by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Sliding the cot side down, lowering it gently so as not to make a sound, Matron picked up the first child they came to. She might have been picking up a doll.
“Paul is congenitally blind. And deaf – though we can’t be sure of that yet.” Gently she lowered the baby back and re-secured the cot. Briefly inspecting the double row of cots like fighting vehicles on parade, she turned and led the way up steps which rang like iron bells to the top floor.
Here the concrete landing gave way to thick snot-green lino laid over creaky boards, which you could see in places down the gaps. It was lighter here, the windows were bigger and no longer covered in mesh. The cheerful sound of the BBC morning programme Music While You Work came over the Tannoy. Incongruously the dance orchestra was playing a Bill Haley number, Rock Around The Clock – a shock of culture contrast like mangles and trashcans decked out in flowers.
It looked so much like the dormitory in his old boarding school. The same black iron bedsteads. The same ranks of beds with hardly any space between. The only difference he could see was that each bed had low cot-sides – that, and the way in which the occupants held themselves as they lay. Like stick-insects. Not in languid boredom, as adolescents are wont to lie, but in an all-absorbing concentration at the effort it entailed.
Matron, catching his eye, said “There are 35 patients in this ward. There’s enormous pressure on space. The building’s built into the hill, so it can’t be easily extended. I’ve applied to open a second Children’s Ward… though whether that will come about remains to be seen.”
This ward too was silent. The babies had simply grown older. Every bed contained a boy of thirteen upwards. Some may even have been Alan’s age. Nobody looked his way. All the patients were absorbed in gazing at the ceiling, biting the bedclothes or sucking their hands as they lay. Some made slow rhythmic movements with their heads, displaying that they were alive, in a fashion. Matron began to walk between the rows of beds. She was combining the task of showing Alan the ward with an impromptu ward-round.
The patient in the fifth bed along on the left had scratches on his face. Matron stopped to look at him. Alan stopped too. “Hello…” he said softly. The eyes didn’t even flicker.
Tenderly Matron took the boy’s hand out of his mouth and, heedless of the slaver, gently straightened the fingers to inspect the length of the fingernails. “Michael Golightly is severely brain-damaged,” she murmured. “The nerve-fibres of his CNS are suffering progressive degeneration of the myelin sheath.”
Alan looked blank.
“As an electrician you’ll appreciate the consequences. It’s as if the insulation has rotted away from the wiring in the brain.”
Now that he did understand! Many had been the house, whose owner had refused a rewire, from which Alan had tiptoed out, fearful of causing the fuse-box to go bang in a repeating cycle of short circuits which could never be located or remedied. Such houses were the rule in Seagate, wired with rubber cable which, in coal-polluted urban air, de-vulcanised in a couple of decades back to tree-sap. Or worse – Edwardian lead-covered cable with paper-wrapped wires, whose insides had crumbled to brown flakes. He was shocked to think that the house of the human frame could suffer from analogous disorders.
“He cannot talk. He cannot do a thing for himself.” She gently placed the soggy hand under the covers. “None of the patients can, in this ward…”
Behind her, one of the boys suddenly began bellowing like a bullock, face reddened, body suddenly tensed. He relaxed into a rhythmic jerking which gradually lengthened in interval. After the ultimate jerk an expression of astonishment tinged his fallow outlook. Alan gaped at the patient in horror, then at Matron, but his stare was arrested by her placid grey eyes.
“…And all of them are prone to epileptic fits.”
Releasing his gaze, she stepped unhurriedly over to the bed and peered beneath the bedclothes. She wasn’t looking so much as discreetly sniffing.
Leaving the Boys’ Ward, they walked through an empty playroom. The curtain-less windows were open, letting in a welcome breeze. But this hadn’t yet managed to shift the smell of faeces mixed with disinfectant which rose from the mopped floor, still showing puddles in places. Maybe it never would. The green waxy linoleum was like cheese crust. There was another lingering smell too, at which Alan almost retched. Fermented slobber, although Alan didn’t know it then, sweetened with floral air-freshener.
Halfway along the wall on the right were double doors: they were open and bolted back. Children were outside on the veranda, though there was no noise to betray their presence. Nor were they playing, but standing around looking lost. Among them was a nursing assistant in a white apron and dark blue uniform trousers, inspecting the hair of one of the children. He turned and smiled when Matron appeared on the veranda, glancing at Alan in momentary surprise.
“Good morning, Mr Soddy.”
“Good morning, Matron.”
“Daniel Roberts has just had a grand mal. You will need to change the bed in due course.”
She squatted down on her heels before a sweet-faced little boy with the eyes of Down’s Syndrome. He was in pink denim dungarees and stood before her like a statue. She did a button up on his shirt.
“Bobby Doole needs changing too,” she said. It was phrased as an observation, not a command. But the nursing assistant stopped what he was doing and swept the child up. “I’ll see to it, Matron.”
“Send Miss Harvey outside, if she’s in the kitchen. We’ll remain here in the meantime.”
As the nursing assistant carried the child back into the building, Matron explained “These patients can’t be left alone for a moment, when they’re up and dressed. But what with one thing and another, influenza taking its toll at this time of year, we’re short-handed on this ward.”
Only then did it strike Alan. Matron had known the names of every one of the staff they’d come across. He thought hard for a moment. What had his porter friend told him – upwards of 500 people worked at the hospital?
She also seemed to know the names of all the patients.
He began to grow even more scared of this woman, if it were possible.
…to be continued.