Read The Sleep Room Online

Authors: F. R. Tallis

Tags: #Fiction, #Horror

The Sleep Room (6 page)

His head jerked around and he looked at me with suspicion. ‘Why are you so eager to play chess?’

‘I’m not, Mr Chapman. I merely think that you are preoccupied and that a game of chess will provide you with some much needed distraction.’

He continued to study me and after a lengthy pause, asked: ‘What do you think of Botvinnik?’

‘Who?’

‘Mikhail Botvinnik.’

‘I’m sorry, Mr Chapman, I haven’t the foggiest idea who you’re talking about.’

‘He is the world champion.’ Chapman narrowed his eyes and there was something in his expression that suggested he expected me to say something more. When I did not react, he moved away from the window, but was careful to keep his back to the wall. The manoeuvre was ungainly and he almost tripped over. He steadied himself and said, ‘Botvinnik’s play is remarkable on account of its strategic depth. There are those who say that his opening repertoire is limited, but his endings are quite exceptional. Moreover, his understanding of queen’s pawn openings and the French defence is second to none.’

‘Mr Chapman,’ I said, making an appeasing gesture. ‘I fear that you have overestimated my knowledge of the game. I play very occasionally for pleasure – nothing more.’

‘So you say.’

‘So I say? What do you mean by that?’

He pressed his lips together and his expression became defiant.

‘Mr Chapman?’

‘Did
he
send you?’

‘Who?’

‘Botvinnik, of course.’

‘I’m afraid you are very much mistaken if you think that I am acquainted with the world chess champion.’

‘Tell him that I know what he’s up to.’

‘I’ll tell him nothing of the sort, Mr Chapman, because – as I have already made quite clear – we are not familiar with each other.’

His expression changed in an instant from anger to confusion. ‘You don’t know him?’

‘No. I don’t know him.’

‘You are quite sure?’

‘Quite sure.’

‘He didn’t ask you to . . .’ The sentence trailed off and Chapman appeared disorientated. He scratched his head and blinked at the ceiling.

‘What?’ I enquired.

Chapman shook his head, more an involuntary shudder than a controlled movement. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he muttered to himself, ‘a misunderstanding, that’s what we have here. A misunderstanding.’

I raised my hand to remind him of my presence. ‘Shall we play then?’

‘All right – but you must not make any notes while we play.’

‘I give you my word, Mr Chapman. There will be no note-taking.’

Together we walked down the corridor to the empty recreation room. Beneath the dado rail, the heavily embossed wallpaper was painted dark brown and above, bottle green. The effect was dismal and cheerless. A vase of dead flowers stood in the middle of a circular table and a late bluebottle bounced against one of the window-panes. I pulled out a chair for Chapman and he sat down, but he was still agitated and perspiring.

The chess set was kept in a cabinet filled with other games such as Monopoly and snakes and ladders. Looking down the shelves I found a wooden box containing the pieces and a scuffed old board, and then I returned to the table where we prepared to play. It was decided, after tossing a coin, that I would go first. I pushed one of my pawns forward and Chapman gave my action unmerited consideration – rubbing his stubbly chin and emitting a continuous, low hum. Several minutes passed before he responded by doing exactly the same thing.

Given his earlier comments about Botvinnik, I had assumed that Chapman would be an accomplished player. But in fact, he was rather poor. It saddened me to see a man once capable of solving the most abstruse problems struggling to anticipate my mediocre game. I let him take one of my bishops, then a knight, and was mildly amused when he leered at me, as if he had triumphed through the exercise of exceptional cunning.

I looked around the room to alleviate my boredom. The fireplace was rather grand: a stone edifice with carved scrolls and decorative flowers. There was a teak radiogram, and beside it a stack of rarely touched long-playing records. The carpet was cratered with cigarette burns.

When I returned my attention to the board, Chapman had placed his king behind a knight for protection. In doing so, he had made it possible for me to take an exposed rook, but I did not have the heart to do so. Instead, I reversed my queen diagonally with no particular purpose in mind.

‘Dr Richardson?’ Chapman was staring at me, his eyes wide open.

‘Yes?’

‘Why do you move my bed around at night?’

‘I don’t.’

‘Then the nurses. Why do
they
do it?’

‘They don’t, Mr Chapman.’

‘I tell them to stop but they never listen.’

‘Perhaps it is a dream, Mr Chapman. They would not move your bed while you are asleep.’

‘It is the movement of the bed that wakes me up.’

I passed my hand over the chessboard. ‘Your turn, Mr Chapman.’

He studied the pieces for a full two minutes and then nudged his rook out of harm’s way. The muscles around his mouth twitched repeatedly until a tremulous smile came into existence. It could not be sustained, and a moment later Chapman’s expression was, as usual, fearful and unhappy.

4

On Saturday morning I was relieved by Stewart Osborne, one of the doctors from Saxmundham. I had met Kenneth Price, the other Saxmundham doctor, the previous Saturday.

Osborne was a few years older than me and affected a particular style of grooming that was reminiscent of Clark Gable playing the part of Rhett Butler in
Gone with the Wind
. He possessed the same wavy black hair and thin moustache, but the general effect he hoped to achieve was spoiled by a weak, flabby mouth. We shook hands and exchanged civilities. Apparently, he had also worked at the Royal Free Hospital, although before my time. Osborne congratulated me on my appointment and we discussed some of the patients who had been showing signs of agitation, but as we were talking I found his manner rather irritating. He seemed to be permanently attempting to conceal (without great success) a sneer. Even his voice had a mocking edge. I soon identified him as one of those boorish individuals who have learned to escape censure by pretending that everything improper they say is meant as a harmless joke. On the women’s ward, he questioned my judgement in front of a nurse, and when I readied myself to respond he laughed and said, ‘Sorry, old boy, I was only being facetious. Please, don’t take offence.’ I was glad that I didn’t have to spend very long in his company.

Although the weather could have been better, I decided that I would go out for a walk. Behind the hospital I discovered a path that descended to the beach. It was very steep and I almost lost my footing. As usual the sea was quite rough and the waves crashed loudly onto the shingle. I picked up a pebble and threw it out as far as I could. Once again I was struck by the sea’s unusual colour – a dull, enervating brown. In spite of all the froth and spray, the air was not salty. Indeed, it was disappointingly inert and lacked the medicinal tang so strongly associated with health and convalescence. I climbed the raised bank that separated the beach from the grazing marsh and ambled along in a southerly direction. The views were expansive. Great rafts of cloud drifted apart, allowing shafts of sunlight to break through. The spectacle was magnificent but – because of the restless, ever-changing sky – all too fleeting. As the gaps in the heavens closed the luminous columns became faint and ghostly.

I was presented with a choice: to either continue along the bank and follow the coast towards Aldeburgh, or to turn right, onto an adjoining raised bank that crossed the marsh. I decided to take the latter course.

It was a bleak place: entirely flat and without trees. I passed a sluice mechanism with rusted iron wheels and some long, straight drainage channels. An upturned rowing boat, untouched for years, had all but rotted away. Further on, I saw a couple of mangy ponies in a waterlogged field, and later, a small herd of cows. Somewhere, a bird was producing a lonely, plaintive call. I persevered, and further inland came across a wooden boardwalk. The planks were sodden and creaked loudly when I stepped on them. Undeterred, I moved along the fragile timbers, until I came to a flooded depression, the muddy fringes of which were patrolled by wading birds with long beaks. In the distance I could see the roof, chimneys and tower of Wyldehope. I had walked further than I had originally intended. It was getting cold and I decided to return.

The rest of the weekend was spent mostly in my rooms. Mrs Hartley’s kitchen girl brought me my meals, and I was perfectly happy reading, writing and listening to the wireless. The previous two weeks had been very demanding, more so, perhaps, than I had truly appreciated. It wasn’t until I was properly relaxed that I realized how tense and wound-up I had been. I had been getting a lot of headaches.

By Sunday evening, I was effectively back on duty. I met briefly with Osborne, who informed me that the weekend had been ‘uneventful’. During the twenty minutes or so we spent together, he did nothing to make me revise my first impressions. He was irritating throughout. At one point, Jane Turner walked by and he nudged me with his elbow: ‘It’s always a pleasure to work with Nurse Turner.’ He clearly expected me to reciprocate, to make some crass remark about her prettiness or figure, but I ignored him. As he was leaving, he called out, ‘Richardson, do you play golf?’

‘No,’ I replied.

‘Pity.’ He swung an imaginary five iron. ‘I could have got you into my club. I’m on the membership committee. You don’t want to end up like Palmer. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.’ Before I could deliver a suitably barbed response he was chuckling loudly – ‘See you in a few weeks.’ I was very glad to see the back of him.

Jane Turner was going about her business on the ward. I took the liberty of occupying her chair and pretended to find something of interest in Alan Foster’s notes.

‘Has Dr Osborne gone?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Why?’

‘Oh, nothing important.’

I looked up. ‘He’s very . . .’ I paused to select a suitable euphemism. ‘Confident, don’t you think?’ I invested my chosen adjective with enough scorn to make its purpose quite transparent.

She looked around, as if to make sure that we weren’t being overheard. ‘Lillian thinks he’s quite suave.’

‘Suave!’ I had repeated the word much louder than intended.

Jane perched herself on the side of the desk and crossed her legs. ‘Well, I can see why Lilly might think that. Sometimes he wears a cravat.’

‘And what do you think?’

‘Of Dr Osborne? I think he’s rather full of himself.’

‘I’m inclined to agree.’

‘Still, he can be quite funny – at times – and he’s better company than the other doctor from Saxmundham.’

‘Kenneth Price? He seemed a decent enough fellow to me.’

‘Yes, but he’s a little . . .’ Her features contracted.

‘Dull?’

‘Either that or very shy.’ She peeked over the top of the folder to see whose notes I was reading. ‘Alan Foster?’

‘Yes. I can’t see anything about Sister Jenkins’s ring.’

‘That’s because it hasn’t arrived yet. Actually, Sister Jenkins gave him a laxative only yesterday.’

‘Is that so?’

‘But still no luck.’

‘Well, some things can’t be hurried.’

She laughed – a rather musical laugh – and pushed herself off the desk. I stood up and gestured for her to sit in the empty chair.

‘Did you have a nice weekend?’ she asked.

‘Nice enough. I managed to go for a walk – along the beach and across the marshes.’

‘That doesn’t sound terribly exciting.’

‘Perhaps not.’

She curled a wayward lock of blonde hair behind her flawless ear. ‘It’s nicer here in the summer.’

We carried on talking in a casual, easy manner, and occasionally our exchanges became mildly flirtatious. After nine o’clock, for the sake of maintaining some vestige of propriety, I dragged myself away.

Before retiring, I thought that I should check that all was well in the sleep room. The trainee nurse (whose name I had since found out to be Mary Williams) was on duty. As I entered I noticed that Mary was looking fixedly in my direction, as if she had been waiting for me to enter. She looked worried – perhaps even fearful – and this expression was sustained until a spark of recognition appeared in her eyes. Relief was followed by a broad smile. I felt a pang of sympathy for her, supposing that she had been expecting the redoubtable Sister Jenkins. As I advanced, she stood respectfully and made some small adjustments to her bib.

‘Good evening, Mary.’

‘Good evening, Dr Richardson.’

‘Have you been here long?’

‘Since lunchtime.’

‘Any problems?’

‘Isobelle Stevens was a bit restless earlier, but she seems to have settled down now.’

‘Did you make a note on her chart?’

‘Yes. Of course.’ Her tone was indignant. A moment later her cheeks were burning with shame.

I touched her arm and said, ‘It’s all right, Mary – really. You must be tired.’

One of the patients spoke in her sleep: ‘Don’t! Don’t! Please . . . no.’

Mary and I looked at each other – but made no comment.

I did my usual circuit of the beds, examining the charts, registering medication levels, and I made a mental note of who was due to receive ECT the next day: Celia Jones, a middle-aged woman with short curly hair and a round face. Her eyes were rapidly oscillating from side to side beneath closed lids – a reliable indication that she was dreaming. As I was preparing to make my departure one of the nightingales arrived to relieve Mary Williams. Consequently, the trainee and I left the sleep room together.

Even though I had indicated that Mary should go first, her deferential nature made her fall in behind me. We were about halfway up the stairs when I heard her gasp: a sudden, sharp intake of breath. I stopped and turned around. Mary was looking back down the stairs, her right hand raised and covering the nape of her neck.

‘Mary?’ I enquired.

When our eyes met I saw that her pillbox hat was tilted at an angle.

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