George’s journey home would turn out to be eventful in more ways than one…
George looked up to check where he was going, and the swirling snow hit the little bit of his face that was still exposed.
He thought of getting his phone out of his pocket and having another go at ringing Bill to see if he could come and rescue him in his 4×4, but what was the point?
To phone Bill he’d have to put down his torch and battle with his mittens, getting cold and wet in the process. And anyway, there hadn’t been a signal last time he tried.
He’d do better just to keep on walking.
A car was approaching, coming up behind him, the first one he’d seen since his own had broken down, half a mile or so back.
Its headlights were arcing wildly as it slithered from side to side, lighting up the snow drifts banked up on the verges.
Whoever it was must be mad, coming out on a night like this: or else they were desperate to get somewhere. The forecast had been bad, but not as bad as the reality.
He’d considered sitting tight in his car and waiting for morning, but you read about people getting hypothermia, and he was, after all, only two miles from home.
Normally he’d be able to walk from here in half an hour or so. He’d lost track of the time, but he’d probably been walking for that long already.
The car behind him was closer now. He couldn’t see clearly in this snow, but he didn’t think it was anyone he knew.
In any case, the way the car was behaving, the driver must be putting every ounce of concentration into staying on the road.
They’d be unlikely even to see him. They might knock him down.
George scrambled a little way up the bank, waiting for the car to pass, but instead it slowed down.
He could just about make out the number plate from this distance. It wasn’t anyone from the village.
And from the fleeting glimpse he’d got of the driver, he had the impression it was a woman, so that put paid to any ideas he might have had of getting a lift for the last couple of miles.
No woman in her right mind would pick up a strange man on a deserted road at night. And of course, it wasn’t far really.
He tried to concentrate on the roaring fire that would meet him when he got home. If he could just keep putting one foot in front of the other…
The car really was slowing down. Stopping, in fact.
The driver must want directions, which meant she wasn’t from round here. Poor woman. He wouldn’t want to be out and lost in this weather.
She’d come to a full, if rather precarious, stop a few feet in front of him, and George approached the open window next to the passenger seat.
Her voice was unnaturally high, and for a split second George wondered whether she thought he was a mad axe man or something. That was the sort of thing mothers warned their daughters about, wasn’t it?
But when you needed directions, you had to ask someone. She wouldn’t be able to get a signal on her mobile either, so maybe she didn’t have a choice.
“Would you like a lift?”
“A lift?” he asked, taken totally by surprise. “But I’m soaked. I’ll get your upholstery wet. I’d probably leave water marks.” She must have been able to hear that his objections were half-hearted. “I’m only going to the next village.”
“Hop in,” the woman said, her voice not quite so high.
“Are you sure?”
She looked at the snow which was hurling itself through the window and starting to settle on the passenger seat. He followed her gaze.
“Oh. Sorry. Right.”
He sat down beside her, conscious that he was shivering violently.
“This is really kind of you. It’s a filthy night,” he said, somewhat unnecessarily. “I’m George, by the way. George Mason.”
She edged the car forwards and they drove in silence (apart from the furious swipes of the windscreen wipers) for the next few minutes.
It was snowing even harder now. As they approached a turning on the left, George frowned.
“I live about a quarter of a mile down there,” he said, pointing, “but I can walk that. The weather’s getting much worse, I don’t think you should make any unnecessary detours, and our lane can be pretty icy.
“In fact – and I know it’s not my business – I really don’t think you should drive much further at all tonight. The roads are absolutely treacherous.”
Alice looked at him suspiciously. Perhaps she was still looking for the axe.
“I was on the point of offering you a bed for the night, but I’m sure your mother brought you up not to give lifts to strange men, and certainly not to let yourself be inveigled into their houses,” he said ruefully.
Alice burst out laughing.
“That is exactly what my mother would say,” she admitted. “As it is, she’ll be phoning every ten minutes to check I’m safely home.
“I meant to stop and ring her, but there’s no reception. Is there a pub in the village?”
“Yes,” he said, looking amused, “and it has accommodation. Why don’t we go there, find you a bed for the night, you can ring your mother, and I could buy you some supper by way of a thank you for the lift?”
She hesitated, and he had a sudden vision of how threatening he must look, with his hat and scarf concealing most of his face.
He quickly took them off.
“Is that better?”
She relaxed visibly by several degrees and appeared to be sizing him up.
“You’d be safe enough in a pub,” he added, taking in that she was very pretty in a fragile way. But way too young, he admonished himself. She looked about twenty-three or four, which made her fifteen whole years younger than he was.
Oh well. A simple supper as a thank you was allowed, wasn’t it?
They arrived at the pub without mishap, and crunched their way through the compacted snow of the car park to the entrance.
A wave of warmth from the huge log fire met them as they opened the door, and Bill, who’d been holding the fort behind the bar, hurried forwards as they entered.
“George! At last. I thought you were the ambulance. They should be here by now. Did you hear any sirens or anything on your way?”
“Why, who needs an ambulance?” George said, his voice suddenly tense.
“It’s Barbara – she’s had one of her turns. Complaining of pains in the chest and all sorts.” George looked round wildly, as though expecting paramedics to be racing through the doors. “So where are they?”
“When did you ring?”
“A good hour ago.”
“Oh for goodness’ sake – nothing’s going to get through tonight. The roads are awful. Did you ring the surgery?”
“Let me see her,” Alice interrupted unexpectedly.
George looked round, having almost forgotten she was there.
“Oh. Yes. I’m sorry, I’ve got to sort this out. Barbara’s my mother. It’s her pub. I’ll see about a room in a mo.”
“But I’m a doctor,” Alice said more firmly. “I’ll go and get my bag from the car.”
A minute or two later Alice was examining Barbara, talking soothingly all the while and giving directions to George.
In a remarkably short time Barbara was breathing more comfortably, and her heart rate was less erratic.
“What she needs now is to get to the hospital,” Alice announced, looking up at George. “She needs an operation – a small operation,” she added quickly.
“It’s quite routine, but we do need to get her to hospital – I don’t have the facilities here – and I don’t think we can wait for the ambulance.”
George nodded slowly.
“She’ll be OK, but… she really needs to go. Now.” Alice picked up her equipment.
“Can I do anything?” Bill asked.
“Could you ring the hospital and tell them we’re coming? Oh, and cancel the ambulance, please.”
“Take my car,” Bill offered. “You’ll be better off in that.”
Within a few minutes Barbara was in the back of Bill’s 4×4 with Alice beside her, and George was driving as fast as the weather would allow.
When the lights of the hospital eventually came into view staff were ready with a trolley, clearly expecting them.
Barbara was soon inside, being raced along the corridor with Alice and George striding behind her, struggling to keep up.
Alice fished in her bag for her ID and clipped it onto her coat, appearing to don her professional persona at the same time, George noticed.
“I work here most of the time,” she said, correctly interpreting his questioning look.
The nurses, George noticed, followed her orders without question. When they arrived at the operating theatre, Alice jerked her head at a row of plastic chairs outside, indicating George should wait.
“Where will you be?” he asked.
“I don’t know who’s on duty,” she said as she began to take off her outdoor clothes, “but they’re likely to need help. I’ll let you know what’s going on as
soon as I can.”
George slumped into one of the chairs and unfastened his coat. After the cold outside, the hospital felt stifling.
He looked at the large clock on the wall, stark under the harsh strip lighting. Seven thirty-four. It felt like midnight.
Nurses hurried back and forth, all intent on what they were doing. What was Alice doing?
He had quite expected her to reappear instantly, but she didn’t. They must have needed another pair of hands.
If everything you read about the health service was true, they probably needed the help. And in this weather, it was likely some staff had not made it in.
He picked up an abandoned newspaper, but couldn’t take in the words.
His mother loathed hospitals. He could barely persuade her to go to the doctor, never mind a hospital.
Still, if she was having an operation, she wouldn’t know what was going on. She wouldn’t be worrying. Only he would be worrying.
Think of something else.
He thought of something else. For some reason his mind was re-playing the scene in Alice’s car – could it have been only about an hour ago? – when he was offering Alice dinner. Dinner and a bed for the night.
He was absolutely starving, he realised, so Alice was probably doubly so. After all, she’d mentioned that she’d been up since five this morning, and had missed lunch.
Something about a lecture. Did that mean that she wasn’t even qualified?
Oh well. They were here now, with experts on hand.
Unbidden, an image of a candlelit table appeared in his head, and he found himself dreaming of her lovely face opposite his.
He shook himself. This was no time for romantic daydreams. His mother was just on the other side of those swing doors – fighting for her life, for all he knew. He ought to be concentrating on her.
Though exactly what good that would do, he didn’t know, he thought, as Alice’s face swam into his vision again.
The lulling hum of unseen machines was making him feel drowsy.
Mr Mason?” the voice said again.
George jerked his head up. He couldn’t have dozed off! The clock on the wall said 9.50, so obviously he had…
“It’s all right,” the man in front of him was saying with a smile. “You probably needed it. Anyway, I just came out to say that your mother’s doing well.”
George blinked. “Are you the surgeon?”
“No, I’m the registrar. Professor Thomason, who did the actual operation, will be out soon to talk to you.” He paused. “I should say, though, that it was touch and go in there.
“You were incredibly lucky that Professor Thomason was on hand. But everything should be OK now. Your mother’s a very strong woman.”
Professor Thomason? That sounded very high up for “a little operation”, didn’t it? Still, he was glad his mother was in safe hands.
More experienced hands, he corrected, annoyed with himself for his disloyalty to Alice.
This professor bloke had probably done hundreds of these procedures. Still, touch and go. A frightening thought.
Alice came out, pulling off a mask.
“Oh good, you’re still here. Barbara seems fine,” she began cautiously, “but she needs to stay in for a night or two.” She put a reassuring hand on his arm.
“She really is fine, believe me, but she could do with being monitored, and anyway, I don’t think taking her home in this weather would be a good idea.
“Knowing she’s being properly looked after will take the pressure off you, too. You look exhausted.”
He was glad she hadn’t come out to find him asleep.
“Not as tired as you must be. And you must be hungry. Look, the registrar said the surgeon – Professor whatsit? – would be out in a mo, and I want to thank him. When I know what’s happening with my mother, is there somewhere round here we could grab a bite to eat?”
Alice opened her mouth to speak, looking amused, when the double doors behind her opened.
A nurse appeared, followed by Barbara on a trolley.
“We’re taking Mrs Mason up to the ward now, Professor Thomason,” the nurse said respectfully.
“Great. I’ll be round to check on her tomorrow.” Alice smiled. “Thanks for your help.”
“Professor?” George said aghast, then started to laugh. “I’ve been sitting here wondering whether you’re even qualified yet… You… I know it sounds corny, but you really, you really don’t look old enough.”
“Don’t you start!” Alice said ruefully. “I’ve just had eight weeks of being mistaken for a student at the hospital where I’ve been lecturing. But I assure you, I am old enough!”
She looked round as though to check the nurse was out of earshot.
“Just,” she added quietly. “I’ve been lucky, that’s all. And in answer to your question about food, the canteen will be closed by now. However, there’s a nice pub about four miles from here, isn’t there?”
“There certainly is,” George replied.
“Will they still be serving dinner? We could look in on your mother and then put Bill’s 4×4 to the test again.
“I think I was promised thanks and a romantic candlelit dinner, wasn’t I?”
Suddenly Professor Alice Thomason blushed to the roots of her hair.
“I must be tired. You said ‘a spot of dinner’, didn’t you? I invented the romantic candlelit bit, didn’t I? What must you think? I’m terribly sorry!”
“I wouldn’t say it was invention,” George said, smiling down at her. “More like telepathy.”
We’re sharing a selection of uplifting winter-themed short stories from our archives, every Monday and Thursday during November. Look out for the next one – and pick up My Weekly magazine for lovely new short stories every week. Subscribe here and you’ll receive a free gift too!