Sister Master entered the duty room complete with bottled-up frustrations after a duty round with a society quack of a doctor. She sank into a chair. Reached over and picked up a scrawled message from her desk.
“What the devil is all this about?”
“Reception phoned to say that there is a patient on his way in for ward 39 - I.C.U.” Nurse Vance adjusted her cap in the mirror and tucked away a lock of hair.
“I do wish you would do something about your writing. It’s worse than all of the doctors put together. Have you checked the ward?”
“No. I thought.....”
“You aren’t supposed to think. That’s reserved for doctors. All you have to do is to carry out instructions.”
“I haven’t had any.”
“As if you needed any. Stop titivating yourself and do it to the ward. Move it.”
“Yes, Sister,” grinned Nurse Vance and she left the room hurriedly. She ran down the corridor signalling for assistance from a nursing aid. In the duty room the telephone shrilled once again.
“Now what,” groaned Sister Masters as she reached across for the instrument. “Third floor. Sister Masters speaking.”
“Good afternoon Sister. Your attention is called to a patient in urgent need of your attention. He is suffering from an acute heart condition and his condition is serious. He.....”
“Oh Roger, do shut up.”
“Now is that the way to speak to your beloved fiancé?”
“Yes. At least it is today when he acts like an idiot.”
“Then I won’t keep you. Just phoned to say that I will be able to pick you up tonight if I may?”
“Right. Meet you in reception at seven thirty?”
“Fine. Bless you darling. Bye.”
Sister Masters replaced the receiver and leaned back in her chair. A soft sigh escaped in an 'aah' of air. Seven thirty. Four hours away. Could she hold out till then? Again, the telephone rang. She muttered a rude word and picked it up.
“Reception here, Sister. Your patient for 39 has arrived. A Mr Winters. Stretcher case. On his way up now.”
“Thank you.” She dropped the telephone and flew out of the room. Nurse Vance was just leaving the ward.
“Is the ward ready, nurse? ”
“Good, the patient is on his way up.”
The two women hurried into the ward. Hands fluttering, checking, touching. Making the last-minute adjustments that were not really required except by the ingrained training that demanded it of them.
“I hope that he is young, rich - and unmarried,” declared Nurse Vance. “He will then fall in love with me and take me away from all this. I am so tired of lugging sick people around all day.”
“What about your boy friend?” asked Sister Masters absently as her eyes checked the dials in the room looking for anything out of place.
“Oh, Chris is a fine chap, but - no money.”
The door of the ward was pushed open and the porters wheeled and eased the trolley into the cramped room. Gentle hands lifted the man from the trolley and placed him on the bed. Before the trolley was out of the room it had been forgotten by the two women intent on their new patient as they festooned the lines and tapes of modern medicine around their patient.
Nurse Vance looked down at the man and made a little moue of disappointment. “Eighty - if he is a day,” she whispered.
“Eighty-three, actually,” came a frail, strained voice. “Sight and hearing still excellent.”
“Oh!” gasped Nurse Vance and then fled from the room.
Sister Masters smiled down at the man on the bed as she automatically began to check his pulse. “Don’t mind her. She is looking for a rich husband.”
Grey eyes in a grey face twinkled under bushy, grey brows. “I must remember to apologise to her for the let down.”
The eyes flicked to the door as it opened. But the doctor who actually entered was obviously not who he was expecting. A slight frown marked the pale forehead.
Subconsciously Sister Masters noted the frown as she noted many other things about the man. But she had no time to follow it up. She had her hands full attending the doctor as he made his examination and issued instructions. Dr Contre was one of best types. Dedicated to his work, as he assumed that she was too. That she would be part of a team that had one purpose. To save the life of the patient and to defeat death - if possible.
But the chances were going to be very slim in this case. The doctor was fighting all the way and had been doing so for some time. But if Mr Winters was going to leave Ward 39 alive he would be very lucky - and tough. It was only after the doctor had left that Sister Masters was able to regard her patient as a person and not some objective case. “Is there anything that I can do for you now?”
A tired smile tugged at the pale lips. “Thank you, no. Except - have you seen anything of my grand-daughter around?”
There was no need of a reply. The door of the ward was suddenly pushed open and a woman, wrapped up in furs and a cloud of perfume, arrogantly stalked into the room.
“Ah, there you are Gramps. I had such a job to find you. No one in this place seems to know where anyone is. Now, I have fixed everything up at the office. You haven’t a thing to worry about except to get better. So just relax and do just that, do you hear me?”
She pushed past the sister. One contemptuous foot striking her on the ankle. Eyes, vacant pools of clear water sunken in blackened holes set in a dead white face, flicked to one side.
“Sorry,” came the perfunctory apology. Then she turned back to the man on the bed. “Now Gramps, have you everything that you need?”
“Yes, thank you Betty - I’m sorry - Elizabeth. Perhaps you could bring me some sweets to suck later?”
“Of course. When I come again. Now pet, I must fly. Harold is bringing home those tiresome people from Loxton Productions. It’s a bore but we must go through the motions. Bye now.”
She blew an absent-minded kiss in the old man’s direction and turned to go out. As she passed Sister Masters she gave a disdainful jerk of her head to indicate that she required the sister to follow her. Sister Masters ignored the insolent command and went on attending to her patient. A few minutes later the door of the ward opened and an ice-cold voice came through.
“I would like to speak to you - at once. I am in a hurry.”
Sister Masters finished the entry that she was making - looked up. Her voice was as cold as that of the writhing mass of furs at the door. “I am sorry but that is impossible at the moment. If you care to wait, I may be able to spare you a few minutes later.”
The two pairs of eyes locked in battle until the eyes at the door narrowed into slits. The mouth became a thin red line in the dead white face. Then she turned away and closed the door.
Sister Master felt no joy in her “victory” - only a little sadness. A sadness which deepened as she met the pain filled eyes of the man on the bed.
“She is a good girl, you know. Young, but with lots to do. Lots of responsibilities. Entertaining her husband’s business friends. He is in the sort of business where that is very important. Otherwise she would not leave me. Even though I am a bit of a trial. Please go to her. See what she wants. She hasn’t much time. Please.”
She smiled at him. “Very well. I am nearly finished here. Just one or two more notes and then I am through. But these must be done now.”
She quickly wrote up the notes. Hating herself for hurrying and yet not wanting the hurt the old man. She pinned the notes into the file and smiled down at the old man again. “Now you lie back and relax. I’ll see you later.”
She automatically checked the drip and left the room. The mass of furs above a tapping toe was not far off boiling point. “Can you now spare me a few moments of your valuable time, nurse.?”
Sister Masters’ lips tightened. “A very few. Please be brief.”
Fury lit red fires in the clear eyes and the painted mask strained. “Please pay attention. I have left my telephone number downstairs at your reception. But it is not to be used for any trivial upheaval or drama in which you hospital people delight. Only matters of importance, and sparingly at that.”
She adjusted her gloves preparing to move off. Sister Masters was torn between her anger and her concern for the grey haired, pain racked man who lay behind the door of Ward 39. Concern won.
“But surely you know that Mr Winters is in a bad way. And that he might well.......”
“Yes, yes.” An impatient hand was held up as the querulous voice poured out. “I have had it all explained to me. By our very competent medical man and two specialists over a period of a year. In that time there have been four emergencies. But my grandfather is a lot tougher than you people realise.”
A gloved hand moved fur so that the tiny face of a watch was exposed. “However, there is nothing that I can do that you aren’t paid to do. On the other hand, some very important and influential people are coming to dinner tonight. That I can and must organise. So, remember my instructions, no dramas.”
“Dramas are no respecter of instructions. Whether yours or any one else’s.”
The lips writhed and parted to fire venom - but the poised tension contained in the white clad women in front of her killed the words. Instead she turned on her heel and walked to the lifts. Her hips swinging with the assured arrogance of her moneyed world. This was the “good girl” so beloved by the sick old man.
She could not go back to the ward just then. Could not pretend the lie he would expect of her. Instead she went to the duty room. But constantly either she or Nurse Vance checked with the special duty nurse who was always at the old man’s side. The old man was fighting. Still holding on.
But only just.
It was shortly after six o’clock when there was a sudden reversal in his condition. The bell rang stridently in the duty room and both Sister Masters and Nurse Vance raced to Ward 39 in answer.
Mr Winters was losing his final battle. The nursing staff and the hastily summoned doctor fought desperately. Trying to help the old man in his fight. But, hard though they fought, it was in the full knowledge that they could just not do enough to turn the tide.
At last Dr. Contre straightened his back and closed his bag with a final click. His shoulders sagged in tiredness and defeat. “It’s no use. There is nothing more that we can do. It is just a matter of time. Better inform his relatives. You have their number?”
“I believe that Reception has the number of his grand-daughter.”
“Good. Get her here at once. She’ll want to be with him at the end.” He saw the look on the Sister’s face. “What’s wrong?”
“She gave instructions’ that she was not to be disturbed for any of our dramas. Only for 'matters of importance - and sparingly at that'”
Dr Contre pulled a face. “You don’t like her, do you? What has she got on tonight? A bridge party or something like that?”
“Friends for dinner. Important ones.”
“Aren’t they all? Oh well, you can but try. I’ll try to do the same - if I can. It just depends on what the night has to offer me. Unfortunately, I have a few critical cases on my hands at the moment. I’ll keep in touch.”
“Very good, Doctor.”
He turned and then paused. “By the way, he will be in a lot of pain. I have authorised a dosage of morphine. Use your discretion when to give it. It may help to make the end more peaceful.”
Sister Masters looked down at the sharply etched face on the pillow. Pity in her heart. The eyes were closed, breathing laboured. She motioned to Nurse Vance to remain with the special nurse as she followed the doctor out of the ward.
In the duty room she paused with her hand on the telephone. Sharp in her memory was the cold voice saying “only matters of importance and sparingly at that.” Would the painted hulk regard the old man’s approaching end as a “matter of importance”? She picked up the receiver and dialled.
“Reception - could you please give me the number of Mr Winters’ next of kin? Ward 39. I believe it is his grand-daughter’s.”
“Is he going?”
“I am afraid so.”
“Poor old fellow. It’s a Mrs Weaver.”
As she took down the number Sister Masters reflected bitterly that the nursing staff often took more interest in the patients than many relatives. She dialled the number. Waited for the click of the receiver being picked up. A tired male voice came on the line.
“Weaver here. Good evening.”
“Good evening. Could I speak to Mrs Weaver please?”
“Just a minute. I’ll call her.”
There was a muted crackle of noise and then the petulant, bored voice drawled over the line. “Elizabeth Weaver here. Can I help you? ”
“This is Sister Masters here. Of the Edengate City Hospital. I am afraid.....”
The voice over the wire cut across her words like a high-pitched power saw. “Oh, now really. This is too bad. Nurse -Sister or whatever you are - I gave strict instructions that I wasn’t to be disturbed tonight. I am simply not prepared to play games with you now.”
“I am ringing on Dr Contre’s instructions. He does not expect Mr Winters to last out the night.”
“Yes, Nurse, I know. This is a repetition of the events of some six months ago. And my grandfather survived that. Or has Dr Contre forgotten that?”
“I am afraid that I have no knowledge of that. All I...”
“Well I have. Please give my grandfather my love and tell him that I will see him in the morning.”
“Mrs Weaver. I am afraid that you do not understand. Your grandfather is in a coma and we...... Hullo. Hullo.” Sister Masters stared unbelievingly at the telephone in her hand. Unable to accept that the instrument at the other end had been slammed down.
Swift anger rose like a tide within her. She banged the cross bar until the dialling tone came. With angry jerks at the dial she began to dial the Weavers number once again. Half way through - she stopped. Would a display of anger on her part have any effect on the ice bound Weaver woman? Except, perhaps, to provide her with some ironical amusement? But she had to try. She had to make her see that this was a life and death situation.
Sister Masters continued to dial when the alarm bell from ward 39 pealed out. Without a thought she slammed the phone down and raced out of the room.
Mr Winters was struggling to sit up despite the efforts of both his attendant nurses to restrain him. Trying to protect of tubes around his body. Sister Masters quickly made her way to the bedside.
“Stop this at once, Mr Winters,” she said sharply. “You’ll be breaking something soon. Besides, you’re upsetting the nurses.”
Grey eyes stared blankly at her. Then a gleam of recognition shone through the film that clouded them. He sank back against the crumpled pillows.
“I want my Betty. My grand-daughter. I want her to come to me. Ask her to come. Please.”
The noise of the slammed down receiver was still in her ears but Sister Masters gave no indication of this. “Don’t worry, I have just spoken to her. She’ll be on her way. So just relax.”
It might even be true. The noise of the replaced receiver might have indicated that the urgency of the situation had penetrated the painted shell. She might even now be on her way. Somewhere in that ice-cold container there had to be something that made the old man love her. Something that was worth the love. Something that would respond.
The grey eyes closed. “Thank you. She’ll come. She is a good girl, my Betty. All that I have left now. She’ll come.” The body of the man twisted and buckled in a fresh surge of pain.
“Prepare a morphine injection please, Nurse,” whispered Sister Masters as her brain made rapid calculations.
“Very good, Sister.” Nurse Vance stepped away as Sister Masters threw a guilty look at her watch.
In fifty-five minutes Roger would be calling for her. And not find her waiting. Because an old man would be fighting for his life - fighting his last battle - and she could not leave him until it was all over. Even if the man that she loved grew tired of waiting - and left. How long would Roger put up with it? Playing second fiddle to a hospital full of patients.
“Injection ready, Sister.” Nurse Vance brought the prepared hypodermic and the empty capsule on a small tray. Sister Masters quickly checked the dosage and then expelled the air while Nurse Vance cleaned the old man’s arm. With a quick flick the needle was plunged in.
As she handed the hypodermic back to Nurse Vance the two women exchanged looks. Nurse Vance blinked her eyes. No matter how often the same scene was enacted you never were able to grow accustomed to it or immune to it.
No sign of Mrs Weaver and her furs. Sister Masters knew, in her heart, that Mrs Weaver was sitting in an elegant lounge, clutching a drink in her hand. Laughing shrilly at some feeble joke. But she kept on hoping - and praying.
Twice the phone rang. Each time she went to it thinking that it would be some message from the longed for grand-daughter. But each time it was something else. Never Mrs Weaver.
The doctor came again. Checked her report. Shrugged his shoulders in defeat. Sighed. Settled down in a chair in the ward. Not that he could do much else. But as reluctant as were the rest of the staff to let the old man fight it out on his own.
“She is coming, Sister,” the frail voice assured her. “My Betty will come.”
“Of course she will,” agreed Sister Masters. Tears stinging her eyes. “But she has a long way to come. It takes time.”
The grey head nodded and he slid once more into the release of drugged sleep. Sister Masters paused irresolute. Should she call Mrs Weaver again? Plead with her? Try to impress on her the urgency of the case? Maybe it had been her own attitude that had caused Mrs Weaver to be so off hand. It was worth eating humble pie if it could help the old man in his last hours. She hurried to the duty room and the telephone.
But the alarm lights from other wards, other patients, were flashing. Those needs had to be answered. Perhaps she would get the chance to make the call later.
The old man was going fast now. His face seemed to have lost all its flesh and was merely skin covered bone. That woman must be made to realise how urgent it all was. Sister Masters moved to the door.
Strangely the voice sounded stronger. Stronger than it had been the whole evening. The grey eyes were open. Brilliant. The dull film gone.
“Where is my Betty?”
“She hasn’t come as yet. Don’t worry. She’ll be here. She has probably been held up in the traffic.”
The old man smiled. She realised with a pang that he knew that she was not telling the truth. Yet the smile was sweet and pure. Erasing the tired lines of pain on his face. Making it beautiful in its serenity.
“Thank you, Sister,” he said.
Closed his eyes.
And then he died.
Her hands were rock steady as she dialled the number.
“Weaver here. Good evening.” It was the same tired male voice with just a suggestion of an alcoholic slur.
“Could I speak to Mrs Weaver please?” Her voice was calm and expressionless.
“You called before. Aren’t you from the hospital?”
“That’s right. Sister Masters.”
“My wife told me. I don’t think....”
“I must speak to Mrs Weaver.”
There was a pause. But perhaps something in her voice convinced him. “Just a minute. I’ll call her.”
When she did come to the phone her voice held more than an undercurrent of fury.
“This has gone far enough. I am going to report you to your management. You will find that we have some influence around here. Even in your establishment. And I will have something to say to Dr Contre as well. We are just about to sit down to dinner.”
“Then I will not keep you long, Mrs Weaver. But I did think that you would like to know that your grandfather has just died. He was asking for you till the end.”
There was silence on the wire. Then a curious noise. One so odd and unexpected that Sister Masters felt all the anger within her melt away.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Then there was nothing more to do but to replace the receiver.
Sister Masters found herself staring at the instrument. Funny how much of her time was spent on the beastly brute. Perhaps if she had been able to use it earlier - if she had been more persuasive - things would have been different. Perhaps she could have touched some core of love within the painted shell. At least she could have tried.
Nurse Vance walked into the duty room, putting on her cloak. Her face reflected the anger that they both had felt. “And what did Madam have to say when you told her?”
Sister Masters lifted her head. “Nothing. She just sobbed.”
Roger was still waiting as he had waited so many times before. She hurried over and buried her head in his shoulder. There was no need to explain. To apologise. He knew. In silence they left the building. Walked over to the parking lot.
“Make me a promise.”
He put an arm around her shoulders. Held her very tight. “You have it.”
“Don’t let me die alone. Among strangers. Let me die at home.”
He held her tight and bit his lip. The look that he gave to the hospital building was one of pure hatred. Hate of the hold that it had over his woman.
In one of the wards on the third floor a light was put out.
It was the light of Ward 39.