by Clark Nida, serialised here by permission of the author.
“Mr Dollis. Please explain to me precisely why it is that you want to interview Mr Hall.”
“It is a matter of the gravest national importance. More than that, I’m not at liberty to say.”
Matron was profoundly annoyed with her visitor. Someone who knew her well would have been able to tell that from the way she held her pencil. Someone less familiar with her mannerisms would have detected little difference from her normal comportment.
“Why are you not at liberty to say? Mr Hall works full-time here, in one of the most demanding jobs I know. I cannot begin to imagine the circumstances in which he could have become party to ‘matters of the gravest national importance’.”
“The details, Matron, are covered by the Official Secrets Act.”
“I have signed the Official Secrets Act, Mr Dollis. It is something required of anyone who deals directly with the Ministry on matters of health policy.”
“I must apologise. The information is only imparted on a need-to-know basis.”
Matron tossed her pencil onto the blotter.
“I need to know. All matters pertaining to staff at this hospital come under my direction. That includes their welfare. Are you trying to tell me that Mr Hall is under investigation for having done something wrong?”
Her visitor judged that he’d been stalling for long enough, and that a minor concession would be in order. “No, Matron. I can confidently assure you that we have no reason to suspect Mr Hall of any crime as such. Not at this stage.”
“Mr Dollis. You are here, as I understand, to seek my co-operation on a matter of the highest confidentiality. Yet you do not reciprocate by offering me the information to enable me to judge whether you merit my co-operation.”
“I can assure you, Matron, that the people I represent are some of Britain’s most meritorious figures and have the country’s deepest interests at heart. You can safely share your knowledge of all confidential matters with me.”
“That is exactly what I propose to do. Although you won’t confirm this, I gather that your interest in interviewing Mr Hall is in connection with something he might have learnt from a patient in the Observation Unit sometime during the night of Saturday the twelfth of August. Do you wish to deny it?”
Mr Dollis said nothing. He was a past master at facing-down barristers, magistrates and High Court judges under rigorous questioning. But he found himself out of his depth with this woman. Here in the hospital, on her own ground, she was judge, jury, counsel for the prosecution – and chief investigator, if she chose to be.
She was Queen. And she was nobody’s fool.
“You must understand that anything our patients tell us is held by us in the strictest confidence. Although nurses do not take the Hippocratic Oath, we consider that our obligations towards the patient are the same as a doctor’s. Now tell me – what are you proposing to do with Mr Hall if he declines to tell you everything you want to know?”
“It is viewed as a very serious matter to refuse to co-operate with the Crown’s lawful investigators.”
“And with the Crown’s unlawful investigators?”
“Matron, I must protest…!”
“No, it is I who must protest. Mr Adam Fever was delivered into our care in irregular circumstances. I would go so far as to say unlawful circumstances. And we’re talking, Mr Dollis, not of a crown subject, but the citizen of an allied nation. A person, his embassy assures me, who enjoys diplomatic privileges in our country.”
Dollis tried to remain poker-faced, but he couldn’t help swallowing hard.
Matron continued. “It falls to me personally to investigate a serious matter like this. Yet when I come to do so, I discover that your agents have been interfering with hospital records, specifically by removing vital pages from my record books. To say nothing of harassing my staff, thus preventing me from discharging my duties. Indeed to remove all evidence that Mr Fever was ever admitted to this hospital in the first place. Wouldn’t you agree that I have something to protest about?”
“Matron, please accept my sincerest apologies. But it is Mr Hall, not Mr Fever…”
“Since Mr Fever has suffered at your hands in this way, I ask myself what treatment Mr Hall can reasonably expect – if he too has the luck to fall into your hands?”
“Matron, our investigators apply the highest ethical standards…”
“And the lowest, Mr Dollis – as they choose. Do you have the gall to deny that the secret services sometimes see fit to break the law in pursuit of their investigations?”
Dollis began to stutter. “Why – no, Matron. The normal rule of law must occasionally give way to higher considerations… when the very security of our nation is at risk.”
“Mr Dollis, I shall be totally frank with you. Which is more than you are being with me. Right at this moment I haven’t the slightest idea where Mr Hall is. That is the absolute truth. And I doubt you’ll find anyone who does. Because I took it upon myself personally to direct Mr Hall to place himself beyond your reach.”
“Matron, I really…!”
“Let me finish. Shall I tell you why? It is because from what I’ve discovered so far, from people who should know, what’s at risk isn’t the ‘security of our nation’ at all. That has already been squandered by those charged with the duty to defend it. What is at risk is the reputations, and the positions, of one or two highly-placed individuals. And I might also add – one or two critically-placed individuals. Do you get my meaning?”
Dollis said nothing.
“So I put it to you that what you’re asking me to do is to acquiesce in the silencing, by whatever means, of anyone and everyone possessed of certain information – and that for no better reason than to save the skins of people who don’t deserve it!”
Dollis splayed his hands. “That is only one of several interpretations. A more liberal one…”
“Don’t talk to me of liberality! Incarcerating people in a mental institution because of what they happen to know is something the Russians do. Not us.” She leaned forward and hissed “…Or do you know something I don’t?”
“Good. Because turning my psychiatric unit into a political prison is something that will be achieved over my dead body!”
She glared at the man sitting opposite her. “Do I make myself absolutely clear?”
It was a rhetorical question. Dollis didn’t feel obliged to reply to it. In fact he didn’t feel obliged to say another word. Silently he got to his feet and strode out of Matron’s office with as much dignity as he could snatch together.
…to be continued.