by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

At the end of November, Alan had the excuse for another party – an altogether jollier occasion. It was his 19th birthday. He wasn’t for making much of it – “what’s 19?” he said to his mother. But she’d replied “you’re only young once.”

Alan didn’t quite grasp what she meant. Did you not enjoy parties so much when you were older? Surely as you lost your inhibitions they became more enjoyable? But his mother wasn’t someone he found it fruitful to argue with. She quickly settled on her viewpoint and wouldn’t be shifted from it.

So they gave him a party. Not at the Adelphi – a smaller seafront hotel, more intimate. Out-of-season they had it to themselves. He invited his friends, plus two girls who had caught his eye during the year, one being Sean’s sister. The former came along – the latter didn’t. He also got to organise the seating plan. He sat Jo next to him and Leslie opposite.

“Oh,” said Daphne, “you want Jo to talk to… and Leslie to look at?”

Daphne, Alan reflected, was far too percipient for her own good. But it was his party.

And it was a good one.

Alone among his contemporaries, Alan was doing a job which required him to work on Christmas Day. He didn’t know if it was a management directive, or whether it was by common agreement of the staff – they were certainly all in favour – but everybody came into work that day.

Somebody of course had to be on-duty. Patients’ alimentary canals didn’t stop working just because it was December 25th. But it was manifestly unfair for some people to be required to work and others not. So they solved the problem by having everybody come in for the whole day – 7:30 am to 8 pm. Barring the night staff who’d be coming in at 7:30 pm anyway.

His parents weren’t as indignant about it as he’d expected. Christmas was a busy time for them in the bar, but on Christmas Day they only had to open in the morning. It was one of just two occasions on which their agreement with the brewer – to open all permitted hours – allowed them to close. The other was a death in the house. In the afternoon they simply collapsed into their armchairs and slept. So he was missing nothing at home by going into work.

There were three times the number of staff on-duty as there normally were. Nobody was off sick – the viruses generally waited until January or February to pick people off.

It was much like a usual day. Medical wards might hang paper chains and balloons all round the walls and contrive to have a bit of a party, but the staff knew from long experience that it wasn’t clever to upset the patients’ routine. The children never showed any sign of appreciating explicit jollification, but every sign of being out-of-sorts for the next day or two.

Nevertheless, quite unlooked-for, Alan discovered the sweetness of spending Christmas among the poor and lowly. He toyed with the idea of making it a habit for life – but the world outside didn’t encourage you to do that.

There was no alcohol permitted on the ward, although some people had brought in Christmas cake, chocolates and crackers to pass round in Sister’s office. There was little outward sign that it was Christmas. But one thing was different. There was enough staff to do all the work that needed to be done – and still have time to stand around chatting. To act as if it wasn’t one long grind, to sit on the bed and play with the children. To try to play pat-a-cake, though there was little comprehension of the task. To comb hair when it didn’t need it. To give a child their undivided attention, to try and fan the slightest spark of response to the contact they were for once able to offer.

From an official point of view, the children were not deprived – far from it. Only the sons of royalty enjoyed the sort of care they received. If any of them had been assessed as capable of benefiting from any sort of education (none of them were – this was a sink ward), they would have received it – from a tutor who would have come to the ward each day. They were kept clean and warm and bathed daily. They were fed nourishing food, albeit safe and dull with no chokey bits, carefully balanced by a professional dietician. They were watched-over, protected from harmful people and put to bed in warm silent security. And if one of them somehow contrived to fall and cut his head open, he would be whisked off to be patched up by elite professional staff in less than a minute or two.

But there was no time for anything else. No money to be spent on lost causes. St Margaret’s was not Rudolf Steiner. There was no certain way of telling whether the children’s minds had atrophied from disuse or have never been there in the first place. No one really knew whether they lacked the capacity to absorb love, or just the ability to repay it – in the elaborate forms we demand of each other. There was no time in the daily round for the discussion of such niceties.

But today, for one day in the year, all that was different. People did have the time. To a supervisor doing the ward rounds, it might have looked like idleness. But space had suddenly been opened up for growth. Life needs idleness in order to germinate. The mind needs leisure in which to grow. People need play in which to discover themselves.

Alan practised his waltz yet again, clasping Miss Arden around her red canvas belt and twirling to the strains of the Nutcracker Suite, which someone had managed to get coming through the Tannoy. Jackie Robb crowed with glee at the sight of them. Jackie was somebody who did appreciate a break in routine.

It was around that time that Alan seriously contemplated the hitherto unthinkable – giving up his place on the degree course and staying in the job for ever. It wasn’t until other members of staff had recalled dozens of Christmases spent like it that Alan realised how low the staff turnover was on Ward 14. For the other nursing assistants this was a job for life, really and truly.

Here he had a place – he was needed. Not just one more rat in the race, a runner in a marathon without a finishing post. Staff and patients alike, they had become his family. They were the world to him. The only world he saw from week to week.

In a world beyond the walls, plunging into madness – this was a last little haven of sanity.

He actually voiced his thoughts to Poonawala, when the two of them were alone together. “Don’t be silly, young Alan!” he said. “Get your degree. Don’t throw away the chance which another would give his right arm for.”

Holding Alan’s shoulders at arms’ length, he stared him straight in the eye. “They say the job’s a one-way trip. But you, alone of anyone I know – you’ve got your ticket back out again.” He gave him a laughing smack on the upper arm. “You can always come back, you know.”

…to be continued.


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