Stepping Back – Dreams or Nightmares?

The sound of Mrs Kneller woke Rachel from a troubled sleep.  She wasn’t sure whether she had dreamed it or not, but she had a vague memory of crying out in the night, and the sound of Mark’s voice, soothing and calm, cutting through the fear, and his arm around her shoulders as he gave her a sip of water and some painkillers.  She scrabbled around on the bedside table; found her glasses and a piece of paper.  Blinking frantically, she had to wait till her eyes had adjusted sufficiently to be able see what was on the paper.  He’d drawn another picture of her. No pigtails this time, just a curtain of hair and two scared eyes peering over the edge of a duvet. “Have left a message for Mrs K to look in on you and call the GP in if necessary. You have a bit of a temperature – that will account for your delirious babblings during the night – I hope. M x”

Delirious babblings!  Oh no! What had she said?  Rachel swung her legs out of the bed in order to get up, but the sudden movement left her dizzy and disoriented.  She collapsed back against the pillows with an audible moan.  Mrs Kneller must have been in the hallway; she rushed in and had tucked Rachel back into bed before she even knew what was happening. “You stop right where you are young lady!  I don’t know what has been going on but I’ve no doubt you’ll tell me once you’re feeling a bit better.  There was a note from our Mark put through my door early this morning, AND a phone-call just as I was getting ready to come out.  Had to make sure that I’d found the note he said.  Of course, I found it.  I’ve orders to check on you and call Dr Hussein in if I think you need it.  What’s happened to you?  You’re white as a sheet!”

Rachel closed her eyes, took a deep breath and did her best to tell Mrs Kneller about the hedge, meeting up with Damaris, and Mark’s subsequent first aid skills.

“Show me your legs then, especially that nasty cut.  She’s a wild one that Damaris.  If I was Mark, I’d tell her I was a copper, and if she still insisted on breaking the law, I’d get her locked up!”

Lifting the duvet up so that Mrs Kneller could cast an unprofessional eye over Mark’s medical handiwork, Rachel frowned.  “You mean Damaris doesn’t know what he does for a living?”

“No, there’s only Lou, the girls, me – and now you – as knows what he does.  He does undercover work.  Folks round here just think he dabbles in boat stuff and a bit of business.  You haven’t told anyone have you?”

Rachel shook her head, trying to sit very still whilst Mrs Kneller examined minutely the scratches down her legs.  She raised one side of her nightshirt and tried not to wince while the dressing was removed.  She didn’t want to look but felt that she ought to, even to her non-medical eyes, the wound looked red and it certainly felt sore.  Mrs Kneller put a hand to Rachel’s forehead and tutted. “You sit tight.  We need to get the doctor in to you.  Mark’s done a good job but it looks to me as if that cut has got infected.  No arguments!”

Not normally a person who acquiesced easily, Rachel had the sense to recognise an immoveable force when she met one.  She closed her eyes again and tried desperately hard to remember what she could possibly have said to Mark when he heard her calling out in the night.  She put a hand to her own forehead; it felt cold although she felt as if it should be on fire.  Common sense persuaded her that Mrs Kneller was right, and the situation needed some real medical intervention. 

She heard the clattering of cups and saucers in the kitchen. The aroma of fresh toast and coffee prompted her to look at the clock.  Half-past ten! She should have been at Lou’s ages ago.  She was about to get out of bed again when Mrs Kneller bustled in with a breakfast tray and plonked it unceremoniously on the bed. “You stay put!  Lou knows what’s gone on.  Mark dropped a note through her door as well, and I rang her at the teashop after I called Dr Hussein.  He’s popping round after surgery in an hour’s time.  I’ll stay till he’s been, then Lou’s going to pop in with your lunch.  I’ll check in on you again this afternoon and Mark says he’ll be home early.  I’ve made you some breakfast. The doctor says you’ve to eat, and then you can have some more of these painkillers, but you can’t have them on an empty stomach so I’ve not to give them to you till you’ve eaten up every scrap of that toast and drunk your orange juice.  I made fresh coffee in that pot thing so you can have more if you want it.  Here you are.”

She moved the tray closer to Rachel and stood menacingly with her hands on her hips whilst Rachel, still reeling slightly from Mrs Kneller’s kind but scary arsenal, buttered the toast and took a sip of cold orange juice.  She had to admit, everything tasted extremely good, far better than it did when she made her own breakfast.  Seeing that her patient was being compliant, Mrs Kneller nodded and left the room.  The low hum of the vacuum cleaner soon permeated the cottage as it was made ready for the doctor’s visit.  Rachel finished the last piece of toast and had moved onto the coffee when Mrs Kneller returned, a disdainful look on her face and carrying a very large and garish bouquet of dyed dahlias. “No prizes for guessing where these have come from.” she said, handing Rachel the card that had been attached to them.  She stood, carrying the flowers like a reluctant and very cross bridesmaid, and Rachel hurriedly opened the envelope. “’So sorry about your little fall last night.  I’m sure my darling Mark got you home safely.  He’s so good with waifs and strays.  Kind regards, Damaris D-H’. What does the D-H stand for?”

“Not what you’re thinking, but it might just as well.  They go by the name of Davenport-Hooper.   He’s the Davenport; local landed gentry as was, fallen on bad times so he married Doris Hooper. Her dad was filthy rich, and I mean filthy.  Made his money in rag and bones so she’s no call to be putting on airs and graces.  Tongue on her like a fishwife though she does her best to sound posh.  The kids all went away to school and had those elocution lessons.  Our Daw is the only one who sounds common now, except when she puts in an appearance at that posh restaurant of hers in the Square.  She can’t cook or manage to save her life, so she has people to do all that for her.   Finished your coffee?”

“Yes, thank you.  Breakfast was lovely.”

“Good.  Here’s your painkillers and some fresh water.  Do you want these flowers?”

Rachel grimaced as she swallowed the tablets. “Not really.  Would you like them?”

“Lord in heaven no!  I’m going round the old peoples’ once I leave here.  They like a nice bit of colour in the residents’ lounge.  If I mix them up with some white chrysanths, they might look a bit less ….”

“…tacky?  Please take them with my blessing.  I would imagine that she sent them in an effort to get back in Mark’s good books, rather than to say sorry to a waif and stray like me.”

“You’re worth a million of her, my lovely!  You have a little doze now, and before you know it Dr Hussein will be here.  He’s a bit gorgeous but not a patch on our Mark.  Dr H is very smartly dressed though, and he does have a lovely way with him.” 

She took the tray off the bed and went back to the kitchen, pulling the door closed behind her.  Rachel turned over onto the side of her that wasn’t throbbing and took a deep breath.  She could understand this sort of thing happening to foreign correspondents who were dodging bullets, and diving behind burned out buildings, but she was on a three-month sabbatical in a sleepy South coast village for heaven’s sake!   She’d barely banished this thought and closed her eyes when she heard a gentle tapping on the door and turned over to see Mrs Kneller ushering in an extremely attractive man carrying a large black bag. “Here we go my dear, here’s Dr Hussein to sort you out.  I looked in on you a short while ago and you were well gone.”

Rachel blinked. “What time is it?  Was I asleep long?”

Dr Hussein sat down on the bed next to her and took hold of her wrist to check her pulse.  The room was silent whilst he glanced at his watch, then apparently satisfied he opened his bag and took out his in-ear thermometer.  Rachel sat patiently until he removed it from her ear and dropped the disposable end into his waste bag. “Okay.  It’s a quarter to twelve, and according to Mrs K you dozed off about an hour ago.  Your pulse is a little bit racy but that’s not uncommon in my patients.  You have a raised temperature which is probably due to an infection.  Can I have a look at your cuts and scratches please?”

For the second time that morning, Rachel pulled back the duvet and raised her nightshirt up on one side.  Dr Hussein examined the scratches and nodded but shook his head when he got to the cut on her thigh. “Mark’s done a good job on the scratches, but he really should have taken you down to A&E for this cut.  I’ll clean it up now, give you some fairly strong antibiotics, and I’ll get the district nurse to come in again for the next couple of days to change the dressings and check it over.”

“Why is the cut infected? I was pushed – I mean I fell into a bush.  The scratches are okay.”

“The scratches are superficial but this cut was caused by a branch that probably snapped when you fell against it.  There’s a fair chance there may still be some debris in there but the Steri-strips are holding it in.  This is going to be a bit painful I’m afraid. I’ll spray some local anaesthetic on it but you might want to bite the pillow if it gets too much.”

He pulled several items from his bag and laid them on the bed before pulling on some blue rubber gloves.   Rachel decided not to watch, and buried her head in the pillow. Mrs Kneller hovered nearby, a look of total fascination on her face as Dr Hussein began the painful process of removing the strips and washing out the wound. “Got it!” he cried triumphantly, holding aloft a piece of twig that he’d extracted with his tweezers.  He continued probing the wound, occasionally patting Rachel’s leg when her muffled yelps became too audible.  Mrs Kneller fetched fresh water.

“We’ll just put a dressing on for now rather than stitches.  The cut may knit together without them if you rest up for a while.  No gallivanting down at the beach for the next couple of days, and we’ll see what Nurse says when he visits.  Take these tablets for now and perhaps Lou can get the prescription for some antibiotics filled this afternoon.  The painkillers Mark left for you should be strong enough, but bed rest is the best healer of all.”

He stood, and Rachel gingerly sat up; her leg did actually feel better already, and she smiled.  He really was rather gorgeous, with brown eyes that rivalled Sam’s and a particularly attractive set of cheekbones.  He extended his hand and she took it. “Thank you, I’m sorry to have been a nuisance.”

“Not at all Rachel, you are much the most attractive patient I’ve seen all day – and yes – I know that I shouldn’t make comments like that, but I find it very hard to stick to political correctness when in the presence of a lovely woman. Perhaps we could meet up when you are feeling better?  Lou tells me that you are likely to be here for the next three months.”

Rachel blushed and ducked her head down; it had been a long time since anyone had paid her such a plethora of compliments.  Dr Hussein smiled, patted her hand and said his goodbyes before being shown into the bathroom to wash his hands and dispose of his rubbish.

Mrs Kneller came back after seeing him out. “I’m off now my lovely, you were a very brave girl, that must have hurt a lot and you barely squeaked.  I’ll take these flowers with me and Lou will be in shortly.  She’s got a key so you won’t need to get up.  I might pop in later to see how you are.”

“I’m very grateful for all you’ve done, and especially glad to see the back of those hideous flowers.  Thank you.” 

Mrs Kneller patted Rachel’s hand, straightened the duvet and left, clutching Damaris’ bouquet as if it were some poisonous snake.

It wasn’t long before Lou popped her head around the bedroom door and grinned sympathetically at her. “I come bearing gifts.  Poor you!   Grievously assaulted by a pyracanthas bush and meeting Damaris Doubly-Horrid in the same evening.  How Mark can actually bear to be anywhere near her amazes me.  Did you think she was attractive?”

Lou sat down with a bump on the bed then moved back gingerly as Rachel winced. “Sorry, sorry. At least you got to meet gorgeous Dr H.  My girls absolutely adore him and, I have actually been out with him for a drink a couple of times …”

Rachel waited for Lou to draw breath.  “I can see that Damaris is attractive….”

“…you’re trying to be nice and kind.  Don’t bother. She’s horrendous.”

“… but I found her a bit too – blonde? Too orange.  Too in your face.  She sent me some disgustingly disfigured dahlias this morning.  They’d all been dyed in unnatural colours.”

Lou looked around the room.

“No, Mrs K’s taken them off to the old folks’ home.  She’s going to dilute them with some white chrysanthemums and spread some colour around the residents’ lounge.  I thought Dr Hussein was very charming, and obviously good at his job.  My leg hurts a lot less now.  It wasn’t Mark’s fault that it got infected, there was a piece of twig that got stuck behind the Steri-strips.  It’s out now anyway.  How come you know all about it?”

“Network Kneller.  Who needs the Internet when you live in a small village?  Mrs K is friends with the health centre receptionist, who told the story to everyone that went in there after she got the request for Dr H to make a home visit.  Mrs K phoned through the grocery order to the SPAR, so everyone knew there, ditto with the chemist, the butcher, and little old me!  Virtually everyone who came into the Square this morning knows that Damaris nearly killed you by trying to run you over – and all because she was jealous that you were staying in Mark’s cottage.  Rumour has it that you and Mark have been seeing each other for months, that when he disappears it’s because he’s gone up to London to see you.  Damaris wasn’t the most popular girl in the Village anyway, but now! Oh! How I laughed!  People also know that Damaris said that she thought she was running Mrs K over rather than Mark’s guest, which makes it look like a deliberate act rather than an accident.”

“But Mark!  What will he say when he finds out?”

“He knows already.  Laughed like a drain.  This has actually worked wonders for his undercover work.  There were some people in the village who were getting a bit curious about his frequent absences; they’ll be satisfied with the explanation that he’s been spending time in London with you, and it may help with some of the foreign nationals that he’s trying to catch as well.  I believe that the guys you saw outside Dippy Dee’s are currently under some kind of surveillance at the moment.”

Feeling as if her head was going to burst, Rachel took a deep breath and tried to make some sense of it all.  Realising that she had probably overloaded her friend at a time when she should have been looking after her, Lou started to unpack the basket she had brought.  It was a lunch designed to tempt the palate of any invalid; tiny triangular sandwiches, Greek salad with feta cheese in a little earthenware bowl, dainty iced biscuits and a couple of mini-muffins.  She disappeared in to the kitchen and came back with a fresh glass of orange juice and a tray to put it all on. “I’ll stay while you eat, then I’ll clear away and pop the prescription into the chemist on the way back.  Mark says he’ll be home at tea time and will pick up the tablets.  He has a few loose ends to tie up.  I’m making a huge stew for dinner so he can pop down and get some for both of you.  He’s really sorry about pushing you into that bush you know, but he seriously thought that Damaris was going to run you both over.  She ought to wear her glasses – or contacts at least – but too vain and too lazy.”

“You’ve talked to Mark then?”

“Yes, quite a long conversation for him.  He was very worried about you.”

“Did he – did he say anything about me being delirious?  About me …babbling?”

Lou grinned. 

“He told me that he heard you calling out in the night and he came in with some water because he didn’t want you getting out of bed and falling over.  Why? Can you remember what you said?”

“No.  I only know he’d been in here because he left me a note.”

“Did he?  What did it say?  Can I see it?”

“Oh, I’ve put it away somewhere.  It was just to say that Mrs K would sort things out for me.   That’s all.”

Lou looked disappointed, but sat still whilst Rachel attempted to eat some lunch.  It all looked so enticing but her appetite seemed to have disappeared. 

“Don’t worry,” said Lou, “I’ll put the muffins and biscuits on the bedside table in case you want them later.  I bet you need the loo though?”

Nodding gratefully, Rachel eased her way out of bed and although it was slow going, Lou helped her next door to the bathroom and told her to yell when she was ready to come back.  As she stood up to wash her hands, Rachel caught sight of her face in the mirror, and reeled back in shock. The pyracanthas had done some damage to her face as well, although Mark seemed to have cleaned them up, there were several scratches down one side of her face.  Gently she combed her hair so that it didn’t look quite so much like a bird’s nest, splashed some water on her face to freshen up and made her way back to the bathroom door. 

“Lou, are you there?” she called.

The door opened and Lou helped her back to bed, settling her back against pillows that had been plumped up and straightened. “Shall I plait your hair before I go?” she asked.

“Yes please – and I can’t do anything about the state of my face but a smidge of lipstick …”

“… and a dab of Chanel No 5.  I remember.  I’ll also take your dress home with me, give it a good wash and see if I can get it mended.  One of my regulars does dressmaking and alterations; I’m sure she’ll be able to put it right.”

“It’s not an expensive dress; it is my favourite though.”

“I know.  I even remember the charity shop that you bought it from.  You did look lovely last night.”

“Not so lovely now.  I really do look like I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.”

Lou finished the two neat plaits, passed her the lipstick, mirror and perfume, then nodded in satisfaction at the finished result.  “You look and smell very sweet. Is this for Mark’s benefit?  Or is Dr H popping back later?”

“Neither.” said Rachel, a little abruptly, then grinning “I thought I’d try my luck with the district nurse.”

“Ben is gay, extremely camp, and rather wonderful.  The Village took a while to accept a male district nurse but all the old dears love him now, and the mummies spend hours chatting with him about mastitis, cabbage leaves, and cervical stitches, at the post-natal clinics.  If you need anything, Ben is the best person to go to.  He has friends everywhere. Right, I’m off, get some sleep and Mark will be here soon.  Your phone is fully charged, and on the table, you have fresh water and nibbles.  Sweet dreams.”

Kissing her on the unscratched cheek, Lou picked up the basket and was gone.  In a matter of moments Rachel was asleep again but the dreams were not sweet.

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