Read In the Middle of the Wood Online

Authors: Iain Crichton Smith

In the Middle of the Wood (18 page)

BOOK: In the Middle of the Wood

A tall man strode along the corridor carrying a shaving case. He stopped and looked in.

“Hullo,” he said. “My name's Heydrich.”


“They say that Heydrich is dead but I am Heydrich,” the man repeated proudly. “I'll tell you something,” he said confidentially. “Hitler was far too lenient with the Jews. If it had been me I would have put them up against a wall and shot the lot of them. That's what they deserved. I told him that but he wouldn't listen.” All the time he was talking he looked smiling and pleasant and normal, and Ralph felt the ward spinning about him.

“I keep a Webley at home. I was home for a weekend last weekend. Have you just come? I haven't seen you before.”

“That's right,” said Ralph. “I came today but they tell me I have to change rooms.”

“If I had control here that wouldn't happen,” said the tall man. “There are too many Jews about. They're everywhere. Have you met Mr Manson yet? He's a scientist. He's very clever.”

“No, I haven't.”

“He talks at our meetings, you know. I never say very much. They don't believe I'm Heydrich. They want me to go home but I want to stay here. I've been here before. I was here five years ago, and there was a bulb missing from the bathroom. It's still missing. I don't want to go home. There aren't so many Jews here as you get outside. You'll like Bobby.”


“He's the male nurse. He's the one who keeps our razors.”

Ralph stared at him.

“Didn't you know. They take your razor from you and they keep it in the office. When you want a shave in the morning you have to collect it.”

“Should I hand it in just now then?”

“You can leave it for a while. I'm going to have a shower. I like to keep clean. That was one of the troubles with the Jews. They never washed, they smelt. In the Reich cleanliness was very important. I can't stand dirt.”

Suddenly Ralph said, “Do you know anything about a Mexican hat?”

“Mexican hat?”

“Yes, if you look up there you'll see a Mexican hat. And there's something wrong with the arm of the lamp. It's been twisted.”

“I don't know about that. There might have been a fancy dress party. I don't like that myself. I prefer efficiency. Take yesterday now. The food in the canteen was rotten. I told the supervisor that she should put the staff up against the wall and shoot them. She reported me. It's very important to be efficient. That's how the Reich became so great. Sometimes in the office they can't find your razor right away or they put the wrong name on it. I gave them a row about that. But they are quite nice usually and I didn't notice any Jews among them. I like it here. I don't want to go home. I've been here five months. The other time it was four months.”

“Can you get newspapers here?”

“I don't get one. I used to get the
but I stopped it. I'm not sure if they bring newspapers now. Some of us are allowed down town you know. You could ask someone to bring you one back from the shop.”

“When will we be allowed down town?”

“It might be a week or two. Or more. I go to the canteen but I don't often go down town.”


“There's a canteen. You can buy cigarettes and sweets there. I'll show you where it is if you like.”

At that moment Ralph saw a procession of men walking along the corridor, each carrying a cup of coffee or tea. He didn't want to mention it to the tall man in case he was imagining it. The men were holding the cups steady, staring ahead as if they were part of a moving frieze.

Heydrich? How could anyone be Heydrich? On the other hand the man might have been sent to further disorientate him. He was sure that Linda was now the Irish psychologist's lover and that they were staying together in a flat in this very town. If he phoned her she would not be at home.

“Can you phone from here?” he asked the tall man.

“There's a phone in the corridor. It's outside the television room.”

“I think I'll walk along then.”

“See you,” said the tall man waving his white towel. He must have decided that I'm not a Jew, thought Ralph.

When Ralph phoned it was a long time before anyone answered. Finally he recognized the voice of his mother-inlaw.

“Where's Linda?” he asked.

“She's in bed.” His mother-in-law sounded hostile.

“I don't believe it. I don't believe she's there at all.”

“She's tired. She's in bed.” He slammed the phone down and walked back along the corridor. Of course she wasn't in bed. She had organized this with the Irish psychologist from the very beginning. He remembered her saying once, “I've always wanted to be a nurse.” Maybe she had meant that she wanted to work in a hospital like this. “They do a useful job. Their work is more important than yours.”

“I give pleasure to people,” he had said defensively.

“Well, maybe, but you're an élitist. You prefer books to people deep down.”

“That's right,” he had said. “Their conversation is more interesting.”

He had never understood ‘ordinary' people. For instance they were very conscious of precedence: no one was more reactionary than an ‘ordinary' person. Once on a train travelling to Edinburgh he had met a drunk who had said to him, “I don't like you. You think I'm not good enough for you. But I'll tell you something, I'm better than you.” The drunk had thrust his face at him like a damp torch and he had finally retreated to another compartment. Ordinary people were like another race: they read the
and the

But he was sure that Linda had turned against him, against his egotism, his élitism. The Irish psychologist hadn't looked at all élitist but rather cheerful and relaxed. He couldn't bear the thought that Linda should be with him. Nor could he bear the thought that he would never be able to read again.

Through the window he could see birds flying about in the twilight. On the lawn there was an exotic tree with pink blossoms, but he couldn't identify it. It had a thick trunk and the blossoms flamed like candles. He didn't know much about trees or birds: all he knew about was words. Of course Linda was not in bed and that business about tiredness was an excuse. The light faded from the sky: he thought he could hear the distant sound of the television set.

A handicapped girl who walked to one side like a ship in a storm ran pale-faced to him and said, “Are you Mr Simmons?”


“There's a phone call for you.”

He knew it was from Linda but he didn't want to answer it. His mother-in-law would have phoned the Irish psychologist's flat and Linda would now be phoning from there. He was determined that he wouldn't phone her but in spite of his decision he found himself walking quickly along the corridor with the reproductions of Picasso and Klee on the walls. He picked up the phone. Her voice sounded far away and gentle.

“I just got up,” she said. She sounded punch drunk. But then she was a good actress.

“Where are you phoning from?” he asked.

“Where do you think I'm phoning from?”

“All right. Put the phone down and I'll dial your number,” he said.

“If you want.” And he did what he had said. The phone rang and she answered it. But he was sure that engineers had been hired to construct this piece of trickery: he wasn't speaking to the house at all. Linda's voice sounded far too remote and wavering. She began to weep at the other end of the phone. Satisfied, he put the phone down slowly.

That night he was shifted into another room where there was a full complement of patients, that is, four including himself. Nurses came in with a trolley and doled out tablets: and in the morning they were wakened at half-past six. He had to go along to the office to collect his razor, and he shaved with the others silently in the bathroom. When he returned to his room two young nurses were trying to waken the young boy in the adjacent bed.

“Come on now, Ronny,” they pleaded with him. But he crouched under the bedclothes and wouldn't obey them.

“Now, Ronny,” said one of the sisters who came in at this point as if she was doing it quite often, “you must get out of your bed like the rest. Otherwise you know what will happen.” But he turned away from her, burying his head in the pillow. After a while the sister went out.

In the opposite bed to Ralph was a squat man of about sixty or so who had a white moustache like a ghostly officer from the First World War: he made up his bed very meticulously, a towel still draped about his neck. Ralph made up his own bed though he wasn't very satisfied with it; however he left it as it was.

“Look, I'll show you how you to it,” said the man who introduced himself as Hugh, Hugh Green. “You didn't tuck it in at the bottom, you see.” He padded about in his bedroom slippers.

The youth turned and tossed restlessly in his bed. The psychologist, who had been shifted into this room as well, replaced the shaving articles in his leather case. Ralph was reminded again of his days in boarding school.

“Did you sleep well?” said Hugh Green.


“I sleep till four o'clock in the morning. After that I don't sleep at all.” Hugh went and pulled the bedclothes away from the youth.

“This is Ronny,” he said. “He never gets up in the morning. And he's very noisy when he is up, aren't you, Ronny? He won't take his tablets,” said Hugh. Ralph glanced across to Ronny's locker. On it there was a bottle of orangeade and a record called ‘Breakdown'. The title of the record worried him as if it had been placed there like a theatrical prop to remind him of his illness. Hugh took out a cigarette and began to smoke. Restlessly he went out into the corridor and came back again. He slid his feet along as if he were on wheels.

“Have you been here before?” said Ralph to him.

“Yes, I took aspirins. I was here for three weeks about five years ago.”

It occurred to Ralph that all the people he had met had tried to commit suicide by means of an overdose: he wondered if the youth had done the same. Surely this wasn't a coincidence. On the contrary everything was a reminder of his own attempted suicide. He sat on his bed staring dully at the floor. Hugh padded out into the corridor again smoking furiously. The psychologist took a bag of sweets from his locker and offered them but Ralph didn't take any. Suddenly the sister came in again in a rush of white and blue.

“Now, listen,” she said to Ronny. “You have to get up.” And she pulled the bedclothes to the floor leaving him cowering against his sheets in his striped pyjamas. Ronny rubbed his eyes and stared around him.

“You shouldn't be watching the tv till all hours,” she said. Ronny got up and made his way to the bathroom.

“That boy,” she said, shaking her head and going out again.

All this appeared to Ralph like a scene from a play. Around him were four actors. What organization it all required, what attention to detail.

“Listen,” he said to Hugh. “I can't read. Are you like that?”

“Yes. I tried to read but I can't. My wife brought me a lot of history books. I should be making notes on them but I can't do it.” He put out his cigarette and lit another, offering Ralph one from his packet. Ralph took it.

“As a matter of fact,” said Hugh, “you weren't supposed to take that cigarette. You're not supposed to lend or borrow money either. Did you not read the rules?”

“No,” said Ralph. He picked up the sheet with the rules: there were a number of misspellings and errors in punctuation. This too bothered him quite a lot. He was sure that they were fake, hastily put together for his benefit. He wondered whether Hugh had deliberately made him break the rules. He stubbed his cigarette in a blue scarred ashtray.

Ronny came back from the bathroom, tall and strutting. Ralph saw that his face was pale and spotty. It was really astonishing how an actor as young as this could be hired.

“I hope you washed yourself,” said Hugh. “You needed a wash.” He walked over to Ronny on his slippered feet.

“Listen to him,” said Ronny in a high almost hysterical voice. “He never washes himself. Do you, old man? You never wash do you, old man?” Hugh turned away, the cigarette between his lips, smiling.

“He just washes his moustache,” said Ronny in the same high voice, and went off into a paroxysm of laughter. “He takes it off at night and leaves it beside his bed, don't you, old man?” He seemed very noisy and aggressive. Hugh smiled patiently and then went out of the room and along the corridor. He seemed constitutionally unable to sit still.

“Old man,” Ronny shouted after him. He made up his bed quickly and noisily drank some orangeade. Hugh came back and went over to him and punched him lightly in the chest.

“You know what's going to happen to you,” he said. “You'll end up in another ward, one of the really bad ones, if you don't take your pills and if you don't get up in time in the morning. And if you don't wash.”

“Listen to him. He snores,” said Ronny and went off into another paroxysm of laughter. “Did you hear him snoring? He snores like a horse. You're a horse, old man, a horse, a horse.”

“That's right, I'm a horse,” said Hugh calmly. He put out his cigarette and lit another one. “You've taken my ashtray,” he said to Ronny. “You don't smoke and you take my ashtray all the time. You're a thief, aren't you? Aren't you?”

“I'm a thief, I'm a thief, I'm a thief,” Ronny chanted.

What actors they are, thought Ralph. They have rehearsed this very carefully. What looks spontaneous is really planned and scripted. They're really very good.

Hugh walked over to Ronny again and said, “I'm serious. If you don't watch out you'll end up in another ward.”

“I don't care,” said Ronny. “I've been in one before. I don't mind. There's more action there. There's no action here, is there, old man?”

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