by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

“What did you think of our Mr Pye?” said Alan casually as his father was eating supper that night, which he did when the pub shut. Mother would keep back a huge plateful out of what she and Alan had had for supper, steaming it up on a pan of water as soon as the last customers were shooed out and the doors locked for the night. Invariably Pop would share some of it with his son, almost commanding him to eat. Alan never needed to watch his waistline, no matter what or how much he ate. So he rarely took much persuading to cram down a second supper, even though it was invariably around midnight.

“Know him.” 

“Where from? The Guards?” 

“Well – at least I know of him.”

“Wasn’t he a bit after your time? 

“He’s nothing to do with the Guards. That’s just his cover-story.”

Alan’s forehead creased in a shrewd frown. So there was something fishy about Mr Pye! He’d been right to be cautious. Now, at last, the muck was all set to spill.

“What is he, then?”

“Special forces.” 

“How do you know that?” 

“You don’t read your Evening Argus. The whole story was in there, just a month or two back.” 

Alan’s eyebrows vanished up under his hair. “What story?” 

“About him rescuing a kid off Brighton West Pier.” 

The news jolted Alan. “He’s not said anything about that…!” 

Pop, mouth full, shook his head and swallowed hard. “No of course he wouldn’t. Kid was carried out to sea on a li-lo – the usual thing. Current took him under the pier. In dives your friend and gets the kid off the li-lo onto the girders. They’re almost cut to pieces by mussels and barnacles, sliding about on wet seaweed, choppy seas threatening to lick them off at any moment. The emergency services stand around on one foot or the other, meaning to wait until the tide goes out and get a ladder to them. Then someone has the bright idea of lifting the boards on the deck above and lowering down a rope…” 

“I didn’t for the life of me think he was a hero!”

“…Bloody well just in time,” his father mumbled, in what Alan took to be a disapproving voice. “A minute longer and neither of them would be here.”

“You talk about it as it’s something to be ashamed of.” 

“Well – ex-special forces – recent discharge on medical grounds… he needed that sort of publicity like a hole in the head…!” For emphasis, he shovelled more food into his mouth and carried on talking over his chewing, as was his wont. Pop, as he loved to proclaim, had never been to finishing school.

“Any sort of publicity is anathema to these guys. Undercover work – you make enemies. Fortunately for him the SAS looks after its own. Journalists dogging his every move – he gets spirited away and turns up here with a new identity. Single man, so they can do that sort of thing for him.”

“Did you ask him about it?” 

His father scowled, his mouth a solid O under his clipped moustache. “You kiddin’? Never said a word.” He pointed his fork between Alan’s eyes. “And don’t you, either!” 

“If it was all hush-hush,” mused Alan, “how did you get to know about it?” 

Pop didn’t answer straight away. He tapped his ear, silently and meaningfully, then gesticulated downwards with his index finger.

“There’s nothing much Ernie comes across down at the Station that I don’t get to hear about.”

Ernie, Alan knew, was the station sergeant in the town centre – and a good customer. As far as Alan could tell he spent most of his off-duty hours propping up the saloon bar. But Ernie was by no means Pop’s only source of intelligence, or even his main one. Running the guardroom of an army camp had made Alan’s father a copper in all but name. “See all – hear all – say nowt,” he’d say. Alan used to think of the Green Man as the local Gestapo, for all the things his old man got to know.

“Anyway – the story’s a lot more involved than that.” Pop waved his fork after sinking another mouthful. “Just keep it under your hat, lad.”

Next morning, back in the Three-Day Order, Alan found that Mr Lascelles had been transferred the previous evening to Hellingly, as Pye had predicted. The only patient there now was Mrs Codrington. Whilst the vociferous Frenchman was in residence, she had timidly kept to her cell, but even now, when he had gone, she still chose to lie listlessly on her bed. Meals, cups of tea and a bath in the afternoon broke up her day. It seemed cruel to Alan – the patients in the Observation Unit were never able to listen to radio through earphones hung above the bed, which were a standard fitting in normal wards. The patient must have access to nothing capable of causing injury. No laces in shoes, no cords in pyjamas, no flex, no wires – which of course precluded earphones. Down here they were quite cut off from the outside world. 

In the silence Alan entertained himself by reading the ward book. It was not accurate to call it silence – it was never silent down here. There was always the mutter of the pipes…

…tickle picky dicky writ mickey wit mickle city twit pretty ditty…

He looked back through the ward book for evidence of trouble. It was not as frequent an occurrence as he expected. The bulk of entries for patients consisted of nothing but the words: quiet and cooperative. Two weeks earlier they had had trouble with a certain Mr Trivass. The entry, in Schank’s handwriting, ran like this: 

Mr Trivass.
Abusive and uncooperative, manifesting acute schizophrenic symptoms. Considered it advisable to phone upstairs for an additional nursing assistant to be on-duty in Ward 15…

It amused Alan to see that the next entry for Mr Trivass, written by the night staff, merely read: quiet and cooperative. Had Schank simply been rubbing the patient up the wrong way? Smiling to himself, Alan considered it not beyond the bounds of possibility. 

On the other hand, the frequent changes of staff (and the absence of dedicated staff for the unit) worked in everybody’s favour. It was not unknown for the patient, seeing a new face appear on the ward, to seize the opportunity to make a fresh start. Patients didn’t know about the ward book – they were not allowed to look at it – and they would see the new staff come on-duty and the old staff go off with never a word to each other. At least not about the patients. So they would reasonably assume there was no carry-over. 

Another thing that stood out clearly from a perusal of the ward book: it was amazing what dinner and a good night’s sleep did for people. A patient reported as abusive and uncooperative one day might settle down the next and become a perfect little ray of sunshine. 

Alan was determined to ask somebody what schizophrenic meant. In fact he would ask as many people as he could. It would be instructive to compare the answers he got. Schank seemed to use the word to mean little more than “naughty” – had he been writing about children. Alan had read an article on psychoses once – in fact several articles at various times. All authors agreed that schizophrenia was a difficult diagnosis to make. Yet here was a nursing assistant – an untrained grade – confidently making the diagnosis on the strength of an hour’s acquaintance with the patient. If the treatment for schizophrenia were a bullet in the brain, Ward 15 might get through an awful lot of ammunition. 

When he conducted his straw poll, he would have to remember to include Billy Wetherby’s definition: “nuts”. Perhaps, for most people, schizophrenic was nothing more than a posh word for mad.

He raised his head. The pipes whispered on…

… nitty witty triple pity bitty pit miss middle treaty trip prissy pussy…

…to be continued.


What’s the book about?

Buy the book