He is on his back behind metal bars like a little animal at a zoo. His eyes are open, but looking at nothing. When his eyes close, he shuts up, but otherwise he wails: little panting sobs too monotonous to be pitiful.
The bedclothes are pulled down to reveal a tiny oval body with stunted limbs lying on a wet draw-sheet. From neck to crotch the skin is covered in dense brown freckles, so close in parts as to leave no white between. Only it is not freckle. The brown skin is dead and coarse.
“Had that since he was two. Paraffin heater did that. Doesn’t heal up at all. Born normal.”
“How old is he now?”
“Ten. Looks no older than two, doesn’t he. Shouldn’t be alive.”
The woman in white coat and red belt rattles the cot side down.
“Don’t spend too long on that child. I know he’s a slow feeder, but we’re way behind with the feeding.”
The owner of the voice disappears back into the office and the little moaning mouth is teaspooned full of mashed egg-and-potato.
No attempt is made to swallow it and the food is spooned out again.
“Give him some egg-and-milk, then. Get something down him, poor little mite.”
“Used to be on drip-feed where he came from, but the doctor said he should come off it. Can’t keep them on drip-feed indefinitely, you know.”
White coat, blue pips on his shoulder, picks up a basin to feed the kids outside. The nursing assistant carries on with her labour in vain and eggy milk is spluttered over the pillows.
Children are bathed and put into the empty beds around. They sit up and chew the blankets, make grotesque movements with the fingers, or rock and emit uncouth, perfectly rhythmic noises. The few more alert children grin at the staff as they wheel the patients in from the bathroom, and point to the blanket trailing on the floor, which it shouldn’t do. And the cot in the corner stands neglected until the big change, when down come cot sides in turn with a crash, back come the bedclothes, wet sheets and nappies are changed and the red rubber mackintoshes wiped dry.
“You’ve vomited again!”
The nursing assistant in white jacket and apron and blue-black trousers apostrophically addresses the little patient, whose only response is to cringe up sluggishly and wail. Mental staff always talk to their patients: it’s only normal patients in general wards that are treated like cabbages.
“Poor little bugger. He shouldn’t be alive. Did he condescend to eat anything today, do you know?”
“Must have done, to bring that back.”
Carefully, but without hesitation, the linen draw-sheet is detached from the bed around the slimy pool and wrapped over it. It’s not a pleasant job cleaning up catarrhal vomit. At first it’s utterly nauseating. But after a while the bad experiences become just spells of distastefulness, which any job has.
“There. Now you’ve got all night to mess that up.”
The grotesque little doll is set in clean linen once more. They give the trolley a nudge and it rolls up the gangway, stopping with a jolt against a bed leg. Filthy water from a basin on the lower shelf slops on the floor and a skinny little face opposite chuckles.
The word is echoed quietly but distinctly from the end of the ward. One of the men looks round, eyes narrowing. The child in question is paying no attention to anything beyond his extended fingers, jabbing the thumbs against his lips. His eyes roll upwards under the lids and he looks utterly incapable of any response to the outside world at all.
“Get down, Lee.” A snarl from one of the men and surprisingly enough he does — like a flash — right under the bedclothes. Then his head pops out again onto his pillow: not timidly, but as if he hasn’t the slightest idea why he’s dived down so suddenly. Nor does he care, but carries on with his finger exercises as before, stopping occasionally to declaim total nonsense in a perfectly enunciated Oxford accent and a pedantic tone of voice. Types like him, with perfectly good parrot memories, but little else, are rare. In his case it was due to pre-natal brain damage when his mother, a respected academic, contracted German measles.
“Evening, Mr Relf.”
“Oh, ‘allo, Mr Soddy.” The nursing assistant carries on tucking in the bottom of the bed.
“Got ‘em all finished, have you? Jolly good — hang on a minute and I’ll get me apron on, then you can go. Have the ‘off-duties’ gone up yet?”
“No. Sister hasn’t done them all yet. But I’ve had a look in the office and you’ve got two split-duties next week when you come off nights.”
The other man glances aside and says “F…ff” through his teeth. Then he is gone in the direction of the staff lockers.
A red-belted woman comes back with a tray of milk-spattered plastic beakers. Relf says, “I suppose we’d better wash these up before we go, Mrs Wirrall.”
“I tried little David in the corner…”
“Oh, no, you don’t need to bother about him. You’ll never get any milk down him in a month of Sundays.”
“Poor little mite. Has he actually eaten anything today?”
“Who do you think is doing the rounds tonight, Arden?” says Soddy, his soft voice deafening after the silence.
Miss Arden, in a crisp clean white coat and red belt, peeps into the dark, quietly simmering ward. One cannot see far by the light of the dim beehive bulb, so really she is listening.
What a change these wards are from the geriatric wards, with their restless old folk. Not a sound out of the kids. The reason is they are all under sedation, doped to the gills with Largactil for the night, but she expects to see one or two of the older boys sitting up in bed sooner or later. She turns to face the kitchen door.
“Tuesday, today, isn’t it? Then it will be the night superintendent. Better keep out of the kitchen until she’s been round. Then we can have supper.”
“Supper” was an unofficial institution on that ward. It was cooked up from ward-rations thoughtfully indented-for by Sister, whether they were going to be needed for patients or not. This took place after the late-night bed-change, when there was nothing to do for a while.
“I reckon,” suggests Soddy, “that someone should be down in the babies’ ward when she comes.”
“You go. Last time I trod on a cockroach.” She shudders as she recalls the scrunch.
“There’s mice in the kitchen,” volunteers Soddy, but it is no good. “…All right, I’ll go.”
He wanders through the playroom, with its familiar sweetish tang of faeces masked with aerosol freshener. It is scarcely perceptible with the windows open, except when you first pass through after coming on-duty. The thick green lino, with its congealed tacky layer of who-knows-what, sticks to rubber soles and crackles as you lift your feet. Anyone walking softly in that quiet ward is perfectly audible throughout the whole building. He will have no trouble hearing when the night superintendent comes.
The pair of them don’t get their supper this night. They miss their official break, too, standing around uselessly, helplessly, most of the time. Hushed bustle in the corner of the ward means that every young patient who chances to wake stays that way. Mouth noises and the occasional voluntary breath implies that half the ward is awake. Every now and again Soddy or Arden leave the busy corner to feel their way between beds in answer to a murmur.
The night superintendent, a thin woman in dark green, like a cucumber with a paper doily perched on top, insists on having the screens round, although it’s hardly necessary in the dark. The two nursing assistants have to squeeze silently between bed, screen and black gas-cylinder in its waist-high trolley, while the night superintendent handles the rubber mask as if she’s trying to fit a tyre onto a Lambretta wheel as it’s being inflated. It blows, sneezes and sighs in her grasp.
“Carry on doing this, Mr. Soddy. I’m just going to phone over and hurry up the house-doctor.”
The day doesn’t dawn. Really it’s the night that fades. Night is something tangible: it is dark and warm, close and quiet. It settles like a thick fall of black snow. But then the black snow melts and drains into the corners and its veil is removed from the beds — the ward — the world. Their outlines are now too distinct to be ignored; the blanket is gone and they are naked, cold and colourless. Without night, the world is dead and empty in the first blank realisation of twilight.
Now the business during the night is finished and buried under the activity of the brightening day. Soddy and Miss Arden feel like ghosts that must disappear at cockcrow. Then they find out how solid they are, and that the waxing light is not causing them to evaporate in their tiredness, but condensing them, driving them to increasing labour like a match flaring fiercer and brighter before consummation. The ward must be changed, the soiled linen bagged up and placed outside for collecting, the breakfasts prepared and the feeding started — all in the last three hours of night-duty. And the little cot with the screen round it stands neglected in the corner.
Enter Relf, fresh out of a nice warm bed. “Which is where I shall be in an hour,” thinks Arden as she shovels a mess of bread, milk and porridge into a gaping mouth, spoon clicking on teeth.
The sight of the screen surprises him. He slips behind it. There is little David lying on a single sheet, all nice and clean for once; no spittle or vomit over his cheeks. His mouth and eyes are plugged with cotton wool carefully tied down with white tape. A pink rose protrudes incongruously from the folded fingers. This is the last office, performed to the letter.
Relf comes out from behind the screen. He is thinking guiltily, “No more having to waste time feeding him.”
“Poor little bugger. But I suppose it’s about time…”
Arden doesn’t answer.