She glared at the door, tried the handle, shook it and said, ‘The key if you please. It is very bad practice to lock patients in.’
Pike smiled grimly.
‘It’s we who are locked out,’ he said.
Goodwife Cluckett’s eyes bulged and her cheeks flushed dangerously as she muttered, ‘Absolutely unacceptable!’
She rat-tat-tatted on the door and said, ‘Open this door this instant , sir.’
There was a sliding of bolts and Stort opened the door and eyed her.
She eyed him.
Then she turned to the other three and said, ‘Please leave at once, I can handle this gentleman quite without your further assistance.’
‘But . . .’ began Stort, whose day had been a very hard one and now looked like it was going to get harder. ‘Cannot my friends stay? In fact they promised they would. They must! I cannot be left alone with . . . with . . . with a female.’
‘They cannot stay and you cannot go,’ she said, ‘and that’s an end to it.’
She sniffed and then sniffed again and as good as stuck her nose into his chest and sniffed a third time.
‘You are whiffy, sir, and whiffy will not do for someone in my care. To your bedroom at once and remove your clothes that they be fumigated and your person washed.’
He looked with ghastly appeal over her shoulder towards his friends.
‘They are leaving, are they not?’ she said, turning on them, her eyes narrowing.
Barklice backed away towards the door.
‘You cannot,’ said Stort, ‘you promised . . .’
But as she eyed them beadily, one by one they began to leave.
‘Please,’ bleated Stort after them, ‘do not desert me, dear friends, do not leave me in her hands!’
But they had fled.
The goodwife closed the front door, locked it, removed the key and added it to several already attached to the vast metal ring that hung from the girdle round her waist. Then, for good measure, she shot the bolts at the top and bottom of the door.
Stort stood in his own corridor looking at her with all the desperation of one who knows that all possibility of escape is gone and he must submit to his punishment.
She advanced upon him, her keys clinking, her shiny forehead dazzling, her bosom like the prow of a warship about to engage the enemy.
‘Well, Mister Stort,’ she said, ‘and what exactly is it that you’re waiting for? We have work to do! Disrobe at once!’
C RY FOR H ELP
‘W e should take her to the doctor,’ said Margaret for the hundredth time. ‘There’s obviously something wrong. Please, Katherine, it’ll be for the best . . .’
It was five days since Judith’s birth and a chaos of emotion, disorder and now disharmony had descended on Woolstone House. They would all have coped better with the crisis had they had more experience of babies.
They had none.
The Foales were childless and both came from families which had few children or lived so far away that contact was rare. Nor had their professional lives as university academics prepared them for the day-by-day realities of infants, least of all a unique one.
Katherine had no experience either. She was an only child and had never done the round of babysitting that her peer group had as a way of earning money. Her role had been helping her bedridden mother. As for Jack, he had lived only briefly in a children’s home before making the car journey with Katherine and her parents which had ended in tragedy for them and third-degree burns for him. From then on all he had known was hospitals and young people’s institutions. Babies were not part of that scene.
Only experience might have prepared them for the fact that a newborn infant can easily reduce a house and the adults living in it to disorder and constant stress.
The slightest cry seems a signal of danger.
A failure to feed, a sign of illness.
A moment’s choking, a cause of worry and guilt.
A sleepless night . . .
Then there’s the fatigue that sets in with the constant worry and lack of