by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Alan, a war baby brought up on spam, pom, rationing and free orange-juice, had never seen a tossed salad. Fancy ingredients in jars were only just beginning to appear in the shops.
To men of his father’s generation, a proper lunch was meat, potatoes and veg with all the veggy taste cooked out of it and everything covered in Bisto. There was a ritual to eating it, something like grace-before-meals: you didn’t just plunge in – oh, no. First you shook lashings of salt and pepper all over it and dolloped-on plenty of HP Sauce to make it taste like food should do. Salads were things you got at funerals and garden parties – thin ham covering the bottom of the plate, limp lettuce on top, slices of tomato neatly lined-up on top of that and a spoonful of pickle.
But as Alan slid the plate off his tray at their chosen table, he had to admit that a hospital salad was something above the common herd.
“There are separate canteens for top staff, doctors, nurses – and the riff-raff,” said Soddy. “This is the nurses’ canteen. Nursing auxiliaries and ward orderlies aren’t allowed to use it. But we are.”
“Why is that?”
“Nursing assistants have the same privileges as nurses – although nurses are supposed to be a cut above us nasties.”
“N/Assts. It’s a word like Awol… and Beeb.”
Alan probed the salad with his fork. It was liberally soused in French dressing. Proper French dressing – olive oil and vinegar shaken together with a knife-tip of mustard to emulsify it. Peppercorns (or was it coriander?) – capers – anchovies – chopped olives…
“You always see ‘nurses and nursing assistants’ on the staff notice boards. Never just ‘nurses’.”
… chopped red cabbage (fresh, not pickled: his father would consider that very original!) – a pretty variety of crisp-looking lettuces – parsley – something green he didn’t recognise…
“N/Asst is a Mental Health Service thing. The NHS has no corresponding grade. It gets all its slave-labour as an inexhaustible supply of student-nurses.”
… midget whole tomatoes – sliced pimento – chicken, by the looks of it (he hoped it wasn’t rabbit) – a sprinkling of pine-nuts…
“All the young girls want to be nurses these days. Can’t think why. Marry a doctor, I suppose.”
Alan looked up. Hence the accent on salad – all these student-nurses wanting to keep their figures trim. But the dish was a picture and no mistake. Someone clearly thought the appearance was just as important as the taste.
Alan couldn’t see why they went to all that trouble – you were only going to eat it. Carelessly he picked up a container with a funnel tip, thinking it was a hospital-sized salt-cellar, and began to shake.
“Oi!” said Soddy, pointing his fork. “That’s not salt – that’s sugar.”
Alan put it down. He felt an utter twerp.
“There’s the salt” – a tiny open dish with a tiny ladle to match. Something you might use in a twelfth-scale model of the set for Oliver Twist.
Soddy, chewing on a piece of sausage gristle, said “What are you going to do at college next year?”
“Oh…” said Alan, still blushing as he scraped the sugar off his salad, “I was thinking of combining Physics with International Relations.”
“Mixing Science with Politics? I didn’t know you could do that.”
“You can’t – at most places. But there’s this new University College of North Staffordshire…”
“Doesn’t sound too posh a joint…” Soddy sounded disappointed. Was he thinking Cambridge?
“The locals call it the Kremlin on the Hill. But I think that’s because of the lacy architecture of Keele Hall. Have you seen Danny Kaye in Knock On Wood…?”
“Well, it’s Keele Hall he’s rushing about all over. In one window and out the other…”
Soddy was nearly through with his sausage casserole. Alan hadn’t even started his salad. In spite of its sex-appeal he couldn’t convert his visual admiration into gustation. In his mind’s eye he could still see dollops of tish.
“Yeah…” said Soddy. “That’s what they ought to do here. Make a film.”
“A comedy? With Danny Kaye?”
Soddy screwed up one eye. He appeared to be giving the question careful consideration. “Something a bit more serious…”
it’s not turned out a bad morning after all
there’s not many staff as can do the big change on their own there’s mr rochdale and that’s just about it he’s big enough to lift the patients all by himself
he picked me up by an arm and a leg as if he was lifting the bowl off the trolley and he laid me on billy’s bed to put new sheets on mine
i felt the piss go cold on my back and my nightshirt was all clammy because there’d been no one around to bring me a bottle when i’d called
it’s nice when he puts me on billy’s bed it gives me shivers all round my balls
billy and me often chat when the staff are out of sight he’s a nice kid bright too but sometimes it’s hard to understand what he says
they took all his teeth out because he used to bite right through his lip
he has to be kept in a restrainer all the time because he hits his nose and makes it bleed and scratches himself and picks holes in his skin
me i don’t need a restrainer
i can’t move a finger i just lie where they put me…
Back on the ward, Soddy handed over Alan to the tender care of Mr Maskell. “Right, I’m off now. Just the two of you on this afternoon.” He gave Alan a sham punch on his triceps. “See you tomorrow, Nobby.”
“International Relations and Physics?” said Maskell (Soddy had gleefully told him). “What does that qualify you to do? Sell atomic secrets?”
“It sounded fun at the time. I may change my mind.”
Maskell drawled “You scientists. All you want to do is blow up the world.”
“That’s what I hear from everyone! It’s politicians who blow up the world – none of them are scientifically trained. Ignorance can be bad, you know.”
“Knowledge can be bad,” growled Maskell. “You just keep the things you learn up here…” he tapped his temple, “and let them stay there.”
…to be continued.