huts second week (first draft)
Monday is Monday in anybody’s language. Black and wet outside and our miserable Monday weather seeps inside and ages me. I hunker down, bury hands deep in coat pockets, and walk with a mechanical shuffle in the same direction as other troopers going to work. It frees my mind. I’ve met a girl isn’t a secret but a glassy-coloured dream. I don’t want to talk about it because there’s nobody to tell, but it’s deeper than that. I’m not sure it is real, or if she is, and if talking about us – if there is such a thing—would spoil the spell. I’m blind to the road, the grounds, no longer see the battlements, or ponder why they need turrets, or curlicue stone claws to hold up the wrought-iron gutters, as if they were expecting a rampaging army, with art critics and architects in the vanguard and decided at the last minute to confound them and build Glenboig Hospital instead. I feel ancient, witnessed long stretches of history, done it all, and I’ve only been there a week. Everything is the same apart from me.
I fidget in the foyer outside the ward, waiting for the day to properly begin. Terry fumbles with keys, hand spread like playing cards, in the way he usually does, as he picks the right one and lets me in. But he takes too long, gives me time to reconsider, think about knocking off, having a fag outside the ward. I’ve ten minutes to kill before I start, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference, I follow him inside. He walks ahead of me, ward keys on his leather belt clanging dissonant chords, metering out a step at a time. Patients bypass me like ghosts. The cacophony of noises that accommodated the most basic tasks in the last few days are a muted background noise. Battle-hardened, the reek of shite and cleaning fluid still lingers, but has been beaten out of my head and reduced to a few damp nervous sniffles. I can throw up, but it no longer seems like a failure. Instead of going into the office for our handover meeting Terry nips off into the staff toilet. The Daily Record is firmly wedged in the back pocket of his denims. He knows the score with the sports’ pages and time to kill, but I don’t even know what team he supports – Celtic or Rangers.
I don’t need to look through the office window I know Wullie the Pole will be sitting in his usual chair, like a spider waiting to pounce, and there will be the ingrained dank smell of people and cigarettes thrown together in a confined space. But when I stick my head in I’m caught off-guard. Jenny, her knees tapping nervously up and down, in the way they normally do when she is separated from Terry, sits in her usual perch. But a dapper, balding, black man, in a sharp suit, red tie, and tan-coloured brogues occupies Terry’s seat. He sits cross-legged, clean shaven, with a lingering scent of soap, and is addressing Wullie the Pole in a nasally English accent. I catch the tail end of the conversation and I guess it’s got to do with something Jenny mentioned.
‘In my experience Mr Munn,’ says Wullie the Pole to the black man, trying to reign in the roll of r in his speech, ‘It’s not for richer or poorer. Or they’d be marrying someone else entirely. It should really read for richer and richer and for poorer and poorer. That’s the way of the world.’
Mr Munn peers over his glasses at Wullie the Pole and he slaps his side and laughs. ‘You’re such a wit.’
‘Not half the man you are,’ declares Wullie the Pole. ‘Head of recruitment and training at such a young age. You must be very proud.’
I can tell Wullie the Pole doesn’t like him and doesn’t believe a word he’s saying by the expression of his mouth.
‘No—well, a little,’ says Mr Munn, correcting himself, with a glance towards me. He dives out of his chair, grasping my hand, ‘but here’s the future, here’s the student I’ve come to see, and heard so much about.’
Wullie the Pole’s eyebrows knit together, his hands scrambling across the desk, checking he’s got his cigarettes.
Glancing sideways Terry is standing out of range James Munn’s vision line. He simulates putting his two fingers down his throat and making wanking motions in a way that makes me feel older and him younger.
‘I’m awfully glad to meet you,’ says Jenny, jumping up to block James Munn’s view, her nose slightly pink and her face flushed, but he brushes past.
There is I notice an absence of half-filled cups of coffee and tea, ashtrays tied away, the office seems tidier and the air seems less grey with fag smoke. ‘I’m James Munn,’ he says, his hand gripping mine, in a way that would usually suggest some kind of familiarity, or uncertainty, of who I was and what I was incapable of. It’s difficult to place his English accent.
I mumble an introduction of who I am into my shirt—even though he already knows that—and turn quickly away to hide my reddening face in the coat rack. Brushing the back of my hand against Terry’s denim jacket, I grapple with the arms of the dust jacket I wear at work and fling it on. Pat down my pockets to check for god knows what, leaving behind a musty smelling jumble of coats and scarves and a solitary furry hat, with ear muffs, Wullie the Poles sometimes sports.
But James is buzzing beside me. ‘No, no,’ he squints, feeling the material. ‘That’s all wrong. I thought I’d issued proper uniforms for all of this year’s students.’ He looks across at Wullie the Pole wreathed in fag smoke.
‘You’ll find things can move slowly here,’ says Wullie the Pol, who yawns, showing stained and discoloured teeth.
James Munn clears his throat. ‘Never mind I’ll get it sorted.’ He turns back to me and I look toward Wulle the Pole for guidance, but there’s not getting away from the head of training and recruitment that easy, he rattles on, ‘it’s only fair I tell you a bit about myself first,’ and I steady myself for the downpour, ‘well I got a double first at Cambridge studying mainly the works of Plato, Seneca, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and em, of course, Marx. You have heard of Cambridge?’
‘Em,’ I say, casting around the room for an answer on the glaze cup with pencils in it, more often than not used as an ashtray, and settle on the spruce and dusted down cabinet in the corner with sheets of paper lying on the floor like fallen leaves from a tree. ‘Cambridge. Yes. It’s near Oxford?’
James Munn is momentarily derailed, but ploughs on. ‘That’s when I met with the Behaviourist and thought—’
But I don’t get to hear what he thinks. Terry, in plain sight now, outside the office window repeatedly points to his watch, signalling that it’s time to go. Jenny in her dash to the door almost knocks me over.
‘I need to let them out’ I say to James Munn in an apologetic tone. Out of the corner of my eye Wullie the Pole is gawping at us, but acting as if he’s not. James Munn still has a captive audience and I’m glad to escape into the safety of the corridor with my co-workers and patients.
When I get back to the office I’m not sure if James Munn has drew breath, and is still wittering on ‘…and what exactly did you do when you were in Poland, Mr Whorisky?’
Wullie the Pole rubs his forehead with the inside of his wrist. He seems to be looking into the distance, or back into the past, selecting the right words, English words, which would reflects time and place. The chair scrapes as Wullie the Pole gets up. He glances at me. Then he glowers at the seated James Munn.
‘When I was in Poland,’ he says moving towards the door, ‘I minded my own business’.
Early morning, I sneak into the office and pull up a seat, hiding behind Jenny. She is sniffling and leans in towards Terry and whispers: ‘He said he’d told me not to touch anything, but I was only trying to help,’ Terry takes a drag on his fag and pats her on the arm, to show that he’s there for her, but he’d rather be somewhere else. Jenny takes a deep breath and carries on, ‘and he said that if I wasn’t lucky enough, to get someone stupid enough to employ me as a nurse, I’d need to work as a prostitute—and I wouldn’t be much good at that either.’ Terry sips a mouthful of cold tea, but his hand quivers and he sprays laughter down his shirt. And I laugh too. Terry pitches the keys, which I catch, and we grin boyishly at each other.