by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

“Have you been doing this sort of thing already?” said Mrs Wirral. They were walking down between the beds of the teenage boys, in the reverse direction Matron and he had taken on being shown round. 

Alan smiled. “No – I’ve not long left school.”

“I just wondered if you’d come to us from another hospital. So you won’t have seen anything like this before?”

Alan shook his head. 

“First job?”

“No. I’ve been working as an electrician’s mate for a couple of months.” 

They had reached the landing at the top of the stairs. 

“Then you’ll be interested in this,” said Mrs Wirral, opening a side door. 

It was a walk-in cupboard. It had nothing in it except a high shelf on which there stood a double-row of square glass bottles like pickling jars – except that they were filled with grey plates. It was straight out of a Victorian laboratory. 

“Old-fashioned lead-acid batteries!” exclaimed Alan. A small red light on the wall told him they were on permanent charge. 

“They may be old-fashioned – but they’re new. They work the alarm bell. Even if the power goes off, it will still keep on working.”

She closed the door again. “It needs to. It’s our lifeline.”

They came to the middle level. “We call this the Babies’ Ward,” said Mrs Wirral. 

“I saw it when Matron showed me round.”

“Oh,  so you’ve seen everything already?”

“No, only what we’ve just been through.”

“Well, we’ll give the Babies a miss.” She put her hand on the banister rail to go downstairs.

“Is it a separate ward from upstairs?”

“No. We call it the Babies’ Ward, but together with the two upstairs, Boys’ Ward and Children’s’ Ward, it comprises Ward 14 – Boys’ Psychiatric. Downstairs is a separate ward though – Ward 15.”

“I didn’t see any mention of Ward 13…”

“There isn’t one.”

“Why not?”

“There never is. How would you like to be put in a Ward 13?”

Alan frowned. “Isn’t that just being superstitious?”

“It’s what people think. Patients might feel they’re going to die in a Ward 13.”

“So if the number hadn’t been missed out, Ward 14 would be Ward 13. Would the patients here really care?”

Mrs Wirral grimaced slightly and shook her head. She didn’t want to go into that. They carried on down the stairs. “Enough said about the Babies’ Ward. There should be somebody down here all the time – but we are so short-staffed that it’s just not possible. Sister reckons we’re four headcount under-strength.”

“Pity I’m not four people,” said Alan. 

Mrs Wirral looked at him appraisingly. “Well – we’ll certainly be grateful for you when you’ve found your feet. But you won’t be much use to start with, because we can’t leave you alone. Not to manage things on your own, like.” 

They reached the bottom of the stairway. “Did Matron show you down here?”

“No. We came in at the fire-exit back up there.”

“Well, she left you this as a joy in store. This is Ward 15, as I’ve already said, the Observation Unit. Also known as the Three-Day Order. There’s no one in at the moment so there doesn’t need to be anyone on-duty. But as soon as there’s an admission, then somebody has to be down here all the time – even if there’s only two staff on the ward. It can happen at any time of the day or night.”

Mrs Wirral turned to face him. “There’s got to be at least two staff in the building the whole time. That’s one rule that can’t be stretched.” 

They were standing at one end of an L-shaped corridor. Mrs Wirral pointed to the opening on the right. “Bathroom and toilets that way. Like upstairs, only smaller. One bath, two toilets, one sluice.” She pronounced it “sloosh” – as did everyone else.

The doors on the left-hand side had round portholes, each glazed in armoured glass. Alan peered through the wire mesh of the first one they came to. Mrs Wirral reached round his waist and opened the door.

“This is Room Six. We can accommodate up to six patients. I’ve never known that many. Normally just one at a time – maybe two.”

“I was expecting to see a padded cell…”

“We haven’t got those. They’ve got them at Hellingly.”

The door was surfaced with unpainted sheet steel on the inside and there was no handle. There was no bedside cabinet or chair – just the bed.

 “Seems a bit Spartan…”

“Can’t give the patients anything to injure themselves with. Or injure you.”

Alan looked round inside. There was no window. It was a prison cell in all but name. There was no light switch inside for the patient, so he or she could never turn the light off. The light fitting in the centre of the ceiling was surrounded by a heavy wire-mesh cage. Inside, out of reach of even the longest fingers, were two bulbs – one bright and one dim. Alan thought of Sir Alec Guinness in the title role of The Cardinal. The imprisoned prelate in a communist state, being brainwashed.

 “So you keep them shut in here the whole time?”

“Oh no. All the while someone’s in, the door’s left ajar. Whoever’s on-duty sits outside, where they can keep an eye on the patient. The door is only shut if there’s another admission, or when you can’t be watching them because you’re otherwise occupied. It’s opened again as soon as the new patient is settled-in.”

“But here’s where they stay all the time?”

“If they want to. Mostly out of sheer boredom they lie on the bed. You don’t let them go to sleep though, or they won’t sleep at night. They can get up if they want – sit at the table and read the magazines – drink the tea when it’s brought down…”

They walked along the corridor to the table at the end. To the right the passage continued a short distance to the front door.

“This is Room One,” said Mrs Wirral, pointing to the last door on the left. “It’s the handiest for keeping an eye on the patient when you’re sitting at the table, so it’s the first one to be used for an admission.”

Above the table was a magazine rack. Above that was another of the semaphores which Alan was seeing all over the place. They varied in size and shape (this one was a wall-mounted box), but they were all silver-painted and bore the numbers 2 – 4 – 6.

“What’s that for?”

“It’s used for paging the key staff – to call them to the nearest telephone. Each key staff member has a code. Matron is 2 – 4… that’s the only one I know.”

Apart from the semaphore, the breeze-block walls and the six-inch gauge heating pipes which ran overhead, the most striking feature of the decor was the black conduit. It hung down the walls at intervals, terminating in cast-iron receptacles at shoulder height. In the centre of each receptacle was a bright chrome button. 

With the practised eye of an electrician of all of two months’ standing Alan stopped and inspected the installation. The lighting conduit was standard gauge and had been painted to match the walls in the same flecked cheese-mould colour. This conduit was thinner and had been left factory black. It threaded the corridors like the dark lines of a far more dangerous mould. 

 “That’s the attack alarm,” said Mrs Wirral. “Careful – the buttons are on a hair-trigger. You just have to brush against them and they go off.”

Alan spoke in awe. “Do they often get pressed?”

“No, not for real, thank goodness. They ring upstairs – there’s no sound down here, so the patient doesn’t have to know you’ve called for help. You can press the button just by leaning your back against it. They often get pressed by accident.”

“Oops!” said Alan, snatching his hand away. “I’d better be careful.”

“When you hear the bell upstairs – it’s very loud – you drop everything and come running. Doesn’t matter what you’re doing – bathing a patient or changing the bed. It also works a heavy alarm bell on the wall outside and notifies the switchboard as well. If you don’t phone through in two minutes to say that everything’s under control they’ll send help from the neighbouring wards.” 

“They must expect you to get some pretty dangerous people in here.”

“Oh, no – most of them aren’t dangerous. Just the occasional one or two. We say that the police bring them here when they’re getting too much for them at the station. We can do things to them the police can’t.” 

“Such as…?”

She paused and looked at him.

“Administer paraldehyde.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ll see.”

As she turned to lead the way back along the corridor, she must have thought she was being a little too arch because she added “Chemical cosh. It’s a strong sedative. You’re not allowed to use straitjackets these days.”

…to be continued.


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