Read The Sleep Room Online

Authors: F. R. Tallis

Tags: #Fiction, #Horror

The Sleep Room

























I was nervous that morning: the morning of the interview. It was, as I recall, late August, and one of the last warm days of what had been an exceptional summer. The sky over Trafalgar Square was unblemished and the fountains looked like sculpted glass. In my pocket was an envelope containing Hugh Maitland’s reply to my application, written on thick cream laid paper. ‘I wonder if we could meet at my club? That would be most convenient as I have another appointment there at half past nine.’

When I was a student, I used to listen to Maitland on the Home Service. He was a frequent contributor to discussion programmes that were invariably preceded by the strains of a string quartet, often something modern and forward-looking – like Bartok. I would lie on my bed, with the lights off, hanging on his every word. An educated voice, pleasant, well modulated, avuncular, but capable of dropping (when it suited him) to a lower register that conveyed absolute authority. Looking back now, I can see that he was an example of a particular type, a member of that emerging, professional elite who came to dominate public life during the post-war years, all of whom possessed unshakeable self-belief and a profound conviction that it was their destiny to shape a better future.

Maitland was head of the department of psychological medicine at Saint Thomas’s; however, he had also managed to retain consultancies at three other hospitals: the Maudsley, the Belmont and the West End Hospital for Nervous Diseases. His scientific papers appeared regularly in the
British Journal of Psychiatry
, and his influential textbook (I still remember the pale-blue dust jacket) had just come out in its second edition.

The Braxton Club was situated on the south side of Carlton House Terrace, overlooking Saint James’s Park. Inside, everything was as I had expected: oak panelling, antique prints, and the smell of wood polish and tobacco. The doorman took my coat and directed me to a reception area, where I sat in a leather chair and listened to a particularly resonant grandfather clock. Several daily newspapers had been laid out on a nearby table, neatly folded and without a single crease. The mastheads were so smooth, I strongly suspected that they had been ironed. I was too anxious to read any of them. After five minutes or so, I was taken upstairs and ushered into a library.

I have noticed that some tall men have a tendency to stoop, but in rising from his chair, Maitland exploited his height to the full, standing erect with his chin elevated. He was wearing a pin-striped suit, the cut of which was so perfect, one immediately thought of Savile Row. An insignia on his tie suggested some collegiate affiliation. His eyes were brown, sunken slightly, and his hair was slicked back with what I judged to be a little too much pomade. The teeth of his comb had left deep furrows which recorded the direction of each stroke. He was, I suppose, someone who would be described as handsome, although the manly effect of his rugged features was compromised by an accumulation of flesh beneath his chin and the horizontal lines that divided his forehead.

‘Dr Richardson,’ said Maitland, extending his hand. I recognized the voice immediately. His grip was firm and I was inclined to tighten my own in response. ‘Thank you so much for coming.’

At that time, I was a locum at the Royal Free, where there had been an outbreak of an unusual and as yet unidentified disease. Symptoms included muscle pain, apathy and depression. Over two hundred people had been affected, including a large number of hospital staff. Maitland asked me if I had come across any of these cases and encouraged me to speculate with respect to diagnosis and possible causes. ‘The overall clinical picture,’ I ventured, ‘suggests encephalomyelitis – most probably viral in origin and spread by personal contact.’

Maitland nodded approvingly, before spreading my application and references out on the table in front of him. We talked a little about my student days, and in particular, my sporting achievements. He noted that I was a rugby blue.

‘Why did you stop playing?’ Maitland asked.

‘A leg injury.’

‘Bad luck,’ he said, with sincerity. I later learned that – due to a nasty bout of tuberculosis – he had also been obliged to bring a promising rugby career to a premature end.

We discussed my stint at Saint George’s with Sir Paul Mallinson, the research I had conducted at the sleep laboratory in Edinburgh, and my two articles (only just submitted to the
British Medical Journal

Maitland collected my papers together and tapped the edges so that all the sheets were aligned. Then, leaning forward, he said, ‘Tell me, Dr Richardson. Why does this position appeal to you? The pay is adequate for a man with your credentials – but you could probably do better elsewhere. Sir Paul has written a glowing reference.’

‘I have a long-standing interest in your work. I view this appointment as a great opportunity.’

Maitland could not resist flattery and the corners of his mouth curled upwards, but his satisfied expression was not sustained. His smile faded and was quickly replaced by a frown. ‘Have you considered our location?’ I didn’t understand what he was getting at, and seeing my puzzlement, he added: ‘Wyldehope is somewhat off the beaten track. Rural Suffolk.’

‘There are trains, I take it?’

‘Yes, yes of course. And local buses.’

‘Then I don’t think that will be a problem. I don’t have a car. But if there are trains and buses . . .’

Maitland repositioned himself in his chair and the horizontal lines on his forehead contracted together. ‘The previous registrar – Palmer . . . I don’t think he gave the matter enough thought. It was my impression that he felt rather isolated. I try to get up to Wyldehope at least once a week, but most of the time you would be working on your own.’

I shrugged. ‘Providing I am given clear instruction.’

Maitland smiled again. ‘Forgive me. Palmer’s resignation was somewhat unexpected. My fault – of course. I misjudged him. Let me tell you about the hospital. It’s all very exciting.’ He took a slim silver case from his jacket and offered me a cigarette. He lit mine, then his own, and pushed a chrome ashtray towards me. ‘Wyldehope was originally a hunting lodge owned by the Gathercole family: East Anglian gentry. During the First World War they donated it to the army as a convalescent home for wounded men. It then became an administrative building, and thereafter an intelligence centre. Churchill is reputed to have stayed there once when he visited the test base at Orford Ness. I’d been looking out for a place like Wyldehope for years. When I learned that the military had no further use for the building, I made some enquiries and managed to pull a few strings.’ Maitland took a drag from his cigarette. ‘We have twenty-four beds. Two wards and a narcosis room. We also offer limited outpatient services and very occasionally home visits – something I had to agree to, in order to keep the Health Board happy.’

‘Where do the patients come from?’ I asked.

‘The London teaching hospitals. But news travels fast. A treatment centre of this kind is a valuable resource. I’ve started to get referrals from much further afield. We’re a small operation at the moment, but I’m sure we’re going to expand. There are nine nurses. Eight of my nightingales and a local girl who’s being trained up. Then there’s Hartley – the caretaker – and his wife, who cooks and manages the kitchen.’

‘And how many medical staff?’

‘There is only one doctor.’

I hesitated before repeating his last words. ‘One doctor?’



‘I know what you’re thinking. Don’t worry. You’re not expected to be there all the time. We have an arrangement with a cottage hospital just outside Saxmundham. A duty psychiatrist comes and holds the fort most weekends.’

Maitland pulled a bell cord and continued talking about Wyldehope: his eagerness to make it a centre of excellence, his plan to expand the facility by adding two more wards the following spring. I noticed that his manner had become less formal and he insisted that I take another cigarette. He was a trenchant critic of psychotherapy and while enthusing about recent advances in drug treatment, he lambasted those whom he dismissively called ‘couch merchants’.

‘Freudian techniques are hopelessly ineffective. All that talk. All those wasted hours. Three hundred milligrams of chlorpromazine is worth months of analysis! Don’t you agree? Dreams, the unconscious, primitive urges! Psychiatry is a branch of medicine, not philosophy. Mental illness arises in the brain, a physical organ, and must be treated accordingly.’

He held my gaze, searching for signs of discomfort or dissent, before forging ahead with more rousing talk. I sensed that if Maitland hadn’t chosen a career in medicine, he would have made a very good soldier. It was easy to imagine him commanding a garrison in some far-flung outpost of the Empire.

There was a knock on the door and a serving man entered carrying a tray with two whiskies. I thought it rather early for spirits. When we were alone again, Maitland picked up a glass and indicated that I should do the same. ‘Congratulations!’ he said, grinning broadly.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Congratulations. You’ve got the job.’

I had been seeing a girl called Sheila over the summer, a secretary who worked at the BBC. We didn’t have much in common, but we generally had fun together, dancing or going to jazz clubs. We had arranged to meet at seven thirty, but as usual she was late (something I had learned to accept without complaint). I was sitting at a table in a cafe in Soho, observing the clientele: men in tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, women in white blouses and slacks. A scratchy recording of Neapolitan songs was playing on the gramophone.

Sheila arrived and we chatted about nothing in particular. It was peculiar how our lengthy, friendly conversations always remained shallow. There were never any meaningful disclosures – not even after sex. Our pillow talk was always sterile, an impartial exchange of views before the onset of sleep. Halfway through ‘’O sole Mio’, I summoned up the courage to make my announcement.

‘I went for a job interview today.’

‘Really? Did you get it?’

‘I did.’

‘Oh, well done.’ She saw the reticence in my eyes, the qualm of conscience. ‘What?’

‘Unfortunately, it involves moving to Suffolk.’

‘When are you going?’

‘Quite soon.’

She accepted this news with characteristic, cheerful indifference. In actual fact, I suspect she was relieved. There would be no need to negotiate the terms of our separation, no awkwardness, no pretence. We were free to drift apart. When we had finished drinking our coffees, we went to see a comedy at the Astoria, and when the time came to say goodbye Sheila kissed me and said, ‘Good luck. I hope it all goes well.’ She jumped on a bus and waved through the window as it joined the traffic heading towards Euston.

I took the Northern line to Kentish Town and walked the short distance from the station to the house where I rented a third-floor bedsit. When I opened the front door, my nostrils filled with the all too familiar smell of boiled vegetables: an indelible smell that never dispersed. It was only half past eleven, but my landlady, a widow called Mrs Briggs, came out of her drawing room and glared at me. She was wearing a hairnet and her arms were folded.

‘It’s very late, Dr Richardson.’

‘Yes. An emergency at the hospital.’

‘Oh, I see.’

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