‘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.
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
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?”
“Can you hear it?”
“Not from here I can’t, no.”
“Come and listen.”
“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?”
“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.”
“I killed my baby didn’t I?”
“No, you didn’t kill your baby. You know you didn’t.”
“Heroin killed my baby.”
“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
Mrs Jessop sputters into consciousness. Stretches, yawns, sits bolt
“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.
“Ta, Mrs Jessop. You’re alright, you are. You’ll be going home
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.”
“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.”
“In the office.”
“Is that where she is?”
“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
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
“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
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
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,
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
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.