“It was the darnedest thing Doc.” Captain Blue glanced over toward the body of his friend. Mason Frost, more commonly known as Doctor Gold, continued to focus on his patient, only half-listening to Blue’s tale. With any other patient, he would have described the condition as critical, but stable, but as Scarlet had been dead for nearly six hours, and was now breathing on his own, he was reluctant to take anything for granted.
“The print Destiny spotted? Security checked it against Skybase records. It was Scarlet’s.” Blue glanced at the bed. “I mean, Scarlet probably had touched the case weeks ago and the fault with the air conditioning just froze some traces of water over the print.” He shook his head. “Still, it’s a hell of a coincidence.” He glanced at Gold again. “I suppose you think Destiny and I are nuts.”
“Why should I think that?” Gold asked calmly. Blue looked surprised.
“Well, you’re a doctor. You won’t believe in the supernatural.”
“Don’t be so sure, Captain.” Gold smiled. “I had a similar experience of coincidence myself. During the Terrorism Wars…”
“The Red Cross,” Doctor Flack said, staring out the window, “is threatening that if one more VAD asks for a transfer, or to reduce their hours, they will refuse to send any more here.”
Sitting in the cracked red leather chair, Dr Mason Frost raised an eyebrow. “Can they do that? Refuse to send them to one hospital?”
“Under the circumstances, I’m not inclined to push them.” Flack turned back. “We need the VADs, Mason. We cannot run the hospital without them.”
On this, Dr Frost had to agree. The VADs, or Voluntary Aid Detachments, pretty much supported the infrastructure of this converted Tudor Manor which had being taken over to support the casualties arriving daily from the Front lines of the Terrorism Wars. They helped with the processing of casualties, were responsible for most of the laundry and cooking, and, which was the source of the current problem, provided cover for the night shifts at the hospital, allowing both doctors and nurses to catch up on some much needed sleep.
“I fail to see what I can do.”
Flack raised an eyebrow. “Talk to them. The VADs like you and you like them. Find out what’s at the bottom of this, because I cannot believe, and neither does the Red Cross, that seven VADs would suddenly wish to leave here in less than a month with no good reason.” He got to his feet, indicating that the conversation was over. “If we can find out what the symptom means, Mason, we can treat the disease.”
Stepping out of Dr Flack’s office, Dr Frost took a moment, as he often did, to appreciate the beauty of his surroundings.
Even with the paintings covered, and the furniture removed, every inch of “The Towers” gave the impression of a bygone age of luxury. In spite of that, as a modern medical hospital, it had been adapted quickly and well.
The huge Victorian kitchen had been converted into an operating room; the ancient scullery had become the room where the surgeons scrubbed up before operations. The library, robbed of its books and with the windows blackened out, served as the ICU, the unnatural light and rush and hurry of the room contrasting with its former peace and stillness.
The long gallery was now a ward, holding nearly fifty beds, and controversial Room 13 had been turned into the doctors’ lounge to try and beat the power of superstition. The ballroom was now used as a processing room for casualties. The other bedrooms were also serving as wards.
Mason frowned to himself. Well, almost all had been adapted quickly and well. Room 6, which he was sure was the cause of the present trouble, hadn’t adapted to its new role as a vigilance room, for patients not in sufficient danger for the ICU, but still too weak to be on the main wards, as well as he might have hoped.
There were four similar rooms in the house. But none of them presented the same difficulties as Room 6.
The problem with Room 6 came when the nurse in charge, Tabitha Mcgan, had complained to Dr Duff that there were six beds in the room, not five as she had been told. It had been put down to the stress of the job, and after all, the appearance of an extra bed was hardly a major problem.
That Nurse Mcgan requested a transfer soon afterwards was possibly only to be expected. But when not a single nurse had volunteered to take her place, the job had being passed to the VADs.
The first one had being Alex Soft, an experienced VAD, who was currently home on leave. She’d left within a week, after her stint in Room 6. Two others had quickly followed.
Every attempt at talking to them, at finding out what the problem was, had failed.
Mason blinked as he heard the sounds of footsteps in the corridor. Looking up, he saw Kitty Easton coming towards him.
Normally, Kitty was a ray of sunshine on the wards, laughing and joking with the patients. Today, she looked tired and overcast, with huge bags under her eyes. She was carrying books, almost hugging them to her chest.
Mason remembered that Kitty was studying to be doctor. She stopped as she saw him.
“Good afternoon, Dr Frost.”
“Good evening, Kitty.” He paused. “Kitty, do you know anything about what is going in Room 6?”
She drew back, physically afraid.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her voice belied her words.
“I think you do.” He sighed, as she looked around, terrorised. “Kitty, unless we know what the problem is, we can’t stop it.”
“And what if we don’t know what it is?”
The words were spoken in a terrorized rush, which made Dr Frost pause.
“Then that is information in itself.” He watched as she digested this and rushed on, “I want to speak to you and others who don’t know what the problem is. Can I do that, please?”
As Kitty chewed her lip, Frost was struck by how young she was. He knew rationally that most of the VADs in the hospital were between eighteen and twenty-one, too young for international service, but they normally managed to project such an air of competency and maturity, that it was easy to forget.
“Just you?” Kitty’s voice cut through his thoughts. “None of the other doctors?”
“I may have to tell Dr Flack if I believe the problem can’t be fixed.” He rushed on, “But I do not believe in unfixable problems.”
“What about death?”
Frost laughed. “Even that, I believe, in the right circumstances, can be fixed.” He smiled at the girl. “After all you are all taught CPR, aren’t you?”
Kitty seemed to be considering this. “I’ll ask them,” she said, quietly.
It was evening when he made his way to the old nursery, which the VADS had taken over as their room. There were two cots in the night nursery, where those living too far away or too tired to face the half-hour bus journey to the VAD’s hostel would sleep. During the day, the nursery was used as sitting room.
It was a small, normally quite messy room, where one or two off-duty VADs could always be found, nursing cups of tea or coffee and flicking through magazines.
Tonight, however, it was full. It looked to Mason like every VAD who wasn’t on duty was sitting or standing, ill-at-ease, in the small room.
Kitty sat in the centre of a battered old couch, as Mason made his way to a wooden chair positioned in the centre of the room. He sat carefully down on it, feeling all eyes on him.
“So,” he said softly. “What is the matter?”
Everyone started talking at once. It was a confused babble, but slowly Mason began to understand the basic details.
There was something definitely wrong in Room 6. Other than the mysterious bed (which only perhaps half of these people had noticed), they had seen nothing. But they had all felt something.
“What?” he asked, curious.
A presence. Like someone watching over your shoulder. That seemed to be the general impression. And hatred.
“Hatred?” He had looked around, surprised, but everyone had nodded. They had heard nothing. When the feeling was particularly bad, some of them had seen a bed appear out of thin air, but nothing more. And yet, all of them agreed that there was something there and that this something seemed to hate them and the patients.
“She’s mad,” Don Eppes offered. Mason knew that Don had nearly five years’ experience with the Red Cross. This was his last posting before he would be old enough to serve abroad as a mobile VAD, and yet the certainty and fear in his voice was undeniable.
They glanced at each other.
“It’s definitely a woman.”
“But you’ve seen nothing.”
Again they nodded as a group.
“But it feels like a woman,” Don insisted.
Kitty smiled sadly. “Now you understand what I meant earlier.”
“And the patients?” Mason asked. This was important. “They have noticed nothing?”
The VADs looked at each other. “Some have reported the feeling that there was something in the room,” one answered nervously.
“And the patients in that room do seem more likely to worsen,” added another.
“But no one has said anything to us directly,” Kitty finished. “And we’re not going to ask them.”
While Mason could understand that, he felt a rush of pity for them. All alone, trying to cope with this fear on their own, unable to talk about it even among themselves for fear of the patients overhearing… It was not surprising so many had quitted. In fact, it was surprising more had not done so.
He could tell that the VADs were frightened and that their fear was infectious. At the same time, surely, it was more likely that there was a perfectly rational explanation for all that.
Perhaps an air vent coming down at a strange angle or a badly positioned curtain? Perhaps some of what he was thinking showed on his face as Don glared at him.
“You think we’re making this up.”
“No,” Mason hastened to reassure him. “No, I think that you believe this to be true.”
“But you, you don’t think it is true.”
An idea occurred to Mason. Difficult, but a perfect solution. If he were to spend the night on duty with the VADs in Room 6 and experience nothing, that would at least help to lay their fears to rest.
“I’m a scientist,” he said slowly. “I believe the evidence I can see.” He paused. “If I were to experience this, then perhaps it would seem less fanatical.”
He outlined his plan. The VADs were concerned and cynical, but after some discussion, they agreed that it seemed a sensible thing to do.
“Tomorrow night then?” Mason asked. Kitty and Don were on duty in Room 6, starting at ten, and they agreed they would watch with him.
Mason Frost headed downstairs, merely stopping to put his head around Doctor Flack’s door and tell him that he was certain he would get to the bottom of the VADs desertion by tomorrow night.
Mason arrived back at the hospital at 9:30 and walked to Room 6.
Don and Kitty were standing outside the room, talking to the on-duty nurse. They caught Mason’s eye as he entered the room, but didn’t react.
Mason moved into the room. He walked around, surveying the room, and the patients. Four of the beds were occupied; the fifth was neatly made up, ready to receive its next occupant. The patients in the beds were sleeping the deep sleep of the drugged and blissfully unaware.
The room was a solid square, the windows hermetically sealed. The curtains, made of rich heavy velvet, were tied back securely, far more securely than he expected. Behind the heavy wooden desk set by the door where the on-duty nurses or VADs sat, there was a glass-fronted bookcase, with ornate gas lanterns attached to either end.
The lighting of the room was provided by two fluorescent tubes, hanging from the middle of the ceiling. In short, at first glance, there was nothing that could account for the VADs negative reaction to this room.
However, at the same time, Mason Frost was not a cynic of the supernatural, like so many of his colleagues. He knew that there was much about the universe that was not explained. But here… he was less sure. There was no atmosphere, or at least not one that he could detect.
He picked a chart up at random from the foot of a bed and studied it. Thankfully, the boy (he was only nineteen, poor child) was one of his patients.
He moved and pulled a chair from beside one of the beds to the desk.
“Everything’s O.K., Doc?”
He nodded, avoiding Don’s eyes. “A little concerned. A quick review can’t hurt.”
It was nearly the truth; but it was not the patient he was reviewing.
The hours ticked softly by. Don and Kitty sat at the desk, working through their paperwork and talking occasionally in hushed voices. Mason knew they were ill-at-ease, but nothing in their current behaviour betrayed their nervousness. He marvelled again at their professionalism.
One or two of the patients shifted in their beds, summoning either Don or Kitty to leave their post to check on them, but most slept without movement, except for the steady rise and fall of the chest.
A nurse stopped by, looking surprised to see Doctor Frost sitting by the bed, but spoke to Don and Kitty. He listened as they gave their report, remaining calm and professional. The nurse nodded briskly and continued on her round.
When he heard distant a clock striking one, Mason felt himself relaxing. For some reason, he was convinced that if anything was going to happen, it would happen at midnight. And as nothing had… Smiling, he glanced towards the VADs, but both dropped their heads avoiding his eyes.
It’s not over yet, their body language seemed to say.
Mason shrugged, returning his attention to the chart he held in his hands, his mind running over the various possibilities. The VAD’s shift changed at four, an hour after the nurses; he was due in the operation theatre at midday. There was enough time to keep the watch and to still catch enough sleep to be…
He froze, his whole body still, as the primeval senses kicked into overdrive.
Someone else was in the room.
It was ridiculous. Of course there were other people in the room with him. There was Don, writing a note in the log book; there was Kitty, taking a pulse two beds down from him; there were the patients sleeping soundly…
But this was something else. Someone who had no right to be the room.
Mason’s breathing deepened and he tried to identify the source of this odd feeling of a presence. Of where this predator (he could find no other word for it) was.
He looked around the room. He could see no-one, nothing out of the ordinary. Just himself, Kitty, Don… and six beds.
Six. Not five.
He blinked, but the extra bed remained there. It was almost hidden in the alcove, covered with white pillows and flowered sheets – whereas the other beds in the room were covered with white sheets and matching blankets. It was occupied, but he couldn’t see the patient; just the lumps that told him one was there.
A cold sweat ran down Mason’s spine. It wasn’t that bed as such, but that unknown presence in the room which was putting him so ill-at-ease – a presence which radiated an aura of hate and loathing he had rarely felt before. It hated him, it hated Kitty and Don and it seemed to especially hate the patients. Hate all their helplessness, their dependency, their uselessness. It hated him, Kitty and Don for helping them. For coping so adequately under difficult circumstances. It hated that they were ignoring it.
No, not it. Her.
What made Mason so sure it was a woman, he couldn’t say. Just a sense that the presence was female. A woman on the edge, a woman desperately unhappy perhaps, but a woman. And that she, whoever or whatever she could be, couldn’t suffer their presence there, and desperately wish for them to leave. To go away and to stop shoving their competence in her face. To take the helpless patients with them and to leave her alone.
It wasn’t the bed which was the source of the feeling. He couldn’t say how he knew that so precisely.
Mason risked a glance towards Kitty and Don, to know if they were feeling the same thing as he did. Don was hunched almost double over the log book, trying to make himself seem as small and insignificant as he could. Kitty’s hand was shaking as she released the wrist of a patient she was checking over. Neither of them dared look at him or at each other.
Mason swallowed, his mouth suddenly very dry. The fear and the hatred coming from this presence was almost physically overwhelming them with its intensity. It was primeval, reaching the part of the brain that had warned man in his early days that he was in danger.
But man had learnt to conquer that fear, to face the danger, and to stand up in the face of adversity.
With a huge effort, which reminded him just how much the human head weighed as he had learned during training for treatments of spinal injuries, Mason snapped his head up, determined to face this unknown manifestation.
He was never entirely sure what he saw; it looked like a flash of white, but a different white, similar to the smoke grey-white that he would associate with Hollywood ghosts. This was the brilliant starched white of crisp cotton or linen. More than that, he could not be certain. No shape of any kind, no definite movement. Nothing.
Then it became dark.
He heard the clock struck four, echoing through the darkness, and he saw faces. Kitty and Don were bending over him. He was lying on his back, on the floor.
How did he end up there, he had no idea. He must have lost consciousness; but he didn’t even remember that from happening.
“You alright, Doc?” Don asked.
Mason swallowed and tried to speak. Not a sound passed his lips.
“Come on.” Kitty slid an arm under his and Don gripped his other. Between them, they moved Mason to his feet.
“You saw something, didn’t you?” Kitty asked him, as they dropped him in the visitor’s chair by the side of the bed.
“You didn’t lose consciousness?”
At Mason’s question, Don shook her head. “You flopped on the floor like a sack of flour. And then, the presence – that woman – was gone. Like she often does at this time.” He smiled, the smile of the man who’d just passed through a great challenge and survived. “She must have really hated you, Doc. No-one’s ever lost consciousness before.”
“Oh.” Mason shrugged, feeling a little embarrassed. “I didn’t see anything fantastical, no… As for this presence here… Well… I don’t know what to make of it.”
For once in his life, Mason Frost’s logical mind couldn’t find a proper explanation for something that can be viewed as a strange phenomenon. He had no answer. He had no clue – outside from thinking there was really something out there.
And if he couldn’t explain this phenomenon to himself – how would he be able to explain it to Doctor Flack and the rest of his colleagues?
“In the end, I didn’t try,” Gold admitted softly. “Just told Dr Flack that if Room 6 was taken out of use as a ward, then I suspected that the VADs would stop leaving. I think he suspected I would come with a suggestion of the kind, as he agreed immediately. So we moved the patients into an old dressing room. It was a tight squeeze, but it solved the problem. Don left us for international service a year later, and Kitty completed her studies as a doctor. Both served with distinction in the Red Cross. They might still be working there, today.”
“But what was the problem?” Blue asked, his eyes wide.
Gold shrugged. “I don’t know. A busy medic in a warzone has precious little time for the investigation of the supernatural, and after all, she couldn’t hurt anyone. She terrorized the nurses and the VADS, but that was the extent of her power. She couldn’t do anything.”
“She. So you think too that it was a woman.”
“The others were right. It felt like a woman. I felt it too.” Gold paused and walked over to the desk, his back to Blue. “There may be a perfectly innocent explanation, of course. The house was very old. The room had originally being lit with gas, it’s perfectly possible that the pipes had either never being disconnected or were damaged in some way. Carbon monoxide poisoning has been known to cause many strange effects. Hallucinations being one of those.”
Blue watched him cautiously and shook his head firmly. “You don’t believe that.”
“No.” Mason shook his head. “No, I don’t. It’s possible, but everyone felt the same thing. There were no variations between their stories. And everyone seeing the same thing, namely the sixth bed, with the flowery sheets, with no prior knowledge of it, stretches incredibility.” Gold shrugged. “About three… no, it would be nearer to five years ago, I received a letter from Kitty. She spoke of her own career after leaving The Towers and asked about mine, before enquiring if I remembered the problem with Room 6.” He paused a moment, and then continued: “She then mentioned that as part of the celebrations of the Red Cross’s two hundredth anniversary, each branch had been asked to research its history and produce a report. She mentioned a rather odd coincidence that in the First World War, The Towers had been given to the Red Cross to use as a convalescence home. The log book for the hospital still exists, and there was a rather strange story in there.”
“What kind of a story?” Blue asked, starting to get suspicious.
Slowly, Gold turned around and returned to stand in front of Blue. “It seems a young pilot, an American, had died in Room 6, in 1918. He had suffered horrible injuries and was not expected to live long, but a fellow patient, a young Welsh soldier, insisted that a nurse had killed him. Such accusations were, and still are, taken very seriously by the Red Cross and the nurse was immediately suspended, while an investigation was carried out. The autopsy found no evidence of foul play, but the Welsh soldier insisted the nurse was responsible. That she had, somehow, ill-wished the American pilot to die.”
Blue looked sceptical.
“The patient was suffering badly from shell shock and was not believed. Although the investigation completely exonerated the nurse of any wrong doing, the matron recommended that the nurse was transferred as soon as physically possible. That she was suffering from nervous exhaustion.”
“I can imagine,” Blue observed dryly.
Gold removed his glasses and began to polish them. “With long hours and limited support, the risk of carers coming to resent, to even hate those they care for, is well known and well documented now. But in 1918, few would have honestly considered it. Perhaps something in this nurse’s personality, of her feelings of helplessness, of being overwhelmed by circumstances, her resulting hatred and resentment of the patients and of those she perceived as coping better than herself, forced itself into the walls of this room – and only came out again under specific circumstances. The patients might have sensed the uneasiness of the nurses and VADs at the time – and consequently, their own ill-feeling might have fed up… the presence.”
“You don’t believe that either, Doc,” Blue commented quietly.
Gold looked uncomfortable. “At this point, Captain Blue, I really would not know. It’s only one theory over a few others of what might have happened in Room 6.”
Scarlet began to stir on the bed and Blue glanced towards him. Gold smiled. “But it is fantastic. And there might be, of course, a perfectly rational explanation we have yet to discover.”
As the more observant of you may be aware, this year marks the 100th of the First World War. I wish I could say I wrote this story in its honour, but it’s actually been in the works for the last two years.
The VAD or Voluntary Aid Detachment scheme was started by a Joint committee of the British Red Cross and St. Johns Ambulance (as only Red Cross personnel are guaranteed protection under the Geneva convention) in 1914, though it had initially been proposed to back up the medical services in the event of War in 1909.
VADs were aged between 16 and 48. Those between 19 (originally 21) and 42 and unmarried could become mobile VADs, meaning they agreed to be sent wherever they were needed, including overseas. Immobile VADs provided invaluable help in hospital, as relief for the formal medical staff. Women were required to undertake assessment in First Aid and Nursing, with 50 hours hospital service to qualify, while men only had to take assessments in First Aid. Men and women served separately. In spite of the invaluable service the VADs provided, their sacrifice (245 died in the First World War alone) is often ignored or forgotten today. I like the idea that it was restarted for the Terrorism Wars, again to provide medical support for those caught up in the conflict, including support and relief of the military medical services.
Many VADs came from privileges classes (Middle and upper classes) and their VAD training might be the first the time they had ever made a bed! Add to that the horrific injuries that many had suffered, the long hours expected from both professional and volunteer nurses and the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, stress and exhaustion were not uncommon.
These days, support is provided to any Red Cross personnel who knew about it, but during the past this was not always the case.