Written by P. D. James
Format: Trade Paperback, 416 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada
ISBN: 978-0-307-39998-4 (0-307-39998-2)
Pub Date: June 29, 2010
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Book One: Demonstration of Death
On the morning of the first murder Miss Muriel Beale, Inspector of Nurse Training Schools to the General Nursing Council, stirred into wakefulness soon after six o’clock and into a sluggish early morning awareness that it was Monday, 12th January, and the day of the John Carpendar Hospital inspection. Already she had half registered the first familiar sounds of a new day: Angela’s alarm silenced almost before she was conscious of hearing it; Angela herself padding and snuffling about the flat like a clumsy but benevolent animal; the agreeably anticipatory tinkling of early tea in preparation. She forced open her eyelids, resisting an insidious urge to wriggle down into the enveloping warmth of the bed and let her mind drift again into blessed unconsciousness. What on earth had prompted her to tell Matron Taylor that she would arrive shortly after nine a.m. in time to join the third-year students’ first teaching session of the day? It was ridiculously, unnecessarily early. The hospital was in Heatheringfield on the Sussex/Hampshire border, a drive of nearly fifty miles, some of which would have to be done before daybreak. And it was raining, as it had rained with dreary insistence for the past week. She could hear the faint hiss of car tyres on the Cromwell Road and an occasional spatter against the window-pane. Thank God she had taken the trouble to check the map of Heatheringfield to find out exactly where the hospital lay. A developing market town, particularly if it were unfamiliar, could be a time-wasting maze to the motorist in the snarl of commuter traffic on a wet Monday morning. She felt instinctively that it was going to be a difficult day and stretched out under the bedclothes as if bracing herself to meet it. Extending her cramped fingers, she half relished the sharp momentary ache of her stretched joints. A touch of arthritis there. Well, it was to be expected. She was forty-nine after all. It was time she took life a little more gently. What on earth had led her to think she could get to Heatheringfield before half past nine?
The door opened, letting in a shaft of light from the passage. Miss Angela Burrows jerked back the curtains, surveyed the black January sky and the rain-spattered window and jerked them together again. “It’s raining,” she said with the gloomy relish of one who has prophesied rain and who cannot be held responsible for the ignoring of her warning. Miss Beale propped herself on her elbow, turned on the bedside lamp, and waited. In a few seconds her friend returned and set down the early morning tray. The tray cloth was of stretched embroidered linen, the flowered cups were arranged with their handles aligned, the four biscuits on the matching plate were precisely placed, two of a kind, the teapot gave forth a delicate smell of freshly made Indian tea. The two women had a strong love of comfort and an addiction to tidiness and order. The standards which they had once enforced in the private ward of their teaching hospital were applied to their own comfort, so that life in the flat was not unlike that in an expensive and permissive nursing home.
Miss Beale had shared a flat with her friend since they had both left the same training school twenty-five years ago. Miss Angela Burrows was the Principal Tutor at a London teaching hospital. Miss Beale had thought her the paradigm of nurse tutors and, in all her inspections, subconsciously set her standard by her friend’s frequent pronouncements on the principles of sound nurse teaching. Miss Burrows, for her part, wondered how the General Nursing Council would manage when the time came for Miss Beale to retire.
The happiest marriages are sustained by such comforting illusions and Miss Beale’s and Miss Burrows’s very different, but essentially innocent, relationship was similarly founded. Except in this capacity for mutual but unstated admiration they were very different. Miss Burrows was sturdy, thick-set and formidable, hiding a vulnerable sensitivity under an air of blunt common sense. Miss Beale was small and birdlike, precise in speech and movement and threatened with an out-of-date gentility which sometimes brought her close to being thought ridiculous. Even their physiological habits were different. The heavy Miss Burrows awoke to instantaneous life at the first sound of her alarm, was positively energetic until teatime, then sank into sleepy lethargy as the evening advanced. Miss Beale daily opened her gummed eyelids with reluctance, had to force herself into early morning activity and became more brightly cheerful as the day wore on. They had managed to reconcile even this incompatibility. Miss Burrows was happy to brew the early morning tea and Miss Beale washed up after dinner and made the nightly cocoa.
Miss Burrows poured out both cups of tea, dropped two lumps of sugar in her friend’s cup and took her own to the chair by the window. Early training forbade Miss Burrows to sit on the bed. She said: “You need to be off early. I’d better run your bath. When does it start?”
Miss Beale muttered feebly that she had told Matron that she would arrive as soon as possible after nine o’clock. The tea was blessedly sweet and reviving. The promise to start out so early was a mistake but she began to think that she might after all make it by nine-fifteen.
“That’s Mary Taylor, isn’t it? She’s got quite a reputation considering she’s only a provincial matron. Extraordinary that she’s never come to London. She didn’t even apply for our job when Miss Montrose retired.” Miss Beale muttered incomprehensibly, which, since they had had this conversation before, her friend correctly interpreted as a protest that London wasn’t everybody’s choice and that people were too apt to assume that nothing remarkable ever came out of the provinces.
“There’s that, of course,” conceded her friend. “And the John Carpendar’s in a very pleasant part of the world. I like that country on the Hampshire border. It’s a pity you’re not visiting it in the summer. Still, it’s not as if she’s matron of a major teaching hospital. With her ability she easily could be: she might have become one of the Great Matrons.” In their student days she and Miss Beale had suffered at the hands of one of the Great Matrons but they never ceased to lament the passing of that terrifying breed.
“By the way, you’d better start in good time. The road’s up just before you strike the Guildford by-pass.”
Miss Beale did not inquire how she knew that the road was up. It was the sort of thing Miss Burrows invariably did know. The hearty voice went on:
“I saw Hilda Rolfe, their Principal Tutor, in the Westminster Library this week. Extraordinary woman! Intelligent, of course, and reputedly a first-class teacher, but I imagine she terrifies the students.”
Miss Burrows frequently terrified her own students, not to mention most of her colleagues on the teaching staff, but would have been amazed to be told it. Miss Beale asked:
“Did she say anything about the inspection?"
“Just mentioned it. She was only returning a book and was in a hurry so we didn’t talk long. Apparently they’ve got a bad attack of influenza in the school and half her staff are off with it.”
Miss Beale thought it odd that the Principal Tutor should find time to visit London to return a library book if staffing problems were so difficult, but she didn’t say so. Before breakfast Miss Beale reserved her energy for thought rather than speech. Miss Burrows came round the bed to pour out the second cups. She said:
“What with this weather and with half the training staff off sick, it looks as if you’re in for a pretty dull day.”
As the two friends were to tell each other for years to come, with the cosy predilection for re-stating the obvious which is one of the pleasures of long intimacy, she could hardly have been more wrong. Miss Beale, expecting nothing worse of the day than a tedious drive, an arduous inspection, and a possible tussle with those members of the Hospital Nurse Education Committee who took the trouble to attend, dragged her dressing-gown around her shoulders, stubbed her feet into her bedroom slippers and shuffled off to the bathroom. She had taken the first steps on her way to witness a murder.
From the Paperback edition.
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