Short Story of the Month

‘Scream, Scream’ by Glenda Beagan

This month's Short Story of the Month is 'Scream, Scream' by Glenda Beagan which features in The Green Bridge: Stories from Wales.

The Green Bridge is an entertaining anthology of classic stories from twentieth century Wales. From Dylan Thomas to Ifan Pughe, the familiar to the revived, from the rural west of Caradoc Evans to the industrial south of Gwyn Thomas, the politics of Emyr Humphreys to the relationships of Dorothy Edwards, all Wales and all human life is here.

 

Scream, Scream

It is quiet on the ward. There are only three bed patients. Nurse

Sandra looks at her watch. It is so still. There is the faint hum of a

mechanical mower on lawns far away, that is all. No birds are singing.

Mrs Jessop is snoring quietly. She’s had a bad night. It is on the

report.

     Linda is about to make her move. Nurse Sandra senses it. She

smooths her apron, flicks through a magazine with studied

carelessness watching sideways through her hair as Linda shifts her

slow carcase off the bed. Even now as those bare arms emerge Nurse

Sandra has to steel herself. She looks up, clenched. Sioned, the

anorexic girl in the top bed is semaphoring wildly. Linda begins.

      “Is my heart still beating?”

      “Yes, Linda.” Nurse Sandra sighs, tries to smile. How well she

knows this never ending litany.

      “Are you sure?”

      “Yes.”

      “Can you hear it?”

      “Not from here I can’t, no.”

      “Come and listen.”

      “Again, Linda?”

      “Yes. I think it’s stopped.”

      “No luv, silly. Course it hasn’t stopped. You wouldn’t be sitting

up talking to me if it had stopped, would you?”

      “No.”

      “There you are then.”

     Now the familiar pause.

      “Is my baby dead?”

     This was the bit she dreaded. Day after day, hour after hour, the

same question. And still she dreaded it.

      “It’s a long time ago now, Linda.”

      “How long?”

      “Two years.”

      “I killed my baby didn’t I?”

      “No, you didn’t kill your baby. You know you didn’t.”

      “Heroin killed my baby.”

      “Yes.”

      “Not me.”

      “No.”

      “But I did really. I know I did.”

     Nurse Sandra gulps. Linda never wants platitudes. Sometimes

she’ll accept them. Mostly she won’t.

     Nurse Sandra still finds she winces inside at the sight of those

arms: the half healed scars she’d cleaned of pus months before are

still lurid among the tattoos, the roses, crowns and mermaids, the

names JIMMY and MOTHER, the waste, the pointlessness. Linda is

dying, her liver, which is all of twenty three years old, is ready to

pack up on her. She has respiratory problems. Her legs are hideously

ulcerated. She has come here to die because there is nowhere else for

her to go.

      “Have you got a fag?”

      “I don’t smoke, Linda.”

      “Mrs Jessop smokes.”

      “Mrs Jessop is asleep.”

      “When she wakes up?”

      “You can ask her when she wakes up.”

      “Will she give me a fag?”

      “She usually does, doesn’t she?”

      “She always does.”

     A giggle. The ghost of a giggle.

      “She always gives me a fag to make me go away.”

     Linda is not averse to exploiting the unnerving effect she has on

people, and Mrs Jessop is easily unnerved. So is Sioned. Linda

changes tack. She knows the answer before she asks the question but

she wants a reaction. She wants to see those dark eyes close, that pale

skull shake its negative.

      “You don’t smoke, do you Sioned?”

     Sioned is pretending not to be here. She does it well. She is now

so thin she hardly makes a ripple under the blankets. She is

disappearing. Tonic insulin seems not to have had the desired effect.

She is seventeen, always tiny, admittedly, but now she weighs just

four stone.

     Mrs Jessop sputters into consciousness. Stretches, yawns, sits bolt

upright.

      “Oh.”

      “Good morning Mrs Jessop. For this relief much thanks.”

     Nurse Sandra walks up to the bed.

      “How are we this morning?”

     Mrs Jessop can’t remember how she is. Bleary still from night

sedation, she blinks, owl-like, registers Linda’s looming presence and

makes an instinctive move for her handbag, proffering the packet.

     Linda beams.

      “Ta, Mrs Jessop. You’re alright, you are. You’ll be going home

soon.”

     She slouches off to the top of the ward again.

      “If you’re going to smoke you go to the sitting room, Linda.”

      “Aw, just this once, Sandra.”

      “Sitting room.”

      “Can I go in the wheelchair, then?”

      “You know I can’t push you. I can’t leave the ward.”

      “There’s only Mrs Jessop and Sioned, Sandra. Nothing’s going to

happen while you push me that little way. It’s not far.”

      “If you want to smoke you go to the sitting room and if you want

to go to the sitting room you have to walk.”

      “You’re a tight bitch, Sandra.”

      “Yeah, I’m a real hard case.”

      “Can I have a light, Mrs Jessop?”

      “Not on the ward, Linda.”

      “I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to Mrs Jessop.”

     There is an edge in Linda’s voice but she no longer has the energy

to put that edge into action. Nurse Sandra gives her a look. Now it’s

a battle of wills and Sandra will win because she has the will to win

and Linda has not. The girl’s efforts have already exhausted her. She

wants her cigarette but she does not want to haul herself down the

corridor to smoke it. In the end the cigarette wins. It always does.

She starts to move down the ward again, painfully slowly for Sandra’s

benefit, holding on to the beds.

      “Can I borrow your lighter, Mrs Jessop?”

      “Get a light from someone down there.”

      “There won’t be anyone down there. They’ve gone to OT.”

      “Get a light from Sister Annie, then.”

      “Where?”

      “In the office.”

      “Is that where she is?”

      “Yes.”

      “Are you sure? Is she on her own?”

      “It’s not time for the doctors to make their round yet, Linda if

that’s what you’re worried about.”

      “Is Dr Patel on today?”

      “I don’t know.”

      “She’s on holiday,” says Mrs Jessop.

      “Is she? How do you know?”

      “She told me.”

     Linda looks sulky. She likes to think she has a special relationship

with Dr Patel, that she is her confidante. To compensate for not

having received this piece of information she makes an extravagant

balletic swoop towards Mrs Jessop, hands moulded into a parodic

impression of an Indian dancer’s.

      “She’s promised me one of her old saris, Dr Patel has. She said I

could have one. She likes me.”

      “You’ve been pestering her again, haven’t you?” Nurse Sandra

cuts in, wishing Linda would really get off the ward and go for her

smoke. Linda glowers.

      “I like Dr Patel. She’s alright.”

     In a moment of rare humour Mrs Jessop chuckles to herself.

“She’ll be going home soon.”

     Nurse Sandra smiles. “She’s got a long way to go.”

     Just then the scream.

     A vehicle must have drawn up, but they didn’t hear it. The front

doors have opened and the scream has come in, has forced itself in,

breaking through their innocuous recitative. This is the aria, a full

blooded aria.

     They hear the office door click shut. But they couldn’t have heard

it above the scream. They must have just sensed it. They are, after

all, alive to the relevance of all the building’s distinctive vibrations.

Nurse Sandra finds herself standing at attention. It’s that kind of

scream. Joyce the cleaner emerges from the toilets, mop akimbo.

      “Christ,” she says. “What’s this?”

     This is Mrs Jenkins. This is Mrs Jenkins’ scream. The scream is

on a stretcher. Sister Annie is standing by, keys jingling, along with

two ambulancemen and a small fair nurse who looks no more than a

child.

      “Hello, Mrs Jenkins,” says Sister Annie. They seem to have met.

Curtains are whisked round a bed. The scream seems to fill the world.

It changes pitch, it warbles, it fluctuates, it recedes, but it never stops.

Sister Annie knows this scream, consequently it holds fewer fears for

her. Mrs Jessop is sat bolt upright again, clutching her capacious

handbag. Linda hovers, cigarette forgotten. Even Sioned is suddenly

transformed into an unusually animated skeleton. She grabs her

housecoat from the bed-rail behind her and the emaciated aims

disappear into an incongruous protective blur of pink frills. Her

mouth falls agape. More arrivals. Dr Merton (nobody likes Dr

Merton) and Dr Patel, who is not on holiday after all. They disappear

behind the curtain. Blending into the scream are the soft cooing

sounds of Sister Annie, Dr Patel’s staccato, the young nurse’s

uncertain burble and Dr Merton’s stentorian boom. It is a virtuoso

performance. Now the ambulancemen retreat. Now Dr Merton and

the young nurse retreat. Only Sister Annie and Dr Patel remain behind

the curtain, as the scream breaks the sound barrier and Sioned starts

to cry. Nurse Sandra rushes up the ward, reassuring the pink mist

until it sinks again beneath the candlewick. Joyce the Cleaner, ever

reliable, appears with the tea trolley, basking in virtue since This Is

Not Really Her Job but we’re so short staffed this morning, what with

Nurse Margaret on ECT and Nurse Meira called to take that awful

Mrs Prendergast for another EEG last minute. Joyce pours tea

copiously, wearing her Very Dependable Face. And still the scream,

the scream. Perhaps the ambulancemen have left the doors open,

though there seemed to be no wind. Now there’s a Force Nine Gale.

The curtains around the vexed bed billow, and the curtains at the

windows float in a strange leeward drift, the lampshades swing. Very

Dependable Joyce proffers tea to all, with the exception of Mrs

Jenkins who can’t be expected to scream and drink tea at the same

time.

     It’s as if the scream slowly inhabits them all, slowly expresses

them all. It’s as if the terror slowly seeps out of it, while another

nameless quality enters. What does it consist of, this blend of dark

voices beyond Mrs Jenkins’ own, far beyond, ungovernable, timeless

voices without meaning or order, but shot through with a rhythm they

recognise, a substance they have felt themselves, all of them, the

Hell’s Angel and the nursing sister, the anorexic girl who won’t grow

up and the Indian doctor who has torn up her roots and crossed the

world to do just that, the cleaner who is pompous and kind and

commonsensical and the wife of the managing director who is

childless and bereft, a loss for which no amount of jewels and furs

and foreign holidays can compensate? Perhaps most of all it is Nurse

Sandra’s scream, since she’s been walking on the edge for weeks

now, though no one would ever know. She swims with the scream as

it ripples and bellows, rises and falls. It is a medley of voices, the cry

of aftermath, of battle and birth, of sap and sinew. Mrs Jenkins cannot

know that her scream is a benificence, that she takes from all of them

their fears, relaying them back, transformed, intensified and finally

transcended, that the ward’s bland pastels fuse into whirling primary

shades, a vortex of richness, of wildness, of courage. It takes courage,

this truth, this scream.

     Dr Patel and Sister Annie have decided on their course of action.

The curtains are whisked back from the bed. Propped up against

pillows lies a wizened face, but you can’t really tell it’s a wizened

face at the moment because all you can see at the moment is the

mouth. It is so wide open it seems to have taken over, engulfing all.

Sioned, huddled under the covers, still cushions her ears with her

hands. Nurse Sandra has turned quite white. Linda stands by the bed,

unlit cigarette in hand. Mrs Jessop makes strange popping noises like

a frog.

     Mrs Jenkins comes from a farm, a farm in the middle of nowhere.

A farm so old it’s like a great fungus, an excrescence of the land,

breeding barns and byres full of rusting threshing machines and

ancient harrows and flails. Enough to fill a museum with fascinating

glimpses of our agricultural past. But this isn’t the past. It’s the

present. Little has changed at Sgubor Fawr since Owain Glyndŵr

rode by, swelling his army with sons of the farm, only one of whom

returned, an ancestor of Mrs Jenkins’ lawful wedded spouse. She was

a Jenkins too, before her marriage, since there were only Jenkinses

to be found for miles around. But this is the end of the line. The very

end. This is the scream of the last of the Jenkinses of Sgubor Fawr,

this is.

     It’s unforgettable.

     There’s an hour and ten minutes to go till the others come back

from OT. Dr Patel and Sister Annie will let her scream till then. She’s

screamed solid since half-past-seven last night, according to Mr

Jenkins who is usually reliable in these matters. She’s screamed in

the ambulance for thirty-seven miles by green lane and new road.

(Mrs Jenkins never leaves Sgubor Fawr except to come here. It is

rumoured she went to Shrewsbury in Coronation Year, but that tale

might well be apocryphal.) Who knows, by dinner time it may all be

over. She might have done with screaming. Till the next time.

     Very Dependable Joyce is handing out a second cup of tea to those

that want. All drink. Even Sioned, submerged in her pink haze,

drinks, but it’s the eating she won’t do, isn’t it? She’s in such a state

of shock she almost accepts a Nice biscuit from Joyce’s Own

Personal Packet. But then she remembers she’s anorexic and politely

refuses. The scream keeps going, keeps flowing. Dr Merton makes a

grim appearance at the ward door, shrugs and disappears. Nurse

Sandra stands by. Sister Annie and Dr Patel sit and wait and listen. Is

that a diminuendo? Surely ... yes ... no. The scream has risen again

but it’s definitely less screamy, this scream. It’s on the wane. It

wobbles, it fades, it flickers, it stops. It finally stops.

     Mrs Jenkins does not look sheepish. She is not in the least

embarrassed. She has the most ferret-like face you’ve ever seen. A

swarthy ferret with black pebble eyes. In her high bird-like voice she

asks Joyce if she can go home now. Very Dependable Joyce explains

that as she is the Cleaner it’s not really up to her to say. But tea she

does have to offer.

      “It’ll be a bit stewed by now. I’ll make you fresh if you like.”

      “No lovey,” says Mrs Jenkins who is invariably easy to please.

“I’m sure it will taste fine. I like my tea strong.”

     I bet you do, thinks Nurse Sandra.

     It’s still on the ward. Now there’s not even the faint hum of a

mechanical mower. It’s an extraordinary stillness. Not a silence as

such, more a resonant absence. How wonderful it is to hear the

scream has gone. Never has any silence felt this peaceful, more like

velvet, more gentle, more deep. Goodness is singing in the ward.

Without making a sound.

     Dr Patel winks conspiratorially at Sister Annie. Dr Merton was

wrong, wasn’t he? He wanted to give her morphine. They said leave

her alone.

     And they did.

     And it worked.

     It has happened before, of course. Every three years since 1953,

the year of the Coronation, the year Mrs Jenkins went to Shrewsbury.

If she did.

     She will be going home in a day or two. She’ll be chatting away

to those two nice ambulancemen who brought her in this morning,

sirens blaring. Well, it’s all in a day’s work.

     Linda is now en route to the sitting room. Sioned lies quietly,

thinking. Mrs Jessop is rooting anxiously in her handbag. Strange,

she seems to have mislaid her lighter. The electrician comes in to

change the dud bulb over Mrs Jenkins’ bed.

     At Sgubor Fawr the sun has filtered briefly through the trees. Mr

Jenkins is feeding the hens.

 

 

Glenda Beagan