by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Steam and water spurted from the hot tap. You had to be careful to run the cold water at the same time. The hot tap had a key, without which it couldn’t be turned on. The cold tap was a conventional one. The bathwater had to be a regulation four inches deep, and a temperature of exactly 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Alan stirred the water with the bath thermometer – a glass tube containing a thread of red alcohol, mounted in a substantial wooden frame to make it float. It was about a foot and a half long and had a wooden handle. One thing about it – it was easy to read. It only went up to 140 degrees, so you had to be careful not to let it float under the hot tap and burst. They kept on losing them that way.
Once the bath was run, Alan went for the patient. Pye was waiting for him at the bedside, with everything ready for Alan to help him lift the patient into the bath chair, which they then trundled into the bathroom. Together they lowered the patient into the bath and began dousing him with soap and water from the sponge.
“That fellow downstairs is certainly a handful,” said Alan. “I couldn’t have stood much more of him. I feel sorry for Rochdale.”
“Oh – Fred will manage him, no problem. You’ve got to remember that Fred’s been in the police – so he knows how to handle awkward squads.”
“Well that’s a relief.”
“He’ll probably be gone by morning. Sister’s trying to get him into Hellingly as soon as possible. That will only leave Mrs Codrington down there.”
“And Peace will descend on the World!” concluded Alan.
Pye said “That’s enough for Roger – let’s have him out onto the table.”
They did that – and started drying him with clean towels.
“Don’t speak too soon,” said Pye. “You’ll be sorry when you hear the whole of Hellingly is up-in-arms and marching on London.”
Alan thought that a huge joke.
“What’s up with Mrs Codrington?”
Pye shrugged. “Police picked her up off the beach. She’d bought a one-way ticket in London and walked straight out of the station, straight down to the beach, straight into the sea. The lifeguards were quick to spot her – she hadn’t even bothered to undress. She’s under observation for 28 days.”
“What will they do with her after that?”
“Mr Sugar will call for her and have her sent back home to London – that’s my guess. When they decide she’s no longer suicidal, there’ll be no reason to hold her. She hasn’t said anything to you when you’ve been on-duty down there, has she?”
“Not about anything important. She seems quite normal to me. Not a happy woman though.”
They put a clean nightshirt on Roger and lifted him back into the bath chair, wrapping the blankets over him.
“The police are always picking people up off the seafront,” said Pye. “Memories of sunny days down at the seaside with bucket-and-spade – that’s what lures them back. They sit on the beach and watch the sun go down over the sea. Then they decide they’ll go and follow it – into the water.”
“I can’t imagine somebody wanting to end their life that way,” said Alan. “I used to love playing by the sea as a kid. I still like going down to the beach and throwing stones in. You never think of the sea as being able to kill you.”
They were back at Roger’s bedside. They lifted him back into bed and got the next patient ready.
“The sea’s a cruel place, Alan.”
That must have got him thinking, because back in the bathroom Pye carried on with the same theme.
“When the sea’s rough, it’s very easy to enter, but very difficult to get out again.”
“Facilis descensus Averno…”
Pye squeezed out the sponge. “What did you say?”
“Latin,” Alan replied. “My best subject at school. That’s why I’m going on to do science.”
“Fair enough…” Pye squeezed a sponge full of water over the patient. “I can go along with that.”
“Can you?” said Alan. “Then you’re one of the few people who can.”
They finished bathing the patient and lifted him onto the table to dry him. “What does it mean?” said Pye.
“‘The road to hell is easy’. That’s how it’s usually translated. But there’s more to it than that.”
“It’s by Publius Vergilius Maro. Better known as the poet Virgil. Aeneas, the founder of Rome, wants to go down to Hades because he’s feeling guilty about Queen Dido, who’s just committed suicide out of love for him. He thinks he’ll follow in the footsteps of Orpheus, who as you know made his way down to Hades in search of his dead lover Eurydice.”
“I didn’t know,” said Pye.
“What – never heard of Orpheus in the Underworld?”
“Well, yeah – but I didn’t know what he was doing down there.”
“The way Orpheus went was down the crater of Mount Avernus in present-day Campania, in Italy. Aeneas consults a witch, hoping she’ll know how he did it.”
“Consult the experts…” murmured Pye.
“The witch tells him: it’s easy going down Avernus. It’s frightfully easy getting into hell. The big trick’s getting back out again.”
Pye barked a short laugh. “Like being a mental nurse.”
Alan stared at him.
“It’s a one-way trip. No one wants to employ you after that. So once you’re in – you’re in.”
Alan continued to stare.
“Oh – it’s all right for you,” Pye went on. “You’ve got your ticket back out again. You’ve got your place at university.”
The bathing was finished and the kids were all in bed. Alan and Pye were both due off at 5 o’clock, and were filling-in time cutting up bread to go in the bowls for supper. Into each bowl half-full of bread-cubes went a dollop of marge. A big double-boiler of milk had been put on the gas. Something warm and nourishing was due to arrive from the central kitchen, probably hash-meat stew tonight, and this would go on top of the bread and milk and margarine.
It was quite a sustaining meal for children who were doing nothing all day. There were three meals a day like it, plus a baby-feeder full of milk mid-morning, and another full of orange juice mid-afternoon. Jackie Robb had tea in his baby-feeder – with plenty of sugar in it.
Remembering what Pye had remarked earlier, Alan said “Do you feel stuck in a dead-end job here?”
Pye answered, choosing his words with care, “Seriously, Alan, there isn’t a job I’d rather be doing. But I often wonder how I came to be washed up here.”
“You speak for me too,” smiled Alan.
“I mean – you don’t often see adverts in the papers saying Wanted: someone to work for peanuts, mucking-out severely retarded children. Now and again, for light relief, we arrange for you to be attacked by maniacs…”
Pye went on “Did you mean to apply for this job?”
“No – I applied for hospital porter.”
“There you are. I think you’ll find that most people on the ward have a similar story.”
“Did you not think of staying in the forces? Guards, wasn’t it?”
“No – and yes. In that order.”
“Just like my Pop. When I suggested going in the army he said ‘it’s already ruined one member of the family’.”
Pye grinned. “I’d like to meet your Pop.”
“That’s easily arranged,” said Alan. “Just come round any night to the Green Man – and if I’m in, I’ll come downstairs and introduce you.”
“If you like. After supper. Say eight o’clock?”
That was the great thing about living in a pub. You could invite people round you weren’t sure of, without having to let them into your home as such.
…to be continued.