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4: The Room without a Telephone (part 3)

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Author Topic: 4: The Room without a Telephone (part 3)  (Read 4 times)
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« on: January 22, 2023, 06:47:00 am »

IN DESCRIBING Paul Eldred it is very easy to make him seem a clown and nothing else, and this even without succumbing to the temptation to select what may possibly entertain. His mind was at times blotted out by his frantic vanity, but of course a mind was there. The inferiority feeling of a provincial, it was believed by the wisest of his friends, had rotted his personality and even eroded his intelligence. Jones, his most sceptical friend, had had an unpleasant experience on two occasions. It was not the waspish ferocity of the little feverish ego that darted out on him that surprised him. The subterranean existence of such a spiteful animal he had been dimly aware of. What surprised him was that Eldred no longer troubled to check it, but allowed it to have its way and dart out and bite people. Of course what provoked these sorties had been connected with old Paul's work. Jones had ventured a criticism of something. But he found that what had begun as a young man's resolve to run himself, in the Intellectual Stakes—and quite good-humouredly while youthful still—as a "great" something or other, had developed, as time went on, into a pathological self-esteem. It is true, "greatness" had come: which no one was better qualified than what Paul once had been to evaluate. But that Paul was no longer there. "Greatness" corrupts. From that time, after the second of these disagreeable episodes, Jones refrained from all reference to the works of his old friend. But he still respected a certain flickering integrity, and loved the image of his youthful companion which haunted this celebrated ruin.

Almost regenerated in his present isolation, Eldred even came to look ten years younger. Having climbed out of that Cigar Store Indian, the Great Dr. Eldred, having found, by accident, a place where it was impossible to be that anyhow, he lay in his bed an undressed personality, as it were. The patient-in-bed situation helped. He never had felt so free since he was a schoolboy. He embraced that anonymity he had always dreaded.

The nurse he had already seen entered.

"Good afternoon. I am Nurse Tanner. Here is some lunch."

A hard-boiled egg, a tea-cup full of tapioca, and a thin grey slice of bread was placed upon the glass table with long chromium-plated legs which straddled the bed. The fare of the anchorite! He beamed quietly on the savage repast. Nurse Tanner interpreted this as sarcasm.

He ate the egg and was looking at the tapioca when a nun entered with her mouth open, holding a hypodermic syringe. It was obvious she was toothless: her eye-sockets were empty, in the hollows lived her eyes.

"I am Sister Giles," she told him, aloofly but aggressively.

"And I am Paul Eldred," said he.

The nun was in a white conventual uniform, the much-pleated skirt needing a dozen petticoats for it to balloon around the nether limbs—or how else could it be so pneumatically expansive and beautifully circular? (This applied to all the massive myriad-pleated skirts in which the nuns discouraged the idea that nuns have legs.) Sister Giles was the nun who had intruded and gazed through his underwear at the window beyond: and for her he was still obviously vitreous.

Eldred smiled sweetly, Sister Giles's blank expression was unchanged.

"Please lie flat on your tummy," she said.

Eldred dutifully heeled himself over, pulled down his pyjamas and presented a buttock to Sister Giles, enquiring gently and even a little archly: "Is that all right?"

"No," said the nun gazing away, "flat on your face please. It's no use if you don't, you know."

"I see. That makes it clear at once," said he understandingly. "The muscles have to be relaxed, haven't they."

Sister Giles rubbed a spot on the buttock with wet cotton-wool.

"She's a shy old girl," he thought. "It is natural. I should be frightfully embarrassed if I were an old monk and had to do this to a lot of worldly matrons." To her he said gaily over his shoulder: "Novocaine, I can smell it."

She jabbed in the needle.

"Thank you," he said. When she had gone Eldred ate the tapioca. Afterwards he felt a little sick. Nurse Tanner entered, collected the lunch-tray, and suggested a little sleep. She was a stream-lined hospital nurse for whom patients were a species distinct from nurses. She saw him close his eyes with satisfaction and left the room giving him an up stroke in her mental chart. Sleep was just sealing his eyes but the door opened and a nun came in and moved up to the side of the bed. "How do you feel, Dr. Eldred? I am the Matron. Are you comfortable?" She apologized for appearing on the scene so late. As she spoke her hands were interlocked in front, but the two thumbs circled rapidly around each other. All of their faces appeared at the end of a tunnel of white lawn and looked strangely small. This miniature face looked at him along its white tunnel with a painfully placid aloofness while she talked, her thumbs revolving as though a small propeller, perhaps to sustain the smooth flight of her mind in the profane dimension, perhaps to preserve an equilibrium naturally threatened in commerce with the world, which must be an artifice demanding effort. She was a very sensitive educated woman. Undoubtedly it was an effort for her to be normal yet abnormal, to be worldly at the end of a white tunnel, to reintegrate her pre-sanctified personality for the occasion; she moved back into it with stiffness and distaste. Again, the quantity of chat each patient might receive was rigidly rationed. After she had expended, say, a hundred words for a maximum, the interview would not be broken off but would fade out. If the patient said anything further she would not answer as if she had not heard it. She would wheel, in her bulbous voluted skirt of dark blue, like a clockwork figure, and move quickly out of the room. The words were well chosen and sensible, perhaps thanks to the whirling of the thumbs.

After the Matron's departure Eldred turned over and thought again of sleep. His eyes were rolling up, his limbs relaxing, his blood was leaving the surface vessels and his mental images were beginning to behave drunkenly when someone entered. It was one of the many stunted female gossoons, Irish nationals, attached to the nurses. Muttering something she thrust her hand violently into the foot of the bed. After a lunge or two she seized the hot water-bottle on which his feet were resting and drew it out of the bed. Next she pushed in a hotter bottle. This taciturn intruder having shuffled out he took up a book and read for a few minutes. The door opened and a startled Irish face appeared. "You rang, sor?" panted this girl. Very sweetly smiling Eldred gently shook his head, adding a musical "No". "You did not ring!" the girl cried frantically and charged out. Five minutes later the book began to slump down and his eyes to close when Nurse Tanner entered briskly. She put down a slip of paper on the bed-table. "Your signature is required," she said with her efficient smile. "Ah, yes," said he, picking up the paper drowsily. "Yes, I think you may administer any anaesthetic you like. Ah yes, and my nearest relative. You want to know that of course." He signed the printed form, and returned it to the nurse as though she were an autograph-hunter. "You should try and get a little sleep now," said Nurse Tanner, giving his pillow a push. "A capital notion," said he with a smile that was a shadowy reminder of his old sardonic self. The nurse, of a neat dark prettyness, with very dark brown curls, looked very faintly annoyed and carried her neat little body away, self-righteously erect, as if all the good were healthy like herself. Eldred felt that this was much too real a nurse. She was the only discordant note.

He now knew that however often Nurse Tanner recommended a little sleep, that sleep was out of the question. Up till eight o'clock, when the night staff came on, someone or other was always doing something in his room. The Matron moved in once more, looked at him distantly but tolerantly, asked when his teeth were to be extracted and did he sleep well, and removed herself silently. Tea at four and dining at six were the big events: but a considerable time was taken up in making the bed. He went to sit in the armchair from which he watched the two diminutive Irish helps on opposite sides of the bed swinging the bedclothes and pyramiding the pillows. He became conscious of an incessant hissing sound for which at first he supposed the pipes were responsible. But it was the two girls hissing at one another across the bed. He could not have sworn it was this, for their mouths did not move nor did their expression change and whatever they were doing—if one of them stooped down, for instance, to pick something up—the noise continued. But when they left the noise ceased. They were evidently able to converse with one another almost inaudibly.

Finally, before the night session, Dr. McLachlan showed up, as stiff and formal as a Prussian Geheimrat, though sitting on the edge of his bed in a frosty familiarity. Eldred reflected how he fitted into the Home. After all, the Matron and he belonged to the same ethos. On his side, the doctor consulted with himself. He had expected a lofty exasperation on the great man's part with everything, just because it was not the London Clinic. To his surprise he heard criticism of nothing. He had never seen his patient so calm—yes and so happy. He went away pondering this paradox. And just before he left Eldred gave him a slip of paper, on which he had written a message for Miss Cosway, to the effect that for the remainder of his stay he did not wish her to visit him or communicate with him in any way. He wished to be completely alone. This message the doctor was enjoined to deliver by telephone to ROT 5959 the first thing in the morning.

One thing that would not be apt to enter into the doctor's analysis was the fact of the excessive acuity of Eldred's time sense. Could he have been carried back in a time machine to the England of the fifteenth or sixteenth century, he would not—as did Erasmus on a first visit—have been disgusted with filthy rush floors, never renewed, but fresh rushes put down on top of the old. The time-sense would have restrained him from finding fault with the backward islanders. His attitude towards the Catholic Home where he found himself was that, to the best of its ability, it was in the Middle Ages. (Which does not mean, it was otherwise than clean and comfortable.) Of course, as to Eldred's other feelings his doctor could not have divined what they might be. He simply regarded his patient's attitude as fortunate, but perversely incomprehensible.

Dr. McLachlan before going checked on the pulse, pulled down his lower eyelid, raised his upper eyelid, and informed himself as to the stool. Lastly he asked him if he had managed to get some sleep. Eldred smiled and shook his head.

"I think Sister Bridget, that is the night Sister, had better give you something."

"Perhaps it would be as well," the patient agreed. For if the night staff had anything like the vitality of the day staff he would certainly, he reasoned, require a sleeping draught.

The doctor looked at him sharply. This new docility and quietistic temper (if it was not a pose) began to worry him. He coughed—as if to say Achtung!

"I expect you are terribly bored, Dr. Eldred," he observed, as one man of the world to another.

"Not at all."

The doctor brushed the negative lightly aside.

"Of course you must be. A man like you, always surrounded by people...."

He got no further, for this galvanized Eldred into automatic action. "Surrounded by people!" he protested, with gently raised eyebrows. No man, alas, is a bona fide recluse to his doctor.

"Well, you would be, of course, that is what I mean, if you did not employ two secretaries to hold them at arm's length. I know how many admirers you have, Dr. Eldred. Some of them are my patients. Loaded with engagements as you are, it must be a strange experience to step out of it all, suddenly like this. To be in so uncompromisingly—er—insulated a nursing institution as this is too."

"A blissfully strange experience," Eldred told his dubiously gazing medical adviser, who then approached and gravely checked once more the blood's faint thump in the wrist. Next morning, he explained, O'Toole the dentist and Dr. Tomlin the anaesthetist, and he himself, would gather well before one o'clock in the operating theatre. He and Eldred would not meet, properly speaking, until later, after the mass-extraction: and at length he left with a throaty Good night.

It was 8 p.m. Sister Bridget arrived, hypodermic syringe in hand. There was a smile which was a bitter-sweet rictus forever upon her still lovely waxen face. Half heeling over Eldred presented his bared buttock to the nun. "Is that far enough over, Sister, or shall I flatten out?" he enquired. "Ach, no!" she genially dismissed the exactions of the day-sister martinet. "That's arl that is necessary of course it is." Hearing the accents of Cork or Clare (John Bull's Other Island English) he responded with a friendly smile. "Ah," he thought, "Irish, so with a more elastic and graceful puritanism. No Get on your tummy stuff with her!" But the injection hurt quite a lot—far more than with the day-nun. But Sister Bridget was so kind and had so much beauty that he did not mind if her ministrations caused pain. His temperature came next, and after that she gave him a powder which took effect with great dispatch. It was not until five in the morning that he awoke, and lay listening apparently to a dromedary charging up and down the uncarpeted boards of the corridor. It was Sister Bridget with her long legs, in her ungainly shoes, rushing to and fro in response to the summonses of the distracted patients.

Soon afterwards he had another penicillin injection and Sister Bridget's tribe of little snub-nosed helpers proved to be quite as agile and officious as Nurse Tanner's. The lowest in rank of the personnel, the floor-mopper, was also the newspaper girl. Eldred enjoined her under no circumstances to bring a newspaper into the room. She gave him a kind of frightened leer for answer. Then at eight came breakfast, and from then up to noon some gnome or other, or a nun or a nurse, was weaving in and out of the room.

There was one thing which especially attracted his attention during these four hours. The Matron and Sister Giles both came in twice. Sister Giles as usual wandered in casually as though she had forgotten something and had come in there in order to remember it. But she drifted up to the bed and gazed into his face. He was even able to see that her eyes were blue. This proceeding almost startled him. He said to himself that her face was like that of one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse in a German church. The Matron, on both occasions, seemed to be peering at him very inquisitively. It would be all right, she said—though he did not know exactly what she meant. "Am I pale?" he asked smiling. Her answer was that the Sister would give him something at twelve o'clock. That was always done, she said: over significantly he thought. He considered both these women a little odd.

At noon Sister Giles strayed purposefully in, and ordered him negligently to go to the operating theatre. "For dope?" he asked, succinctly, like herself. She nodded. "Not here?"—he expressed his surprise. "No," she said and left the room. (Ah well, he thought, they are wise to put her on in the daytime. I should hate to have her around at night.) He put on his dressing-gown and went out. Hundreds of Hibernian gnomes were charging up and down the corridor, with food, flowers, bedpans, and hot water-bottles. After walking through the territory of two other nurses he came to a stairway. This was to the rear of the building. At the foot was a much broader corridor. A few yards and it terminated in an obviously important and sinister door. There was no stink of ether, which usually announces the proximity of the theatre. But he pushed the door and it was an unmistakable theatre. There was the stage, like a glorified ironing-board, on which a recumbent performer went through his limp and speechless part, except for an imprecation or a dark mutter escaping the drugged body like speech from a corpse (though in this strangest of theatres there are some who consider the Star to be the so-called Man in White). There hung the hooded lamp above the stage to illuminate the performance, with its cold false daylight, often the last light the entranced actor is to see on this earth. This most tragic of all actors is carried in and out of the theatre, if the play is a tragedy, Eldred thought, and not a comedy like his.

The room was lofty, a large north-lighted cube, filled with the clinical gadgets of surgery. Probably it had been a garden-studio. Once the bearded painter had here attacked his canvas, his fist bristling with brushes: and here a fair Victorian, corsetted like a swollen wasp, giving a little precious gasp of alarm had been overcome by faintness, collapsing like a monstrous toy upon the painter's throne. The good historian almost smelled the sal volatile or eau de Cologne all Victorian painters would have in readiness, with, as a last resort, scissors to snip the murderous "stays".

Sister Giles, as he entered, was stolidly stationed beside the operating table. She at once began propelling it towards the window. She placed it exactly under the window and then turned in his direction, her eyes directed towards the door in the middle distance. "Where," he asked, looking around for a chair, "shall I sit?" She gave the operating table two slaps. "Get up on this," she instructed him with impeccable boredom. He walked over, and smiling almost meltingly at the venerable religious dragon, objected "Up there, Sister?" "Yes." "But I shall roll off." The nun however administered two absent-minded slaps to the operating table. "You must do as the doctor says," she told him, in a flat impatient voice; "you have to lie down here." She tapped to show where and stood looking away. It was not at all easy to mount this high and narrow resting place: once he had done so and stretched himself out, it was intolerably hard, for it was impossible to adjust the body to the hardness without tumbling off. "You must lie on your back." The old nun was dully peremptory. He smiled. Evidently she did not know who he was. He wished she did, but wriggled upon his back, his rigid body violently protesting. The voice of cold command sounded again. "Roll up your sleeve." (Ridiculous and incredible, thought he, that Dr. Paul Eldred should find himself cut off from the world, alone in this obscure operating theatre, obeying, as if he were a taxi-driver, this rough old nun.) He rolled the sleeve up and she dug a needle into the arm.

A beautiful tropical drowsiness immediately began to pour into his brain and invade his limbs, the warmth of a potent obliteration. Ah, the boon of anaesthesia! The board was no longer hard, he was quite indifferent as to whether he fell off or not, death itself would be merely the infinity of his sweet anaesthesia, the putting to sleep of the will. And the nun was a good old fairy nun. All the same, even at that moment, he realized it was far too strong a dose he had been given. The last thing he saw before his head lolled over—and what will was left to him was a will to sleep, there was no resistance—was the Sister pushing a large white screen towards him, such as they screen the dead with in a hospital ward. It grew larger—whiter. He thought "Good old cross-patch!" and that was all he knew for the best part of an hour.

A very imperfectly functioning consciousness returned to him, numbed and devoid of more feeling than a man would have about a cricket match if he was not interested in cricket, merely regarding it as a handful of white figures slowly changing position on a green field. A cocktail party might have been going on the other side of the screen. The theatre seemed full. Though it was true their hilarity was muted, there was polite mirth. But the atmosphere was electric too. The people the other side of the screen were excited. He felt like the Star actor out of sight of the expectant audience: or the Christian martyr in the echoing pens beneath the amphitheatre. Violently, as it seemed, two men pulled the screen aside, and he began rolling out into the room. He found himself beneath the closely impending hooded circle of the lamp.

He hardly looked at all the people. Dr. McLachlan came up and whispered in his ear. "You feel quite comfortable?" "Perfectly," he answered. "Why all the concourse, doctor? What an audience I have got." McLachlan disregarded this. Eldred was aware of men in white, with white masked faces. One was doubtless the O'Toole, concealing his forceps behind his back; and even McLachlan had been in white. A red-faced man like a doctor, he noticed, was lying across his legs for some reason, as if to get a good look at him. He stared fixedly. Eldred's head, it seemed, was hemmed in with people but he could only see their stomachs. Two men grasped his left arm. They had rolled up the sleeve and held his arm stiffly out from his side. Why on earth were all these people milling around him? he wondered. It was like being Gulliver, intoxicated perhaps, only mildly curious regarding the antics of his captors. Or images of the Inquisition visited him perforce. The Catholics had never liked his histories, they were all on the Index, it might be that he was about to be ementulated, or blinded. The nuns he saw betrayed this image for they ought to have been monks. Or was it a woman's Inquisition? The needlessly brutal hands of the two kneeling house-serfs tightened upon his arm, he felt the plunging of a needle. The world stopped where it was for a second or two and then clicked out, like turning off an electric light.

When he awakened he was in bed and a pleasant girl stood over him, one of the army of nurses' mutes, but this one had a tongue and a beautifully expressive face.

"Ah," he said thickly, "the show is over."

She gave him a mug and told him it was to spit the blood in. Hours had passed since the extractions, he learned from the girl. But he still was stupefied. McLachlan hastily entered, his face flushed, no smile. He came over and warned Eldred he had bled too much as if it were his fault. "You must not touch your gums. The bleeding must not go on." He asked to see his gums. These seemed to give him unexpected pleasure. "Doctors are always surprised if they have not seriously injured you," was one of Jones's sayings. But McLachlan's comment was, "O'Toole has made a good job of it." It seemed indeed that he had: apparently it was Dr. McLachlan who had been at fault. Since the events in the theatre Eldred had had, in his doctor's absence, what almost amounted to a dangerous haemorrhage.

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