My bedroom was in utter chaos and I was beginning to despair of ever restoring order. Only an hour earlier, it has been the very picture of tidiness, neat as a new pin, but that was before the carrier's lorry had arrived from Paddington railway station. I had just finished my first term at Shrewsbury College, Oxford and had driven myself back to my parents' house in London on Sunday afternoon. The rest of my things had been sent by train in an enormous cabin trunk, the contents of which was now the source of my dismay. I had piles of clothes to be hung up, others to be ironed before they could be put away and still others to be washed immediately. Amongst all this were piles of books to be read before the start of the next term in January and Christmas gifts for friends and family.
I heard the front door bell ring. It was probably nothing to do with me, but I was grateful for the distraction and trotted downstairs to see who was visiting. My parents' housekeeper had already reached the front door and opened it. As I descended the stairs I heard her say to the as yet unseen visitor, "I'll just see if Miss Flora is at home for visitors."
"Flora is at home," I called out. "Whoever it is, Miss Flora is most definitely at home and grateful for anyone's company."
The visitor proved to be my friend Josephine Tillman, known to all and sundry as 'Bunny', for reasons long forgotten even then. We exchanged sisterly embraces and somewhere in mid-hug, I managed to remember to thank the housekeeper for opening the door. She gave me a broad grin in reply and returned to her domain in the kitchen.
Bunny followed me upstairs and goggled at the devastation in my bedroom. "You need help here, girl," she announced. She removed her winter coat, a magnificent dove grey tweed creation with white fur at the collar and cuffs, and her matching grey cloche hat, then hitched up her skirt and knelt down on the floor next to the biggest and untidiest heap.
In truth, it was probably no quicker having Bunny help me sort out my things than doing it myself, but a task shared always seems less onerous. We chatted amiably as we worked. Bunny and I had met on our first day at boarding school in the autumn of 1916 and had been inseparable right through to the end of our school careers in the summer just past. I had gone on to university and Bunny had begun work as a cub reporter with a provincial newspaper, hoping eventually to carve a career as a journalist in Fleet Street.
Once we had brought each other up to date on our own histories, Bunny and I exchanged news of other mutual friends. I was particularly keen to know about another school friend, Lady Veronica Flitwick, known to close friends as 'Ronnie'. Despite her blue-blooded ancestry as the daughter of a peer of the realm, Ronnie had developed decidedly strong Socialist views at an early age. While she accepted that she would undoubtedly end up as a society lady, she was determined to acquire some experience of the 'real' world at first hand in order to use her later position to do some good. She left school a year earlier than Bunny and me. While I was studying for my Oxford entrance examination and Bunny was adding to the already impressive array of subjects in her Higher School-Leaving Certificate, Ronnie was out earning an honest wage. She had applied for and obtained a temporary position as a 'cook-general', the curious term used then for a single servant employed by a small household to undertake cooking and general domestic work. There might occasionally be a scullery maid as well, but usually the cook-general was general of a one-woman army. This sounds like an upper-class girl's fantasy of being a member of the 'honest poor', but Ronnie was no romantic and set about learning her craft in her parents' household and acquired a solid set of skills before seeking employment elsewhere. Rumour had it that she was now successful and sought-after to fill temporary vacancies in London households. Bunny had seen her in the summer and learned that the experience was proving very satisfying to Ronnie. However, Bunny confided, daily work in a kitchen was taking its toll on Ronnie's figure and her waistline was now of quite impressive girth.
Ronnie's mother, the Countess of Flitwick, had been a renowned society beauty in her day, during the short reign of King Edward VII. I wondered if she would want Ronnie to take her place in London society through the usual route of being presented at court as a débutante. Bunny confirmed that was the plan and that there was rumoured to be a splendid white dress already made for that purpose by no less a couturier than Callot Sœurs of Paris.
Bunny suddenly broke off the conversation to rummage through her handbag. She triumphantly produced a crumpled piece of paper, barely recognisable as a telegram. She smoothed it out on my dressing table. The key words were "SEE YOU AT CHRISTMAS". I glanced around my room and decided that we had done enough tidying to salve my conscience. "Let's go and visit her now," I suggested. Bunny's conscience wasn't at stake in this, so she agreed readily.
It was a cold, bright morning, very pleasant for the short walk to the Flitwick London residence. I debated changing out of the frankly shabby skirt and sweater I had put on to tidy my things, but decided not to bother. I found a respectable pair of shoes, put a warm tweed coat on and a jaunty red knitted beret, then flung a matching scarf around my neck and set out with Bunny to visit our friend.
The Earl and Countess of Flitwick owned one of the imposing mansions that stand along the western edge of Regent's Park. In truth, these houses are the product of a speculative building boom just after the Napoleonic Wars, but their period swankiness gives them a certain charm. Bunny and I climbed the steps to the enormous front door and rang the bell. After a few minutes' wait, the door was opened by a footman. "Good morning, is Lady Veronica at home?" I asked brightly, trying to treat the footman simply as a man doing his job while not sliding into unseemly chumminess which would embarrass us both.
The footman preferred icy aloofness. "I am not at liberty to disclose her ladyship's whereabouts," he replied, somewhat evasively.
Bunny tried a slightly different tack. "If she's out, then just let us know when she's expected back."
"Her ladyship has not confided her plans to me," the footman answered.
"Well, I can leave a calling card and she can 'phone me," I offered.
"I will ensure her ladyship receives your card, ma'am, but I cannot vouchsafe when I might next see her," he responded pompously.
Seething inside, I was now regretting my approach to the footman. I might have had more success with the arrogant rudeness which many people customarily offered to servants (behaviour which I personally abhorred).
Bunny tried a different approach. "Perhaps if the Countess is in, we might speak with her?" she suggested, with an edge of hardness in her voice that she hoped would discourage disagreement.
The footman invited us inside but left us waiting in the hallway while he went to make enquiries of Ronnie's mother. After a few minutes, the Countess of Flitwick emerged from an adjoining room. Even in her late forties, she was a stunningly beautiful woman, tall and slim with a slightly angular aristocratic face offset by a warm and engaging smile. She wore a powder blue suit with a mid-calf-length skirt revealing a terrific pair of ankles. I suspected that the suit might well have cost more than my entire wardrobe.
The Countess expressed her delight at seeing us but regretted that Vera (the family never called her 'Ronnie') was not at home and would not return until just before Christmas as she was staying with her aunt in Bedfordshire and unfortunately would be unable to communicate with us until then. We smiled sweetly in return, expressed our own regrets and promised to return during the Christmas period. Making our farewells, we left the house and made our way back down the driveway.
As soon as Bunny and I were out of sight of the house, our fixed smiles faded. "What do you make of that performance?" I asked Bunny.
"They were awfully evasive. I'm sure they're hiding something," she replied, sounding concerned.
"That's what I think," I agreed. "Maybe Ronnie is in some kind of trouble."
"I'm worried," Bunny declared. "I wish we could see her just to find out if she's all right and offer our help if she isn't."
As we reached my parents' house once again, I pointed to my smart little red open-topped Alvis sports car parked by the kerb. "So, do you fancy a spin in my motor?" I asked Bunny. "Up to Bedfordshire perhaps?"
"It's a nice day for a drive," Bunny agreed, looking up at the blue sky. "We might even meet up with an old friend."
"I want to get changed first," I said, pointing at my shoes, which were smart, but hardly suitable for driving.
Bunny and I went back into my parents' house and up to my bedroom. I decided that if I was going to change, I might as well make sure I was warm and comfortable for motoring in December. I swapped my skirt for a pair of black needlecord breeches and my thin sweater for a ruggedly knitted black one. It took a moment to locate my boots (which were actually where I had dropped them after driving home the day before). Knee-length lace-up boots were possibly excessive as motoring footwear even by the standards of the 1920s, but definitely warm and comfortable. I kept my knitted beret on and wrapped my scarf around my throat so it covered my chin. My big black leather motoring coat and gauntlets completed the ensemble.
Bunny was amused at the transformation. "You don't take chances, do you?"
I grinned to acknowledge the jibe. "But what about you?" I asked Bunny. "Will you be warm enough?" After a little hesitation, Bunny borrowed a white scarf of mine, which she felt would not jar too badly with her outfit.
We headed back downstairs and I left a message with our housekeeper that I might not be back until quite late and not to hold up supper waiting for me.
Bunny settled herself down in the passenger seat of my tiny car while I turned on the fuel and ignition and cranked the engine. I was pleased that the engine fired on the first turn of the handle, despite the chill of the day. I put on my goggles and offered Bunny the spare pair, which I keep for passengers, but she preferred not to risk damage to hat or hair.
I put the car into gear and, without further delay, we set off for Bedfordshire. My parents' house was not far from Finchley Road, one of the main arterial roads to the north, so we were soon in quite heavy traffic as we negotiated our way through the northern suburbs of London, more so as we joined the Great North Road.
High Barnet marked the northern limit of the metropolis in those days and as we turned left off the Great North Road onto the A6 trunk road, which led eventually to the great cities of the English Midlands and North-West, we were abruptly in open countryside.
The road was straight and empty so with a cautious glance in the mirror, I pressed down more firmly on the accelerator pedal. The national speed limit was still 20 miles per hour for all vehicles in those days, but on good roads it was a rule more honoured in the breach than the observance. So long as the driving was careful and considerate, the police tended to turn a blind eye. I decided that 40 was about the maximum warranted by the level of traffic and the sometimes dubious quality of the road surface.
Traffic was relatively light through the towns and villages on the way, so we did not experience any significant delays until we reached the centre of St Albans, where there was a minor traffic jam.
Just north of St Albans, I spotted a smart new roadhouse, one of a new breed of restaurants that had begun to appear, catering to the increasing number of private motorists on the roads. I slowed down and stuck my right hand out to signal my turn into the roadhouse's forecourt. I waited for a southbound lorry to pass then repeated my signal after selecting first gear on the Alvis's awkward right-hand gearshift.
"It must be lunch time by now," I declared as I applied the handbrake and cut the fuel then the ignition. "What do you think?"
I turned in my seat to look at Bunny. Her neck, face and most of her head were now swathed in my white scarf and I could just make out her eyes in the narrow gap between the brim of her hat and the enveloping folds of scarf. She nodded wordlessly, her teeth chattering audibly.
As we entered the roadhouse, we were met by a smartly uniformed waiter. The growth of motoring meant that it had become socially entirely respectable to arrive dishevelled, windswept and bizarrely dressed. Accordingly, the waiter took my battered leather coat as if it was mink and didn't bat an eyelid as I strode into the restaurant in my boots and breeches. Bunny handed over her now slightly dusty coat but kept my scarf on.
Although it was lunchtime, the dining room was fairly quiet. The waiter ushered us to a small table by a window. Unfortunately, the view was of the forecourt and the main road beyond, but it was pleasant to be able to see trees and sky as well. We both chose soup followed by a hearty stew as suitably warming winter fare. Bunny kept the scarf around her shoulders until the soup was inside her, when she pronounced herself warm enough to risk taking it off entirely. Over coffee, we speculated as to why Ronnie had apparently been exiled to the country so mysteriously but realised that we were so out of touch with Ronnie's recent activities that we had insufficient data to draw any conclusions.
I always carried a travelling blanket in the boot of my car and before setting off again, I wrapped it snugly around Bunny's legs and over her lap. She accepted my offer of goggles this time and once again wrapped herself up in my scarf.
With my passenger suitably lagged against the rigours of the journey, I started the engine and turned right out of the roadhouse's forecourt to head north once more. As in the first leg of our journey, we made good time, with very little delay passing through the town centres of Harpenden and Luton. North of Luton, our journey would take us onto narrow country lanes with few direction signs. I accordingly appointed Bunny to act as navigator. With great reluctance, she withdrew her hands from the warm recesses of the blanket I had provided and unfolded the Ordnance Survey map for the area. Bunny proved to be a competent map-reader, giving me plenty of notice of all the turns we had to take.
The family seat of the Earls of Flitwick stands somewhat outside the market town of the same name. It is an imposing, if rather ugly, piece of self-aggrandisement built in late Tudor or Jacobean times. Bunny had visited Ronnie's family here once before and knew that Ronnie's aunt, to whom the Countess had referred, was a war widow and lived alone in the dower house on the estate. Once we reached the gates of the estate, she folded the map and guided us unerringly to the right place.
By the time we arrived, the short winter afternoon was nearly at its end and it was almost completely dark.
I parked the car neatly beside the dower house and waited while Bunny disentangled herself from the blanket and climbed out. She rang the doorbell and we waited so long that I feared there was no-one at home. Eventually the door was opened by a small, neat woman of about forty. The resemblance to Ronnie was striking so this was presumably her aunt, the Earl's younger sister.
After looking at each of us in turn, the woman suddenly smiled broadly. "You're Vera's friend," she exclaimed. "You're... don't tell me, I'll get it in a moment." She furrowed her brow in thought. "You're Bunny!" she declared triumphantly at last.
With her bubbly personality, it was impossible not to like Ronnie's aunt. The next several minutes were filled with a monologue affectionately recalling memories of Bunny's last visit with Ronnie. When she had the chance, Bunny introduced me to the aunt and it was obvious from the enthusiastic reaction that Ronnie had mentioned my name as one of her close circle of school-friends. Further reminiscences followed and we politely nodded at intervals.
"So what brings you all this way from London?" Ronnie's aunt asked, finally giving us an opportunity to break into her never-ending stream of words.
"Well, we came to see Vera," Bunny explained, carefully using the family's name for our friend. "It's a surprise; she doesn't know we're coming," she added.
For the first time, there was a long pause in the conversation. Ronnie's aunt's face went a little slack and the vivacious tone was gone from her voice when she replied. "Vera isn't here, you know," she told up. "I don't expect to see her until Christmas when I go down to London to join the family."
"I'm sorry," Bunny replied with a conciliatory smile. "I must be mistaken. I was quite sure Vera was staying here."
"She isn't here at all, you know," the aunt repeated unnecessarily. "I'm so sorry you've had a wasted journey."
Ronnie's aunt didn't actually physically bundle us out of the house, but made it just as plain to us that our welcome had come to an abrupt end. We made apologetic farewells and I turned the car around and drove off as quickly as I decently could.
As soon as I was outside the gates to the Flitwick estate, I pulled the car over onto the verge of the road so that Bunny and I could confer.
"Something is wrong and I'm really worried now," Bunny said as soon as I had stopped the car.
"Me too," I agreed, rather ungrammatically. "The whole family is definitely hiding something."
"But there wasn't anything in Ronnie's telegram to suggest that there was anything wrong," Bunny pointed out plaintively.
"Can I see the telegram again, please Bunny," I asked. She rummaged in her handbag again and handed over the crumpled form.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY STOP SORRY CANT MAKE PARTY STOP SEE YOU AT CHRISTMAS STOP RONNIE
"I invited Ronnie to my birthday party," Bunny explained, "and she sent this to say she couldn't come."
Bunny's birthday had been about a fortnight previously. I remembered having to decline an invitation myself as I was still up at Oxford. "At the risk of being melodramatic, are you sure this is really from Ronnie?" I asked.
"You can't really tell with a printed form," Bunny reflected. "And it's very abrupt, but I suppose telegrams are rather expensive."
I looked at the form again. It was marked as having been received at Elstow post office, Bedfordshire and delivered from Swiss Cottage post office, London. Bunny confirmed that the time stamped on the form accorded with the time she had received it.
"Where is Elstow, anyway?" I asked, reaching for the map.
"I know it was where John Bunyan was born. I remember that from school, but I haven't a clue where it is," Bunny replied unhelpfully.
I found Elstow on the map quite quickly. It turned out top be a small village just south of Bedford, straddling the A6 road, which we had left earlier.
"Why send the telegram from there instead of Flitwick," I wondered.
"Maybe Ronnie cycled over from the Hall," Bunny speculated.
"Ronnie on a bicycle?" I queried incredulously. "And that must be about ten miles!" Our friend was not noted for liking physical exercise in any form and had resorted to the most ingenious excuses to avoid gym and sports at school. I never understood how she had retained her slender figure.
"Maybe not," Bunny conceded with a grin, "but we could see if they remember Ronnie at the post office. It was only two Fridays ago that the telegram was sent."
"Good idea," I agreed as I put the car into gear and then turned it around in a convenient gateway.
It took about three-quarters of an hour of driving along narrow, winding country lanes in the dark to reach Elstow and then find the post office. The post office was a small rural affair with only one member of staff in evidence, a thin, almost emaciated-looking woman of middle years whom we took to be the postmistress.
"Yes I remember that telegram," the postmistress confirmed. "Young lady on a bicycle."
Bunny and I exchanged astonished glances. I asked the postmistress if she could describe the sender in more detail.
"About your age, I'd say," the postmistress continued. "Brown hair about so long." She indicated a length just above shoulder level. "Got a gap between her front teeth. Quite plump. Nice cheery sort of girl."
"That sounds like our friend," Bunny said, with a hint of uncertainty in her voice. "She must have cycled over from the Old Hall."
"Don't think so," the postmistress contradicted. "Seen her in the village a few times. Think she's staying local. Might be at The Gables."
I asked the postmistress what The Gables was and learned that was "some kind of fancy nursing home". Further questions led to a detailed series of directions to find the place.
Outside the post office, Bunny and I compared notes. "It sounds like Ronnie was here," I said, "but why did the postmistress describe her as 'plump'?"
"Don't you remember what I told you, Flora?" Bunny chided. "Ronnie was rather fat last time I saw her."
"I remember," I conceded, having trouble reconciling Bunny's description with my memory of Ronnie at school. "What about this Gables place? Do you think that Ronnie is a patient there or is she working in the kitchen?"
"None of Ronnie's family were bothered about her going out to work as a domestic," Bunny pointed out. "They thought she was a little crazy, but they didn't try to stop her and it was more a family joke than a secret."
"So the Countess and Ronnie's aunt wouldn't feel the need to hide the fact she was out working?" I asked.
"Not in the least," Bunny replied.
"That suggests she's a patient at this place," I concluded. "But why would they hide that?"
Bunny reflected in silence for a few moments. "I say," she exclaimed with a look of horror on her face, "you don't suppose 'plump' means 'pregnant' do you? If she's in trouble, the family might want to send her away to have the baby somewhere private."
I looked back at Bunny aghast then shook my head. "No, I don't believe Ronnie is that sort of girl. Besides, if she was pregnant enough for it to show, I don't think she would be pedalling a bicycle around the lanes of Bedfordshire."
"True," Bunny agreed with relief all over her face, "and I'm sure she was just fat when I saw her, which still leaves us with a mystery."
"Perhaps we had better go and investigate it," I suggested, leading the way back to the car.
The postmistress's directions proved to be accurate and easy to follow. The Gables was located just south of Elstow alongside the main road from London to Bedford. The sign at the entrance announced the name of the establishment as the Heart of England Heath Spa.
"That sounds a little more up-market than an ordinary nursing home," Bunny remarked as we drove up the long driveway.
'The Gables' had presumably been the name of the premises when it was a private house. True to the name, the roofline boasted a remarkable number of gables, together with brick chimneys twisted like barley-sugar and black-and-white half-timbering galore. I estimated that this Tudor fantasy was in fact only about fifty years old, probably the product of a Bedfordshire brick magnate with more money than taste.
As we approached the house, we could see some of the patients (or possibly 'residents' would be a better term) through an uncurtained ground-floor bay window into what appeared to be a large lounge. All the people we could see appeared to be very well-to-do, with women in the overwhelming majority. The average age seemed to be closer to fifty than Ronnie's eighteen or nineteen years.
I parked next to the main entrance, with the crunching sound that only deeply laid and recently raked gravel makes. Bunny and I walked up the steps and pushed open a heavy semi-glazed wooden door. The air inside was warm with the hint of fresh flowers and beeswax polish that is often found in really expensive hotels. The interior décor was expensive but discreet, again reminiscent of an exclusive country house hotel.
A receptionist was sitting at a large leather-topped oak desk. She looked up as we entered. I instantly felt very shabby in comparison with the immaculately tailored black suit and crisp white blouse she was wearing. Her black hair and light brown skin suggested that she might be of foreign extraction, possibly Indian or Arab.
"Can I be of assistance to you ma'am," she enquired politely, with a slight accent adding exotic colour to her perfectly intoned English.
"Yes, please," I responded, trying not to sound too intimidated. "I believe our friend is staying here: Miss Veronica Flitwick?"
A frown crossed the receptionist's face and she looked down at a register. She ran her finger down the page that was open, flipped back to the previous page and ran her finger down that one too. I stood waiting for a response to my query.
At last, she looked up at me. "No, we have no-one of that name staying here. You must be mistaken," she told me evenly.
Just then another door into the hallway opened and a tall man entered. He was dressed in a black morning coat with pinstripe trousers and a grey waistcoat, the uniform of the professional man in those days. The man was darkly handsome with brown skin, black hair, a neat short black beard and an aquiline nose. He introduced himself to us as Dr Hakim. We murmured an acknowledgement.
Dr Hakim looked quizzically at the receptionist. "These ladies are looking for a Veronica Flitwick. I told them that we have no-one of that name registered here," she explained.
"That is correct," the doctor confirmed. "Lady Veronica Flitwick is not a patient here."
Bunny stiffened, but I cut across anything she was about to say by replying apologetically, "Thank you for your help. Sorry to have troubled you." I steered Bunny firmly towards the door and helped myself to a brochure from a pile on a small table as I passed.
As we returned to my car, Bunny was clearly bursting to say something. I held my finger to my lips to signal silence. She kept her peace, in obviously increasing agitation, while I started the engine and manoeuvred out of our parking space.
As soon as we were well down the driveway, the floodgates opened. "Flora!" exclaimed Bunny. "You asked for ' Miss Veronica Flitwick', but that doctor person said ' Lady Veronica'! How would he know? They're hiding something!" Her last sentence was delivered in something close to a shriek.
"Not only that, but I'm pretty sure that 'Hakim' is Arabic for 'doctor'," I pointed out.
"So he's Dr Doctor?"
"Exactly," I agreed. "Pretty obviously an alias, don't you think?"
"But what can they be up to?" Bunny demanded. "Is this health spa just a front for something sinister?"
"Like they're a gang of white slavers?" Bunny suggested.
Under normal circumstances, I would have dismissed a suggestion like that with a laugh, but that day's events had me seeing conspiracies at every turn we took. "Could be," I replied cautiously.
"Well, if Ronnie's tied up in the cellar waiting to be shipped out to a harem in North Africa, we have to do something!" Bunny declared.
"Let's not do anything hasty," I advised, still retaining some grip on reality. "Another couple of hours won't make much difference."
"Why don't we find somewhere to eat and make some plans," Bunny suggested.
I agreed that this was an eminently sensible suggestion.
I drove for some time before we spotted somewhere likely for food. I deliberately avoided hotels in Bedford as I suspected they would be less than impressed at a prospective diner dressed as I was. We eventually chanced on the King William IV in the small village of Kempston. It's a friendly-looking building with black and white timberwork and plaster on the outside and low oak beams on the inside. Unlike The Gables, it is a perfectly genuine Tudor building.
The landlord was not in the least bothered by my attire but more interested in hearing about my car. He installed us in a tiny private room off the lounge bar. Neither of us thought we were in much of a mood to eat as we were so worried about Ronnie. However, the aroma of good food worked its magic as soon as we were settled. The cooking was unpretentious but excellent and we enjoyed a good meal of mutton chops washed down by some excellent beer in my case and some rather good red wine in Bunny's.
We lingered over coffee after the meal and studied the brochure that I had picked up at The Gables. While the emphasis was on health, I felt that the focus of the establishment was on pampering rather than medical treatment. The list of facilities was quite impressive and included massage, indoor spa baths, both indoor and outdoor plunge baths, sunbeds and a superbly equipped gymnasium. There was a whole page of specialist dietary regimes offered to combat a range of complaints, most of which did not sound life threatening. Nevertheless, there was an emphasis on medical competence running as a thread through the whole brochure. Dr Hakim was listed as being the director of the establishment, with a list of medical qualifications which were quite impressive, including fellowships of both the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal college of Physicians. I cynically allowed myself to wonder how many of the claimed qualifications were genuine.
About 8.30, we decided it was time to make a second visit. Dr Hakim and the receptionist had seen both of us, so there was no opportunity for one of us to return on some pretext to gather more information. A covert visit was the only alternative. In short, we were reduced to snooping.
We decided that the safest way to approach the building was on foot, so I parked the car amongst roadside trees and shrubs opposite the entrance to the driveway up to The Gables. I keep a small, but effective electric torch in the car. I transferred it to my coat pocket and wondered whether there was anything else I should take but concluded that there was nothing else of obvious use in the car. I checked briefly that the Alvis was not too conspicuous when viewed from the beginning of the driveway then we set off to walk up to the house.
It was a dark night, but Bunny's pale grey coat and hat with my white scarf were astonishingly visible. By contrast, even with my bright red hat and scarf, my black outfit melted into the shadows most satisfactorily. The crunching of gravel under our feet made our approach even more conspicuous, so we stayed off the driveway and walked on the grass alongside, using any deep shadows we could find and picking our way through the bushes. I was quite comfortable in my boots, but Bunny complained that her feet were soaking from the dew on the grass within a few minutes.
We did not dare attempt to cross the sea of gravel that stood between us and the front of The Gables. Instead, we worked our way around the building, continuing to make use of grass as a path and trees and bushes as cover. Fortunately for us, away from the front of the building, there was little outside lighting other than a pool of light around a secondary entrance at the back, presumably leading to the kitchen and other domestic quarters.
Although the rear access was also covered in gravel, it had not been raked in a long time and was firmly bedded down into the underlying soil and almost silent under our feet. There were several cars parked adjacent to the back door. Bunny pointed to one, a tiny Austin Seven, and nudged me.
"Isn't that Ronnie's car?" she asked.
I knew that Ronnie drove an Austin Seven and remembered that the number plate had her initials on it. I walked over to the car to get a clear look at the registration. "VF 8201," I read aloud. "I think you're right, Bunny!"
We were heartened that our quest seemed to be showing signs of success at last, but all the same, our exploration ground to a halt at the side of the building. While exploring had seemed to be such a good idea, it did not seem to be achieving anything material.
Bunny nudged me again and pointed excitedly at an upstairs window. "It's Ronnie," she hissed.
The curtains were not drawn and the figure of a girl or young woman could be seen silhouetted against the light. She appeared to be looking out into the garden, although it was hard to tell. Abruptly, she turned her back on the window and moved back into the room. As she did so, just for a fraction of a second, her face was illuminated and her profile was visible. It could be Ronnie, I agreed, but I lacked the certainty I would expect on seeing a friend I knew well.
The woman at the window had now moved too far back into the room for us to see her from our vantage point. We ran across the grass as quietly as we could to get further way from the building and thus see further into the room. Eventually, we could see three figures. The girl we had seen before was clearly visible, annoyingly with her back to us, wearing a pink dressing gown. Dr Hakim was there, facing towards us but further into the room, so all we could see of him was his upper body and arms. There was also a woman dressed in a blue nurse's uniform. From where we were standing, the nurse was largely obscured by the girl who might be Ronnie.
From the body language and gestures, there seemed to be an animated, possibly heated discussion going on. After a few minutes, the young woman disappeared from view. Dr Hakim and the nurse continued their conversation, although less animatedly. Dr Hakim eventually also disappeared from view and the nurse continued moving around on her own, apparently carrying out some task. A few minutes later, she drew the curtains, leaving a narrow gap, and then the light went out.
I turned to Bunny. "Are you sure that was Ronnie?"
"I think so," she replied hesitantly, "but I'm not really absolutely sure."
There was really only one way to find out. "I'm going up to take a look," I announced.
"How?" Bunny asked in astonishment.
"There's a small iron balcony just outside the window," I pointed out, "and I'm pretty sure I can get to it by climbing up that Virginia creeper; It's got a trunk on it like a small tree."
"Is that really going to take your weight?" Bunny asked sceptically.
"I don't know, but I'll soon find out," I replied with a touch of bravado.
"I'm lighter, let me go," Bunny offered.
Bunny is indeed smaller and lighter than me and I can testify that she is at least as good as I am at climbing trees. However, as I pointed out to her, she was wearing a calf-length tweed skirt and a pair of fairly flimsy shoes whereas I was wearing breeches and boots.
I removed my heavy driving gloves and my leather coat and handed them to Bunny. I pulled my hat down over my ears and my scarf up over my nose, knotting the ends at my throat. I wished that I hadn't left my goggles in the car as they would have made my self-camouflage complete.
The Virginia creeper proved satisfyingly easy to climb, with plenty of sturdy side branches to act as hand and foot-holds. I had a moment of panic as I felt a major branch tear itself away from the building. That part of the creeper sagged alarmingly but no more of it seemed likely to become detached, so I continued my climb. I reached the balcony without further event. 'Balcony' proved to be something of an overstatement. It was little more than a support for decorative plant pots or a window-box, currently empty in the middle of winter. There was, however, room for me to stand, so long as I held on to the creeper and didn't look down.
I manoeuvred myself to a position where I could see into the room. Fortunately, the room was not in total darkness, as there was illumination from a small nightlight on the bedside table. I could see a woman in bed, motionless and apparently asleep. The woman was lying on her back, with the foot of her bed pointing towards the window, so it was impossible to see her face clearly from where I was standing. I examined the window carefully. It was a traditional English wooden-framed outward-opening casement window. I was sure that I would be unable to open one of those without tools even standing on solid ground, let alone trying to do it silently while perched on a sliver of balcony and hanging onto a creeper for dear life.
Suddenly, the woman moved. I realised that I must have roused her by making some noise while examining the window. The woman raised herself awkwardly in bed and looked towards the window. I froze in position with my heart pounding, then my panic subsided as I realised that all that she would be able to see would be the reflection of the interior of the room lit by the nightlight. As I calmed down started to think clearly again, I realised that the woman was indeed Ronnie. My joy at seeing her was immediately overwhelmed by horror as I made out the leather straps holding her down onto her bed. That was why her movement had been so awkward when she looked at the window, I realised: she could not sit up in bed, only raise her shoulders off the mattress a little way.
In considerable alarm, I climbed back down the creeper as quickly as I could, took Bunny by the hand and dragged her into the depths of the shrubbery. Sensing my urgency, she kept quiet and did not protest at being treated thus. When I judged that we were far enough away from the house, I stopped, now shivering from the intense cold of the night. While Bunny helped me put my coat back on, I gave her as full a description as I could of Ronnie's predicament.
"Strapped down?" Bunny echoed in horror, still remembering to keep her voice to a whisper. "Do you think this is some kind of asylum?"
"Could be," I conceded. "A private asylum would be discreet. There wouldn't be a sign on the drive saying 'High Class Loony Bin: deposit your unhinged relatives here'."
"If Ronnie's gone a bit funny in the head, that would explain why her family are all being so cagey about where she is," Bunny suggested.
"But that's her car in the yard," I protested. "Ronnie couldn't have driven herself here if she's so far off her rocker that they have to tie her down."
"She's clearly being held against her will if they've got her strapped down," Bunny pointed out. "So what's going on?"
"Maybe your theory about white slavers is right," I replied darkly.
"Or maybe someone is holding her for ransom?" Bunny theorised.
I considered the possibility. "That shouldn't pose a problem to her father. He could pay off any amount of ransom just by selling a couple of his racehorses."
"However you look at it, for whatever reason, Ronnie is being held prisoner here and there's some kind of dirty work going on," Bunny summarised.
"Yes," I agreed, "which just leaves the question of what we're going to do about it."
"We're going to rescue her, of course," Bunny declared indignantly.
A more reasonable course of action might have been to alert the local police, but our blood was high and we were not about to let reasonableness stand in the way of decisive action.
We debated waiting until the building was in complete darkness and then to sneak in to mount a rescue, but a moment's reflection suggested that if we waited that long, we would probably find all the doors locked and bolted. Staging a raid immediately would simply bring all the occupants of the establishment down on top of us as soon as we showed ourselves. The only remaining alternative was therefore to effect an entry immediately but to hide until all was quiet and then to perform our rescue stealthily in order not to disturb anyone.
The internal layout of the building was a complete mystery to us, so we spent a few minutes studying the exterior to pick up any clues that might help us find our way to Ronnie's room. Our preparations complete, we skirted around the building again, keeping to the garden as far as possible, until we were close to the promising-looking back door. An expanse of gravel separated us from the door, but, as we had discovered earlier, the gravel was well bedded-down and relatively quiet underfoot.
The back door proved not to be locked, so we opened it carefully. The hinges emitted a groan that was impossible to suppress, so we just had to hope that there was no-one within earshot to hear it. We waited with bated breath after we closed the door, but there was no sound of approaching footsteps to indicate that we had been detected.
I cautiously turned on my torch, but kept one hand over the end of it so that only a small amount of light came out through the chinks between my fingers. We were in a narrow corridor with several doors off it. On one side of the corridor was a sizeable kitchen, deserted and lit only by the residual glow from the cooking range, which appeared to be coke-fired. On the other side, we found a small scullery, a cupboard packed to the door with bulky food stocks and a large broom cupboard. We decided that the broom cupboard was the ideal location for us to wait for the establishment to settle down for the night. We sat down on upturned buckets and, once the torch was off, waited in total, slightly bleach-scented, darkness.
Our long, boring vigil was punctuated at last by the sound of the back door being locked and the bolts being thrown. I risked a glance at my watch with my hand over the lens of the torch as before. It was still only quarter past eleven. There was another three-quarters of an hour to wait before midnight, when Bunny and I had agreed we should make our move. My back, knees and shoulders were aching and the base of the upturned bucket serving as my seat seemed to be digging and ever-deeper circular groove in my bottom. I shifted my weight slightly in the vain hope of finding a more comfortable position and carried on waiting.
Finally, I heard the faint sound of a clock chiming midnight somewhere in the house. Bunny and I heaved ourselves stiffly to our feet. I risked switching the torch on for a moment and screwed my eyes up in the sudden brightness. There was a coil of clothes rope hanging on a peg on one wall. I helped myself to it, pointing out to Bunny that it might prove useful if we had to make our escape through an upstairs window. None of the rest of the contents of the cupboard looked to be useful to our mission at all.
I snapped the torch off and we cautiously opened the cupboard door. To my surprise, the corridor was not in complete darkness. However, as the torch had completely destroyed the dark adaptation of my eyes, I could not immediately see what the source of the light was. After a moment or two, my vision recovered sufficiently to tell that the light was coming from the kitchen. Bunny and I crept up to the open kitchen door and I risked a peek into the room. A woman in a nurse's uniform was making a pot of tea. As she seemed to be absorbed in this activity for at least the nest few seconds, I stepped smartly past the doorway and signalled Bunny to follow.
We explored the corridor as quickly and silently as we could, aware that the tea-making nurse would not stay in the kitchen forever. The corridor served a rabbit's warren of laundry rooms, stores of various kinds and a small pharmaceutical dispensary. This was all clearly the 'below-stairs' servants' territory from the building's former life as a private country house. We identified two doors that led into the public part of the building, one into the hallway where we had previously encountered the receptionist and Dr Hakim and another into a large dining room. Either of these routes would entail us reaching the upper storey via the main staircase, which would expose us to the risk of detection rather more then we wished.
Eventually we discovered a doorway which concealed a narrow service stairway, presumably the route taken by chambermaids to reach the bedrooms and by the staff to reach their own accommodation in the attic. Although narrow, the staircase was robust and free of any creaks and squeaks that might give us away, probably a consequence of being designed to be taken at a run by servants without disturbing their sleeping employers. We opened a door which we hoped would take us to the upstairs rooms.
We found ourselves in a broad carpeted corridor in almost complete darkness. The corridor approximately followed an L shape. 'Approximately' because the pseudo-Tudor whimsy of the exterior of The Gables extended to the shape of internal spaces. The corridor had several arbitrary changes of width and it was punctuated by several odd little flights of two or three steps up or down. A brief exploration showed us that we had entered mid-way along the foot of the L and that the top of the L corresponded to the top of the main staircase leading up from the entrance hall. Also adjacent to the top of the main stairs was a desk with a green-shaded reading lamp on it. There was a novel open face-down on the desk, but no-one there.
Knowing the position of the main stairs, and therefore the position of the main entrance below that, enabled us to work out the orientation of the corridor with respect to the exterior of the building. We knew that Ronnie's room was not at a corner but was almost certainly immediately adjacent to a corner room. That led us almost back to the point where we had entered the corridor. The corner room corresponded to the corner in the corridor. The next one, we deduced, must lead to Ronnie's room. I grasped the doorknob firmly and turned gently then pushed. I was delighted to discover that the door was not locked. With the door open just enough to squeeze past, we let ourselves into the room and pushed the door shut behind us.
I was surprised to find us in total darkness. I had expected Ronnie's nightlight still to be burning or at the very least for there to be some light visible between the incompletely-closed curtains. I switched my torch on again, but made sure that I had my fingers over the lens as I did so. (I also made a mental note to buy a torch with a red filter on it next time.) The light revealed our surroundings. We were in a large walk-in linen cupboard.
"Must be the next door along," Bunny pointed out unnecessarily in an alarmingly loud whisper.
I put my finger to my lips as I heard a noise in the corridor. A door opened and closed and footsteps passed the door to our hiding place. We froze and waited until all was quiet again. I opened the door cautiously. There was no-one in sight. We crept to the corner of the corridor and flattened ourselves against the wall. What I needed most was a small mirror to look around the corner without being seen, but of course I had nothing suitable with me.
"Need to see round the corner," I whispered in Bunny's ear.
After a moment's silence, she tapped me on the elbow. "Mirror," she hissed, pointing.
I was puzzled, as she was pointing at my torch. After a few seconds, my brain caught up with hers. The torch had a bright chromium-plated casing, too convoluted to use as a mirror, except for the flat base at the opposite end to the lens. This was also the cap covering the battery compartment, so I unscrewed it and handed the torch to Bunny, taking care not to spill the heavy zinc-carbon cells onto the floor.
I lay down prone on the corridor floor and extended one hand beyond the wooden skirting board with my impromptu mirror. The picturesque changes in width in the corridor and intervening steps meant that I had an incomplete view of the desk at the head of the main stairs, but it was sufficient to show the nurse we had seen making tea now sitting reading her book with the teapot and a tin mug on the desk in front of her.
Suddenly, the silence was broken by a buzzing sound. Bunny grabbed the belt of my coat and dragged me bodily back from the corner of the corridor. As I looked around indignantly to see what she was up to, I saw the reason for her panic. There was a red flashing light above one of the doors in our part of the corridor. I understood immediately and scrambled to my feet. We rushed back to the linen cupboard, let ourselves in and closed the door behind us.
With my heart pounding, I could hear footsteps approaching and then passing the cupboard door. There was the sound of a nearby door opening and then closing.
"I didn't hear a key turning," Bunny murmured.
"That's good," I whispered back. "I was worried that they might keep the patients locked in."
We continued to wait. After three or four minutes, we heard the sound of a door opening and closing again. Footsteps passed our hiding place and then listening intently, I could just hear a shuffle and creak as the nurse resumed her seat.
After waiting for a few minutes, we crept out of the cupboard again. I paused briefly to reassemble my torch, as we might need it in Ronnie's room, and slipped it back into my coat pocket. We were now certain that Ronnie's door was the one adjacent to the cupboard which had been our refuge. While I kept my eyes on the corner of the corridor, Bunny turned the knob.
"Damn," she cursed quietly. "It's locked."
I tried the doorknob myself, but had to agree with Bunny. We reviewed the logic that had led us to try this door and concluded that it was correct. This was indeed Ronnie's door and it was locked.
"Let's see if we can find the key," I suggested.
We mounted another reconnaissance mission to the corner of the corridor. This time, I stood up and held my makeshift mirror as high as I could comfortably reach. I hoped that the nurse would keep her keys on the desk and I wanted to get as clear a view of the desktop as possible. Sure enough, there was a large bunch of keys on a ring lying on the desktop.
I reported the situation back to Bunny.
"She has to move sometime," I pointed out. "Someone else will buzz her or else she'll want another pot of tea."
We settled ourselves down to wait, sitting on the corridor floor with our backs supported by the wall.
Long, boring waits seemed to be the order of business for that night's activities. However, after about half an hour's wait, our patience was rewarded. Once again a buzzer sounded as one of the patients summoned the night nurse. It was in fact the same patient who had previously sounded the buzzer as we realised from the flashing light above one of the doors close to use. Bunny and I scrambled to our feet and hid ourselves in the now very familiar haven of the linen cupboard.
We waited, tense and keyed-up for action while the nurse made her way to the room that had called her. We listened for the sound of a door opening and closing. As soon as we were sure that the nurse was safely inside the patient's room, we let ourselves out of the cupboard and rushed to the nurse's desk, running as lightly as we could to keep our feet silent on the carpeted floor.
The desk was unattended as we expected. The nurse's book, teapot and mug were there, as was the reading lamp, but otherwise, the desk was bare. I realised that the nurse must have taken the keys with her.
"Better hide again!" I urged as I led Bunny in a headlong retreat to our trusty hideout in the linen cupboard. I had no idea what alternatives we could think of, but at least we could escape detection a little longer to give ourselves time to plan.
Any chance of remaining undetected evaporated as we met the nurse coming towards us as we fled down the corridor. She stopped dead in her tracks, as she stared wide-eyed at the sight of two women, roughly disguised with scarves over their faces, bearing down on her.
"Grab her," I instructed Bunny in blind unreasoning panic.
Equally befuddled by panic, Bunny complied and we carried the terrified nurse down to the floor. There was an odd, slightly unreal pause in the action until the nurse gathered her wits and started struggling to free herself from our grip. I was trying to hold a flailing pair of legs down while Bunny had a hand clamped over the nurse's mouth and was trying to defend her own face from clawing fingers with her free hand.
"Now what?" she hissed.
Relying on my body weight to hold the nurse down, I rummaged under my coat to retrieve a clean handkerchief from the pocket of my breeches and handed it to Bunny, who stuffed it unceremoniously into our victim's mouth.
"Can't we tie her up?" Bunny suggested, her glance indicating the purloined coil of clothes rope I still had over my shoulder.
"Not with the rope in one piece; I need something to cut it to length," I explained.
We dragged the nurse the few yards back to her desk. With a combination of body weight, hands and feet, we managed to keep the her under control while, with one free hand, I investigated the contents of the desk. I soon discovered a pair of scissors in one of the desk drawers. They were small but very sharp and I was able to use them to work one-handed and chop a two-foot length from my coil of rope.
We turned the nurse over onto her stomach and I held her down by the simple expedient of sitting straddling her bottom. While Bunny held the nurse's arms, I bound her wrists together behind her back, cinching the turns of rope snugly and knotting them off securely.
No-one had been keeping the nurse's legs under control while I was tying her wrists, so she had been beating a tattoo on my back with her heels as I worked. I cut another short length of rope from the coil and rectified the situation by binding her ankles, again cinching the turns of rope firmly.
In the mean time, Bunny had discovered the nurse's own handkerchief and formed it into a band, which she used to secure my handkerchief in our victim's mouth.
We heaved a collective sigh of relief as we finally had the nurse under some control.
"We'd better tie her to the chair while we rescue Ronnie," I advised.
Bunny nodded her agreement and, working together, we hoisted the nurse onto the chair she had been sitting in to read her novel. It was a lightly-constructed straight-backed wooden chair, probably at one time part of a set to go with a dining table. We arranged the unfortunate nurse so that she was sitting reasonably straight on the chair with her bound wrists behind the chair back. Bunny held her still while I used a long length of my rope supply to bind her arms and body to the chair. I didn't attempt anything complicated, just enough turns of rope around her and the chair to stop her moving, but I made sure I threaded the rope through the spaces in the chair back several times and I took the rope up over both her shoulders. The result was not elegant, but I was confident that it was fairly secure.
Several turns of rope over the nurse's lap held her down to the chair seat and rendered her immobile except for her feet. Although her ankles were tied together, they were not tied to the chair and she aimed vicious swipes at us with her feet whenever she thought either of us was within range. I removed her shoes as a precaution then wondered how to secure the nurse further. There were spindles between the chair legs forming an X-shaped brace, but these were very slender and I was not at all confident that they would not snap if I tied the nurse's ankle rope back to them.
While Bunny held the nurse's feet still, I tied a short piece of rope from the cinch on her ankle binding to one of the front legs of the chair, then repeated this with another piece of rope attaching her bound ankles to the other front chair leg. As a precaution, I used the last remaining few feet of rope to tie her legs together just below the knees.
I checked all the knots carefully and then pronounced myself satisfied with the security of our captive. The nurse had stopped struggling and just stared balefully at me while growling into her gag.
"However did you learn to do that?" Bunny asked, impressed.
"I had a governess with very unusual talents," I explained enigmatically, remembering Queenie Holkham.
Bunny retrieved the nurse's keys from the corridor floor where they had been dropped and we returned to Ronnie's room. The bunch of keys was huge and Bunny had to try several before she found one that would turn the lock.
We entered the room and flipped the light on at the switch by the door. Ronnie immediately awoke. "Wazzup?" she asked in a sleepy voice.
There was a long pause as Ronnie took stock of the intruders looking first at Bunny then at me in wide-eyed terror. It was only then that I realised just how sinister we must look with our scarves still hiding most of our faces and hats pulled low down on our heads. I saw Ronnie take a deep breath to scream so I immediately clapped my hand over her mouth and pulled my scarf down.
"It's us!" I told Ronnie in an urgent whisper.
I watched as the alarm in Ronnie's eyes subsided then I cautiously removed my hand. The urge to scream had passed and she remained silent.
I took stock of Ronnie's predicament. She was very efficiently but seemingly not uncomfortably secured. The bed had a bottom sheet and a pillow but no blankets. Instead, a blanket, or possibly two, had been wrapped snugly around Ronnie covering her feet, legs and body to just below her arms, which were outside the blankets. Her upper body and arms were kept warm by the knitted pink bed-jacket she was wearing and the shawl she had around her shoulders. Warm woollen gloves covered her hands. There were two heavy leather straps fastened across the bed, both passing underneath Ronnie's body. One was level with her ankles and to this was attached another strap passing around her blanket-covered legs fastening them securely together. The second main strap was at Ronnie's waist level. There were three straps attached to this one: one around her waist and one around each wrist in the form of broad cuffs. I noticed that the wrist straps had soft sheepskin linings to protect the limbs. Ronnie was thus lying on her back with her arms at her sides, so while she could raise her shoulders slightly, she was unable to sit up any further, as I had noticed when I saw her from the window.
I examined the straps securing Ronnie's wrists. The main structure of each strap was a broad, thick leather cuff about three inches wide. The actual fastening was by way of a much narrower and softer leather strap running through a series of metal staples attached to the main cuff and fastened by means of an ordinary metal buckle. The buckle was ingeniously placed so as to be completely inaccessible to the patient's fingers. I started to undo the strap on her left wrist, the one nearest me.
"We'll soon have you out of here, Ronnie," I reassured her.
"No!" Ronnie replied sharply. "Leave me alone!"
"But we're here to rescue you," Bunny explained.
"I don't need rescuing, thank you very much!" Ronnie retorted.
"But you're all tied up!" Bunny pointed out, somewhat obviously.
"I need to be," Ronnie replied vehemently.
"But why?" I asked, dumbfounded. "You seem perfectly sane to me."
"Do you know what this place is?" Ronnie asked.
"Some sort of quack clinic?" I offered.
"No," replied Ronnie patiently, "this is just about the best place in the country to sort out eating problems. When I came here a few weeks ago, I was enormously fat. I'm still fat now, but it's all disappearing."
"They tie you up and starve you to to lose weight?" Bunny asked incredulously.
"And you pay for this maltreatment?" I added, equally incredulously.
"Don't be silly," Ronnie chided. "Just listen to what I'm telling you and don't interrupt." She looked at each of us in turn and we nodded contritely.
"You must remember how much food I could get through at school; I seem to remember having something of a reputation for it." We grinned in reply. "It was all under control then. There were set mealtimes and I never seemed to get fat. The trouble is that when I started working, I was surrounded by food all the time. I would taste the ingredients to make sure they were all right and I would taste everything as I was cooking it. I prepared meals for other household staff too in some places as well as the stuff for above stairs. If there were other staff there, it wasn't so bad because I would control how much I was eating when people were watching me. Otherwise it was awful, there was no-one but me to decide how much I ate and I didn't have any self-control."
Ronnie looked at each of us in turn again, but it was difficult to agree with what she was saying, no matter how true it was, without sounding as if we were criticising her personally. I settled for another nod to encourage Ronnie to continue speaking.
"The worst thing was the leftovers," Ronnie continued. "For one thing, I couldn't bear to see good food go to waste and for another, I'm a good cook and I really enjoy my own cooking. Anyway, the inevitable happened and I got fatter and fatter. I let my clothes out as much as I could and then bought larger clothes. I convinced myself that cooks are supposed to be fat and jolly, so it didn't matter. The trouble was that I was only ever going to be a cook for a short while, to get some experience of the real world. It was when I went back to see my mum, that I realised I was in trouble. Daddy had paid for this beautiful dress to be made for me to wear when I was going to be a débutante and be presented to the king and queen at court."
"We've heard about the dress," I told her.
"I had to plead with Mum to be allowed to go out to work first and she and Daddy agreed to put things off for a year. When I tried the dress a few months ago, I couldn't get into it. It wasn't just tight; it was completely impossible to put on. Mum and I wondered about getting it altered, but I was inches fatter than anything that could be done to let it out. I couldn't ask Daddy for another dress; that one hadn't been worn and it cost an absolute fortune: hundreds and hundreds of pounds."
Bunny looked down at Ronnie and nodded sympathetically. Although I was substantially heavier than she was, I was also about five inches taller, with a spare and bony physique. Bunny was quite short and I knew that her softly curved figure was a compromise between the weight she wanted to be and the much greater weight that her body tended to adopt.
"I came here," Ronnie went on, "because I knew that Dr Hakim has a wonderful reputation. He can tailor diet so that your body has to work harder to get at those naughty calories. There's lots of exercise to do and I even do that too. Dr Hakim's also got a training programme to learn to change eating habits."
"It sounds like just what you need," I said encouragingly.
"And so, it is," Ronnie agreed. "The trouble is that to lose a lot of weight, I have to eat a lot less and exercise a lot harder than I would just to maintain a lower weight. I'm hungry all the time and I have been for weeks. Willpower has always been my failing with food and it is here too."
"How do you mean?" Bunny asked. "I thought that the whole idea was to be with the staff and other patients and away from everyone else, so you don't get tempted so much here."
"That's the idea, and I'm sure that I will learn to re-train my habits, with Dr Hakim's help," Ronnie explained. "I'm all right during the day, because, even on my own, I can always distract myself. It's what happens at night that's my downfall. I was so hungry I used to sneak downstairs in the night and raid the kitchen. I knew I was just undoing the good I was doing in the day, but I couldn't help myself. I got the nurses to lock the door at night to stop me getting out. That worked, but I was so hungry, I would do anything to feel full. I started drinking gallons of water just to fill my stomach. They took away my drinking glass, but then I started drinking straight from the basin tap." She nodded towards the washbasin beside the window. "You can imagine what all that water did to my digestion when I was eating so little."
Bunny and I winced and nodded sympathetically, trying not to imagine too graphically the consequences of what Ronnie had been doing to herself.
"I asked Dr Hakim to think of anything that might help me to re-train myself and he suggested this." Ronnie looked down at the straps securing her to the bed. "It's a bit strange not being able to curl up or roll over, but it's really and truly not uncomfortable and if I can't move, I know I can ride out the cravings to feel full at night, and I'll soon learn how to do that even when I'm not tied down."
"I think you're very brave," Bunny told Ronnie, with genuine respect in her voice, "and I do admire your determination."
"Excuse me asking, but what happens if you need the bathroom in the night or something?" I wondered aloud.
"No problem," Ronnie explained. "I have a call button here." She showed us a press button on the end of a long flexible lead, which had been threaded through the cuff on her right wrist. "If you'll just do up the strap that you unfastened on my other wrist, Flora, I'll use it call the nurse now and get her to show you two out. I really need my sleep."
I dutifully re-fastened the strap.
Bunny decided to come clean with Ronnie. "I'm afraid, the nurse won't come. Your family were terribly evasive about where you were, so we spent the day tracing you. We were really worried and we were sure that you'd been kidnapped and you were a prisoner here, especially after Dr Hakim lied about your not being here. I'm afraid we sneaked in and we tied the nurse up so we could get her keys."
"I'm really sorry," I added. "We seem to have made the most frightful hash of this."
"It's really sweet of you to worry about me like that and to rush to my rescue as if I was a damsel in distress, but I'm really and truly all right. I didn't want anyone to know the misery I'm having to put myself through, so I swore everyone to secrecy," Ronnie replied evenly. I'll see you both at Christmas, just as I said in my telegram, Bunny," she added more firmly.
"Thank you," we both murmured.
"But," Ronnie continued sternly, "some people here are quite ill and they depend on being able to see the nurse, so I think you should go and untie her and apologise to her and just go away before you cause any more trouble."
Bunny and I made our contrite farewells and wished her success in the three remaining weeks before Christmas then switched her light off and relocked the door to her room.
As soon as we left Ronnie's room, we could hear frustrated grunts from the nurse and creaks from the woodwork of her chair as she struggled with her bonds. We should undoubtedly have untied the nurse, roused Dr Hakim and thrown ourselves on his mercy. I am ashamed to report that instead, we pulled our scarves up to hide our faces again, cut through the rope on the nurse's wrists, left the scissors where she would eventually be able to reach them and with a whispered, "Sorry," we fled into the night.
Bunny and I arrived back in London about 4 am that morning. We had a short conference before parting company and concluded that whatever the personal cost, we could not conceal what we had done. In any case, it would not be difficult for Dr Hakim and his staff to deduce who the perpetrators of this particular outrage were.
I confessed all to my father at breakfast time, having failed completely to get any sleep in the remaining few hours of the night. He contacted first Bunny's father to compare notes and then the Health Spa. A handsome sum of money was paid to the nurse in compensation for her ordeal and a smaller sum to Dr Hakim for the disruption to his clinic. This money was taken from Bunny's and my allowances, severely curtailing our social lives for several months afterwards.
My humiliation was compounded later when I learned that Dr Hakim was a well-known, widely respected and celebrated specialist in the treatment of dietary problems. My deduction about his name was in fact perfectly correct; it was a nickname, meaning Dr Doctor, adopted by him as being simpler for European tongues to negotiate than his actual Arabic surname and as a personal joke.
The new slenderer Ronnie was an absolute angel about the whole thing. She dined out on the story of the attempted rescue for months, but made Bunny and me sound quite heroic, if comically deluded. We took a lot of good-natured ribbing from our other friends in consequence, but we could cope with that.
I never had the nerve to contact the nurse directly, but Bunny's discreet enquiries by way of Ronnie's aunt suggested that in retrospect she somewhat relished her brush with true adventure and found an appreciative audience for the tale amongst her own friends and colleagues.
Copyright © 2005 Gillian B
Flora MacKenzie's Casebook
KP Presents Contents