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Elizabeth Ducksworth walked quickly and quietly along the dimly lit corridor. She had passed four closed doors and was making for the last of the seven when it was thrust open quickly and there came to meet her a figure in a dressing gown. The head was bandaged, covering one eye; the lid of the other was blinking rapidly, and the patient turned his head to one side as he addressed her, saying, 'I was just coming for you, Ducks -- I mean, Nurse. I think the captain needs attention. Well, what I mean is...'
'Yes...yes.' The night nurse turned him gently about, saying, 'You should have rung the bell, Lieutenant.'
But the answer she got was, 'He always seems to know when I do that and starts his growling.'
'Has he spoken?'
'No; no...not a word. Just those sounds.'
She opened the door of the end room, at the same time taking his arm and steadying him as she said, 'You shouldn't get out of bed; I've told you.'
'I'm all right. I only wish he felt half as good.'
'Get back into bed; I'll see to him. Would you like a drink?'
'Later. Later, thank you.'
She now went quickly to the end bed where, to her surprise, she found the patient's head buried under the clothes and the whole of the large form shaking so much that the bed itself quaked.
In a way she was pleased at what she saw and heard, for generally she would find him sitting up at all hours of the night, staring into a blackness that he couldn't accept...wouldn't accept. Not since the great outburst of rage that had filled this particular section of the hospital and beyond it with his shouting, raving and blasphemy had he uttered one word, nor had he made any movement towards anyone. Not even to his mother and members of his family had he given a sign of recognition.
What would have happened if he had been able to get out of bed was another question, but the blast that had deprived him of sight had also stripped off the skin and some flesh of his left calf and hip. By rights he should have been on the surgical ward, but because of his unpredictable behaviour it was considered advisable to leave him in the eye section and near his friend, although since that same outburst he had refused to recognise even Lt Fulton.
She knew it had been suggested that as soon as his wounds would allow he should be moved to a psychiatric ward. There was one thing sure in her own mind now: he needed help of some sort, poor devil.
Gently she touched his shoulder and attempted to draw the bedclothes back, and at this Matthew Wallingham's body became still for a second before he buried his head further under the covers.
Nurse Ducksworth sat down slowly on the edge of the bed. Then, her hand going out to the thick tumbled hair showing above the bedclothes, she stroked it softly, saying, 'It's all right. It's all right. It's the best thing that could have happened. Cry it out. There's nobody here but me and your friend. Don't worry. Nobody'll know.'
She paused a moment and bit on her lip. That's what they were all afraid of, anyone knowing they couldn't take it.
'There now...there now.' She had her hand on the top of the bedclothes again, and there was no resistance to her turning these slightly back, so revealing his face. The unmarred face. No sign of an injury on it. There had been a deep cut on the other side of his skull but that had healed. There was even hair beginning to grow around the scar.
In the dim green glow from the light on the wall above the bed she saw he was gripping the pillow and thrusting the edge of it into his mouth.
When her hand covered his fist and pulled it gently away from his mouth his sobbing became more audible, and quickly now she bent her face down to his, whispering, 'There now...there now. You're all right. I'm with you.'
She put her arm about his shoulders, and at this he started visibly. Leaning on one elbow, he edged himself on to his side and the next moment, it seemed, both his arms were about her and his face was buried in her neck.
She felt she was about to slide from the bed, but his grip kept her there. Then she found herself holding him and patting his back while she whispered, 'There now...there now. No more...no more. You've done enough. Come along. Come along. You'll be all right now. Believe me, you will...you'll be all right now.'
'Oh, Mama.' His grip tightened on her and his wet face moved against her chin and she felt the movement of his lips on the edge of hers as he said, 'It was a dream. It was a dream. I thought it was, and then I knew. Oh! Mama, I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I mean...'
'It's all right. It's all right. I know what you mean. I'll be your mama for tonight.'
'Please! Please! Now listen to me. I have to do one of two things: either send for Sister -- and you know what happens: she'll give you a needle. Believe me, she gives me the needle, but in a different way.' She gave a small laugh and patted the cheek close to hers, then said, 'The alternative is two sleeping tablets. Now I know your old trick: you keep them under your tongue, don't you? Oh now, you can't say you don't because I've found them in the bed.'
The sobbing had ceased, as had his crying, but now, his head raised, he was taking in great gulps of air, while he still held her closely; and so , taking her arms from around him, she pulled them behind her, bringing him slowly forward; and then, gently laying him back on the pillow, she cupped his face for a moment while peering down into the sightless eyes and saying, 'It's to be sleeping tablets then, yes?'
He made no movement in response; but as she made to rise from the bed he said something, and she put her head down to him again and said, 'What's that?'
'Oh, my dear boy, you have no need to say you're sorry to me. But I'm going to say something to you: you've turned the corner. You're back on the road. You'll be all right, you'll see.'
She paused, her thoughts racing. You'll see, she says. Do people ever think what they're saying? You'll see...and, he's back on the road. What road? She had held his face, she had held him close. He had thought she was his mama -- but that was just for a moment -- and she had called him boy. Twenty-four! and she had called him boy.
'Open your mouth, and don't try the tongue trick; I'm going to hold your nose.'
After this operation was over and she had returned to her uniform pocket the small box in which she always kept two sleeping tablets, she looked down at him as his head drooped to the side away from her and he said quietly but clearly, 'Please don't report this.'
'I had no intention of reporting anything, except that you didn't get to sleep till about one o'clock.'
'What's your name?' This question came in a whisper, and it was some seconds before she answered, 'Well, in these distinguished rooms I'm generally addressed as Ducks or Ducky...that is when Sister isn't about, but my birth certificate states that I am one Elizabeth Jane Ducksworth. Now I don't especially like the name of Elizabeth, nor Jane, but I'm not averse to being called Liz by my family and friends.'
There was another pause. 'How old are you?'
'Old?' Her voice sounded surprised. 'Well now, some say I'd be in my fifties, but I'm not, I'm merely forty-nine.' As she finished speaking she thrust her arm out and back, towards the bed on her left, and a sound like a hiccup came from there as she went on, 'And now you've got the picture of me, I'm what you would call a motherly-looking type. Go to sleep now. I'll see you in the morning before I go off duty -- that's if you're awake. Good night.' She pulled the clothes up about his shoulders and for a moment allowed her fingers to rest on his cheek.
As she quietly moved away she bent low down over the other bed and whispered, 'Leave it like that. You understand?'
'Yes, Ducks,' the voice came in a low whisper. 'But what about giving me a bit of your motherly attention?'
Her answer to this was to straighten up and give the bed's occupant a playful slap on the face as she said, 'Get to sleep. Good night.'
'Good night, Ducky.' The name came soft and endearing from his tongue.
Copyright © 1999 by The Trustees of the Catherine Cookson Charitable Trusts