by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Poonawala came on duty at 1 o’clock. He had only just walked in the door when Jackie started shouting “Bottle o’beer! Bottle o’beer!” Or so it sounded to Alan.
Poonawala held up his finger. “Yes, Master Jackie, I’ll just bring one.”
“… Missah Hall…! Missah Hall…!”
“Oh,” said Poonawala, aborting the mission. “He wants you to do it.”
“Fetch a bottle!”
“A bottle of beer? We haven’t got any. Patients aren’t allowed beer…”
“A bed-bottle, you chump. That is his name for it.”
“Where are they?” Alan didn’t know – he’d never seen a bed-bottle in use on this ward.
“In the cupboard outside the washroom. You’ll see them at eye-height.”
Muttering to himself, Alan did as he was told.
By the time he got back, Poonawala had changed into uniform. Alan gave him the bed-bottle.
“What do you do?”
Poonawala made as if to give the patient the bottle, but Jackie shouted out even louder, “Missah Hall…! Missah Hall…!”
Poonawala sniggered. In a sing-song voice he said “Somebody’s got a crush on you, Missah Hall!” He gave Alan back the bottle.
Alan flushed crimson. In annoyance he pulled down the covers to place the bed-bottle under Jackie’s penis. He failed to catch the stream in time – and the warm urine flowed over his hands.
“Oh – Jackie!”
The patient’s face went puffy with mortification.
“That is your fault,” said Poonawala. “You didn’t get to him in time.”
“Now I’ll have to change the whole ruddy bed!” snapped Alan. “It’s gone all over the top sheet too!”
He stomped off to fetch the linen trolley, then he and Poonawala set to work.
“What’s the use of giving him a bed-bottle,” protested Alan, “if we only have to change the bed anyway?”
Poonawala said nothing. His face signalled that Alan shouldn’t be talking over the patient like that. As they wheeled the trolley back to the washroom together, Poonawala put his hand heavily on Alan’s shoulder.
“If it was just a matter of carrying out the routine,” he said, “then we’d simply treat Jackie Robb like everyone else. It would be efficient. But there is such a thing as a patient’s dignity – and Jackie alone in this whole ward is the only one who is capable of knowing what that means.”
“It’s February 29th on Monday,” said Vince. “Brace yourself, Alan, for all those proposals…”
“Don’t laugh at me.”
“I mean it. You’re in that hospital – and there are all those old spinsters walking about. You have to give the girl a pair of gloves if you refuse her.”
Alan snorted. “I’ll get a big box of surgical rubbers.”
“Seriously Alan,” said Jo, “what would you do if a girl did propose to you?”
“Why – don’t say you’re meaning to?” He gave Vince a comical look. Vince sneered and lit another cigarette.
“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” said Alan half-humorously. “I’ll just have to see if Sister can’t give me the day off.”
“And lock yourself in the bedroom all day,” added Vince. “Perhaps Jackie will propose to you…”
“Oh – don’t you start!” To Jo’s puzzled face he said “I was just telling Vince before you came downstairs that there’s only one patient in the whole ward who can talk – well almost the only one – and he has precisely one joke. You get to hear this bloody joke over and over again. It’s not particularly funny.”
“What’s the joke?” said Jo.
“I’m not telling you.”
“Oh, go on…!”
There was a solid silence.
“Job pissing your off?” said Vince. He could see there was something weighing on Alan’s mind.
“It is, a bit.”
“Give it up,” said Vince.
“I don’t feel I can let them down…”
“Get away with your bother! They’ll replace you like a shot. No one’s indispensable. When you realise that, you think about yourself a bit more.”
“What else could I do?”
They all three laughed. Alan took a sip of his beer.
“I just learnt today what happened to my predecessor. It appears I was recruited as her replacement.”
“What happened to her?”
“She was down in the 3DO – the Three-Day Order – supervising a patient having a bath… when the woman flew at her, tore her jacket open and bit her breast right off almost.”
“Ouch!” squeaked Jo.
“She’d managed to hit the attack alarm, but by the time the other staff got to her, she was like this – on the floor…” Alan gestured with his thumbs pressing downwards.
Vince winced too.
“She was on the sick-list for months – although it was clear to everyone she was never coming back. Trouble is, if she admitted it, they would have put her on half-pay straightaway. They had to do it anyway in the end – to free up the post, so they could fill it again.”
Alan took a deep draught of his beer.
“A bad business…” said Vince. He let a few seconds of silence go by, then he judged it was time to change the subject.
“What you think about the French getting the A-Bomb?”
“They’ve had it for a while,” said Alan. “This is just the first time they’ve tested it, in the open air.”
“Air pollution…!” said Vince, pulling on his cigarette.
“Scientists blowing up the world…!” said Jo, stubbing her dog-end out.
“More of a political experiment than a scientific one,” said Alan. “I suppose it’s meant to make the point that all the Four Powers now have the Bomb.”
“Let’s hope it stops there,” growled Vince. Alan raised his eyebrows at him.
“Whyever should it do that? At the moment it’s so expensive to make a bomb that only the Four Powers can do it. But people will work away making it cheaper and cheaper. When I think how the price of a transistor has come down in just a few years! Just shillings now. Then of course, everyone will want a bomb.”
“I won’t want one!” said Jo, putting on an old-fashioned look.
Alan patted her arm. “No, love, I’m sure you won’t. But if you’re an Israeli, you might want your government to have one.”
“If they could get it cheap enough,” sniffed Vince, taking a drag on his cigarette. Jewish jokes weren’t altogether out of fashion. But Alan didn’t find them funny. They were too much like Scottish jokes for his liking.
Alan shifted on his bar-stool. “As soon as every tin-pot African state gets the Bomb, then we’re really in the shits. Just imagine the Congo – with atomic weapons.”
“Rumble in the jungle indeed!” said Vince. “But surely it will never come to that?”
“Let’s hope not,” said Alan. “I mean if African states want to get themselves blasted to rubble, why! – nature does that perfectly well for them without their having to go paying all that money for an A-bomb.”
It was simply the way young men talked. Hard and cynical – about things they felt deeply about, if you could get them to admit it. But you could no more do that than get them to admit to being poofters, wearing their hearts on their sleeves.
The other two knew exactly what he was talking about. That Tuesday the town of Agadir had been levelled to the ground by an earthquake. The newsreels and TV were showing pictures of a silent moonscape.
“It’s nice to think of it, isn’t it? Disaster can strike at any time. Lightning out of a cloudless sky.”
They let that sink in, like a boulder going to the bottom.
“Shit!” said Vince. “You are in a mood tonight.”
Mentally, Alan stood aside and took a look at himself. “Yeah…!”
“Have another drink…” Jo offered.
Alan got off his stool and stretched his legs. “Next week,” he remarked, trying to make it sound casual, “it’s my first stint down in the 3DO.”
His two friends looked hard at each other as he wandered off to the gents.
…to be continued.