Picture me on an island supply boat, one of the old Clyde Puffers seeking to deliver me to my new post. This was 1947, just a couple of years after the war, and I was a young doctor relatively new to General Practice. Picture also a choppy sea, a deck that rose and fell with every wave, and a cross-current fighting hard to turn us away from the isle. Back on the mainland I’d been advised that a hearty breakfast would be the best preventative for seasickness and now, having loaded up with one, I was doing my best to hang onto it.
I almost succeeded. Perversely, it was the sudden calm of the harbour that did it for me. I ran to the side and I fear that I cast rather more than my bread upon the waters. Those on the quay were treated to a rare sight; their new doctor, clinging to the ship’s rail, with seagulls swooping in the wake of the steamer for an unexpected water-borne treat.
The island’s resident Constable was waiting for me at the end of the gangplank. A man of around my father’s age, in uniform, chiselled in flint and unsullied by good cheer. He said, “Munro Spence? Doctor Munro Spence?”
“That’s me,” I said.
“Will you take a look at Doctor Laughton before we move him? He didn’t have too good a journey down.”
There was a man to take care of my baggage, so I followed the Constable to the Harbourmaster’s house at the end of the quay. It was a stone building, square and solid. Doctor Laughton was in the Harbourmaster’s sitting room behind the office. He was in a chair by the fire with his feet on a stool and a rug over his knees and was attended by one of his own nurses, a stocky red-haired girl of twenty or younger.
I began, “Doctor Laughton. I’m . . .”
“My replacement, I know,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”
I checked his pulse, felt his glands, listened to his chest, noted the signs of cyanosis. It was hardly necessary; Doctor Laughton had already diagnosed himself, and had requested this transfer. He was an old-school Edinburgh-trained medical man, and I could be sure that his condition must be sufficiently serious that “soldiering on” was no longer an option. He might choose to ignore his own aches and troubles up to a point, but as the island’s only doctor he couldn’t leave the community at risk.
When I enquired about chest pain he didn’t answer directly, but his expression told me all.
“I wish you’d agreed to the aeroplane,” I said.
“For my sake or yours?” he said. “You think I’m bad. You should see your colour.” And then, relenting a little, “The airstrip’s for emergencies. What good’s that to me?”
I asked the nurse, “Will you be travelling with him?”
“I will,” she said. “I’ve an Aunt I can stay with. I’ll return on the morning boat.”
Two of the men from the Puffer were waiting to carry the doctor to the quay. We moved back so that they could lift him between them, chair and all. As they were getting into position Laughton said to me, “Try not to kill anyone in your first week, or they’ll have me back here the day after.”
I was his locum, his temporary replacement. That was the story. But we both knew that he wouldn’t be returning. His sight of the island from the sea would almost certainly be his last.
Once they’d manoeuvred him through the doorway, the two sailors bore him with ease toward the boat. Some local people had turned out to wish him well on his journey.
As I followed with the nurse beside me, I said, “Pardon me, but what do I call you?”
“I’m Nurse Kirkwood,” she said. “Rosie.”
“I’m Munro,” I said. “Is that an island accent, Rosie?”
“You have a sharp ear, Doctor Spence,” she said.
She supervised the installation of Doctor Laughton in the deck cabin, and didn’t hesitate to give the men orders where another of her age and sex might only make suggestions or requests. A born Matron, if ever I saw one. The old salts followed her instruction without a murmur.
When they’d done the job to her satisfaction, Laughton said to me, “The latest patient files are on my desk. Your desk, now.”
Nurse Kirkwood said to him, “You’ll be back before they’ve missed you, doctor,” but he ignored that.
He said, “These are good people. Look after them.”
The crew were already casting off, and they all but pulled the board from under my feet as I stepped ashore. I took a moment to gather myself, and gave a pleasant nod in response to the curious looks of those well-wishers who’d stayed to see the boat leave. The day’s cargo had been unloaded and stacked on the quay and my bags were nowhere to be seen. I went in search of them and found Moodie, driver and handyman to the island hospital, waiting beside a field ambulance that had been decommissioned from the military. He was chatting to another man, who bade good day and moved off as I arrived.
“Will it be much of a drive?” I said as we climbed aboard.
“Ay,” Moodie said.
“Ten minutes? An hour? Half an hour?”
“Ay,” he agreed, making this one of the longest conversations we were ever to have.
• • • •
The drive took little more than twenty minutes. This was due to the size of the island and a good concrete road, yet another legacy of the Army’s wartime presence. We saw no other vehicle, slowed for nothing other than the occasional indifferent sheep. Wool and weaving, along with some lobster fishing, sustained the peacetime economy here. In wartime it had been different, with the local populace outnumbered by spotters, gunners, and the Royal Engineers. Later came a camp for Italian prisoners of war, whose disused medical block the Highlands and Islands Medical Service took over when the island’s cottage hospital burned down. Before we reached it we passed the airstrip, still usable, but with its gatehouse and control tower abandoned.
The former prisoners’ hospital was a concrete building with a wooden barracks attached. The Italians had laid paths and a garden, but these were now growing wild. Again I left Moodie to deal with my bags, and went looking to introduce myself to the Senior Sister.
Senior Sister Garson looked me over once and didn’t seem too impressed. But she called me by my title and gave me a briefing on everyone’s duties while leading me around on a tour. It was then that I learned my driver’s name. I met all the staff apart from Mrs. Moodie, who served as cook, housekeeper, and island midwife.
“There’s just the one six-bed ward,” Sister Garson told me. “We use that for the men and the officers’ quarters for the women. Two to a room.”
“How many patients at the moment?”
“As of this morning, just one. Old John Petrie. He’s come in to die.”
Harsh though it seemed, she delivered the information in a matter-of-fact manner.
“I’ll see him now,” I said.
Old John Petrie was eighty-five or eighty-seven. The records were unclear. Occupation, shepherd. Next of kin, none—a rarity on the island. He’d led a tough outdoor life, but toughness won’t keep a body going for ever. He was now grown so thin and frail that he was in danger of being swallowed up by his bedding. According to Doctor Laughton’s notes he’d presented with no specific ailment. One of my teachers might have diagnosed a case of TMB, Too Many Birthdays. He’d been found in his croft house, alone, half-starved, unable to rise. There was life in John Petrie’s eyes as I introduced myself, but little sign of it anywhere else.
We moved on. Mrs. Moodie would bring me my evening meals, I was told. Unless she was attending at a birth, in which case I’d be looked after by Rosie Kirkwood’s mother, who’d cycle up from town.
My experience in obstetrics had mainly involved being a student and staying out of the midwife’s way. Senior Sister Garson said, “They’re mostly home births with the midwife attending, unless there are complications and then she’ll call you in. But that’s quite rare. You might want to speak to Mrs. Tulloch before she goes home. Her baby was stillborn on Sunday.”
“Where do I find her?” I said.
The answer was, in the suite of rooms at the other end of the building. Her door in the women’s wing was closed, with her husband waiting in the corridor.
“She’s dressing,” he explained.
Sister Garson said, “Thomas, this is Doctor Spence. He’s taking over for Doctor Laughton.”
She left us together. Thomas Tulloch was a young man, somewhere around my own age but much hardier. He wore a shabby suit of all-weather tweed that looked as if it had outlasted several owners. His beard was dark, his eyes blue. Women like that kind of thing, I know, but my first thought was of a wall-eyed collie. What can I say? I like dogs.
I asked him, “How’s your wife bearing up?”
“It’s hard for me to tell,” he said. “She hasn’t spoken much.” And then, as soon as Sister Garson was out of earshot, he lowered his voice and said, “What was it?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“The child. Was it a boy or a girl?”
“I’ve no idea.”
“No one will say. Daisy didn’t get to see it. It was just, your baby’s dead, get over it, you’ll have another.”
I wondered who might have offered such cold comfort. Everyone, I expect. It was the approach at the time. Infant mortality was no longer the commonplace event it once had been, but old attitudes lingered.
I said, “And how do you feel?”
Tulloch shrugged. “It’s nature,” he conceded. “But you’ll get a ewe that won’t leave a dead lamb. Is John Petrie dying now?”
“I can’t say. Why?”
“I’m looking after his flock and his dog. His dog won’t stay put.”
At that point the door opened and Mrs. Tulloch—Daisy—stood before us. True to her name, a crushed flower. She was pale, fair, and small of stature, barely up to her husband’s shoulder. She’d have heard our voices though not, I would hope, our conversation.
I said, “Mrs. Tulloch, I’m Doctor Spence. Are you sure you’re well enough to leave us?”
She said, “Yes, thank you, Doctor.” She spoke in little above a whisper. Though a grown and married woman, from a distance you might have taken her for a girl of sixteen.
I looked to Tulloch and said, “How will you get her home?”
“We were told, the ambulance?” he said. And then, “Or we could walk down for the mail bus.”
“Let me get Mister Moodie,” I said.
• • • •
Moodie seemed to be unaware of any arrangement, and reluctant to comply with it. Though it went against the grain to be firm with a man twice my age, I could see trouble in our future if I wasn’t. I said, “I’m not discharging a woman in her condition to a hike on the heath. To your ambulance, Mister Moodie.”
Garaged alongside the field ambulance I saw a clapped-out Riley Roadster at least a dozen years old. Laughton’s own vehicle, available for my use.
As the Tullochs climbed aboard the ambulance I said to Daisy, “I’ll call by and check on you in a day or two.” And then, to her husband, “I’ll see if I can get an answer to your question.”
My predecessor’s files awaited me in the office. Those covering his patients from the last six months had been left out on the desk, and were but the tip of the iceberg; in time I’d need to become familiar with the histories of everyone on the island, some fifteen hundred souls. It was a big responsibility for one medic, but civilian doctors were in short supply. Though the fighting was over and the Forces demobbed, medical officers were among the last to be released.
I dived in. The last winter had been particularly severe, with a number of pneumonia deaths and broken limbs from ice falls. I read of frostbitten fishermen and a three-year-old boy deaf after measles. Two cases had been sent to the mainland for surgery and one emergency appendectomy had been performed, successfully and right here in the hospital’s theatre, by Laughton himself.
Clearly I had a lot to live up to.
Since October there had been close to a dozen births on the island. A fertile community, and dependent upon it. Most of the children were thriving, one family had moved away. A Mrs. Flett had popped out her seventh, with no complications. But then there was Daisy Tulloch.
I looked at her case notes. They were only days old, and incomplete. Laughton had written them up in a shaky hand and I found myself wondering whether, in some way, his condition might have been a factor in the outcome. Not by any direct failing of his own, but Daisy had been thirty-six hours in labour before he was called in. Had the midwife delayed calling him for longer than she should? By the time of his intervention it was a matter of no detectable heartbeat and a forceps delivery.
I’d lost track of the time, so when Mrs. Moodie appeared with a tray I was taken by surprise.
“Don’t get up, Doctor,” she said. “I brought your tea.”
I turned the notes face-down to the desk and pushed my chair back. Enough, I reckoned, for one day.
I said, “The stillbirth, the Tullochs. Was it a boy or a girl?”
“Doctor Laughton dealt with it,” Mrs. Moodie said. “I wasn’t there to see. It hardly matters now, does it?”
“Stillbirths have to be registered,” I said.
“If you say so, Doctor.”
“It’s the law, Mrs. Moodie. What happened to the remains?”
“They’re in the shelter for the undertaker. It’s the coldest place we have. He’ll collect them when there’s next a funeral.”
I finished my meal and, leaving the tray for Mrs. Moodie to clear, went out to the shelter. It wasn’t just a matter of the Tullochs’ curiosity. With no note of gender, I couldn’t complete the necessary registration. Back then, the bodies of the stillborn were often buried with any unrelated female adult. I had to act before the undertaker came to call.
The shelter was an air raid bunker located between the hospital and the airfield, now used for storage. And when I say storage, I mean everything from our soap and toilet roll supply to the recently deceased. It was a series of chambers mostly buried under a low, grassy mound. The only visible features above ground were a roof vent and a brick-lined ramp leading down to a door at one end. The door had a mighty lock, for which there was no key.
Inside I had to navigate my way through rooms filled with crates and boxes to find the designated mortuary with the slab. Except that it wasn’t a slab; it was a billiard table, cast in the ubiquitous concrete (by those Italians, no doubt) and repurposed by my predecessor. The cotton-wrapped package that lay on it was unlabelled, and absurdly small. I unpicked the wrapping with difficulty and made the necessary check. A girl. The cord was still attached and there were all the signs of a rough forceps delivery. Forceps in a live birth are only meant to guide and protect the child’s head. The marks of force supported my suspicion that Laughton had been called at a point too late for the infant, and where he could only focus on preserving the mother’s life.
Night had all but fallen when I emerged. As I washed my hands before going to make a last check on our dying shepherd, I reflected on the custom of slipping a stillbirth into a coffin to share a stranger’s funeral. On the one hand, it could seem like a heartless practice; on the other, there was something touching about the idea of a nameless child being placed in the anonymous care of another soul. Whenever I try to imagine eternity, it’s always long and lonely. Such company might be a comfort for both.
John Petrie lay with his face toward the darkened window. In the time since my first visit he’d been washed and fed, and the bed remade around him.
I said, “Mister Petrie, do you remember me? Doctor Spence.”
There was a slight change in the rhythm of his breathing that I took for a yes.
I said, “Are you comfortable?”
Nothing moved but his eyes. Looking at me, then back to the window.
“What about pain? Have you any pain? I can help with it if you have.”
Nothing. So then I said, “Let me close these blinds for you,” but as I moved, he made a sound.
“Don’t close them?” I said. “Are you sure?”
I followed his gaze.
I could see the shelter mound from here. Only the vague shape of the hill was visible at this hour, one layer of deepening darkness over another. Against the sky, in the last of the fading light, I could make out the outline of an animal. It was a dog, and it seemed to be watching the building.
I did as John Petrie wished, left the blinds open, and him to the night.
My accommodation was in the wooden barracks where the prisoners had lived and slept. I had an oil lamp for light and a ratty curtain at the window. My bags had been lined up at the end of a creaky bunk. The one concession to luxury was a rag rug on the floor.
I could unpack in the morning. I undressed, dropped onto the bed, and had the best sleep of my life.
• • • •
With the morning came my first taste of practice routine. An early ward round, such as it was, and then a drive down into town for weekday Surgery. This took place in a room attached to the Library and ran on a system of first come, first served, for as long as it took to deal with the queue. All went without much of a hitch. No doubt some people stayed away out of wariness over a new doctor. Others had discovered minor ailments with which to justify their curiosity. Before Surgery was over, Rosie Kirkwood joined me fresh from the boat. Doctor Laughton had not enjoyed the voyage, she told me, and we left it at that.
After the last patient (chilblains) had left, Nurse Kirkwood said, “I see you have use of Doctor Laughton’s car. Can I beg a lift back to the hospital?”
“You can,” I said. “And along the way, can you show me where the Tullochs live? I’d like to drop by.”
“I can show you the way,” she said. “But it’s not the kind of place you can just ‘drop by.’”
I will not claim that I’d mastered the Riley. When I described it as clapped-out, I did not exaggerate. The engine sounded like a keg of bolts rolling down a hill and the springs gave us a ride like a condemned fairground. Rosie seemed used to it.
Passing through town with the harbour behind us, I said, “Which one’s the undertaker?”
“We just passed it.”
“The furniture place?”
“Donald Budge. My father’s cousin. Also the Coroner and cabinet maker to the island.”
Two minutes later, we were out of town. It was bleak, rolling lowland moor in every direction, stretching out to a big, big sky.
Raising my voice to be heard over the whistling crack in the windshield, I said, “You’ve lived here all your life?”
“I have,” she said. “I saw everything change with the war. We thought it would go back to being the same again after. But that doesn’t happen, does it?”
“Never in the way you expect,” I said.
“Doctor Laughton won’t be coming back, will he?”
“There’s always hope.”
“That’s what we say to patients.”
I took my eyes off the road for a moment to look at her.
She said, “You can speak plainly to me, Doctor. I don’t do my nursing for a hobby. And I don’t always plan to be doing it here.” And then, with barely a change in tone, “There’s a junction with a telephone box coming up.”
I quickly returned my attention to the way ahead. “Do I turn?”
“Not there. The next track just after.”
It was a rough track, and the word bone-shaking wouldn’t begin to describe it. Now I understood why the Riley was falling apart, if this was the pattern for every home visit. The track ran for most of a mile and finally became completely impassable, with still a couple of hundred yards to go to reach the Tullochs’ home.
Their house was a one-storey crofter’s cottage with a sod roof and a barn attached. The cottage walls were lime washed, those of the barn were of bare stone. I took my medical bag from the car and we walked the rest of the way.
When we reached the door Nurse Kirkwood knocked and called out, “Daisy? It’s the Doctor to see you.”
There was movement within. As we waited, I looked around. Painters romanticise these places. All I saw was evidence of a hard living. I also saw a dog tethered some yards from the house, looking soulful. It resembled the one I’d seen the night before, although, to be honest, the same could be said of every dog on the island.
After making us wait as long as she dared for a quick tidy of the room and herself, Daisy Tulloch opened the door and invited us in. She was wearing a floral print dress, and her hair had been hastily pinned.
She offered tea; Nurse Kirkwood insisted on making it as we talked. Although Daisy rose to the occasion with the necessary courtesy, I could see it was a struggle. The experience of the last week had clearly hit her hard.
“I don’t want to cause any fuss, Doctor,” was all she would say. “I’m tired, that’s all.”
People respect a doctor, but they’ll talk to a nurse. When I heard sheep and more than one dog barking outside, I went out and left the two women conferring. Tulloch was herding a couple of dozen ewes into a muddy pen by the cottage; a mixed herd, if the markings were anything to go by. Today he wore a cloth cap and blue work pants with braces. I realised that the tweeds I’d taken for his working clothes were actually his Sunday best.
I waited until the sheep were all penned, and then went over.
I told him, “It would have been a girl. But . . .” And I left it there, because what more could I add? But then a thought occurred and I said, “You may want to keep the information to yourself. Why make things worse?”
“That’s what Doctor Laughton said. Chin up, move on, have yourself another. But she won’t see it like that.”
I watched him go to the barn and return with a bucket of ochre in one hand and a stick in the other. The stick had a crusty rag wrapped around its end, for dipping and marking the fleeces.
I said, “Are those John Petrie’s sheep?”
“They are,” he said. “But someone’s got to dip ’em and clip ’em. Will he ever come back?”
“There’s always hope,” I said. “What about his dog?”
He glanced at the tethered animal, watching us from over near the house. “Biddy?” he said. “That dog’s no use to me. Next time she runs off, she’s gone. I’m not fetching her home again.”
• • • •
“A dog?” Nurse Kirkwood said. She braced herself against the dash as we bumped our way back onto the road. “Senior Sister Garson will love you.”
“I’ll keep her in the barracks,” I said. “Senior Sister Garson doesn’t even need to know.”
She turned around to look at Biddy, seated in the open luggage hatch. The collie had her face tilted up into the wind and her eyes closed in an attitude of uncomplicated bliss.
“Good luck with that,” she said.
That night, when the coast was clear, I sneaked Biddy into the ward.
“John,” I said, “you’ve got a visitor.”
• • • •
I began to find my way around. I started to make home visits and I took the time to meet the island’s luminaries, from the priest to the postman to the secretary of the Grazing Committee. Most of the time Biddy rode around with me in the back of the Riley. One night I went down into town and took the dog into the pub with me, as an icebreaker. People were beginning to recognise me now. It would be a while before I’d feel accepted, but I felt I’d made a start.
Senior Sister Garwood told me that Donald Budge, the undertaker, had now removed the infant body for an appropriate burial. She also said that he’d complained to her about the state in which he’d found it. I told her to send him to me, and I’d explain the medical realities of the situation to a man who ought to know better. Budge didn’t follow it up.
The next day in town Thomas Tulloch came to morning surgery, alone. “Mister Tulloch,” I said. “How can I help you?”
“It’s not for me,” he said. “It’s Daisy, but she won’t come. Can you give her a tonic? Anything that’ll perk her up. Nothing I do seems to help.”
“Give her time. It’s only been a few days.”
“It’s getting worse. Now she won’t leave the cottage. I tried to persuade her to visit her sister, but she just turns to the wall.”
So I wrote him a scrip for some Parrish’s, a harmless red concoction of sweetened iron phosphate that would, at best, sharpen the appetite, and at worst do nothing at all. It was all I could offer. Depression, in those days, was a condition to be overcome by “pulling oneself together.” Not to do so was to be perverse and most likely attention-seeking, especially if you were a woman. I couldn’t help thinking that, though barely educated even by the island’s standards, Tulloch was an unusually considerate spouse for his time.
Visits from the dog seemed to do the trick for John Petrie. I may have thought I was deceiving the Senior Sister, but I realise now that she was most likely turning a blind eye. Afterwards his breathing was always easier, his sleep more peaceful. And I even got my first words out of him when he beckoned me close and said into my ear:
After this mark of approval I looked up to find the Constable waiting for me, hat in his hands as if he were unsure of the protocol. Was a dying man’s bedside supposed to be like a church? He was taking no chances.
He said, “I’m sorry to come and find you at your work, Doctor. But I hope you can settle a concern.”
“I can try.”
“There’s a rumour going round about the dead Tulloch baby. Some kind of abuse?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Some people are even saying it had been skinned.”
“Skinned?” I echoed.
“I’ve seen what goes on in post-mortems and such,” the Constable persisted. “But I never heard of such a thing being called for.”
“Nor have I,” I said. “It’s just Chinese whispers, David. I saw the body before Donald Budge took it away. It was in poor condition after a long and difficult labour. But the only abuse it suffered was natural.”
“I’m only going by what people are saying.”
“Well for God’s sake don’t let them say such a thing around the mother.”
“I do hear she’s taken it hard,” the Constable conceded. “Same thing happened to my sister, but she just got on. I’ve never even heard her speak of it.”
He looked to me for permission, and then went around the bed to address John Petrie. He bent down with his hands on his knees, and spoke as if to a child or an imbecile.
“A’right, John?” he said. “Back on your feet soon, eh?”
• • • •
Skinned? Who ever heard of such a thing? The chain of gossip must have started with Donald Budge and grown ever more grotesque in the telling. According to the records, Budge had four children of his own. The entire family was active in amateur dramatics and the church choir. You’d expect a man in his position to know better.
I was writing up patient notes at the end of the next day’s town Surgery when there was some commotion outside. Nurse Kirkwood went to find out the cause and came back moments later with a breathless nine-year-old boy at her side.
“This is Robert Flett,” she said. “He ran all the way here to say his mother’s been in an accident.”
“What kind of an accident?”
The boy looked startled and dumbstruck at my direct question, but Rosie Kirkwood spoke for him. “He says she fell.”
I looked at her. “You know the way?”
We all piled into the Riley to drive out to the west of the island. Nurse Kirkwood sat beside me and I lifted Robert into the bag hatch with the dog, where both seemed happy enough.
At the highest point on the moor Nurse Kirkwood reckoned she spotted a walking figure on a distant path, far from the road.
She said, “Is that Thomas Tulloch? What could he be doing out here?” But I couldn’t spare the attention to look.
• • • •
Adam Flett was one of three brothers who, together, were the island’s most prosperous crofter family. In addition to their livestock and rented lands they made some regular money from government contract work. With a tenancy protected by law, Adam had built a two-storey home with a slate roof and laid a decent road to it. I was able to drive almost to the door. Sheep scattered as I braked, and the boy jumped out to join with other children in gathering them back with sticks.
It was only a few weeks since Jean Flett had borne the youngest of her seven children. The birth had been trouble-free but the news of a fall concerned me. Her eldest, a girl of around twelve years, let us into the house. I looked back and saw Adam Flett on the far side of the yard, watching us.
Jean Flett was lying on a well-worn old sofa and struggled to rise as we came through the door. I could see that she hadn’t been expecting us. Despite the size of their family, she was only in her thirties.
I said, “Mrs. Flett?” and Nurse Kirkwood stepped past me to steady our patient and ease her back onto the couch.
“This is Doctor Spence,” Nurse Kirkwood explained.
“I told Marion,” Jean Flett protested. “I told her not to send for you.”
“Well, now that I’m here,” I said, “let’s make sure my journey isn’t wasted. Can you tell me what happened?”
She wouldn’t look at me, and gave a dismissive wave. “I fell, that’s all.”
“Where’s the pain?”
“I’m just winded.”
I took her pulse and then got her to point out where it hurt. She winced when I checked her abdomen, and again when I felt around her neck.
I said, “Did you have these marks before the fall?”
“It was a shock. I don’t remember.”
Tenderness around the abdomen, a raised heart rate, left side pain, and what appeared to be days-old bruises. I exchanged a glance with Nurse Kirkwood. A fair guess would be that the new mother had been held against the wall and punched.
I said, “We need to move you to the hospital for a couple of days.”
“No!” she said. “I’m just sore. I’ll be fine.”
“You’ve bruised your spleen, Mrs. Flett. I don’t think it’s ruptured, but I need to be sure. Otherwise you could need emergency surgery.”
“I want you where we can keep an eye on you. Nurse Kirkwood? Can you help her to pack a bag?”
I went outside. Adam Flett had moved closer to the house but was still hovering. I said to him, “She’s quite badly hurt. That must have been some fall.”
“She says it’s nothing.” He wanted to believe it, but he’d seen her pain and I think it scared him.
I said, “With an internal injury she could die. I’m serious, Mister Flett. I’ll get the ambulance down to collect her.” I’d thought that Nurse Kirkwood was still inside the house, so when she spoke from just behind me I was taken by surprise.
She said, “Where’s the baby, Mister Flett?”
“Sleeping,” he said.
“Where?” she said. “I want to see.”
“It’s no business of yours or anyone else’s.”
Her anger was growing, and so was Flett’s defiance. “What have you done to it?” she persisted. “The whole island knows it isn’t yours. Did you get rid of it? Is that what the argument was about? Is that why you struck your wife?” I was aware of three or four of his children now standing at a distance, watching us.
“The Flett brothers have a reputation, Doctor,” she said, lowering her voice so the children wouldn’t hear. “It wouldn’t be the first time another man’s child had been taken out to the barn and drowned in a bucket.”
He tried to lunge at her then, and I had to step in.
“Stop that!” I said, and he shook me off and backed away. He started pacing like an aggrieved wrestler whose opponent stands behind the referee. Meanwhile his challenger was showing no fear.
“Well?” Rosie Kirkwood said.
“You’ve got it wrong,” he said. “You don’t know anything.”
“I won’t leave until you prove the child’s safe.”
And I said, “Wait,” because I’d had a sudden moment of insight and reckoned I knew what must have happened.
I said to Rosie, “He’s sold the baby. To Thomas Tulloch, in exchange for John Petrie’s sheep. I recognise those marks. I watched Tulloch make them.” I looked at Flett. “Am I right?”
Flett said nothing right away. And then he said, “They’re Petrie’s?”
“I suppose Thomas drove them over,” I said. “Nurse Kirkwood spotted him heading back on the moor. Is the baby with him?”
Flett only shrugged.
“I don’t care whether the rumours are true,” I said. “You can’t take a child from its mother. I’ll have to report this.”
“Do what you like,” Flett said. “It was her idea.” And he walked away.
I couldn’t put Jean Flett in the Riley, but nor did I want to leave her unattended as I brought in the ambulance. “I’ll stay,” Nurse Kirkwood said. “I’ll come to no harm here.”
On the army highway I stopped at the moorland crossroads, calling ahead from the telephone box to get the ambulance on its way. It passed me heading in the opposite direction before I reached the hospital.
There I made arrangements to receive Mrs. Flett. My concern was with her injury, not her private life. Lord knows how a crofter’s wife with six children found the time, the opportunity, or the energy for a passion, however brief. I’ll leave it to your H.E. Bateses and D.H. Lawrences to explore that one, with their greater gifts than mine. Her general health seemed, like so many of her island breed, to be robust. But a bruised spleen needs rest in order to heal, and any greater damage could take a day or two to show.
Biddy followed at my heels as I picked up a chair and went to sit with John Petrie. He’d rallied a little with the dog’s visits, though the prognosis was unchanged. I opened the window eighteen inches or so. Biddy could be out of there like a shot if we should hear the Senior Sister coming.
“I know I can be straight with you, John,” I said. “How do you feel about your legacy giving a future to an unwanted child?”
They were his sheep that had been traded, after all. And Jean Flett had confirmed her wish to see her child raised where it wouldn’t be resented. As for Daisy’s feelings, I tried to explain them with Tulloch’s own analogy of a ewe unwilling to leave its dead lamb, which I was sure he’d understand. John Petrie listened and then beckoned me closer.
What he whispered then had me running to the car.
I’d no way of saying whether Thomas Tulloch might have reached his cottage yet. My sense of local geography wasn’t that good. I didn’t even know for sure that he was carrying the Flett baby.
I pushed the Riley as fast as it would go, and when I left the road for the bumpy lane I hardly slowed. How I didn’t break the car in two or lose a wheel, I do not know. I was tossed and bucketed around, but I stayed on the track until the car could progress no farther, and then I abandoned it and set myself to fly as best I could the rest of the way.
I saw Tulloch from the crest of a rise, at the same time as the cottage came into view. I might yet reach him before he made it home. He was carrying a bundle close to his chest. I shouted, but either he didn’t hear me or he ignored my call.
I had to stop him before he got to Daisy.
It was shepherds’ business. In the few words he could manage, John Petrie had told me how, when a newborn lamb is rejected by its mother, it can be given to a ewe whose own lamb has died at birth. But first the shepherd must skin the dead lamb and pull its pelt over the living one. Then the new mother might accept it as her own. If the sheep understood, the horror would be overwhelming. But animals aren’t people.
I didn’t believe what I was thinking. But what if?
I saw the crofter open his door and go inside with his bundle. I was only a few strides behind him. But those scant moments were enough.
When last I’d seen Daisy Tulloch, she’d the air of a woman in whom nothing could hope to rouse the spirit, perhaps ever again.
But the screaming started from within the house, just as I was reaching the threshold.
Spread the word!