George and the Armadillo, Chapter 1
This is Chapter 1 of my work-in-progress novel, George and the Armadillo.
‘Betty. Betty. How are you, old son?’
George strayed from his dream of the pineapple salesman and the donkey and entered an even stranger world. He flickered open his eyes to see the face of an old man just inches from his own. The face was pockmarked with cuts and scars but the old man was smiling introspectively and his face was kind.
George slowly sifted through his memory banks. The face was familiar, yet seemingly from a long time ago.
‘Betty, old boy, glad you’re back with us.’
George felt something soft engulf his hand as if it had been cupped in warm milk. He glanced down.
‘Mr. Benson. I think you might have your hospital gown on back to front.’
George very slowly withdrew his hand so as not to cause offence. Mr. Benson was still smiling. The nurse wasn’t.
‘How on earth. . . ’ she fumed, while Mr Benson said mildly, ‘You should just relax now. I heard the nurses say you’re just in for observation and you can go home later today.’
‘I’m sorry, but Mr. Miller is not allowed any visitors at this time. I must ask you to…’
Mr. Benson slithered off George’s bed and turned to the nurse.
‘You stay right here!’ The nurse ordered, drawing the curtain around George’s bed and he could hear her clip-clop hurriedly through the ward.
Mr. Benson leaned confidingly on the railing at the end of George’s bed.
‘I told them this would happen. All great artists are over-sensitive souls. I told them not to sack you.’
George closed his eyes. He tried to recall how he had arrived here; how he came to be cupping his old manager’s meat and two veg in his hand while dreaming of pineapple salesmen.
The nurse returned with two pale-blue clothed orderlies who each took hold of one of Mr. Benson’s arms.
‘Take care of Betty, now,’ he advised the nurse, over his shoulder.
The nurse drew back the curtain and George opened his eyes to see Mr. Benson being marched through the ward, his willie nodding agreeably in rhythm to their step. An old lady at the end of the ward applauded enthusiastically.
‘The doctor will see you soon, Mr. Miller, and if he gives you the all-clear you should then be able to go home.’
The nurse clip-clopped back down the ward, pausing only to tuck in the old lady, to stop her continued applause.
George felt unwell. His throat hurt but his bedside table was empty of any refreshments.
‘Now, Mr. Miller, I need you to use this before the doctor does his rounds. A large woman, whose untamed perm showed only occasional glimpses of her starched white-and-blue nurse’s cap, wrenched the curtain around George’s bed. She was wielding a shiny bedpan.
‘It’s OK, I can go to the toilet, really I can.’
‘Oh, no you don’t,’ said the nurse, her quite significant moustache quivering almost indignantly, ‘not until the doctor says you can. Now let’s get these off you.’
The nurse pulled up George’s gown and had his posterior perched on the bedpan before George was able to react.
‘Off you go then, don’t be shy, I’ve seen them many times before and yours is nothing special.’
It is to me, thought George, and I usually prefer to keep the element of surprise for viewers of it. However, he closed his eyes and pushed, rather astonished at the fluency he achieved.
‘Er, nurse, I don’t seem to be able to, um, stop…’
‘Don’t you worry, that’s why we have plastic bedsheets. Just a second and I’ll have you all cleaned up.’
George lay there surrounded by a growing brown sea of despair. The moustachioed nurse returned with a decidedly prettier nurse with no hint of facial hair. George smiled but then decided to just shut his eyes and let them do whatever they wanted to do. In any case he rather doubted whether the younger nurse would ever be able to overcome the recollection of his extensive bowel evacuation should he try to ask her out. Some sights he thought, simply linger in the memory. . .
‘Let me help you out of this’, said the pretty nurse, popping out his drip feed and unpeeling his gown.
Less than two minutes later George was sitting propped up in his crunchy clean bed in his crisp new gown with his freshly scrubbed and powdered pudenda. The curtains were pulled back to reveal George to an expectant world.
‘Dr. Yama’s just arrived so he should be with you very soon,’ said the older nurse.
George glanced down the ward. Surrounding the old lady’s bed were a group of frightened students, each trying to appear as invisible as possible. Oh great, thought George, I’m cast as laboratory rat for acned imbeciles.
George allowed himself to drift back to the pineapple salesman. Suddenly, right over his head: ‘Now, Mr. Miller here decided to shuffle off his mortal coil but he didn’t do a very good job of it. He was brought to the hospital last night after attempting to overdose on acetaminophen. We think he swallowed about 6000mg. Clark! What do we do first?’
‘Ah, gastric lavage, sir’.
‘Winkleman! What do we do first?’
‘Stomach pump, sir.’
‘Clark already said that. Come on! Anyone! This patient could be dead in minutes.’
‘N-acetylcysteine,’ said George apologetically.
‘Good. And why do we do that?’
‘It stops the absorption of the acetaminophen and slows down the liver damage.’
Dr. Yama looked around his collection of groupies.
‘Who said that?’
‘Who said what, sir?’
‘Shut up, Winkleman. Who answered my last question?’
‘The patient did, sir.’
‘You a doctor?’ demanded Dr. Yama suspiciously.
‘No,’ said George. ‘Actually at the moment I’m without any calling.’
‘Well, be that as it may, you were very lucky. Blood tests came back OK, seems your liver is fine. The nurse tells me you evacuated this morning – we gave you something to get it through your system as fast as possible – so you can go home this afternoon if you’re able to have a light lunch with no adverse reaction. This way.’
Dr. Yama led his duckling doctors across the ward.
‘Now, Mrs. er… Tredwell is new to our ward having been admitted last night with severe stomach cramps. We suspect she has cholecystitis … Clark! What do we prescribe for her?… Quick man, she could be dead in the next few minutes! No, don’t look so shocked Mrs. Tredwell, you’ll be absolutely fine… at least, you will be until Winkleman here graduates.’
The pretty nurse who had earlier stripped George so efficiently came and checked the notes at the end of his bed.
‘Looks like you’ll be going home today, Mr. Miller. Why don’t you just relax and try and get some sleep? I’ll bring you some lunch a little later.’
‘I prefer a nice crisp Sauvignon Blanc with my lunch,’ murmured George but the nurse had already moved on. George’s stomach rumbled loudly. He was pleased with Dr Yama’s reassurance but quickly brought himself down to earth by remembering how he’d got himself in this situation. He wondered what he would find when he got home. Had they broken down his door? Must have done. How else had they have found him so quickly? George closed his eyes and found himself immediately staring into a donkey’s grinning face. Where the pineapple salesman had gone was anybody’s guess.
‘Mr Miller? Mr. Miller? I need to talk with you, Mr. Miller.’
The voice belonged to a balding middle-aged man with a ginger goatee and no shortage of freckles.
‘I am Dr. Meshuga, a psychiatrist. Do you know why you are here?’
‘I don’t think anyone knows that. My own belief, although I haven’t studied it extensively, is that it was chance.’
Dr Meshuga frowned. ‘You believe that chance brought you to this hospital?’
‘No, I’m guessing that an ambulance brought me to this hospital.’
‘But you said chance…’
‘Sorry, I didn’t know you were talking specifically.’
‘Have you had any problems recently? Has a close member of the family died or have you been under undue stress for any reason?’
George thought. ‘No, not really. I was sacked from my job a couple of months ago. Oh, and I was in a serious car accident when my passenger died. My wife died of cancer a few years ago and my mother died after falling down the stairs. And a girl I really liked and I was possibly in love with clubbed to death my best friend with a Buddha statue. Although, as it turned out, the person I thought was my best friend was the person who got me sacked. So no, not really.’
‘Mr. Miller, do you know why I’m here?’
‘More existential questions. I’m guessing to section me?’
‘No, I’m here because you tried to end your life. My job is to assess whether you might try to do it again. My other job is also to help you understand why you did what you did, Mr Miller.’
‘Please, if you’re going to certify me as psychotic, I think we should be on first name terms. I’m George.’
‘Hello, George. My name is Ashley.’
‘Ashley? How did your parents know that you’d turn out gay?’
The psychiatrist gritted his teeth.
‘I am not gay, Mr. Miller – George – Instead I’m married with three children.’
‘I also have a lot of appointments to get through today. Do you have any close friends, friends you can confide in?’
‘No, although I guess that doesn’t sound too good, does it? OK, I’ll change that answer to a “yes, hundreds of them.”’
‘Do you avoid social interaction?’
‘I’m talking to you, aren’t I? And two nurses become extremely familiar with me just a couple of hours ago.’
Dr. Meshuga scribbled furiously onto his clipboard before leaning back and sighing deeply. ‘Dr. Yama has cleared you and allowed you to leave. However, I’m afraid that I require you to stay for a while in my ward, just so I can assess you properly.’
‘Are we talking funny farm?’ asked George warily.
‘It is the psychiatric ward, Mr—George. Just for a couple of days.’
‘Do you have a Nurse Ratched or at least a very large man dressed as a native American?’
‘Someone will come for you later and take your things down to your new ward.’
‘I don’t have any things. I was brought here by ambulance as an emergency and apparently the paramedics failed to pack even the simplest overnight bag for me.’
Dr. Meshuga sighed again. The whole world was going insane and he was the only bouncer on the door of the asylum.
‘Everything will be fine. You’re in safe hands now.’
Had he been wearing a Hannibal Lector mask, his words could not have been less reassuring. He passed Dr Yama leaving, to the accompaniment of his pager. Without their mother doctor, the duckling doctors had a look of vague panic about them. They circled tightly together and as a single fluid entity slowly shuffled their way through the ward and out through the milky plastic doors.
Well, I coped with marketing and management for years so a couple of days in the company of lunatics should be fairly straightforward, thought George. He was dozing off again when he became aware of the smell of stale cabbage. An over-large woman wearing a stained technicolour pinny and a small bespectacled man who would have been a shoo-in for the role of Dr. Crippen cheerily made their way up the ward.
‘How are you today, Mr. Rummage? Still a bit sore down below are we? Smoked haddock for you today with a nice parsley sauce and spotted dick for dessert. Ooh, don’t expect you want to hear about spotted dick just at the moment, eh? . . . Now, Johnny, we have a new patient today: Mr. Miller. Let’s see what we have for you. Something special for you Mr. Miller. Johnny, can you get the special for Mr. Miller? He has a special meal because he tried to top himself . . . Johnny, help Mr. Miller sit up straight, will you? Just some clear soup and a drink for you today Mr. Miller. Doctor’s orders.’
George watched the fluorescent oily film on his soup swirl kaleidoscopically around. The cheery twosome had moved on: ‘No, nothing for you, Mrs. Tredwell. Doctor says you’ll be going in for an operation later today. Well, we were just as surprised as you, you’d better talk to him about it. We don’t do the operations, do we Johnny, we just serve the meals.’
George looked at his soup. One minute a doctor is trying to talk you out of suicide and the next they serve you a meal that makes you want to consider it again. George picked up his drink, reminiscent in both colour and smell of those mouthwashes that follow a dental filling. He sipped it, and then checked it for the missing warning that it was not to be taken internally.
‘If you don’t finish your meal you’ll never be allowed out.’
The pretty nurse had returned.
‘And you have a young lady visitor, but we can’t allow you to see anyone until we clear away your meal. So come on, drink up.’
Open your mouth, here comes the choo-choo train, thought George.
The nurse took away George’s tray with a smile and a ‘good boy’. He watched the plastic doors fold open.
‘Hello George, are you OK? I’d have brought you something but I didn’t know you were in here.’
George smiled at Julie. Julie had an immutable innocence about her; she was a female neutrino, untouched by the selfishness and brutality of the world.
‘So you just visit hospitals to relish the suffering of others?’
‘Ha ha! George! You haven’t changed a bit! No, I was visiting Mr. Benson down the hall when I thought, ‘He looks familiar!’ But maybe you haven’t heard: there was big explosion at work – several people were killed. Mr Benson would probably have been killed too but it seems Seymour caught most of the blast and sheltered him from the worst of the shrapnel.’
George was unprepared to face the aftermath of the explosion – Had things gone to plan, he’d have been a footnote in the local paper by this time. However he did have one question.
‘What happened to the HR cretin?’
‘He died too. In fact, Mr. Benson was only survivor. As you can imagine, Hunter Electronics is in absolute turmoil. The CEO is dead, and what’s-it, the head of marketing. There are rumours that Mr. Butler planned it, but more likely it was just a bizarre accident. We’ve all been sent home while forensics study everything so I don’t know the latest. . . So, what are you doing here, George? You weren’t in the meeting!’
‘Oh, just an infection, nothing serious. I should be home in a couple of days.’
‘I’ll come back tomorrow then and bring you some grapes.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m moving ward anyway and I might well be home if they give me the all clear.’
Julie took George’s hand and squeezed it.
‘We all miss you, George. We keep smiling at each other at points in the meetings as we imagine the comments you would have made. Have you found another job yet?’
‘I haven’t been looking to be honest. Thought I’d just take a break, a longish break, in fact.’
The pretty nurse appeared and George was sure she frowned a little at Julie.
‘I’m sorry miss, but Mr. Miller has to be moved to another ward now.’
‘Take care, George. I’ll come and find you tomorrow,’ said Julie.
George waved her off and then said, ‘Off to the funny farm then, eh?’
‘Just routine, Mr. Miller.’
‘What if I just gathered up my gown and made a run for it?’
‘Then we’ll hunt you down and drag you back and make you eat that soup for a month.’ The nurse grabbed onto his arm. ‘You may feel a little unsteady on your feet. Do you want a wheelchair?’
George considered. ‘Well, having a pretty girl on your arm is not bad. But then being wheeled around by a pretty girl probably scores more points. . . How fast are you allowed to go? And am I allowed to shout, “Out of the way, medical emergency!” as we career through the wards?’
‘Let’s just walk, shall we? Do you have any personal effects?’
‘Everything is still at home.’
‘Can you call someone to bring some things in, such as a toothbrush and a change of clothes?’
‘I don’t know anyone.’
‘What about the girl who was just here?’
George imagined she wanted to say harlot for some reason.
‘True, I didn’t think of that. But you must have some dead person’s effects that you can let me have: the toothbrush of someone with terminal halitosis, the drawers of an old granny with incurable incontinence. . . ’
‘I’ll do my best for you. OK, here we are.’
Unlike his ward these doors were solid with only a small rectangular mottled glass window. Ward H3, it proclaimed itself to be. Nothing indicated the mayhem that would surely be found inside.
The nurse opened the door. George expected to be greeted by bug-eyed men all trying to grope him and touch his gown, but it seemed pretty quiet. He was guided to a desk where a large male nurse in a bright green gown and mask stood to greet him.
‘Ah, you must be Mr. Miller. What a busy day we are having. Thank you my lovely, I’ll take Mr. Miller off your hands.’
George glanced over his shoulder as the pretty nurse shut the ward door slowly behind her. The male nurse ushered him into a small cubicle.
‘Right, here we are. Dr. Meshuga will be back later and I’m sure he’ll want to have a little chat with you then. The bathroom is at the end of the ward and the day room too with a TV and some books and magazines, although I’m afraid that the TV will only be tuned to repeats of Antiques Roadshow because that’s the only thing that keeps Timothy quiet. But then that Mr. Scully has a certain way about him, don’t you think? Right, I have to go as we have more guests coming today. If you want anything just press that red buzzer by your bed. My name is Peter by the way. Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers – a peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked – if Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers—’
‘Got it,’ said George glumly. He pushed his pillows against the bed’s headboard and lay down on the bed. He could hear an animated discussion from the far end of the ward. How had he ended up here? He had no friends – well none still alive. Who was it that had come, pulled him back from the brink of oblivion and placed him in this ward of lunatics?