by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
That afternoon two staff came on-duty he’d not met so far. Mr Pye, and Mr Menéndez. Pye was slim, bronzed, fair-haired and narrow-faced. He moved as if his body wasn’t stable unless in vigorous motion. Alan thought of a greyhound, unable to stand still without quivering. And he was tall. He said he’d been a guardsman – but Alan held back mention of his own father having been one too. The Guards have a liking for tall splendid men, but Alan wondered however Gerald Pye would have managed to fit in a sentry box standing erect in his bearskin.
Mr Menéndez by way of contrast was black-haired and pale-faced. He was shorter than Alan, but broader in the chest. He had a square black beard and the fierce Moorish eyes of a Barbary Coast corsair. Alan thought he just needed heavy gold earrings to complete the effect – plus of course a scimitar between his teeth. But a milder man he’d never met. He was more Jesus than Blackbeard.
When they got to know each other better and Alan asked him how he came to be in the job, he said he’d been directed to work as a nursing assistant by the government, because that’s where people were currently most needed.
“They can’t do that to you!”
“They can – if you’re applying for naturalisation.”
That brought Alan up with a shock. He had no idea his nice government could do that sort of thing to people. He wondered why this cultivated man was putting up with such degradation in seeking to become a countryman of his. It didn’t occur to him that César Menéndez, a Spanish national and a former teacher, might have been fleeing from persecution – and Menéndez never put him wise to the fact.
Spain, in 1960, was a forgotten relic of fascist Europe, but its caudillo, Francisco Paulino Hermenegildo Teódulo Franco Bahamonde, was currently the darling of the anti-communist West. People never knew, or chose to forget, that Heinrich Himmler, the second most powerful man in the Third Reich, was staggered by the atmosphere of repression he encountered in Madrid – and had said so in a wire to Berlin. Himmler, so it seems, really would have had Franco kicked out of the Gestapo for cruelty.
That evening Alan, plus bottle, had gone to the Nurses’ Home, tiny zephyrs pirouetting on his pelvic girdle. Anna had greeted him with gratifying enthusiasm and introduced him feverishly to her friends, but then had gone off and left him to sink or swim. She’d done him (and herself) enough favours by persuading him to come to the party in the first place. He might have guessed there was nothing personal in Anna’s eagerness to get him along – the problems of nursing a nurses’ party begin and end with locating an adequate supply of dishy boys for plugging-in like a drip-feed.
He felt not at all overawed in the company of medical students. They were like him – perhaps not even as well-educated. But where they differed from him was in the amount they smoked. Alan didn’t smoke – living with tobacco in a pub had sapped his relish to join the legions of the nicotine-addicted. Maybe the medical evidence that smoking could kill you was something left to the final year. Or perhaps being a medical student conferred a sense of immortality, of being above death and all that.
For the people here dispensed Health. It was their livelihood, they worshipped it – and they simply oozed it. Merely to rub shoulders with them was to absorb the elixir.
Alan hadn’t met student-nurses socially before – they were a whole new female dimension to him. The girls of his world were by and large ashamed of their own persons – treating their bodies as both sacred and profane at one and the same moment. The girls at the party had no concept of their bodies being either. Perhaps being a student-nurse, in day-to-day contact with flesh in every state of health from fresh to decomposing, made you think of yourself as so much meat – to be displayed with no more thought than you’d give to arranging lamb chops on a butcher’s slab.
The young people around him, apprentices to the craft of working in human tissue, were like classical gods and goddesses posing in various divine attitudes, whether attentively protective or lounging languidly on chairs and sofas – religious ikons in the organised worship of the human body.
Presently he found himself in conversation with a thin serious-looking girl in heavy black-rimmed glasses. She said she was training to be a radiologist and asked what he was training as.
“I’m eventually aiming to be a doctor,” said Alan – rather daringly in the present company, all said and done.
“I’ve not seen you around before. Are you doing your practical year here?”
“No, I have a place on a degree course to read Physics and International Relations. When I said I was aiming to be a doctor, I meant I was intending to go on and read for a PhD.”
“Oh,” laughed the girl, “not a real doctor?”
Alan felt put out, but was determined not to be provoked. “Not a medic.”
“So what exactly are you doing here?” she asked.
“I’m filling in time before my course starts by working as a nursing assistant.”
“Children’s’ Psychiatric – plus the Three-Day Order.”
She responded to that piece of intelligence with a spooky blend of grudging jealousy and dismissive scorn. “God – I couldn’t do your job for a million pounds!”
…to be continued.