A True Story - 1942
The Receiving Room was quiet at 3 p.m. Barnes sat in a cubicle
reading the newspaper and sucking his teeth, complaining occasionally about the
capitalist money-system, which was in his view the cause of all our troubles,
including unemployment, Hitler and the war.
It was my job to keep a look-out for Sister Blake. Sister Blake
didn't like Barnes. She wasn't interested in the money-system and disapproved
of male-nurses sitting in cubicles reading the newspaper.. Barnes in his turn
detested Sister Blake. "Female dragons," he said "are more deadly than the
male. It's a well- known fact."
Barnes had black, polished hair, and black, polished eyes which
gave the impression of being at once blank and very sharp. People with
imaginary ailments dreaded those eyes. Barnes knew precisely what was what, and
the doctors knew he knew. If they contradicted Barnes they regretted it later.
Barnes was patient and just but only just patient. "Justice," he said, "that's
the stuff to give the troops. And do they get it? No.
That afternoon there was a series of bangs, slams and bumps. An
ambulance had arrived. Two ambulance men clattered in carrying an old relic on
a stretcher. They decanted him onto a cubicle bed.
"Some copper found him by a lamp-post. No papers. Nothing. Watch
out for crawlies."
Barnes gave the skinny figure a clinical look. "Stay away for a
few days, can't you, Charlie? Don't you know there's a war on?"
"So they tell me," Charlie said.
The old man's eyes were closed, the grey skin loosening at the
cheeks. He looked dusty, a prelude to dust.
"Fetch the duty doctor," Barnes said to me. "It's O'Kelly today.
He'11 be drunk."
O'Kelly was notorious for imbibing at times of rest. Where he
got the Irish whiskey nobody knew. Or at least, they didn't tell.
O'Kelly blinked at the old man and gave a snort. "He's going to
croak," said Barnes.
"Neatly put," said O'Kelly. "He hasn't eaten for a week. I
suppose we must get him a bed where he can breathe his last."
Then he added hastily, "Here's Sister. I'm off." His gait was
Sister Blake's eyes snapped fire. She snapped them at the old
man on the cubicle bed. Then she snapped them at Barnes.
"He's in a very bad condition, Barnes. Give him a hot water
bottle. Blankets. Undress him and burn those rags. Clean him up. I'll arrange a
bed on Ward 10. He can't be taken up in that state."
She bustled off to cause a disturbance.
The old man's eyes were open now, but faint and vague. Did they
contain some vestige of alarm? I went to fetch a hot water bottle, a rare item
in the Receiving Room. Sister would return to check.
When I got back Barnes was speaking quietly "Now, Dad, let's get
your clothes off. There's a soft bed waiting, with nurses to sing you to sleep.
Salvation awaits. Easy now. Easy. Try to help."
The skull fell sideways. Was the relic signaling disagreement?
I untied his boots. The laces were bits of string. He hadn't
washed for weeks or changed his clothes for months. The coat didn't fit but had
once been tweed. A good Samaritan or had he stolen it?
Barnes was struggling with the trousers. "Would you believe it?"
he said. "The old phantom's trying to fight."
We got down to the underwear. The vest was a tattered ghost of
some long dead garment of Mr Gladstone's. The thin arms clutched his skeleton
"Come on, Dad," Barnes said, suddenly sharp. "Leave go. St.
Those old eyes were alive. They spoke violent terror, rage,
greed, shadows of emotion leaping across glazed pupils. He twisted pitifully
and groaned. Barnes gently forced the thin sticks aside. "A game old bird." he
Underneath the grey matted vest were sheets of ancient
newspaper. The effort at resistance had been too much; the body sank back
motionless, lips dry and mouth falling open.
Barnes listened. The heart was
"Get the scissors," Barnes said.
He cut away the vest and threw the remains on an old sheet
spread on the floor. The paper next. There was something odd about the paper.
It seemed to be double thickness. It was. Somehow the old man had pinned sheets
together across his stomach and chest. Barnes snipped carefully.. When the
paper fell, bank notes scattered on the floor. Barnes made a clicking noise and
We finished undressing the old man, washed him and covered the
wasted body, with blankets, then had a look. There were at least fifty pounds
on the sheet. We gazed at the money in silence. The old man groaned
"Well, bugger my whiskers," Barnes said. "And the old geezer
starved himself to death! Where's the last will and bleeding testament?" He
sucked his teeth. "Now," he said, "bear witness while I intone. I hereby
declare that I wouldn't touch this official currency with a sterilised lavatory
brush. It's contaminated with idiocy. Didn't the old nut know it's our bloody
job to survive in this world? Mostly we can't. But we have to bloody try. Wheel
him up Ward 10. I'm off to the incinerator." He lifted the sheet by the corners
The old man died an hour after they got him into bed.
nurses were cross at having to change the sheets again, but Nurse Jones said,
"Somebody must have loved him once."