by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Arden’s quiet voice floated down the stairs, announcing that Night Superintendent had completed her round. Alan, standing in the silence of the Babies’ Ward, heard it plainly. With a last quick glance round the ward he went out and mounted the stairs two-at-a-time, following Arden’s white back as it dwindled in the gloom.
The light was bright in the kitchen after the dim glow of the ward. As Alan slipped in, Arden was peering inside the fridge.
“Let’s see what they’ve left us tonight. Ooh! – custard.”
“Yes please!” said Alan.
If there was anything the central kitchen could really do well, it was baked custard. They only used the egg yolks and kept the whites for something else – the sort of thing you can easily do in a big catering installation, but not so easily when you’re cooking for yourself. He beamed in anticipation at the huge cinnamon-dusted tray of custard which Arden dragged out onto the table, just one scoop taken out. If you indented for a single adult dessert and it was baked custard on the menu that day, you got a whole tray.
Alan yawned as he sat down to a plateful of custard.
“Tired?” said Arden, yawning too.
“Terribly. Couldn’t get to bed all day. Last-minute paperwork for college.”
“Maybe you can get an hour’s sleep in the linen cupboard?”
“Dodgy. If Night Super catches me – that’ll be my lot…”
The telephone buzzer started sneering. Arden tiptoed into the office and answered it. She wondered if it was Night Superintendent coming back. The switchboard staff often phoned-on ahead when they saw her cross the road, just so that fellow workers wouldn’t be caught napping.
“Emergency admission for you,” said the switchboard operator. “Just had a call to say they’re on their way with a patient for the Three-Day Order.”
“Man or woman?”
“They didn’t say.”
Arden put the phone down. Damn! Now one of them would have to be down in the 3DO all night. And unless they could get relief from another ward – small chance of that, now that Night Super had gone – there would be no break for either of them.
“Alan – I am sorry. That was Switchboard. We’ve got to open up the 3DO. It’s a man on the way – so it’s got to be you down there to do the admission.”
She turned away and shrugged. “I can’t undress a man.”
“Haven’t I got time to finish my ruddy custard?” growled Alan.
“Take it down with you. Remember to bring the plate back up. Washed. Or there’ll be hell to pay if Assistant Matron finds it down there.”
Alan reached the bottom step and stood facing down the dark corridor. The pipes were rustling in their accustomed manner. Tonight, the weather having suddenly turned cold, they’d become exceptionally talkative…
… simpering senility slowly slouches when single and sassy…
“Oh – shut up, pipes,” murmured Alan aloud.
… savouring smegma secreted in slippery foreskins…
“I said Shut Up!”
… kissing slit lips sensuously sliced from shuddering sinews…
Muscular tension like a black puma leapt onto his shoulders. There was a smothering chill, for all the pipes were going bonkers with their menacing tattle.
… sundering your liver nestling securely next to your spleen to send kidneys slithering into the seat of your knickerbockers…
Darkness heaped itself up in front of him, a gigantic presence, all set to roll over him like a wave.
… swimming in slippery solution of slimy saliva…
Never in the waking state had he felt such psychic resistance to his progress. It thrust against his chest, stopping him breathing. Something was in possession of the corridor. Something profoundly evil.
… pancreas glistening as it is squeezed in silver serving-dish…
He snapped the light-switch on. Nothing happened. It remained dark.
Instantly his innards shrivelled like a salted slug. Choking back a surge of panic, he managed to recall what Soddy had muttered over his shoulder as he went off-duty. Faulty light-switch. Use the one by the office.
Clenching his fists and lowering his chin, Alan strode down the black corridor. He found the switch and snapped-on the light. The darkness ducked out of sight like a savage nearly spotted by a sentry.
Things looked bright and crisp now. But everything had an unreal glare, like a cinema screen in a smoky auditorium.
He pushed his plate of custard hurriedly out of sight behind the office door. Picking the key off its hook he unlocked the front door and rattled back the bolts. Then he went back and opened up Room One, drawing down the blankets.
Above his head the pipes whispered on…
… dislocated mandibles suspended on strips of scarlet tissue sliding on…
He flung himself out of the cell and stood frozen in the corridor.
… severed slices of cerebrum soused in suppurating secretions…
He stuck his fingers in his ears. Like the boiling water in the pipes, he could hear the blood rustling in his head. But he couldn’t stand there like that – he needed to listen out for the buzzer in the office when the ambulance crew pushed the button by the gate.
… sticking skewers into your soft squirming stomach screwing and…
The semaphore above his head started winking. 2-4-6… 2-4-6… 2-4-6…
… stirring your entrails into…
Every muscle in his body tightened.
… stretchy strings of swelling sausages sizzling in stinging sauce spiked with a stiff slug of concentrated sulphuric…
2-4-6… 2-4-6… 2-4-6…
In the office the buzzer snarled, releasing his tension like a snapped clock-spring. Unleashed like a whippet, Alan swept out through the front door and across the compound to the gate, unlocking it.
A single ambulance-man stood there. There was no sign of his ambulance.
“Got a patient for you.”
“OK – we’ve had a call to expect you.”
“Need any help with him?”
“We’re a bit short-staffed,” grumbled Alan. “There’s only two of us on for the whole building.”
“We’re short-staffed too. Saturday night. It’s a busy one.”
Alan sighed. “All right, you tell me. Will I need any help with him?”
“I shouldn’t think so. He’s quiet and cooperative. Just talks a load of blather.”
“I can deal with that. Bring him in.”
The ambulance-man disappeared and Alan went back inside to wait. As he stopped still he could hear his heart pounding away like a rock-and-roll rhythm. His shirt stuck to his back and he was trembling in the wake of his panic attack. So much so that he didn’t focus on a significant departure from routine.
Normally the ambulance would stop outside the compound and the driver would get out and press the button on the gate. The nurse on-duty would go out, unlock the gate to let the ambulance drive in and then lock the gate behind it. Then he would go back inside the unit and commence the admission procedure. That way there was no escape-route for anyone wanting to make a bolt for it.
…to be continued.