I cannot tell you how sorry I am for not updating this sooner! I don't really have any kind of excuse other than good old 'writer's block'. Thank you to everyone who has reviewed, and hope you enjoy this belated instalment!
He checked the time, combing his fingers through his hair as his frustration grew. What if she hadn't got his letter? What if Sister Luckes hadn't let her leave? What if she didn't want to see him?
"Please, Ethel," he whispered, leaning back against the train station wall, the cool, damp stone clearing his mind. She wasn't coming. And why would she? He had shattered any chance they had of a life together as soon as he pushed her away. And now it was too late…
His eyes slid up towards the clock yet again, willing the hands to tick slower as they moved nearer nine o' clock. He had ten minutes, and then that was it. He would board the train, and say goodbye to London. To England. He would be in Shanghai by the end of the week, and he doubted if he would ever return. How could he, when everything about England reminded him of her?
He lightly thudded the back of his head against the wall, feeling the loose dust crumbling into his tousled hair. Bloody, stupid man, he thought to himself, replaying that last, awkward moment he had shared with Ethel the day before.
His mind had been far off, floating along the Yangtze in a Chinese gondola, Ethel tucked into his side, dosing happily on his chest. He could almost feel her cool breath on his bare skin, his thumb gently stroking each of her slender fingers. The dream had been so strong that he hadn't noticed Ethel enter the room, and it was only when she dropped a syringe that he finally came back to reality. In that fleeting second where their startled eyes had met, he saw all the pain and disappointment he had caused, and he had no idea what he could do to make it better.
And then the moment had passed, the syringe was placed hurriedly back in the metal basin, and she had disappeared out the door before he had time to collect his thoughts. The only time he had ever really needed to say something, and words had failed him.
If he had just explained things properly – showed her that he had only ever wanted the best for her… But there was no point thinking of that now. Not when she had made her decision.
Laura watched as her friend sat on the end of the surgical bed in Dr Culpin's old room, tears pooling in the corners of her eyes before dripping onto her starched white uniform.
"Please, Laura, I'm fine," she said, though the fake strength in her voice was lost as she broke down again.
Laura rushed to her side, pulling her into a tight hug as though that would stop her shaking.
"I can't- He- Laura, it hurts."
"It hurts so much."
The tears flowed freely, and with them, Ethel's confession about the dreams she had had about their life together, the wedding they would have, the children they would bring into the world. With every sob and shake, another prayer was uttered that he would return, but they both knew how unlikely that was now.
"I should never have been angry at him. It wasn't his fault… I should have understood... Why do I always have to be so stubborn?" Ethel cried, beating her fist against the hard wooden table to her left. The pain shot through her arm, and just for a moment, she was distracted by the pain in her heart.
"Stop it! Ethel, stop it! Hurting yourself won't make things any better, and it certainly won't bring him back. If you truly want to see him, then go to the train station."
Ethel shook her head. "There's no point. His train leaves in less than ten minutes, and there is no way I can get there in time, even if I ran."
"Nurse Bennett, I do hope that is not defeat I hear in your tone," came a very familiar voice.
Both nurses looked up, wide eyed, and were met by the strangely soft expression of Sister Luckes. In one swift move, she pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and dried Ethel's eyes, much to the surprise of Ethel and Laura.
"Now, isn't that better? A nurse must always be presentable, and nurses at the London the most presentable of them all."
Ethel nodded half-heartedly, sniffing back further tears. Though Sister Luckes was being strangely nice, she couldn't help but feel angry at the woman who had ruined, perhaps forever, any chance she had of happiness.
"I have an admission to make, Nurse Bennett – I was the one who persuaded Dr Culpin to take the position in Shanghai and leave you here. I saw such great potential in you, but I see now that I let selfishness get in the way. You are a wonderful nurse, Ethel, and I am sure you would make for a remarkable doctor."
Laura squeezed Ethel's arm in agreement. "She only wants to say goodbye, matron."
"I know, and that is exactly what she is going to do."
Ethel shook her head again, feeling increasingly dejected as they tried to raise her hopes. "He leaves at nine. How on earth-?"
"Come with me, Ethel. Laura, if you could take over Ethel's duties, that would be greatly appreciated."
"Yes, matron," she replied before winking quickly at Ethel and leaving the room.
"Where are we going?" Ethel asked as she placed her feet back on solid ground, shaking slightly.
Sister Luckes smiled. "To ask for a favour."
"Where did you learn to drive?" Ethel called from the back seat of the car, unable to contain her curiosity.
Sister Luckes laughed and accelerated further as they made their way down the cobbled streets of London. "Sydney," she replied simply, smiling to herself at the memory of her beloved's face when she had asked him to teach her. It had been a sheer moment of spontaneity, and perhaps one of her most cherished memories.
Ethel nodded, surprised to find that she and Sister Luckes weren't so very different after all. "We only have another minute before he leaves. He could already be on the train!"
"There is always hope, Ethel. And if he loves you, then he will wait. Mark my words, he will not have boarded that train."
Even as Sister Luckes spoke the words, she wasn't sure she could truly make that kind of promise, especially to someone as deeply in love as Ethel. But she had said it now, and she knew she would do whatever she could to make sure it came true.
Ethel sat back and chewed on her bottom lip, a knot of nerves forming in her stomach. If he had left, then there was nothing more she could do. But would that mean he didn't love her after all, or just that he couldn't wait any longer? Either way, it would be the end of their relationship – a life with him would be impossible when he was in Shanghai and she was in London. But even knowing this, Ethel still furiously sought some kind of solution which would benefit everyone, no matter how futile it was.
As the car rounded yet another corner, Sister Luckes suddenly slammed on the brakes, sending Ethel flying forwards and hitting her head off the back of the passenger seat. As she fell backwards onto her seat, she groaned and placed a hand to her throbbing temple.
"What happened?" she asked quietly, her vision blurry as she blinked hard.
"There's a child in the middle of the road. He may be hurt, Ethel. I can't leave him-"
And just like that, Ethel's mind cleared. "Of course not. Let's see if we can get him somewhere comfortable, and then I'll run back to the hospital and get Dr Cul- Dr Ingrams."
Sister Luckes jumped out of the car and rushed to the boy's side, feeling for a pulse. "He's alive. I don't think I hit him – he was lying on the road before I had even braked."
"An illness, then? Do you think we should lift him?"
Sister Lucked frowned. "I think it would be easier for us to put him in the car and I can drive back. You need to get to the train station."
"No. I'll stay in the back with the boy and make sure he doesn't stop breathing. You can't be looking after him and driving at the same time-"
"Ethel," she interjected, "if there is one thing I regret in my entire life, it's that I never followed my heart. Not once. I let my duties rule me, and I thought nursing, as a vocation, meant that I couldn't have a life. But I was wrong, and though I cannot change my own circumstances, I'll be damned if you make the same mistakes I did."
For a second, the two women regarded each other and realised it was like looking in the mirror. "Thank you, matron," Ethel replied sincerely, and then hitched up her skirt and began to run like she had never run before.
Ethel could hear the whistle of the train before she even saw the station, and her heart fell at the thought of Millais sitting in one of the compartments, slowly moving further and further away from her. She forced herself to keep going, however, and gritted her teeth as she felt tears sting her eyes.
"Don't you dare," she whispered to herself, sprinting towards the tracks which were only a few metres away now.
"Millais!" she yelled desperately, panting heavily as the train departed just in time for her to arrive. "No…"
Ethel stood by the tracks, her entire body shaking as she watched him leave her life forever. She couldn't believe that after all that, she hadn't made it in time. All those prayers, all those wishes had fallen on deaf ears, and now she was alone.
She gasped, tears coming thick and fast as she turned to see Millais standing, rather confused, behind her. "What's happened?"
"You're here," she whispered, stretching out a hand which he rushed to take. "I can't believe you're here."
He smiled and rested his chin on her head. "Where else would I be?" he whispered, before pulling her into a tight and loving embrace.