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Excerpt from The Woman in Room Three

CHAPTER 2: A FAMILY DINNER It was Wednesday, and Wednesday evenings were sacrosanct in my family. These were the evenings when the Cowdreys gathered for dinner, and it was never permissible to be late.

There were three families of Cowdreys living in London at this time, all within a few minutes’ walk of one another. My parents occupied 7 Milton Square, my brother Theo and his wife Abigail had number eight next door, and I and my wife Clara were at number twenty-one across the square. The reason for this proximity was due to my grandfather buying several plots of land in what was to become Milton Square some fifty years earlier, and upon each he had built a house. Numbers one to fourteen were the largest of the houses he had built. Numbers fifteen to twenty-three were similar in appearance but smaller, because by this time, my grandfather had discovered just how costly building houses could be and had made economies. Most of the houses had been sold but a few had been kept by the family and leased out. My grandfather had kept number six for himself and my grandmother, and made a wedding present of number seven to my father. My father had continued with this tradition, gifting number eight to Theo when he and Abigail married and number twenty-one to me when I wed Clara. He apologised at the time for giving me the smallest of the houses, but I assured him I was more than happy with my lot. It was the truth. Number twenty-one may have been smaller, but it had a distinct advantage. It was across the square from my family with a small park in between, and so gave me and Clara a sense, however misplaced, of independence.

As for Wednesday evening dinners, I cannot remember a time when they were not a Cowdrey family event. They always took place at my parents’ house and were always served at six o’clock. Not leaving the hospital until half past five had put me very behind and I knew my father would not be pleased.

It was typical of my luck that no empty cab passed me on my way home so that I had to walk, and it was almost twenty past six when I turned into Milton Square and crossed the park to my house. As I drew near, I saw that the lace curtains at the bay window were pulled to one side and an anxious face was pressed against the glass. Clara was looking out for me, and she was turning first one way up the street, then the other in consternation. I felt a knot of irritation growing within me. When I hadn’t arrived home before six, she should have gone over to my parents and explained that I must have been held up. Better that than we both arrive late.

As I took the front steps two at a time, her face disappeared from the window. Millie, our maid, must have been watching for me too, for the front door opened before I retrieved my key. I entered to see Clara hurrying into the hall.

‘Where have you been?’ she cried. ‘It’s almost half past.’

‘I know what the time is,’ I snapped. ‘I got held up at the hospital.’

‘But tonight of all nights. Oh, Felix.’ Her hands slapped forlornly against her skirts.

‘It wasn’t something I planned. There was an emergency.’

‘There’s always an emergency,’ she said sulkily. ‘I had to send Millie to your parents with a note to explain we were going to be late.’

I shrugged off my coat. ‘You should have gone over there yourself, not waited for me.’

‘I’m not going there on my own.’

‘For heaven’s sake, Clara, they don’t bite.’ I had taken a few steps towards the stairs but stopped when I caught sight of the grandfather clock in the hall, and saw that it was indeed approaching six thirty. ‘I shan’t bother to dress,’ I decided.

‘Not dress for dinner?’ Clara asked, horrified. ‘They’ll understand,’ I said, heading for the door and taking my overcoat back from Millie who had been hanging it up. ‘Come on, Clara.’

Millie hurriedly placed Clara’s cloak around her shoulders. Clara’s expression told me clearly that she didn’t think it a good idea to go to dinner without dressing, but she didn’t remonstrate with me. She took my hand, and I dragged her out into the chilly night air and across the square to my parents. The lion-head door knocker glared down at us as we reached the step of number seven. I sighed as my fingers touched the cold metal and banged it hard against its base. Clara heard my sigh and squeezed my hand encouragingly.

The door opened and my parents’ butler, Jempson, took the place of the lion-head knocker. His glare was just as forbidding.

‘Good evening, Master Felix, Mrs Cowdrey,’ he said, inclining his head ever so slightly and stepping aside for us to enter. We handed over our coat and cloak to the maid waiting to receive them, then followed Jempson to the drawing room. He opened the doors and announced us. As we entered, I heard someone, Theo, I think, say, ‘At last.’

Theo and Abigail were seated on one of the rose damask settees, my mother on the one opposite. My father was by the fire, his fob watch in one hand, the fingers of the other moving the minute hand of the mantel clock.

‘I’m sorry we’re so late. It’s all my fault.’ I leaned over the back of the settee and planted a kiss on my mother’s cheek. Her familiar scent of rose water filled my nostrils and her skin was warm against my lips.

‘You received my note, didn’t you?’ Clara asked. ‘Oh yes, dear,’ Mother said, smiling up ather.

‘A lot of good a note does when dinner is spoiling,’ Abigail said in a low murmur to Theo but loud enough for Clara and me to hear.

Mother heard it too and her expression became pained. ‘Cook said the dinner will be fine,’ she assured Clara. ‘You gave her plenty of notice.’

I turned to my father and bid him good evening.

He looked at me, unsmiling. ‘Good evening, Felix. Why so late?’

I opened my mouth to reply, but Theo stood up. ‘Oh, don’t ask him why, Dad. He’ll go on and on and we’ll never get to eat.’

My father ignored him. He was still looking at me. ‘You haven’t dressed for dinner, Felix.’

I smoothed my hands over my rumpled jacket. ‘I thought it best not to, considering how late we already were. I’m sorry for it, but I didn’t think you’d mind just this once.’

His expression told me he did mind, he minded a great deal, but Mother rose and said, ‘Of course we don’t mind. We know how busy you are at that hospital of yours. Come, let us go through to the dining room.’

That was Mother, always trying to pacify. My father moved to take my mother’s hand and walked her towards the drawing-room doors where Clara and I still stood. We stepped aside and were about to follow when Abigail pointedly coughed at Clara, and she shuffled backwards, bumping into me, to allow Abigail and Theo to pass. Theo was grinning, keeping his face down so as not to be seen, but I saw him. I could have kicked him.

I gave what I hoped was an understanding yet encouraging smile to Clara and took hold of her hand. ‘Into the valley of death,’ I murmured in her ear. I was pleased I could make her giggle. --- As much as I sometimes wished we could be excused these family dinners, I could not deny the dinners were always more than worth the eating. And I was very hungry. A snatched breakfast of eggs and bacon and a cup of tea and a bun at midday was all I had had, and my stomach growled as my nostrils caught the delicious odour coming from the tureen on the sideboard.

I saw Clara to her accustomed seat on the left-hand side of my mother, then took mine on Mother’s right. Theo always sat on our father’s right, Abigail on Father’s left. In this way, our family’s battle lines were drawn.

Mother told Jempson, who was waiting by the side- board, that he could begin serving, and I waited impatiently while he ladled the soup into everyone else’s bowls. I was always served last. When my bowl had been filled, I picked up my spoon and tasted the soup.

Just a little pepper would make it perfect, and I reached for the cruet.

‘Felix,’ Abigail cried, ‘what is that on your wrist?’

There had been some chatter at the table, but all that ceased with Abigail’s shrill question. My arm still outstretched, I looked to see what Abigail was staring at in horror. My sleeve had risen up and exposed my wrist. On my pale skin was a splash of the deepest red. I snatched my arm away, taking my hand beneath the table and tugging my sleeve down.

‘It’s nothing,’ I said, taking up my spoon again when I was sure my wrist was covered.

‘It’s blood,’ Abigail said.

‘If you know what it is, why ask?’

‘Have you cut yourself, Felix?’ Clara asked, concerned.

I shook my head. ‘It’s not my blood. I must have missed that spot when I washed at the hospital.’ Abigail made a sound of disgust. ‘To think that we must sit here with you wearing the clothes you work in and the evidence of your vile trade all about you.’

My sister-in-law loves the sound of her own voice, and she delivered this sentence with all the melodrama of a stage actress.

‘No one’s making you sit here,’ I said, biting into my bread roll, wiping away the butter that dribbled down my chin with my napkin.

‘Should I be the one to leave?’ she said, her hand going delicately to her bosom. ‘I’m not the one disgracing the family.’

I spooned the soup into my mouth, unable to take pleasure in the taste now I had been so rebuked. Abigail and I have never liked one another. We share a mutual antipathy. I believe that if we were both dogs, whenever we met, our hackles would rise, our ears would flatten, and we would snap and snarl at one another until one dared to take a bite. How much easier that would be. Regrettably, we are not dogs but civilised human beings, and so our antipathy must manifest in insults couched in polite and fulsome language. Such verbal sparring takes longer than a dog fight to conclude, and there is an awful lot of repetition involved, but the result is much the same: blood is drawn. In my defence, it is usually Abigail who begins these fights. I recently read one of Shakespeare’s plays and found a very apt quote to describe my sister-in-law: She speaks poniards, and every word stabs. It had made me smile at the time.

When I had scraped my soup bowl clean, I pushed it away and reached for my wine. I drank all of it in one gulp, and setting it back down, tapped the rim for Jempson to refill it. I downed the second glass too. I have never been a heavy drinker, and I knew even as I asked for a third that it would do me no good to drink so much, that I would pay for it in more ways than one. But I had had a wretched day and Abigail’s comments had stung. I’d reached a point where I no longer cared. Jempson served the fish, and I foolishly began to hope nothing more would be said against me. But I had underestimated Abigail. She was still snarling.

‘I suppose we shouldn’t expect Felix to be any better than he is,’ she said as she dissected her fish. ‘We must blame the company he keeps. It is a free hospital he works at, after all. It must be degrading to mix with such people, day after day. Their rudeness rubs off. It isn’t his fault.’

I banged my hand on the table, making the cutlery jump from the tablecloth. ‘Such people! Is that what you call the poor unfortunate wretches I tend?’

Abigail was unmoved by my indignation. Her eyebrow arched at me. ‘What else should I call them? I can hardly call them ladies and gentlemen, can I? To think you choose to associate with such people. I really cannot imagine what goes on in that peculiar mind of yours, Felix.’

My thoughts turned to the coalman who I had failed to save not two hours earlier. That common wretch had been going about his business, supplying the coal that fuelled our country’s industry, that fuelled the very range our meal had been cooked upon, and who had left a wife and three children to fend for themselves in our unforgiving city. Had they been told of his death? Was his wife even now sobbing into her tattered skirts, torn between grieving for her husband and wondering how she was going to feed her children, while Abigail and I disputed the value of treating people of their class?

I held up my empty wine glass to Jempson. He looked to my father, asking for permission to do as I wanted and refill it. His impertinence maddened me.

‘Just pour the wine, damn you,’ I yelled at him.

‘Felix!’ my mother cried.

Abigail sniggered into her napkin.

‘Serve the wine, Jempson,’ my father said quietly, and turned to talk with Theo as the butler filled my glass and took my dirty plate away.

My father shouldn’t have let me have that fourth glass. I might have been able to keep my mouth shut if I had stopped at three. And if Abigail had left me alone. She gave me a respite of a few minutes only.

‘Why did you decide not to set up in private practice, Felix?’ she said, spooning potatoes onto her plate. ‘What made you choose to work at a free hospital instead? You’ve never told us.’

I sensed my mother’s and Clara’s agitation at her words. They both knew how close I was to losing my temper and were anxious that I should not. They knew too I was being provoked, but neither of them was an unkind woman, and they would not dream of telling Abigail to hold her tongue. Nor would Theo; on the contrary, he enjoyed watching his wife take bites at me.

‘I didn’t want a private practice,’ I said, keeping my voice low, pretending to myself I had control of my temper. ‘I didn’t want to tend to women like you. Women with imaginary complaints, and old men with nothing more serious than gout. I wanted to help people who desperately need my help. But I don’t expect you to understand that, Abigail.’

She laughed.

‘What’s so funny?’ I demanded.

‘You,’ she said, covering her mouth with her hand in affected delicacy, ‘helping people.’

What on earth did she mean by that remark? I turned to Clara, hoping to find an explanation in her expression. Her face was pained, evincing sympathy for me, but I fancied there was something more in the creases in her forehead and the anguish in her eyes. I was sure there was agreement with Abigail.

I dropped my fork. It clattered onto my plate. ‘I do help people,’ I cried indignantly at her.

Mother reached out and patted my hand. ‘Of course you do, dear, we know you do.’

I snatched my hand away and pointed a finger at Abigail. ‘You just wait. One of these days I’ll make a great medical discovery and then you’ll see I was right. You’ll shut your big mouth when I find a cure for some terrible disease or, or ... or something.’

I knew even as I spoke I had gone too far. A gentleman doesn’t speak to a lady so, no matter how greatly he has been provoked. I glanced over at my father and saw the disapproval, and worse, the disappointment, on his face. But I couldn’t bring myself to apologise to Abigail. I hunched over my plate, hoping someone would say something that wasn’t about me.

After what seemed an age, conversation resumed. My father, whether able to read my mind or just because it was the sensible thing to do, asked Theo about a case he was working on, and Abigail became all attention to her husband. She found Theo’s work interesting, not because she found legal work fascinating, but because it gave her the opportunity to learn some scandalous secret. Theo, while honouring the confidentiality of his clients, often spoke about their cases to us, trusting we would repeat his words to no third party.

I continued eating, only half listening to Theo. My mind was fixed on Abigail’s words, on her derision, and the worry I felt that she might be right. Could I, in all honesty, say I helped the people who came to St Eustace’s? I hadn’t been able to help the coalman, and there were plenty of other patients who had been turfed back out into the streets to manage with their illnesses as best they could because I hadn’t been able to cure them. Had I been right to go into medicine, or should I have done as Theo had done, as my father had expected me to do, and followed him into the law?

Law was the family business and had been for five generations. The firm of Cowdrey and Burkett, Solicitors, Simon Burkett being my father’s partner, was highly successful. All the best society came to Cowdrey and Burkett to have their legal troubles sorted out.

I had gone to Cambridge, intending to graduate and join my father and brother at the offices in Tremlett Street. But I had had my head turned at Cambridge. An older student friend inspired me with his ambitions of becoming a doctor. He spoke of helping people so passionately that his desire became mine. Gone were the ideas of settling into the law, and in their place, notions that I too could become a great doctor, help those who had not the advantages I had had, and make a name for myself. I knew myself well enough to know that this desire to become a doctor might be a passing fancy, and I was also aware that my father would be disappointed at my decision, so I continued with the studies I would need for the law, while taking on subjects, namely Greek and Latin, that were necessary qualifications for a medical career.

When I left Cambridge, I married Clara, to whom I had been engaged for two years, and went dutifully into the family firm. But the desire to become a doctor stayed with me, and after seven months at Tremlett Street, I told my father I was leaving. I had already arranged a position at St Eustace’s Free Hospital so my father was unable to accuse me of not thinking the matter through.

My father was stunned into silence when I told him and didn’t speak to me for half an hour after- wards. When the rest of the family found out about my decision at the next Wednesday family dinner, Theo called me an idiot, Abigail, an ungrateful wretch, and my mother asked if I was sure I was doing the right thing. Clara, who had had the right to be told before anyone else, but from whom I had reprehensibly kept my decision, said nothing, and no one asked for her opinion.

I had been very happy those first few months at St Eustace’s. I enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the hospital; there was never a dull day. It was almost like being back at school, watching and listening to the masters, and taking my notes. I had progressed swiftly in my studies and become a doctor. I felt vindicated in my choice of career and certain my family had been wrong to doubt me.

But that feeling was leaving me. The hopes I had had of becoming an eminent doctor who would find a cure for a terrible disease felt further away from me than ever. As a doctor, I was no better than my peers. Any one of them was as capable of enjoying renown as I might be, perhaps even more so. The only discovery I had made, and what my colleagues had discovered about me very quickly, was that I felt my patients’ suffering too deeply, and to feel so much wasn’t helpful to anyone, least of all me.

Somehow, we got through the rest of the evening. At around eleven o’clock, Clara and I said goodnight, and I expect everyone was glad to see me go. Mother saw us to the door, and I heard Clara whisper an apology to her. I gave Clara my arm as we left, but I think she was holding me up rather than me supporting her. I don’t remember reaching our house or going to bed. I woke up, face down on the pillow, a little after ten o’clock the next morning.

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