by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

Alan stripped off his apron, his white coat and his uniform trousers. They had thought to issue him with a spare pair of uniform trousers and he was mighty glad to see them there, hanging in his locker, nicely pressed. He put them on, then sorted out a white coat from his pile of linen and slipped that on too. 

Upstairs he’d picked up a breakfast basin to feed the last remaining child and had just gone out onto the veranda with it when Bobby Doole projectile-vomited at him. That wouldn’t have been too bad if he’d been facing the boy, because he would have received it all in the apron. But Bobby Doole had been standing to one side of him, so he’d caught it on his jacket, apron, trousers and socks. He hadn’t thought to bring a spare pair of socks to work, but he’d rinsed off the vomit under the hot tap in the washroom and was now standing in one damp sock. 

Soddy came into the locker room. “Slacking?” There was no malice in it. 

“No – I’m just trying to work out these buttons…”

“Come here – let me have a look.”

Soddy cast a practised eye over the white jacket. “You should have watched more carefully how they were put on when you took them off.” Alan shamefacedly agreed. 

“See here, these are the proper button-holes. Over on the other side – these tiny button-holes are for your buttons. Push one through, then push the split-pin into the ring – like so.”

“OK, thanks – I see now.”

“Be sure to get it the right way round – otherwise you’re taking them all off and doing it all over again.”

 Alan smiled. “Thanks.” 

“And be sure to take the buttons off when you send the jacket to the laundry. Quite apart from the split-pins ripping the linen in the washer, they’ll lose them for you and make you pay for a new set.” 

“Thanks.” He wondered where Soddy found the patience to suffer fools so gladly. 

“Don’t worry, Nobby. We’ve all done it.”

“Does this sickey linen go in the white bag or the green?”

“Green. And you should have your own. Else your gear will get lost. Treat vomit like tish – it’s probably infected. There’s a bit of a bug going round. I expect more of the children will be sick today.” 

“Oh, splendid!” said Alan sardonically. 

“On the other hand, it might just have been Bobby Doole eating tish again.”

Soddy savoured the look on Alan’s face. 

“Welcome to Ward 14,” he laughed.

Upstairs, Mr Poonawala was just starting the big change by himself. 

“Sorry,” said Alan. “I’m here now to give you a hand.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” said Poonawala. “Why don’t you go into the office first and get some better music on the radio?”

“What’s the payola?” (There’d been a big scandal about disc-jockeys accepting bribes to play particular records.)

“Let’s just say,” replied Poonawala with a toothy grin, “that if I don’t like your choice I won’t throw tish at you.” 

The radio which worked the Tannoy was an elaborate affair, the size of a suitcase. Not your ordinary domestic wireless – this was a professional set. There was a huge rectangular dial with the most detailed wavebands, long, medium and short wave, that Alan had ever seen. The best music stations the staff had discovered to-date had been marked-on with sticky tape. 

Alan wondered if every ward had one of these radios – but as he was told later, various elaborate pieces of equipment he saw around the place were the gift of societies like the Lions Club or the Royal and Ancient Order of Buffaloes. Typically they would adopt Ward 14 as their Christmas charity and offer to buy presents for all the children in the ward. A lost cause – because there were only three children who would have known what to do with a toy. And of those, two were quadriplegic. Or effectively so.

After they’d made that mistake one year and the staff had been left staring at a useless pile of toys, Sister exercised her mind each year thereafter for something which could raise the quality of life for the whole ward. Something – that is – that the Buffaloes would find it attractive to donate. A hoist for the bath, a padded drying table or some new bath chairs, would certainly raise the quality of life – and not just for the staff. A new extractor fan for the 3DO – hey now! But those didn’t quite fit the Tiny Tim image. Anyway, the government was supposed to pay for things like that.

What was really needed, of course, was more staff. And that wasn’t simply a question of money. The whole of the Mental Health Service found it difficult to recruit staff of the “right calibre” as they put it – people who would work for a pittance, yet were of somewhat higher grade than the Labour Exchange was apt to send them. The economy was booming. Unemployment was low. The Prime Minister had only recently had occasion to say to the nation’s workers: “you’ve never had it so good.” No one had cared to go on-record contradicting him. 

When Alan got back to the ward, Poonawala said to him “Why did you choose this job?” 

“It chose me. I came looking for a porter’s job. But Matron had other ideas…”

Poonawala laughed. “Yes, she is a very persuasive lady.”

“I was hoping to keep my eye open for a porters’ job when it came up. But I think I shall stay in this one now.”

“You’re not hating it, then?”

“…No.” It was the first time Alan had admitted it to himself. “It was a bit of a shock at first…”

“That I can imagine!” 

“But after a while you don’t feel you can let people down.”

Poonawala pulled out a draw-sheet. “That is how everyone feels,” he said with a shrug. “The authorities have come to rely on it.” 

He could have said “presume on it”, but Poonawala picked his words carefully. Words for him were like scalpels. Use one for sharpening your pencil – and it won’t cut flesh.

“Isn’t there a union?”

“Several. The porters are all union men. The nurses have a union too, but it never goes on strike. On principle. And it doesn’t do much for us nursing assistants – we’re only untrained staff, you see. So nobody bothers to join.”

They made the bed in silence for a minute, Alan copying Poonawala’s movements as if they were doing a stage double-act, folding the blankets round the mattresses in neat hospital corners. 

“Have you never thought of training properly,” said Poonawala, “as RMN – Registered Mental Nurse?” 

“I’ve got a place on a degree course for September next year,” said Alan.

“Oh I see! So this is just a temporary job for you. Lucky you.”

…to be continued.


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