friends, both male and female, and other people she knew, and she just couldn't see herself in a long-term arrangement with any of them, at least if by long-term arrangement you meant sharing a three-room flat with, except maybe two. One was Leo, the other was Mr Holland, one of the honorary surgeons at her hospital who was in his fifties and married.

So far, she hadn't shared this insight with anybody. She wasn't entirely sure she could share it with Leo. There had been a strong attraction between them from the start, but so far neither of them had any move to act on it. There had been one night when something might have happened, Helen thought, the night when Leo was celebrating the publication of her second book, but someone had burst into the room and broken the spell. Helen knew she was afraid it could go the way with Leo's friendships with many men had gone once someone demanded more, that she would be dropped like a stone. Her heart was telling it would be different with the two of them, but she couldn't know that. But maybe it was the time to take the risk and try. She couldn't imagine not having Leo as a friend in her life, but she knew she would regret it all her life if she didn't explore this.

She picked her pencil and sketchpad up again and drew Leo, mostly from memory, hunched over her typewriter. Looking up, she realised that Leo was no longer under the tree she had been previously, and Timmy had joined Julia's entourage with a petulant expression on his face. Whatever he and Leo had been talking about, it clearly hadn't gone his way. Instead Leo was now throwing herself down next to her, and grabbing the sketchpad to see what she had drawn.

"I like this," she said, looking at her earlier drawing of the girls and the dog. "It looks so alive."

"Mm," Helen replied. "What's wrong with Timmy?"

"He got a bit tiresome, and I told him that."

"I see. Is there anyone who you wouldn't think tiresome if they were interested in you that way?"

"I don't know," Leo said slowly. "You, maybe, if you were interested but, you're n..., I mean..."

Helen cut her off before she could finish. "But I am," she said firmly, and felt the warm glow of Leo's smile at that as Leo grasped her hand.

(iii)

The Lily Belle had been Leo's idea. She had practically burst into the tea shop where they had decided to meet during Helen's off-duty, excited and full of ideas. Helen never quite got to the bottom of who had first mentioned the houseboat to Leo, but once planted in her head, it plainly wasn't going to leave without putting up a fight. The enthusiasm was catching, however, and before she knew it, she had agreed to go to Mawley the very next day to view it, Leo had arranged for someone to have the keys and have a quick look on their own, and she would meet Helen at the start of her off-duty. Even so, the practical part of her brain kept pressing for actual details instead of the enjoyable but ultimately not necessarily very realistic images that Leo's imagination offered to her about their happy simple life on the boat. In the end, it took the best part of two hours for her to get Leo back down to earth to discuss numbers. "We can afford it, easily," she kept saying.

Helen sighed. Leo was always impulsive, and not very good at keeping to a budget when she had the money. She had only last week got a cheque for her third book, which meant she was happy to keep spending while it lasted, which hopefully would be close to the arrival of the next cheque. The cheque would, of course, pay for the initial costs, but it was the day-to-day ordinary numbers that she wanted to get a handle on before committing to anything, buying bread and milk, paying the rates and train fares. Her nurse's salary didn't stretch very far outside nurses' accommodation where her ordinary outgoings were fairly small. What they could put in a pot together, Leo's lump sums and her own small steady income wouldn't at present stretch for more than a frugal existence, but she knew they would both be able to cope with that as long as there was some money left over for little luxuries and things they enjoyed. That evening, after her shift, in the solitude of her small, impersonal room in the nurses' block, she looked at the figures as best she could. There were lots of unknown factors, but she had to conclude that Leo's claim that they could afford it was probably right.

It was a grey overcast day, clouds hanging down low with incessant drizzle, not the kind of weather to show a Thames houseboat in its best light. The Lily Belle didn't look that special from the outside. Helen didn't know much about houseboats, but she could see this one needed some work, but Leo's source said that the boat was structurally sound. Stepping inside and viewing the living-room, she felt she was coming home, and the feeling took her by surprise. She could see herself working there, with the windows on both sides that should let in plenty of light, hearing the rhythmical tapping of Leo's typewriter, teaching Leo to cook in the small kitchen, having their friends gathered there for music and conversation and laughter. She turned to Leo, and saw her pleasure at finding Helen so excited.

"You were right, my love. When can we move in?" she said and threw herself at Leo, who laughed and kissed her.

"Any day you want."