The usual apologies for delay. Life happens, you know? I'm actually writing this note at a little after four in the morning, having abandoned both my current assignment and the idea of sleeping any time soon. Next chapter about half-written: heading back to the Lakes, to our abandoned newlyweds. Also, the usual disclaimer: how I would love to have created these characters. Alas, I did not.
A brief note for the squeamish: this chapter contains rather un-Ransome-like stories about bodily fluids. I figure, hey, Tom is a doctor now; if it rings desperately untrue for anyone, please let me know.
I can't see the stars, anymore, living here
Let's go to the hills, where the outlines are clear
...Bring on the wonder.
The door to the Hovel opened with a satisfying storybook creak. Dot stood just outside for a moment, head tilted to the left, observing the cottage with interest. It had been pale yellow once, although the paint had cracked and bleached after many summers and winters. It seemed to be a bungalow, although she hoped that it had a mysterious loft with an ancient trunk inside. The shutters were very pretty, painted blue, and there was a rather wilted pot of flowers by the door. A rather faraway smile crept over Dorothea's face; this was beautifully rundown and perfectly dilapidated. She stepped inside eagerly, pleased to find the cottage snug but a little gloomy. It was just as she had hoped.
"More cheerful in the evenings with a fire going," Tom offered, feeling an irrational need to defend his house. It was only Dot, after all.
"Oh, I don't see how it could be more wonderful," she replied quickly, scanning the room and taking everything in. There seemed to be two rooms: they were standing in a parlour with a stove by the far door, an elderly wireless, and two threadbare chairs; another door led off to the side, presumably to Tom's bedroom. One of Dick's photographs of Teasel hung over the little hearth. She supposed there was an outhouse in the garden. The only new thing about the whole place was an expensive telephone, which she guessed was necessary for the practice, but which took away somewhat from the snug-as-a-bug atmosphere of the room. Glancing upwards, she was disappointed; there was no trap door, and therefore no abandoned attic.
"I can't offer you a cup of tea without firing up the stove." He looked around his home, trying to see it through Dot's eyes. He had no idea what she was so entranced by, but that, he supposed, was why she was the writer and he the doctor. "You're welcome to come by one evening for dinner, though. I promise I learnt to cook at university."
"Your mother said that you were good at it." Her voice still sounded as though it was coming from a long way away, but she turned to face him with a bright smile. "Maybe Pip and I can visit with you one evening." Carefully, she examined both easy chairs; to her great delight, she found that one had three patches in as many garish colours. She settled herself into it. "What do you do in the evening?"
"I don't have a free evening very often, Dot." He laughed. "Such is the life of a junior doctor. When I do, I tend to lift the eelpots with Harry Bangate, or go fishing with Dad."
Dot nodded to show that she was listening, and then veered suddenly off-track. "The Golden Duck!" she announced, sounding pleased. Maybe even a little triumphant.
"Beg pardon?" Tom felt a little giddy at the sudden change of subject.
"This house." She gazed up at him, not having moved from her chair. "I told you I would rename it. Well, I think it should be called The Golden Duck."
Tom frowned, confused. "If you could embellish upon that slightly...?"
"Oh, come on, Tom. Even we knocked a cricket ball around a few times at school, though the mistresses frowned upon it somewhat. None not out; out for a golden duck."
"Of course I played cricket at school; I just want to know why this house is a golden duck."
"Don't you think that it fits perfectly? It somehow conveys endearment and ramshackle-ness at the same time."
Tom started to laugh. "I suppose it does. It's certainly better than the Hovel." He perched on the arm of the other chair. "I say, Pip has a half-holiday on Friday; I'll ask Dad for the evening off and you could come around then."
"That would be perfect." She tucked a leg up underneath her. "How long do you have left for your break?"
Tom cast a glance at his wristwatch, and bolted for the door. "One minute exactly!"
Dot followed him slowly out into the sunshine. He was already running for the surgery, and she deftly caught the key that he tossed her. Although she didn't really see the need to lock a house in Horning, she did so obediently. "Enjoy the rest of your day, if I don't see you," she called after him, tucking the key into the waistband of her skirt. When she arrived at the Dudgeons' house herself, she laid the key by the kettle-Tom was certain to want a restorative cup before he left that evening-and then, with a sigh, realised that Heathcliff was still inside Tom's jacket. Taking it as gentle, unintentional reproof, she relocated Mrs Dudgeon and got back to work herself.
Dear Mrs Barrable,
It seems I must start my letter with the news that half of Horning is pining after you! I saw the twins last night, and they told me to send their very best love; the Dudgeons asked me to say hello as well. Mr Tedder, who is positively antiquated now, has never forgotten your standing up to him over that incident with Tom and George Owden and the fistfight; I think he respects you for it. Oh, I wish I could paint you a picture of this place, but that is your gift, not mine. You would capture all the little nuances: that sunlight dancing on the water, catching on white reflected sails; Mrs Tilney's tiny, perfect houseboat, with the newly-painted sign; those little smiles between Dr and Mrs Dudgeon, the glances that show that they are still in love with one another. You know what I mean, Admiral, Horning is so homey and, whenever one arrives, it seems that everything is in the same comfortable groove that it always has been, and it only remains to slot back into one's normal role, just as if there was never any absence at all.
Of course, there are some things that are ever so different. I don't think I truly believe that Tom has become a genuine grown-up doctor, even now. I saw his house for the first time yesterday, Admiral; you know he has a house? It's a dear, ancient thing, which is coming down around his ears but somehow still retains its charm. Maybe it retains its charm because it is so tumble-down, I don't know. At any rate, it's probably further away from the river than he would like, and I've seen more room in a pantry than in the whole cottage, but it's the sort of place where adventures happen.
Dot settled her hat a little more firmly over her hair. (Not in two tails today; she had turned it up into an old-fashioned knot on a whim).
It had been a productive sort of a Friday. The last time she'd had such a productive Friday had probably been when she was fifteen, she decided, when she was studying for her Cert.; today, though, she'd met with Pete's father and convinced him that it would be good for business if he ran a carpentry workshop at the village fair. The greengrocer and the butcher were collaborating to sell harvest hampers and raise money for the local school, and they had official permission to race on the river. A dreadfully productive Friday. She hoped that her evening would be distinctly more relaxing.
The rain and wind were picking up, and she quietly bemoaned her lack of an umbrella. By the time she arrived at the Golden Duck, she was going to look and feel positively bedraggled. Bother Pip for taking so long; he was supposed to have met her ten minutes ago. Hopefully, Tom would have a fire going when they got there. Gloomy and picturesque would not get the damp out of her bones.
She jumped. Pip had vaulted over the fence and suddenly appeared next to her. He grinned at her, and, with a sudden shudder, she realised she had been turning into her mother. Resolving to make no more silent complaint about the weather, she frowned at him. "You're late!"
"I know," he replied, not sounding remotely remorseful. "I found a den of thieves. Let's go; I'm starving."
They set off into the howling wind. "Finding a den of thieves is a perfectly valid reason to be late," Dot conceded. "Just don't still use it as an excuse when you're twenty; people don't seem to like it so much. Now, tell me about it?"
Pip had inherited the knack of storytelling from his mother, though it had completely passed Tom over. He walked backwards as he described, gesturing furiously, his den. The old smithy, as it turned out, had an abandoned room to which Pip had ascribed a positive bevy of thieves. Dot half-smiled to herself as she recognised almost all: the woman with the mysterious scar; the man with one blue eye and one green; a being who would be perfectly androgynous, save for a smattering of ginger stubble. There was a definite spark of originality in there, though: a spirited old landlady who rented the room to them, heard more than they intended, and wanted a cut; she hadn't heard that before, and almost encouraged him to write it down. The image reminded her a little of Mrs Barrable, albeit rogue. Before she could, the Golden Duck appeared through the rain. To Dot's relief, there was the unmistakable glow of a fire from within, and she quickened her pace.
When Tom opened the door, he was wearing an apron, and both his guests burst into laughter. He huffed slightly. Not an ideal way for the evening to start.
"You look like a housekeeper," Dot said through her giggles. "A veritable Nelly Dean."
"I don't know what that means." His reply was with surprising good grace, though he still blushed and removed the apron. "Welcome to the Golden Duck, anyway."
"Hovel," Pip corrected, but didn't press it.
"She's cosy." Dot walked directly to the fire and curled up on the rug in front of the flames. "I've found my seat for the evening." Pip took the largest of the easy chairs, folding both legs beneath him and suddenly looking even younger than his twelve years.
"Well, I don't have enough chairs, so you might just have to stay there." Tom aimed for a joke, but his tone was almost awkward, embarrassed, and Dot looked up at him in surprise.
"It's only me, Tom. You can ask me to sit on the floor if you like."
He came to sit next to her. "Sorry, Dot. Pip will sit on the floor, of course."
"That's perfectly all right. Frankly, you're the only person our age that I know who has even two chairs to his name-honestly earned, I mean, not won in a will."
This seemed to cheer Tom up a little bit, and he said that dinner would be ready in fifteen minutes.
"While we're waiting," Pip said, with a certain wickedness in his voice, "I think we should hear the story about you, Nurse Hazelwood and your first shift at the children's hospital."
Tom swivelled to face his brother, casting a sidewards glance at Dorothea. "I don't think that story's really fit for present company, Pip."
"Oh, but I'm not really squeamish," Dot said quickly. "I mean, not really. It sounds funny."
"Well, you can't say I didn't warn you. I hope it doesn't put you off your dinner." He frowned for a moment as he tried to remember the details. "As Pip says, I was working at a children's hospital in fifth year. In fifth year, the doctors more-or-less let students get on with the donkey work, like blood samples and, ahem, stool samples. I was working with Nurse Hazelwood, who was actually a cadet and not a registered nurse at all, and it was her first night shift there as well. Pretty girl, if I remember right; white uniform, of course, and blonde hair. Looked a little like the twins.
"There was a month-old boy who'd been brought in with possible cholera. Poor little chap had a terrible upset stomach. Anyway, Nurse Hazelwood had to change him and clean him up, but I wanted a stool sample to test for infection, so we went over to his cot. She took his nappy off, but to our surprise, it was clean. She lifted his ankles so that she could wipe him," (he mimed the action in case Dot, who was not especially familiar with babies, didn't understand), "when... I suppose the best way to put it is that he took aim and fired."
"All over the white uniform!" Dot exclaimed, through a horrified gasp.
"Absolutely all over the white uniform. I remember it vividly. She should have been wearing an apron, but neither of us had ever cared for children before." He started to laugh. "She wiped him down as best she could with cotton wool, and handed it to me; the moment she opened her mouth to talk, though, she gagged and I ended up covered in something quite different." He started to laugh, though he wrinkled his nose at the memory. "I don't know who was more embarrassed."
"She was," Dot replied instantly. "Trust me."
"She never could look at me again." Tom sounded a little regretful; he had liked Nurse Hazelwood well enough.
"It was made worse," Pip added, "because Mama was still breastfeeding babby and she'd been eating curried eggs."
"I left that part out for a reason, Pip!"
"Do you want to be a hospital doctor or a Horning doctor?" Dot asked, completely oblivious to Tom's embarrassment.
"I haven't made my mind up yet; I still have to do quite a bit in the hospitals at Norwich and Yarmouth, but both types of practice have advantages and disadvantages." He jumped to his feet, suddenly changing the pace of the conversation. "Dinner should be ready. Hope you don't mind eating off your knees like savages."
"I have to say I rather like it."
His house is completely lacking in amenities, but that rather adds to the atmosphere. I feel that an entire gang of smugglers could live there with no disruption to their picturesque, outlawed existence; I could almost see a gypsy woman with golden earrings beating a mat by the door. Please don't mistake me; it's very clean (for a boy), and Tom is a good cook, and all in all, it's really rather snug and pleasant. It just seems to me that it is a storybook cottage, and that is no bad thing.
You wouldn't believe how big Pip has grown, Admiral. He's taller than his mother already, and he's only twelve. He will certainly be taller than Tom in very few years. It's funny; I do remember Pip being a baby, you know, and now he's only a head shorter than me. I suppose that makes me old, or at least older. He looks like Mrs Dudgeon, whereas Tom looks like his father. Mrs Dudgeon says that I should call her Deborah, but I can't really. It would be too strange. Despite that, though, I like it here. I've half a mind to get a boat of my own and live on her; that way, I could be in Horning half the year and the Lakes the other half (and London, with you, dear Admiral, the other other half). Oh, I have too many homes. I suppose it's better than having none at all.
"The story," Dot began, waving her fork for emphasis, "begins during the Great War, with a girl whose childhood friend has just signed up. He has been an artist all his life, creating; now he is to be trained to destroy, and, she feels certain, become destroyed himself. Heartbroken, she signs up as well; she wants to be a Red Cross nurse, and follow him to the trenches. Protect him, though she knows she can't, from anyone and anything that might dare hurt him."
Tom gently removed Dot's fork, which had come dangerously close to his eye, and set it down by his own. "Yes?"
"Well, every day, of course, she simultaneously fears and longs to see him coming through the door of her ward, with trenchfoot and all manner of things, but alive. She dreams about it almost every night, you know." She took a quick gulp of tea, and continued. "Her loyalty is astounding. Every day, as she treats infections and lice and stoically loves each one of the men like a brother, she misses him. The very little she hears of him at first dwindles to nothing after a year, and she carries on at the trenches anyway, hoping and praying. In the third year (which is actually to be the last of the war, though she doesn't know it), though, everything gets more complicated."
"The hospital doctor," Pip suggested sleepily.
"Doctors always get to have the glamour in stories like this," Dot objected. "I'd rather it were a timid chaplain; a very prosaic and unprepossessing man; a hero of quiet causes. And thus begins the working of the inevitable triangle." She bit her lip thoughtfully. "What do you think?"
"You've never written a romance before, have you?" Tom asked, diplomatically, thinking that it all sounded rather implausible.
"Not since I was about twelve." She blushed. "And they were utterly awful, so I rather think they don't count."
"I like the sound of the main character," he offered. "Made of very stern stuff, I suppose."
A little quirk of her lips. "Not really; circumstances have pushed her to be that way, that's all."
"I can't picture it," Tom admitted, "but you're the one with the imagination. I shall just have to wait until it's written."
Dot, who had insisted on staying in front of the fire, uncurled so that she was almost prone, ankles peeping out from her pseudo-Victorian skirt. She propped herself up on her elbows. "Pip's asleep; I must be boring. I think this calls for a change of subject. Scrabble, maybe."
Tom, who had long since abandoned his seat for the floor, raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure? I am the Dudgeon family champion, you know."
She accepted the challenge with a rare smirk. "Really? Well, I think it's time somebody did something about that!"
The fire burnt low and red, a great deal of strong tea was consumed on both sides, and three long, long games were played; eventually, though, Tom admitted defeat. Dot had won the first by a whisker, lost the second by a mile, and had eventually soundly beaten him in the final round with a well-placed tumbling. Pip had woken and played the first round, but was now snoring unapologetically in his chair, and Dot laughed.
"I dread to think what time it is. I'm afraid I get a little competitive," she said softly, not wanting to wake him.
"I'd noticed." He checked his watch. "Oh gosh. It's one in the morning, Dot; I've got to get up in a few hours! You and Pip had better go home; let me just get my coat."
"We can walk ourselves, Tom." He looked about to protest, but she cut him off. "It's Horning, Tom, not Edinburgh and not London."
"I suppose so. Gosh, I could just sleep right here." He stretched for a moment, muscles making creaky complaints at having lain so still for so long, and then leapt up. He gave Dot a hand to her feet. "At least let me give you a torch."
"I've got one with me," she assured him. "We won't be drowned dead, no fear!"
It was his turn to laugh at her, the broad Norfolk very badly imitated and sounding strange from her mouth. He took upon himself the task of shaking Pip awake. His brother woke with startling suddenness. "Time to go home." Pip, who had been very asleep indeed, only frowned at him, disorientated. Tom hauled him to his feet and slipped his brother's hand into Dot's. "Don't fall in the river, young turmot," he advised. "I don't want to have Dot back here in five minutes saying that you ran off and all she heard was a splash."
They were out of the door in a few more moments, a bleary-eyed Pip blinking at Dot in confusion and clinging to her hand. (Despite Dot's admonishment, Tom still watched them safely down the path). He stared at the glowing embers for several moments before turning in for the night.
Everybody's got opinions, girl;
They're a version of a good idea
But the best one I can think of now
Is to make sure that I keep you near.
Title & 1st set of lyrics taken from Bring on the Wonder by Susan Enan feat Sarah McLachan. 2nd set of lyrics taken from 10/10 by Paolo Nutini, whose music always seems very Ransome-y to me.
Nelly Dean is the housekeeper who narrates most of Wuthering Heights. If you haven't read it, why are you wasting your time with me? Get thee straight to the nearest library!
Staff Nurse Hazelwood is my Mary Sue. In my defence, she's only there briefly and she's hardly dignified.
I don't think I have anything else to say. See you all next chapter?