ALL of the patients were sleeping when Karen entered the ward. The lights were dim, but she could still make out the six sleeping bodies in their beds, twitching, snoring, their figures partially illuminated by the glow from the heart monitors. The cardiac unit was not the easiest place to work in. Karen knew that there was always a possibility that after gently shaking a patient during the six am wake up call, she would find the body to be prone, stiff, the soul having slipped out during the night.
Karen had worked as a nurse in most sections of the hospital, and the cardiac unit had its’ plus points. During the night shift there wasn’t much to do except keep an eye out for irregular heart rates on the monitors, and unexpected emergencies were rare. She could quite easily get through half a novel if her paperwork had been completed. The soft trilling of the heart monitors reminded her that her patients, her “chaps ” were safe in their beds. Sometimes she would be joined by a trainee nurse, but rarely on a Sunday night, which was almost always a quiet evening. She was content to be alone and responsible for the ward. Or she would have been, had it not been for Vernon Saul.
Karen paused by the entrance to the ward. The patient at the far end of the room, Vernon Saul, was lying very still. Unlike the other gentlemen in the ward, who were all over fifty, Vernon did not snore. He was very, very still. Vernon had been an unusual admittance. He was found one morning on the corner of Edward Street, not far from the hospital in Brighton. An ambulance had rushed him in after the paramedics suspected that he’d shown symptoms of arrhythmia.
Not much was known about Vernon Saul. He was found without a wallet, and his clothes were worn. He looked and smelt like he’d been sleeping rough. The details he gave were no trace on hospital and police systems, and his face did not match details on the intelligence portals, which contained photos of some of the homeless community. Vernon was cleaned-up by the nurses, the wound on his head sanitised, and he was sent to the cardiac unit for further tests.
At the ward’s morning briefing, the senior cardiologist had explained his theories to the nursing staff. Vernon was placed on a waiting list to have stents fitted, a preventative measure. Social services would have to get involved at some stage, and possibly the mental health team, as Vernon’s behaviour was…odd. Vernon couldn’t explain how old he was or even his nationality, although his accent suggested that he was a British national. He wasn’t young, that was clear, maybe in his late fifties, with a bald head crowned by dry, grey wisps of hair. But the strangest thing about Vernon Saul was his complete lack of panic, his almost entirely calm composure. It was almost as if he was enjoying the experience of being trussed-up in a hospital gown and monitored constantly. Maybe he was an attention seeker, but that didn’t quite fit either.
Karen’s husband, Mike, was a junior doctor at the same hospital as Karen. He’d helped to assess Vernon, and had warned Karen to watch out for wandering hands and adverse language. “He’s a strange one”, Mike had said. “I’d rather you were with another member of staff when you treat him.”
“I’ve been a nurse for fifteen years, Mike,” Karen had said. “I can deal with a difficult patient. Anyway, from what I’ve seen of him, he’s not aggressive. Just…creepy.”
“He’s certainly that,” Mike said. “Are you working tonight?”
“Yes. It’s on the calendar. I thought you were the on-call Doctor?”
Karen and Mike attempted to synchronise their lives with the aid of a calendar, which was stuck onto the fridge with the assistance of some worn magnets. It helped them to align their lives where possible, and helped them to arrange, if their schedules allowed it, the occasional night-in together with a take away and a bit of TV. Not easy when both partners work in the medical practice, and something that Karen envied of “normal” couples who worked nine to five.
Mike had looked rather sheepish when Karen had mentioned the night off. He ran one hand through his hair somewhat nervously.
“No, tonight is my night off. I thought it was on the calendar?”
“It’s not. I thought we were both off tomorrow night? We’d pencilled in a date night.”
“Babe, I’m covering for Corinne tomorrow night. I’m an idiot, I should have changed it on the chart.”
Karen must have looked a bit despondent, because Mike cupped her chin with his hands, and kissed her softly on the lips.
“I’m sorry. I’m an idiot.”
“No worries. Just don’t mess up next weekend, that’s Beth and David’s engagement party.”
“Not a chance. That’s been booked ‘off’ for ages.”
Mike smiled. Karen looked at her husband, still amazed at how fresh-faced he had remained, with barely a line around his eyes, and just a hint of grey in his beard. Fifteen years of late shifts and stress had done little to age him, whilst she was aware of every dark circle around her eyes, every ache. She feared that he was somehow immune to the environment around him, a powerhouse of energy and intelligence, whilst she was tired, lacking in motivation and energy.
“I’ve got to get back now, hope your shift goes well.” His eyes met hers again, hesitantly.
“Just about Mr.Saul, his behaviour is probably down to the side effects of the blow to the head, or maybe early onset dementia, but just watch out. Any inappropriate behaviour, report it.”
And that was that. The end of his shift and the start of hers. Two lives wanting so much to be in sync with each other, but not even the calendar on the fridge could solve that problem,that both of them were tied inextricably to their work duties.
Karen returned to her desk, and checked that the syringes and sachets of warfarin were ready for the morning. She hated injecting warfarin into the paper-thin skin of the mostly elderly gentlemen, but it was a life-saver, a blood-thinner to prevent clotting if the patient was bed-bound for a long time.
As Karen settled into her chair, she noticed a slight flickering on the monitors. This was not too unusual in itself, but there was something about the atmosphere on the ward that night that made the hairs on the nape of her neck prickle. The monitor showed all six sleeping men, dreaming, snoring, scratching in their sleep. There was another crackle, coming from the monitor. The picture was a bit fuzzy. Karen reached out to adjust the brightness, but jumped when she noticed the occupant of the bed at the very back, Vernon Saul, was sitting upright. The black and white image flickered once again, and Karen could just about make out Vernon’s head slowly turning towards the camera.
She wondered if she should let him settle, but her conscience advised her that his awakening could be for another reason, perhaps a very strong ectopic heartbeat, or even a heart murmur.
Karen strode quietly and confidently into the main section of the ward, and walked over to Vernon’s bed. She sat herself down on the visitor’s chair. There were no cards, flowers or food on his bedside cabinet. His sheets were crumpled, and there was a strange aroma in the air, musty but sharp, mothballs with a hint of vinegar. Vernon, still upright, turned to face Karen.
“Are you alright, Mr. Saul?”
“Fine, thank you. Hard to sleep in here, isn’t it?’
His voice was raspy, hoarse. Karen guessed he had been a smoker, or had perhaps damaged his vocal cords after a nasty bout of flu and coughing.
“How is your evening going, Nurse?” Vernon rasped, hospitably enough.
“It’s going fine, Mr. Saul.”
“Vernon. Now, I’d like to take your blood pressure, just to make sure everything’s fine.”
“Won’t that wake the others? Your machine, with all its’ bleeps and whirrings.” Vernon smiled, revealing a mouth of receding gums and stumpy broken teeth, visibly yellowed even in the dusky light.
“I think they’ll sleep through anything,” Karen said, smiling. She got to her feet and wheeled over the blood pressure machine from the alcove near to the window. Vernon automatically raised his arm, and Karen placed the Velcro fastening tight around his bicep. As the pressure built, Vernon looked uncomfortable, but didn’t wince or cry out. Once the machine registered a normal result, Karen undid the fastening.
“All done, as right as rain.” Karen smiled at him. He didn’t seem to be all that bad, just a bit odd.
He was skin and bone, she’d have to watch his diet over the next couple of days, build him up a bit before he went nil by mouth in preparation for the operation. “If you’re all okay Vernon, I’ll head back to my desk. Good night.”
“You called me Vernon.”
Karen looked confused. Vernon’s voice had suddenly turned colder, sharper, as if he were a teacher appraising his student.
“You asked me to call you Vernon,” she replied.
“Yes. I can call you Mr. Saul if you’d prefer.”
“No thanks.” Vernon held her gaze, his watery eyes a light blue. “I’d like you to address me by my correct title. I’d like you to call me the Devil.”
Karen was taken aback, but tried not to let it show. She got to her feet.
“That’s a very strange thing to say, Mr.Saul.”
“Oh, but I am the Devil. I have many names, but that’s the one you’re most familiar with, Karen.”
“Good night, Mr. Saul.” Disconcerted but trying not to show it, Karen turned around and started to walk out of the treatment area and towards her desk.
“I didn’t agree with it, you know,” Vernon called out in a sing-song voice, less raspy than before. “Your yearly performance review. I couldn’t agree with them, calling you “lacking in confidence and common sense”. Very cruel. You might not be doctor material, but you are a fine nurse, Karen.”
Karen turned on her heel. It was true, her yearly review was negative, with only a few lines damning her with faint praise at best. She’d gone home and cried in Mike’s arms, it had knocked her sideways after years of hard graft, but the new head of the unit obviously didn’t think she was worth her weight in gold. It was political, of course, both Karen and Mike were strongly affiliated with the hospital’s union, which had irritated some of the big cheeses. But how could Vernon have known this? Without wanting to, Karen walked back to Vernon’s side.
“Can you not shout please, you’ll wake up the other patients.”
“What you really want to know is,” Vernon said, “how can he know that? The man who never leaves his bed?”
“Paper work gets left around all the time, Vernon. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that someone dropped the paper work and you picked it up.”
“I know it because I am the devil.”
Vernon licked his lips with his sharp little tongue.
“I wouldn’t worry, Karen. You’ll still go back after your shift ends to your three bed semi-detached house, with your doctor husband in your bed, and smoked salmon chilling in your fridge. And me? Well, I’ll go back to the streets, once they’ve operated. Waking up outside Waitrose as the shop manager with the badly-dyed hair steps over me, my mouth full of dirt and spiders.”
“Waitrose eh?” Karen said. “You’ve got good taste.” Karen knew that it was wrong to have a dig, but she couldn’t resist. Part of her wanted to throw all she could at the awful skeletal freak, but she realised that walking away would be the best option. By the same token she felt like staying, she was both fascinated and disturbed, listening to Vernon’s voice, the voice which was softer now, almost calming…
“You know all about the spiders, don’t you Karen? There are some in your house aren’t there, not as many as on the streets, but still there. They frighten you, don’t they.” Vernon leaned forward, the tendons of his neck stretching his parchment like skin. “They scuttle, don’t they Karen. You are scared of them, those eight legs, scuttling against your frozen face as you sleep, exploring you, those eight frantic, hairy little legs…”
“And you know that I’m scared of spiders because you’re the devil?”
Vernon smiled, his watery eyes glinting.
“Millions of people have a phobia of spiders, Vernon. You’re not that clever.”
“I do know everything.”
“Because you’re the devil?”
Karen, more angered than afraid, leaned in closer to Vernon. The pungent vinegary smell hit her, but her face remained close to his.
“In the morning,” she said, “you’ll be assessed by the psychiatric team. You can try your mind games on them.”
Vernon nodded, in an almost child-like manner. “Righty-ho.” Vernon’s tongue darted out from his mouth momentarily, like a snake testing its environment. “I have one more truth for you Nurse Karen.”
“Try me.” Karen replied firmly.
Vernon raised a finger to his forehead, absentmindedly playing with the scab that had formed on his temple following the fall.
“Your husband deliberately swapped his shift tonight. Your husband is a duplicitous cad who is currently in a restaurant with the pretty young nurse from the X-Ray unit.”
Karen looked aghast, then straightened up, her eyes still fixated on Vernon.
“That’s a load of rubbish.”
“Try it.” Vernon smiled at her, the lips surrounding his stumpy mouth curling at the edges. “Try it and see. Leave the cardiac unit now, we’re all okay here. Go back home and by the time you get there, they’ll have left the restaurant and will be in the spare bedroom. You won’t like it.” Vernon tilted his head to the side, quizzically. “Did you know he likes them blonde?”
Karen raised one hand towards her greying, dark hair. She then walked towards her desk,
Vernon’s last words ringing in her ears.
“Be sure to bring your syringes, Nurse Karen, for when you find them. Be sure to fill your syringes on the way out with the potions and poisons from the medical cabinet.” Karen kept walking but she could hear every word, Vernon’s voice gliding across the ward. “Plunge it deep into him, Karen. It’s only fair, it’s only right.”
Karen was only seated at her desk for a couple of minutes. She thought back to Mike’s recent behaviour, his change of shifts, his reluctance to answer his mobile. And how he’d seemed furtive when she came across him having a coffee in the canteen with his friend. His new friend, the blonde nurse.
Picking up her bag and two as yet empty syringes, Karen switched off the monitors and slowly walked out of the ward, towards the drug cupboard.
The five sleeping patients who were not the devil rested deeply. In his bed, Vernon stretched his arms out and yawned. “I am the bloody devil, you know.” he said, before falling fast asleep.