May I tell you a little about my embryonic new novel of ministering angels, which is currently making its way from my brain to hard disc? It’s a (rather) heartrending tale about two nurses living a century apart.
Chris is a male nurse who’s perhaps a bit too compassionate for his own good, happily living and working in Germany in the pre-Brexit, pre-hateful, less insular, pro-European days of 2015 (and yes; there’s an unapologetic pro-Europe thread running through the novel). One day he’s faced with a huge moral decision. The choice he makes has unintended, dramatic consequences that threaten to be his downfall.
His namesake and great-great-grandmother Christobel was also a nurse, an angel of love and care to soldiers during the dreadful cataclysmic times of 1915.
Chris finds himself in a dangerous situation that’s similar to his ancestor’s in some ways.
Their stories are told in parallel in the book which is entitled, not unsurprisingly, Christobel. As I complete each chapter I’ll serialise the novel on this blog. So if you’d like to read it as it appears fresh from my creative pen (well, laptop), please feel free to. And possibly, if you’ve a mind, you might like to make any constructive comments? Any of those, dear reader, would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.
So here is the intriguing prologue (I hope) and chapter one. If you’ve read my previous novel, The Flautist, you might recognise three of the minor characters in it. Mick had a subsidiary role in that one and has an even slighter one here. Leah was a protagonist in The Flautist but also has a mere walk-on in Christobel. Pam’s role is minor here too, although she’s a key, linking family figure in the stories of both Chris and his great-great-granny Christobel.
He lay awake in the dark, trying to blank his mind for sleep. But that was easier said than done, with his brain racing, knowing what was coming in the morning: the van ride through the grey November morning to the courtroom. The trial was over and now it was judicial decision time. Guilty as charged or free. He didn’t feel optimistic. Had been counselled against it, so as not to raise his hopes. There’d been little sympathy for or understanding of his actions from stern, judging authority.
A heavy black pall of – what? foreboding? fear, probably; anxiety and dread certainly – hung over him. He felt physically sick. How had things come to this?
He regretted what he’d done now. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but it had seemed right at the time, it really had. Perhaps he’d been naive, but there had seemed to be clear moral justification. Well, justified or not, he couldn’t go back in time and do things differently.
And now the sword of Damocles was hanging by its gossamer thread . . .
Chris and Frieda rounded the final bend of the drive. It still came as a slight shock to him, the manor house suddenly appearing like that with no prior warning until now, with no distant view on the approach; slumbering there in the bright crisp February afternoon, in its lush manicured grounds, grey and venerable and ancient.
It was Frieda’s first visit though. Of course Chris had described it to her, making it sound impressive and everything, but she was still taken aback.
He smiled. She really was remarkably fluent in English, considering that she didn’t live in Britain, which was more than could be said for his German.
‘Yeah, quite something, isn’t it?’
She gawped at the house. ‘Yes, it is. It must have cost a great deal of money.’
Chris laughed. ‘Well little brother can afford it, I’m sure. He’s absolutely loaded.’
Frieda frowned quizzically. ‘Loaded?’
Well, perhaps she wasn’t entirely fluent. He elucidated. ‘Loaded with money. Wealthy. Rich.’
He could almost hear her brain working, filing the phrase away, adding it to her vocabulary.
‘Yes, Mick’s the successful one in the family, alright. The band is really doing well. Perhaps I chose the wrong line of work.’
Frieda momentarily covered his hand on the steering wheel with hers. Sometimes she missed his irony. ‘But you chose the right one, Chris. The right one for you. All Michael does is entertain, but you . . . help people. Help make them better. There is nothing more important than that. And money isn’t everything, is it?’
Chris chuckled again. ‘It’s a good thing it isn’t, that’s for sure.’
‘Yes, well, when we are together and, how do you say it, pooling our resources, we will have enough, won’t we?’
‘Yeah, we’ll get by.’
He brought his seven-year-old, less-than-immaculate Ford Fiesta to a gravel-crunching halt by the imposing front door. Almost before he’d cut the engine, it opened and Granny Pam stood there on the threshold, beaming at them. Perhaps she’d been looking and listening out. They got out and approached, his hand going to rest reassuringly on Frieda’s shoulder.
‘Hello darling! Got here safely then.’
‘Yes, all in one piece.’
His grandmother’s eyes fastened on Frieda, appraising. She had been told about her, of course, as had all the family (not that that amounted to many members: just Gran, who worked as housekeeper to Mick, Mick himself and his occasionally-contacted dad, Denis).
Chris did the polite but superfluous introduction. ‘Gran, this is Frieda. Frieda; my gran. Grandmother.’
Frieda proffered her hand, also polite. ‘I am so very pleased to meet you, Mrs, er . . .’
Pam chortled. ‘Oh, just call me Pam. Most people do. It’s lovely to meet you too. I’ve heard all about you.’
Chris returned to the car to get the bags as Pam led Frieda into the house, directly into the high-ceilinged, oak-raftered hall. When he entered too he found the two women: short, slight, pretty, auburn-haired Frieda and equally short, rotund, grey-haired Pam standing by the cavernous stone fireplace in which a huge pyre of logs crackled. For all its historic charm, Broughton Manor was not a cosy place and needed a lot of heating to keep the February chill at bay.
‘Early sixteen hundreds,’ Pam was saying, obviously telling her guest the house’s age as Frieda admiringly gazed around.
‘Wow,’ Frieda repeated, grinning at Chris. ‘This is really wonderful!’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I suppose it is. It’s wunderbar, alright. How the other half lives.’
She looked puzzled again. ‘Sorry?’
‘How the wealthy live.’
‘Oh, I see; is that another of your strange English phrases?’
‘Yes it is,’ Pam laughed. We have lots of them. I suppose some of them do sound a bit odd, if you think about it. But you do speak very good English, my dear. Where did you learn it?’
Frieda smiled. ‘Well, my parents, especially my father, speak good English and have always encouraged me to speak it too. I took it as a subject at school, then I had English friends at university, so we spent quite a lot of time speaking it to increase my proficiency, and then of course I met Chris six months ago, and he doesn’t speak fluent German yet, so we’ve had to speak together mainly in English. So it is all good practice for me. But he is beginning to pick the language up quite quickly.’
‘Mm; well you will have to get fluent, won’t you Chris, if you’re going to live in Germany,’ Pam said, turning her attention back to her grandson. ‘You know what they say: “when in Rome,” and all that. Or when in Osnabrück, anyway. Is that where you said you were going?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘Oh, I do envy you! I wish I could have done that when I was your age: live in another country. It’s so . . . what’s the word. Stimulating? So mind-broadening, I think I mean. Experiencing another culture, and everything. Anyway, shall I make a pot of tea? Are you both hungry? I wasn’t going to do dinner until Mick and Leah get back, whenever that might be. They’re playing a gig in Basildon this afternoon, just a small venue, some music festival or other, so they might not be too late.’
‘Thanks Gran, that would be good,’ Chris said. ‘No, don’t go to any trouble getting food for us; we can wait till the others get back, can’t we, Frie?’
‘Yes, that is fine’, Frieda agreed.
Pam said, ‘Would you like tea, Frieda? Has Chris got you into English ways? Or would you prefer coffee?’
Frieda laughed. ‘Well, he is slowly teaching me. Yes, tea would be fine, thank you.’
Pam bustled away to the kitchen, leaving them to wander through into the oak-panel drawing room, which elicited more gasps of wonderment from Frieda, to sink into a sumptuous Chesterfield before another log fire. The house must get through forests of firewood, Chris mused, staring into the flames, and Pam must be kept busy just keeping the fires charged apart from anything else. Although there was plenty of timber available; apart from the rolling acres of parkland there were several of woodland too, mainly sessile oak. Darren, the gardener and woodsman, was kept fully occupied, so Mick said.
Pam reappeared bearing a tray piled with tea things and an overflowing plate of home-made-looking sponge cake and biscuits. So much for waiting until the others returned to eat. She set it down on the coffee table in front of the sofa. ‘You be mother, Chris,’ she commanded.
Chris did as he was told. Pam sank into the armchair adjacent to the Chesterfield. When they were furnished with tea and plates of food, she resumed the conversation. ‘So, do you see yourself moving to Germany permanently then, darling?’
‘Well, it all depends how it pans out, Gran. We’ll see how it goes. Frieda is as keen to work over here as I am to work in Germany, really. We’ll have to see how we feel about things a few years down the line. That’s the good thing about the EU, I suppose: we can do either. Work and live in either country. And the NHS relies a lot on Europe and the rest of the world for its staff of course. I don’t know how much it needs physiotherapists, but it’s probably as short of them as it is doctors and nurses, if our hospital is anything to go by.’
‘Yes,’ Pam sighed. ‘It’s as if it’s being deliberately neglected, I sometimes think. Set up to fail so they can privatise it. And then it’ll be worse still, but great of course for those who can afford to pay.’ She glanced at Frieda. ‘So what sort of system do you have in Germany? Is it universal, like here, paid for out of taxes, or private insurance-based like in America?’
Frieda pondered before replying, fetchingly furrowing her brow, Chris thought. ‘Well, it is a sort of cross between the two, I suppose. We all pay an insurance premium out of our salaries, which is matched by the employer. It is compulsory, although you can opt out and have private insurance if you wish. And the government partly funds it, so that element comes from taxes’. Most people stay with the standard government-organised insurance though, especially older people, because with private insurance, what you pay in premiums depends on your state of health.
‘Mm. So it’s not so different from Britain really then, I suppose. You pay for health cover out of your wages, helped by your employer – if you work, anyway – whereas we pay national insurance out of ours which partly pays for it, and also pensions, and the rest comes from our taxes.’
‘Well,’ Chris said, ‘I suppose the main difference is that our system is completely government-run and fairly simple, and nearly all free at the point of use, whereas with yours, Frie, you have lots of healthcare insurance funds which you can choose from, but with some you have to pay upfront and then get reimbursed. Is that right?’
‘Yes,’ Frieda said. ‘It can get quite complicated. But I think our overall level of funding is higher than yours. We pay more for our healthcare.’
‘Well that must be a good thing, surely,’ Pam put in. ‘After all, you only get what you’re prepared to pay for.’
‘That’s right,’ Chris agreed. ‘And actually, Gran, our NHS isn’t the oldest healthcare system in Europe, although we tend to think it was groundbreaking when it came in. The German one is older. It started, er, when, did you say, Frie?’
‘In the late nineteenth century, I think. Yes, I believe it was the first insurance-based one in Europe.’
‘Oh really?’ Pam said. ‘You wouldn’t have thought that, somehow, would you –’
She stopped abruptly, suddenly realising what she was saying, aware of the hole she’d suddenly dug for herself.
‘Why not?’ There was a slight but unmistakably cold edge to Frieda’s voice.
‘Oh, no reason, really.’ Pam was flustered; her face reddened. ‘Er, I just assumed our NHS was the first scheme anywhere, that’s all. That’s what we’re always being led to believe, anyway. I wasn’t suggesting . . . .’
Chris came to her rescue. ‘Yes, well, perhaps ours was the first to be funded from taxation, but the German scheme was the first scheme of any sort. So they were both firsts, in their different ways, really.’
Pam shot him a grateful glance. ‘Yes, that’s right. That’ll be it.’
There was a strained silence, broken after a couple of awkward minutes by Chris changing the subject. He told Pam about Frieda’s flat in Osnabruck, which he’d seen pictures of and was looking forward to sharing with her, and how he was eagerly anticipating his nursing job in the same hospital as Frieda, and the conversation, back on a safe course, drifted pleasantly on.
To be interrupted an hour and a half later by the growl of a powerful engine and rasp of tyres on gravel outside.
‘Ah, they’re back,’ Pam said unnecessarily. ‘I’ve just thought, you haven’t met Michael’s new girlfriend, have you, Chris?’
Chris laughed. ‘No, not the latest one. It’s a job to keep track of them all.’
‘Yes, I know. Well this one’s nice. I like her a lot. She’s a musician, but not the same sort as Mick. She plays the flute. She’s American.’
Footfalls echoed, amplified by the bare floorboards, in the hall.
‘In here, Mick!’ Pam called.
Chris’s younger brother appeared, although a casual observer who didn’t know otherwise would never have made a connection. Whilst Chris was average of height, average of build, average, with his mousey hair, of colouring and altogether unremarkable in appearance, Mick was striking. His lean frame emphasised by tee-shirt, leather jacket and skinny jeans had a good seventy millimetres of height on his brother and his shoulder-length dark curly hair and smouldering good looks gave him a distinctly Heathcliffian air. He was every inch the dangerous-looking rogue-hero of a Victorian romantic novel.
His companion was nearly as tall and slender too, with the same nearly black hair although hers fell lank and straight to the nape of her neck. Her features were thin, finely chiselled, not beautiful exactly, but characterful. Her large mouth was opening in a friendly, toothy smile.
‘Hi Chris!’ Mick grinned, with all the self-assurance of a celebrity riding the heights of success, his dark eyes flicking quickly, appraisingly to Frieda. ‘How’s it going?’
‘Good, mate. How’s it with you?’
‘Great.’ His eyes were still on Frieda. ‘So are you going to introduce us to your lady?’
Chris did so and waited for his brother to respond. They knew his girlfriend’s name; Pam had told them it. But it wasn’t occurring to Mick to observe the polite niceties and reciprocate. He studied her, feeling embarrassed for her. Leah’s smile had faded. She looked uncomfortable, betraying slight irritation. Sensitivity was not one of Mick’s virtues.
Chris rescued the situation again. ‘Hi, I’m Chris. The dull big brother. Leah, isn’t it? Pam’s been telling us about you. You’re a musician then?’
A grateful smile returned to Leah’s face. ‘Yeah. For my sins.’ She didn’t elaborate. ‘And you’re a nurse, I hear.’
‘Yeah, that’s all, I’m afraid. Nothing glamorous and successful, like Mick. And Frieda is a physiotherapist’, he added, pointedly involving her in the conversation, although it appeared to go over his brother’s head.
‘No,’ Leah smiled, ‘come on, don’t be hard on yourself. I think it’s great, you two being in caring jobs.’
Pam heaved herself to her feet. ‘Well I take it you’ll be wanting something to eat, Mick, or have you already had something? We’ve been waiting for you to return.’
‘Yes we would because no we haven’t,’ Mick said. ‘We’ve haven’t had a chance. I’m starving.’
‘Was it a good gig?’ Chris asked.
‘Yeah, brilliant. We did a lot of the tracks off the new album. They went down a storm.’
‘Right then,’ Pam said, ‘I’ll go and rustle up something for dinner. Is pasta all right?’ She looked around, awaiting reaction.
‘Yeah, fine,’ Mick said.
‘Yes, that’ll be nice,’ Leah said. ‘Thanks, Pam.’
‘Yes, that will be nice, thank you,’ Frieda echoed politely.
‘Lovely, Gran,’ Chris agreed. ‘Thanks.’