I once Heimlich-ed the Jonkheer, and he once swatted my goddaughter in the head when her hair caught fire as she blew out her birthday candles. I have hauled a blind, elderly spaniel out of an artificial pond, and I’ve chased two large purse-snatchers and the young, medium-sized stranger whose purse they were trying to snatch down an alley. (She hung on, shouting, “That’s all the money I have;” the snatcher gave a vicious jerk, the strap broke, the woman fell to the pavement, clutching her purse. I jogged after her assailants for a moment, then wondered what I’d do if I caught up to them, and turned round. I gave her a hand up and a wad of mostly-unused tissues, and opened my arms slightly in a ‘hug-if-you-want-one’ gesture. She stared at me for a few seconds, gulped, sobbed, grabbed the tissues and then launched herself onto me. “You were great,” I repeated, over and over, patting her back. She was fine, the corn chips in my groceries, which had been banging against my knees as we ran, were fine (this is important as they were, at the time, hard to find and expensive in Dublin), and so we strolled south slowly as she recovered, and she told me all about Cowes Week, which isn’t as much fun as my initial hypothesis of Cows Week would be.)
My two earthquakes have been uneventful, and I don’t recall any gas mains or bombs exploding while I’ve been nearby. I tend to stay clear of political and protest rallies, though did once get an amazingly charismatic grin and a wave from Bill Clinton – one of the perks or hazards of living near Washington, DC, I suppose (shoals! shoals! paddle faster!!). By great good fortune burning houses haven’t come my way much, nor floods. Growing up outside Boston in the 70s, blizzards and snowstorms were cause for celebration – no school! popcorn over the fire! Pretend to be Laura Ingalls! I also lived on a steep bend as a child, and would of course offer tea to anyone smashing a car into the rock that helped mark it, but that didn’t happen too often. The closest I’ve come to amputating a leg was sitting with a stranger who’d broken hers just by stepping off the curb at a bad angle until the ambulance came. “It’s broken,” the paramedic said; “It can’t be,” the woman replied, and who wouldn’t? If you ever need a tracheotomy performed with a ball point pen, do not come to me, even though I did once walk a new neighbor up the street to the emergency room after she sliced a chunk out of her finger. When I sliced a chunk out of my own finger, everyone in Paris generously pitched in to help get it stitched, for free and absolutely beautifully, according to my doctor back home.
If you must experience an earthquake, try to make it the kind that hit the east coast of the US in August 2011, causing minimal injuries, zero deaths, and some cracks in the Washington Monument that a crew of lucky daredevil masons got to repair live on internet TV.
I would not have thought, incidentally, that I could fill two paragraphs with tales of my adventures in courage and kindness to strangers. Please take a moment to think over your own experiences; I bet you’re more deserving of a Scout badge than you realize.
Thank you. How many did you get? I’m not surprised (I hope), but I shall be deeply distressed on your behalf if you’ve ever had as much excitement in any three- or four-month period as poor Julia Pennyfeather, who begins the winter of 1971 with a blizzard at her Scottish patient’s home, where she’s forced to forage for diabetes-friendly provisions and chivvy the sole household attendant into keeping the fires going for several chilly and gastronomically-repetitive days, then heads down the M1 and encounters a multi-car pile-up replete with corpses, then, after making it to the Netherlands without incident, gets lost in a cold, rainy woods and falls asleep on the ground risking exposure, and then gears up for overtime as a polio epidemic sweeps the village. By The Fifth Day of Christmas, she was past due for some tender words and jewelry.
Or how about the unlucky (in some things) Daisy Gillard, whose RDD keeps Discovering Daisy (1999) covered in water-weeds, scum, dirt, blood and sand as she, again in the course of a very few months, falls into a canal, gets knocked out by muggers, rushes to the aid of an elderly woman hit by a car, and gets caught in a violent windstorm on the beach. For her, I should think just remaining upright and dry would constitute an HEA.
Daisy and Julius's third son, Devon, carrying on a family tradition
In case you haven’t guessed, 79 Nurses: A Neels Database-to-Be includes a column for emergencies. Here come the caveats: first, it’s subjective. One person’s emergency is another person’s heavy cold. Second, sometimes an emergency takes place deep into the book, when I am comfortably disposed on the couch without a Post-it® note or pen and paper handy, and I’m in no mood to leap up and grab computer, and then I doze off a bit and forget all about it, so maybe an emergency or two never makes it into the spreadsheet. Finally, maybe on a grey Sunday, Aunt Snooty-Nose’s vicious lies to our hero about his beloved’s abrupt departure from the family home feels like an emergency, while on a sunny Saturday of a long weekend, beanpole-ish stalker Helena von Youwishsister’s vicious lies to our heroine about how soon she’ll be Mrs. Dr. Helena just feel like a minor snooze. So. Nothing’s set in stone, gentle readers.
With that understanding-of-sorts, I count a total of 211 emergencies over 135 books, or 1.6 per book – per heroine, really, because bar Gijs van der Eekerk’s succor of some offstage drunks with severed arteries, which Beatrice sadly misinterprets as a night out with an imaginary strumpet (Wedding Bells for Beatrice, 1994), our heroine gets involved every time. Unless, that is, she’s one of the lucky seven who experience no catastrophes on the road to true love. Betty ran out of natural disasters, muggers and car crashes intermittently in the 1980s, with one heroine getting off scot-free in each year from 1980 to 1983, and then in 1987 Rachel Downing makes it through a novel unscathed – unless you want to count as an emergency having one’s presumed boyfriend show up in a hotel lobby with a floozy, take one look at one’s thunderstruck face and declaim a blithe, “Oh, well – Off with the Old Love.” Then, in her last five books, all copyright 2001, Betty imagined just three emergencies, with Emma’s Wedding and The Doctor’s Girl relatively unscathed.
Of those who are subject to adrenaline rushes, four of our heroines, or 3%, including the Misses Pennyfeather and Gillard above, suffer four calls to battle stations; 13, or 10%, engage in three pulse-pounding adventures; 45, or 33%, get through two sticky situations; and 66, or 49%, are distressed by a single disaster. But what disasters they are! Car crashes, bus crashes, bicycle crashes, plane crashes, whatever the boating equivalent of a crash is, measles, whooping cough, flu, stroke, coronary, diabetic coma, runaways, fire, flood, war... Jiminy! There’s not a single famine, actually, except maybe way offstage when Julius mistakenly decides Daisy can stay out of trouble for a few weeks and hies himself off to Africa to set up a feeding station (Discovering Daisy). And, of course, lots of grimacing into the increasingly-empty larder whenever we get stranded in the snow.
The most common emergency is what I’ve called an “endangered individual.” They’re not necessarily sick or injured, but they’re at risk in some way. Of our 211 stat situations, 23%, or 49, involve abandoned or neglected babies; runaway brides, wards and sisters; evil kidnapping step-relatives; people trapped in toy stores or creaky cottages; lost grannies, kiddies or heroine-ies and their ilk. Next most common is illness and injury, at 20%, or 41, of our incidents, although only one of laburnum-seed eating. Then come vehicle crashes of one sort and another, at 17%, or 36 pile-ups. Criminal assault accounts for 11%, or 23, of misfortunes.
‘Nuff said, people
I was taken aback by that number, actually. In her first 21 books, Betty had only one assault, perpetrated by a patient overdosed on cannabis trying to choke Staff Nurse Parsons. Chalk up a Victory for Victoria (1972), however, as Alexander van Schuylen arrives to save the day. In the next 35 books, I count six assaults, but three are against animals and one is by an animal, so they’re not quite the same as when Sister Loveday Pearce gets threatened by three youngsters – three easily-quelled youngsters, it transpires – on the street, or Louisa Seymour overdoses her infant niece and nephew (Cruise to a Wedding in 1974 and Winter Wedding in 1979). In the last 79 books, from All Else Confusion in 1982, when tinkers kidnap little sister, through Daisy’s mugging, we have 16 assaults, which accounts for 20% of the books and 15% of the incidents in that period. Phoebe, Charity, Emily, Beatrice, both Sarahs, both Daisys, Mary Jane, Julie, Henrietta, Bertha, Ermentrude and Claudia are all involved somehow or other in muggings, or injured whilst thwarting burglaries.
Quick! Line up the kiddies and the white coats; there's polio in the village!
Ready, Betty Keira? There are 12 incidents (just 6% of all emergencies, and only 9% of the books, dear) of people or animals being thrust somehow into canals, ponds, one loch and one gully. They make for exciting scenes, though, beginning with poor George Rodman and the littlest van den Berg Eyffert falling into the deadly-cold water whilst skating on unsafe ice due to the criminal scheming of beanpole-thin yet big, fat liar Therese LeFabre. That’s in Damsel in Green (1970). In Tangled Autumn (1971), we get our first animal thrown overboard: Sappha finds a puppy tied up in a brick-bound sack and thrown into a canal to drown. She falls in effecting rescue, and is in turn rescued by Rolf. After that, there are only another three critters sacrificed to the exigencies of dawning love – plus a few kids, a Norwegian or four, and an overweight Londoner.
Eleven storms, ten fires, seven blizzard/snowstorms, six bombs and six births (five humans, one horse), three demonstrations turned rowdy, and two each of floods, wild winds, non-bomb explosions and earthquakes. One roof caves in, and one armed conflict breaks out in Bosnia, requiring surgical aid. Add them all up, and you get quite enough excitement for any literary career.
And who suffers from all these catastrophes? He does – just three ruddy times, for heaven’s sake. Gerard gets lost in a Scottish mist, and meets up with Deborah and a clutch of schoolgirls in Stars Through the Mist (1973). Deborah’s one of the four-emergency ladies; she also gets a tractor rollover, a retainer cutting her hand, and a Fiat-crunching auto accident.) Jake breaks a leg rescuing a fjord-faller in Midnight Sun’s Magic (1979), and Lauris and Julia are both caught up in a brief but violent passing demonstration in At the End of the Day (1985). He doesn’t count as a victim, incidentally, if he only strode through the rubble to pluck her out, or launched himself into the icy pond to retrieve her and the neighbor child.
And he need do so quite frightfully often, as our heroine is the victim in 52, or 25%, of emergencies. Mostly just once in the course of a book, but five of the ladies suffer two horrific fates, and that poor, dear Daisy Gillard counts as victim in the canal-fall, the mugging, and the windstorm. (Incidentally, Julius saves her from none of these!)
I’m sending Daisy one of these shirts, and expect Dr. de Huizma to write the appropriate prescriptions.
Betty also has it in for kids, who are the victims of some 17%, 35, of her imagined horror shows. His family members are put at risk 19 times (9%), and hers 16 times (8%), with considerable overlap with the children category. Animals are made to suffer in 14 incidents, including an especially tricky spate during the Carter administration – in 15 books from 1977’s The Hasty Marriage to 1980’s Caroline’s Waterloo, we have six incidents of animal abuse, including a dog hit by a car, a cat tortured by youths, a kitten stuck in a tree, a dog lost in a storm and found in a canal, a rabbit caught in a snare, and a pregnant donkey abused by tinkers.
By contrast, the elderly are roughed up only 11 times (5%), and faithful retainers only five (2%). This says something about career choice, I believe. Or lifestyle choice. Or something.
The big wrap-up: I count 119 emergencies where dramatic rescue by hero or heroine is warranted. This does not include little brothers with rheumatic fever – they need patient nursing and holidays abroad, not drama – or fires in Northern estates in which the firefighters are on their own to haul those needlewomen out of the attic, and Gerard only arrives in time to take Julia south in his Rolls. However, in those cases where she, he or they must effect a rescue: she starts 49 of the rescues, for 45% of the time. He joins in on 40 of them, since she’s gotten wrapped up in weeds, or her arms aren’t powerful enough to lift the old lady from the well, or her fear of heights overcomes her, etc. He gets full credit for the rescue in 39% of cases, or 43 incidents, since she’s the victim, for silly’s sake. They work together, more or less equally, over 27 situations – that’s 25%, and really the best way to show high likelihood of their H actually being EA. Think of George and Phoebe laboring together over those laburnum-seed afflicted youngsters, or Tishy and Jason making sure the bull doesn’t get to Georgina and the baby. Teamwork! The essence of marriage!
Beautiful but deadly: a laburnum tree in flower
Looking at the full list, I'm inclined to shake my head a bit at Betty's penchant for shoving young women, nephews, stepdaughters, grannies and absent-minded dads into the path of onrushing disasters. One must admit that it works, though. Love is, after all, a matter of hormones, and nothing gets the hormones flowing like a farmhouse on fire.
PS: I am sure we all have some truly dreadful stories we could tell of crashes, medical disasters and the like. I don't mean to downplay the horror of of those in any way. My lighthearted tone is not intended to offend, and if the subject or style of this essay causes you any distress, I do most sincerely apologize.