huts 2 (rewrite)
'I'm looking for Ailsa ward.' I speak too quickly, trying to sound as confident as him, almost stuttering. But if I stuttered I would have died. The memory of those other times and my eyes fill up.
'Yeh, I know.' he flaps a wrist in a general direction away from us, showing me that he does not have a mushroom growth of underarm sweat patches. I lack direction and follow him inside.
'You're next door with Wullie the Pole. He'll keep you right. Just laugh at his jokes.' He locks us in, letting the key jangle and drop onto the metallic ring.
He cackles again, but I was barely able to hear him. It’s as if a farmyard had been tipped upside down and all the frightened animals fallen into the room we inhabit. My mum warned me and I expected something like this. What I didn't expect, what I hadn't prepared myself for, is the stench. I've a weak stomach. My eyes water. I cover my mouth with my hand and hold my breath.
'Wullie the Pole doesn't do jokes.' He’s following my gaze, probably figuring I’m desperate to get to the ward across the corridor and get started. I’m just desperate to breathe clean air.
The communal toilet has no door, neither do any of the stalls. It’s communal bathing. Four baths and four bathers at a time. Cubicles with people squatting and groaning on the toilet pan. Others stand against the sinks, leaning against the walls, waiting. Some carry dish rags, thin and worn, almost transparent. Men and women herded together, indifferent to their nakedness, or each other. One of the women steps out of a bath, begins to dry her hair with a dish rag that is stained brown with shite.
He takes charge, issuing orders.
'Hey Massie, put that fucking towel down. Put it in the wash basket. Put it in the basket. That's right. That's right. Over there. Don't make me come over there. Right, that's good. Now get back in the bath. The bath. Get back in. I'll get you a towel. In. Yes, get in. Good girl.'
'Fuckin hell man, it's always wild at this time.' The frown is gone. He nudges my arm with his elbow, turning his head and smiling down at me. 'Fag break, fucking hell do I need one, working in this fucking dump'.
We’re barely in the foyer, the door locked behind us, before he’s lit up and sucking in smoke with a deep grunt. 'Want some snout?' That’s the word he uses for fags. I’ve not heard them been called that before.
'No thanks, nah.' I cover my mouth and adopt an apologetic tone. 'I don't smoke'.
He almost chokes breathing through his nose, bent over, as if I'd said something really funny.
'You don't smoke.' He parrots. Tests the neatness of what he’s saying, by changing it about a bit: ‘Don’t’ smoke?’
'Fucking hell! Everybody smokes.' He tilts his head and blows smoke into the air to emphasis his point. 'That's all you'll ever get from now on. Night and day’. He mimics some of the patients in a low guttural pitch: 'Geeza fag? Geeza fag? Geeza fag?'
But he grows bored of his own antics. 'You're over there'. He nods in the direction of the ward door facing us. 'Ring the bell.' He smiles again. 'And good luck wee man', he gees me up. 'Wullie's alright, old school, he'll keep you right.'
The door to Ailsa ward is open before I push the button for the bell, making me think he’s been snooping on us.
There is no formal introductions.
'Put this coat on.' I know this is Wullie the Pole because of the spit on the sibilant s, his square face, grey hair swept back and thick oily skin. He flings me a brownish dust-jacket, an old-fashioned type, which a janitor would have worn at my dad’s school. The kind that covers his stocky body.
'You don't want to get such good clothes dirty.' He nips at my shirt front, his fingers are thick as Cuban cigars.
His grey eyes dispassionately study my face and the way I’m standing gawping at him. My face blooms pink then red. I quickly put the coat on. Sweat runs down my back. I flap behind him into Ailsa ward, but feel I already know the way, it has the same layout as the ward opposite.
Our first stop is also the communal toilets. The entrance to the toilet has a door. It should not surprise me, but does. Cubicles doors stand ajar, as if someone has pushed them all to the same forty-five-degree angle. They have locks. The toilets smell of disinfectant and are clean. Normal even. No one splashes naked in the baths.
Around fourteen men stand in a line against the walls and sinks. Some are dressed in the morning wear of bathrobes and slippers. Others have thick, green, bath towels around thickening waists. They don’t speak, make a noise, or meet my eyes. They just stand. Waiting.
A small man with pepper grey hair, dainty in his movements seems to dart from nowhere, startling me, but no one else. He hands a pewter mug and razor to the nurse, Wullie the Pole, in the same way that an altar boy would hand the priest the chalice. The line moves forward, a cog of men, with the chain of their necks extended and chin up, as if they are going to get their head loped. Wullie the Pole shaves the first man with slick movements of the razor. His arm falls to his side, water dripping from the razor onto the tiled floor.
'You,' he says. 'Boy, you’ve made us all late with your lateness. I'm very busy. Shave these men'.
Men’s heads turn towards me. He passes me the razor and shaving- mug. I’m not sure how to hold a razor. The top of it with two gates that hold the razor in place are loose, don’t screw down and flap about from left to right as I lift it and hold it like a cross in front of a vampire. It’s coated in hair, grease and skin. The way Wullie the Pole had used it make it seem as if it is spanking new.
I hold the bashed shaving-mug tentatively in my other hand. The water is rancid, as if each man in line had took turns hawking into it from the pit of their stomachs.
The first man in line limps forwards. He’s almost bald with a fuzz of hair like earphones around his ears and is squat. I feel for the crease of skin between his nose and mouth. Wullie the Pole observes. My hand shakes as I dip and soap. With one swoop the razor is out of my hand. He moves the razor effortlessly over the man's face effortlessly, but, for the first time I notice red nicks, in the man's face, appearing were the razor had been. He dips the razor into the mug and the next man moves forward.
'Don’t put your arm down, or pull the razor from the man's face until you're finished the cut. We’ve not got all day.' He hands me the razor and mug with a forced formality and leaves me to it.
I stand for a second. The next in line moves forward. He’s very tall and very thin. He leans his cheeks and chin down to my height. I put the razor to his cheek, but can’t force myself to pull the rusty blade down his clean face. I slope off to the sink, run the hot water and rinse the razor. Then I rinse and clean the cup. They watch me, but only the man with the pepper hair, the acolyte spoke:
'You’re taking far too long. We’ve not got time for all that malarkey. That's not the way you do it.' He tries to take the razor I’d left drying on the sink beside me.
I’m not sure who he is. Or what he does. I know he’s a patient the same as the rest of them. I slap his hand away. 'No,' I say, my voice shaky.
He leaves with the echo of quick steps skittering across the floor. The tall and thin man takes the razor from my hand. With four quick strokes he excises a few hairs on his chin. He washes the razor under the hot tap and hands it to the next man to shave with. On and on it went. One after the other. I’m saved.