by Clark Nidaserialised here by permission of the author.

Janice smiled her sweet impersonal smile. “Matron will see you now,” she said.

He went in. Matron looked up from the pile of reports on her desk. “Well, Mr Hall, what can I do for you?”

The feeling of terror in her presence had never gone away. It took him a few seconds to get the words out.

“Matron… I want to report an incident that took place on my night-duty.”

Matron’s expression did not change. “When?”

“On Saturday night. I needed a day to think about it. Then I realised that it might be serious enough… I mean – that I ought to report it.”

“Go on, then.”

Alan recounted the story as briefly as he could. But he laid stress on the patient having correctly predicted the appearance of the Berlin Wall.

Still Matron’s expression remained the same. She said “Night Superintendent reported nobody in Ward 15 when she did her rounds on Saturday night.”

“No, Matron. We got a phone call after she left, to get a bed ready for an emergency admission.”

“I have not received any report from Ward 15 to show that there was a patient admitted that night.”

Alan gaped in astonishment. “I – I cannot imagine how that could have happened…!” He thought fast.

Matron prompted him. “Did you write a report yourself?”

“No I didn’t…” Alan stumbled in his speech. “I – it – I – it isn’t for me to write the reports. There’s always someone on-duty more senior than me. Generally the day staff do that, from what the night staff tell them when they’re going off-duty.”

“That is correct,” said Matron. “But don’t you see – it explains why I’ve had no report from Ward 15. It is unprecedented for a patient to be admitted and discharged again the same night. Obviously the day staff would have no reason to report the patient as having been there at all.”

Alan sat there, awaiting the inescapable rocket.

Matron went on to say “Did you write anything down while you were there? Anything at all? Might you have left any sort of evidence of your being there on-duty that night?”

With a guilty shock Alan remembered the plate of baked custard which he’d thrust into the office and forgotten about. He felt himself beginning to flush crimson. How he wished he’d gone to the Unit before coming to see Matron – to check-up on obvious things like that. He decided to avoid mentioning the baked custard. He scrambled around in his mind for something else to fasten upon.

“When the patient left, he took with him a pair of our pyjamas – plus dressing-gown, if I remember. Ah! – and of course – I went through the proper admissions procedure, so there should be a record of that in the properties book.”

Matron made a note. She put the pencil down and folded her fingers.

“You said that Switchboard failed to warn you that the ambulance was on its way back to collect the patient. But they did phone to warn that an ambulance was coming in the first place. Can you remember just when that was?”

“Yes Matron. It was around 1 o’clock, straight after Night Superintendent left the building. Miss Arden took the call.”

Matron took a deep breath and leaned back in her chair. It seemed to Alan as if half a minute went by before she spoke again. To his surprise her voice was measured and gentle. But absolutely neutral.

“Mr Hall, I’m going to ask you to take two weeks’ leave, starting forthwith.” She leaned forward to glance at her notes. “No – let us say: starting from Wednesday – I don’t want you to lose any paid leave over this. That is the day you’re due back on night-duty, isn’t it?”

“Yes Matron.”

“I shall see to it that you’re credited for this morning as overtime too, since I see that you’re supposed to be off-duty right at this very moment. I shall phone over to Sister Fearon to arrange for her to release you. And I don’t want you to return to duty until I phone you at home to say come back.”

She put down her pencil carefully. “I expect that will be in around two weeks’ time.”

Alan felt a stab of dismay. “Am I being suspended?”

Still looking down at her notes, Matron briefly shook her head. “No – there’s no need to go to such lengths. Nobody has any complaints about your work, Mr Hall. I want you to take a good long rest… just while we make a few inquiries here.”

There was a painful silence. Alan assumed that the interview was over and got up to go. Matron let him get as far as the door before she spoke again.

“Oh – and Mr Hall…”

“Yes, Matron?”

“During the next two weeks… make sure nobody knows where you are.”

Alan gaped at her.

“Nobody,” she insisted. “Go off camping, or something like that. Make sure you’re not accessible by telephone either, which means, I’m afraid, that you shouldn’t leave a forwarding address, or telephone number, with anyone. Not even at home.”

“Yes, Matron…” faltered Alan.

She fixed him with a penetrating look. “I mean it! Make sure that nobody can find you. Is there anyone on the ward you’d particularly trust? Someone to go with you?”

Alan was taken aback. “I – I can’t think. I’ll ask around my friends…”

“No – it must be someone from work who knows you. Someone who’ll appreciate the situation here – and can be relied upon to be discreet.”

“Mr Pye maybe…?” It was the first person that came to mind.

“That is a very good choice. You’ve no idea just how good it is. I shall phone Sister to arrange for him to be released immediately, along with yourself. He will phone you as soon as I’ve had a word with him. Go home and wait by the telephone.”

Alan left Matron’s office, his head buzzing in sparks. But he didn’t go straight home. First he went to Ward 14, nodding to the staff on-duty, but he didn’t change into uniform. He ran into neither Sister Fearon nor Mr Baker, nor Staff-Nurse Hoggarth, so he didn’t have to answer any questions. Instead he went downstairs to the Three-Day Order.

It was empty and silent, except of course for the perennial rustle of the pipes. Today they were inarticulate – they weren’t for saying a thing about Saturday night.

He looked in the office. No plate of baked custard – it had of course been taken away. His diaphragm contracted painfully.

He looked in Room One. The bed was made, with fresh clean linen, ready for the next emergency admission. The cleaner had been in that morning. There was naturally no sign of anyone having been there that weekend.

He glanced at the ward book on the table in the hall. There was no entry for Saturday or Sunday – no mention of a patient being admitted or discharged. But going by what Matron had said, it was something he had expected.

He got the properties book out of the office desk drawer and looked for the page which listed the patient’s property he had written down that night.

There was no page.

The carbon-paper lay under a blank leaf. He snatched it out to peer at it. There were no pencil pressure-marks on it. It had been replaced by a clean sheet.

…to be continued.


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