by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Saturday. The day after New Year’s Day, which had made it a Long Weekend for most people. Day-trippers were back in town, down from London by coach and train. Over the Christmas season, in honour of the new decade, the Old Town funfair on a wide shingle spit known as the Stade had unseasonably thrown back its shutters. Chip-chewing, whelk-swallowing couples drifted in wafts of vinegar beneath strings of coloured bulbs. Not quite Blackpool Illuminations, decided Alan, but seven-out-of-ten for effort. If, even in the middle of an economic boom, the town council still couldn’t create anything but seasonal jobs, the least it could do was try and extend the season.
The Wonders of the Deep had reappeared too. This white-painted barrow like a mad fishmonger’s stall was in its usual place among the net-shops – tall tarred net-drying buildings of a design dating back to the Vikings. The old man who ran it stood under a clutch of spotlights, in the early dark of a winter evening, putting on his one-man show. There he declaimed about specimens of unsaleable catch to the passers-by – dogfish, cuttlefish and shelly beasties extruding threads and spines. Skates were slung around the poles supporting the canopy, string tied round their necks to bulge their heads into absurd faces with pouting lips. These the old man had dabbed with lipstick, each nipping a cigarette for heightened effect. What mockery the little green men will make of us, Alan conjectured, as they trawl us up into their flying saucers, exhibiting the less appetizing bodies, amid gales of bleeping chuckles, with extra-terrestrial perversions stuck in their orifices.
A surprise present for Leslie was in order. Leslie was a student-nurse at the Royal Sussex Hospital – and his usual partner in ballroom-dancing classes put-on at the Youth Club by her elder sister Daphne, a teacher. He and Leslie weren’t close enough to give Christmas presents – and anyway she was engaged to John (who didn’t dance). So – nothing too dear. Nothing to prompt a present in return, given out of duty rather than love.
The trinket shops were open. Alan went inside one at random – they were all much the same. As he poked among the key-rings and cowrie shells he could hear the shopkeeper chatting to a female customer. “It’s the only one in Seagate,” he insisted.
“That’s a pity, I want two.” From the twang of her voice she was unmistakably a local.
“What do you want two for?”
“It’s for a tabard.”
“Is that something you stuff in dolphins’ ears?”
“No – a tabard. Like this.” She put the tea-towel over her front. Alan, grinning widely in the gloom of the dangling merchandise, crept closer. “I’m going as Miss Seagate. We’ve all got to go along and talk up Seagate.”
“It’ll be cold, mind.”
“It’s all right, I’ll wear me knickers.” She hung the tea-towel back on its stand.
“It’s a pity you didn’t come in for our free autumn offer…”
“Yeah – I know. ‘Leaves Off’!”
Alan, stifling a splutter, slipped out of the shop.
Back outside, he swaggered round the big oblong boating pool. He had a job now! With a bunch of mates he could have gone and pushed the boat attendant in the water. Instead, hidden in the dark of the seaward side, he expressed his contempt for the boatman’s job with a token piddle in the pool.
It was Monday morning. Alan passed under a square arch formed by heating pipes, tarred and tessellated with chicken-wire, having climbed the slope to the ward entrance. Bags of soiled linen stood beside the doorway in a parody of a ogre’s milk delivery. He caught an ammoniacal whiff of urine. Head turned away, taking a deep breath, he went in.
A scene of disorder met his gaze. In the space of a minute he saw six different sorts of uniform scurrying past. Children stood around, but unlike children you saw anywhere else. The white-aproned staff, bowls in-hand, hopped in and out of the crowd of kids like kittiwakes on a rocky island stuffing food into gaping beaks.
A tall burly man came out of the kitchen doorway with a steaming bowl in his hand. “Who’s next? Has anyone fed Billy Rich?”
“No, Mr Rochdale. He’s next. Then that’s about it…”
A woman’s voice trickled through from the far side of the room. “There’s still Stephen Briggs to do. I had to rush him to the bathroom.”
Alan stood dazed in the middle of the scrimmage like one of the children, only taller. A wiry pixie in a royal blue uniform picked her way through to him and caught hold of his sleeve. Sister Fearon, a vivacious Irishwoman, hauled him off like a naughty child, or was it one being rescued from a hostile mob? She led him into a glass-partitioned office and sat him down.
“There – now you’ve seen us at our busiest. I did say come at eleven.”
“I’m sorry, Sister,” mumbled Alan. “I didn’t want to be late on my first morning.”
She forgave him instantly. “Just lie low here for a quarter-of-an-hour until breakfasts are out of the way and the night-staff have got off. Then I’ll find somebody to show you round.”
True to her word, she was back in fifteen minutes. Meanwhile they might have been abandoning the Titanic, for all the comings and goings in the corridor outside.
“Phew!” said Sister, fanning her face with a folder from the desk. “It’s been a complete madhouse this morning – though I shouldn’t say that. Breakfasts were late coming over from Kitchen. It’s not always like this.”
A face appeared round the door and a solidly-built motherly woman in a white coat and red canvas belt was straightaway summoned inside. Sister picked up the pen. “Mrs Wirral. Mr Soddy has only just come off nights. I don’t want to give him two split-duties this week. Do you think you could take one of them?”
The woman put her finger to her cheek and looked upwards. “Lisa’s at home all this week – she can cover for me. Yes Sister, no problem.”
“Bless you. This is Mr Hall, a new nursing assistant. Are you busy for the next hour or so?”
“No…” Mrs Wirral’s face registered “ask a silly question – get a silly answer”. She added “If Mr Rochdale is happy to do the Big Change on his own…”
“I’ll muck-in if needs be. How would you like to show Mr Hall round? He’ll need a locker…”
She got a key out of the desk. “Number 16 will do. After you’ve shown him the ward and the Three-Day-Order he’ll need taking over to Laundry for his uniform. I don’t imagine there will be any time for much else before lunch.” She shot Alan a mischievous smile. “Then this afternoon – we’ll put you to work!”
…to be continued.