Nige had a damp bar towel pressed against the welt in her side, and was mainly conscious, but she wasn’t giving much good chat. It felt to Bracken as though they had been sitting there for an eternity before eventually they were summoned through to see a doctor.
“Needs stitches,” the aforementioned doctor said, “about five of ‘em.”
He was a big burly ex-colonel of a man, with twinkling blue eyes and an enormous auburn moustache that curled out at the ends. His doctor coat was made of tweed, which Bracken was fairly sure was not the norm, and he wore a deerstalker hat, which she felt could not have been regulation doctor-wear. He looked at her, suddenly serious.
“Will it take long,” she asked, disconcerted. “The stitching?”
“Well that depends,” he replied, “how good’s your sewing?”
“My – aren’t you going to do it?” she queried, as he burst into peals of raucous belly laughter. The tweed trembled like an ocean in the breeze.
“Of course I’m not old gel,” he said, “the nurse will manage. Honestly, the look on your face. That joke always works on children but it’s much better when I get an adult with it. How’s your sewing, heh heh. Funny every time.”
The nurse who was silently cleaning Nigella’s wound with alcoholic swabs grimaced and shook her head.
“Geeta always finds it funny, don’t you Geeta,” he continued, apparently having not seen the face.
“Every time, Doctor Maxwell,” she said pleasantly. “It’s the-“
“-Looks on their faces that does it, eh?”
Bracken got the impression that Geeta was rather accustomed to being interrupted by the tweedy behemoth. He looked about six foot five, and that was in his stockinged feet. Again, Bracken was compelled to fight what she assumed must be her ignorant, stereotypical view of how doctors dressed.
“Righty ho,” he said, “terribly nice to meet you but I must trot on. There’s a rather ill lady I must go and visit over on one of the wards. I used to know her husband back in the day so I wish to ensure she is being well looked after. No ruddy hospital food, for a start.”
Geeta looked at him strangely, but did not voice whatever she was thinking, presumably in the interests of patient confidentiality.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Geeta told Bracken, after he was gone, “he literally does that to everyone. Some of us were thinking about buying him a joke book for secret Santa last Christmas but somehow his wife got wind of it and banned us. Apparently he’d had one before and it was nearly the end of their marriage. He kept mixing up the punch lines and offending their posh friends.”
“How the other half live,” groaned Nigella from the trolley she had been bleeding on till Geeta sorted her out.
“You need to be quiet and have lots of rest,” Geeta informed her, slipping out of gossip mode and into calm professionalism without a fuss.
“I feel sick,” Nigella mumbled in response.
“That’s probably the pain killers. Here,” she said, producing a cardboard tray, “you can do it in this. And you can lie down here for a while but we don’t have any beds so I think your pal is going to have to try and organize you a lift somehow.”
“Thanks,” she said, vomiting politely.
“No problem,” Geeta said, removing herself to go and rescue other patients from the unwanted humour of Doctor Maxwell.
“Right well I’ll go and see about getting us hame, will I,” Bracken said brightly.
“Nah, stay with me a bit.”
Bracken perched awkwardly on the trolley, holding her cousin’s hand.
“Wasn’t quite the night you had in mind eh Nige,” she said softly.
“Not quite,” she agreed, “but at least I never went hame wi Jimmy Bob.”
“I so knew you were going to do that! That’s pure shan by the way Nige, he’s no worth it.”
“Aye ah ken,” she said sleepily. “Just sometimes ah get lonely, but.”
Her dark eyes closed.
“Aye,” Bracken said wistfully, “ken wit ye mean.”
Nigella gave a long, throaty snore.
“Right,” Bracken whispered, creeping slowly out of the room, “lets see about getting a lift.”
There didn’t seem to be any pay phones about, so she went outside and switched on her mobile. There was no reception.
“Sake,” she cursed, her mind racing to think of a back up plan.
“No reception?” Asked a voice from the shadows.
Bracken turned to see that it belonged to a woman, with long wavy hair and intelligent eyes.
“Nut,” she replied, “have you noticed whether there’s any payphones in there?”
“They’re out of order,” the woman said, “but here, you can use mine. I get free minutes anyway.”
“Oh, I couldn’t use up your minutes,” Bracken said, coming over all Miss Jean Brodie in the presence of such a classy bird.
“Not at all,” the benevolent stranger replied, “I insist.”
“Thanks,” Bracken said gratefully, punching in her aunt’s mobile number.
The aunt was asleep in front of late night poker, having had a bottle and a half of wine to herself, and failed to hear her phone singing Justin Bieber’s modern classic, the one that goes ‘Baby, Baby, Baby, Oh!’
“Nae answer,” she said, as her aunt dreamed she was on a date with Bieber’s older, talented brother, “I’ll have tae try a cab.”
“Go ahead,” the Samaritan replied.
Bracken duly used the woman’s free minutes to book a taxi, then handed her phone back awkwardly.
“Thank you so much,” she said, “I dunno what I would have done.”
“No problem,” the woman said.
“So, what are you in for?” Bracken asked. “Are you visiting someone?”
“Yeah,” the woman said after a pause that was just slightly too long. “My… boyfriend’s mother just took ill suddenly so I brought them to the hospital. He can’t drive, and I can, so it made sense. She’s just with the doctor now but I didn’t want to crowd them.”
“That’s awful,” Bracken said, “do you think she’ll be alright?”
“Hard to say, really,” the stranger said, somewhat strangely. There was a lump in her voice, Bracken assumed because she was upset, and yet… there was a metallic tang to it, as though the emotion was a little less visceral than it was calculated.
“I should go and find them really. Hope your cousin is OK.”
“Thanks,” Bracken said, “and thanks again for letting me use your phone. Life saver!”
The Samaritan smiled thinly, and shimmied back into the hospital.
Bracken crossed her arms and rubbed her shoulders, which had gone goosepimply in the November air. She looked up, and was pleased to be able to see stars from this part of the city. Usually clouds, or reflections from street lamps blocked them from view around where Bracken lived. Or other times, the ceiling got in the way.
‘Better go and get Nige,’ she thought to herself with a sigh. Then, ‘how did that lassie ken I was here wi ma cousin?’
She shivered. There was something not quite right about that beautiful stranger. She said the right things but it was as though her heart was separate from the process. Bracken, an altogether more emotional being, found this hard to relate to.
But it hardly mattered, she thought. It wasn’t as if she was ever going to see the girl again. Although, she had seemed sort of familiar, now she came to think of it. She thought that she recognized the eyes in particular, hard and cold, observing her strangely. Maybe she was on telly or something.
Bracken walked back through the automatic doors, and was blinded momentarily by the lights.
“You alright love,” a passing man in a nurse’s uniform enquired.
“Yeah thanks,” Bracken replied. “Just going to pick up my friend.”
“Mr Nightingale,” Geeta squeaked, appearing at his shoulder, “just why are you wearing one of our uniforms? You’re supposed to be visiting your wife, not stealing hospital supplies.”
“She was asleep,” he said, “all that labour stuff tired her out, and someone took the baby off me and put it elsewhere. I got bored waiting for her to wake up, and when I went to look for the baby I got told to go back and sit with her. So I thought I’d do some investigating, but first I had to find a cunning disguise.”
“Someone’s been watching too much Diagnosis Murder,” Geeta said, meaning Mr Nightingale. “I’m going to write a strongly worded email to Dick Van Dyke about encouraging farcical detective shenanigans in a medical environment. It’s deeply annoying and very unprofessional.”
“I’m going to get Nige now,” Bracken excused herself. “Thanks for all your help, Geeta. Good luck with your shenanigans, Mr Nightingale.”
“What a nice girl,” Mr Nightingale observed as she clopped off down the corridor, dressed as she still was in her tallest clubbing heels.
“Yes,” said Geeta, “although something of a tragic figure I feel. Hope things turn out alright for her in the end.”
“Well, there’s just under forty thousand words to go before we find that out,” he replied. “So I’d better carry on my investigations, just in case she needs me for a subplot?”
Geeta shook her head.
“This is high romance, not Scooby Doo. Go back to your wife, she’ll be livid if she wakes up and you’re not there.”
“And take off that uniform,” she added, “I don’t want you getting yourself into a comedy situation where you have to treat someone. This is an NHS hospital, not Carry On Doctor.”
Meanwhile, Bracken was trying to wake Nigella, who was out cold.
“I can’t believe they went ahead and gave you painkillers knowing you’d been drinking,” Bracken said.
“Urg,” went Nigella, incoherently.
Bracken looked about her, hands on hips, thinking.
In the corner of the room, there was a fold up wheelchair with no seat and a yellow post-it note inscribed ‘goosed – do not use’.
She considered for a moment.
“Sod it,” she decided, “we’re only going to the door.”
She unfolded the chair, and laid the bloody bar towel across where the seat should be, knotting it around the frame. She then put it as close to the trolley as possible and tried to maneuver her cousin on to it. Nigella unhelpfully flopped about like an enormous rag doll the whole time, which made the operation a lot more difficult.
“Wish I had someone here to help,” Bracken wished out loud, impotently. Nobody came.
Eventually she managed to get Nigella into a sitting position, and with one arm under her legs and another around her back, she lifted from the knees and finally got her cousin into the chair. Nige’s head lolled dangerously.
‘Hope her neck’s alright,’ Bracken thought. She had seen medical dramas, and was vaguely aware that you had to be careful of people’s necks.
Then she carefully took the brake off, and wheeled her sleeping cousin towards the door.
Up ahead in the waiting area she could see the voluptuous hair of the phone Samaritan, who was trying to console a companion whose face Bracken could not make out. It tumbled down her slim line back like a shiny waterfall, just as if she was in a herbal essences advert.
As they got closer, Bracken was about to say hello, when two things happened.
First, Nigella woke up for just long enough to be sick all down herself, which meant that the taxi driver was not going to allow them into his cab.
Second, Bracken managed to identify the beautiful stranger’s companion – presumably the boyfriend whose mother was ill.
It was Aloysius Hunkington-Smythe.