by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
St Margaret’s Hospital lay facing an antique weather-boarded power station, built by the former Seagate Electric Light Company, which undermined the neighbourhood in a mains-hum that never let-up. On the other side of a dingy gulch, the hospital looked compact from afar, but shapeless. It was a potted parody of the industrial north – blackened redbrick, high perimeter walls, lofty tapering chimney. Cast down under the chimney, long buildings stretched this way and that, like mahogany logs in a doused bonfire.
The locals spoke of it in hushed tones as though they were talking in church. When it was built, at great expense from public funds, it was the Workhouse. Then when workhouses were abolished it became a “municipal hospital” – the Muni, as the locals knew it then – and some still did. Now it was officially designated a “general hospital”, but that was a misnomer. Most of it was given over to the specialities of geriatrics and psychiatrics. In other words, to mad old people. It was a “bin” – and that’s how the locals referred to it. Being sent there was a one-way trip. “You may walk in,” folk said, “but you don’t walk out.”
Alan Hall, a lanky youth with dark russet hair and compelling features which he kept veiled in a haze of self-doubt, trudged up a long incline leading out of town. It was New Year’s Day: Friday, 1st January, 1960. Most people were on holiday. But some folk had work to do, especially at St Margaret’s. And that’s where Alan had to be too, if he wanted a job, putting behind him the involuntary idleness of the past two weeks. The early bird catches the worm, he’d told himself, as he dragged his loath and loathsome body out of bed, scrubbing his teeth in his bathroom mirror.
Now, putting one thumb to his forehead and shielding his eyes, he paused to stare across the vale at the hospital. His first sight of it was not an agreeable one.
“Be sure they’re going to let you out again,” his friends had kidded him at the bar when they’d heard where he was thinking of applying for a job. “Hey, I’m a visitor…!” and they all laughed. “No, no, you’re just imagining things – get back inside!”
It had been funny at the time. But it was a serious fear now, as he panted up the last steep haul. Was it really such a certainty they’d let him out again?
A pasty face stared rudely at him through tall black railings. Someone dressed in ill-fitting clothes, just as they came to-hand out of the laundry cupboard. A grown-up child – with a man’s cloth cap on. The face of someone Not Quite Right.
Mother had a superstitious dread of the Not Quite Right. When he was little she would shield him in the street with her splayed hand against another child, trailed along by a suffering parent – a child that staggered like a drunken old man on a Friday night. It was just how he’d joke with his friends in the playground. But this child wasn’t doing it for a joke – and neither was it funny to the child’s mother, nor to his. It shook Alan to realise that, but not touching him in any way he dismissed it as something of no consequence.
Sometimes, to enliven the tedium of being dragged round the dress-shops, Alan would affect a limp. “Stoppit!” his mother would snarl under her breath, cuffing him lightly on the back of his collar, which was the closest she ever got to violence. “Stoppit! They’ll say I’ve got an idiot child!”
He was to live out the greater part of his life, putting it down to the prevailing callousness of the day, before it dawned on him. His mother had had her first (and last) baby when she was over forty. Another had nearly come, she’d once told him, but it hadn’t quite made it.
“Would you have liked a little brother or sister?”
“No.” He was quite happy being an only child. No one with whom to share the spoils – maternal affection and treats. He used to look with horror on his cousins’ sibling spats.
You can’t live inside another person’s head. Least of all your own mother’s. Most people don’t even try.
He marched through the main gate, staring out the pasty face, but it wouldn’t take the hint and look away. Naïve eyes began to widen in terror. Dragging away his gaze, Alan looked for signs to Reception.
Coloured fingerboards clung to poles or were screwed in columns to sooty walls. They indicated heart-sinking, vaguely obscene destinations like Urino-Genital Department, Female Surgical Ward, Electro-Convulsive Therapy Unit.
“Reception” was situated in the former gatehouse, distinctly more ornate than the adjacent buildings. Carved sandstone trimmed its corners and its mullioned windows moped like elderly eyes in a florid face of brick red. To the right and left of its doorway stretched flowerbeds, bare now in January.
Nearly bare. As Alan skirted a heap of dun earth he saw a single snowdrop. It was early for snowdrops, but proximity to a heated building must have bamboozled this tiny bulb into thinking it was February. Lifting its head barely clear of its soily bed, it drooped like a partygoer emerging hung-over from rumpled blankets, cosy memories of last night’s high jinks evaporating in the chilly morning. Alan felt nothing but empathy.
Once inside the building, the neat severity of a Victorian institution gave place to the chaos of post-war utility. There were trails of coloured dots on the floor like stepping-stones, a sort of cakewalk to no rewarding end. “Chest X-Ray – follow the red dots” you’d be told. Just one of many devices to help you find your way around this warren. The last thing you’d want to do of course was ask someone.
A silver-grey structure hanging from the ceiling held his curious eye. It bore nothing but the numbers 2, 4, 6 cut into it. It flashed bright orange in a simple repeating pattern: 6 – 2 … 6 – 2 … 6 – 2 … over… and over… and over again.
The reception ladies sat behind a large desk at the end of a dark echoing hall full of sick people, the jetsam of the holiday, dispensing the fate of the herd as if they were sorting cattle. Prime beef – this way. Stewing steak – that way. Hash meat – sit in the corner until you are called.
Alan mumbled “I have an appointment to see Matron. I’m Mr Hall…”
The receptionist squinted at him as if he was one of the elect who’d strayed into hell by mistake. “Oh – yes, I’ll just phone her secretary to tell her you’re here. Could you – er – make yourself comfy where you can?”
As he sat on one of the scuffed Rexine seats bolted to the floor in cinema rows, Alan felt like a patient, not a putative member of staff. A patient with an unrecognised condition – but might it be malignant? Did they suppose, he wondered, that he’d come to have his soul out…?
…to be continued.