Apr 29, 2024

The strong sunshine streamed in from the French windows at one end of the hospital ward, giving it a bright, airy feeling.

The young duty nurse had just finished taking a patient’s temperature and writing it up on his chart, when there was a gentle knock on the French window. She turned. A man was standing there, silhouetted against the strong sunlight. She could see he was wearing a white coat, but that was all she could see.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

“Yes.” The voice was warm and friendly. “Is this the recovery ward for GI surgery? I’ve got an endoscopy follow-up. A Mr Phillips?”

“Third bed from the end.”

The man entered, walked past her, then turned back. “Thanks, Nurse…?”

“Davies. Natalia Davies.”

“Dr Warden.” He studied her a moment, then gave a boyish smile that lit up his face. “But you can call me Mike.”

She looked him up and down. She put him in his mid 20’s – newly qualified, and with all the charm that came from youthful confidence rather than experience.

“I’m sure ‘Dr Warden’ is just fine,” she answered, putting just a touch of frost on the edge of her voice. He might be tall, broad-shouldered with bright blue eyes, floppy blond hair and big smile, but she wasn’t the kind of girl to allow such familiarity on a first meeting.

“Mr Phillips, was it? Third bed from the end?” He was still smiling at her, with an added look of slight concern.

She suddenly became aware she had been staring up at him for maybe a bit too long.

“Mr Phillips. Yes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have things to do.”

She turned with the most annoying squeak of her shoe that she could manage and marched down the ward to the kitchen area, where she busied herself rearranging teabags until she saw him out of the corner of her eye leaving through the French windows.

She made a cup of tea for Mr Phillips – extra milky and not too hot, after his gastroscopy. He was sitting up in bed; a small man in his late forties, balding with a moustache. Natalia had decided he looked like a typical accountant, although she’d not actually asked him.

“There you are, Mr Phillips. Nice cuppa.”

“Thank-you Nurse.”

Natalia put the tea down on the bedside table and perched on the bed for a moment. “Everything all right with the new doctor?” she asked, casually.

“Yes, he says I have a mild Barrett’s Oesophagus – but not to worry.”

“That’s fine then.”

“But he did seem a bit preoccupied. He kept calling me Mr Davies.

Natalia smiled. “He probably had a lot on his mind,” she said.

“Yes. Probably.” Mr Phillips looked up at her, concern showing in his eyes. “What’s Barrett’s Oesophagus?”

“It’s just a mild scarring of your gullet” she said reassuringly. “If Dr Warden isn’t worried, you shouldn’t be, either.”

“Oh good.” He took a swig of his tea, put it down and settled back into the pillow with his eyes closed. “If it’s good enough for Barrett, it’s good enough for me.” He opened his eyes and fixed her with a small smile. “Thanks Nurse.”

“No problem.” She checked his bedding was properly tucked in and that he had a glass of water by the bed, then turned and walked straight into Dr Mike Warden.

“Oh!” she gasped. “Just how long have you been standing there?”

“Only a moment.”

“I didn’t hear you.”

“I guessed.”

“Sneaking up on me.”

“Yes.” He stopped, and looked unsure what to say next. “I thought I’d pop back… I wanted to ask you… something…”

“Ask me what?”

“Well, the thing is…”

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mr Phillips lean forward to catch what Mike was going to say, as did Mr Harrison and Mr Patel, the two men in the beds on either side.

Mike cleared his throat. “I know we’ve only just met, but we’re colleagues, and as we’re going to be working together I was wondering if you’d like… to have a drink with me tonight?” He rubbed his hand across the back of his neck, gave a small smile and suddenly looked rather vulnerable, like a puppy hoping for a treat. “If you’re not too busy that is?”

“Dr Warden…” she began rather sternly, preparing to come out with something about him being too forward; they had indeed ‘only just met’ and actually, as work colleagues, they couldn’t possibly do such a thing – when she heard a cough from Mr Phillips and glanced round Mike’s shoulder.

Mr Phillips did seem to have heard everything and was staring at her wide eyed, clearly horrified that she was going to say ‘no’. He was mouthing ‘go on!’ at her.

Natalia turned slowly and looked at Mr Harrison. He was making a small movement with his hands that could only be a sign to accept.

Her gaze moved to Mr Patel on the other side. He was raising his eyes to the ceiling and shaking his head in exasperation.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’d love to.”

Mr Phillips, Mr Harrison and Mr Patel all smiled and clapped their hands.

Later that evening, as the deep orange sun was lengthening the shadows across West London, Natalia walked out onto the terrace of a pub overlooking the Thames. She half expected that Mike would not be waiting for her, that maybe the whole thing had been a put-up job by her fellow nurses – but then she saw him sitting at the far end of the terrace, holding a pint as he watched four middle-aged men battling upstream in a long, slim rowing boat.

She sat down next to him. “Dr Warden.”

“Nurse Davies.”

He pointed at the rowers in their boat and she watched a moment as they struggled up the river. “The bow man is squaring his blade too late. Number two is over-reaching. Three is out of time.” He paused. “The stroke man’s OK, though.”

“I’m so glad.”


“Well, it’s not a total disaster, then. At least one of them is OK.”

He laughed. “Yes, well, at least one of them is OK. So that’s all right then.” He looked into her eyes and became serious. “Look, I hope you don’t think I’m usually this forward; asking you for a drink when we’d only just met? It’s just…”


“When I saw you rearranging the teabags…”


“…I thought I have to get to know a girl who takes such care in her job.” He looked even more serious. “I mean, if we’re going to be colleagues, we need to know how we both tick, and you seemed so concerned about the teabags…”

“I didn’t think you saw,” said Natalia. “And anyway, what am I to make of a man who sneaks up on people and scares the heck out of them?”

The strain of holding his serious face seemed to get too much for Mike and he laughed out loud.

“Be prepared. That’s what my old Scout master used to say.”

“You were a scout?”


“All scabby knees and tousled hair?”


“And wonky woggle?”

“Definitely.” He paused a moment. “And I used to hunt rabbits in the woods. Just me and my trusty catapult.”

“Did the rabbits make it?”

“Without exception. My aim was appalling.”

“Lucky for the rabbits.”


“Should have been better prepared.”


There was a silence. Another rowing boat went past and they watched it go.

“All OK,” said Mike, reassuringly, as the rowers’ blades went in and out of the water. “Good timing, squaring early, fast hands.”

“I’m so pleased.”

“You need to be kept informed,” he said.

“And thirsty,” she observed, with a raised eyebrow. “Do I need to be kept thirsty?”

“Oh God, I’m so sorry!” he exclaimed, jumping up. “I haven’t got you a drink! You were distracting me with all your chatter about rowers! What are you having?”


The car in front of Natalia’s Ford finally moved a few feet forward, giving some small hope that the evening traffic jam might be starting to clear. She shook her head, forcing herself to focus again on driving and trying to dismiss the vivid memory of meeting Mike that first time in the pub in the summer.

She let out the clutch and the little car crept forward, just as the car in front stopped again. Whoever called it the ‘rush hour’ had clearly never tried to get home to Hammersmith on a wet Wednesday evening in September.

She could see that none of the cars in front were moving – the jam was solid. With a sigh she switched off her engine.

The memories of the summer came crowding back…

…she and Mike cycling together in the bright sunshine for a Saturday breakfast at a cafe by Eton Bridge; sitting outside with the many middle-aged cyclists dressed in over-tight lycra, and thinking how great Mike looked in his old khaki shorts and torn t-shirt…

…meeting Mike’s parents and realising that his father was the silver-haired old charmer that Mike would one day become – and giggling with his mother over old photo albums showing Mike as a toddler, as a schoolboy and as a gangly teenager…

…sitting in the corner of the pub watching Mike and his rowing mates singing drinking songs and seeing the over made-up blonde at the bar following him ceaselessly with adoring eyes – and thinking ‘sorry, dear, he’s all mine…’

…lying in bed stroking his head as he lay asleep on her chest, watching the rise and fall of his ribs as he breathed – and loving him; loving him with all her heart, with all her body, with all her soul…

The car behind her beeped his horn.

A space had opened up in front – one car-length; two at the most. She glanced in the mirror and could see an elderly man with a red face mouthing at her and making a rude gesture with his hand. She started her engine and crept forward to fill the space in front, then glanced in the mirror again. The man now had his eyes raised and his hands spread wide, presumably in some form of ironic congratulation that she knew how to drive, then he moved forward as well. Natalia sighed. The man seemed to be living proof that normal, sane people can turn into brainless morons when faced with a traffic jam. Always assuming of course, that he was a normal, sane person in the first place.

The traffic cleared again, and this time it kept moving, even if slowly.

Eventually she got round the Hammersmith roundabout and was soon reversing into her space outside the imposing and rather austere block of flats where she lived.

She let herself into the flat and kicked off her shoes, then padded into the kitchen. She opened the fridge door and peered in for half a minute without really being aware of what she was looking for. She closed the fridge and tried the food cupboard instead. This revealed an old tin of rice pudding, which she ate with an open pot of marmalade, dipping the spoon alternately into each to mix things up a bit, while curled up on the sofa in front of a film she’d seen a thousand times before. Then she changed into an old t-shirt and climbed into bed.

But she didn’t sleep. She couldn’t sleep. Like most nights she just sat up in bed, clasping her knees to her chest, staring at the wall, and despite her best efforts, her mind once again played out those final, terrible scenes of a few weeks ago.

…noticing that Mike was late to work one morning, but thinking he must have overslept…

…the grapevine whisper around the wards that one of the doctors had had a bad accident on the motorway and had been rushed to A&E…

…running down endless corridors with a sick dread in her stomach that it could only be Mike…

…the howl of agony as she saw him stretched out on a body board with his head held between two stiff blocks, immobile and unconscious…

…the hours spent holding his hand and talking to him, begging him, willing him, ordering him – to wake up and smile at her with his bright, heart-warming, life-affirming smile…

…hugging his mother as they shared the vigil over his silent, still body, with only the sound of his breath rasping past the tube in his nose and the reassuring beep of the monitor telling them that he was still alive, and that while the monitor was beeping there was still hope; that he could open his eyes at any second…

…and then…

…and then the cold still night when she sat alone with him and heard the laboured breathing get even slower, and the beep of the monitor falter, and as she stood to look at him, the sound she had dreaded the most – the sound of the monitor beep becoming one continuous, final, terrible tone…

…then a confused jumble of sights and sounds – doctors and nurses rushing in; defibrillators thumping; voices shouting – and in the middle, that still, quiet body that once had loved her, now unresponsive, unfeeling, and gone forever…


Natalia struggled out of bed and peered through the curtains at the autumn sky. It was as grey and overcast as the last few mornings had been.

She showered, dressed and breakfasted, all on autopilot.

She had just grabbed her keys and phone from the hall table and was about to leave, when suddenly the flat began to spin and shake as if it was in the middle of a violent earthquake.

Natalia grabbed at the hall table to try and steady herself, but missed completely and found herself falling to the floor.

For a moment she lay on her side watching the legs of the hall table spinning like a cooling fan, then she took a deep breath and struggled to her feet.

This was ridiculous – earthquakes don’t happen in Hammersmith…

She grabbed again at the table and this time managed to hang on.

But the table felt totally solid and stable under her hands. It was only when she looked at it, it seemed to be moving.

Which meant it wasn’t an earthquake at all – it was her.

This realisation brought on a massive wave of nausea.

She just made it to the loo before she was violently sick. Hunched over the bowl, she retched again and again until she was totally and utterly empty.

Just how out-of-date had that rice pudding been?

Or maybe…?

Frantically she wrenched open the bathroom cabinet and found the pregnancy testing kit she’d once bought in a panic but in the end didn’t use…


Half an hour later, Natalia was sitting on the loo, still staring open-mouthed at the little blue line.

Such a little blue line.

But a little blue line that meant Mike wasn’t gone completely.

She shook her head in wonder. A little blue line that meant a part of him was still alive and was now growing inside her.

A gap suddenly opened up in the grey clouds, sending down a bright beam of sunlight that lit up the trees outside her bathroom window in a riot of warm, golden, autumn colours.