47 Random Fragments of Unauthorised Hope and Despair


“IT’S nothing to get worried about,” said the nurse to Louisa as they entered the ward.

“It’s all very straightforward and routine, you’ll see.”

Louisa smiled and tried to project confidence, despite everything.

“All you’ll be doing, basically, is making sure they’re more or less OK or, in other words...”

She paused here, leant over to Louisa conspiratorially, and whispered in a voice that Louisa feared the old ladies would be able to hear: “…checking they’re not dead!”

“And...”, she resumed at full volume, simultaneously tugging at crooked bedcovers and nudging a bedside cabinet to its correct alignment with her knee, “...and giving them a full-body wash.”

She stopped and stared intently at Louisa.

“They have taught you how to do that, haven’t they?”

Louisa confirmed that they had.

“If,” the nurse continued, standing at the foot of one of the half dozen beds in the room, all of which were occupied. “If,” she said, “you do come across a problem, this is where to go. This little box here. First you press the red button for help - that’s before you do anything else at all, have you got that?”

Louisa nodded.

“And then you can use this to access the patient’s records, OK? Look, come closer and I’ll show you properly...”

Louisa saw how the medical history of each occupant was just a touch away on the display.

She wasn’t entirely sure what use this was to her. A week’s basic course had not exactly qualified her to treat anybody for anything at all, but at least, she supposed, if a crisis did arise it would provide something to occupy her mind while assistance was on its way.

In truth, Louisa wasn’t overly worried about the washing techniques or emergency procedures. She was pretty sure she could cope with all that as well as any other 19 year old.

She was much more apprehensive about whether she would manage to find here what she had set out to discover, the quest that had compelled her to take out the £10,000 loan for the course.

“Oh,” said the nurse, who had left but had now popped her head back round the door.

“Before I forget - the Matron doesn’t like us to get the patients too, you know, excited.”

Louisa glanced around at the bedridden figures, none of whom seemed to have moved a muscle since she’d arrived. Over-excitement didn’t seem much of a risk.

“What I mean,” the nurse went on, “is that you can talk to them if they wake up, of course, but don’t encourage them. Don’t let them get carried away. Just a few polite words and you’re on to the next one - do you get my drift?”

Louis nodded in what she hoped was a cheerful manner, but in truth she felt like crying.

This was just not going to be possible. This was not going to work out the way she’d always pictured. She’d wasted all that money, all that time, all that energy...

She had to stop herself going down this route before it got the better of her. She made a mental effort to blank out her doubts and carry on with the task in hand.

The washing operation turned out to be both worse and better than she’d imagined - the positive side being the sense of closeness she gained to these frail bodies, the vulnerability and humanity that somehow made the rest of the job bearable.

Throughout, none of the patients spoke a word, none of them even presented her with the dilemma of whether or not to risk the wrath of the Matron by pursuing a conversation.

They reacted so little, offered so little other than an occasional murmur, that Louisa came to the conclusion they were all under constant and heavy medication.

With a quick glance to the doorway, she tested her hypothesis and tapped at one of the record-screens at the foot of a bed.

Scrolling past pages of background information, she came to the relevant section - a whole catalogue of ‘comfort aids’.

She had not heard of most of these, but one or two rang a bell, such as Blissax, Notirz and, particularly, Bellanoxil, the nightmare suppressant. Her own father had kept a pack of those at his bedside for years after her mother had died.

As Louisa started washing the last woman in the ward, she realised that her father had never talked to her about anything that had happened in the past - presumably to avoid stirring the same memories that he feared would invade his sleep.

She’d been too young to have talked to her mother properly and she’d never known any of her grandparents.

As a result, she had never really had much idea of what life was like in even the fairly recent past. During her teen years, she had become progressively more aware of knowing virtually nothing about the world she’d been born into - and more and more obsessed with making contact with people who could help fill the gaps.

You got a brief outline at school, but it only really went into much detail about events that had happened since Year 10 or so - the Great Exhibition, the rise of the New Knowledge, the founding of the Modern Code of Ethics.

Before that it was just Year 1 (The Triumph of Democracy) and Year 3 - the Defeat of Reaction and the great victory of J19, when the streets were at last reclaimed from the criminals and drunks who had held the country to ransom for too long.

Obviously, there was Ancient History as well - Julius Caesar, Winston Churchill and so on - but that was all so remote as to be essentially meaningless.

Moreover, it was all facts and figures and dates.

Louisa wanted to hear about real life and real people, it was as simple as that.

And this had seemed the right place to look - until you got inside and found what a sorry state these women were in.

The nurse returned just as Louisa was tidying up ready to leave. A coincidence, perhaps?

Louisa looked up and around for the cameras - they were very well concealed, if there were any.

After the women in the next ward showed no more signs of communication than those in the first, Louisa’s hopes were reduced to a bare minimum.

And then, in the third ward, it finally happened. A miracle.

“There you are, Zoe!” cried out one of the apparently sleeping women when Louisa leant over to attend to her.

“Where have you been? We were worried about you!”

She was staring at Louisa with sharp, pale blue eyes.

“I’m not Zoe,” said Louisa quietly.

The old lady seemed to have decided not to register this. Or else she just hadn’t heard her.

“Did you get there?” she carried on. “You didn’t miss it, did you?”

“Miss what?” asked Louisa. So this was what they’d meant by ‘dementia’.

“The protest, of course,” said the old lady. “The carnival, the street party.”

Louisa was trying to take this all calmly.

“When was it?” she asked.

“When? What do you mean? Today, this afternoon, June the 18th. Two o’clock on Westminster Bridge, remember? Don’t say you got the time wrong, Zoe? Weren’t you there? You didn’t miss it all, did you?”

Louisa was tempted to tell her today was November the 25th. But she had realised the old lady was in some other world, some other time.

“I... I think I might have,” she replied instead. “What was it like?”

“Like? Oh, you wouldn’t believe it Zoe, it was so brilliant. The best yet - thousands and thousands of us. We were everywhere! There was dancing, drumming, fire-eating, music... It was just....

“And there were these climbers who went right up Big Ben and unravelled this huge banner over the clock face saying - now what was it exactly? Time to Stop! That’s it! Time to Stop!

“And they stayed up there until the bells rang the hour and then they pulled off the banner and there was another one underneath and do you know what it said, that one, Zoe?”

Louisa shook her head.

“Free o’clock,” said the old lady, slowly and deliberately. “Free, with an ‘f’. It was wonderful! You should have heard the roar of the crowd. And the police - well, they couldn’t do anything!”

Louisa had been trying to imagine this outlandish scene and couldn’t help blurting out: “Didn’t they shoot you?”

“Shoot?” The old lady’s eyes opened as wide as her mouth and then she let out a shriek of laughter.

“They can’t shoot us, Zoe! What are you talking about? They’d never get away with it! Don’t you see Zoe, we’re winning! We’ve got them on the run! It’s people power, there’s nothing they can do. And when we go back tomorrow...”

She reached out and grabbed Louisa’s sleeve with her bony little fingers.

“...You are coming with us tomorrow, aren’t you Zoe? You will be there? It could be the day we’ve been waiting for. In fact, I’m sure it’s going to be. I’ve got a feeling in my bones...”

A look of pure elation had taken over the old lady’s face and her eyes twinkled with merry mischief.

There was a hiss behind Louisa and she turned round to see the nurse standing there, mouthing that the Matron was coming.

Louisa turned back to the old lady: “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve really got to get on with the...”

But the old lady’s eyes were closed and she was breathing deeply - fast asleep again in a couple of seconds.

Louisa heard footsteps approach the door and then stop for a moment, before moving off again.

She quickly knelt down and checked the display. Clark, Feronia. Feronia? Strange name! Born Park Royal, London, Year -16. One or two links to database files on childhood misdemeanor - skip those...

Fearing she would be interrupted again at any second, Louisa went straight to what she was looking for.

There it was. First admitted to Community Care in Year 3. Self-inflicted injuries to head, shoulders, arms. Bullet wound to left leg, origin unascertainable. Mental confusion. 19/06/03. June the 19th. “Tomorrow...” whispered Louisa to herself. She couldn’t wait.

However, the next day she found her routine began quite differently. On arrival she was sent straight down to the laundry to help with sorting and folding and then to the kitchens to clear up after the breakfast shift.

As the day wore on, she grew increasingly anxious that she would not be sent back to the wards.

Louisa hadn’t been able to sleep at all overnight. The sudden enormity of what had happened had set up such a swam of activity in her mind that she found herself unable to cope with it in any other way than allowing it to buzz and crawl all over her.

The snapshot of the forbidden past that Feronia had handed her was not of a kind she had been consciously looking for.

A titbit or two about everyday life, a recollection of some strange TV programme or brief summary of the major changes in fashion over the last 50 years - that would have been more than enough to make Louisa’s efforts feel worthwhile.

What Feronia had delivered was intense and unnerving.

In effect, Feronia was speaking to her direct from the past. This was no jaded old party-piece recollection dusted off once more and brought out to entertain the youth of today, but an original, immediate memory, suspended for decades and released, as if new, by some convulsion of a wrongly wired brain.

It was all so intoxicatingly real.

It no longer mattered to Louisa whether any of the other patients were likely to wake up and pass the time of day with her.

Her broad curiosity had been narrowed and focused to an extreme intensity on one subject matter only - Feronia Clark and what had happened to her on June 19 Year 3, the J19 day of victory which all the history books had told her about.

The ten minutes of her lunch break seemed to drag forever as she waited to be assigned her afternoon duties.

The good news was that she was being sent to the same wards again and the disappointing detail was that they were to be dealt with in the same order - more waiting lay ahead before she would find out.

When, at last, she had worked her way through the beds and reached Feronia’s ward, Louisa couldn’t stop glancing over at her as she progressed round the room, hoping she would wake from her mysterious slumber and speak to her.

She was tempted to take a short cut by changing the order in which she tended to the women, but decided this would not be right.

If she woke her too early, she might spoil things - interrupt the course of June 19, Year 3, as it played out in Feronia’s twilight dreams.

Louisa was trembling by the time she arrived at Feronia’s bed and reached out to touch her in the same way as she had the day before.

And, to her rapture, she elicited exactly the same response.

“There you are, Zoe!” said Feronia.

Louisa smiled back, with no thought of contradicting her this time.

“Hello Feronia,” she said.

“Where have you been?” asked Feronia. “We were worried about you.”

“I’m fine,” said Louisa. “But what about you? How did it all go?”

“Did you get there?” asked Feronia. “You didn’t miss it, did you?”

“Yes, I missed it again, I’m afraid,” said Louisa. “What happened today?”

“The protest, of course. The carnival, the street party.”

Louisa frowned slightly.

“But how did it turn out? What happened today, Feronia?”

“Oh, you wouldn’t believe it Zoe, it was so brilliant. The best yet - thousands and thousands of us. We were everywhere! There was dancing, drumming, fire-eating, music... it was just....

“And there were these climbers who went right up Big Ben and unravelled this huge banner over the clock face saying - now what was it exactly?”

“Time to stop,” said Louisa.

“Yes, that’s it! Time to Stop!” said the old lady, then peered right into Louisa’s eyes and looked as if she could really see her for the first time.

“So you were there, Zoe! You must have been there!”

“When was this protest, Feronia?” asked Louisa, quietly but firmly, trying not to display any emotion.

“What day?”

“What do you mean? Today! This afternoon! June the 18th!”

There was a loud cough behind Louisa’s head and she span round to find the Matron standing sternly in the doorway.

“A word in my office, please” she said brusquely. “Follow me!”.

“I’ll just...” began Louisa, turning back towards Feronia, but the Matron snapped “Now!” at the same moment that Louisa saw the old lady had fallen back into her slumber.

She stole another look back at her as she left the ward, but there was nothing in Feronia’s face to suggest she had ever been conscious.

In the office the Matron told her she had been monitored disturbing a patient not once, but twice, in just two days and had also abused the privacy policy by accessing patients’ records in a non-emergency situation.

Her services were no longer required and she would be escorted from the premises forthwith.

As the Matron handed her over to the security team, she asked Louisa in a manner that was supposed to sound off-hand: “What was the patient talking to you about, anyway?”

“Oh,” said Louisa. “I don’t really know to be honest. Some old waffle, you know what they’re like.”

Then she added as an afterthought: “It didn’t mean anything to me.”

And when she’d passed the security checkpoints and exited through the gate in the ten-metre compound fencing, she was still smiling to herself in the knowledge that it had.