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Thursday of the week following the wedding invitation offered a break in the usual work routine; a free bed had fallen vacant, and Mrs Adams of Garnham was next on the waiting list for one.

‘I’m heading up to Yorkshire in the ambulance today, Phoebe, so I’ll be very late back tonight,’ I informed her at the breakfast table that morning. ‘We’ve got a bed free for Mrs Adams, so we’re off to pick her up.’

‘Oh, that was quite quick, then,’ Phoebe said, looking pleased. ‘You were afraid she might not get in before Christmas, weren’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘But it so happens that in the past week or two a couple of patients have sadly departed the mortal world earlier than expected, and one or two others who were on the waiting list have got places at other hospitals instead, so we’ll be able to get her in much sooner than I hoped. It’ll mean she’ll have to spend Christmas there, unfortunately, but on the other hand, it’s probably a good thing that she’ll be spending the winter months under medical supervision. You know yourself how rheumatism tends to worsen in the cold weather.’

‘Unfortunately,’ agreed Phoebe with a shudder.

‘I don’t envy you the drive in that downpour,’ Edmund remarked, looking out of the window at the rain which had been pelting down steadily for four days in a row.

‘I’d rather this than the blistering summer heat we did it in with you two years ago,’ I said, nodding at Phoebe. ‘That really was awful. I thought we were going to suffocate, it was so stifling in that ambulance.’

‘I have no recollection of it, really,’ she said. ‘I was sunk in that drugged dose you’d put me in. I shan’t forget the pain when I got to the San and it wore off, though.’

‘Nor shall I,’ I admitted. ‘I hope I never see you as bad as that again, you really had me worried for a bit.’

‘I’ve no desire to return to that state either, believe me,’ she said darkly.

By nine o’clock I was on the road in the ambulance, heading towards Armiford.

‘Thank God there’s no more blackout to worry about,’ I observed to Nurse Wilkins, whom I had specifically requested for the job. I was hoping that the presence of such a no-nonsense figure at the very beginning of the proceedings would put paid to any doubts Mrs Adams may be harbouring about my competence. ‘It’s an awful enough journey to have to make in one go as it is, without having that prolonging things even further.’

‘The weather makes it bad enough,’ said Nurse Wilkins gloomily.

The rain poured down all the way to Yorkshire, prolonging the journey by a good half an hour due to various flooded roads, and I eyed them apprehensively.

‘We mustn’t waste any time starting back,’ I observed. ‘The last thing we need with a patient in the ambulance is to get stuck in a flood! I haven’t forgotten last year’s accident.’

‘Neither have I,’ grimaced Nurse Wilkins, twitching her arm.

We arrived in Garnham at long last and pulled up outside Mrs Adams’s cottage. As we disembarked, the front door was opened by a brusque-looking man in the early sixties with a ruddy face, a bald patch on top, and large tufts of white hair growing out from behind his ears like unruly cotton wool.

‘Archie Thompson,’ he said, singling me out at once and holding out a well-scrubbed hand smelling strongly of carbolic. ‘I’m the GP here.’

‘Frank Peters, rheumatics specialist,’ I replied, shaking his hand.

‘Glad you made it through all this rain,’ he said, scowling up at the sky before leading us into the cottage.

‘Just,’ I said. ‘I want to get back without delay before it gets any worse. Is she ready to go?’

He nodded. ‘Up here. Don’t let the old bird’s sharp tongue put you off, she’s a decent soul underneath. This is rather a chance for her, getting the sort of specialist help she could really do with. I’m glad she was willing to take you up on it.’

‘We’ll do our best for her, see if we can’t get it under control and improve her mobility a bit,’ I agreed. ‘I have hopes we’ll be able to achieve some sort of improvement, anyway.’

We went upstairs to find Mrs Adams, wearing a coat over her dressing gown and night things, sitting up in an armchair in her bedroom looking quite animated.

‘About time you got here,’ she barked at me the moment I entered. ‘You said about half past two you’d be here, and it’s after three now!’

‘“About” was the operative word, Mrs Adams,’ I said patiently. ‘Armishire is over two hundred miles away, one has to allow for the odd hold-up, especially in this weather. Now let’s not waste any more time,’ I went on hurriedly, forestalling another barbed remark as she opened her mouth again, ‘as it will be late evening by the time we reach the San as it is.’

She gave up her remonstrations for the moment and consented to being loaded onto a stretcher by the paramedics, who carried her downstairs and out to the ambulance, Dr Thompson and I following with her luggage and Nurse Wilkins bringing up the rear. An interested crowd of villagers had gathered to watch the proceedings, and as I loaded the luggage into the ambulance I spotted the Sodger pushing her way towards us, looking even more sour than usual.

‘Oh, for God’s sake, not again,’ I said under my breath. Dr Thompson followed my gaze and frowned blackly.

‘You head off,’ he said to me. ‘I’ll deal with this interfering old sourpuss.’

Thankful to be spared another battle with my nemesis, I slammed the ambulance doors shut to a chorus of goodbyes and good lucks from the villagers, and my last view of the village through the window was the satisfying sight of Dr Thompson and the Sodger having a fierce argument as the rest of the crowd looked on with glee.

‘What was that all about?’ asked Nurse Wilkins.

‘You don’t want to know,’ I replied darkly.

‘That Sodger, eh?’ grunted Mrs Adams. ‘I won’t miss ‘er, anyroad.’

‘She hasn’t been trying to put you off this treatment, has she?’ I asked, remembering Debby’s warning.

‘‘Course she has,’ said Mrs Adams dismissively. ‘Barging into me house uninvited saying you’ve got no right telling me what to do. Interferin’ old bag. Like it’s any of her business!’

‘It isn’t,’ I growled, mentally chalking up yet another black mark against the Sodger.

‘No, but she thinks it is, that’s t’trouble.’

‘Listen, the results will speak for themselves and put paid to any ignorant views she may be spreading around the village,’ I said. ‘We’ll return you to Garnham in the spring in a much better condition than you are now.’

‘Oh, I’m not worried about that,’ Mrs Adams said comfortably. ‘If the Wychcote lass is anything to go by I’m in good hands, I reckon.’

‘That’s the ticket. I daresay Phoebe will be only too happy to pop in for a visit and tell you all about it from a patient’s perspective…’

***

Darkness had long fallen by the time the ambulance rumbled into Armishire, though the rain had begun to cease at last. Mrs Adams had been dozing for several hours, but roused up as we passed the Chalet School gates.

‘Where are we?’ she demanded.

‘Armishire,’ I replied. ‘Not long now before we’re at the San.’

‘I’m too old for a journey like this,’ grumbled Mrs Adams.

‘You’re just tired,’ said Nurse Wilkins soothingly. ‘You’ll feel better once you’re settled in the ward and have had a wash and a change, and something to eat.’

‘So when do I start this treatment?’ Mrs Adams asked, looking at me as though she expected me to start the proceedings then and there.

‘When I deem you recovered enough from the journey,’ I replied. ‘And when I’ve had a chance to examine you properly and see exactly what needs to be done.’

‘No pussyfooting around, mind,’ she said sternly. ‘I want to be in and out of this place as quick as possible.’

‘We don’t keep patients in for the sake of it, Mrs Adams, delightful company though most of them are,’ I said, trying not to think of the Professor and various other difficult patients that I had been only too glad to see the back of throughout my career. ‘But we’re doing nothing further with you tonight after you’re settled in, we’re all much too tired and need a good night’s sleep first. Tomorrow we’ll do some tests to see exactly what we’re dealing with, and we’ll take it from there.’

‘All right, all right.’

***

It was past midnight by the time I finally got home that night, having seen Mrs Adams safely to the San and into Jack Maynard’s tender mercies. Ty-Gwyn was in darkness, but Phoebe, ever the light sleeper, sat up with a yawn as I tiptoed into the bedroom.

‘Good gracious, I didn’t think you’d be this late home,’ she said blearily, looking at the alarm clock. ‘What on earth kept you?’

‘Mrs Adams, of course,’ I said, tossing my clothes off and dragging my pyjamas on wearily. ‘It’s day one of her treatment and I’m already exhausted from her verbal barbs! I shall be needing a stint in the San myself by the end of it at this rate!’

‘Never mind,’ Phoebe said sleepily, snuggling down again as I got in beside her. ‘It was a long journey, after all, and she was probably quite excited and worked up about coming down here. I’m sure things will be fine once she’s had a chance to settle in.’

‘I’d love some of your optimism,’ I yawned, and she chuckled.

‘I’m just not as cynical as you are.’ She put her arm around me. ‘Goodnight, darling.’

‘Goodnight, old thing.’



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