by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Alan stepped out on the veranda with a bowl of bread and milk and porridge in his hand, looking for the next child to feed, when he heard a sudden sharp bellow. No tears followed, no sound at all in fact, but the vehemence of the ejaculation told him that something was seriously wrong. Reaching inside to place the bowl on the window ledge, he began searching for the child, whose voice he recognised.
It was John Lomax. He soon found him where he had fallen, sitting on the ground holding his head in both hands, a characteristic pose for the boy. But now blood was running from his brow, staining his face and shirt.
“Help please!” Alan shouted back inside. “John Lomax has been hurt.” Then he went and lifted the patient to his feet. There was no question of picking him up to comfort him – the boy must have weighed all of seven stone – so he held him upright to stand there on slightly flexed knees as though wetting himself – John Lomax’s normal attitude. Nor were cuddles and words of comfort things the boy had ever responded to.
In less than two minutes Alan was on his way to Casualty, pushing John Lomax in a bath chair. The boy, still in his outdoor clothes, was sporting a prominent white dressing on his head and was tucked-in liberally with blankets. He was in the habit when sitting down of rocking and honking rhythmically, but now he was silent. No sign of distress – but rather of absorption in the experience of what he clearly detected as a major departure from the norm. Alan thought to himself how good the child was.
In Casualty a doctor and a nurse quickly attended to John Lomax as if he were a side-order in a large and busy kitchen. The dressing came off and the wound was liberally sprayed with foaming Cetavlon. It was an inch-long cut and it was deep. As Alan looked on, the kitchen metaphor reminded him that flesh was only uncooked meat, two things which most people never thought of in the same compartment.
The doctor, in rubber gloves, threaded a short flat needle like a miniature silver tapeworm. This was anything but haute-couture dressmaking – Alan always thought of the thread used for sutures as something coarse and savage, something out of the Old Stone Age – which perhaps it was. That, and trepanning tools for knocking neat holes in heads.
The needle plunged into the flesh on either side of the wound, causing blood to well up again. John Lomax emitted a single loud grunt and thrust himself deeper into the bath chair. But that was his only response – nothing more than a knee-jerk. No intervention had been expected, or received, from the brain.
A single stitch was put in and knotted. A stitch put in flesh is a Dali-esque incongruity, like a furry teaspoon or a floppy clock, and for a moment Alan saw skin as the extension of clothing rather than vice versa. No dressing was put on the wound, the nurse explaining that it would heal better if exposed to air. She instructed Alan to encourage the patient not to touch it, but no thought of ever doing so was likely to enter John Lomax’s head.
These days, whenever Alan came in contact with normal children – which wasn’t often, because he had no young children as relatives – he was struck by how aggressive and naughty their behaviour was in comparison with his young charges at work. How rude and noisy they were. How aggravating and repulsive. It was the children in Ward 14 that now represented normality.
Trundling his patient back to the ward, Alan thought of what the session would have been like with a healthy child in place of this brain-damaged one. Instead of being quiet, brisk and businesslike, the proceedings would have been noisy and harrowing. The child would have sobbed, screamed, made pathetic and repeated demands for reassurance of the most trivial and impractical kind, and exploited the occasion to press demands for treats and privileges not normally extended. It would have received exhortations to be good, brave and grown-up. Failure to accord with these lofty ideals – which in daily life would have neither been expected nor encouraged (the last two anyway) – would be viewed as something lacking in the young victim. The child itself was invariably invited to adopt this viewpoint and often did, though with little real conviction.
In reality this distressing state of affairs came about not because of what the child lacked but because of what it possessed: higher brain function. It struck Alan how much of the upbringing of a normal child was directed to eliciting behaviour which he nowadays associated with brain damage. It seemed that the only “good” child was a brain-dead one.
How he wished he had appreciated this fact in his younger days – and had acted out the consequences in ways more to his advantage.
By now Alan had earned enough, and saved enough, to feel secure in indulging an expensive hobby – tape-recording. A good long-playing record of classical music cost around £5 – more than a skilled craftsman’s weekly wage. But Seagate, nestling between moist sandstone cliffs, suffered from poor radio reception. In consequence the BBC channels were publicly available through the wires of the Rediffusion service, in far higher fidelity than a radio set provided. Particularly in view of the noisy trolley wires which hung above the street outside the pub. In fact the main use Alan made of the radio set was to avoid a chilly wait at the bus-stop by having it give its insistent crackling warning of when the trolleybus was on its way.
Alan’s initiation as an electrician had conferred a familiarity with the Rediffusion outlet that a priest has for his altar vessels. His screwdriver soon gave him access to a hidden world in which the general customer was not welcome. Direct input to the tape-recorder was now possible, cutting out the loudspeaker-to-microphone link. When that had gone, so did the propensity for his cat Tommy to mar his recordings with purrups of pleasure as he jumped up on Alan’s lap – heedless of the unforgiving nature of high technology and its demand for the highest degree of personal restraint from cats and masters alike.
…to be continued.