by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.

“Who’s on-duty down there?” shouted Poonawala. 

“Miss Gregg. I was half-expecting some sort of trouble…”

Charge-Nurse Baker appeared at the other end of the ward at the very moment they left it. He ducked back inside the office to extract a hefty hypodermic needle from the drugs cabinet and pluck a 50cc glass ampoule from a cardboard tray. Snapping the top off the ampoule he drew up clear brown liquid into the graduated glass barrel. He was still doing this as he ran down the ward. Twenty five years on the job had perfected him in what was an essential skill. 

Reaching the stairwell door he paused to step through, a hurried opportunity to tap air-bubbles out of the barrel of the hypodermic, before stamping his way downstairs. An acrid smell of terminally bad apples, the whiff of a calvados chaser, wafted in his wake. 

Reaching the bottom of the stairs he sprang smartly to the right into a bathroom, guided by shrieks and screeches coming as if from frenzied chimpanzees. The racket was amplified by pervading walls of shiny white tiles which reached up to the lofty ceiling.

Blood everywhere! The patient was covered with it, making it hard to get a grip on her bare wet skin as she struggled and lashed out furiously at the two men holding her down as best they could. 

“Onto her front!” Baker ordered.

Schank, sitting on her head, got her hair tangled in his black shoelaces. Poonawala sat on the backs of her knees. Muffled blasphemies poured from lips crammed against the tiles of the floor. Her quivering bottom took the needle’s plunge. 

“Get her onto the bed. Watch out, Mr Schank – she’s trying to bite you!” 

Instantly he turned his attention to Miss Gregg, lying on her back beside an enamelled cast-iron bath, her bra slung out aslant across the floor. She was gasping in hollow sobs, blood and tears griming her face. Blood too was perceptibly spreading out in a pool beneath her, creeping round Baker’s soles. Gently but persistently, muttering vacuous reassurances, he prised her hands back away from the crimson mess which was her front. 

It was much worse than he’d feared. Her left breast was hanging loose by a flap of skin, torn adipose tissue showing like lumpy custard stained in currant juice. 

Leaving her with a reassuring pat he raced to the office and swept the contents of the wall-mounted first-aid cabinet out onto the desk. Picking up a large field-dressing and ripping off its paper cover with his teeth he hurled himself back out of the office towards the bathroom. As he ran he shouted over his shoulder “Phone Casualty!” 

Muttering reassurances to the stricken nursing assistant he rearranged her bitten flesh as best he could and bound the dressing over it, taping it down with the sticky roll he always carried. He grabbed a loofah floating in the bath and, squeezing it out, he tenderly mopped her slate-pale forehead.

“Stay calm, Miss Gregg, we’ll soon have the house-doctor to you.” He could hear Poonawala’s voice on the phone, calm but insistent, as it trickled back down the corridor. “They’re on their way,” he called out. 

Baker eased off Miss Gregg’s shoes and looked around for a blanket. Not seeing one he grabbed a handful of towels and laid them over her, folding one to go under her head. Giving her another pat he went to survey the theatre of war in Room One. 

“All Quiet On The Western Front?” he said, peering round the door. Schank was almost at floor level, squatting down by the patient’s head as she lay on her bed. He had managed to cover her up decently, more-or-less, with a counterpane snatched off the bed from under her. The paraldehyde had taken effect and she was stilled, her eyes closed, breathing stertorously. Having nothing more appropriate to hand, Schank had snapped off his apron and was using it to clean blood off her thrawn face in little dabs, like an archaeologist restoring a shattered antiquity: the Gorgon’s head in Perseus’s hand. Grooming behaviour – powerfully calming – something for every mental nurse to know.

“Looks like I’ll be phoning Hellingly to see if they can take her straightaway. They’ve got the facilities to deal with her. She will have to be assessed when she gets there – I doubt we’ll be able to get Mr Hart over to see her now.” 

Schank said “Plenty of blood on the patient, but I can’t see any open wounds. You’d better take a look.”

“There won’t be any.”

“Then where’s it all coming from?”

“From Miss Gregg.”

Schank looked up, horror jemmying his mouth open. Baker tossed his nose as if it had been an everyday thing to say. “Will you go and sit with her till the porters come?” he added. “I’ll remain here with the patient.”

Schank scrambled to the bathroom and sat down on the tiled floor beside the casualty, unaccustomedly holding her bloody hands. They had never so much as touched each other. That this trivial intimacy had demanded such appalling circumstances! He felt so useless. If only there had been another female nursing assistant on-duty! Someone who could have given Miss Gregg the womanly reassurance she needed at a time like this.

The front doorbell rang and Poonawala unlocked it. Two porters arrived with a trolley and a stretcher, onto which they moved Miss Gregg. Then, sliding poles through the stretcher, they lifted her onto the trolley and raced off with her through a special tunnel under the road. This led straight to the operating theatre, where a surgeon and his team, their scheduled op cancelled in the emergency, were gowned-up all ready and waiting for her.

Back in his office an hour later, Baker looked up as Schank put his head round the door. “Going off now, Mr Baker. I’m on nights when I come back. That’s unless you need to make some readjustments…”

“No – we’ll manage as things are for now. I’ll leave it to Sister to redo the off-duties.”

Schank’s voice came hesitantly. “How is Miss Gregg?”

“Lost a lot of blood. You should know – you mopped it up.” Baker screwed up his nose. He had an eloquent face for such a deadpan voice. “She’s comfy for the moment. But I reckon she’ll be on the sick-list for a fair old while.”

Schank bowed his head. Then he was gone into the night. Baker carried on to himself in a murmur…

…That’s if she comes back at all.

…to be continued.


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