by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
“Well! – when I came home, I just dumped myself in the bath and scrubbed and scrubbed… It’s all right – you don’t have to shy away from me. I’m squeaky clean.”
Vince leaned across Jo and stroked his index finger down the middle of Alan’s forehead. “Squeak!”
Jo said “You’ll have to be careful of hospital bugs. Leslie says they’re superbugs.” All three of them knew Leslie, the student-nurse, from the Youth Club.
“Oh yes – she told me all about those. Picking up a tummy upset from hospital is called ‘bringing work home’”. His friends laughed.
“Brought any work home yet?”
“I doubt it,” said Alan. “I haven’t been able to eat a thing all day. The food looks good in the canteen, but I just couldn’t face it.”
An expression crept across Alan’s face like a rosy dawn. “Actually, thinking about it now, I could murder a pickled egg.”
“Pickled egg for the gentleman!” Vince called out to Jo’s mum who was serving behind the bar. He turned back to Alan. “Manage a pork pie too?” He reached in his pocket for the money.
“Sounds a bit ambitious,” said Alan. “I don’t think my imagination will let me eat a pork pie right at the moment.”
Again Vince reached across Jo and patted him on the arm. “Looks like life for you is gonna be one long round of shit and sugar!” Alan had incautiously mentioned what he’d done to his lunchtime salad.
The pickled egg arrived. Alan hacked at it with the fork and cautiously tried a bit of powdery yolk on his tongue. He swallowed. “Just got to get used to it, I guess,” he said. “Or I’ll starve.”
Alan was in the habit of taking long walks during which he’d sweep along in mighty strides, paying no attention to his surroundings. So by the time he was tired he’d discover he was a long way from home. Recently he’d solved the problem by walking the three miles along the seafront from the Green Man to the Royal Albert, the pub where Jo lived, having a bottle (or two) of Fremlin’s English Ale, and light-headedly striding back home like the wind in the dark. He’d met Jo at the youth club – and her fiancé Vincent. He’d generally find the pair of them at this time of night propping up the bar. Two’s company – three’s a crowd. But Vince and Jo always acted as if they were glad to see him. And they had a good laugh together – even if the jokes were mostly on him.
His mother thought it a funny arrangement. “Are you keen on Jo or aren’t you?” she said. “And what does Vincent think about it?”
Alan considered the suggestion perverse. “There’s nothing between me and Jo,” he protested indignantly. “They’re my friends.” In Alan’s book, you didn’t go poaching your friends’ womenfolk.
And his mother had gone back to the cooking with a smirk.
“One day you’ll walk in the Royal Albert – and Jo will be there and Vincent won’t. What are you going to do then?”
“I can’t imagine it. They’re inseparable!”
His mother didn’t look round. “I expect they’ve run out of things to talk about to each other. That’s why they’re glad to see you along.”
And Alan, ever the little old head on young shoulders, had gone off thinking how out-of-date his mother was. How like wartime, how like the Blitz, when people allegedly lived from day-to-day – just for the day. In the stable peacetime society of 1960 you could afford a few ethical standards.
Some would say that being an only child hadn’t exactly fine-tuned Alan’s awareness of other people’s proclivities. Boarding school hadn’t done anything to improve him – it had simply tempered his shell. The environment he’d just been dropped into, had he but known it, was either going to anneal him… or crush the shell to powder.
It was the Eight O’Clock News. Jo’s mother used to put the radio on for background music, she didn’t as a rule put it on for the chat. But today the customers weren’t talking loud so the three friends heard the news quite clearly.
Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh today broke a new depth record when they dived in the bathyscaphe USS Trieste to the bottom of Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean, 35,820 feet below sea level.
“Shit – that’s deep!” said Vince.
“6.8 miles,” said Alan, doing the calculation in his head. Vince looked at him sourly.
“Over six miles!” said Jo. “That’s the distance you walk here from the Green Man and back!”
“It’s more than the height of Everest,” said Alan pensively.
Vince lit a cigarette. “Can you imagine being in a bathyscaphe, all that way down! In a little iron shell – terrified the pressure will squash you like a boiled egg. Splutch!”
“Yes,” said Alan quietly.
Both his friends peered at him. “Yes, I can,” he persisted.
Vince barked in derision. “Been in a bathyscaphe, have you?”
“Been in the next best thing.”
Well! – they simply had to hear more.
“Underneath Ward 14 there’s another one. Ward 15. The Observation Unit. The Three-Day Order.”
Jo took a deep breath. “Oh God – I’ve heard of that!”
Alan spoke on slowly, dreamily. “It’s like a bunker down there. A little dungeon. No windows. Electric conduit creeping all over the walls. A spooky semaphore that winks silently all the time: 2 – 4 – 6 … 2 – 4 – 6 … There are big heavy old heating pipes running overhead through all the cells and along the end of the corridor. Makes it feel like a submarine. And the pipes rustle. Rustle-rustle-rustle. You feel cut-off from the world down there… sinking out of sight, very… very… deep.”
His friends were silent.
Alan, glancing up at them, gave a short laugh and felt obliged to say something to lighten the mood. “So don’t go throwing off all your clothes and prancing madly round on the beach. You might find me bringing you cups of tea down there…”
…to be continued.