A short story in five bites
The other patients returned to the dayroom at twelve o’clock. Paul had been apprehensive about meeting them but there were no signs of Bedlam as they wandered in from their classrooms and workshops and chose which shabby chair to sit on. Paul saw abstracted expressions, worn out clothes and untrimmed hair. He sat down next to the nurse. His own sharp haircut and moderately smart clothing were a closer match to the nurse than to the patients. Unconsciously he smoothed his hair, checked his collar, clung to an obsolete ‘us’ that shrank from ‘them’.
Paul was on an assessment regime which secluded him from most of the ward routine. So he did not go with the other patients ten minutes later when they filed through the dayroom and outside for exercise in a large walled garden.
‘Why doesn’t he go?’ Paul asked the nurse quietly, gesturing at a man sitting opposite.
‘Not your business, really’ Jimmy replied. ‘But that’s Len. He’s been here forever. We pretty much leave him to himself.’
‘Actually, you might want to have a word with him, in the circumstances. Hey, Len! Here’s another sinner.’
‘Don’t,’ Paul whispered. ‘I don’t want to talk to him.’
But Len was looking steadily at Paul and had put down his magazine. He walked over.
‘I know what you did,’ Len said. ‘It’s no use talking to me.’
Len stood there staring at Paul, so that Paul was frightened. Although he must have been at least sixty, Len was a powerful looking man. He was tall and heavy. His hands were thick and strong. He had curly blond hair and a puffy, greasy face. He wore a dark blue shirt and some shapeless trousers whose waistband was pushed low by his large stomach, so low that the shirt revealed a triangle of flesh in the space between the last button and the top of the trousers.
‘Obviously Len’s not in a very forgiving mood today,’ the nurse said as Len walked away.
‘Why is he here?’
‘Not your business,’ said Jimmy, using his standard formula for asserting patient confidentiality. But he wagged his finger in exaggerated reprimand as he said it, and his sarcastic tone revealed the bitterness he felt about defending the rights of patients who were also offenders.
Paul felt a small excitement. He guessed that the nurse was going to break the confidentiality rules and tell him something about Len. He hoped he would hear about a crime that was worse than his own, some atrocity so terrible that Paul and Jimmy would be partners, sharing a sense of shock.
Then he noticed how the nurse looked directly at him. He noticed that the nurse’s eyes had the same bitterness as his voice. And he knew that if he did tell Len’s secret, it wouldn’t be to make Paul feel good.
‘You two will get along fine,’ Jimmy said. ‘Len used to be a builder. He was working on a house for his family. His son was helping. Len got a bit angry one day. Picked up a hammer, nailed his son’s hand to the stair rail. Then he went away and his son died. From shock and hypothermia. Nice company you keep.’
A few days later Paul was still excluded from the regime of classes, work and exercise, and found himself again in the dayroom with just Len and a nurse. The nurse sat further from Paul now and watched him less closely, increasingly confident that Paul’s energy for suicidal behaviour had diminished.
Len spoke to Paul.
‘I know how you feel,’ he said.
‘You think so?’ said Paul. He wondered irritably if this was Len in his more forgiving mood. He didn’t feel like accepting comfort from a murderer.
‘Because you’re a killer too?’ Paul spoke harshly. He wanted to hurt Len by mentioning his crime. He wanted to pull away the self-respect that Len might be trying to gather by his show of sympathy for Paul.
‘Why don’t you tell me all about yourself, Len? Tell me why you are in this place.’
Len looked touchy. ‘You’re not supposed to ask about that. It’s confidential.’
‘But you know what I did. You told me that on my first day.’
‘That’s omniscience,’ said Len. ‘It only works one way. I get to know all about you. You don’t know about me unless I want you to.’
That was a bizarre thing to say, and Paul felt a scared, sick feeling in his stomach, as if he had just encountered a toad or a spider unexpectedly close. Until now Len had seemed quiet, calm – normal. But now Paul wondered how crazy Len was.
Paul started to stand up, but then slumped back in his chair, despairing. He was in a lunatic asylum, a murderer sitting with another murderer.
‘What can I do, how can I stand this?’
‘That sounds like a prayer,’ said Len. ‘I don’t answer prayers.’
‘You’re mad.’ Paul was angry with Len for having a means of escape. ‘You’ve gone crazy. What you did – you’ve left it behind.’
‘I haven’t left anything behind.’
‘Yeah?’ said Paul, still keen to hurt Len’s feelings, ‘Then why don’t you tell me about it?’
‘Ok,’ said Len. He sounded angry now, too, and the nurse looked over briefly. ‘You listen while I tell you, and then say if you feel any better.’
He came over and sat next to Paul.
Copyright C. A. Creffield