Here is chapter 27 to whet your appetites - and if you haven't been following this blog - you will find the earlier chapters on here also.
For those who have already read Caught in the Web and keep asking me how the new novel is coming along, I have to say that I've been very lax in writing lately although I am now back on track and working on it again.
The music was loud. Someone had tried to dim the lights to make some kind of party atmosphere by leaving off half of the strip-lights. Balloons hung gaily from the ceiling above the high counter which was laden with Panda Pops, a jug of orange squash, paper cups and a display of sweets and chocolate bars. A tea urn had pride of place at one end.
Karen ushered her little band of women into the room.
‘So this is the famous League of Friends Disco?’ she laughed.
Time at work had passed quickly. John and Andy had moved on and two new students were starting in a few days. Karen was getting to know the routine - her initial uncertainties were fading - there was just no time to dwell on things that made her uneasy. More and more she enjoyed the work - loved the adrenaline rush that was constantly there. She couldn’t get enough of the excitement of never knowing what would happen next. And working long hours was an escape from the chill which greeted her at home each night. Work was the only thing that kept her sane.
Today she was working with Sheila, a new nursing assistant who was the same age as Karen and already had children. Karen had liked her on first sight, a down-to-earth young woman with an open, friendly smile.
‘Go and grab a table over there,’ Sheila was saying. ‘I’ll get us some drinks.’
‘Don’t want to sit down,’ Millie complained.
‘You don’t have to sit down,’ Karen said. ‘Do you want to dance?’
‘No.’ Millie replied. ‘Can I have a fag?’
‘Alright, but let’s just get everyone settled down over here first.’ Karen pulled a couple of extra chairs to the table and the other women sat down. Dolly rocked in her seat, watching Sheila cross the room carrying a tray of drinks towards them. Millie stood, moving from side to side, waiting impatiently. Karen took a packet of cigarettes from her pocket and slid one out, handed it to Millie and lit it with a flick of her lighter. Immediately Annie’s hand shot out in expectation. Soon all three women were puffing furiously on their cigarettes, each one adding to the already mildly foggy atmosphere.
Sheila passed around the drinks and sat down next to Karen.
‘So this is the highlight of their social calendar?’ Karen looked about the room.
‘Well it gets them off the ward for a couple of hours,’ Sheila shrugged. ‘And it’s somewhere to go where they can mix with the male patients. Some of these long-stay patients have been here a long time. It’s not that long ago since all the wards were completely separate with no integration at all apart from the annual dance at Christmas. Oh - and the pantomime. Even then they had to sit on opposite sides of the hall.’
‘Camberley Ward’s still segregated.’
‘But most of the other wards are mixed now. Apart from Buxton Ward - that’s the male equivalent of Camberley - and the geriatric wards - they’re still separate. It’s different on the admission wards. They’re mixed now. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a good thing or not.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well - if your relative came in here with some kind of breakdown - say hyper-mania - they could be quite un-inhibited - sexually, you know. Sometimes they strip off and run around naked. You could cope with that sort of thing in a single-sex ward, but it’s a different matter when you have men and women all in together.’
‘I can see that.’
‘Still - it’s progress I suppose.’ She shrugged.
They sat and looked about the room. A group of men had shuffled in and were milling about near the counter.
‘You’ve got children, haven’t you?’ Karen asked.
‘Oh yes,’ Sheila smiled.
'How do you cope with working shifts and having kids?' Karen asked.
'It's not easy,' Sheila said. 'My husband works here as well. He's a staff nurse on Blake ward, male geriatrics.'
'How do you do it?'
'We do opposite shifts so that there’s always one of us at home. It makes it difficult to have time on your own together, though. But that's what having kids does to you. Your time's not your own any more.'
'Your husband must be very understanding,' Karen said. 'He doesn't mind you working here?'
'Brian? Why should he?' Sheila asked. 'We couldn't manage on his wage and this is probably the only place I could work where the hours suit us both.' She took a sip of her tea. 'I supported him through his training and when the kids are at school I'm going to do mine. Then he’ll do nights for a few years so that he can be at home during the day.'
'That sounds good?' Karen wondered.
'Well, it won't be great. We'll seen even less of each other, but it's what you have to do, I suppose. I was doing my training when we got married, but then I got pregnant and had to give it up. Once we'd had one baby, we decided to carry on and have the full family in one go. My two are a bit of a handful, one of three years and the other one’s only eighteen months. I'm determined to go back to my training as soon as I can though.’
'Why do you want to do psychie nursing?' Karen thought about Peter's views on her choice to work with the mentally ill.
'It's exciting. No day’s ever the same,' she said. 'I never wanted to do all that hands-on physical stuff. I wanted to work with people who are hurting, to feel I was helping in some small way. I think you get to know the patients as people in this field, and when they get better you get such a good feeling, knowing that you’ve really helped.'
'That's exactly what I feel,' Karen smiled. 'I'm starting my training in October, but my husband’s not too happy about it. He wants to start a family now, but I'm not ready for that yet.'
'You'd be better off training first,' said Sheila. 'If I had the choice, I'd have done that. I don't regret having my two babies though,' she added. 'You just have to do what's right for you at the time.'
'That's exactly what I think.'
Karen looked across at the group of men who had settled in a clump around another table. In the dim light of the room she could make out the silhouette of two younger people sitting together at the edge of the group. She recognised the outline of John’s face, leaning closely towards the female nurse he sat with. Karen swallowed and looked away.
‘Does anyone actually ever dance?’ she finally asked.
‘Not often,’ Sheila laughed. ‘Not unless you drag them up and promise another cigarette. It’s amazing what they’ll do for a smoke!’