Saturday, April 6, 2013

Town Nurse—Country Nurse

By Marjorie Lewty, ©1970
Cover illustration by Bern Smith

After a disastrous love affair, Kate had felt she never wanted to live in the country again, and firmly turned herself into a town girl. So when her dental surgeon boss suggested that she help out, temporarily, a colleague of his in a small country town, she was determined to stay there no longer than was necessary…


“You can’t do it. You simply can’t tell anybody, in cold blood, that you don’t love the country.”

“Hugo’s white panther of a car leapt on the miles and devoured them with a kind of satisfied, purring sound that I imagined a panther would make.”

“The kitchen was enormous, about as half as big again as the front room, with a stone floor and great cupboards and a dresser all along one side of the wall. There was a modern electric cooker and a washing machine, but the table where Chloe was shearing neat slices of bread off a huge cottage loaf was the solid white deal kind that needs scrubbing every day. She looked up and smiled. ‘Primitive, aren’t we? John’s going to get the kitchen converted for me one day, when there’s time to get around to it. You know, thermo-plastic tiling on the floor, stainless steel sink, Formica tops—the lot.’ ”

“Mr. Pill was peering at me with his eyes half-closed, as if I were a new shade of emulsion paint that he wasn’t quite sure whether he approved of or not.”

“Any crisis, major or minor, must be an occasion for making tea.”

“ ‘She pushed me—’ He pointed an accusing finger at Rosemary. I was wholly on Rosemary’s side. We girls must stick together, I thought, and besides, she really did look angelic in that little pink dress.”

“How easy it was for a nice man to have an absolutely horrid daughter.”

“I shall be calm and placid, like a vegetable marrow.”

Kate Moorcroft is actually a dental nurse. She’s not a hygienist, though, and doesn’t do any actual work in anyone’s mouth; she just assists the dentist with his more complicated procedures, so I think this still qualifies her as a nurse, and therefore this book as a VNRN. But it does skate up to the technical line.

The first part gimmick of this book is that Kate despises the country. She was born and raised there, and had intended to marry a farmer, but when her father died, her beloved told her that he didn’t feel he could take on the family farm’s huge mortgage, and he’d mostly wanted to marry her because her father had offered to take him on as a partner. Since wising up to the realities of the deal he’d signed up for, he’d decided he’d really rather go off to Australia, and alone at that. So she’d moved to London and worked hard to floss every hayseed from her teeth. That was three years ago; now she’s dating the wealthy, attractive, and debonair bachelor Hugo Whipple. Things are just starting to heat up with him when her boss sends her off to aid a close friend, Dr. Ben Holland, who has a small practice in—gasp—the country! 

But she grits her teeth and off she goes, to camp at the house where the doctor lives with his sister and her husband. Kate, not being the complete ignoramus that so many VNRN heroines are, quickly realizes—“with a feeling that I’d been punched hard in the middle”—Dr. Holland’s brother in law is a farmer! This is supposed to make her sojourn to the country even more “painfully nostalgic,” but soon she’s over it, and wrestles a lamb trapped in a hedge and a day-old calf about to be kicked by its mother, who is freaking out during a thunder storm. But she’s decided that she’s not going to tell the doctor that she’s from the country, lest she have to go into the story of her sordid past. That’s the second part of the gimmick; Kate has to go around pretending that she doesn’t know that hay shouldn’t be out in a rainstorm or how to operate a kerosene lantern. It’s not going to hold a lot of water, but this book isn’t pretending to be Tolstoy, so it mostly works.

Meanwhile, back at the office, she and the good doctor, who seems less than appreciative of her efforts, spar regularly, as Kate is far too spunky a gal to lie down and take it when he snaps at her. Despite his animosity, she can’t bring herself to actually dislike him: “This Ben Holland had magnetism—loads of it.” Unfortunately for Kate, he has more than just magnetism; he also has a lady friend, Val, a smooth, possessive customer whom Kate dislikes at first sight. “Most unreasonable, but there it is,” Kate admits. “Whatever Ben Holland’s shortcomings, he didn’t deserve a girl like that.”

Eventually it turns out that Ben thinks Kate’s been sent down by her employer to convince him that he should abandon the country and go into practice in the city. Kate, of course, knows of no such plan, and his suspicions are revealed when she demands to know why he’s being such a cold ass, just not in those terms. He’s forgiven after he humbly apologizes: “To be on the receiving end of a smile that packed so many volts was very disturbing,” she says. More than just a potential boyfriend, Kate finds two good girl friends in the country: Ben’s sister, Chloe, and Ben’s new nurse, Celia. These two characters are well-drawn, and their friendships with Kate, if they do move a bit fast, feel real. It’s a really heartwarming—if I dare to use such a schlocky word—aspect of the book, but I mean it. “It’s wonderful to fall in love and it turns your world upside down, but lately I’ve thought that there’s something that’s just as good, though not so spectacular,” says Celia, “just making friends.” I got a little verklempt at this point, but I am known to sob at the long-distance commercials.

So now Kate and Ben can get along on better terms. But Val schemes to get Kate packing back to the city, moving into the farmhouse to take her spot there. It doesn’t work out, however, for anyone: Back in London and out with Hugo, he maneuvers her to his new apartment and propositions her, not for the first time, and she finally realizes that he’s a cad, and that the city-slicker persona she’s put on since leaving the country has misled him. “I’m only playing at being this sort of girl, a dolly girl, out for kicks. I’m really a country type, a cabbage. I need the—other kind of life,” she tells Hugo, and then, when he tries to force a drink on her, she very belatedly realizes “Hugo was much, much older than I’d ever supposed. The lines round his eyes were deeply engraved; there was a slight looseness about his chin.” This spells 
t-h-e  e-n-d for Hugo, but he’s gracious about it and calls her a cab. (Though I’m not certain what he had to be gracious about, and what was his alternative, assaulting her? As if that would have been acceptable under the circumstances?)

Then Kate is called back to Ben’s establishment: Val has up and left, and the house is in a shambles. Kate appears, puts everything and everyone to rights, and she and Ben end up kissing—but then he says that though he finds her attractive, he can’t be with her. Val has witnessed this scene through the window outside, enters the room after Ben has left it, and proceeds to tear Kate a new one and then smack her across the face. But as she rides off in a fury on her horse, she slips on a wet bridge and falls into the river. There’s no one around to save her but Kate, so she shouts at a little girl to go get help and hoves herself into the current, where she’s got one hand on a rapidly loosening willow and the other on the unconscious Val’s chin, to keep it above water. This selfless heroism, of course, is just the thing to bring Ben around, after Kate has been properly rescued and dried off. “Tell me you don’t really want that smooth fellow with the vulgar great car,” he says to her, admits that he loves her, “and he proceeded to demonstrate.” When all is straightened out between them, he chides her for pretending to be a city girl. “What should I have done?” she retorts. “Disappear through the stage and spring back, clad in blue gingham, with a hay-fork in one hand and a pail of buttermilk in the other, crying, ‘Surprise, surprise, here I am, your very own rustic village maiden?’ ” Touché.

This is only the second VNRN I’ve read that’s been written in the first person. (The first, Bush Hospital, also a Harlequin, wasn’t as good as this one). It helps that Kate is a strong character with a sense of humor, guts, and humanity. She also has a rare commodity in a VNRN heroine: intelligence. When a situation is unfolding that any sensible reader could see right through, well, so can Kate. “I wasn’t going to pretend I didn’t know what he meant. I’d lived in London for three years,” Kate says when Hugo hints that he could spend the night in her hotel room. (She kicks him out.) But when she doesn’t pick up on something—like the fact that she’s fallen for Dr. Ben—she speaks about it as if she realizes that she should have known: “Even at that point, I didn’t know,” she says, after Ben gets snippy when he runs into her when she’s out with Hugo (the night he propositions her). I don’t mind a touch of blindness when the heroine recognizes that she is. She’s also self-aware: Toward the end, when Ben is watching her cook with an approving smile on his face, she feels an appropriate level of cynicism: “Domestic scene, I thought, with a whiff of self-contempt. Little woman in home setting. Bah!” And so my satisfaction with Kate Moorcroft was complete. This is a playful, amusing, enjoyable book. It has its flaws, no doubt, but these are easily overlooked when you’re hanging out with a great gal like Kate Moorcroft.

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