To Hilary it seemed that her two new medical students were very young—still a bit ill at ease in their new white coats—though of course they could be no more than a year or two younger than Julian. One was dark and the other had ginger hair of an almost colourless paleness. Alexander Deacon and Alexander Reid. Though both were naturally addressed by their surnames, it was a relief to learn, upon first meeting them, that one was 'Alec' and the other, fittingly, 'Sandy.'
She was ashamed at her even greater relief that neither one was half as handsome as Julian. Deacon had perhaps a reputation with the nurses as a bit of a charmer, but it was one of those reputations which one felt was based on wishful thinking as much as reality. He was the sort of young man who knows how to make himself agreeable but does not presume to think that the recipient of his charm will find it a matter of any great import.
Accepting the post at Bridstow had been, for Hilary, a new start. She had left behind the small Cotswold village, the cottage hospital, the comforting enclosure of hedgerows and the predictable routine of a country GP. But she had not left Julian behind, nor he her. It had been clear after their rushed marriage that neither of them could stay; the dawning of war had come almost as a liberation. Julian had gone into the RAF and herself to Bridstow, her skills suddenly in demand as a substitute for all the young male doctors who were flooding into the Royal Army Medical Corps.
It had occurred to her to wonder whether she was out of practice as a doctor, but one saw all the same variety of cases in a cottage hospital as in a crowded outpatient ward. It was only in quantities that the two differed; there was something peculiarly dispiriting about the predictable parade of wartime venereal disease with which one had to cope.
The third patient that particular morning was a rather young, curly-headed man in the uniform of the merchant marine. His affliction was written all over his face, or rather in the look of dismay that he offered her when she showed him into the office. No doubt speaking to a male doctor would have been difficult enough for him, she thought with a feeling of pity. She turned back towards her two students, who were busying themselves over their notes.
"Mr. Deacon, would you take the history?"
"Of course, Dr. Fleming."
Deacon had a sympathetic efficiency which boded well for his bedside manner, but today he was brisker than usual, rattling through the familiar litany as if he had something else upon his mind.
"Do you have pain on passing water?"
"When did you first notice it?"
"Week ago, maybe? No, more like a fortnight. I remember it was after that party..."
Her patient had a slight smirk, which Hilary put down to embarrassment. His eyes darted between Deacon, Reid and herself, as if he could not quite decide whose scrutiny was worst. She consciously lowered her own gaze, concentrating upon the words of the exchange.
Deacon was pursuing now. "And in the past year, how many sexual p-partners have you had?"
He does have a stutter, thought Hilary. It had been a few weeks before it had come to her attention; he covered it up well, deniably so except in the odd moment of nervous tension. She would not have put this down as one of those moments, but then she, unlike the students, had taken enough sexual histories to find them entirely routine.
It seemed that their patient had the active social life which one might expect of a sailor. It made the diagnosis largely a formality.
Hilary half turned. "Mr. Reid, what do you suspect?"
"Gonorrhea," he said promptly, his face rather pink. But then he was unlucky enough to have a complexion, always faintly pink, which showed up every passing emotion.
"Very good. What would be your next step?"
"Physical examination, swab, and a Gram stain."
"And if your diagnosis is confirmed?"
"A course of sulfanilamide."
Hilary nodded. In her own student days, of course, there had been no sulfanilamide. During her surgical training, aseptic technique and speed had been everything. It made her feel rather old to think that Deacon and Reid had come of age as doctors in a world where the Sulfa drugs had always existed.
That thought stayed with her through the rest of the appointment, a brief but very thorough exam adding evidence to the tentative diagnosis. The patient gathered up his things and left, but Hilary could sense an atmosphere lingering in the examining room.
"Poor boy," she said lightly, "it looks as though he'll have a fortnight in hospital instead of shore leave."
Deacon looked at Reid and raised his eyebrows. There was a silence before he responded.
"Better here than in the North Atlantic, I should think."
To these young men, Hilary realised, the war was ever-present. Without her worries about Julian it would have been for her a largely theoretical subject, to be discussed as she had once discussed Abyssinia or the Spanish Civil War, over the pages of a newspaper in a hospital common room. The closest she would get to the front lines would be in surgery, whereas they, once qualified, would be liable immediately for conscription. It made a tangible difference between them, even here in hospital.
"Shall we have the next patient?" she said.
That evening was chilly and damp, the autumn closing in with a whipping of wind. Hilary went home to the small flat that she had rented in Clifton Vilage, thinking regretfully of Lisa and how they had used to sit together by the fire in the evening. She missed that quiet companionship. Though Julian's brief visits made the luxury of privacy worthwhile, she felt that she would have liked someone to greet her when she came through the door.
The inevitable letter from Julian she laid on the kitchen table, a treat to be read after dinner. While heating tinned soup on the gas ring, she let her mind drift back to the events of the day. More tests to be carried out here; an unexpected turn for the worse there. She was so wrapped up in planning the remainder of the week that she trailed off with her stirring, brought back to the present only by the soup's reproachful bubbling.
As she sat down to eat, she found herself thinking again about her medical students. That afternoon she had come across them unexpectedly, halfway down a corridor. Even in their white coats and at that distance they were a distinctive pair, Deacon's dark head against Reid's ginger, leaning close together. They had looked as though they were consulting intently about something. It was only when she caught the tone that she realised they were arguing.
"But didn't you..." Reid was saying.
And Deacon: "...months ago, Sandy, why will you worry?"
At that point she had realised that she was eavesdropping, and taken herself by force of will through the door through which she had meant to go in the first place. How terrible it would be to become the sort of elderly spinster for whom hospital gossip was the lifeblood of her existence. But the brief snippet of conversation nagged at her, as a symptom out of place would have done. She had the intuitive feeling, though she could not have said why, that it had something to do with the incident in the V.D. clinic that morning.
You're not a spinster in any case, she told herself firmly, taking up her letter from Julian and filing the minor mystery away in the back of her mind. And you're not a detective in a Harriet Vane novel either.
Julian's letter was one in a continuing series. He wrote to her, as he always did, about the joys of flying, skimming cloud tops as he watched sunlight and shadow playing across the North Sea. When not flying he was leading the theatricals on base: in a fortnight they would be putting on an adaptation of Wind in the Willows, and details of the production occupied the majority of the letter.
You might say, he wrote, that we are regressing to childhood, or that given the circumstances we should have chosen a subject more profound and more befitting the occasion. Henry V rallying the troops, 'this scepter'd isle,' etcetera, but one finds that this is exactly what one doesn't want. Besides, I think that every Flight Lieutenant has in him a little of Mr. Toad, don't you? I am afraid that I rather bury myself in the part.
The letter brimmed with the unconstrained joy of a young man who, having finally found scope for his natural vitality and love of life, does not think it worth questioning where he will be in a year's time. Hilary sat over her empty soup bowl, gazing at the shape of the letters in his boyish hand, while trees tossed outside the window and the grey light faded from the sky.
She missed him palpably at times like this. It seemed always to be at night, whether at home or in a quiet moment at the hospital when she felt the chill of the early morning hours, wrapping a cardigan around her shoulders and allowing herself to think for a brief moment of the warmth of Julian's embrace. She remembered how he had used to creep away from her rooms at dawn. Had they ever come, really, out into the light of day?
Suddenly she longed to hear his voice, at least, if not to see him. He rang her faithfully every Saturday, as they had agreed he would do, but their last conversation was only two days past and already it felt like an age. Perhaps it only made things worse.
Hilary had the phone in her hand and was asking the operator to put through the trunk call before she could think twice. For once she was connected quickly, after a wait of barely a few minutes. The phone rang several times before it was picked up.
"Officers' mess," came a clipped voice speaking over the hubbub of a noisy room.
"Hello," said Hilary. "Is Flight Lieutenant Fleming available?"
"I'll see if he's about. Who's this, please?"
It took a moment before she responded. "It's his wife."
The phone was being held out at length. More noise, laughter. Dimly she could make out a man speaking with the clarity of enunciation that one supposed was required at 20,000 feet:
"Jules! Yes, you! It's Mrs. Fleming."
"Dr. Fleming," said Hilary to the air.
Another interminable wait before the phone was picked up once again.
"Hello darling," said a very familiar voice.
"My dear," she replied. A sense of relief flooded through her.
"Is anything the matter?"
"No, nothing," she said apologetically, thinking of the moment of apprehension that she must have cost him before he had come to the phone. "I just wanted to ring, I suppose. I've been missing you."
"I'm always missing you," said Julian. "Did you get yesterday's letter?"
"I have it right here."
She was holding it in her hand as she spoke, half folded. Phrases from the close leapt out at her. Though his letter-writing had become more fluent with practice, when it came to lovemaking it still retained the awkward, undergraduate self-consciousness that she had seen in Julian on their first acquaintance. While the sentiments expressed were touching, and no doubt true, there was little to differentiate them from those expressed in any other letter to any other RAF pilot's sweetheart.
Over the phone she could hear a faint scraping, as though he was shifting a chair. She imagined him stretching the cord of the phone, sitting perhaps in the entrance to the corridor, just a little apart from the crowded mess. At a loss for a further response, she prompted him on Toad of Toad Hall, then just as quickly regretted her decision.
After five minutes of shop talk she finally broke in during a half-pause: "I had the V.D. clinic today."
"How ghastly," he replied in a sympathetic tone.
"It wasn't that." She paused. She had been meaning to tell him the story of Deacon and Reid and the minor mystery, but the noise of the mess in the background brought to mind something else entirely. "I was only thinking, men don't think of these things. If you ever did happen, being so far away..."
"Hilary," he said chidingly.
"I only mean to be practical about it."
"Don't be practical," he said. "I love you too much."
After that there was very little more that one could add. Her own assurances of love were more restrained, though she was the one sitting in an empty kitchen; one always knew that the operator was listening in.
She was about to ring off when another thought struck her.
"Julian, have you any leave coming up soon?"
"I don't think so," he said. "It feels it's been years."
She had hoped to visit him in Yorkshire, but despite her age she was a new doctor at the hospital and she did not know that she would be able to get away.
"You may have to come to Bridstow for Christmas," she said.
There was a silence.
"Mother wants me to come and visit her," he said, a helplessly strangulated tone.
"It's only that it's wartime, otherwise it would be different. One doesn't know…"
"No," she replied mechanically. "One doesn't."
There had been a time when they thought that his mother might disinherit him, at least from the portion of the estate which was not entailed. She had not come to the wedding, a quiet affair in the Gloucester registry office with Lisa Clare, her nephew Sam and his friend James, and a few of Julian's Oxford friends as the only guests. Since then there had been a bare few frostily proper meals—but perhaps, thought Hilary now, the frostiness had been due only to her presence.
"Dearest, you aren't...?"
"No, not at all. I suppose you ought."
"I meant to ask you," he said, after a pause, "have you had a letter from the bank? I've arranged for my pay to go to your account. It's a little over six hundred a year with the marriage allowance."
"Julian, you mustn't. That's your money, my dear, and I've an income of my own."
Having sold her private practice, she was living on the meagre salary of a hospital junior doctor, eked out with her own small private income, which she knew was insignificant compared with Julian's. For her, it counted as relatively straitened circumstances. But she would not have dreamt of touching his money, not if she had been making half what she was.
"But I don't need it. You can invest it in something, I suppose, if you don't want to spend it. I've nothing to spend it on up here, apart from drink. And you're my wife, aren't you? It's what the other chaps do."
His careless reference conjured up the image of another woman entirely, struggling to make ends meet on a more junior officer's salary. She would be barely twenty, with an infant or two, living in a rather damp cottage by the airfield and wondering why she had ever left home. Hilary had met her like often enough, more often than not while breaking the news that there would be another addition to the family.
"The other chaps aren't married to a doctor, are they?" she said.
A short breath. "Darling Hilary, I do miss you."
"I miss you too."
They parted on that note of quiet longing. As she lay in bed that night she found that she could not remember what she had been cross with him about.
One of her outpatients had been admitted to the hospital overnight: a case grown suddenly worse since the appointment three days earlier, so that she was left questioning whether there had been signs she had missed, or whether it had simply been one of those acts of fate with which every hospital abounds. It was impossible that one should second-guess every decision; it could only lead, Hilary had long ago decided, to worrying oneself into an early grave. Unanticipated by one's own attending physician, no doubt.
On top of it all she had to go up to the ward herself to deal with some paperwork that had been left undone upon the admission. She was still lingering there, fighting with a balky fountain pen over various forms, when Alec Deacon wandered up to the nurses' station. Taking no notice of Hilary, who had not spoken with him since he began his surgical rounds, he began chatting with the charge nurse. His manner was easy, his hands resting casually in the pockets of his lab coat.
Nothing serious enough to be called flirtation, yet it was focused enough in its intent that Hilary, out of the corner of her eye, could see the rather young nurse beginning to turn pink. Though there were eligible men among the medical staff with greater claim upon the female population of the hospital—the usual crop of housemen, along with a surgeon in his forties who inspired devotion in successive classes of probationer nurses and predictably refused commitment to any—Alec Deacon had his share of admirers.
(Her comprehensive knowledge of hospital gossip was, Hilary felt, somewhat unfairly acquired: her status meant that she heard almost all of the doctors' common room gossip, while her gender ensured that she heard a fair bit of the nurses' as well.)
"Damn it," she said softly. The pen had finally given up all pretence, releasing its remaining cargo of ink into a spreading blot right at the middle of the page.
The discussion of the upcoming Christmas holidays stopped cold. The pink little nurse gave her a rather shocked look and Alec—she could not have said when she had stopped thinking of him as "Deacon"—took his own pen from the pocket of his lab coat and handed it to her.
"Thanks," said Hilary. "My relationship with this pen has always been rather dysfunctional."
"It did look as though the two of you were conducting serious business," replied Alec lightly. "One hesitated to interrupt."
Not for the first time she reflected that his manners were very good. He had probably been concerned that it would appear presumptuous to speak to her without first being spoken to—in a hospital of this size, one did stand on ceremony—but he had covered that prior hesitation so skilfully that one could not possibly feel slighted.
Hilary gave him an encouraging smile, the one that she kept for use with reticent patients. Its effect was almost immediate.
"Have you any Christmas plans, Dr. Fleming?" Alec added, drawing her by implication into the previous conversation, to which she had been only half listening.
Across the ward a patient called out. The charge nurse scurried away without a backward glance.
"I don't know," said Hilary slowly. "I meant to spend them with my husband, if it turns out I can get leave. He's in Yorkshire with the RAF."
"Is he," said Alec. He did a credible, if not complete, job of covering his surprise. "I hadn't realised."
Hilary wondered exactly how quickly that piece of gossip would spread around. She fancied that she had never featured much in the lists before now. Being a woman of intermediate years and unremarkable looks, her sex could have provided only a brief period of interest, and she thought that most of the hospital had simply assumed her a spinster.
The name could hardly provide any clue, after all, though to Hilary herself it still had a shocking novelty; though she had chosen to take Julian's name, there being little else of his that she could take, she had only just got over the stage of having to consciously turn round whenever she heard "Dr. Fleming" being called. As for her wedding and engagement rings, she had never got into the habit of wearing them to work. Her instincts were still too much those of a surgeon, and in any case under an exam glove one could hardly wear the rather gaudy diamond that Julian had given her.
"It often seems simpler," she said, by way of explanation, "to leave one's personal life outside the hospital door."
"Yes, that's very true. Though I find people often do the opposite, don't you? I have a low tolerance for that sort of thing myself."
He won't say anything, thought Hilary with satisfaction.
"Dare I ask, then, about your own plans?" she said, trying to remember if there was reputed to be a girl friend.
Alec bit the corner of his lip in a way that suggested the question might be more difficult than it seemed. "Christmas is a non-starter, of course. But I'd hoped—"
"Ah, Dr. Fleming, there you are." It was Morgan, one of the senior consultant surgeons. "They said in outpatient that you'd come up here."
Without any good reason, was implied. He was a hefty man, close to retirement, and did not look pleased at having had to climb three flights of stairs in search of a junior doctor.
"Yes, Mr. Morgan," said Hilary. "One of my patients was admitted last night and I had some paperwork to sort out."
She cast a glance towards Alec but he was already discreetly moving away.
"Well, I should like to have a talk with you in my office, if you please."
He didn't go to the trouble of making conversation. Following his broad, white-coated back along the corridor, Hilary had ample time to think how much it was like being called to the headmistress's study. Out of the ward, to the left, up half a flight of stairs, across a landing, down another half flight, to the right, and only then did they come to the main stairway for the wing. And Morgan's office was on the floor below.
What on earth could he want? Hilary racked her brains. Today's admission was nothing out of the ordinary, however much she might have wished that her diagnosis had been quicker. And last week...? Nothing that she could recall. She'd always had the feeling that he disliked the idea of woman doctors, but that was hardly unusual: she strongly suspected that the sex ambiguity of Dr. Hilary Fleming had helped to ensure her initial invitation to interview at Bridstow. But surely Morgan could not be so unreasonable as to want to make trouble where none existed? Or to give any attention to her doings in outpatient?
By way of distraction she began to ponder whether that wheeze of his was bronchial, or nothing more serious than simple age and lack of fitness. But here they were, and he was motioning her to take a seat in the chair opposite his desk.
"How long have you been with us now, Dr. Fleming?"
"Three and a half months, nearly. I came just before the start of the war, in August."
Surprising how easy it was, nowadays, to divide one's life into those two unequal halves. And how quickly they had come to seem of equal weight.
"And before that?"
It was obviously a pro forma question but one had to go through the motions of answering it. She did so briefly, mentioning the general practice and the small cottage hospital, which seemed to shrink in the retelling.
"You were a house neuro-surgeon before that," said Morgan. "At Oxford."
Hilary felt that he'd been looking to catch her out. "Yes, I—"
"We're short-staffed again. I suppose you've heard. Beebe's joined the Forces, more fool he, he's three years above conscription age. And I'm getting tired of my department being nothing more than a revolving door. There's hardly any point in training housemen anymore. As for the medics, one might as well teach them amputation and be done with it. But you wouldn't be going anywhere, seeing that you're married and practically forty."
"No," replied Hilary, stunned. "No, I don't suppose I would."
Morgan made a noise that might have been grudging approval.
"As you know, the firm is general surgery and trauma. Neurosurgical posts don't come so easily. But I can't imagine you'd be precious about that, after a cottage hospital."
"No," said Hilary again.
Only now did she spot the file lying to one side of the desk, half buried under an avalanche of papers. There was her CV, which she remembered painstakingly typing on a beautiful summer day when she'd longed to be outside celebrating Julian's final few days of freedom. So this had been a job interview all the while.
Morgan, who liked the sound of his own voice, did not seem to have noticed her monosyllabic replies. "You'll be taking over Beebe's students," he continued. "In fact you may have the same lot again, they've just come off their rotation in outpatient. And you'll be catching up on your reading as well. Trauma's come on by leaps and bounds since I was at Gallipoli."
Hilary did not mention that she had been at school at the time.
She noted also that he had not offered her a choice in the matter, though perhaps this was forgivable. No surgeon could imagine a doctor preferring any other post. Nor would she have dreamt of turning one down.
"Thank you for the opportunity." To be too effusive would only risk confirming Morgan's prejudices about emotional females. "I shall catch up on my reading straightaway, and of course I shall be working for my Fellowship."
Morgan nodded with an expression of strictly limited interest, as though he could not imagine that her career aspirations could possibly extend beyond the post of second assistant in his own surgical firm.
"When were you thinking that I would start?" Hilary pursued.
"Go and scrub up after you've sorted that paperwork of yours. I want you assisting Carter. There's been a big smash down at Temple Gate, he'll probably be in surgery most of the night. No better way to refresh your memory."
Hilary's heart sank. She had been on duty since seven in the morning. But this was the way of things in hospitals.
"Of course, Mr. Morgan," she said, rising to go. "Thank you again."
Outside it was a sharp and frigid December morning, streetlights lingering on for another few minutes. The windowpanes were thick with frost, iced at the bottom where the condensation had melted and refrozen. Hilary had just got home from a fifth night straight on call, after coaxing her car up the steep, slippery Bridstow streets, and was drinking a cup of tea even though she knew it would keep her awake. She felt perfectly lucid, as clear as the dawning light, but drained of all thought. She held the telephone silently to her ear, hoping that she would not be called upon to exercise any sophisticated commentary.
"This way," said Julian, "neither of you will have to be jealous of the other at Christmas. And you won't have to worry about getting away."
Hilary considered that statement for a moment and decided to say nothing.
Her husband's solution to the question of leave had been to negotiate six days in mid-December, in exchange for the more usual three over Christmas itself. Two nights in Lark Hill with his mother and then four in Bridstow with Hilary. An overlap of festivities had not been considered wise, and, as the ratio went considerably in Hilary's favour, she did not think it worth objecting.
For a moment she sat and listened to the crackle of the line. Then she collected her resources.
"Do you remember how it was at Oxford, one Christmas in Eighth Week and a second at home?" This was naturally less of an exercise of memory for him. "It's the same with the university here, and of course we're a teaching hospital. The halls have been decked already, so you mustn't worry. I shall be thoroughly festive by Friday."
"Here too," said Julian, "the decking of the halls, I mean, but I expect it was just for something to do. Which reminds me, you'll know better what's on in Bridstow. Will you see about getting tickets for a play or a concert, whatever you like? As long as it isn't amateurs, I've had enough of them to last all my days."
She drew a breath. "My dear, I don't know. I won't be on call by then, but I haven't been able to get off work and it's our week for taking-in. I never get away before seven at the earliest, and if we want to eat..."
"Oh." He sounded fully as tired as she ought to be. "I suppose. It'll be enough just to see you, darling."
"Yes," she said, and it felt as it it was the only word she could remember. It was 8.17 in the morning. "Yes, Julian."
The operator broke in before there was anything else to be said. It hardly mattered. Julian would be with her by the end of the week.
Hilary stood up, and yawned, and took herself to bed, leaving the half empty cup of tea still on the sideboard.
She had given him a key to the flat. Hilary was so busy with work that she forgot about the fact until she let herself in that afternoon.
Julian was lying languidly on the divan with a stack of books by his side, all long limbs and a faint air of diffident entitlement, as though he had been born heir to a flat in Clifton and not to a Gloucestershire estate. His extreme beauty, pale in the winter light, gave him as usual an air of having been posed for the occasion, as though he had been waiting for hours, his hand resting just so, for her to come through the door.
There was something in the scene that reminded Hilary of the Death of Chatterton. She firmly put the idea out of her mind. Chatterton had never worn such a superbly tailored RAF uniform, silk scarf wound round his neck, nor would he have left the top button of his tunic so insouciantly unbuttoned.
"My dear," said Hilary, holding out her arms. "You've come."
He leapt to his feet, not a trace of languidness left in him. Their embrace was delicious, and of self-indulgent length.
"All the way from Catterick, via Stroud," murmured Julian against her hair. "I wish I could have flown. The train was beastly."
"My poor boy."
Hilary occupied herself with caressing him. Finally she pulled back to gaze into his face, holding it within her hands. It was at this point that the iron laws of social training caught up with her and demanded one brief interjection.
"I hope your mother is well," she said.
"Very well, thank you," replied Julian automatically. "She sends her love."
But they both knew that she had done nothing of the kind and it did rather spoil the mood.
"I'm sorry that it's so cold," said Hilary, looking around the dim sitting room and becoming suddenly conscious of a general air of unloved desolation about the place. It was tidy enough, but obviously a place to eat and sleep and nothing more. "You could have put some coal on the fire. The bucket is right by the hearth. We're not yet as short as all that."
Julian shrugged one shoulder. "I hadn't thought. The uniform is warm enough, and I had my flight jacket besides."
"Why haven't you put it on, then?"
"Oh, after all, wearing it indoors seemed a bit of swank."
Hilary caught his hands in hers and held them against her breast. "You could catch your death of pneumonia," she said. "You looked so pale when I came in. Like the Death of Chatterton."
She remembered a moment too late that this was an analogy which, for obvious reasons, she had intended to avoid. But Julian did not seem perturbed. He laughed.
"There's a true Bristolian for you. I read that when he was a boy he used to spend hours haunting St. Mary Redcliffe. Perhaps he still is. Some people say that he was secretly buried there, after he killed himself."
"When I was in medical school," offered Hilary in rejoinder, "one of the housemen told me that he took the arsenic, in fact, trying to cure himself of V.D."
Julian did a fine line in mock offence. "I hope you don't mean that I looked like one of your pet syphilitics."
"Not a bit, darling."
She reached up to stroke his hair, rejoicing in the feeling as he obediently bent his head to her hand. It was only because she had once felt it more plainly that she could now discern—or imagine—the subtle discontinuity of the bone which was the only reminder that Julian had once been her patient. Sanderson had done a good job, it seemed. If his neurosurgery could withstand the rigours of the life of a fighter pilot, then there was nothing one could say against it. Hilary could only hope that her own surgical skills would be up to the coming challenge.
Growing restive, Julian ducked away from her touch. "Are you ready for your presents? I think Father Christmas was on the train from Stroud as well."
She followed his gaze to a pile of gaily wrapped presents tucked away at the end of the divan. The largest of them was larger than any gift in wartime had a right to be, and she could not imagine how he had carried them all on the train.
"So soon?" said Hilary, dismayed. "At the end of the visit, surely?"
In truth she had not yet finished her own Christmas shopping, though she would not have admitted it to him. After long nights in surgery, the busy, blacked-out city shops had seemed an impossible imposition. She had put by a few things while telling herself that she would make a more serious effort later, but the day had never come.
Julian looked so woebegone that she found him impossible to resist. She allowed herself to be led over to the settee and sat down, and was immediately presented with the largest of the presents. She knew what it was as soon as she took it in hand. From the weight of it, and the feel of the wickerwork under its wrapping, it could hardly have been anything else.
"You really shouldn't..."
"Go on," said Julian.
Hilary unwrapped one of the largest Fortnum and Mason hampers she had ever seen. Inside were tucked a profusion of edibles. Jams, lemon curd, honey, tea, biscuits, stilton, smoked salmon, various terrines, and so on. A large Christmas pudding took pride of place alongside a ham and a bottle of champagne. It made her mouth water just looking; it also made her feel slightly sick.
"Thank you, darling, but I'll say it again: I can't imagine anything lovelier, but you shouldn't. Not with rationing coming on any day now."
Julian looked shamefaced. "It was mother's idea, really. We always have one at home at this time of year."
By home, he naturally meant Lark Hill. He and Hilary had never had a home together; they had not even been married a year. Their married life together had been so short and so scattered that to imagine anything different seemed an impossible dream.
"Who knows when we'll have the chance to get another," he added apologetically. "Besides, she thought that we might not get a proper Christmas dinner otherwise."
On another occasion Hilary might have been roused to fury by a remark like that. Perhaps she would yet. For the moment she merely smiled and fastened closed the leather straps of the stout lid.
"I'll save the things we have left for special occasions," she concluded. "It was very kind of her."
Hilary wondered whether the other gifts might be in similar vein but then considered that this attitude demonstrated very little faith in Julian's ingenuity. He had, after all, got the hamper out of the way first off.
Her trust in him was amply rewarded. After a lovely silk peignoir set, much finer than anything she would have bought for herself, came a pair of earrings which were simple enough that she might wear them to the hospital if she chose. After that came a bound set of Trollope's Barsetshire novels. Finally, in pride of place, was Harriet Vane's latest detective story. Hilary, who had read every previous instalment keenly, and more times than she would have been willing to admit to, had not even known that there was a new one out.
"I managed not to read it on the train," he said. "Luckily I'd wrapped it already, or I might have been tempted. It's been very well reviewed."
"You've spoilt me, my dear," said Hilary lightly. "You'll make me wish that I had nothing to do but sit in my dressing gown and read novels."
His face stiffened a little at that. "I didn't imagine you would. One only thought you might enjoy a bit of comfort and an escape of sorts, if you felt you wanted one."
"I will, of course I will. Thank you, darling."
A kiss sufficed to make her apology. Nonetheless Hilary carried on feeling slightly guilty, the more so when she went to the cupboard to get the two small gifts that were all she had so far gathered for him. She was thankful that she had decided to have them wrapped in the shop.
With every appearance of appreciation, Julian unwrapped his gifts. There was a scarf from Tootal, dark purple silk sprigged with cream dots and backed with wool for extra warmth. And there were a pair of Kenneth Grahame novels, The Golden Age and Dream Days. Hilary had wondered whether buying children's novels for her twenty-four year old husband might not be sending the wrong sort of message, but no matter. His triumphant production of Toad of Toad Hall had given her the idea, and it came off just as well as she could have hoped.
"They're just the thing," said Julian fervently.
That night in bed they talked into the small hours. She hadn't the heart to tell Julian to go to sleep; nor would she have wanted to. He discussed flying in the same tone that he had once used for talking shop about the theatre. Glide slopes, night takeoffs, circuits and bumps. All the terminology was new to her, but he spoke with the easy, slangy confidence of an old hand.
"Not that we're up to much at the moment," he said. "Escorting convoys mostly, the coastal ones, Edinburgh to Hull and back again. A superfluity of coal barges, with rusty old trawlers as Navy escort. It's nothing like the North Atlantic. I never thought that a U-Boat would bother with them, much less a Stuka. But they do, occasionally at least."
"The views must be superb," said Hilary. "Lindisfarne, and the Firth of Forth, and..."
She was in that state of post-coital (and post-surgical) lassitude where the necessity of forming sentences seemed a very great imposition, and the fact of her reply more important than its content. She nuzzled slowly at his neck.
"God yes. I should have taken you up months ago. No chance of it now." But his voice was abstracted and one knew that his mind was not running upon pleasure flights. Nor upon her. "I just wish we could get into it. We're all wildly jealous of the squadrons that went with the B.E.F. Just imagine dogfighting on the Maginot Line."
"Don't wish, darling. It'll come soon enough."
Before the war he never would have said a thing like that.
"I feel behindhand," Julian continued. "I'm practically ancient. No, don't laugh, I knew you'd laugh. I'm the oldest man in the squadron. They may have me do something in the training line."
Hilary was chuckling silently to herself, her cheek pressed against his smooth, boyish shoulder. It's lack of sleep and an excess of emotion, she told herself. It's not that funny. It may even be true.
"Sorry, my dear," she said sleepily.
"But think about it, Hilary. I'm twenty-four now, twenty-five in a few weeks, and most of the squadron isn't above twenty-one. I joined the University Air Squadron on a lark in my third year; one of my friends persuaded me, he wanted the twenty-five pounds bonus to buy a motorcycle, and I thought it would be something to try. But these new boys are eighteen, nineteen, just out of school, and they know full well that they're going to war. I feel I've been in suspended animation most of my life and I've only just climbed above the clouds." He paused. "You don't like to hear this, do you?"
How was she to answer? That no woman liked to think of her husband going into combat? That she had spent five hours earlier today assisting in painstaking and almost certainly fruitless surgery, thought that they might have to open up again tomorrow, and forgave him (as he, seemingly, did not forgive her) for not wanting to hear the details of her work? That she knew exactly what he meant and simply did not want to say so?
The war had liberated him far more thoroughly than she ever could have done, from her no less than from his mother. He was coming into his own now, growing beyond her already, sooner than she had thought. But then the war was changing them all. It could hardly be otherwise. Was it any wonder that she was afraid?
"Hilary?" he said, after a long silence. "Have you fallen asleep?"
She thought that she might have. She could feel his lips warm against her forehead.
"Don't let's talk," she said. "Not now."
Hilary stifled a yawn as she approached the door of the anaesthesia room. It was an early start for surgery, after two nights spent sharing a bed with Julian, and her mind was still hazy. When she made out the voices speaking on the other side she unconsciously paused, reaching instead to tidy her hair, which was already neatly pulled back in preparation for the surgical cap.
"Beebe knew his stuff," someone was saying. It was Evans, one of the medical students, with that distinctive accent from just the other side of the Severn. "I didn't apply to Bridstow to be stuck with the likes of that old cow. If there weren't a war on, she'd be back in Gloucestershire doing house calls and knitting socks for babies."
It was no worse than she'd heard said about unpopular doctors during her own clinical training. Perhaps she'd made similar comments herself, if couched in less insulting terms. But even so, Hilary could feel her cheeks burning as she listened. It reminded her why, once upon a time, she had thought a country GP's practice preferable to the constant jealousy and competition of life in a large city hospital.
"No, that's not fair," came another young voice. "Alec, didn't she tell you she was a house neurosurgeon?"
"Ages ago," said Evans derisively.
"At the Radcliffe. Would that we were all so lucky."
That was Alec, his voice crisp and decisive. Hilary's heart grew just a little.
"Well, she can't have trained in London anyway," said Evans. "They don't admit women, do they?"
"Besides," added Alec, "unlike most of the others, she actually lets you get a word in edgewise and then cares what it is you've just said. She had me doing full case histories last month and it wasn't because she doesn't know how to diagnose gonorrhoea."
"That's probably the closest she gets to..."
Hilary stepped away from the door and then approached it again, taking emphatic steps on the spongy floor. This time she could hear talk stilling as she reached for the knob.
Four faces turned towards her. Evans, Donaldson, Reid and Deacon.
"Gentlemen," she said. "Who's read the chart?"
It was an old trick that one of her instructors had used when coming in late to surgery. She was not late—merely, appropriately, the last person to scrub before surgery commenced—but it achieved the same result, which was to concentrate the mind and put them, rather than herself, on the spot.
Sandy Reid, who had charge of the patient, competently gave the particulars—a thirty-eight year old woman, three children, with suspected cancer of the stomach—while Hilary scrubbed up. She had always found something meditative in the experience, a calm and focus that stayed with her into the theatre. Any trace of 'there but for the grace of God go I' was washed away with the soap.
This was exploratory surgery and Hilary was operating by way of an advanced guard; if there were anything constructive to be done, which seemed unlikely, it would be done by Morgan or under his supervision. But for the moment he was next door, overseeing another surgery, and the theatre belonged to her alone.
The demands of surgery were precise and easily measured, every stage of the process familiar; in this arena and for this moment, at least, her authority was unquestioned. Her students performed their small tasks, helping to prep and drape the patient, with as much seriousness as if a life rested in their hands alone. Hilary noted the care with which Sandy positioned the surgical drapes. There was an elegant simplicity to the scene, she thought approvingly.
As she made the incision Hilary was aware of Alec's steady attention to her, the slight motion of his fingertips at the edge of her vision as they unconsciously echoed her own movements. It could almost have been considered a distraction.
For a time she had worried idly that she might be falling in love with him, but that was not it exactly. She could not have said when she had begun to consider him a project of hers. One would have thought surgery and the war enough to keep anyone's mind busy, but Hilary had always, as long as she could remember, had these little preoccupations, to be brought out at odd moments as other women brought out half-knitted socks. It hardly mattered now.
"Well," said Hilary finally.
She had opened the peritoneum and laid the abdominal cavity bare. As she examined it she felt a dull tug in the pit of her own stomach, the inexorable intimation of mortality.
"Well," echoed Alec. He sounded almost impressed. Hilary reminded herself that, outside of slides in a lecture theatre, he might never have seen such an advanced case before.
"Gastric adenocarcinoma," she began, using the dispassionate tone that she kept in reserve for such occasions. "As we suspected. This particular type is rather rare: leather-bottle stomach is the common term.Linitis plastica. The appearance is typical."
Her four students gathered around, dutifully peering past her hands into the open abdomen. Hilary found herself grateful that she had been doing her own reading: she herself had only seen linitis plastica in the flesh once or twice before.
"And as you can see here," she continued, "the cancer has metastasised to...?"
"The liver," answered Donaldson.
"And the pancreas," added Alec.
"That we can see," said Hilary. "For gastric carcinoma we would normally opt for a total gastrectomy, if we were inclined that way, but under the circumstances it hardly seems worthwhile. Not operable, I should think. Still, Mr. Morgan will have his own opinion... Nurse, if you'll tell him we're ready?"
It was nearly ten minutes before Morgan appeared. During the pause Hilary made superficial conversation with the anaesthetist, who had been up to London on the previous weekend, while another part of her mind was all the while briskly and impersonally second-guessing her own judgment. Would Morgan attempt to operate? Was the liver perhaps not as involved as she had originally thought? She did not know him well enough to judge whether he was fond of heroic measures, but this particular case—surely, she told herself impatiently—would be beyond even the most ambitious surgeon's skill.
All the while their patient breathed shallowly under ether, her blood still circulating, her failing organs faithfully keeping her alive.
"Oh yes?" said Hilary. "Did you go to the new exhibition at the Tate? I saw the review in the Times but I haven't been able to get away myself."
Morgan bustled in without fanfare, his hands still damp from scrubbing. He greeted the anaesthetist, nodded to Hilary, and ignored the medical students and the nurses as he bent to his work. He was one of those men who speak their internal dialogue aloud, but in surgery he had a habit of speaking in an undertone, as though he thought that the unconscious patient might overhear. His observations, as they became more conclusive, rose up into the audible range.
"...no, not a hope, no point in it. Close her up. Shouldn't have needed me to tell you that, Fleming."
Hilary, still not used to being addressed by her married name, had a sudden vision of a gawkily adolescent Julian being rebuked by one of his teachers. A moment later she became belatedly conscious that the rebuke had been aimed at her.
Infuriatingly her students had perked up at this sign of a minute contretemps. The nurse had heard it all before; the anaesthetist had already retreated behind his newspaper. Hilary might have taken it without comment if her day had gone more according to plan.
"I didn't," she said, hearing the exasperation in her own voice. "But I called you anyway."
"Mmm, quite right. Carry on."
He was already preparing to go; he bustled out of theatre again without any further exchange of pleasantries.
Apparently, against all odds, it had been the correct thing to say. Hilary shook her head at the perplexities of life. She supposed that a man like David—confident to the point of arrogance in his own abilities, and correctly so—would simply have sent a message to Morgan telling him not to bother looking in. Once again the crucial lessons of medical training turned out to be the ones that could not be learnt out of textbooks.
"Right," she said, collecting herself. "Time to close. Evans, will you do the honours?"
She would have asked Alec, if it had not been for the conversation that she had overheard earlier in the anaesthesia room. He was unquestionably the best of her students: perceptive, logical, and quietly competent, with the manner of a man who trusts his abilities to speak for themselves. Her gratitude towards him for speaking up on her behalf was, she thought, not so great that it biased her judgment. Yet it was enough to cause her to shy away from any suspicion of playing favourites.
Soon enough, Hilary regretted her choice. Evans had the technical knowledge necessary to close the incision, but he pulled at the suture with a rough, graceless insistence that left her wincing.
"No tension on the thread," she murmured, itching to take the instruments in hand herself.
It did no good.
"Evans," she said, more sharply, a few moments later. "You're pulling those far too tight. Slacken off."
"Yes," said Evans, lost in concentration.
If he had only been taught to sew, thought Hilary wryly, he would know exactly what I was talking about.
"Can anyone give Mr. Evans some guidance?" she asked. "Why exactly should he be concerned?"
"Scarring," said Sandy, who liked to get the first word in.
"Tight sutures can complicate the healing of the wound," said Alec. "Not to mention the fact that you've corrected him twice already and he doesn't seem to be listening."
"Thanks awfully, Deacon," said Evans.
Nevertheless the message seemed to have got through. He finished the suturing with an acceptable level of competence. One could not have called the result pretty, but then there was no disguising the essential violence of abdominal surgery. Nor the fact that Hilary's patient would hardly live long enough for her incision to heal.
It was Sandy who approached her cautiously after the surgery was over.
"I was just wondering, Dr. Fleming, about the prognosis. A matter of weeks, would you say?"
If she had been less tired, or had a less busy day ahead of her, she would have thrown the question back at him: what do you think, Mr. Reid? What ought you to consider? What does your reading tell you? But she sensed that his concern was as much personal as clinical, and something in her relented at the realisation.
She sighed and said simply, "Not so many weeks, I should think."
"I was wondering who would be telling the husband."
"I suppose I will," said Hilary, who liked to put these things out of her mind while in theatre and as a result had not yet considered the question. "Why?"
Sandy looked apologetic. "Only he's very fond of her, that's all."
"It's not so unusual," said Hilary gently.
Before Julian's arrival she had regularly been working twelve or fourteen-hour days, but her remaining hours had been so blessedly free of commitments that she hardly had noticed. Now there was another call upon her time.
The rest of the day seemed both to drag and to fly past. She spent it wondering what Julian was doing, wandering the city or reading in some tea shop, allowing herself to revel for a moment in the delicious anticipation of the evening. And yet at the same time there were not enough minutes to achieve everything that needed to be done. She had been hoping to get away at half seven—indeed, she had told Julian to come and meet her so that they could go straight out to dinner—but an emergency case coming in just before seven put paid to that idea.
When she finally emerged from the hospital at twenty past eight, she found him sitting on a bench in the porter's lodge kicking his heels like a sulky child. He got to his feet as she approached.
"Yes, I'm sorry," she said peremptorily.
She could feel the porter's eyes on them and wondered whether Julian had said for whom he was waiting.
"You would think you could get away one night at least." His voice had a tone that she did not recognise. Perhaps it was the unfamiliar uniform, which he wore with an ease that had startled her at first glance. "One night, Hilary. I got tickets. The show started at eight."
Under the severe starlight of a moonless night, the gothic facade of Bridstow General looked even more fantastic than usual. Julian walked quickly, buttoning up his greatcoat.
"Darling, I told you not."
"You said half seven."
"A girl with a burst appendix came in at ten to seven. Morgan had left it to me. Surely you can see that I couldn't have gone halfway through the procedure?"
Julian said nothing. She realised that she had not asked him what the show had been and, further, that she was in no mood to do so.
"One begins to think," he said, "that you don't really care at all."
"One begins to think," she retorted, "that you don't either."
They went for a drink, because it was what they had planned, but the atmosphere remained leaden with resentment. After one drink each they gave up dinner as a bad job and went straight back. It was ridiculous to waste an evening together, Hilary knew it was, but the consciousness of failure was not enough to help her to shift her feelings.
Surely he had known what it would be to be married to a doctor. Surely, surely. Her mind went round in the same fruitless circles.
When they got into the flat the temperature inside was arctic. So was the atmosphere. Hilary put on the gas fire and sunk into one of the armchairs. She arranged the rug across her knees and tried to close her eyes for a few moments, not much caring what Julian was doing with himself. Her feet ached from a day spent in surgery but she couldn't be bothered to unlace her shoes. The whole evening had made her feel ancient and appallingly set in her ways.
A few minutes later she heard the whistling of a kettle. Julian came through with a cup of tea, which he wordlessly offered to her. Then he sat down on the rug at her feet.
"Oh, my dearest boy..." said Hilary, her heart thawing all in a rush of tenderness.
"I'm sorry. It was all me. I was in a foul mood even before. Nothing to do with you except incidentally."
He laid his cheek on her knee in a moment of contrition. She pulled him upwards and into her arms, where by way of variety he laid his cheek on her breast instead. It was a familiar pose which Hilary had finally given up finding queer, and now only found reassuring. Though he sighed, relaxing into her embrace, she could sense that he was still troubled.
"What is it?" she said. "Do tell me."
He shook his head convulsively.
"Go on," she repeated. It seemed that she spent half her life eliciting confidences from young men. "You'll feel better once you do."
"It's one of those things that sounds utterly silly in the retelling." He murmured these words against her breast. "You'll laugh."
"I won't," said Hilary, beginning to lose patience again.
But apparently he had decided to take himself in hand. He sat back on his heels and looked at her. In the light of the fire one could just make out the glimmer of his grey eyes.
"I turned up at the hospital at seven," he began. "I know you'd said half seven but I thought you might get away early. I didn't like the idea of your waiting around on my account."
Very likely, thought Hilary wryly. The optimism of the young.
"But the porter told me straightaway that you'd just had a case come in, so I thought I'd go for a walk round the city instead. I'd got as far as the cathedral when I realised how cold it was, and everything was locked up. In the blackout I could barely see the architecture in any case. A drink seemed a far better idea. There was a pub—well, I call it that, ghastly modern place, but I wasn't inclined to be particular. Do you know it?"
Hilary thought for a moment. "Don't think so."
"I ought to have known straightaway when I went in, everyone was so friendly. I never notice things like that. I got chatting to this fellow about literature, we had a whole conversation about Daphne du Maurier. I shouldn't be surprised if he were a doctor at the hospital, he knew his psychology. He said something about Isherwood and Auden and I didn't notice that either, just went blithering on about The Ascent of F6. I could kick myself. I let him buy me a drink. Then he said he lived just up the hill, and did I want to come back?"
Light dawned. "Is that all it was?"
"You wouldn't say that if it had been you he'd been after."
Hilary suppressed a laugh. "But, my dear, he wouldn't have been."
How fragile were the egos of men, she thought, not for the first time. No woman of even moderate looks could have been remotely surprised at such an approach. Hilary herself would have hardly taken notice. Why was it that men thought themselves permanently tainted by the suggestion that they could be considered attractive by someone whom they found undesirable?
"You act as though it's nothing."
"Worse things happen at sea," said Hilary.
"But why must it always be me? This happens to me all the time. Do you remember what I told you about that chap at school?"
"I expect—" She had meant to point out that Julian was, after all, very handsome, but it occurred to her in the nick of time that he might find this even more upsetting. "I expect he'd enjoyed the conversation. No, don't look at me like that, my dear, do you want me to agree that men are only after one thing? Perhaps they are, but it's not as if I can fault his taste."
Julian appeared resolutely unconsoled. "Do I really seem, to all of them, do I seem..."
"I should have said that you seem perfectly heterosexual."
He shot her a look. "Professionally speaking?"
"Personally!" Hilary protested. "My dear, really, how can you ask me that? What would you expect me to say?"
"I wondered," he said, "at first, whether you might think..."
"It would never have occurred to me."
There was a silence.
"But you haven't said what happened next," Hilary pursued. "Please tell me you didn't hit him."
He took a deep breath. "I didn't. I could have. Once upon a time I know I would."
"You're growing up."
"Actually I thought of you. I didn't think you'd appreciate my getting my head bashed in again. Or sending him to hospital, under the circumstances." Julian managed a smile at that. "So I told him that I wasn't queer and that I was married and that I was sick of that sort of thing before I even left school. Then I dashed out of the pub and didn't stop till I got to the hospital."
"Poor boy," said Hilary, ruffling his hair. "Quite an evening. And I don't suppose having the drink with me afterwards was much better."
"I had rather hoped for the diversion," he said, a little woebegone.
Suddenly he took her hand. "It makes me think that you don't want to be seen with me. Seriously, Hilary, we've gone nowhere, I've met none of your friends... I don't even know if you have friends in Bridstow. Of course you're busy with work, but what is it? Are you ashamed of me? Have I done something wrong? Is it that you don't like the uniform?"
"Julian, really, I..." Left at a loss by the sudden change of topic, Hilary reached for her untouched cup of tea and found it cold. "We've had so little time together, I suppose I just..."
But she knew it was not just that, and she knew that he knew it too. He could not have failed to notice that she did not wear her wedding ring to hospital. She felt that there was something perverse in her instincts; any other woman with a young, handsome husband would surely have wanted to show him off at every opportunity. And yet there was still something in her that shrank from it, however matter-of-fact she might have been about the affair with David. Perhaps there was still something of the sacred in her marriage to Julian, unwilling to be brought into the light of day.
"Well, let's do something about it," he said, taking on a tone of decisiveness. It occurred to her to be grateful that he had not chosen to pursue the wider question. "Let's resolve that we will. Not tonight, it's too late, but tomorrow night. I'll wait for you at the hospital. It won't matter how late you are, I promise not to be cross, if only we can give ourselves something to remember before I go."
"Do you know," said Hilary slowly, "it's the hospital Christmas party tomorrow, if that's the sort of thing you mean. I only thought you'd find it a bore, and on our last night together as well."
"I shall always be grateful to hospital Christmas parties, darling. Don't you remember how I kissed you under the mistletoe last year?"
He kissed her now, very differently to the decorous way he had done it then.
"It won't be a bit like the parties at the cottage hospital, though. No patients or local worthies or anything; they save that for Christmas day. This is strictly for the doctors, heaven knows there are enough of us as it is." She paused. "You know, some of my medical students are older than you are."
"Are they? But no one will think I'm your student. I'll be in uniform."
"Of course," she said, though that was not exactly what she had meant.
"Now can't we go to bed? It's too cold to do anything else."
The evening concluded in a far more satisfactory way, one which made all the anticipation worthwhile.
Erring on the side of caution, Hilary had told Julian to arrive for the party at half eight. It was meant to start at eight, though doctors would be trickling in all through the evening, and judging by similar festivities at the Radcliffe Infirmary it would probably continue well into the small hours.
Sod's Law dictated that this was the one night of the week she finished earlier than she had expected. She arrived at ten past, wearing her best green frock, and had a glass of wine in hand within thirty seconds courtesy of Alec Deacon.
All the party was talking about Sandy Reid's triumph at the medical students' Christmas show a few days earlier. Hilary had missed the occasion due to Julian's arrival, so as she circulated the room she got to hear about it at least half a dozen times.
"He was jolly good," said old Morgan. "Would have been better if he could sing, but one can't have everything. Brought me right back. Just as good as Jimmy Slater."
"I didn't even recognise him till he opened his mouth," said Carter, the junior consultant. "It was one of those strapless numbers with a skirt out to here. I can't think where he got the coupons."
"I wrote all the words," said Alec. "It was about psychoanalysis. But I don't think anyone was listening."
"It was nothing really," said Sandy himself, but from the flick of his wrist one could tell that he was still basking in the glory of the performance. "My sister Jeanie did most of the sewing. But I've already had three nurses wanting to buy it off me!"
"I hope you won't," said Hilary. "I want to see another show. At my old hospital it was always the rugby types who went into frocks."
"I wouldn't sell it for the world," Sandy replied confidentially.
After that Hilary found herself speaking to three of the doctors' wives in succession. No, my husband hasn't arrived yet, I'm afraid. I'm Dr. Fleming, I'm a general surgeon here at the hospital. Once upon a time she had enjoyed the politely surprised, faintly admiring looks that followed such a revelation, but that joy had palled a long while ago.
A small stir passed through the room, a shift in the air. People were looking towards the door; Hilary looked too, grateful for the distraction.
It was Julian. Framed by the dark wood of the door's moulding, he had paused for a moment, so striking that even Hilary caught her breath. He had that unconscious poise of a fine actor who, even in repose, can draw the eyes of an audience and hold them. His RAF uniform was crisply pressed, his pilot's wings unmistakable on the left breast. His grey eyes searched the room, and she alone knew that he was looking for her.
"Who is that?" said the woman to whom Hilary had been speaking.
Her throat was dry. "That's my husband," said Hilary, marvelling at the fact.
There was a hush. If it had been a theatre she would have heard a whisper from the wings, prompting her entrance. She stepped forward.
"There you are, my dear. Come in and get a drink."
He followed her, as obedient as ever, and the buzz of the room seemed to resume rather more pointedly. She could sense curious faces turning in their direction as she poured them both glasses of wine.
Flustered, Hilary searched for someone to introduce. Thankfully there was a likely candidate close at hand.
"Alec, I should like you to meet my husband, Flight Lieutenant Julian Fleming. Julian, this is Alec Deacon, one of my medical students."
The two young men stared at one another and carried on staring. She wondered whether they had been at university together—they were, after all, almost of an age. Then all became suddenly, horribly clear.
She looked at Alec and only wondered that she should not have realised it before.
"Flight Lieutenant Fleming," said Alec, his voice gone suddenly raspy.
"How do you do," replied Julian, the purest of automatic responses.
Alec glanced to one side, lighting a cigarette. She could see a slight tremor in his hand, which with its usual steady deftness could have been that of a surgeon. When he lifted his eyes from the cigarette lighter they caught hers, so that she knew he had seen her watching him. Then he looked away again, as though professional self-consciousness had, however briefly, overcome the feeling of personal exposure.
One had never before seen Alec Deacon at a loss—like many medical students he cultivated an air of confidence even faced with the most perplexing of conditions—but it occurred to Hilary that he had a great deal more to lose than Julian, herself, or anyone else present. For a bare moment she wanted to take him aside, shake him, and say do you know what a very foolish thing you've just done? Then she thought that he knew it only too well.
"Julian, we've just been talking about the hospital Christmas show." Her forced gaiety was, Hilary felt, entirely transparent. Yet neither Alec nor Julian were in any state to carry the burden of conversation. "It was a few days ago now. And Sandy—where is Sandy?"
He was hovering not so far away, alone, casting indecisive, sidelong glances in her direction. In Julian and Alec's direction. Suddenly the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. The young sailor with V.D.; Alec's unease; Sandy's dismay.
I'm sharing digs with Alec, she remembered Sandy saying once, that curiously approval-seeking air of his. At the time she had thought nothing of it. Now she was reminded, not for the first time, of the human penchant for seeing only what one expected to see.
And you call yourself a diagnostician, thought Hilary wryly.
Julian and Alec were watching her, waiting for the end of the story, but there seemed no point in it now. Worse than none. She cast about the room again, pretending that she hadn't seen Sandy, looking for salvation in whatever form it might present itself.
"Do you know," Julian was saying, "I've never been to a medical students' revue. It seems rather a gap in one's experience."
Not for the first time, Hilary reflected that he had more presence of mind than she gave him credit for. Or perhaps it was yet another of the ways in which his good breeding told.
"Some," said Alec, "might call it one experience too many."
As if in answer to her prayers, Hilary saw that the hospital choir were shuffling into their positions at the head of the room.
"Oh, I think they're about to start the carols," she said quickly. "Shall we go and listen?"
She had never before been so grateful to hear the opening lines of Good King Wenceslas. Julian put his hand at the small of her back—she could feel its dampness through the silk of her dress—and they drifted forward along with the other partygoers. Feeling rather like Lot's wife escaping Sodom, Hilary schooled her gaze steadily forward. When she next allowed herself to look round, several carols later, Alec and Sandy had gone without a trace.
Remaining to be done were the usual, dutiful rounds of the departmental figures. She introduced Julian to all of them, buoyed up on a wave of nervous energy which, after the contretemps with Alec, made any remaining social awkwardness appear slight in comparison.
Old Morgan received Julian with as much attention as he would have devoted to any other doctor's spouse—which was to say, almost none—while Carter appeared faintly amused.
"Well, Dr. Fleming," he said, "one wonders what else you've been keeping up your sleeve."
They stayed no longer than politeness demanded. Hilary caught Julian's eye and was, without words, instantly understood; the simple ease of it, the partnered grace with which they together took their leave, made her feel as if they had been married for years.
Outside the hospital the air was blessedly cold against her flushed cheeks. Hilary linked arms with Julian as they crossed the street to where her car was parked. The road was dark with ice and even her sensible heels had little purchase on the un-gritted tarmac. Mist hung over the basin, where small boats bobbed at anchor.
"My best student," she said, beginning to laugh. "Oh Julian, darling, what a terrible mess. How do these things happen? He's my best student."
Julian unlocked the car door and helped her in. "I feel I ought to have known."
"But how could you have? And how could he? One supposes he assumed that my husband was forty-five at least and an air marshal. I hardly told him anything about you, not even your Christian name. The poor boy. He won't have thought..."
"He obviously didn't," Julian said sombrely. "I imagine he's frantic by now. You could have him thrown off the course. Or worse."
"My dear, I wouldn't dream—"
"But he's not to know that. He got out of there damn quickly, didn't you see? One can hardly blame him."
Hilary shivered. All the nervous tension of that hot, close room was dissipating; she realised suddenly that she was slightly drunk and very tired. She wrapped her scarf closely around her neck as Julian pulled the Austin out into the road. Despite the blackout he drove with the easy precision of a man who has been accustomed, not merely to an MG, but to the exacting controls of a Spitfire.
To her the incident had been more interesting than distressing. She had observed at first-hand too many of the foibles of human nature to be particularly shocked; apart from amusement, mixed with a certain chagrin at her previous lack of perceptiveness, her main emotion was one of sympathy for Alec.
Yet she wondered whether, despite her medical training, this might not be a subject upon which Julian was better informed than she. Her knowledge was confined primarily to paragraphs from abnormal psychology texts and the cold practicalities of the parts of the anatomy that might require swabbing for V.D.
"Have you been mixed up in this sort of thing before?" she asked some time later. It was an answer that she half knew already, but she wanted to hear him say it.
He gave her a wry look while glancing to the left to scan for traffic. "Depends what you mean by 'mixed up.' However little one cared, it was all around at Oxford. I was in Ouds after all."
"It didn't make it as far as Somerville," said Hilary, thinking not for the first time that her life as an undergraduate had been rather sheltered.
"There was this fellow called Charles Fosticue, he was impossible to avoid if one moved in theatrical circles. Simply everyone went to his parties. He... oh, I suppose it doesn't matter now, but he made himself very tiresome." Julian paused. "It was all they talked about: who knew, who didn't know, who was, who wasn't. It was depressingly furtive, and rather sickening, and yet... would it be wrong to say that I found it fascinating as well? It was as if their whole lives were a sort of performance, staged for select audiences only."
"Julian," said Hilary faintly, "you were meant to turn left back there."
"Oh, yes," he said, accelerating smoothly onwards over the crest of the hill, past the darkened university tower. "But it's not even half nine. Too early to go back, don't you think?"
"I had assumed we were," Hilary said, a sense of resignation already creeping in.
In Julian one found a capricious mix of endearing biddability and masculine stubbornness, so that it was never clear which would come to the surface. One could not argue with him in this sort of a mood; she had learnt this much at least during their brief marriage. It would not, she thought, be much of a marriage if she were always to assume him willing to be led.
Like an underexposed film, Bridstow streets flickered past out of the corner of her eye. Hilary schooled herself to sit back and say nothing. Not even about the petrol ration.
"When I said that I ought to have known," Julian continued finally, "I meant that I ought to have learnt to recognise it by now, instead of walking right into things like that. I don't suppose that you have women after you at every turn? Or perhaps you do."
Hilary considered. Having finally been sent to school at the advanced age of fifteen, she had inspired—and taken part in—her fair share of schoolgirl 'pashes.' One of them had impressed itself upon her mind sufficiently for her to have later confessed it to David, and received the confident assurance that it was a passing phase all girls went through. That had been enough to put her mind at rest. Perhaps it was different for men?
"Not really," she said. "I hadn't thought about it in years."
"I haven't been able to avoid thinking about it."
"It's a shame. Under different circumstances, I rather think that you would have liked Alec."
"The thing is," said Julian slowly, "I did."
For a time he was silent, as if concentrating on the driving. Overhead one could hear the faint drone of an aeroplane. In that darkened world, now running subterranean between almost invisible hedgerows, it seemed as if nothing else existed besides themselves and the distant pilot. Hilary found herself peering through the windscreen for the plane, though it was impossible to see.
"It's one of ours," said Julian. "One can tell from the pitch of the propeller. I suppose he'll be out of Filton."
Hilary had nothing to say to that. "Where are you taking us? Or is it a secret?"
Please God, she thought, let it not be another cave. It's all the evening needs.
"I thought we'd visit Wales."
"Darling, no. Will the ferry even be running at this time of night? And there are the tides to think of as well."
"I haven't the foggiest idea," Julian admitted. "It was just an idea I had. Tintern Abbey by starlight. An evening stays in the mind so much better when one has a scene to remember it by. I wanted you to remember."
"I don't think I ever could forget this evening," said Hilary.
But she knew very well what he meant.
Abruptly the Christmas party seemed very far away; she could not now bring to mind the look on Alec Deacon's face. All she could think was that this might be the last night that she would spend with her husband.
When they reached the Aust Ferry, all was dark and closed-up. Julian parked the Austin by the deserted landing stage and put his arm around her shoulder. She could see her breath in the chill of the car; she could only imagine the river rolling inexorably onwards to the sea. Far upstream was her childhood home in Shropshire; downstream, who could know.
She laid her cheek against the rough wool of his uniform. A year had brought them to this point; another year could sweep them away again. For the moment she clung to the small truths that were all one could take hold of, seeking to keep herself anchored in the here and now. And yet everything conspired to pull her into the undertow. Alec Deacon was only the sign and the symbol.
I never thought of losing him to a man, thought Hilary suddenly, absurdly.
"It was when I met you that I knew for certain," said Julian, as if the conversation had never faltered. "I never felt this way, you know, about a woman before. That was why I wondered. But afterwards one could hardly doubt anything."
"Don't, then," said Hilary. "Don't."
She kissed him, then, as she often did, to forestall further conversation. If there was more to it than that, she did not want to know. To hold him in her arms was enough, assuring herself of something that she had never had to question.
They heard the crunch of bicycle tyres on gravel a few moments before the rap on the windscreen. Julian rolled down the window and Hilary blinked as a cursorily blacked-out torch was shone into her eyes. Through the dazzle she could dimly discern an elderly man who wore the badge of an air raid warden alongside a medal proclaiming his service in Matabeleland, 1893.
"Won't be a ferry till tomorrow morning."
"The fact was just beginning to dawn upon us," said Julian.
Hilary envied his ability to deliver a line with that perfectly judged tone of diffident apology.
"I suppose you've your identity cards," said the self-appointed guardian of the ferry, un-mollified.
They solemnly handed them over and waited as the man unfolded his reading glasses. After what seemed a long while he cleared his throat and handed them back.
"Begging your pardon, Lieutenant. And ma'am. But there's a war on, you know."
"Oh, yes, of course," said Julian, with faintly schoolboyish surprise, as though the thought had only just occurred to him. "Terribly sorry to have troubled you. We'll be moving on now."
That meekness lasted only until they were out of earshot. As he pulled away, Julian let out a feeling whistle.
"What bloody cheek," he said.
Hilary's feelings were more personal. "Heavens, Julian, he will have thought that we were having an affair, sitting together in the dark like that."
"I don't think so," said Julian. "He had a good long look at our papers; you did decide to take my name, after all."
And of course it was true. There was no reason why Flight Lieutenant Julian Richard Fleming and Dr. Hilary Fleming should not sit together in their car by the Severn at ten o'clock at night, strange though the arrangement might appear to outsiders.
Hilary was reluctant to abandon the argument. "He will have thought we were an odd married couple at the very least."
Julian laughed. "But we are, aren't we?"
"I suppose we are." Acknowledging the fact seemed to take a weight off her shoulders. "We won't get to Wales tonight, my dear. Have we still time for a drink somewhere?"
"Do you want a drink?"
Hilary considered. "Not really."
"Then let's go back."
Hilary blinked in surprise as she pulled open the blackout curtains. The day had dawned pitilessly bright, sun already melting away the frost in the window, as if calculated to remind her just how little sleep she'd had the night before. The sky was a cheerful, terrible blue, bisected by a single vapour trail. It was not a morning on which to say good-bye to one's husband.
She turned away from the window to see that Julian was still in bed. He was stretched out diagonally, one hand thrown over his eyes with that easy, unconscious grace of his. The pose was so aesthetic that she could have suspected him of having chosen it, were it not that the slow rise and fall of his chest suggested that he had fallen back asleep since her departure from bed.
"Julian," she said, "haven't the R.A.F. taught you to get in up the morning?"
He startled out of sleep and gazed at her fondly for a moment, then allowed his eyes to drift closed once again. "Oh, if there were a bell I should have leapt out of bed and grabbed for my gear in an instant. But there isn't. Come back to bed, dearest."
"Your train goes in forty minutes."
"Yes. Come back to bed. Did I tell you that I once was scrambled in my dressing gown? It didn't make the slightest bit of difference."
Hilary went back to bed.
Twenty minutes later they had to scramble together. Hilary found herself tumbling out the door with rumpled tweeds, hastily brushed hair and only the most perfunctory application of powder.
Julian drove at such speed that they pulled up at Temple Meads with five minutes to spare. He got out of the car and set off for the platform at what he doubtless considered a moderate pace, pulling Hilary along by the hand. When they arrived, the big station clock declared that they had a full three minutes of grace remaining.
"Isn't it better this way?" said Julian. "I detest having to sit and drink a cup of tea first."
Infuriatingly he did not even seem to be out of breath.
Hilary remembered that she had never intended to see him off at the station, congratulating herself in advance on the sensible avoidance of a lengthy, painful and self-conscious public good-bye. She remembered also that she was meant to be at the hospital in a quarter of an hour. All of this now seemed insignificant.
"My dear," she said. "Julian, dearest, come here."
He took her into his arms so forcefully that he half lifted her off her feet, kissed her hard. Hilary knew then that this was what she had wanted all along. She did not release him to his fate until the train's final whistle sounded.
Hilary stood waving until the train pulled out of sight around the bend, half hidden by smoke. Next to her a blonde with immaculate finger curls was weeping untidily into a handkerchief. Slowly she became aware of the crowds surrounding her on the platform. She felt her face flush with sudden self-consciousness, aware that their farewell had been a rather showy spectacle; another moment's reflection persuaded her of the utter insignificance of one more parting during wartime. No one had taken any notice.
Hilary blinked, feeling as if she'd just awakened from a deep sleep. Then she looked again at the clock, and dashed for the car.
From the end of the hallway she could see a white-coated figure pacing outside her office door. Hilary closed the remaining distance at a half-run, suddenly terrified that there should have been some emergency during the ten minutes that she had been absent without leave.
She came up short; it was Alec Deacon, drawing hard on a cigarette. His face was sallow and shadowed; he looked a full decade above his age.
"Dr. Fleming," he said. "I—"
"Of course, Mr. Deacon. Do come in."
The events of the past evening came back to her all at once. For her they had seemed already miles away; now she remembered then that Alec too would have passed a sleepless night, for very different reasons. Hilary's heart went out to him, wholly and immediately.
He followed her in obediently, but not too closely. Hilary took a seat behind her desk but Alec remained standing, though she gestured to the other chair. It was as if he did not wish to commit himself to remaining in the office a moment longer than necessary; or he did not feel assured of a continuing welcome.
"I'm very aware that I owe you an apology," he said, the words careful and deliberately schooled. "Though I shall understand if you don't feel able to accept it. Perhaps it's pointless to say that if I had only known—but of course it is, I don't know what I was thinking, and really it doesn't matter. One has to take responsibility nonetheless."
He had, she thought, read her well enough at the party to have determined that an apology was necessary. Julian had chosen to tell her what had happened in the pub; not every man would have done the same.
Hilary noted also what Alec did not say: it's not like me at all or I can't imagine why I did it nor yet I've learnt my lesson and I shan't do it again. There was, in fact, something of the tone of the habitué in the apology, though it was no less heartfelt for that.
"I do, at least," Alec added.
"Though I also admit to hoping that it will make some difference to you. I'm rather attached to being a student here, that's all."
I imagine he's frantic by now, Hilary remembered Julian saying.
"It's wartime," she replied. "Nothing could be better calculated to give one a sense of proportion. I saw Julian off at the station this morning; I assure you that it never crossed my mind. Or his."
Alec drew a deep breath, the first he had taken in a long while without a cigarette held to his lips.
"Yes," he said. "Of course you have more important things to think about. One's own concerns do tend to loom at the forefront of one's consciousness."
Having given implicit absolution, Hilary found that she could not quite let the topic alone.
"What does Sandy say about it?"
Alec's face passed quickly through stages of disbelief, relief, guilt, and a different sort of fear. It would almost have been amusing if he had not looked so stricken. Then, unexpectedly, he gave a hollow laugh.
"Of all the things I imagined you might have to say to me," he observed, "that wasn't one of them."
He took another drag on the cigarette.
"But, please, if you would, leave him out of it. He's not involved in any way."
"Of course not," said Hilary.
There was a long pause. Hilary found herself wondering what would have happened if her answer to Alec had been otherwise. She supposed he would have gone into the Forces immediately, as a regular officer. How strange to think that she could have chosen to condemn a young man to danger and death so simply.
Alec stubbed out his cigarette. "One might say," he replied, addressing the ash tray, "that you've taken it a good deal better than he did."
"There wasn't anything for me to take," replied Hilary, amused. "After all, nothing happened."
"I suppose that's one way of looking at it." Alec matched her tone. He was giving her a straight look now with his dark eyes; one could sense his anxiety dissipating with every moment, and with it the return of his usual air of detached interest. "But it doesn't seem the commonest of attitudes, if you don't mind me saying. I went through psychoanalysis a few years ago; it was somewhat unproductive, but illuminating in its way. My analyst gave me the impression that I was rather a rare bird and ought not to expect any understanding from the public at large."
One had the impression that this too—the casual admission of having resorted to psychoanalysis—had been offered up in a bid for sympathy, possibly planned in advance. But Hilary was content under the circumstances to allow herself to be charmed.
"I ought to be hurt that you consider me the public at large," she said. "I've had my own unconventionalities, as you may have gathered. Judging others on that basis would be rather hypocritical."
And that was distinctly farther than she had meant to go. Alec offered her a conspiratorial smile.
Hilary would have said more but, overtaken by fatigue, she found herself yawning broadly.
"I'm sorry," she and Alec said simultaneously.
Hilary laughed, covering the slight embarrassment that clung to her own unintentional revelation. Alec must have sensed it; without any transition, he became once again the serious and correct medical student.
"Thank you for seeing me," he said. "I don't suppose I ought to take any more of your time. But you've been more understanding than I could have hoped."
"Yes," mused Hilary, "I suppose we ought both to be on our rounds by now. But Alec... just one more thing."
Already standing, he would have gone out the door without another word. Now he turned back towards her with his usual attentive air.
"Julian told me that he liked you very much," said Hilary.