The Warden

Valerie Thomas, a 55 year old woman, has been admitted to hospital having suffered a stroke in her home town. She is taken to the Prince John hospital where she is treated by a team of ward sisters who, Valerie believes, will nurse her back to health. But, just a few rooms down in the same corridor, the hospital's secret screams through the walls. A case that will test the boundaries of human nature and the true meaning of what can only be described as a crime against humanity - bullying.

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8. Wrong Is So Right

Valerie was 10 years old the first time she lied to anyone. It was to her, now, the first sign of disobedience to her recollection but, at the time, it had been the first shuffle further forward in a long queue of factors that gave her a nod of acceptance. She had been sitting in the back porch flipping to ten penny coins – the most money that she’d ever had ownership of - and singing “if he loves me”. It was a rhyme that Kylie had taught Valerie just a few days back and since then its lyrical twang had stuck to her like the dark red jellies that you could find stuck to barnacle encrusted boulders at Shore end beach.

If he loves me, It’ll land a head, Then consider my heart good and fed,

If he doesn’t then, Then, I guess, I’ll land a tails, And to bed my heart won’t sleep through my wails!

Valerie shuffled the coins in her closed fist then tossed them above her head and caught them again, with the same fist. She shut it fast and stared out into the garden. She watched as two slick black magpies tousled on the grass, grabbing one another at the beak and slamming their breasts against the other, whilst their wings convulsed in the combat. Valerie drew in a breath and flipped her right fist onto her left fist.

“One…Two…THREE!”

She un-cupped her fist and stared hard at the coin. A tails. The coin had chosen tails. The coin had chosen Lily Colbatt. John Dunstan had chosen Lily Colbatt over Valerie Thomas. He didn’t love her. She knew it. She knew it. She knew John Dunstan had a thing for Lily. He was always watching her at playtime and he always told Valerie that he would just go and see if Lily needed help. Even when he and Valerie were playing ‘dizzy dinosaurs’. That was his favourite game and, though it made her sick to spin multiple times whilst looking up at the sky, she still played it for him. Because he wanted to. Who needs help playing anyway?

Valerie’s cheek was moist. She dug her nails into her arms as she snatched up the two coins and threw them onto the grass. She jumped forward and stamped on them. The again, harder. She spat and smudged wet mud into them with her heel. When she was finished she stepped back and turned around to head back inside.

“Hey spit-face!”

She looked up at . one of the bedroom windows.

“Hey spit-face, weren’t playing if he loves me, were you?

“No!” Valerie snapped defiantly, though she felt her face flush scarlet.

She looked down to avoid the harsh glare.

“Yeah yeah. I heard you.” Mary retorted half hanging out the window.. “So what did it say? Did it say that that John Dogface doesn’t love you? That he’d rather go out with Lily Coldtits? That you’re not nearly pretty enough for him to even be seen dead with you?”

Mary, who was in the same school year as Valerie, knew everyone Valerie did, if not more, and there was no escaping the taunting she would get if Mary knew that everything – bar the last exclamation – was completely and utterly true.

“That’s not what it said. It said that he did love me!”

She went to head for the door.

“Is that why you’re crying because he loves you? Is that why you stamped on the ground? Because he loves you.”

Valerie paused.

“It said he loved me, but that’s not what I wanted it to say. I don’t love him. You’re right he is a dogface. A mean, ugly pug that’s had half of its face mauled. And I wouldn’t want to be seen with his rotting face, dead or alive!”

She heard Mary splutter with laughter as she carried on walking indoors.

“Good one, Val. A MEAN, UGLY PUG! Haha! I like it!”

That night Valerie prayed her first real prayer. She prayed that he hadn’t heard and that God could spare John’s love for her, and only her.

As Valerie stood out in the ward, she couldn’t help think of that first time she had acted disloyal. They always taught you, at school, that disobedience was a sin, but what if the rebellious thing to do was the right thing? They never taught you that.

Valerie unpinned her earrings and with them and her pen she worked at the lock. She pushed the earrings through so that the sharp end went into the key hole first and then she used the nib of her pen to guide the pin end to turn the cogs in the lock.

She could hear the lady’s soft breathing. The murmur of her coarse breath as it rose up her throat and steamed onto the door was calmer tonight than it had been the other day. She was trusting and secure in the knowledge that Valerie could bring nothing worse than what she had already experienced, although Valerie wasn’t quite sure of the magnitude of physical damage compared to the racket she had heard both last night and the night before. She imagined that, had the physical contact been half as awful as the noise created, the poor lady would have been dead already.

Valerie worked faster on the lock, every passing second making her more and more anxious.

“Come on,” she cussed under her breath until she heard the muffled eruption of laughter. She dropped her pen and dived next door and shut herself in, firmly but quietly.

“But it’s a shame though really. I mean, I heard her husband filed for divorce. It must be hard-”

“What to find someone more beautiful than her?!”

The pair laughed again as they progressed down the hall.

Valerie crouched, knees drawn up, at the base of the door and listened to the nurses’ cackle.

Just as the sound of the foot taps peaked, Valerie felt a hand rattle the door knob.

“Well, Mrs.B says she wanted extra towels and blankets, so bear with me a moment. I’ll get them in here.”

Valerie’s heart thudded violently and then stopped altogether.

“Nah, don’t get ‘em in there, Summer. I got some down by me. Plus we can grab another coffee past the machine on our way.”

The hand released the door handle.

“You never finished telling me; so she went to the grocery and then what did he say?”

Valerie let her eyelids drift closed before she breathed out. When she was certain that the hallway was empty, she stood up and opened the door. 

She tip-toed back out into the corridor. Suddenly the sound of the smacking lips of her feet on the tiled floor sounded like miniature earthquakes, rocking Valerie’s molten core. She could nearly hear the rubble disintegrating. Valerie reached the lady’s room, who, she had now found out, was called Martha Bertwistle. Valerie thumbed herself for the pen she had been using and began to push it through the lock once more.

It took a few moments before the lock unbolted but as swift as the click that rendered the door open, Valerie was in her room. Neither of the pair spoke to one another. Martha gazed at Valerie wide-eyed and bewildered whilst Valerie returned a look equal to hers but one that forced premature rigor mortis.

Valerie couldn’t tell if it was just because of the shock of the ordeal but the room walls seemed to hold a yellowish, decaying colour and the bed flushed an embarrassing brown hue. On the floor there were stained clothes strewn out of a ripped black leather holdall that now slumped in the corner of the room, overturned and smudged crimson droplets of crusted blood were now a prominent feature. Valerie’s head rung with the stench of strong de-hydrated urine. She turned to face Martha and saw the atrocity of the situation that had spiralled far out of the boundaries of an empty lie to a health inspector that she ‘had tripped’. Martha’s face was blotched with bursting veins and punctured with deep purple and green bruises like a semi-ripe turnip. Her eyes sagged from the heaviness of a soul that had long ago given up and she stooped to the persistence of an undying period of discrimination and bullying. Valerie saw her legs were concave and her feet twisted away from one another like the attraction of the same two poles on a magnet. North on north, south on south.

“Hi,” Valerie breathed. “I’m Valerie.”

She paused for a long minute.

“I-I’m sorry, you’ll have to forgive me. I just can’t quite believe what I’m seeing.”

Valerie raised her hand to her chest and stepped further forward into the room. Martha jumped backwards.

Alarmed, Valerie stated;

“I don’t want to hurt you. I…I stay a few rooms down. It looks like we’re the only two on the ward. I…the other night, I heard what…you know…I heard you but I…I didn’t come and help you. I’m sorry. It’s just that-”

Valerie stopped. Martha had turned her back and was walking away from Valerie back towards the bed.

“You know I can leave…if you don’t want…”

She attempted to peel her eyes round Martha.

“Right ok then. Well…um…I’ll just head on out…” She trailed off realising that she was talking to no-one.

She turned her back and walked for the door. It was only when she had her hand on the door knob that Martha spoke.

“Sit,” she said. Her voice sounded husky and parched. She’d pulled a clean blanket from a corner cupboard over the bed to mask her dignity and stifle the smell.

Valerie turned round slightly disquieted by the sound.   

“It’s just…I can’t stand for long. Have you got any food?” Martha queried.

“I’m afraid not, I’m sorry. I barely got a meal myself. Why, are you hungry?”

“Starving. I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning. They say if I’m good they’ll feed me. I tell them I’m always good and the smack me for being so cheeky.”

Martha’s eyes washed with grief.

“I thought it was in the patient obligation that we get served at least two meals a day,” Valerie chimed.

“Me too. But I daren’t ask them.”

“How long has this been going on for?”

“What them not feeding me?”

“Yeah, and the rest.”

And so their conversation materialised. Martha told Valerie that she had IBS, which she explained was Irritable Bowel Syndrome which, she said, meant that she was unable to hold herself in when she needed the toilet. She said at first, when she had been diagnosed at the age of 27, it had been an inconvenience for her and she’d lost a lot of self – confidence because of it after Valerie had asked what it was like. Martha refined that now the syndrome had become a part of who she was and that without it she wouldn’t have been able to do the things that she’d done in her life – let alone get herself back on track.

“Why are you in hospital now if you’ve been diagnosed with IBS already and at such a young age?” Valerie queried.

Martha cleared her throat softly. She looked down at her hands and shifted uncomfortably in her position.

“That’s not why I’m here.”

Martha told Valerie that she had suffered from kidney disease and her daughter had taken her into hospital to receive treatment.

“After I was well enough to return home, my daughter found it hard. She was my carer, always had been, but for her – once I’d been in hospital for a while – she’d found her feet and began to notice the constraint I had on her life, I guess, though she never said so to my face. When I came back she was distant and frustrated. She’d work about me with haste and would undress me hurriedly. She would only properly speak to me at mealtimes. All the other times it was such an annoyance to hold a conversation with me.”

There was a cough nearby from outside the room and Martha swallowed. Valerie clasped her hands around her mouth. They heard nothing more. After one minute Martha scratched at her thigh.

“Maria, she used to take me for walks you see. Used to. She stopped when I came out after my operation on my kidneys. My legs got worse and worse. I mean, I know I can’t really blame her. It’s not her fault. These pegs were bad when I was born and even I knew that they would never get any better than the day they were fresh. The day I was born.”

Valerie was staring at Martha now, intently, and Martha returned her gaze by looking Valerie straight in the eye.

“In the end, she told me she’d had enough. Well…she didn’t tell me. She showed me. One day, I woke up and she helped me get dressed in silence. She bundled me in the car like I was some cardboard box full of 1940’s movies destined for the charity shop. We were driving and…and she just drove forward with the destination already on her radar.”

Her tone pitched higher on this last remark.

“She told me that she couldn’t go on like this. She told me that she needed her free time. ‘I’m a growing woman now, mum’ she said. She stated that she wanted her own life and that she wanted to spend time making time for friends. ‘Maybe to even settle down’ she said. She took me to Greenfield Nursing where she said they’d look after me for her but that has long since closed down. They had to find somewhere else for all of us there. Well, I mean, there was only six of us. The only place Maria could find was here. She didn’t spend long. My only daughter, the only connection to any form of family life and she spent two and a half hours transferring me from Greenfield to Prince John’s before she went back to work and spent that evening at a hen do.”

Martha shifted in her bed to lie down.

“Well, I can’t really blame her. It is her life after all.”        

“So how long have you been here then?” Valerie asked gobsmacked.

“I’d hedge a bet at three months but it’s hard to keep track. I’d only been in here two weeks though before things started going wrong, I know that much.”

“What happened?” Valerie whispered, sensing that this could be a touching subject.

“Maria didn’t tell them about my IBS. She just kind of left me here with kidney problems, she told them. Then she left and I never saw her again. When things were rough here I asked one nurse, Nurse Ophelia, if she could phone her. She said that she could but every time she tried it was engaged. I’ve never heard anything back since. ”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s alright. It’s most certainly not your fault. Anyway, IBS started getting the better of me and I couldn’t control myself. I would always mess up my sheets and they’d need to be changed. The nurses would get angry with me. They’d say that I was like a backwards baby. The mocked me and told me of how I they had me at their best interest and I that disrespected their efforts. They started with the silent treatment, then a few tsk’s, manhandling and afterwards the manhandling became rougher and rougher until their hands actually made reddening contact with my skin. After that it was just common practice. If they were annoyed with me, they’d beat me. They knew I was helpless, I have no-one. But equally I know that they are enraged. As much as I need Maria back to take me out, they need her too. To free a bed.”

Valerie’s eyes were wide. She blotted them with her sleeve. She was stricken by the way that Martha seemed so willing to forgive, to understand, to empathise with them. 

“Are you sure there’s no one? No one at all to talk to?”

“Positive to be negative. It pains me to say it but it’s true. I’ve no other family apart from Maria. And now she’s gone-”

Martha stopped abruptly and Valerie could sense that this consciousness had stung.   

“Martha, I…I don’t know…I have a way. To make this better. For you, for me, for the safety of the rest of the patients. I’ve written a letter.”

Valerie snivelled.

“My friend, he- his name is Terrence. Or Terry for short. No one really calls him Terrence. Anyway, I told him what happened and I’ve also written him a letter with recent updates.”

Valerie thought it not worth mentioning that she’d mentioned Martha. Well, it wasn’t that it wasn’t worth it as such. It was more that the fear and risk of asking Martha for her permission to mention her was too great to lose.

“I plan to send Terry the letter tomorrow morning. Then he’ll come down, hopefully with some form of law suit and get us out. You won’t have to suffer anymore.”

Valerie leaned in to hug her, thrilled with herself for the prospect of what she could be doing for Martha.

“I promise you’ll never have to go through this hell ever again.”

Valerie beamed an optimistic smile at Martha and Martha curtly smiled back.

“So, Terry,” Martha began. “Where is he now?”

“Oh, he…um…I suppose he’s at home. He was here the other day but…um…something happened and he hasn’t been back since but he’ll be back. He will. I know he will. He’ll be back to get us out!”

“Ah, our very own knight in shining armour. So tell me more, miss Valerie, tell me more.” Martha’s eyes ignited and she bounced her hands on the bed bedsides Valerie.

For the rest of the night the pair sat on her bed and spoke of Terry, the rescue mission and what they both would do once they were out of Prince John’s. Valerie offered Martha a place at her house once they were out. Martha volunteered the possibility of media coverage for the story once the court case was finished.

“Maria always said that happiness was finite,” Martha said to Valerie. “And I believed her. Until now.”

She smiled like a court jester.   

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