by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

Alan opened the door of Room One and glanced around inside to check that all was in order. When he came back out into the hallway, two ambulance-men were standing there with a pale-faced individual slouching between them. Fleetingly Alan thought of Buster Keaton.

“Here’s your patient. We’ll leave him to you.” The ambulance-men turned and went.

The individual didn’t move. Alan brushed past him and re-locked and bolted the front door. He made a mental note to go outside later and lock the gate.

“I’m Nurse Hall,” he said. “I’m putting you in Room One here” – he pointed to the open door. The properties book was on the office desk and he picked it up, pencil dangling on its piece of scruffy string.

“If you would like to start getting undressed, I’ll fetch you a pair of pyjamas.”

He carried on in his head. Who knows? – the trousers might even match the top! Reaching inside the cupboard Alan found what he wanted. To the pyjamas he added a dressing-gown, which happened to have a big hole in it, ringed with loops of yarn like brambles. Too bad – it was the only clean one there.

The man sat on the bed and began slowly taking his shoes off.

Alan adjusted the carbon paper and said “I’m going to make a list of your belongings – contents of pockets – money and all that. I’m going to put them in this bag here, which will be kept in the office under lock and key.”

“So that I can’t just walk out, eh?”

“So that when you get it all back, there won’t be anything missing,” replied Alan. “That’s the idea.” But of course the patient was right too.

Alan began writing down the bits-and-pieces the man laid out on the bed. He was fairly practiced at it by now.

“Is there any money in the wallet?”

“Yes. £40 sterling. And about the same in US dollars.”

What an odd thing to have, thought Alan. Private holdings of US dollars were against the law. But just then he didn’t attach any great significance to it. After all, the amount wasn’t huge.

“I’m going to count it out in front of you.”

That’s the way to do it! He could hear Soddy’s reassuring voice doing a Mr Punch. And Maskell saying: don’t ask the patient’s permission for what you have to do – but tell him exactly what you’re going to do. Then do it. That way you don’t alarm him – which might give him an excuse to get violent and uncooperative.

When everything was in the bag, Alan separated out the counterfoil and gave it to the patient. “Please read down the list and initial here to say you agree with it.”

The man did that.

“What’s your name?”

“Adam Fever. Call me Adam. What’s yours again?”

“Nurse Hall.”

“Don’t you have a first-name?”

“Just call me Nurse.” Alan was careful to say it in a neutral voice.

“Oh – I see. All right.”

“It’s not me being funny,” explained Alan. “No nurse gives his first name to a patient.”

“I wouldn’t know. It’s a long time since I’ve been in hospital.”

Which, Alan supposed, was an invitation to ask the fellow how he came to be here now. Well – he was going to be disappointed. It was not Alan’s business to know. At least, not out of the patient’s own mouth.

“I’ve found you a dressing-gown, Mr Fever, but I’m afraid we don’t have any slippers,” said Alan. “Here’s your shoes back to use instead.”

“Minus the laces, I see… in case I creep up behind you and garrotte you? Like the old cheese-wire?”

“I’ll go and run a bath for you, if you want one.”

“Are you going to make me have one?”

“No,” said Alan in clipped fashion. “It’s entirely up to you. Seeing as it’s after midnight, you may just want to turn in.”

“I’m not tired…” Fever hesitated. “OK – I’ll have the bath. Are you going to lock me in this cell while you run it?”

“No,” said Alan. “You can’t get far.”

“Do you ever lock this door? It looks as if it could stop a wild boar.”

“Not if the patient is cooperative,” Alan replied. “This isn’t a prison cell – unless you want to make it one…”

He stopped and thought about that. “I’ll have to lock the door if there’s another admission during the night. But only until the new patient has been settled in. We’re not expecting anybody. Normally the door’s left ajar and I sit here outside.”

“More to the point – are you going to let me lock the bathroom door while I have my bath?”

“I’m sorry, Mr Fever, I can’t do that. This is an Observation Unit.”

“OK – just asking…”

“Patients don’t get a whole lot of privacy in here, I know. But I am a nurse…”

Fever gave a nervous chuckle. “You’re a little young to be doing this job, aren’t you?”

“When a nurse looks young – you’re getting old,” replied Alan dryly before he could stop himself. No jokes, he thought. It doesn’t do to go cultivating familiarity. He strode to the office and got the key to the hot tap out of the desk drawer.

As he passed Room One again on his way to the bathroom, he could see Fever still laughing silently at him as he sat on the edge of the bed. It disconcerted him. Well, at least it had taken the edge off the patient’s tension. He’d been so edgy when he came in. They were never relaxed of course.

Fever took his bath and settled himself down in the bed.

“Is there any way of turning off the heating?”

Alan shook his head. “No there isn’t, I’m sorry to say. And to anticipate your next question, there’s no window to open either.”

The patient did a series of tiny nods, as if he was expecting no less.

“At least you won’t freeze in here,” added Alan. “The door will be ajar.”

“Thanks for that,” said Fever tersely. “I might have to ask you to fetch me a cold water bottle in the night.”

“I can do that,” said Alan, treating the request seriously. “I can also fetch you a beaker of water. But there’s nowhere to put it down, so I’ll have to stand over you while you drink it.”

“That’s a hassle!”

“No, it’s no trouble.” Alan was being honest about it. It would relieve the boredom, the long interminable vigil, the risk of dozing off. Like as not, the patient would doze off himself quickly enough. They normally did, no matter how wide-awake they said they were. The stuffy atmosphere saw to that.

Alan fetched a beaker of water and afterwards Fever wriggled down under the covers, his hands behind his head. Alan switched the light over to “dim”. And so they settled down to while the night away.

Alan looked at his watch. One o’clock! Fat chance of a break tonight – he was going be sitting there for the whole seven hours still to go. Arden would have to prepare the breakfasts all by herself and do what she could in lieu of a proper Big Change. What a miserable spell of duty this was turning out to be.

But the night was young. He’d seen nothing yet.

…to be continued.


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