Leo hummed as she switched on the radio, tuning it in carefully. It was a little temperamental, apt to need retuning between uses, even when it had not been shifted so much as an inch on the mantel. She wanted some nice background music to inspire her for this next story. The best she could find was a Welsh choir. Hmm…perhaps Jake the hero had come from Wales. Leo sat down at the table with a fresh sheet of paper. Cowboys could come from the Welsh mountains, couldn’t they? Though, perhaps not cowboys named Jake. Hugh - that would do – who had killed a man in a fight… no…killed the mine owner’s son and had to put an ocean between himself and the long arm of the law. Yes, that was better. And change his name, to…Jake. Perhaps he’d better not have blond hair after all. (She’d never met anyone from Wales with blond hair, unless it came out of a bottle. She didn’t think they had peroxide in the Wild West. Anyway, if they did, no self-respecting cowboy would use it on his hair.) Straight dark brown hair and blue eyes with a twinkle in them, that would do. A bit of a ladies man, but rugged with it – no snake oil salesman this; but the sort who would save the girl from the oily no-good varmint who came to town to…. No: scrap that. He was a loner – owned the biggest ranch in the area but just came to town once a month to trade. A bit of a mystery to the townsfolk, a bit dangerous, handy with his colt revolver. Yes, that would do.
* * * * * * *
This had not been a difficult shift. There were times when she was run off her feet, particularly at night. Doctors all knew there were more deaths in late winter and early spring as the elderly were carried off by colds and other minor infections, as if their life energy, depleted from winter’s cold embrace, ran out just before the sun could warm them again. So too did nurses know how many patients failed as dusk creeped to dawn. Helen had lost track of the number of times she had had to tell grieving relatives who arrived unknowing for morning visits. Astonished relatives would be the more accurate term, all of whom remarked how much better their aunt (uncle, mother, grandfather) had seemed the night before. But as the pale gold of dawn lightened the sky this day, all the patients stirred to the bustle of the morning breakfast trolley. There had been no emergency admissions either, no onerous night-time treatments, and no one so unstable they had to be specialled. Once charts were up to date, the probationer had been set to reorganising the linen closet while Helen had taken out her sketch pad. A young man in traction whose bed was placed close to the nursing station had caught her artist’s eye. There was sufficient light to create interesting shadows from the contraption he was strapped into: challenging shadows. As she had drawn, in her head she had heard the voice of the art mistress from her old school reminding her how to angle her pencil just so, and not to be afraid of getting her fingers dirty: smudge the lines when that was the effect she wanted. A bit of soap and water afterward never hurt. Speaking of which…. Helen whisked to the staff toilet to give her hands a scrub. She returned to find her sketch pad in Scot-Hallard’s hands.
* * * * * * *
Jake had succeeded in killing the bear and rescuing the town’s new school mistress by the time Helen returned from shift, but the mystery of who was behind the cattle rustling remained unsolved. Leo flexed her shoulders and stretched her arms high. It had been a good session; she looked with approval at the pages on the table: probably 5000 words. But oh she was stiff! Helen dropped a gentle kiss on her hair before skillful fingers began kneading taut shoulders.
“You really should take more breaks,” she chided gently.
“And let the cattle be run off just because I was making myself a cup of tea? Heaven forfend!” Leo quipped.
“Your hero can always track down the bandits later.”
“Bandits - this is Wyoming not Mexico! Rustlers, please.”
“Well this is England where tea breaks are mandatory.”
Her fingers were stroking gently round the nape of Leo’s hair now, soothing back errant strands. Leo tipped back her head invitingly and Helen responded with another kiss, this time on the lips, before she pulled away and crossed to the tiny kitchenette and filled the kettle. Leo thought Helen didn’t seem as tired this morning as she often was after night shift. Her movements were fluidly efficient as she searched out the biscuit tin, not slow, with the hesitance brought on by exhaustion.
“My royalty cheque came this morning,” said Leo as Helen brought the teapot over to the table.
“That’s good; we can pay the landlady on time this week.”
“More than just that,” Leo grinned. “We can have a night out.” She held out the cheque for Helen to see.
“Gosh that’s a good one!”
“No Galsworthy, I’m afraid,” said Leo ruefully. “Just hack stories – two sold this time. That great modern novel will be a long time waiting, if it is relying on my pen to produce it.”
“Galsworthy doesn’t sell and think of the enjoyment Tex O’Hara brings to thousands of ordinary commuters making their weary way to and from the office every day,” comforted Helen.
“On horseback!” Leo laughed, before she added in a more sober tone, “fortunately I’ve never had artistic illusions about my skills. It’s a living, even if not the most secure one.”
“I had an interesting offer this morning.”
Leo smiled encouragingly.
“That new consultant, Scot-Hallard, did rounds this morning.”
Leo grimaced. “Pinch your bottom, did he?” The man had not been at St Mary’s Hospital long before his reputation as a ladies man was established.
“He’s never as crude as that,” Helen replied. “I gather one can expect a good meal and fine wine before he makes any move. But no, it was nothing like. It was a quiet shift so I busied myself with my sketchbook and it was lying open on the desk when he arrived. It seems he’s been looking for a medical sketch artist for a while now.”
She paused, looking very pleased but a bit hesitant as well. Patiently Leo waited.
“It pays – rather well, in fact.”
“Better than nursing?”
Helen nodded. “When it pays that is. The problem is the work’s not certain. So you don’t have anything you can count on the way you can in nursing; but if you can get established – get yourself known amongst the consultants and professors at the medical faculties – you can do pretty well. And I’d have more time for my own drawing.”
Leo heard the sub-text. They lived on Helen’s wages, relied on that regular income given Leo’s earnings from her writing was so uncertain.
“What I was thinking,” said Helen, “was that I could perhaps ask Matron to change my schedule so I could be sure of having every second Thursday morning off. That’s when Scot-Hallard schedules his elective surgeries; which are the ones he generally wants recorded.”
“Would one morning a fortnight be enough?” asked Leo.
“Not to live on, certainly, “ Helen replied. “But it’s a start, at least.” She looked wistful. “Heaven knows it’s hard enough to find any start in art these days.”
“Perhaps he’d spread the word, help you to get yourself known.”
Helen shook her head, “not likely, from what I’ve heard of him. But it’s the first time anyone’s every suggested paying for any drawing I’ve done, even if it is just technical drawing.”
“If you want it, then you should do it,” Leo said firmly.
“We’ll see.” Helen began to unbutton her uniform. “I’ll see Matron about it tomorrow, after I get some rest.”
Leo looked thoughtful as Helen closed the bedroom door behind her. There ought to be a way. Returning to the table she worked for a while on her latest story, before, determined look on her face, she bundled her papers together, stuffed them into a rucksack, and left.
* * * * * * *
The flat was still when Helen woke – too quiet. A dim light illuminated the crack at the bottom of the door. She strained to hear Leo in the other room. Normally there would be some sounds. She wasn’t a very quiet cook. She pulled back the covers, pulled on a woolly bathrobe, and headed for the loo out on the landing. She met Leo on the return journey, looking triumphant.
“I’ve sorted it,” she said, and dumped her rucksack on the table and rifled inside until she found a brown envelope and ceremoniously placed it on the table.
“Look,” Leo said, pushing across the envelope. “Go on – read it.”
Helen pulled the foolscap pages from their cover and began to scan them, before her eyebrows raised and she skipped the middle to turn to the end to confirm the signature.
“Mr McMillan himself!” Leo chortled. “I thought I’d be fobbed off with some junior editor; but it seems the great man reads my stories on his way into work.
“But a book, Leo! This isn’t just stories in a magazine.”
“And an advance.” Leo flourished a cheque for a sum which made Helen’s eyes open wide.
“Something we can live on,” Leo said, “until your drawings get known by those consultants.”
“Oh Leo” Helen murmured. “You didn’t need to–”
“And I thought, we could move out of London,” Leo suggested. “Not so far you can’t get in to the hospitals when you have to; but the money would stretch a bit further that way. Unless you don’t like the plan.” She looked suddenly anxious.
Helen’s eyes were shining as she held out her arms and gathered Leo close.