Friday, 6 December 2013

A tour of ship-wreck house

“This is the conservatory,” said the nurse without much pre-amble.  She waved an arm around it.  ‘It was intended for the use of the patients when this place was built, and I think it was used like that for four or five years.  But at some point someone realised that most of our patients either couldn’t be put out on show like this, or shouldn’t be, and we stopped using it for the patients.  There’s a day-room, with skylights rather than windows, that they use, and we use this now for staff meetings and visitors.”
“It must be a pretty short staff meeting,” said Leonard.  They were walking through the room back to the kitchen.
“Is that a joke about my height?”
Leonard looked at her; she was perhaps five foot ten, probably a little taller than a lot of the women he knew.  Why would she think he was making jokes about her height?
“Never mind,” she said, stepping into the kitchen.  It was cool and spacious; the surfaces were stainless steel, as were the cupboard doors and the range.  There were a number of racks along the walls behind the counters, on which were steel pans and bowls.  Implements – spatulas, tongs, spoons, ladles and the like – hung on the racks to be close at hand for the chef working at that station, and as Leonard looked around he recognised a transition from stations that were primarily for preparation, though that were for frying or boiling, and then the pastry section.
“Kitchen” she said, again waving her hand.  “A little big for just me but at its peak the hospice has had fifteen chefs working in here.  That wasn’t for patients though, that was just when the Board of Directors realised that Shipwreck House was useful for internal functions.  I prepare food for the patients.  Breakfast is a buffet affair with hot items cooked to order, and a menu for the rest of the day is provided then for patients to choose from.  Those that have already lost their sense of smell are generally the hardest to cater for.”
“Why not taste?” asked Leonard.
“The door over there is to the walk-in where we store the dry goods,” said the nurse.  “90% of taste is smell.  Patients who lose their sense of smell tend to quickly lose interest in eating.  This way,” she took him through a door he’d not noticed when they came through earlier, “is to the back corridors.  These houses were built at the turn of the 1800s and so have separate corridors for servants and masters.  We’ve made use of that by keeping the masters area for visitors and internal conferencing, while the staff use the servants corridors.  It’s considerably more efficient.”
“Are there any secret passages?” asked Leonard, trying to inject a note of humour into his voice so that she knew he was joking this time.  She paused and looked at him.
“Several, actually,” she said.  “They’re a complete pain, because the kinds of illnesses that our patients come in with do not go well together with hard-to-find areas of the house.  We’ve had two occasions now where someone has gone missing and we’ve had to search the whole building one floor at a time.
“Oh,” said Leonard, and stayed fairly quiet for the rest of the tour.  The servant’s corridors, as the nurse had promised, accessed just about every room of the house and were quick to traverse.  Leonard didn’t see too much of the master’s corridors, but it became obvious from the size of the rooms that it must be a pain to walk round nearly half of the house to get from one room to another instead of just taking the servant’s door and slipping across a hallway.  The house was much larger than he’d expected, and the rooms were generally large and well designed unless they were for the servants, when they were cramped and had little privacy.
The third floor was given over to bedrooms, and though Leonard was not permitted to disturb the current residents the nurse did slide back a panel in one door to show him the gentleman behind it.  The man was dressed in a neat grey suit with a white shirt, cufflinks and tie.  He sat in a straight-backed chair, his hands resting on his knees and his gaze fixed on the door somewhere below the panel.  He appeared not to notice the panel opening, and Leonard eventually realised that he could see an ugly-looking, blistered burn on the man’s hand.
“He lost his sense of touch first,” said the nurse.  “It was how his condition was discovered, which was lucky for him.  The next thing to go was his sight, and if we’d not found him by then I don’t think he would have survived long.”
“You don’t really talk about then as though they’re human,” said Leonard.  The thought had been building throughout the tour, but now it had crystallised in his mind.
“It’s better than way,” said the nurse.  “At some point they very well might not be.”
After the bedrooms she showed him the attic.  This was a long, large room with a sloping ceiling and the roof beams exposed.  There were several benches up there that looked like chemistry experiments were being carried out on them, and a bookcase tucked under the roof beams held hand-written notes in several binders.
“Drs Whitsun and Watts work here intermittently,” said the nurse.  “They’re researching way to help the patients, though it’s necessarily slow-going.  They’ve pretty much having to write the whole field of research themselves.”
“I didn’t know you were trying to cure them,” said Leonard.  He took a binder from the bookcase and opened it.  The notes in there appeared to be written in Latin and didn’t make any sense to him.
“We’re not.”  The nurse took the binder from his hands with gentle but steady force and put it back.  “We’re trying to help them.  We can’t cure them because we’ve no idea what’s actually happened to them to reverse it.  The first thing we want to be able to do is communicate better with them and get an idea of what it’s like where they’ve gone, and how we might get there ourselves.  Without having to lose our senses in the process.”
“Right, said Leonard.  “I should have realised.”
She gave him a sharp look, but he refused to be drawn and so she let it drop.

“That’s the tour,” she said.  “We’ll go back down the conservatory now and I’ll answer any relevant questions that you might have.”

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