24th December 1976
For as long as he could remember, Frankie Adams had worn socks as gloves. He had never chosen to wear them in this way, but was now so resigned to their presence that even in his dreams he pictured himself as a man with no fingers. The socks were always grey, but rarely a matching pair, as they were either faded to varying degrees, or had originally belonged to different owners; and he could never take them off, as they were always tightly secured at the wrist with a bracelet of sellotape.
There had been one memorable morning, Christmas morning in Frankie's forty- second year, when someone had removed his saliva-saturated night-time 'gloves' and had forgotten to put on a fresh pair. What Frankie remembered mostly was his hands feeling sensitive and vulnerable, as if they were those of a new-born baby, and that everyone who came across him that day stared at him, some of them laughing, because he looked somehow different and strange. The memory stayed with him, and every Christmas he hoped that it would happen again.
But it never did.
The evening of this particular Christmas Eve had started like any other, the day staff leaving, everyone put to bed, and the cacophony of unrequited communication gradually subsiding to a
resigned, drug- induced hum. Nurse Cahill sat at her desk, her head nodding to the tinny beat of her radio earpiece. Her heart had only just begun to settle from something that had happened half an hour previously, when she had clearly heard a woman's voice say:
'Their heads were green, their hands were blue.'
She was used to patients, at least the ones who could talk, coming out with meaningless gibberish, but as this was an all male ward it had caused her to jump from her chair, pulling the waxy earpiece from where it lodged. She inspected each bed before returning to her desk, and checking that her radio was correctly tuned. As she feasted on chocolate liqueurs a lean figure stepped from the shadows behind her and drifted forward to where he could hear her slurping the syrup from her chubby fingers. He peered over to leer at the outline of her breasts, trying not to notice how the lamp emphasised the down on her arms and upper lip. As he grabbed her shoulders she let out a yell- the word scream would conjure up something far too high-pitched and feminine- and, spinning round, landed a hefty right hook which left her attacker sprawled on the linoleum.
'Wha...?' said the stunned auxiliary, as he wiped the back of his hand across his bleeding lip. 'Merry Christmas to you too.'
'How the hell did you get in here?'
'I did ring the bell, but you didn't hear it. Anyway, I've got these' he said, triumphantly jangling a set of keys. 'They're dropping like flies with this throwing up bug; even Sister Claire has gone down with it. There aren't enough agency nurses to go round, so it looks like we're in charge.'
Laughing, the two angels of mercy kissed, and in the glow of the desk light looked momentarily devilish.
'Thank God I'm getting out of this shit-hole.' said the fat nurse, looking round at the twenty-odd sarcophagal beds.
' You got your transfer then?'
'No. I've given up on that. Haven't you heard? All of these places are closing. There’s no future in it. I'm going to retrain, go into Social Services. That's where it's at now: Care in the Community.'
Frankie listened and, unknown to them, as it would have been to anyone else who had ever worked with him, took in every word. He
wished that he was getting out, that he could be cared for in this 'community' thing, instead of being punished here for something he couldn't remember doing as a child. He let out a small groan as the pain in his stomach mounted again, but tried not to complain too loudly, as he had been chastised earlier for keeping the others awake.
Frankie had a curved spine, which meant that he could only lie comfortably on his left side. The thin boy in the next bed had the opposite problem, so every night they lay looking into each other’s eyes. Neither of them could talk, and no one ever questioned what one thought of the other, or if either of them even had the capacity of thought. All that Frankie knew was that in the five years that they had occupied those beds, the boy's gaze had been his only source of comfort, understanding and fellow feeling.
The nurse made her way down the lines of beds, tucking the patients in, the ambulant ones particularly tightly, so that they would be discouraged from wandering. The thin boy was never going to go anywhere, but noticing that his top sheet was not conforming to the hospital standard the nurse bent down to insert it tightly between base and mattress, while the other sat with his feet on the desk, guzzling a can of beer.
Frankie watched the stiff skirt rise up, revealing legs that were each as thick as the thin boy’s body. He wanted to touch where the blue uniform slid over the black mounds. He knew it was all right to do that because he had seen the boy nurse do it, so he pulled himself up using the cot-side and reached out with his shaky, grey-socked hand, guiding it like the hand of a puppet to its huge beach ball of a target.
Then an involuntary spasm sends his hand shooting out, and pinching, through the baggy material of the sock, a roll of nurse-flesh. The nurse bellows and spins round, her large hand raised like a
conductor’s as the background noise of crying and babble ceases at the recognised signal of threatened violence.
Then the hand falls, but instead of the anticipated slap it grabs the flapping toe of the outstretched sock.
'I’m sick of you, you vicious little bastard.'
She pulls at the sock until it stretches, winds it around a bar of the cot-side and ties it, then stalks over to the other side of the bed and does the same with Frankie's free hand.
'I’m sick of your pinching and whining. You can stay like that now, it might teach you a lesson.'
The thin boy watches as the male nurse, whispering and giggling, kisses the fat nurse and goes with her through the blue door opposite his bed into what they call the 'punishment room.’ He listens as the screaming and grunting sounds coming from the room mingle with the resumed din of the ward, and the first retching sounds from Frankie. He watches helplessly as Frankie struggles to turn onto his side. He hears Frankie starting to choke on his own vomit. Then he hears nothing, sees no more movement.
From the other side of Frankie's bed the long white face of a young boy rises like a new moon. The boy is wide-eyed, his expression of fright enhanced by the stiff brush of hair which crowns the top of his head. He limps round to the foot of the bed, and climbs up, patting Frankie and whimpering, stroking his face and removing vomit from around his mouth and nostrils.
When the nurses emerge, the boy is sitting at the foot of Frankie's bed, his red pyjama jacket smeared with sick, a crimson urine patch spreading on his crotch as he swings his bare feet, rocking, and chanting:
'Who’s in the cupboard?
Rang the bell,
Kissed the nurse
Made the noise,
Naughty Mr. Hill.'
Then they see Frankie's still form, and rush to untie him, their minds already fabricating a tale of how they tried to save him, as the moon-faced boy mutters 'he's gone to our Lord.'
The boy drops down from the bed, his feet slapping on the linoleum floor, 'I'm going to set my dog on you,’ then throws himself at
the fat nurse, barking and clawing and biting. Although she is so much bigger than him, she screams in fear, until her accomplice helps her to drag him to the punishment room, where he is locked in for the night.
Then one of them is desperately cleaning up the vomit- 'what the fuck are we going to do?'- as the other changes the socks on the dead man's hands- 'we tidy up, there are no witnesses'- she gestures to the thin boy, then to the punishment room- 'he can't speak, and that one's in gaga land, so shut the fuck up and bin these socks.'
Thus the ward is restored to its sterile status quo, where everything is clean, and every patient cared for, up to and beyond the line where complete care becomes complete control.
And the thin boy saw all of this. Whether he understood what he had seen or not nobody knew, or cared. Either way, he was never going to tell.