by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
There was a newcomer to the ward. Downstairs next to the Babies’ Ward there was a side ward which had never yet been used, the whole time Alan had been there. Now it was opened up and the newcomer was installed in it all by himself.
He was a boy of twelve called Michael. His eyes characterised him as having Down’s syndrome, but his body showed no sign of associated degeneracy, nor atrophy of the limbs – except that he had no toes. He was unable to walk and needed a bath chair for transport, like most of the boys in the ward.
The story Alan got from Mrs Wirral was that he was the son of a surgeon, who had amputated his toes because they were grossly deformed. So much, thought Alan, for the myth that surgeons never operated on their own sons.
“A surgeon has a greater-than-normal risk of fathering a mongol child,” Soddy maintained.
“Whyever should that be?”
“Well, it stands to reason. He marries later in life – ‘knife before wife’ and all that. He spends his working life with his nose stuck down the cleavage of his operating theatre sister, both of them wearing next to nothing except green gowns. So quite a few of them marry their theatre sisters. Now she, like him, is getting on a bit by the time she has her first baby. Both of them have spent the last 10 to 15 years soused in anaesthetics, disinfectants and other chemicals known to harm egg and sperm cells. One-in-three chance of something going wrong, I’m told.”
Well, thought Alan, it was a theory. Not a very edifying one, but not one he ever heard any improvement on during his time at St Margaret’s.
So there it was. Michael, so far as anyone knew, was congenitally unable to walk or talk – which put him in the same league as nearly everybody else in Ward 14. But to Alan’s mind he was so obviously sentient. And that set him apart from everybody else, with the exception of Jackie and Billy.
The whole time he’d been there, Alan had never seen fear on the faces of any of his young patients. But he saw it on Michael’s. The boy behaved towards him, as he did towards everybody, as if Alan were a bear menacing him. He would squeak in terror when any of the staff approached him. It was the only sound they got out of him.
One day Alan was standing on the veranda, supervising the children. Because the weather was so nice, and there’d been time to do so, some of the bedridden patients who actually used to get dressed in the mornings had been wheeled outside in bath chairs to enjoy the fresh air.
Behind him Alan distinctly heard a voice say “Please don’t hit me, Bobby Doole.” Such sweet reason, Alan thought idly, was utterly wasted on Bobby Doole, who never showed any sign of recognising a single word, not even his own name.
And then Alan’s eyes opened wide in astonishment. None of the patients could speak! Except Jackie and Billy – and they were still back in the ward!
It was the work of a moment to discover the whereabouts of Bobby Doole and see whom he was hitting. It was Michael in his bath chair. Michael, the timid one, was not at all upset by the toddler’s pugnacious advances. Rather he was taking it all in a spirit of amusement.
“Michael!” cried Alan. “You can talk! Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
But Michael shied away from him with his usual squeak of fear. He was not for uttering another word.
Well, Alan couldn’t let it rest there. He told Sister and he told the other members of staff. “Michael can talk.” But the boy was determined not to talk to the staff.
It was generally agreed that they should not confront him with it, but somehow gain his confidence and get him talking when his guard slipped. Accordingly the more motherly nursing assistants persevered with him, watching for the opportunity to mention something while they were attending to his needs – a cobweb, a spider, or something they’d managed to spill on the floor.
“Oh dear – there’s another dead spider!” said Mrs Wirral on one occasion.
“It isn’t a spider,” replied Michael, “it’s a daddy-long-legs.”
Mrs Wirral carefully refrained from commenting at the time, but let Michael get used to the idea of correcting her mistakes. Soon he had abandoned the pretence that he couldn’t talk – he could speak perfectly well, in a cultured accent, just as you’d expect of the son of a professional couple. And so he took his rightful place as one of “the boys who could talk”.
He never volunteered a word about his former life. But at least the staff were able to ask him whether he wanted sugar in his tea, one pillow or two, plus the rest of the restricted range of options which nurses offer their patients.
The ward had no separate day and night staff. Nursing assistants took their turn in doing a tour of night duty. This was generally for two months at a time, four nights on and three nights off. The night staff came on at 8pm and went off-duty at 8am the following morning, allowing half-an-hour of overlap with the day staff over the busy time of breakfast.
When Alan started his first spell of night duty there was someone in under observation, so he was detailed to be on-duty down in the Three-Day Order. It would entail little more than sitting by the partly open door of the cell, watching the patient while he slept.
Suitably forewarned, Alan brought in a book to read. Studying languages was one of his hobbies. He had no confidence in his ability to speak a foreign language fluently, but he wanted to acquire a reading knowledge of the main European languages. He had done so successfully with German whilst he was at school – a language that was not on the curriculum – and he was resolved to do the same with Russian. Hugo’s Russian In Three Months Without A Master held out suitable promise in his predicament – but he was finding it tough going and had quickly decided that the guaranteed three months was going to turn into more like a year for him.
The copy of the primer he’d been able to lay his hands on dated from the turn of the century. Much had happened in Russia since then – of that he was perfectly aware. There was no mention of továrisch (comrade) – the polite form of address given was gospodín (sir). Any attempt to converse with a Russian on the basis of this book was clearly going to be hilarious to the latter, if not downright insulting. Nevertheless it passed the time and was its own reward. Alan had a reputation among his contemporaries for crazy hobbies.
…to be continued.