by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Apart from Michael, few patients came to Ward 14 – and few ever went again. But one did both in a short space of time. A tiny helpless child was wheeled-in and placed in a high-sided cot next to Jackie Robb’s bed, which was moved down one. Everyone came to know him as Little David. Alan thought he was more suitable for the Babies’ Ward, but it transpired he was too old. Anyway, proximity to the office allowed for extra supervision.
Little David lay on his back behind metal bars like a small mammal at a zoo. Normally his eyes were open but looking at nothing. When his eyes closed he shut up. But otherwise he wailed – little panting sobs too monotonous to be pitiful.
Maskell pulled the bedclothes down to reveal a tiny oval body with stunted limbs lying on a wet draw-sheet. From neck to crutch the skin was covered in dense brown freckles, so close in parts as to leave no white between. Only it was not freckle. The brown skin was dead and coarse.
“Had that since he was two,” said Maskell. “Paraffin heater did that. Doesn’t heal up at all. Born normal.”
“How old’s he now?” said Alan.
“Ten. Looks no older than two, doesn’t he. Shouldn’t be alive.”
“Don’t spend too long on that child. I know he’s a slow feeder, but we’re way behind with the feeding.”
Sister Fearon disappeared back into the office and the little moaning mouth was tea-spooned full of mashed egg-and-potato.
No attempt was made to swallow it and the food was spooned out again.
“Give him some egg-and-milk, then. Get something down him, poor little mite.”
“Used to be on drip-feed where he came from, but the doctor said he should come off it. Can’t keep them on drip-feed indefinitely…” Mr Baker picked up a basin to feed the kids outside. Mrs Wirral carried on with her labour in vain and eggy milk was spluttered over the pillows.
Children were bathed and put into the empty beds around. They sat up and chewed the blankets, made grotesque movements with the fingers or rocked and emitted uncouth rhythmic noises. The few more alert children grinned at the staff as they wheeled the patients in from the bathroom and pointed to the blanket trailing on the floor, which it shouldn’t. And the cot in the corner stood neglected until the Big Change, when down came cot sides in turn with a crash, back with the bedclothes, wet sheets and nappies were changed and the red rubber macs wiped dry.
“You’ve vomited again!”
Schank apostrophically addressed the little patient whose only response was to cringe up sluggishly and wail.
“Poor little bugger. Shouldn’t be alive. Did he condescend to eat anything today, do you know?”
“Must have done, to bring that back.”
Carefully, but without hesitation, Schank detached the draw-sheet from the bed around the slimy pool and wrapped it over it. It was not a pleasant job cleaning up catarrhal vomit. At first he’d found it utterly nauseating. But after a while the bad experiences became just spells of distastefulness, which any job had.
“There. Now you’ve got all night to mess that up.”
The grotesque little doll was set in clean linen once more. They gave the trolley a nudge and it rolled up the gangway, stopping with a jolt against a bed leg. Filthy water from a basin on the lower shelf slopped onto the floor and a skinny little face opposite chuckled.
“Blast!” said Schank.
The word was echoed quietly but distinctly from the end of the ward. Schank looked round, eyes narrowing. The child in question, Lee Hazlewood, was paying no attention to anything beyond his extended fingers, jabbing the thumbs against his lips. His eyes rolled upwards under the lids and he looked utterly incapable of any response to the outside world at all.
“Get down, Lee!” A snarl from Schank and surprisingly enough he did – like a flash! Right under the bedclothes, then his head popped out again onto his pillow, not timidly, but as if he hasn’t the slightest idea why he’d dived down so suddenly. Nor did he care. He carried on with his finger exercises as before, stopping occasionally to declaim total nonsense in a perfectly enunciated Oxford accent and a pedantic tone of voice.
“Evening, Mr Rochdale.”
“Oh – ‘allo, Mr Hall.” The nursing assistant carried on tucking in the bottom of the bed.
“Got ‘em all finished, have you? Jolly good – hang on a minute and I’ll get my apron on, then you can go. Have the ‘off-duties’ gone up yet?”
“No, Sister hasn’t done them all yet. But I’ve had a look in the office and you’ve got two split-duties next week when you come off nights.”
Alan glanced aside and said “F-ff” through his teeth. Then he was gone in the direction of the locker room.
Mrs Wirral came back with a tray of milk-spattered baby-feeders. Rochdale said “I suppose we’d better wash these up before we go…”
“I tried little David in the corner…”
“Oh, no, you don’t need to bother with him. You’ll never get any milk down him in a month of Sundays.”
“Poor little mite. Has he actually eaten anything today?”
“Who do you think’s doing the rounds tonight, Arden?” said Alan, his soft voice deafening after the silence. Miss Arden, in a crisp clean white coat and red belt, peered into the dark, quietly-simmering ward. One could not see far by the light of the dim beehive bulb, so really she was listening.
What a change these wards were from the geriatric wards with their restless old folk. Not a sound out of the kids. The reason being that they were all under sedation, doped to the gills with Largactil for the night, but she expected to see one or two of the older boys sitting up in bed sooner or later. She turned to face the kitchen door.
“Tuesday today, isn’t it? Then it will be Night Superintendent. Better keep out of the kitchen until she’s been round. Then we can have supper.”
‘Supper’ was an unofficial institution for the night staff. It was cooked up from ward-rations thoughtfully indented-for by Sister, whether they were going to be needed for patients or not. This took place after the late-night bed-change when there was nothing to do for a while.
“I reckon,” suggested Arden, “that someone ought to be down in the Babies’ Ward when she comes.”
“Does it have to be me?”
“Yes. You go. Last time I trod on a cockroach.” She shuddered as she recalled the scrunch.
“There’s mice in the kitchen…” volunteered Alan – he’d seen them. But it was no good. “All right, I’ll go.”
He wandered through the playroom with its familiar sweetish tang of tish masked with aerosol freshener. In the cool of the evening, with the windows open, it was scarcely perceptible to him now, except when he first passed through after coming on-duty. The thick green lino stuck to the rubber heels of his often-repaired shoes and crackled as he lifted his feet. Anyone walking softly in that quiet ward was perfectly audible throughout the whole building. He’d have no trouble hearing when the Night Superintendent came…
The pair of them didn’t get their supper that night. They missed their official break too, standing around uselessly and helplessly most of the time. Hushed bustle in the corner of the ward meant that every young patient who chanced to wake up stayed that way. Mouth noises and the occasional voluntary breath implied that half the ward was awake. Every now and then Alan or Arden left the busy corner to feel their way between beds in answer to a murmur.
Night Superintendent, a thin woman in dark green like a cucumber with a paper doily perched on top, insisted on having the screens round, although it was hardly necessary in the dark. The two nursing assistants had to squeeze silently between bed, screen and black gas-cylinder in its waist-high trolley while she handled the rubber mask as if she was trying to fit a tyre onto a Lambretta scooter as it was being inflated. It blew, sneezed and sighed in her grasp.
“Carry on doing this, Mr Hall. I’m just going to phone over and hurry up the house-doctor.”
The day didn’t dawn.
Really it was the night that faded. Night was something tangible – it was black and warm, close and quiet. It settled like a thick fall of dark snow. But then the black snow melted and drained into the corners and its veil was removed from the beds, the ward, the world. Their outlines were now too distinct to be ignored – their blanket was gone and they were naked, cold and colourless once night had passed away. The world emerged dead and empty in the first blank realisation of the daylight.
Now the business during the night was finished and buried under the activity of the brightening day. Alan and Arden felt like ghosts that must disappear at cockcrow. Then they realised how solid they were and that the increasing light was not causing them to evaporate in their tiredness, but condensing them, driving them to increasing labour like a match flaring fiercer and brighter before consummation. The ward had to be changed, the soiled linen bagged up and placed outside for collecting, the breakfasts prepared and the feeding started – all in the last three hours of night-duty. And the little cot with the screen round it stood neglected in the corner.
Enter Rochdale, fresh out of a nice warm bed.
“…Which is where I’ll be in an hour,” thought Arden as she shovelled a mess of bread, milk and porridge into a gaping mouth, spoon clicking on teeth.
The sight of the screen surprised him. He slipped behind it. There was little David lying on a single sheet, all nice and clean for once – no spittle or vomit over his cheeks. His mouth and eyes were plugged with cotton wool carefully tied down with white tape. A pink rose – incongruous touch – protruded from the folded fingers. This was the Last Office, performed to the letter.
Rochdale came out from behind the screen. He was thinking guiltily “No more having to waste time feeding him then.”
“Poor little bugger. But I suppose it’s about time…”
Arden didn’t answer.
…to be continued.