Friday, January 09, 2009

Wednesday 4th August 1943

I half-awoke. Someone was grasping my thigh. Obviously Gent, opposite. Perhaps pushing me further back on to my bunk? I wriggled further back, the hand fell away, I slept again. At about 1:40a.m. I awoke fully. Someone shouting. William in the bunk below. “My God! Someone's gone out the window, I tell you!” Hell! I thought, he's got delusions! Now everyone else will know we're crazy!

There was the open window and the patch of whitish sand. The train bumped on. Everyone was awake. Someone said, in a startled voice, “I saw it too and someone trod on my face...” “For God's sake strike a match and see if anyone is missing!” cried William. I struck a match, and saw five scared faces peering up at me and around. The bunk opposite me was empty except for a crumpled khaki shirt.

“Who is it?” “It's the orderly that was with us,” said Bill, “Hope they don't think we've done it!” A dumb-founded silence followed this remark. Three of us hurried along the corridor; there was no sign of Gent there or in the nearest lavatory. Interminable swaying, deserted corridors in coaches full of sleepers, until at last we found a kitchen with two night orderlies who looked up, startled, when we blurted out our news. A moment later they, with an RAMC officer, were hurrying back down the train. The officer flashed his torch around the fatal compartment, asked a few rapid questions – did anyone really see him fall out? who slept here? and who there? “Is it one of the patients from the neuropathic...?” “No sir! It's the orderly that was with them.” “I see.” There was a whispered conversation – out of earshot – between the officer and an orderly.

Quarter of an hour after we all woke up, the train stopped; then went on.
An orderly stood all night then, in the open doorway of our carriage. Each time I stirred, he moved his head to watch me. “Are there two... patients... in here then?” asked someone in another bunk, very subdued. “Yes. That's why I've been told to stay here, see? In case they feel – upset.”

Later an orderly came and said, “It's alright boys. He wasn't badly hurt. He made his way to a station nearby where he fell out, and telephoned. He'll be at Cantara tomorrow, soon after us.” At the time I thought this was a white lie, for it seemed too nice and perfect to be true, but it was in fact, exactly what had happened! I slept again.

When we awoke it was morning and the train was stationary beside a hospital. The man on duty was an ex-mental orderly. He proudly showed his small knowledge. “Yes he's OK!” he said sombrely, “Says he thinks he fell out by accident! Ah well! If he can get away with it, good luck. But what happened was that he went balmy and tried to do himself in. I know. Seen lots of cases. Suicidal depression, see? Mental orderlies get like that. Go crazy themselves. That's why I gave the job up. After six months. I could see this feller was queer when he came on the train last night...” “Well, he seemed quite normal to us” said Bill defensively. “Of course he did. To you. That's just it.” replied the ex-mental orderly cunningly. “Well, I saw him go out, sort of taking a header into the sand,” said Bill determinedly, “And I think he had a nightmare, fell on the floor, saw the window – still half asleep – and climbed out without quite knowing what he was doing.”

We stayed alone (under supervision!) in the train while arrangements were doubtless made for our reception in the hospital. “Sorry if you were shocked at finding we were macnoon so suddenly,” I said genially to our carriage companions as they left, “We're only a scuire macnoon actually you know. Quite harmless.” This was received with the dubious sidelong glances and embarrassed smiles which I'd expected. After they'd gone I found some bacon sandwiches and tea, and we had a little extra breakfast.

Eventually we were taken to the hospital in state, in an ambulance and to a part of the Isolation Ward, the only place where they could safely put such suspicious characters. It was a small, brick-walled room with two beds and a tap and sink in one corner. No one had ever had macnoons to deal with, before. One could see they expected anything to happen. At first there were two ordelies constantly watching us, probably expecting us to gnash our teeth or stand on our heads. A Sister scuttled in and out, never looking at us or addressing us directly. Gradually however, the tension relaxed, as we quietly arranged our kit and washed. After half an hour, both orderlies sat down. I slept. When I awoke there was only one orderly and he was placidly reading a magazine.

Outside it is terribly flat, sandy and bare. In the afternoon a zift wind arose. William kindly shut the window, and shut out the dun vista of dusty sands. And the wind.


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