And The Bells Were Ringing Out
I thought she was trying to kiss me. Some mistletoe trick. Tilted my head away from hers and put my hand up between us.
She hadn’t been in long and had eyed me with something bordering on outright hostility in brief exchanges the previous day, so I was surprised at how quickly the Christmas spirit had worked its magic.
Obviously inappropriate relations between staff and patients were a no-no and as such I was trying to delicately disentangle us while trying to see the funny side. Happened to look at a group of other patients sat on the little bench watching the episode unfold and thought they’d be amused. Instead I saw their expressions were ones or either horror or incredulity. Slightly odd. As was the tightening grip. Around my neck. I reluctantly faced what I thought was my somewhat amorous acquaintance, instinctively leaned back to keep out of distance of puckered lips and chanced a glance. Teeth bared, raw hatred beaming from the screwed up eyes. This wasn’t kissing. She was trying to kill me.
This entire experience happened in some kind of slow motion in under five seconds. Prised her fingers from my throat as assistance came quickly from colleagues who had rounded the corner at my voice saying something like, “Please desist from assaulting staff.” What I wanted to shout was, “Stop strangling me, you whopper,” but you’ve got to keep professional, even while someone is attempting to murder you.
“He keeps calling me names, the bastard,” she said.
“Eh? I’ve not even met you proper yet, why would I call you names?” I said.
“Don’t take the piss, I’ve heard you all day.”
Derogatory hallucinations. Torturous affliction. In this instance, attributed to me.
I tried, “I think we’ve got off on the wrong foot. I’m here to help you.”
“Don’t come that game with me, I’ll bloody give you what for, you swine.”
The other staff led her to the clinic while she bellowed threats and expletives. The nurse in charge grinned as she said, “You’re a charmer aren’t you?”
“Fuck off. I’m just glad she didn’t have mistletoe after all. Talk about a femme fatale.”
She laughed. “Get a brew and a mince pie.”
Staffroom: strong tea and a bit of buffet food. One bite was all I managed before the bells rang out. Neither sleigh bells nor Christmas bells. Instead: the alarm bells.
The infirmary, the unit, Roy Wood from Wizzard blaring out the radio at full blast. Christmas bloody Eve.
Ran down the corridor to the electronic panel that indicated the ward below. Sprinted through the unit, bleeped myself out and clattered down the stairs, thinking please nobody hanging, nobody dead or dying or beaten to a pulp. If you’re prepared for the worst and anything less is a relief.
Doors wide open, a bank staff says, “Seclusion room.”
The back end of a scuffle.
Someone says, “Take his arm off me.” We lay him down on his front on the padded bed. Well drilled staff extraction, dragging out the person in front of us backwards as we hastily exited the seclusion room, slammed shut the door and bolted it locked. The fella inside the room leaped up, going apeshit and kicking Holy Hell at the door from the inside. Me and the others, outside, catching our breath.
“You’d not make a sprinter,” the nursing assistant said with a grin.
“Six seconds it took me, you cheeky bastard. I counted.”
He laughed, wiped sweat off his forehead then came over all weary. Said, “What a bloody cock up this is.”
“Well to cut a long story short, this fella,” he said, indicating with his thumb to the bloke knocking seven bells out of the woodwork, “thought his missus was cheating on him, having affairs like. She said he’s going bonkers, can’t convince him it’s in his head. Gets the GP involved, who gets the consultant psychiatrist who assesses him as delusional and brings him in here.
Been with us three months. We’ve worked with him, talked with him, tried him on numerous tablets, nothing working. He’s getting in a bad state, not eating properly and all the rest of it.
Anyway, the consultant decides we need some drastic action so he prescribes emergency ECT. Thinking hopefully we get a rapid response and he can have some Christmas dinner with his wife. So we give him something to keep him calm for the treatment and walk him up to the suite. In the meantime one of our staff has gone for a run round the flash on his break. You know the flash is a dogging hotspot. Well, he goes for a piss in the bushes and who does he see on a Christmas dogging sesh in the woods? Only this chap’s missus. Apparently she’s a regular. She’s just admitted on the blower. She had to, she’d been seen in action.”
“Swear down. Our staff phones the ward to tell us, but obviously nobody is in the office. Meanwhile yon mon is having his frontal lobes zapped. Staff gets back, frantically explaining, we run up to ECT but it’s too late by then. Our patient is sat there chewing on dry toast.”
“Oh my God.”
“We bring him back down to the ward, and tactfully inform him of the situation. Needless to say, he went absolutely fucking ballistic.” He puffed his cheeks out and shook his head. “Can you watch him for five minutes while I nip for a quick fag.”
“Aye,” I said. That’s all I could manage. Aye.
It was important when secluding someone to ensure they could see a clock and another human through the reinforced glass panels so as not to go into sensory deprivation. Also you had to watch in case they fashioned a makeshift ligature from clothing, so I pulled up a chair and took a seat.
He came straight over and shouted, “Who are you?”
“I’m from upstairs, I’m just covering for a while.”
“Well these fucking crackpots have kidnapped me, drugged me up and run electric through my brain. Have you ever heard owt like it? I fucking told them she was messing about, I told them. Look what they’ve done! Telling me I’m delusional for months? They’re delusional. I’ll rip their fucking heads off,” he shouted.
I just nodded empathetically. What could you say to that?
Slade. Merry Christmas Everybody on the radio. Me, thinking: what the fuck is going on.
The Infirmary, the unit, Christmas bloody Eve.
Staff came to take over and another one let me out. We did the merry Christmases and the like and I went outside for a smoke myself.
Snow turning to slush.
The consultant was sucking on a cig and pacing up and down under the canopy. From cocksure to a shivering wreck in three hours.
“These things happen, Doc,” I said.
“You think so?”
“It’s a funny old profession, psychiatry.”
“Yes, I suppose it is.”
He didn’t seem reassured and I couldn’t have given two fucks whether he was or not in all honesty. Saved by the emergency bleep. It was a little black pager type of thing then and the voice came over to instruct me to go to a ward the next shelter down. Dementia and alzheimer’s and other degenerative neurological conditions.
Flicked my cig and kicked up snow. Through the main doors, thinking please nobody hanging, nobody dead or dying or beaten to a bloody pulp. Very different environment from the acute, this. It needed folks with the patience of Saints and not a sinner amongst them, and that’s what they had.
Commotion at the top of the ward. A big bear of a bloke with a nursing assistant in a headlock. Was saying, “I’ve towd thee to keep out my bloody road.”
They were trying to change his trousers for clean ones and he was confused and disoriented, lashing out. Non-threatening body language, non-confrontational verbals, continual reassurances muttered every twenty seconds and they got him sorted. Clean clothes, fed, cared for. A very different type of work from the acute. Staff with the patience of Saints.
We swapped Merry Christmases and cliched jokes along the lines of, “Never mind three wise men, can’t seem to find one in this office,” and the odd flirt saying, “You playing Father Christmas, gracing us with your presence? You can empty your sack for me tonight if you want.” Banter and gallows humour flowed as fast as the non alcoholic wine. I said I’d let myself out and as I neared the exit I heard a nurse crying in the toilets.
Back on my unit. Had a good look for my assailant but couldn’t see her, thank fuck. Local church group choir were entertaining about fifteen patients in the dining area with carols.
Get handed the observation file to do my hour. Had to check certain people at specific intervals, assess their mental state. Three suicide risks, one intrusive behaviour due to hypomania, and the last one recently added to the list because her family couldn’t make it to visit given the long drive and the weather. She was the lady in the green dress, a shade of green similar to the light flaking paint on the corridor walls. Upset. Feeling abandoned. Little to no response to interactions or reassurance.
Did laps of the unit, eyes peeled, ten minute intervals. Playing along with the jollity and joviality with the patients on my route, festive cheer breaking up the usual routines of ward life. No incidents as I hand over the file to the next staff for their turn at the top of the hour. No respite as a congregation gathered at the far end harangue for smoke time. I take a walkie talkie and unclip the fire door as the folks file out with their fags out ready.
Lead them down the stairs to the courtyard with the high fence, no smoking rooms inside these days. Stand at the door lighting them up one at a time. The lady in the green dress, all done up and nowhere to go, preoccupied. Spark the lighter and she inhales but doesn’t go out. Instead she goes to my left. I light another one from the queue with my peripheral vision doing overtime. Split second. The hand with the cigarette drops from the mouth to the dress. Singe. Fuck. Snatch the fag and lash it on the floor. Press the ring of flaming green material with my palms and thankfully it stops the burn. A bit longer and the dress would have gone up like a fountain firework. She weeps softly as I speak into the walkie talkie and staff come running. I mime what she did and then do a talk mime and they nod and walk her back upstairs.
Christmas bloody eve.
The smokers are having a singsong and then they say they’ve got a surprise for us staff. I join them with a cig, not giving a fuck if they grass me up. Couldn’t care less, but they never did. “Go on, what’s this surprise then?”
“You’ll find out in a minute,” one says, and they laugh together.
They throw their stumps in the ashtray and go back inside then I lock up and follow them, flicking the door shut and reactivating the alarm.
Sat on the table at the top of the ward and saw what they’d done. They must have been out earlier in the day, those that were allowed, and had sneaked in a spread for us staff from them. Out they came out of the patient’s kitchen with plates of sandwiches and pasties and little cakes.
“Surprise!” One shouted. “Merry Christmas. We’ll look after you lot seeing as you look after us the rest of the year” shouted another.
I could have bloody wept.
Radio on full blast. The Pogues. Fairy Tale Of New York.
No fairy tales here, in England, in the infirmary, on the unit, behind the locked doors, with the flaking paint on those walls.
Drug companies raking it in, folk like us giving what we could of the human factor, providing those intangibles that were more than just words, that seem to go missing when reducing life experience to neurotransmitters or whatever else, as best we could, on Christmas Eve.
Shift ending. Stood in the dining room near the nine foot tree the local gardening centre donated with my coat on, waiting for the handover to finish. Laughing at a funny story a patient is telling. Tired, maybe a bit emotional for many reasons, looking back. Lost in thought.
“You’ll not call me a cunt again you swine.” I glimpse tinsel looped over my head and down past my eyes and round my neck as I try and place the voice. Then it dawns on me, my assailant is back with a vengeance.
Dragged backwards. Struggling with my balance. I grab the tree to keep me up. The entire thing topples towards me as I fall backwards. One set of fingers under the tinsel. The other activating my alarm, setting off the electric orchestra of emergency.
Patients shouting, “Ger off ‘im.”
“Towd you I’d get you, you bastard,” she says through a cackle.
More footsteps and another scuffle as the tinsel slackens. Me on the floor, with the Christmas tree on top of me. Baubles rolling all over.
Couldn’t help but laugh.
In the infirmary, on the ward, on Christmas Eve.
Radio blaring: …and the bells were ringing out…
Bio L.A. Sykes is the author of the short story collection Noir Medley and the novellas The Hard Cold Shoulder and Benediction For A Thief (The Atherton Town Escapades).