Have you ever lain awake in a hospital ward after midnight? If so, you will recognise the peculiar aura that these places come to acquire only at this time.
When you are packed into your bed, any footsteps passing outside in the corridor will sound strangely solemn and celestial. Any remark that the nurse might utter as they creep softly around the ward will be instantly swallowed up, like a fish turning for a second on the surface of a lake. Perhaps you will latch on to noises far beyond the room that you are in. Tiny continuous noises that sound like disembodied forces in themselves, say some thunderstorms that are billowing over faraway prairies or galaxies that are roaring to themselves. But it will hit you then that you have been listening to nothing but the silence.
It was so quiet in control that the porters must have been all by now recuperating down in their common room. Several minutes before it happened, Anda had looked up from her novel, which was spread open in front of her microphone. She had seen that the hospital had made it past three.
Anda was still struggling to duck clean into this novel and to move about unselfconsciously inside it. It was set in a country house and the protagonist was some bewildered, half-disinherited young woman who was a governess. When it happened, Anda broke so totally from the story that its faltering universe seemed to drop like a candle flame.
A voice was speaking, familiarly and without any introduction. There was a long struggle until she had understood that it was emanating from the speaker in front of her. Until then, this voice had been crowding into her, bristling and uncomfortably close. It was a male voice – a contemptuous male voice – and she had been startled by the belief that her own brain was somehow piping it out.
“I am in here with you,” it barked. “Behind you!” it cried out urgently. “By the window!”
She sprang around and then screamed, in a cry that had seemed to ripple past her ears before her lips had moved.
Her own coat was hanging on a hook beside the blackness of the window. Fleetingly, she had taken it to be a figure.
She tried to stand from her chair but her legs pushed back and it felt as if she had never used them before. The voice inside the speaker appeared to be waiting now. If it spoke again, she felt that the terror would rise over her head and that her heart would stop.
Five minutes later, there were two security men in the office. Anda was led away and another porter was called up from the common room to man control. They sat Anda down in a cleaners’ room, one that was a little down the corridor, and a teacup of water from the tap was herded into her hands.
The bulkier of the two security men propped open the window slightly. Cool night air now tumbled into the room, gambolling like spring lambs.
They talked over what had happened. Anda quickly realised that nobody else aside from her had heard the voice. She controlled all of the incoming signals and the other porters with walkie-talkies could only ever receive messages from her.
The security men were open-minded and reflective but, beneath this, noncommittal. After listening to her for a while, one of the men cleared his throat and his eyes hardened. It was time to come to business.
Around two weeks ago, a walkie-talkie had been stolen, he confirmed to her. When a porter had got back to the common room, he had realised that the instrument was gone. He had retraced his steps but he had not discovered where it been unclipped. It had been probably resting in his trouser pocket, in fact, where anybody could have lifted it out by the antenna.
The security man continued. It sounded silly, but she would be surprised how silly some people could be. It could be a patient – somebody with the walkie-talkie hidden under their bedsheets – or it could be some mischief-maker who was sending messages from outside the hospital’s walls. They had never tested the range of the walkie-talkies but it was unlikely that the signal would decline where the hospital complex ended.
“But how could he see me?” Anda demanded. “He knew that my coat was by the window.”
“Maybe he looked through the window?” the second security man asked. This one had not said anything until now and he had a distant, uninvolved voice.
The first shook his head. “I wouldn’t worry about it. He’s better outside the window, I should think.”
When Anda started her shift at eight the next evening, her boss, Guy, was lingering near to the punch-in machine. By now Anda knew that nothing about Guy was ever causal or accidental. He was an immense pink man but startlingly noiseless on his feet when he sidled up to you. Gracefully, he veered around Anda as she tried to enter the main corridor. When she was forced to stop, mid-step, he stopped too, as if this was a game in which he was playing at being her shadow. Now that she was waiting for him he smiled blissfully down into her face.
“Anda Panda, I heard that you got into trouble on your shift last night.”
He smiled even more mindlessly and triumphantly. Insolently, Anda thought.
“Hmm, and you know I have requested regular checks? From security?”
Had he blinked somewhere within that hugely smiling face? Unexpectedly, he had swerved back, releasing her to keep walking again, and now they were walking and talking.
“I don’t see why we need the every fifteen minutes,” he drawled. “If you get into trouble again, just radio.”
With this, he was gone. Anda continued on to control, irritated. The hospital was still noisy at this time of the evening, with trolleys rattling past outside in the corridor, one after the next, like swigs of beer chasing each other down a throat. As she sank into her seat, Anda saw how hopelessly remote the loneliness of the small hours currently were. The porters also needed maximum direction just now, and so there was no time to reflect on the voice and all of that violence that was pent up in it. Still, she knew that the fear had made a date with her for later.
Around two am she knew that she was alone again with the fear. The silence of the hospital ballooned and the utter vacuum of sound immediately outside of control seemed to teem with invisible shapes that were being made and unmade on the air. Her novel was spread in front of her, its questing governess frozen uselessly.
Anda found that she was watching the speaker and that she could no longer pull her face back from it. As she gazed at it and into it, the impression grew firmer in her mind of the presence that would be sitting somewhere nearby, maybe three or two rooms down the corridor or even in that cleaners’ headquarters just a door along. The silhouette of a bestial figure, huddled and rat-like, with his voice about to utter its first unbearable syllable. The gloating of this voice seemed to be radiating from the speaker even before it had spoken.
She had detected that this voice was beginning to stir noiselessly, as if it was rolling in the gravel just out of earshot below the cadences of a river. Anda continued to hang mesmerised on the air whilst this voice richly collected itself and weighed each of its words in the mind behind it. Could she hear something already – a purr? – a low growl that was about to rise out of the nothingness?
She bolted and radioed out to security, in a panicked voice.
This time only the first of the security guards arrived. With his overcoat, his walkie-talkies and his key-cards, he looked strangely lumbered with items and like a Christmas tree. Anda was already embarrassed and the man did nothing to conceal how uninterested he was in her panic. He would not smile at her and he looked perfunctorily around the room, staring levelly into each empty corner.
She tried to engage him in conversation about the voice but it was as if he was refusing to remember anything about it. They were here for her, he said warily, but she should only radio if there was anything that they could actually do.
Anda sensed that they had not dispatched the second guard – the nicer of the two – because he would not have been stern enough with her. But it was clear now that she was alone with the voice. Unless it talked itself up into a physical man, who exploded through the window and attacked her, then this voice and its gloating would remain her problem.
The next evening she spoke again with Guy. She requested that she be moved out of control and back onto the trolleys. Guy was less merry this time; in fact, only the thinnest spectre of his usual personality had been released for her. Before, he noted fairmindedly, Anda had requested repeatedly to be taken off the trolleys and to be installed in control. She had said that her back hurt on the trolleys. Many of the porters complained that this was unfair – that control was easy work and that Anda was hogging it. And now she was randomly disowning everything she had previously demanded?
He had been sympathetic, he continued. He had managed this hospital for a long time and he knew how things went. He knew that workers such as herself – female workers with large, fully-developed upper bodies – typically suffered from back pain if they worked continuously on the trolleys. Anda was so shocked and mortified at being talked to in this way that she had only half-understood what was really being talked about. Although Guy was still speaking in that voice of pure bureaucracy, his eyes had grown uncharacteristically frank. Perhaps this was some anomalous moment when you could at last see all the way through them into his soul.
In the dead of night, when Anda was visited by the panic, she began to mute her speaker for certain periods. This was only ever for five-minute intervals, she believed – just until she felt calm and safe again. But within a week disaster had swooped down, with an aplomb that had looked retrospectively inevitable but that had still absolutely amazed her. A patient with a shattered leg had been left waiting in a corridor for over forty minutes, with nobody coming to collect him. The security guard had asked Anda outright whether she had fallen asleep.
Anda was asleep the next morning when Guy phoned her. If she could come in now, he begged, making it sound as if she would be doing them an enormous, one-off favour. When the call was over, she realised that it was only ten am.
When she arrived at the hospital, she suddenly did not know where to go. It was as if she had just discovered that she was really a stranger in this building where she had obliviously worked every night. She roamed around blank corridors downstairs searching for Guy or for one of his assistants. Finally, a beaming man who she had never encountered before hailed her familiarly and he pointed her to a minor side-room.
Golden sunlight poured into this room. Anda was aghast – how could she ever begin to describe the voice in this wonderful daylight? The room looked as though it had been never used before or as though it had been arranged for this one occasion. There were two identical chairs and a desk made from synthetic pine and a sterile print by Jack Vettriano clamped over the desk.
Anda sat down at one of the chairs and then Guy entered, carrying her employment file under his arm. He bade her a good morning. He was also absentmindedly carrying coffee in a paper carton.
“Anda, listen I don’t have much time today so I’ll come straight to it. It will save us both a load of today’s valuable time if you give me your notice before I even ask you about last night.”
Anda nodded helplessly. Then she thought, surprised: is that it? Have I just given up my job?
The fact that she might be unemployed was so vast that she could only behold it wonderingly from afar. It was like a mountain that she was surveying without being able to yet approach and set a foot on it.
“In these circumstances, I will put you down as being unavailable for the remainder of your notice. Of course, you will be unpaid for this period. On the plus side, you will still be able to get a reference from me. You know that I have about a trillion unanswered emails currently, so please pester me and badger me if you want a reference and there is no reply. I will get around to it.”
Guy sat back and he saw his coffee and remembered it and then he slurped at it happily. He could have been washing away the last aftertaste of Anda.
Anda did not know whether to rise and leave. Guy looked up at her inquisitively, his old playfulness back. “Anything else?”
“The walkie-talkie…” Anda began weakly. There was a sob rolling around in her throat and, nosily, she swallowed it. “The walkie-talkie,” she resumed in a bare, hard voice. “The voice that… that I can hear… that is always there?” She stared at him in appeal, just wanting an explanation.
Guy shrugged. “There is a walkie-talkie logged as stolen,” he conceded.
Anda fixed on this. “I want to report it to the police. The security here didn’t take it seriously that…”
“Report what to the police, Anda McPanda?” Guy asked calmly. Anda had thought that Guy would shrink back and roll over to show his belly at the single word “police.” Instead, he was smiling in puzzlement. A sad, puzzled smile.
“Anda, the walkie-talkie was stolen weeks ago. The person who took it wouldn’t have been able to recharge the battery without the console that we have here, in your office – in your old office I mean – in control. The thing won’t have a drop of juice in it by now.”
“Then it must have been…”
Guy looked away bored. “Nothing is recorded. I suggest that the simplest explanation is probably the best one. Somebody was chatting on their phone and they walked past your office and you heard their voice and spooked yourself. You know, this is a great explanation and it looks good enough for me.” He sprang to his feet. “As I said, please pester me and badger me about that reference. You have my utmost permission to do so.” He gave her another, beautiful, final smile and she knew immediately that she would never see him again in this life.
Anda had had few friends amongst the porters. Nonetheless, there was this one lady named Ingrid who she had enjoyed chatting to when she worked down on the trolleys. Ingrid was an ageless, mop-headed woman and rather a battle-axe; Guy referred to her so routinely as “Special Ingredients” that some new porters occasionally assumed that this was actually her name. Several weeks after she had finished at the hospital, Anda had been drifting around the Cameron Toll shopping centre and she had bumped into Ingrid. They spoke for about ten minutes and Anda was breathlessly grateful that Ingrid had given her her company for this time.
Everyone had been very excited about the control position becoming vacant, Ingrid reported. It was a nice job where you could sit down and you had your own office and some privacy. Yet dismay had quickly followed when it transpired that Guy was advertising for the job externally. It seemed that he thought that promoting another trolley worker would not work. Ingrid had heard him lament that jumping from one role to the other was too much of a stretch for most people.
The porter Sandeep (Anda nodded but she could not picture him) had wanted a friend of his, another Indian man, to apply for control. This friend had just graduated with a postgraduate degree in engineering. He was looking for a bit of stress-free work to do as a break, until he had pinpointed a more serious, long-term position. Guy had not even offered him an interview. There had been some unpleasantness about this, with Sandeep waging that Guy had taken one look at the rambling Indian name and then flung the CV in the bin. Sandeep said that Indians could work aloofly and very high up, as doctors, or very low down, doing the basest menial work, but that people were disconcerted with them being familiar and in the middle.
Anyway, the real scandal was this, Ingrid continued, her eyes sparkling. She then looked very amused and conspiratorial and a huge grin had spread over her pudding face, making the Cheshire cat suddenly flash out in her.
Control had gone to some Scottish girl who Guy knew from his own personal life. At first he had said that she was his “niece” and next he was calling her his “protégé.” Eventually the other porters had learned that this girl was seventeen years old. The scandal only grew and flowered and became ever more splendid. Now this girl was bringing her trampy schoolfriends into the hospital and they were all sitting up in control, snogging and drinking vodka, and directing the trolleys only whenever anybody happened to remember them.
I see, Anda said.