by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
As they stepped out smartly, Matron asked him about himself in a quiet voice, indeed a gentle one, though Alan was so in awe of the woman it wouldn’t have crossed his mind to describe it as such. In that way she efficiently interviewed him, extracting what she wanted to know so deftly he never felt the pain. She must have been a dab-hand at taking out stitches in her salad days, thought Alan in a detached moment.
She elicited the information about his performance in his final examinations, the ill-fated electrician’s job, the first paying job he’d ever had, at the union rate for a starting apprentice of one pound one shilling a week. A promising young man, she must have thought – though not one with a conspicuous track-record of fulfilling his promise.
Her voice wasn’t that of a schoolteacher, nor an official, nor even, as you might have expected, the Lady of the Manor. This was a person so secure in her position that she didn’t have any need to talk down to her subordinates. Even (or especially) the bottom indian in the totem-pole.
Alan might have felt flattered – if he hadn’t been so scared. For scared he was. This was a mental hospital, in all but name.
They walked along cavernous corridors painted to waist-height in antique green. Above the belt it was painted cream, which passage of time had darkened to parchment.
I am the way into the doleful city.
I am the way into eternal grief.
I am the way to a forsaken race.
… Before me, nothing but eternal things
were made – and I shall last eternally.
Abandon all hope, all you who enter.
Overhead snaked rugged pipes lagged with asbestos, clad in chicken-wire and cobwebs. Electrical conduit clung to the walls, steel liana in an indoor jungle. It was a ship’s hold without the black grease – a vessel on a voyage nowhere.
Now they were free of the bustle of the central area, penetrating the deepest recesses of the hospital, where people faded. The occasional frail old person with wispy white hair and creased nightdress drifted spectrally in the corridor, or stood staring from the far end of a gloomy gallery.
Matron opened a double-door and straightaway stepped back. Alan, blinking in the sudden daylight, made as if to go through – but a swift hand barred the way. A trolley came through, feet first, wheels bumping over the selvedge. The human form upon it was completely wrapped in white linen, face and all. The porter murmured a respectful “g’morn’n, Matron” as the trolley rumbled past.
“Good morning, Mr French,” Matron replied with quiet formality. Then she led the way through the door.
Now they were in the open air, hemmed-in by walls of decaying brick. Fire-escapes hung like leggy insects silhouetted in the slaty sky. They had come to the purlieus of the hospital, the ground falling away into a sullen glen. Matron unlatched a gate in tall spiked railings and they stepped out onto a narrow thoroughfare, more of a tarmac-ed path than a road. It plunged down the hill, writhing between thorn hedges, black and winter-bare, with the frozen violence of a toboggan run. Gaping at them was a wider gateway, but no gate hung now on its thickly-painted prongs, cracked and bleeding rust.
Once through the bare gateway, they climbed up a steep path. Alan, in less than peak condition after a turkey-stuffed Christmas, found himself panting. But Matron’s elfin form glided up the slope as though she haunted the route as a blue-grey ghost. Which she did – on her duty rounds. She was silent now, having extracted all she felt she needed to know.
They skirted a long low building, half of engineering brick and half of black-stained clapboard. The steepness of the slope made room for three stories facing them, though only a single storey at the far end. Galvanised grilles of heavy mesh covered the windows of the lower two floors. Alan peered down into the shadow of a gated compound, just big enough for an ambulance to turn round in. It was surrounded by a high close-ribbed steel fence. It looked the sort of place to which you’d deliver a circus animal, with no clear way of escape for the creature if it broke loose.
Stopping ten yards short of what was clearly the main entrance, Matron unlocked a gate in the railings. They stepped onto the narrow mossy landing of a concrete stairway creeping down into a damp cleft.
Alan called to mind an illustrated copy of Dante’s Inferno which he’d once browsed in a glossy bookshop. The cover depicted the narrator, led by the poet Virgil, entering upon a new level of hell. Matron bore some resemblance to Virgil as he was illustrated – the meritorious pagan, seeking a way out of the infernal land.
Just as Alan put his foot on the first step down, the sun broke through the inverse sea of grey stratus cloud. At his toe-tip a fragment of glass blazed out, a piercing point in the gloom. As he passed over it, a rainbow was injected through his left eye, from vital red to mystic mauve. Its mission achieved, the angel shard sank back into the dun concrete. Alan’s heart gained an up-beat and round about him the murk lightened a shade. It was as if he’d been inoculated against the horrors that lay in store.
They were entering upon the nether region known as Limbo.
A dusty side-door painted blue served as the fire-exit for the middle storey, as the push-bar on its inner side evinced. But it was also Matron’s special way in, to appear unheralded on the ward.
She closed the door and the iron bar fell with a clank. Now they were in a dim stairwell of bare concrete steps. Turning right they found themselves in a room full of heavy steel cots, from which countless years and innumerable teeth had nibbled away much of the enamel.
Alan had once seen the babies’ ward of a maternity hospital, but this was nothing like it. For a start, it was silent. The babies, many dressed in little shirts and dungarees, lay on linen-covered mattresses with no bedclothes – superfluous anyway in the ward’s blood-heat. Each babe lay on his back with his eyes open. Each babe was still.
…to be continued.