Authors: F. R. Tallis
Tags: #Fiction, #Horror
‘I’m sorry, Dr Richardson.’ She glanced towards the sleep room again and stammered a few words that I did not hear properly. Even in the weak light that reached us from the vestibule, I could see that she was confused.
‘Mary,’ I pressed, ‘whatever is the matter?’
Her mouth worked silently, opening and closing without producing words, until she finally managed to blurt out: ‘My ankle. I twisted my ankle.’ She doubled over and probed the joint.
‘Here,’ I said, offering her my arm, ‘let me give you some support?’
She ignored my solicitation and made a great show of testing the foot with her weight. ‘It’s all right – I think. Yes. Yes. It’s fine.’
‘Perhaps I should take a look?’
‘No. Honestly – it’s nothing.’ She tried to smile. ‘I was being stupid . . .’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you’re quite sure?’
‘I am,’ she answered firmly. ‘Quite sure.’
We completed our ascent and as soon as we were in the vestibule Mary said, ‘Goodnight.’ She let herself out by the front door and locked it behind her. Although she was a local girl, she had been allocated a room (like the other nurses) in the converted stable building. Given that she had not troubled to collect a coat before leaving, I assumed that this must be her destination. I listened to the sound of her step receding into the night. There was nothing about its determined regularity that suggested a ‘twisted ankle’. The rhythm faded away into silence, a silence that yawned and gaped and felt deep enough to produce a sensation not unlike vertigo. Yet, I kept on listening. I don’t know what I was listening for – but I kept on listening.
The following week I saw a great deal of Jane Turner, during which time my feelings for her began to grow stronger. Her absence became increasingly associated with a dull longing. There were, however, some hopeful indications that she might feel the same way. She was always cheerful in my presence and had a tendency to stand so close I could smell her perfume. In spite of all this, I had very real doubts about the wisdom of initiating a relationship with a colleague. If things didn’t work out, or, even worse, turned sour, life might become very complicated.
I was sitting with Jane and Lillian in the dining room and it transpired that they planned to visit Southwold at the weekend. ‘The weather forecast is very good,’ said Jane. ‘It’ll probably be our last chance to enjoy some sunshine before the autumn sets in.’
Lillian looked up from her mashed potato and said to me, ‘What are you doing? This weekend?’
‘Oh, nothing much,’ I said, pitifully.
‘Then why don’t you come with us?’
My usual doubts and reservations surfaced, but swiftly dissipated when I looked at Jane. Her expression was eager, expectant, and to have declined the offer would have appeared faint-hearted, or even cowardly.
‘Well,’ I ventured, ‘if you wouldn’t mind.’
‘Of course we wouldn’t mind,’ said Lillian. ‘We’ll cycle into Westleton and get the bus.’
The thought of spending a whole day with Jane was somewhat distracting. I spent the remainder of the week in a rather restless state, and in the evenings, when I tried to write up my final Edinburgh experiment, I was unable to concentrate. Instead of working I smoked one cigarette after another and paced up and down the corridor until it was time to go to bed. On Saturday morning, Jane, Lillian and I collected three bicycles from Mr Hartley and we set off across the heath. Although there were more clouds in the sky than we had anticipated, the weather was mild for the season. It did not take us long to reach Westleton, where a publican – already known to Jane and Lillian – allowed us to leave our bicycles in his shed. Thankfully, the bus was on time and when we alighted the clouds had dispersed and the sun was blazing.
Southwold was a pretty seaside town, possessed of a sleepy, provincial charm, and largely free of the tawdry entertainments commonly associated with popular coastal resorts. The backstreets were lined with quaint little cottages and the wide, irregular green was encircled by more distinguished residences, some with wrought-iron balconies and tall, elegant windows. There were two outstanding landmarks: the first was a very large medieval church, the exterior of which was patterned with flint, and the second, a fully operational lighthouse. On a flat, grassy elevation close to the beach, six eighteen-pounder cannons pointed out to sea. The place was called, somewhat unimaginatively, Gun Hill.
We ate lunch at a hotel and drank far too much. When we had finished, Lillian rose from her chair and said that she was going off to do some shopping on the high street. ‘I’ll meet you by the pier in about an hour,’ she added with breezy good humour. After her departure, Jane and I walked back to Gun Hill, where we sat together on a bench. She had put on a pair of sunglasses that made her look glamorous and continental.
I asked her a few questions, mostly about herself, and she warmed to the theme of her own history. Her mother was a schoolteacher and lived in North London. Her father, a pharmacist, had died when she was only thirteen. She disclosed this information without sentimentality. Although her father had died young, his early demise did not result in financial hardship. A wealthy uncle had made sure that the needs of mother and daughter were always met. Jane spoke about her training at St Thomas’s, meeting Lillian, and how much fun they had had going to the Festival of Britain; about a holiday that she had enjoyed in Wales with her cousins, Vanessa and Neville, and her plan to take driving lessons. Her confidences and revelations proceeded with effortless fluency.
My surroundings began to feel strangely unreal. The contrast between the brown sea and the blue sky was striking and otherworldly. A union flag snapped in the breeze and a flock of long-necked birds flew past in a perfect V-formation. I was aware that something had changed, but it took me a few seconds to identify what. Jane had stopped talking. I turned to look at her, and at that precise moment she also turned to look at me. I can remember seeing myself, miniaturized and suspended in her lenses, and watching with fascination as these pale copies of my face began to expand. And then, quite suddenly, we were kissing.
When we finally separated, she took off her sunglasses. The vivid green of her irises had the translucent depth of stained glass.
Ordinarily, some outmoded idea of gentlemanly conduct might have induced me to say, ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to take advantage,’ or some other expedient that allowed her to demur. But there was little point. The situation that we found ourselves in had been so obviously engineered that to pretend otherwise would have been insulting. We kissed again, and carried on kissing, until Jane glanced at her wristwatch and said with a sigh, ‘Lillian.’
We walked along the promenade, past brightly coloured beach huts, hand in hand. It was only when we were close enough to the stunted pier to appreciate its decrepitude that the sense of a greater world beyond our mutual self-absorption impinged upon our senses. A little girl with blonde hair passed us by, holding a toffee apple which seemed to glow from within like a gemstone. On the horizon, I could see two large tanker ships.
‘There’s Lillian,’ said Jane.
She was standing with her back to us.
‘Do you think perhaps . . .’ It was not necessary for me to say any more.
‘Yes, of course,’ Jane replied, releasing my fingers.
On Monday night, Maitland telephoned.
‘James? It’s Hugh.’ I can’t remember when, precisely, but we had started to use each other’s Christian names. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘None at all.’
‘Good. Listen. I’m coming up early tomorrow morning. Walter Rosenberg is in London this week and he wants to see Wyldehope.’
‘An old friend.’
The name was familiar. ‘Didn’t he work with Kalinowsky?’ Kalinowsky had championed the use of ECT in the United States.
‘They published several important papers together.’ Maitland paused and I heard him light a cigarette. ‘I’d like you to be present when I show him around.’
We talked briefly about Rosenberg, who was in charge of a massive asylum on Long Island. ‘Fifteen thousand beds!’ Maitland exclaimed, permitting himself a dry chuckle. ‘They do things differently in America. I’m afraid that British psychiatry will be left behind if the authorities don’t learn from the American example.’ Then, in a more lively tone: ‘Good God! Is that the time? I was supposed to be dining at my club tonight. I’ll see you tomorrow.’
When I got out of bed the following morning, I crossed the corridor and looked out of one of the west-facing windows. Maitland’s Bentley was already parked on the drive. I ate breakfast in the dining room and performed a quick circuit of the two wards and the sleep room to ensure that everything was in order. By half past ten a Jaguar – as long as a hearse – had appeared beside Maitland’s Bentley. A chauffeur was standing next to it, holding a transistor radio up against his ear.
I had returned to the men’s ward and was reading through the notes when I realized that Sister Jenkins’s wedding ring had still not been recovered. The job of sifting through Alan Foster’s faeces was, understandably, very unpopular, and I wondered if the trainee – eager to get the noisome task completed as quickly as possible – had failed to exercise due diligence. In which case, Sister Jenkins’s precious ring would now be lost in the sewage system. As I contemplated the absurdity of the situation, a new nurse – just up from London – sidled up to me and said, ‘Excuse me? Dr Richardson? Dr Maitland would like to see you in his office.’ I hastily put the notes back in the filing cabinet and made my way upstairs.
Maitland greeted me with his characteristically firm handshake. ‘James, do come in.’
I had expected to see only one guest, but when I entered I saw two men seated on the Chesterfield. The older of the pair I immediately recognized; he was one of the three ‘American colleagues’ in the framed photograph on Maitland’s desk – ten years older, perhaps, but still slim, dapper and tanned. The other man was much younger, square-jawed, athletically built, and with hair cropped so short that it was little more than a shadowy cap of stubble. I was introduced to Walt Rosenberg first, and then to his companion, Buck Stratton, whom I later discovered was an employee of a US drug company.
Maitland and Rosenberg talked incessantly. Yet, I did not feel excluded. I was quite content to sit quietly and listen. Indeed, I considered it a privilege to be a spectator as these giants of psychiatry sparred and floated ideas. At one point I went to Maitland’s desk to get Rosenberg an empty ashtray. The bottom drawer of the grey filing cabinet had been left open and I saw that it contained some files. I only had a moment, but it was enough to read one of the names. The bold capitals spelled out the name ‘Kathy Webb’.
Rosenberg was an amusing raconteur, with a comedian’s sense of timing, and I was still laughing at one of his jokes when, unexpectedly, Maitland asked me to summarize the results of my Edinburgh research. He was particularly keen for me to discuss my final study – a demonstration that the sleeping brain can still respond to emotionally meaningful stimuli. I had discovered that whispering the name of a person’s wife or husband was all that it took to produce a surge of EEG activity, irrespective of how deeply they slept. Stratton, who had been silent until that point, suddenly sat up and asked me some very technical questions. I thought it odd that a drug company representative should be so well informed about sleep research.
‘Is this study published yet?’ asked Rosenberg.
‘No,’ I replied, ‘I’m writing it up now.’
‘Sir, I’d be grateful for an offprint,’ said Stratton, who reached into his pocket and produced a business card. I was not accustomed to being addressed so respectfully by someone of my own age and felt a little awkward. The card showed only his name and an address on East 42nd Street, New York.
‘Well, gentlemen,’ said Maitland, clapping his hands together, ‘shall we proceed?’ There was a hum of general agreement and we followed him to the door.
We walked out onto the landing where Maitland halted and stroked the carved banisters. ‘These charming woodland creatures are believed to be the work of Robert Greenford, a friend of William Morris and an associate of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.’
On the way down we found Hartley treating the banisters with a clear, oily fluid. He was on his knees, with a rag in his hand, but as we approached he stood, almost to attention, and inclined his head as we passed. When we reached the ground floor, Maitland indicated the suit of armour and claimed that it was early fifteenth century. We visited the men’s ward first, and then the women’s ward, but it was the sleep room where we tarried longest. Over an hour, in fact.
Rosenberg asked numerous questions about our drugs, vitamin supplements, and whether or not we used insulin to stimulate appetite. He circled the beds, studying the faces of the sleeping women, occasionally listening to their hearts with a stethoscope. I felt possessive and wished that he would leave them alone. Stratton had positioned himself near one of the walls, deep in shadow, his legs slightly apart and his hands behind his back. It was one o’clock, and the nurses were preparing to wake and feed the patients. Rosenberg wanted to stay and watch.
Sister Jenkins managed the complex choreography of waking, feeding, administering drugs, voiding and exercising with her usual brisk efficiency. While the patients were eating, Rosenberg tried to engage Kathy Webb. He introduced himself and asked her to perform some simple arithmetic, but the young woman only sucked on her fork and stared into the distance.
‘Yes,’ Rosenberg said, looking up at Maitland. ‘Ours are much the same.’
‘How long have your cohort been asleep now?’ asked Maitland. It was an unusual choice of word – ‘cohort’.
‘Five months,’ Rosenberg replied.
Maitland started. ‘Five months?’
‘Yes,’ Rosenberg replied. ‘Though things haven’t gone exactly to plan. We lost two.’
‘Chest infections. We were unlucky.’