by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
Half-an-hour later the mattress creaked as Fever eased his feet out of bed and shuffled around on the floor, feeling for his shoes.
“Toilet, Mr Fever?”
Fever blinked. “Eh? Yes.” It was as though the idea had only just occurred to him. Alan escorted him there and back.
Sitting on the bed, Fever said “I don’t think I can sleep any more just yet. Do you mind if I sit up for a while?”
Alan did mind. He preferred to conduct his night vigil in lonely silence. With the patient sitting up he’d be unavoidably drawn into making, or parrying, some sort of unbalanced conversation – never about anything he wanted to hear. But it wasn’t the done thing to tell the patient to stay in bed without an extremely good reason. “No room for petty tyranny down here”, Maskell had said. Sooner or later the patient would yawn and stumble back to bed of his own accord.
They sat either side of the small table in the hallway. Overhead the semaphore winked its silent signal, 2-6 – 4… 2-6 – 4… 2-6 – 4… The message wasn’t meant for them, or even for them to comprehend.
“You know,” said Fever, taking his time to open the unavoidable conversation, “those weren’t ambulance-men that brought me here.”
“Weren’t they?” Alan was non-committal. Don’t argue with the patient. If he wants to talk – let him. It usually calms him down. But in spite of himself Alan couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment in Mr Fever. Up to then he had seemed unaccustomedly sane and collected – as far as you can be when you’re banged-up in an Observation Unit in the dead of the night. Now it seemed he was just another schizo. Another confused individual, sinking in a murky pool of fantasy.
“No…” snapped Fever, nettled by Alan’s manner. “They weren’t.”
Alan resisted the urge to say: what were they then? He kept his eyes fixed on the magazine he’d picked off the top of the pile.
“Did you see their ambulance?”
No – he hadn’t.
Hairs began prickling on Alan’s neck. He had thought it a little strange at the time. Resist the notion! Fever was obviously one of those individuals who could spin a good yarn and enmesh you in his paranoia. He’d have to be more on his guard. Christ! – half the night still to go!
“That’s because there wasn’t one. They brought me here in a black Wolesley. Like a police car – only unmarked.”
Saturday night. Perhaps it’s the only thing the emergency services had to spare between them, thought Alan. But he forbore to say anything to that effect. He merely raised his eyes to Fever, suffering him to continue with his deluded explanations – if he must.
“It was parked outside, round the side of the building, where you couldn’t see it. Have you ever known a real ambulance do that?”
“No…” said Alan with a sigh. He wondered if he could think of some way to change the topic.
“The Secret Service want to silence me. That’s why they’ve brought me here. I have friends who are searching high and low for me right at this very moment – but I can’t imagine how they’re going to find me here…”
Alan didn’t answer.
“I suppose you haven’t got a phone I could use, have you?”
Alan shook his head slowly, his mouth pursed in a half-smile.
“What?” said Fever in disbelief. “That’s an office behind you, isn’t it? Isn’t there a phone in there?”
“Yes there is. But it only talks to the switchboard. They don’t take calls on behalf of patients. They won’t even give me an outside line without Sister’s permission.”
Fever scowled at him. It happened to be the truth – but would he accept it? Out of the corner of his eye Alan drew a bead on the black button at ear height. It crossed his mind that there was only Arden on-duty upstairs. She must weigh all of seven stone. Not a great deal of use in a tussle.
On the other hand the patient was a weedy-looking fellow. It was hard to think of him posing any serious physical threat.
Fever let his head slump. “They’ve spun their web pretty neatly,” he muttered. “Sealed-off, tucked away, nobody inclined to believe me…”
Alan felt like applauding the performance. But he let his gaze drop to his lap, pretending to peruse his magazine.
Fever looked up sharply. “I’m not disturbing your reading, am I?”
Alan shrugged. He put the magazine back on the grimy pile and idly flipped through it. “There’s nothing here less than a year old. I’ve read it all – more than once. If I’d known before coming on-duty there’d be an admission and I was going to be down here all night I’d have brought my Penguin Book of Russian Poems.”
Fever suddenly grinned. “Russian poems, eh? Vi govoríte po-rússkiy?”
“Da – no tólko nemnóshko…”
“Yestchë raz – yestchë raz…”
“…Ya dlya vas zvyezdá.” Alan completed the quotation with a shy smile.
Fever barked a laugh and leaned back in his chair, slapping the table. “So – there’s something to you after all. Who’d have thought it – here in the very scuppers of a nut-house!”
Alan was offended. He went pink. “I’ve got a place at university for next year, I’ll have you know.”
Fever widened his eyes in glee. “Have you now! What are you going to read? Russian Poetry?”
“I’ve put Russian down as a subsidiary subject. International Affairs…”
“Brilliant! And here I was thinking you were as thick as two short planks!”
“Don’t rub it in,” said Alan. “I’ve been told that all week.”
“Well, young man, tell me something in your turn. What’s Russian for Mutually Assured Destruction?”
Alan didn’t know. They hadn’t had terms like that at the turn of the century, when his copy of Hugo had been printed.
“All right – what about First-Strike Capability?”
Alan continued shaking his head. But his mind went back to his conversation with Mackie in the bar.
“Do you know anything about what’s going on in Berlin, right at this moment?”
Now it just so happened that Alan did. He knew what Mackie had told him. But that was nothing he was going to admit to this stranger. This patient.
“What if I told you,” said Fever, “the US is on the point of acquiring a First-Strike Capability? And the Russians have just found out – and the Americans don’t know it yet?”
Alan went clammy. What did it mean to keep a poker face? Red-hot? He tried to make a joke out of it. “Well, we’re likely to see some very cross Americans – and some very frightened Russians.”
“Not a nice thought is it? But we see that all the time. Cross Americans and frightened Russians – that’s been the story ever since the War.” Fever picked up the magazine Alan had just put down and used it to fan his face. “The Balance of Terror. The two superpowers facing-off. It doesn’t scare me any more. Does it you?”
Alan slowly shook his head. But he was beginning to feel scared nonetheless.
“Shall I tell you what does scare me?”
…to be continued.