by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

A girl trotted out through a side door and stooped Jayne-like on high heels to speak to the people behind the desk, showing beautifully straight seams down the backs of her nylons. She was promptly directed by pointing fingers to where Alan was sitting. She wasn’t a nurse – she made that clear by the way she walked and dressed. Nurses dressed like Mao’s Seething Masses and walked like Rossum’s Universal Robots, on the flat heels of their sensible shoes.

“Mr Alan Hall?” 

“Yes…” 

She had pretty lips, to which she drew attention by wearing an unusual shade of lipstick. She smiled sweetly, in an impersonal way. The Angel Gabriel couldn’t have carried it off so well. 

“Would you like to come with me?” 

She led him up a narrow wooden staircase. At the top there was a single door, which she opened without knocking. “Mr Hall to see you, Matron.” 

Alan tiptoed in. The woman who sat behind the rosewood desk was dressed in a uniform one person in all that vast hospital was privileged to wear, of a fine woollen material dyed midnight blue. Her starched linen headpiece was crisp and fluffy like the angel’s on the Christmas-tree – a crown in all but name. 

She commanded Respect. Awe. Terror, even. 

She gestured with an open hand towards the single chair and Alan sat on edge. For a second or two she regarded him in silence. A long low look, like the one for which Philip the Fair was famed, Hammer of the Templars. Few there were who could stand firm under that owl-like stare.

“Why do you want to work here?” 

Absurdly enough, it was the one question he hadn’t been anticipating. It was a job. Why does anyone want to work anywhere? But that was not something it was prudent to say.

The previous summer he had passed out of the sixth form. After sending off a score of applications he had managed to get offered a place at the new University College of North Staffordshire – a long way from home, as his mother was quick to point out. He had been born on the crest of the baby-boom and pressure for university places was immense. They hadn’t wanted him for that year, but to start in September the following year. Which gave him a year and a half to kill. 

He’d got a job as an apprentice electrician, a lonely occupation, prowling around cement-cold cellars or creepy-crawling in beam-crossed attics spiked with dusty splinters. He thought he’d discovered a natural bent for ripping-up people’s floorboards and poking holes in their ceilings, but just before Christmas the boss had told him they didn’t have sufficient work to keep him on. Maybe they were running short of orders – but he might have known the skids were under him. After the last set of lights he had wired-up, the customer had phoned his employer in fury. When the boss had switched on the light in the broom-cupboard, the ladies’ loo had been plunged into darkness, causing the secretary to lose her Zam-buk down the lavatory pan. The misdemeanour – a single misplaced wire – was trivial compared with the felony of giving customers cause for grief.

Out-of-season there was little work to be had in that seaside town. In-season the only jobs created were in the catering trade. He’d put an advert in the local paper, something his mother had been convinced would work, but the only reply he’d got was from the manager of the boating pool in the Old Town. The job on-offer was motor-boat attendant – clambering from one puttering brown pod to another. But as everyone was quick to tell him, they didn’t last long down at the boating pool. Every Saturday night the local louds used to toss the attendant in the water. There was little hope of finishing the shift with dry clothes, unless the yobbos had the decency to strip you naked first.

Alan knew a porter at St Margaret’s – or rather his father did – and the fellow had assured him it was the cushiest number in the hospital. “Sit around playing cards all the time.” He had made it sound fun too, in-between the hands of poker. Trundling patients to the operating theatre, corpses to the mortuary and hot dinners all over the hospital at the appointed hours.

A week ago at home he’d mentioned the hospital as a place to work. His father had tapped him on the breastbone: “If you want to be fed – work in the kitchen.” Alan knew better than to argue with that. His father spoke from long (and often hungry) experience gained from deprivation. Well – “porter” was near enough to the kitchen for Alan’s liking, but maybe it would serve just as well.

He muttered in reply to Matron’s challenge. “I’ve been told you’re always on the look-out for porters.” 

It wasn’t an elegant way of putting it, but it did have the merit of getting straight to the point. Matron stared at him in silence for some seconds more. Scornfully, wondered Alan – or appraisingly? She took a breath before she spoke. 

“I don’t have any vacancies for porters right at the moment,” she said, and straightaway rose to her feet. Alan did so too, thinking he was being abruptly dismissed. But Matron wasn’t finished with him yet. 

“However I do have some other work I’d like you to consider.” 

She held the door open for him. Then, squeezing past him on the narrow landing, she led the way back down the stairs. Reaching the first of a succession of long wide corridors, she set a brisk pace, speaking over her shoulder as they went. 

“It’s not the sort of work I’d drop just anybody into. So I want you to see it first and think about it before you make a decision.” 

Clearly conveyed, though not in so many words, was an admonition. 

Steel Yourself.

…to be continued.

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