by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

Walking softly down the stairs into Ward 15, he saw Poonawala sitting at the table reading a newspaper. All was quiet. They nodded and smiled to each other, exchanging no word, as was the rule. It was a silent Changing of the Guard.

Alan sat down and reached for the ward book. He leaned forward and peered round the door. Inside the cell, the light was set to dim. Poonawala had put the patient to bed and he was lying on his back snoring gently, his mouth open – “catching flies” as they used to say.

Mr Frank Osbourne, Alan read. Confused and disoriented. Admitted c/o Mr Sugar on 28 days observation order. 

The patient was on Luminal, a barbiturate typically used for the control of schizophrenic symptoms. Largactil had been prescribed as a sedative to enable the patient to get to sleep – but only if requested. Mr Osborne had so far not done so. There was no prescription for paraldehyde, which indicated that the patient was not expected to resort to violence. 

Alan settled down in his canvas chair and was soon absorbed in the task of learning the imperfective and perfective aspects of lists of Russian verbs. 

Around half past ten, having completed the Big Change upstairs, Miss Arden came down with a cup of tea. With the Observation Unit needing to be manned, there were three of them scheduled to be on that night. Mr Maskell, Miss Arden, and himself. 

Ward 15 had no facility for making its own cups of tea. This was for reasons of safety where violent patients were concerned. Tea was brought downstairs frequently. It was not viewed as a chore – although of course it only happened when they weren’t busy upstairs. It enabled the staff to keep in touch, without the need for conversation. 

The clink of the teaspoon roused the patient. Arden put her head round the cell door. 

“Cup of tea for you too, Mr Osborne?”

The patient gratefully accepted. Arden went back upstairs to fetch another cup. 

Mr Osborne shambled out into the corridor like a bear emerging from hibernation. He plonked himself down in the second canvas chair as though delivering a sack of flour. He was a stockily-built man, with bristly hair and a neck that crumpled at the back into rolls when he sat down. 

“Just can’t get to sleep,” he grumbled. 

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Alan, “you didn’t seem to be doing too badly just then.”

“I wasn’t asleep. I was lying on my back, thinking. Thinking… thinking… thinking…” 

Alan recalled what he’d read in the ward book. Patient complained he didn’t get a wink of sleep all night. Four hours’ sleep had been recorded. 

Still, he did sympathise. He too could remember nights when he felt he hadn’t slept a wink. Had he likewise slept for something like four hours? It made you wonder.

Arden reappeared with a second cup of tea. The patient made appreciative noises. With no more than a glance at Alan, Arden went back upstairs.

“I should have taken those knockout drops that were on offer.”

“There’s still time, Mr Osborne.”

“Don’t bother. Let’s see what this cup of tea does.” He peered at some in the teaspoon. “Doesn’t look too strong…”

Alan discreetly went back to reading his Russian grammar. 

Читать / прочитать, писать / написать…

Osbourne flipped the pile of publications. “Crappy choice of magazines you’ve got here.” 

“Yes, they are. None of them under six months old. I’ll have to see if someone can’t bring in a fresh load.” 

“It’s worse than a doctor’s waiting room.” 

Говорить / сказать, излагать / изожить…

They sat in silence for a while, Osbourne sipping his tea. 

“Can anything be done about the pipes?”

“We have no control over them. They keep the place warm.”

“Yes, don’t they,” said Osbourne with feeling. “I was too hot in bed last night.”

Обсуждать / обсудить…

“Can we open a window?”

“Afraid not,” said Alan. “They’re all sealed up.” 

“The door then?” 

“Sorry – that’s got to be kept closed. Hospital rules and all that.”

“So we just have to suffocate in here?” 

“I can put the extractor on…” ventured Alan unwillingly. 

“If you would, please, Nurse.” 

Alan reached round inside the office door and threw the switch. The extractor started up with a clattering roar. 

They endured approximately one minute of that, whereupon the patient asked for it off again. Alan complied with relief. The Russian verbs just hadn’t been going in. 

Another minute went by. 

“What’s the time?” 

Alan looked at his watch. “Ten to eleven.” 

“There’s no clock in here…”

Alan shrugged. “They take the view that time goes quicker if the patient doesn’t know about it.” 

They shared a complicit laugh. Alan went back to his book.

Показывать / показать, отвечать / ответить…

“Those pipes are driving me crazy!”

“I should see if you can’t get to sleep again, Mr Osborne…” 

“I can’t sleep. I wouldn’t be able to.” 

“Just try…” 

“It’s no use!” Osbourne caught his eye. The patient was struggling with himself over admitting what was on his mind. “To tell the honest truth, I’m a bit frightened…”

“I’m here looking after you. There’s people on-duty upstairs. I’m going to be here the whole time you’re asleep.”

“I know, I know.”

“It’s quite secure here. You don’t have to worry about anyone getting in.”

“Do you mind letting me sit up for a little while?”

“It’s all same with me, Mr Osborne.” It wasn’t. Alan wanted some peace and quiet to study his verbs.

“I’m not disturbing your reading, am I?” He peered over. “It all looks double-Dutch to me.” 

Alan shut the book. He wasn’t going to admit it was Russian. People who discovered what it was never failed to make insulting suggestions about him being a commie. It might even fuel the patient’s paranoia, if he was at all prone to it. 

“Don’t worry about that. I’m here to keep an eye on you, not read my book.” 

They sat in silence, looking at each other. Don’t try to make conversation with the patient, Maskell had told Alan. Don’t worry about awkward silences – they work in your favour. In the end the patient will give up and go to bed.

“It’s the pipes…” 

The bells… the bells…! Alan tried not to smile. 

“They whisper the whole time!”

Alan knew all about that, but he wasn’t going to admit it. “It’s just the bubbles inside them, Mr Osborne. It’s only like a babbling brook. It’s soothing after a while. You get used to it.” 

“It’s not so much that they’re talking – it’s the things they’re saying…”

“I don’t think so, Mr Osborne…”

Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling… 

“Can’t you hear them? They’re talking about me!”

…to be continued.


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