Read The Sleep Room Online

Authors: F. R. Tallis

Tags: #Fiction, #Horror

The Sleep Room (21 page)

I became acutely conscious of his age, the sagging flesh around his neck, the uneven pigmentation of his skin, the paunch that even expensive tailoring could not quite disguise; the grey streaks in his hair and the shine, betokening intemperance, that emphasized the size of his nose. My gaze lingered on his big, bucolic hands: hands that had touched the most intimate parts of the woman I had, until only a week before, intended to marry. Eventually it all got too much for me. I presented Maitland with a thin excuse for my departure and hastened to the door.

As I was leaving, he asked, ‘Did you read any of those offprints?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘There wasn’t the time.’

‘Of course,’ he smiled. ‘How stupid of me.’

Jane returned the following day. I entered the women’s ward in a state of trepidation, knowing that she would be there. She was standing in the corridor, receiving instructions from Sister Jenkins. It is almost impossible to express how I felt at that precise moment, but confused would be a fair description. Anger competed with desire, but in the end anger won. Jane turned, registered my presence with feigned indifference, and carried on nodding her head. I busied myself with the patients until Sister Jenkins had left, then I walked back to the nurses’ station.

Jane grinned as I approached.

‘Happy New Year.’

The muscles in my face felt tight but I managed to reciprocate. ‘Happy New Year.’

‘What have you done to your hand?’

‘It’s nothing. I was careless in the kitchen.’

She stood up, swept her gaze around the ward, and kissed me quickly on the lips. ‘I’ve missed you.’ Assuming a sulky pout, she added, ‘You didn’t call me.’

‘I was rather busy.’

The pout became a smile again: ‘I know. I heard all about it from Sister Jenkins. She said you saved the day.’

‘With a little help from Osborne.’

‘Well, there’s a surprise.’

We exchanged accounts of our respective Christmases, but as I spoke my delivery was becoming flat and increasingly stilted. Once or twice, Jane looked at me quizzically and asked, ‘Are you all right?’ I shrugged off her enquiry and said that I was still feeling tired, having lost so much sleep and having worked so hard over the past week. We both heard the sound of jangling keys and stepped apart.

‘Tomorrow night?’ Jane was bright-eyed, eager.

‘Yes. Of course.’

When Sister Jenkins appeared again we were both walking in opposite directions.

That night, I lay on the bed, smoking and thinking. My brief encounter with Jane had reminded me of how much I wanted her. I tried to be rational.
All right
, I said to myself,
let’s assume that she did have an affair with Maitland. Is that such a bad thing? She hasn’t cheated on me, as such. And she’s had other lovers, surely?
I had always approved of her rejection of conventional morality, the outmoded standards of ‘good behaviour’ espoused by her parents’ generation. Indeed, it was exactly
that
which made her exciting and our relationship possible. I wouldn’t have been attracted to a narrow-minded prig. To be the beneficiary of her modernity and to condemn it at the same time was rank hypocrisy on my part. Why couldn’t I just accept that Maitland was a former lover, in the same way that I accepted those other nameless individuals from her past?

The first sticking point seemed to be the fact that Jane had kept the affair a secret. True, I hadn’t been cheated, but I still felt betrayed. Lovers are not obliged to confess their histories, but given the circumstances I felt that in this particular instance I had had a right to know. Secondly, there was something about their age discrepancy, thirty years at least, that made me feel deeply uncomfortable. A young woman making herself available to a considerably older man suggests the operation of ulterior motives. What was in it for her, really? Jane suddenly seemed much less like a modern woman and more like a common tart. She had cheapened herself irredeemably.

I stubbed out my cigarette in an ashtray overflowing with filters. Swinging my legs off the side of the bed, I got up, coughed, and went to make myself a cup of tea. In the dark rectangle of the window I saw my reflection: a transparent man floating in space. He looked drawn and exhausted. Before pouring the milk, I waved it under my nose. It had gone off and I had to have my tea black. As I was leaving the kitchen, I noticed a mark on the door: a circular patch of discoloration. Moving closer, I saw that the paint had blistered. I ran my fingers over the uneven surface and the brittle bubbles shattered. Flakes came away and fell to the floor. It was as though the door had been exposed to heat, but there was no scorch mark, no sooty residue. I remembered the flame in the darkness, advancing down the corridor. If I had been in a different state of mind, I might have given this new phenomenon the consideration it deserved. But I didn’t. I had too many other things to think about.

The following night, Jane knocked on the landing door. As soon as she had slipped through the gap, she hauled me close and pressed her lips against mine. I almost forgot all of my tortured deliberations in that first, heady moment. Yet the desire that her greedy kiss awakened in me was short-lived. Passion was swiftly replaced by objectivity and I suddenly felt disengaged. I pulled away and said, ‘Let’s go to the bedroom.’ Ill-chosen words, because Jane thought that I was impatient to make love and she threw me a look of lascivious intent.

When we reached the bedroom, she took off her cap and primped her hair. Before she could remove any more items of clothing, I offered her a cigarette. It was a crude manoeuvre, but it worked. She sat on the edge of the bed, crossed her legs, and spoke airily about her mother, Christmas and London. I don’t know how long this went on for. All that I can recall is becoming increasingly restless and tense. In the end, I couldn’t hold back any longer.

‘Jane,’ I said, ‘there’s something I want to ask you.’ Her expression was so childlike, so trusting, that my resolve almost faltered. ‘This is very difficult,’ I sighed.

‘James? What’s the matter?’

‘When Osborne was here last he said something that’s been troubling me. He was being indiscreet. It concerns you,’ I paused before adding, ‘and Maitland.’

‘Me and Maitland? What on earth are you talking about?’

‘He said that shortly after this place opened, he saw you coming out of Maitland’s office in the early hours of the morning. He said that it was pretty obvious what had been going on.’

‘Going on?’

‘Don’t make me spell it out, Jane, please. This is difficult enough as it is.’

A number of emotions seemed to pass across her face in quick succession before she adopted an attitude of guarded neutrality.

‘I
was
in Maitland’s office that night. But that doesn’t mean . . .’ Her hands moved up and down as if she were juggling. ‘That doesn’t mean what Osborne thinks.’

She could not maintain eye contact and her gaze slid away to the side.

‘What were you doing in Maitland’s office at that time?’

‘We were . . .’ She stopped abruptly and I detected the outward signs of calculation. ‘We were discussing the nursing arrangements.’

‘At two thirty?’

‘I was doing a night shift. He called me up and asked me to give him my opinion of a trainee. She’s gone now. She wasn’t very good.’

‘Why didn’t he ask Sister Jenkins?’

‘I’m sure he did. He was in a bit of a quandary. You see, the girl was the daughter of a colleague.’

Jane snatched the cigarette packet and struck a match.

‘Osborne said that there was no light coming out from under the door.’

‘What?’

‘He said that you and Maitland were together in the dark.’

She drew on the cigarette and expelled a large cloud of smoke. Her eyes began to brim with tears. I asked her a few more questions, but she simply looked down and shook her head.

‘It’s true then,’ I said, ‘you and Maitland?’

There was a long pause. I could hear the sea, the interminable advance and retreat of the waves. Jane was not sobbing, but her face was now lined with tracks of mascara. Eventually she answered: ‘What if it is?’

I had known all along that my interrogation would inevitably lead to an admission. Even so, when it came, I was still mentally unprepared. My breath caught and I produced a pathetic little gasp.

Jane looked up. Her eyes had sunk into beds of swollen skin. ‘So what are you saying?’ she cried. ‘That it’s all over now? Because I slept with another man?’

But it wasn’t just any man. It was Maitland. And that made all the difference.

‘You didn’t tell me,’ I said, my voice quivering slightly.

‘There was no need to, was there? I knew it would upset you. I didn’t want you to get hurt.’ She grimaced. ‘Is that a crime?’

‘And what about honesty? Doesn’t that come into it?’

‘I didn’t want you to get hurt,’ she repeated in a beseeching tone. She drew on the cigarette a few more times and then discarded the filter in the ashtray. ‘It was a stupid thing to do. I know that now. It didn’t mean anything and we both regretted it after.’

‘It happened just the once?’ I wanted to hear that there had been only a single transgression. Somehow, that seemed more excusable, easier to come to terms with.

Jane blushed and said, ‘Well, no.’

‘How long were you . . .?’ I halted in order to moderate my language. ‘Together?’

‘It was a fling,’ Jane said. ‘That’s all. I don’t know why I did it and I don’t think he knows why he did it either. He’s been married for years and he’s devoted to his wife.’

‘Obviously.’

‘Oh, don’t be like that, James. Everyone makes mistakes. We can get over this, I know we can. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.’

She clasped me in a clumsy embrace. I felt her breath on my neck, kisses, her hand on my thigh. Lovers often believe that they can resolve their differences in bed. But I have never subscribed to this view. A spasm in the loins is not redemptive. It does not confer absolution or erase memories.

Jane realized that her efforts were having little effect and withdrew. We sat side by side, staring at the wall, listening to the sea and our own uneven respiration. Eventually, she stood up and said, ‘I think I’d better go.’ I didn’t stop her. Her heels sounded a slow, faltering step down the hallway and when the door to the landing closed behind her, it filled the hospital with a sonorous boom. Only then did I allow the grief and misery that had been accumulating in my tight chest to find expression. Something ruptured and I began to weep.

When, after an hour or so, I went to bed, my sleep was fitful and disturbed by bad dreams.

The worst of these woke me at about four o’clock. I was in a subterranean cave, which I recognized as one of the healing temples of ancient Greece. In front of me the sleep-room patients were laid out on beds, just as they were in reality, in two rows of three. Jane, naked but for her nurse’s cap, was walking between them. Her body looked particularly statuesque and the proud swell of her breasts parted a thick blue smoke like the prow of a ship. She was approaching an elevated, rocky platform, on top of which stood a high priest. He was wearing a long robe, embroidered with gold symbols, but his face was concealed behind an enormous ram’s head. Massive horns projected from the skull and spiralled backwards. I sensed that the high priest was, in fact, Maitland, or at least a version of him supplied by my unconscious. Jane fell to her knees and bowed. Her pale body was illuminated by flaming torches and the air was thick with a sickly sweet incense. I could see the divided perfection of her buttocks, the soles of her feet, and the unbroken smoothness of her back. There was no doubt in my mind that I was witnessing the prelude to some initiation ceremony. The priest stepped down, opened his robes, and as he did so I was abruptly returned to consciousness. I switched on the lamp. The dream had seemed so real that my bedroom appeared insubstantial by comparison. I expected the flimsy walls to topple backwards at any moment like a poorly constructed stage set.

A period of time elapsed, during which I seemed paralysed, unable to feel emotion and unable to make decisions. Headaches rendered me insensible. I spent hours alone in my room. I should have been thinking things through, but my mental apparatus seemed to have seized up. The dusty atmosphere irritated my sinuses and I found it difficult to breathe. I decided that I needed to get out, to interpose distance between myself and Wyldehope’s oppressive interior. As luck would have it, I reached this decision just before Kenneth Price arrived from Saxmundham to relieve me for the weekend. I immediately set off for Hartley’s cottage and asked him if I could have one of the bicycles. All of them were available.

When I reached the Dunwich road I did not follow it down to the village. Instead, I veered off in a northwesterly direction, through some woodland, over a stream, and then out across a bleak landscape of undulating muddy fields.

On a nearby rise, I saw a shanty town of ramshackle enclosures constructed from sheets of timber and corrugated metal. Pigs busied themselves in the open spaces, wandering around with their snouts pressed to the ground. Some collected in groups, while others basked alone in pools of filth. There was something about their gatherings and dispersals that evoked human society, a resonance that quickly acquired more sinister overtones: watchtowers, barbed wire and smoking chimneys. The war had changed everything. Even pig farms had become emotionally complex.

Although I had consulted a map before leaving Wyldehope, I had no fixed plan, no itinerary, just a vague notion of following a circular route that would eventually take me back to Dunwich. It was more or less by chance that I came to Wenhaston, a pretty enough village, but very small and quiet. As I walked up and down its main thoroughfare, I didn’t encounter a single inhabitant. I would have moved on, but I was deterred by the appearance of dark splotches on the pavement. Looking up at the sky, I saw that a mass of low black cloud was floating overhead and I thought it would be sensible to wait for it to pass before resuming my journey. I made for the church intending to shelter for a short while.

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