by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
“What?” snapped the man. “You mean to say he’s not ready? Didn’t you get a phone call?”
“The phone hasn’t rung down here! Anyway they normally phone upstairs and whoever’s on-duty comes down and tells me…”
Holding his hands aloft, the ambulance-man spun round on his heel. “Oh, the inefficiency of this place! Well – get him out here quickly! We haven’t got all night to hang around!”
Alan stood his ground. His eyes narrowed. “Where’s your ambulance?”
“Round the corner – where do you think? Now don’t just stand there gawping – get on with it!”
“Why didn’t you bring it into the compound? The gate was open…”
“No time to mess about reversing. Now Will You Please Fetch The Patient!”
As a rule, ward-staff didn’t cross swords with the ambulance-men. Each knew the other had a difficult job to do. Anything short of the closest co-operation would only make both jobs harder. Besides it wasn’t Alan’s place, as the most junior staff member on the ward, to go provoking feuds – with the ambulance service of all people. It would come whistling back at him like a snapped hawser.
He turned away, muttering “I’ll get the patient dressed.”
“No time for that. Just give me his bag of clothes. He’ll be warm enough in his pyjamas where he’s going. We’ve got blankets – we’ll sort him out.”
Alan unlocked the door to Room One and slipped inside. Fever was sitting on the bed shuddering uncontrollably and swallowing. His face was the colour of dirty snow.
A second ambulance-man had come into the hallway. On impulse Alan pulled the door to. As a rule you didn’t shut yourself in with the patient. But he didn’t want the ambulance-men overhearing whatever chanced to be said between them.
He helped Fever on with the dressing-gown. “The ambulance is in a frightful hurry, Mr Fever. I’m afraid there’s not even time for you to dress. But you don’t have to worry. They’ve got blankets for you in the ambulance…”
“Where are they taking me?”
“Hellingly Hospital, I imagine. That’s where people normally go from here.”
“Didn’t they say?”
“No, of course they didn’t. Just you check-up tomorrow. You won’t find any record of me arriving at Hellingly Hospital – whatever you call it.”
Alan took a deep breath. Keep your head above water. Don’t get submerged in the patient’s fantasy world.
“Look, Mr Fever, there’s no need to get so upset about it. Lots of people go to Hellingly – and they really do get cured and come out again. It’ll be all right. You’ll see…”
“Don’t waste your breath, Nurse. I know these people. You don’t.”
It wasn’t working. Alan couldn’t keep it up any longer. “Who are you?” he murmured quietly.
“Never you mind. Just some poor sucker who’s seen and heard things he shouldn’t – and vanished through a hole in the ground.”
“Is there anything I can do…?” The words slipped out. Fever was quite unlike the normal run of confused patients. They usually awarded themselves higher rank in the grand parade of their fantasies than “some poor sucker”.
“Don’t even think of it. You’ll only land in trouble yourself. Just forget what’s happened tonight. Forget everything you’ve heard me say.”
Alan persevered. “I’m off-duty in five hours. Once I’m out of here, is there someone you’d like me to phone…?”
“That will be far too late. Don’t you worry your young head about me. It will soon be all over.”
“Look,” said Alan. “If there’s the slightest suspicion of nonsense going on – and it seems to me there is – I can refuse to discharge you. I can lock you in this room and keep you here until it’s clear what it’s all about.”
Alan fancied he saw a flash of hope in Fever’s eyes – but it rapidly evaporated. “Look, Nurse, there’s nothing you can do, not all by yourself. Not against these people. Do you want to disappear too?”
That brought Alan up short. It hadn’t occurred to him that he might himself be in danger. Except for the ordinary day-to-day sort in dealing with mental patients.
Fever hissed in his ear. “Whatever you do – don’t give them the idea I’ve told you anything. Act normal. Normal as you can.”
Alan tried to do that – and the absurdity of the situation swept over him. Total paranoia. But what if there was something amiss? Whatever could he do on his own? If he pressed the alarm bell, there was only Arden upstairs to give him support. She might come down to find the doors wide-open and everyone gone.
Fever held out his hand. His voice was contrived. “Well, Nurse, nice knowing you. Good luck at school next year.”
Their eyes met. Alan took the hand – it was clammy like a piece of wet fish. When he let it go Fever patted his shoulder. Then Alan opened the cell door.
The two ambulance-men were standing in the hallway glowering. Without a word Alan handed them the bag of clothes. Silently they turned to accompany Fever as he walked out between them without so much as a glance back. It was like watching a prisoner go to the gallows.
Alan’s heart was thumping in his chest as he locked the door and shot the bolts top and bottom. With Fever’s warning to “act normal” still ringing in his ears, he didn’t want to be seen standing in the doorway watching them go.
He glanced at his watch. Twenty-past-three.
What did Maskell say? If anything weird takes place – if you see a ghost on the ward – if a patient dies… it always seems to happen at around three in the morning.
…to be continued.