Accidentally on Purpose
Alison stared at the sign through the tube train window as it glided into view. OVAL. She spelt it in her head: O-V-A-L. Like an egg, only more even. A nice thought, an egg, warm and brown-flecked, lying with its fellows in a nest of fluffy down. The word Oval also conjured up a comforting mental picture of a sunny day, with men in crisp white flannels playing cricket on a huge bright green egg-shaped lawn. She could hear the click of the ball, that split-second after it had been hit… didn't that prove something about the speed of sound? She was sure it did, but what exactly….
Anyway, a pleasant series of images filled her head. Eggs and cricket and sunshine, and a bright clean whiteness.
As she stared straight ahead, standing quite still as if in a trance, voices began to stand out from the general noisy hum around her.
"Well quite honestly Rita, it was far better in my humble opinion when Miss Ricketts was doing the dockets herself down in Reigate. None of this shilly-shallying with Form J45, 're location certificates' and Miss Parslow's crowd. They haven't got the faintest. Computers, I ask you. More trouble than they're worth. Lana says they've got programmers and 'analysts' and goodness knows what virtually living in despatch now…'
In her mind's eye, Alison could see the office in Reigate, shaped like a huge egg with the side removed like an anatomical diagram – it was piled high with packages labelled 'Dockets: For the Attention of Miss Ricketts'. The image was clear and sharp. All the dockets were powder blue and Miss Rickett's name was picked out in gold. Then, quite suddenly, as the train rumbled slowly out of the station, as she stood in the swaying crowded carriage dreamily holding the strap and staring into space – it hit her. Just like being dumped through a trap door into a howling screeching black nightmare. The recollection of what she'd done. The overwhelming impossibly horrible enormity of what she'd… Her mind tried frantically to escape the memory – like a quivering insect scrabbling and slithering against the smooth shiny side of a glass bowl filling with black treacle. In desperation she tried to cling to the soothing images she'd just thought up, but they'd changed now. The eggs in the nest of down were all hatching hairy little mites with wriggling legs and twitching black heads, the sky above the cricket pitch was a deep copper colour, and the pitch itself was tilted crazily – the cricketers had all swung round together to stare at her, blood dripping from their grinning lips….
How could she think about something else? There was only one topic in the universe. One huge hideous topic.
She dug her nails into her hands and fought it back.. 'I won't think about it, I won't, I won't!' She stared hard at the advertisement opposite, the laughing girl with the tube of something. Toothpaste? Hair gel? She had a nice green sweater on and looked rather like Margaret what was her name?The girl in the canteen – Bentley, that was it. How did girls get to appear in ads like that? Did they radiate charm in some mysterious way? It must need lots of dedication and 'driving ambition' mustn't it, because there was heaps of competition, wasn't there. This girl looked quite ordinary, but she must be special in some way. The nightmare retreated for an instant and her mind now seemed extraordinarily able to function on several different levels at once, like a layer cake, without any effort on her part. On the top layer she was still fully aware of the rather dull and complex conversation between the two grey-clad office ladies about Miss Rickets and the dockets; a little lower down faint alarm bells were ringing, reminding her that really she had no business to be at the Oval, it was miles out of her way, while just below this another voice was scornfully reminding her that after the – incident – it didn't really matter where she was. She couldn't go home, she couldn't go anywhere, she…
The hideous memory now stepped out fully from the wings again into the centre stage spotlight, and held her with a grip of iron. She couldn't breathe properly, her knees were suddenly made of water and she felt faint.
'You OK?' said the concerned young man in the mackintosh swaying next to her, and she startled him by turning a white face and huge horrified eyes on him. Someone else offered her a seat, and all around were eyes showing mild concern. Poor thing. Couldn't be more than nineteen, probably didn't eat properly, girls these days… Tsk, tsk, then back to their evening papers. She sat down heavily, and at once the – incident – and the events which had led up to it began to relentlessly re-enact themselves before her mind's eye. It was as if she was at a preview of a film she had no wish to see, tied to her seat with her eyes glued open.
The projector began to whirr…..
It had all started after lunch in the nurses' canteen. Alison was in an irritable nervy mood; she seemed to feel like that a lot lately. She'd suffered a rather cutting little lecture from that finicky sister on Women's Surgical; about her stockings being wrinkled of all petty irrelevancies. Would Florence Nightingale have made such a fuss? Among the groans and horror of a Crimean field hospital? While soldiers clinging to life by a thread gasped for a drop of water from the angel of mercy who rustled softly between the makeshift beds?…
'Good heavens Nurse, do these eyes, red-rimmed and achingly tired as they are from seventy two hours without sleep, perceive through the smoke and gloom that your stockings are wrinkled? How can we expect fastidious fashion-conscious Dr. Lumsden-Pankhurst to amputate the gangrenous limbs of our brave boys while you're in that disgraceful state? Blunt and rusty surgical implements and a blow on the head with a piece of roughly-hewn wood in lieu of anaesthetic may be necessary (and in these sad times unavoidable) adjuncts to the surgeon's craft, but we can hardly expect a man of Dr. Lumsden-Pankhurst's unquestioned greatness to perform at his superb best whilst attended by a nurse with stockings half way down her legs! Pick your way at once through the wounded and dying writhing in inexpressible agony in the knee-deep mud outside and tidy yourself up in the damp rotting changing hut at the end of the compound. Oh, and polish your shoes so I can eat my maggot-infested lunch off them while you're about it….'
Ludicrous of course, (Alison couldn't help smiling faintly at the idea) but unfortunately nowadays small-minded, nit-picking Sisters like this one thought more about such absurdities than the glory of ministering to the sick…
'Nurse Davis, did I say something funny? Hmm? I wasn't ware I was being humorous. Do you find it funny to be reminded that we should do our best to aim for neatness at all times? A nurse who is careless of her appearance is usually a slipshod worker too. Patients notice these things you know, makes them uneasy. Do try not to let your colleagues down like this – I shan't expect to have to tell you again. And nurse… I would be grateful if you would keep your smirks for a more frivolous occasion…'
The clear refined voice hadn't an ounce of emotion or feeling in it. Alison couldn't imagine it forming words of love – or hate come to that. And everything was said just loudly enough so that the other three nurses in the ward could hear, not to mention the cluster of dressing-gowned patients pretending to play Scrabble at the middle table, all examining their letters in studious silence and straining to hear this interesting little speech. After all, everyone loves to hear someone else being hauled over the coals even if they're small ones. One of the nurses on the ward was that awful Nurse Dobson, with her blotchy skin and mean little eyes. She liked nothing better than doing you down, and Alison could foresee the mimicking to come. The quiet voice, just heard from behind the hand… 'Mind the stockings nurse, mustn't be slipshod nurse..' Then the muffled giggles. Damn, damn, damn.
Alison hated criticism of any kind, she always had done. Even when it was well meant, she felt as if a bucket of icy water was being thrown over her when anyone pointed out her mistakes, her inadequacies. Especially when it was done in public – every time it happened it was as if she was being exposed as a dribbling drooling idiot, fit only for the world's contempt and pity. At home, at school, at guides, anywhere. Sometimes she felt a red mist of anger envelop her when she was criticised, a rather frightening rage which seemed to fill her whole being with a burning fury, a longing to hurt back.
Once or twice this had got the better of her, like the time at guide camp when she'd burnt a girl's hand with a frying pan straight from the stove. Just because the girl had scornfully (and loudly) said that Alison's sausages were underdone and that she 'couldn't cook for toffee'. An accident of course, and the girl wasn't badly hurt, but she had to have her hand bandaged heavily for a few days and kept well out of Alison's way for the rest of the fortnight. Or the time when the bus conductress had had a go at her as she fumbled in her purse for change. 'Come on, come on, come on! We haven't got all day dear, why can't you girls have your money ready? Been on four stops, what you been doin' with yourself eh? You'll have to stop moonin' over the boyfriend or we'll be here all night!'
All said with wide grins to the other passengers, who smiled in return and were obviously entertained. The greasy haired teenagers in the seats in front of Alison exploded in mirth. One of them turned a chewing grinning face round to get a good look at the show.
With every word ringing up and down the bus the panic grew, and Alison's fingers seemed to grow fatter and fatter… like a bunch of trembling bananas thrust into her purse they were hopelessly ineffectual, and suddenly the purse burst free and scattered coins all around. The smiles faded, and the whole bus seemed to be staring, as if she was something rather distasteful in a zoo, an exhibit that you looked at because you'd paid your entrance money, but were such creatures really necessary?
The conductress tutted loudly and raised her eyes ceiling-wards. 'Oh dear oh dear' she murmured.
Alison was overwhelmed by the hot feeling, and two stops later managed to accidentally bump against the conductress at the top of the stairs and send her stumbling and reeling down to the platform.
'Mind out can't you?' came the shaky voice, 'Could have had me killed!'
'Sorry!' called Alison, feeling a pleasant relaxation of the tension and a grim sense of satisfaction. Serve her right! Why did people have to be so unpleasant?
But this… This was so much more serious than anything before. Really dreadful and inexcusable – why on earth had she done it? She didn't dare to think…"I won't think, I won't think, I won't think!"
After the dressing down by sister had left her nerves raw, her friend Brenda had unwittingly made things much worse by moaning when Alison refused to change shifts with her.
'Oh go on, Ally, I'll do the same for you next month, and you know you like nights. Please!'
Alison did rather like nights, the calm and the quiet, with the pool of light round her chair in the middle of the ward – the regular breathing, the occasional tiptoeing about and the whispered conversations over a cup of cocoa. Much nicer than those hectically busy day shifts, with so much noise and things going on, and those awful days when she couldn't seem to concentrate at all and became so clumsy.. the crash of that sterilised instrument tray the week before and the shocked exclamation from the staff nurse filled her head again and her face burned with the memory. Now Brenda's voice grated like a nail dragged down a window…
"No" she announced flatly. "I really can't Bren, I've got all this exam revision to do – it's only six weeks off and if I do a couple of nights now it'll throw me right out".
As she said it she almost believed it, and felt a righteous sense of duty. Brenda wasn't impressed.
"Revision my eye, you're just being awkward! Some friend you are…"
Why did people have to parade their nasty opinions like this? Why couldn't they just accept one's words at their face value? Alright, her excuse may have sounded a bit, well, lame, but it could have been true and Brenda had no right to pick her up on it. And anyway she did have revision to do – she must have, mustn't she, because so far she knew precious little and the exams were getting frighteningly close….
The two nurses further down the table cast side-long glances and Alison felt the awful burning, it seemed to make her glow like a torch. She got up quickly and stalked off. Brenda pursued her, nagging all the way, into the Nurses Home next to the hospital were they went to their adjoining rooms and changed out of their uniforms; then down the road to the tube.
"Honestly Ally it wouldn't hurt you and you know what it means to me… Ralph only gets three nights leave till August and he's got to spend one of them at home. That just leaves Tuesday and Wednesday… oh please…."
To Alison the whining moaning voice sounded deafening; it filled the crowded platform, and seemed to echo up and down the line and bounce off the advertisement hoardings. As she stared fixedly ahead, trying not to listen, to rise above it all, the beastly voice seemed to be coming from the huge pink lips of the scantily-clad girl in the whisky ad.
"Ally, the things I've done for you, I'm always doing things for you, covering up for you on the ward… remember old Mrs. Roberts and her catheter? You'd have got the sack… oh and lots of other times too!"
All this was true, which seemed in a strange way to make Brenda's pleas more unreasonable and annoying than ever. Would she never shut up?
"…And it's not as if I was asking you to give up something important. Ralph and I are in love, can't you understand that? Just because you're not… Is it my fault you haven't got a boy friend? That Richard really fancied you but you froze him off. Honestly, how often do I ask you for a favour? Never. I've never asked you for a favour before. You're no friend of mine if you can't do just this one little thing for me. You can't be such a pain, you just can't…"
It was too much, she had to stop that voice. A train was approaching, but Brenda only raised her voice over the noise. The crowd edged forward, everyone jostling and pressed together, and suddenly…
It all happened in a moment. One second they were squeezed together, Brenda's voice filling Alison's head, filling it to bursting point, the next…
Alison gave her a tiny little push.
It was really just a nudge, as if she was just pushing away that grinding moaning nagging voice. No-one could have seen her hands, just their horrid effect. And if a dreadful little black monster had been pressing its twitching nose eagerly against a window somewhere deep inside her head, with a blazing red light shining through its slit eyes, willing her on to something unspeakable… well she couldn't be expected to pay any attention could she? After all she was looking the other way…
Watching her friend falling outwards and sideways and downwards, slowly, slooowly, like in slow motion, her arms flailing, her bag floating high in the air, her mouth wide open in a huge 0, her eyes staring…
The train thundered in and Alison was alone.
All around her people were screaming and shouting and pointing. Instinctively she began to edge back from the track, through the pushing ploughing crowd. No-one saw her or took any notice of her. All eyes were on the train and the spot where Brenda had fallen.
Alison slipped into a corridor and walked swiftly down some steps to another line. She wasn't conscious of anything much. Just the need, the overpowering overwhelming need to get away. Mustn't run, mustn't jerk into the headlong dash her limbs craved.. breathe deeply, don't catch anyone's eyes.
The instinct of self-preservation took over competently, slowing down her steps, calming her breathing, making clear that for the moment it was in charge, time for thoughts and feelings later. Like a bossy but effective nanny. The only problem seemed to be her shoes. What a noise they made! Clang clang clang! No-one seemed to pay any attention though, and gradually the noise lessened.
She found herself on a platform with a train in and its doors open. She stepped on purposefully, and stood near the door, hanging onto a strap and trying to concentrate on her breathing. As long as she did this, and refused to allow thoughts to intrude she felt quite calm. Relaxed almost. Except the deep regular breathing made her feel a bit faint.
How long she stood like this she wasn't sure. Four stations? Nine stations? People got on and off, squeezed past her, murmured across her, totally ignored her. Then she saw the sign through the window – OVAL, and the droning voice recalling the happy days of Miss Ricketts and the dockets filtered through the numbness. Then the frightful jolt as it all came back…
She must escape, get away, the whole thing was a horrible accident, an accident… But no-one would believe her and they'd lock her up for ever. Put her in a dark black cell only just a little bigger than her, where she couldn't move more than a few inches without brushing against dank stone… and they'd throw away the key. She writhed and moaned quietly at the thought. They were probably after her now… maybe on this very train – moving relentlessly down the swaying carriages, looking into faces, asking questions.. "Yes, about nineteen or twenty, around five foot four we think, wearing a brown mac…" getting nearer and nearer… Because of course Brenda would have given a full description, and…
Just a second. Pause there. P-a-u-s-e. Stop stop stop. Think hard.
Well.. she.. WOULDN'T give a description would she? Hardly – if she'd just been flattened by a tube train! Alison giggled loudly and startled herself and her immediate neighbours by the sound. She fought down this dreadful mirth, which tried to take over. Think, think, she must THINK. Of course it was so totally awful that Brenda had fallen.. that she'd pushed…. that her friend was… was… was…
There. She'd said it. Admitted it, faced it, and suddenly everything looked different.
A curious observer would have noticed a subtle change in Alison's expression as she reached this point in her mental deliberations, but on rush hour trains curious observers of the human condition are rare. All the people in Alison's vicinity were engrossed as usual in their own concerns. But her new expression would have been worth seeing. It was a mixture of relief, concentration, and something else. Something almost like triumph. If Brenda was.. dead, (there, easier the second time), and of course she must be – who on earth ever fell in front of a hurtling train and lived? – she couldn't tell anyone anything could she? Couldn't point her out, point her out with a blood-spattered finger and shriek "It was her! She did it! She's a murderess!"
Alison's upper lip curled back in horror and her hair bristled as these terrible words danced up and down in her head. She felt herself trembling and tried the regular breathing to calm herself down. There. That was better. Now. Think again. Brenda wouldn't say anything, any of those ghastly things, but how about the people on the platform? Everyone must have seen them talking, heard that awful whining grinding voice. Of course they must. But did people really bother about things like that? Weren't they really wrapped up in themselves, wondering whether the weekend joint would stretch for two more meals, whether Joan, or Jim, would insist on Mother coming for Christmas, what was 6 across, 8 letters ending in X meaning an African shanty town? She'd thought Brenda's outburst was dreadfully noticeable, but had it been? Had anyone really seen the two girls in grey? brown? raincoats arguing on
the platform? Well enough to recognise Alison again? Pick her out at an identity parade? These ponderings caused a new picture to jump up in front of her mind's eye….
Under a ragged grey sky stood an endless line of identical girls, all dressed in grey, standing in front of a high grey wall which stretched to a dirty grey horizon, with herself in the line dressed in blood red with her hair in flames…
She shuddered, but then another thought presented itself rather tentatively for inspection. A much better, more comforting thought. If she'd been seen, why hadn't anyone tried to stop her leaving the platform? Grabbed her arm, said.. "Not so fast young lady… I've got her!" Or even given her a searching look as she'd slunk away. But they hadn't, they were all looking at Brenda, or rather where Brenda had been; natural reaction, to look at the rabbit coming out of the hat, not at the conjurer's hands.
For the first time since it happened a slow feeling of cautious optimism began stealing over her, like warmth into frozen limbs. Maybe, just maybe, nothing would happen! Nothing at all! But she'd have to be careful and concentrate very hard so as not to get caught out.
The hospital. The hospital! She'd forgotten all about the hospital! Someone may have seen them leaving together. Well, did they? She wracked her brain to remember.. Was anyone around when they left? Where did they go exactly while Brenda was moaning? Out of the canteen, up the stairs at the Nurses Home, into and out of their respective rooms, down the stairs, down the road. They hadn't bumped into anyone. No-one in the Nurses Home – everyone was either on duty or had left for the week-end. No-one they knew either between the hospital and the tube.
Wait a minute, how about those nurses in the canteen? The two sitting further down the table, they'd heard the argument certainly. She didn't know them really, they were juniors, and so what if they'd heard a couple of nurses having a bit of a row? Not unusual, what with the long hours and the general stress of the job. Anyway, they hadn't seen where Alison and Brenda went when they left. She'd better get a story together. Not an alibi, an alibi was something you had to have when there'd been a crime, and there hadn't been a crime here – just a dreadful accident. But the story had better be really good, it would be absolutely useless trying the accident line – people wouldn't believe it (or they wouldn't be quite sure), and they'd want to know why she'd 'left the scene'. Much better if she'd just not been there – at all. Not seen the flailing arms, the dreadful sideways lurching, heard those screams…..
She didn't notice the thin trickle of blood edging through her fingers towards her wrist where she was digging her nails deep into her palm. Luckily neither did anyone else.
Think about the story. Right. She shifted her weight to the other foot and frowned with the effort of concentration. They'd gone to change in the Nurses Home, no reason to lie about that (no reason to lie about any of it if only people would realise it was an accident plain and simple, snapped her thoughts, which were becoming increasingly
unruly and difficult to control). No, certainly best to be quite truthful about that, after all she had to change. Then Brenda had started off, and she'd.. she'd what? She'd stayed behind to finish some of her exam revision and taken the tube about an hour later, long after Brenda had had her … accident. Simple, straightforward, easy to say, easy to stick to.
Alison felt a strange singing confidence surge through her. It was going to be alright! She was sure now. If she could just hang on. Think about the story till it became so natural she'd almost believe it herself. She was quite good at that. She started studying the tube map intently. Where was she? The train drifted into the next station. Clapham South. Heavens above, she really was miles out of her way. Still, that didn't matter now. Now she was supposed to be late home. She got out and walked slowly through the walkway to the opposite platform. Some children were playing about, shouting and throwing paper onto the track. Two of them were smoking ostentatiously. A train could be heard rumbling towards the station, when suddenly one of them, a dirty girl of about ten, clutching a rag doll, punched one of the boys with a shrilled obscenity. Alison instinctively recoiled at the sound, children of that age shouldn't use such words, it was awful; and they shouldn't be allowed to roam the platforms so late at night come to that. The boy who'd been punched swung round in a fury, snatched the rag doll and hurled it into the path of the train as it thundered in… As it flew through the air its stitched-on eyes met Alison's for a split second, big horrid staring eyes… She felt the scream filling her mouth like a living thing, boiling and churning, and becoming one with the roaring train – she had to clamp her lips together with both hands to stop it bursting out. She quickly darted down the platform and jumped into a near-empty carriage just as the doors were closing.
She sank back in her seat and closed her eyes, but she could still feel her eyeballs jerking behind the lids. She mustn't give way and draw attention to herself, she must calm down. Soon regular breathing did the trick, at least for the moment, and she started to work out her route home.
Forty minutes later she got out at her own station, put up her umbrella and started the damp chilly walk home. Down the drab rain-swept main road, past the furniture show rooms with the cold ghostly lighting, and the dress shop, with its old-fashioned dummies which always seemed to be wearing brown check housecoats, past the noisy door-banging pub on the corner, and up her own dark little cul-de-sac. She paused for a moment on the doorstep, before taking out her key. Opening the door took some time because the key wouldn't go in at first. Her hand shook and the key kept hitting the shiny key plate. She found herself stabbing at it harder and harder, making a little high noise, till she bruised her finger and jerked backwards… Slowly does it, came the voice of reason, a voice that was finding it harder and harder to get a hearing amidst the muddle and clamour in her head. Take it easy, it'll all be fine, but you really must…
There. Got it in. Now, run through the speech again, make sure it's word perfect. Stayed in the Nurses Home, doing revision. Well the exam's only six weeks off and there's some bits I'm not too hot on. For instance.. (try a little diversion here with some technical sounding stuff). Forgot the time. Sorry I'm late, honestly I really am. Yes, got the tube, too wet for buses it's pelting… my shoe's leaking (it was actually, another good diversion – bound to set her mother off on one of her harmless little lectures.
'Ally you must look after yourself dear, you'll catch pneumonia one of these days and then where will you be? Your precious hospital exam'll take a back seat won't it?' etc.) This could be followed up with…I'm really tired out Mum, what a day, supper still about? Right. That should do it, chat would become general.
She turned the key.
"What kind of time do you call this, Alison?" (She must be annoyed to use the name 'Alison' and not Ally).
"Honestly it's too bad. You said 6 o'clock and it's after half past seven! I was getting so worried, wasn't I Geoff? Well you hear such things nowadays – muggings and, well.. assaults.. and it's not fair on your father and me dear, really it isn't. You could have phoned…"
Her mother's anxious harassed face framed in the kitchen doorway, fingers plucking a sagging curl, gave Alison a sudden pang of genuine emotion – remorse? guilt? Whatever it was it left her tongue-tied, and like in a dream she tried to talk but no words came; the only sounds were the clock ticking in the hall and the budgie clicking and scolding in the lounge. Time seemed to stretch out like a great big stretchy s-t-r-e-t-c-h-y elastic band, the hallway faded and grew dark and Alison began to see her mother and herself as figures in an eternal tableau. Fixed and silent, with painted expressions, painted feelings, like painted figureheads on huge painted ships on a painted silver sea of lies, sailing silently towards the hideous chattering shores of death…
Her ears buzzed and she clutched for reality, talking loudly, the words tumbling out all around her, toppling over themselves in a race for reason. She went through all her pre-arranged phrases and managed to get it all out just as planned. But it didn't sound right at all… Her story depended on her mother reacting, interrupting, scolding, and because she did none of these things the excuses sounded false and stagey. Her mother was looking at her oddly and then spoke gently:
"Are you alright dear? Only you seem a bit.. has anything happened?"
"What? A bit what?"
Alison was almost shouting, and felt an unreasoning anger. As if she'd given an efficient and professional performance but her efforts had been wasted on an unresponsive audience. She felt like saying 'I didn't have to say all that you know. I could have just had a headache and refused to talk at all! Just gone upstairs… This was all for your benefit, not mine!' She didn't say any of this of course, and she was quite aware that to disappear upstairs with only a mumbled mention of a headache would have excited more comment and left her unexplained lateness still hanging around like a bad smell.
But the absurd anger still gripped her and she felt the trembling starting again, deep inside, like the first warnings of an earthquake.
"Oh, I don't know dear, a bit tense or something…" her mother was saying. "Nothing wrong at the hospital is there? You're not worrying too much over those exams are you? Really, I think it's a bit much the way they expect you young girls to do those long hours on the wards and then have to study for exams as well. It's not that is it dear? You know you can always talk to me, don't bottle things up, mm? And what have you done to your hand! You've cut your hand…"
Alison had forgotten about her hand. She slowly looked down at it and at the same time felt the pain – the blood was dark and clotted now. What had she done to it? She really couldn't remember, which was a bit frightening, but she had to say something. Caught it on a bit of wire. That was it. She'd caught it on some wire, but it wasn't serious. She'd go upstairs and wash it and put a plaster on it.
'Oh do, dear – it doesn't look good at all…'
The concerned look in her mother's troubled face was quite genuine – Alison felt the anger cool and the trembling ease.
"Honestly mum, I'm just tired out. Maybe things have been getting on top of me a bit lately, but it's nothing to worry about."
"If you're sure dear. You will tell me if….?"
Alison nodded vigorously, then ran upstairs.
When she came down, the kitchen table was laid as usual with the tomato sauce and vinegar bottles right in the middle. 'Common' one of Alison's little school friends from the grand houses in Marshall Avenue had once called the kitchen years ago, and this was always the word that Alison thought of when she saw the room. 'Haven't you got a dining room?' the friend had persisted, 'I thought everyone had a dining room, ours has got a cocktail cabaret, and you're not supposed to put the sauce on the table like that mummy says that's common too…' Alison used to smile later when she thought of the 'cocktail cabaret' but the 'common' stuck and she always felt slightly ashamed of her home and didn't really like bringing people back to it.
Her father was folding his newspaper neatly, he smiled rather absently at Alison, and leant across his wife to turn the radio up.
"Just want the news love, might be something definite about the rail strike. God knows how I'm going to get in if it's on. Evening Ally, you're looking a bit peeky, eating OK?"
Alison stared at the plate of macaroni cheese as the cultured voice of the newsreader filled the room. The East/West summit, 240 miners killed in a Japanese pit disaster, some film producer arrested with 'suspicious substances' at Heathrow, then it came…
"…a serious accident tonight at a London Underground station". The precise voice reported that a young woman had fallen in front of a train as it pulled into a station. The platform had been unusually crowded with late night shoppers, in town for the sales, and eyewitnesses reported the young woman had slipped and lost her balance. She had…..
The front doorbell suddenly jangled furiously and Alison's heart leapt.
"Oh no!" said her mother, "It'll be next door to use the phone again you mark my words. I do wish she wouldn't, she'll be on it for hours and she never offers to pay. You'd better go and speak to her, Geoff, I'd find it hard to be civil I know I should".
'Shut up shut up shut up!' screamed Alison silently, in agony… begging for the noise, the talking, the scraping chairs to stop just long enough for her to hear the vital bit, that Brenda was…
"…in the Intensive Care Unit of St. David's Hospital, a few minutes from the station, where it's understood she's a nurse" said the cultured tones.
The macaroni cheese had turned into a plateful of pale writhing snakes, swimming lazily in a pale bubbling sea.
"Now what?" they hissed…"Now what are you going to do?"
"Alison" her mother was whispering, "It is her, just pop out and say you're expecting a call – say it's the hospital, something urgent or she'll be on it all night!"
The snakes were gloating now.
"Intensive Care! People who are dead don't end up in Intensive Care!" they chuckled.
Alison clutched at straws. Maybe it was someone else. Maybe her mother had talked through the whole item and halfway through another one. Maybe someone else altogether, someone who hadn't been near a tube train for weeks was in Intensive…
In St David's Hospital? Near the station? And it's understood she's a nurse? No it was definitely Brenda. Alison felt stunned and bewildered. It was terrible to think that her friend could have died in such an awful way, but, well, why wasn't she dead? She should be dead. No-one fell under a ton of hurtling metal and lived. It wasn't fair!
And it was dangerous. Oh so dangerous! Because she'd tell wouldn't she? Mumbling through her bandages, to some attentive nurse. Or maybe to some attentive POLICEMAN perched by her bed.. Re-living it all, with graphic descriptions of that tiny tiny push – turning it into a brutal shove, a fierce blow, a murderous onslaught…..
The little black monster quietly crept from the distant recesses of her mind, and came slithering and sliding forward. Chattering and whispering it came ever forward, into her conscious thoughts, its terrible grin getting ever wider, till it arrived behind her eyes and stared triumphantly out at the world.
Alison knew she must go back to the hospital. Now. At once. The writhing snakes agreed, the tick tocking clock in the hall agreed, even the clicking budgie agreed. She must get into that Intensive Care Unit….
Brenda was probably in a side room, wired up to God knows what. With a nurse round the clock at the very least. That is if she wasn't in surgery, but being operated on for what? Removal of a tube train? The whole thing was hideously impossible, but she had to find out just what was going on. She'd just go back. Well she was her friend wasn't she? What more natural, and indeed commendable, than a friend coming to lend a hand? To help? She'd get back into her uniform and offer her services. And surely the other nurse, the one in the side room… the one in the side room… remember?
Alison you must R-E-M-E-M-B-E-R, you're going into a trance again.. sailing on the water, like a cup and saucer, I saw three ships go sailing by on Christmas Day in the morning, I saw three trains go sailing by, three trains.., no that's not right, three SHIPS….
The elastic snapped back, and Alison started thinking again.
She had done solitary nights herself – sitting besides seriously ill patients while the minutes crawled by so slowly – it was exhausting, and the other nurse, the one in the side room, would welcome a short break. But she must hurry. Get there and find out what was happening. Dreadful for Brenda to be at death's door, in a coma, but infinitely more dreadful if she should come out of it….
Her mother was astonished. Alison had completely ignored her whispered pleas for assistance and now the wretched neighbour was nattering nineteen to the dozen. Alison had sat there, just staring at her plate in a kind of daze, and was now calmly announcing her intention to 'pop out for a bit'. What did she mean? Forgotten what for heaven's sake? Why couldn't it wait till the morning? She hadn't even finished her supper! She wasn't a child anymore, had a responsible job and all that, but really, if she carried on like this she'd just burn herself out, have a nervous breakdown like that poor woman in Lyle Terrace who started breaking the crockery, you remember, Geoff? Really, I give up, you tell her Geoff!…
But Geoff was reluctant to get involved. He'd heard the 'ping' as the receiver was gently replaced, and he wanted to have a little chat with the neighbour about the payment for the call. That was a Bournemouth number she'd been asking the operator for, must have cost a packet. 'Don't be long love, you know how your mother worries…' he said as he slipped out into the hall.
Alison ran down the wet street as if the hounds of hell were in pursuit. She slipped on some leaves as she skidded round the corner by the pub and collided heavily with two large overdressed women who'd just come out of the public bar.
'Hey, steady, steady!' one shouted. 'What's up girl? Done a bank job?' They laughed noisily. 'Why it's young Alison isn't it?'
They peered at her in the gloom and the cheap scent and gin-laden breath made Alison draw back. She muttered about being in a hurry and darted off.
'Charmed I'm sure! Little madam… don't cost nothing to be civil… What's got up her skirt?'
The offended voices floated after her in the darkness.
Back in the underground… The train was nearly empty this time. Rush hour was over, and all the way back to the hospital she tried to think practically. What if this? What if that? What if Brenda had come out of her coma (assuming she'd been in one), and was talking about the 'accident'? They'd be waiting for her at the top of the underground steps, with a big black car to whisk her away to prison. For life. Alison's courage nearly failed her. Might it not be better to just go quietly back home and await developments? After all she might only be getting into worse trouble.
'No, no, no!' shrieked the little black monster, its red eyes blazing as it skipped and sprang behind her eyes. And now the little monster was in charge, guiding her with ever-mounting assurance.
It wasn't likely that Brenda would come to, not after being hit by a train, surely. Much more likely that she'd either died already or would soon. Still, it was best to make quite quite quite sure. And there'd been nothing on the news about 'a girl spotted hurrying from the scene 'who the police were anxious to interview and eliminate from their enquiries'. Just that Brenda had slipped and lost her balance. No-one knew, and they mustn't mustn't mustn't.
She began tapping her foot with impatience.
But somewhere, floating about just outside her busy whirring thoughts was a vague feeling that she'd forgotten something.
Forgotten to take something into account. Something vital. Something that needed to be hunted down – identified – remembered. Something that would bring her plans crashing about her ears if ignored. She searched for it in her memory… but it wouldn't come. Like a song title that stubbornly refuses to be recalled. It wasn't the fear that she'd been seen and recognised – no, she'd dealt with that, she was pretty sure no-one had seen her, and if they had – well, there was nothing she could do about it. No, it wasn't that, so what could it be? It was no good, so she tried again to concentrate on what she needed to do.
She found the Nurses Home in darkness, crept upstairs to her room and changed into her uniform, then hurried to the hospital.
'Nurse Davis! I thought you'd gone home for the weekend!'
The voice coming from the half-open door on the first floor corridor made Alison start.
'Oh yes Sister, I had, but when I heard about poor Brenda on the radio I just had to come and see if I could lend a hand. What a dreadful thing to happen'.
Sister McLean's face assumed a look of tender concern.
'Yes quite dreadful my dear..'.
'How… how bad is she?' Alison faltered.
She just had to know, like exam results. You're afraid you've failed but you've got to know.
'Oh she's bad my dear, very bad. I really don't know how she survived at all. Such injuries. They can't even think about operating yet, she's not up to it. She's on a life-support of course, it's just that that's keeping her alive. I rather think we're going to have to prepare ourselves for the worst. Such a lively girl too – such promise. You're a particular friend of hers aren't you Alison?'
Alison nodded, staring at the floor.
'Very sad, very sad' said Sister.
Now for the difficult bit.
'Is anyone with her? I mean…'
God! What a stupid thing to say! The girl was in Intensive Care after all – of course there'd be someone with her! She'd have to do better than that, and quickly…
'I mean, anyone I know? I just thought that as I'm her friend I might be able to sit with her for a bit'.
'Of course dear, that's very good of you and I know just how you must be feeling. I've got Nurse Jameson with her just now – she's in ICU Room 9 – she's with her till four, then Nurse Stanley takes over. If you think you could relieve Nurse Jameson for a little while I'm sure she'd appreciate it'.
Marvellous! No police around! Just friendly nurses. They must really think it was an accident. Was it tempting fate to ask just one more little question?
'Do they know what happened exactly, Sister?' She blurted out suddenly, and Sister looked into her eyes as she answered calmly..
'The crush on the platform I believe it was dear. These stations get so crowded. She was on her way home alone and just slipped I gather. I really don't know too much more about it, I wasn't on duty when they brought her in'..
The little black monster laughed and sang and whooped with delight. It was all Alison could do to keep a straight face. As it was, her eyes and the corners of her mouth twitched convulsively and she quickly covered her face with her handkerchief and blew her nose loudly.
'I'll go and see her now' she managed to say through this screen and moved away down the corridor.
'Yes you do that dear' said Sister as she rejoined the meeting in her office.
Room 9 was in semi-darkness. Alison saw Mary Jameson through the glass panel in the door, reading by the high bed with an angle lamp aimed down onto her book.
'Hello Ally' she whispered as Alison quietly opened the door and crept in.
'Isn't it awful! How did you hear?'
'On the news' Alison whispered back, as her eyes took in the significance of the tubes and wires which led from the bed to the upturned bottles of plasma, the electronic gadgets and machines which nearly filled the room. She especially noted the valve which must be kept fully open and the two crucial switches which must be kept down at all times if the patient was to stay alive…
There was a small screen with a thin green line shining in the darkness, kicking regularly but feebly.
'She's in deep shock' said Mary with a note of awe in her voice. 'To think I was chatting to her this morning! Her eyes just keep staring – it's a bit unnerving – Dr. Roberts says she can't see or hear anything, and it's only all this…' she swept her arm round '… that's keeping her alive at all.
She's an absolute mess under that sheet. Might be better tomorrow though, then they'll do a detailed assessment. It's too awful isn't it? You were her friend weren't you Ally?'
'Mm..' replied Alison rather absently, noting the past tense being used already and licking her lips as she advanced further into the room. She knew just what to do.
'How long have you been on?' she ventured, never taking her eyes off that kicking line.
'Oh, about an hour I think. Why?'
'Look, I'll sit with her for a bit if you like. You go and get a cup of tea. Bring me one too. No, no on second thoughts don't bother, I'll get one later' she added hastily. Didn't want the girl popping back in two minutes!
'Well, if you're sure…' said Mary rather uncertainly 'only Sister may not be too keen, it is my duty shift and I…'
'Oh that's alright!' said Alison almost heartily 'I've spoken to her just now and she said it would be OK.'
She leant over the bed.
'Now what's all this about then?' she whispered. 'Worrying us all like this. Rotten thing to happen Bren, but you're going to be OK!'
The platitudes slid easily like oil from her lips, but suddenly the staring unseeing eyes above the oxygen mask reminded her of the rag doll as it whizzed through the air…
She quickly looked away and sat heavily in the chair next to the bed. Hang on now, said the little black monster, don't lose your nerve now. Mary Jameson tucked the bookmark neatly into her library book and left. As the door closed soundlessly behind her Alison exhaled long and slowly.
Now. Now. Do it N-O-W.
She got up and looked hard at the switches… so many of them, but she knew the two that mattered – the two that had to be flicked up. And that valve. Two slow turns, that's all. She just had to reach out her hand, flick up the switches.. one.. two.. then turn the valve once… twice… Then wait. These gleaming modern machines, constructed with such scientific precision to give life and hope to the silent form in the bed would obey a new order. Instead of giving life they would simply take it away. Finally, completely, undoubtedly.
Wasn't science wonderful?
A horrid bubbly giggle broke from her at the thought and she swung round guiltily to look at the bed. Straight into the staring unseeing eyes… somehow the head had lolled sideways and were fixed on her. Brenda wasn't supposed to be able to see, but those eyes… they were shining into her, revealing her plan… the monster dodged and swerved and tried to hide but it was no good. She knew! Brenda KNEW! All of a sudden the room was filled with a thick smothering air of menace and Alison knew she had to close those eyes, she must do it now or she'd go under and be obliterated.
She quickly flicked the two switches and turned the valve… once.., twice.., then sat quite still, her eyes fixed on that kicking line.
It carried on for what seemed like hours, till Alison started panicking. Brenda was somehow managing without any of it! She must be breathing on her own, recovering…
Then the line stopped jerking and the machine just gave a quiet hum.
All the other little noises in the room seemed to stop too and Alison was engulfed in total silence. She felt a great sense of peace. As if a great crushing stone had been lifted off her chest and she was floating suspended in warm soft air. She began to breathe quietly and normally again. It was all over. All she had to do now was flick.., flick.., and turn the valve the other way once.., twice.., and sit and quietly wait for a minute or two before raising the alarm.
The rest would be all talk, and she felt wonderfully confident that she could cope with that easily. Already the sentences were marshalling themselves and being selected or discarded, and even tears of sorrow at the sad death of her dear friend were welling up. Her face was almost radiant at that moment.
Then right in the middle of this lovely feeling, something happened that spoilt it all.
She heard a sound. One little hateful sound that spoilt everything. Her peace, her calm, her feeling of being so right with the world – all exploded like a hand grenade tossed into her head. One little stupid wretched impossible sound.
The quite unmistakeable sound of someone sitting up in bed.
'Hello Ally..' said a plaintive little voice from the bed.
Alison swung round and saw the figure raised on one arm, the other hand holding the oxygen mask and the lips moving…
It was all a beastly trap! The beastly girl wasn't dead at all! In fact she was steadily talking, talking in that terrible moaning, grating, drizzling voice…
'Oh Ally, how could you! You were supposed to be my friend! I kept thinking you couldn't have meant to do it, I told them I was sure you hadn't meant it, you couldn't have done it on purpose, but you did, you did! Why? How could you think of anything so wicked? What had I ever done to you?'
Oh no! That awful whining whinnying grating voice was filling Alison's head again, blowing it up to bursting like a bicycle pump… It must be STOPPED.
She sprang forward, with hands outstretched like claws and a strange high-pitched keening sound coming from her throat. But the room was full of other people now, and strong hands held her. Other voices started talking to her, and she became calm and passive at once – apparently taking no notice when they explained that the news item had been a deliberate decoy to lure her back. That Brenda's name had been omitted from the bulletin, so she couldn't have 'heard about it on the radio'. To prove it hadn't been an accident.
Of course. How silly. That's what had been nagging at her in the train on the way back to the hospital! Silly silly silly…
She seemed to be quite unconcerned when they told her how Brenda had fallen into the wide deep gap between the rails, and how the train had passed right over her. How she'd shown considerable presence of mind by staying motionless as they moved the train backwards and freed her. How she'd only bruised her leg and arm and cracked a bone in her foot….
Alison just sat there with a dreamy half-smile on her face through all this, as if politely listening but not really concerned in the matter at all.
Then the scream came.
Alison wasn't really conscious of making it. It just came like a whistling express train out of a long tunnel, with her enormous open mouth where the engine should be. The sound blotted out everything else in the world. To Alison it seemed to have always been there, unearthly and thrilling and would last for a thousand years.
In fact the scream wasn't anything to do with her. It came from the monster in her head, no longer small, no longer black, but huge and flaming red and burning with a terrible rage. It was this dreadful creature they had to restrain, that cursed and swore and shrieked and spat at them. Nothing to do with Alison any more. It was as if she'd just gone away, unable to share her mind with such a lodger.
In a rare lucid moment she tried to explain to the big comfortable psychiatrist that there wasn't anything else she could have done, was there? Well was there?
It just wasn't fair…..