The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis – Extract

The Sleep Room

1

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?’

‘Yes.’

‘But—’

‘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.’

She tightened the belt of her dressing gown and said, ‘Goodnight, then.’

‘Goodnight, Mrs Briggs.’

‘Don’t forget to switch off the landing light.’

‘I won’t, Mrs Briggs. Sleep well.’

I tried to creep up the stairs quietly but it was impos­sible. Almost every step produced a loud creak. On entering my room, I placed a chair by the window and looked up into a cloudless sky. A full moon had risen above the chimney stacks and the slates were awash with a silvery brilliance. I didn’t think about Sheila once. I thought about Maitland.

*

On the day I was due to make my departure, I had intended to catch an early train; however, an administra­tive error necessitated my immediate return to the Royal Free. There were some documents that had to be signed. My replacement, Dr Collins, had just arrived, and I fool­ishly allowed myself to be dragged into a protracted and rather tedious handover meeting. Collins asked me a ludicrous number of questions and I’m ashamed to say I grew quite impatient.

It was late afternoon when I arrived at Liverpool Street station, just in time to catch the six thirty-four to Ipswich. On reaching Ipswich, I telephoned the caretaker, Mr Hartley, to inform him of my delay. It had already been arranged that Mr Hartley would meet me at Wyldehope and show me to my quarters. He did not seem terribly inconvenienced and said, ‘Call me again when you get to Darsham.’ The branch line took me as far as Woodbridge, where a signal failure meant that I had to disembark and wait for another two hours, after which a small locomo­tive appeared, belching smoke, and pulling along two empty carriages. I picked up my suitcase, heaved it aboard, and after squeezing through the narrow corridor, entered the first compartment. Before I was seated, a whistle blew, and the train began to crawl forward.

Once the train was out of Woodbridge, I was able to study the countryside – low, rolling hills and flat ex­panses. Night was falling and the windows soon became black and reflective. The train stopped at a couple more stations, Melton and Wickham Market, but my carriage remained empty. At Saxmundham, I heard a door slam­ming shut and a few seconds later I saw a man outside my compartment. He peered through the glass and our eyes met. Before I could look away, he slid the door aside and stepped over the metal track. Removing his hat, he nodded, before sitting down on the seat directly oppo­site. The train began to move and the station slipped away.

‘Are you going to Lowestoft?’ the man asked.

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Darsham.’

‘Darsham?’ he repeated, his voice carrying a note of surprise.

‘Well, not exactly,’ I continued. ‘Dunwich Heath? There’s a new hospital there. I’m a doctor.’

‘Wyldehope Hall.’

‘Yes.’

I had supposed that, having chosen to enter the only occupied compartment in the train, my companion was in need of company. But my supposition was quite wrong. It was as though, having satisfied his curiosity concerning my identity, he had no more need of conversation. He sat very still, frowning slightly, his hands tightly gripping his kneecaps. I turned my face towards the window. A few minutes later he spoke again. ‘It wasn’t wanted.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘The hospital. Folk ’round here didn’t want a mad­house on their doorstep.’

I was finding his behaviour and manner quite irritating.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I’m sorry to hear that. There are many individuals who suffer from diseases of the mind and provision has to be made for their care. They have to be treated somewhere.’

The man bit his lower lip and fell silent again. I toyed with the idea of moving to a different compartment, but decided against it. Instead, I distracted myself by reading Maitland’s textbook and when the train came into Dar­sham I was quick to leave the carriage.

I stepped down onto a platform shrouded in mist. Stressed metal groaned, flashes of firelight emanated from the cab, and glowing cinders formed chaotic constellations above the smokestack. The effect was vaguely diabolical. I glanced at my wristwatch and paused to observe the train pulling out. The wheels began to turn and I stood there, immobile, strangely captivated as the engine and carriages vanished into an opaque middle distance. I picked up my suitcase and walked to the end of the platform where a ramp descended to the road. There, a few yards ahead of me, I saw a telephone box. I stepped inside and lifted the receiver, but when I held it to my ear there was no dialling tone. Swearing loudly, I replaced the receiver and lifted it again. Still no tone. I took a deep breath and made my exit by leaning my back against the door.

Ribbons of mist were floating before my eyes. I ven­tured a short distance from the telephone box and noticed that the station had all but disappeared. Even so, I took a few more steps down the road with the intention of walk­ing into the village. I remembered what Maitland had said about Wyldehope being ‘somewhat off the beaten track’ and his impression that the previous registrar, Palmer, had felt ‘rather isolated’. At that moment, I heard the wail of a night animal, one of those melancholy calls that could easily be mistaken for the cry of a human child. The combination of the impenetrable mist and the eerie cry proved too much for my already tired nerves and I turned back.

I ascended the ramp and walked up and down the platform. The door to the ticket office was locked, all of the station windows were dark and the only illumination came from a row of lamp posts. There was, however, a waiting room, the door of which was open. I went inside, sat on a bench and considered my situation. It seemed to me that I had no choice but to wait for the mist to clear and then make another attempt at reaching the village.

A few minutes passed, during which time I stared hopelessly through the window. Then I heard footsteps. I got up, rushed out, and saw a bright light coming towards me, beams lancing through the haze. I raised my hand to protect my eyes from the glare. Someone called – ‘Hello there!’ – and a few seconds later a uniformed figure appeared in front of me. It was the stationmaster, wheel­ing a bicycle. I was so glad to see another person that I laughed out aloud with delight. ‘Good evening.’

‘Look at this!’ said the stationmaster, creating a swirl of fog with a wave of his hand. ‘It came in off the marshes about an hour ago.’

‘Will it clear?’

‘Who knows. Sometimes it does – sometimes it doesn’t.’

‘I wonder if you could help me. My name is Dr Richardson. I’m expected at Wyldehope Hall: the new hospital on Dunwich Heath?’ The stationmaster showed no sign of recognition. ‘The public telephone is out of order. Might I use yours instead? Otherwise I fear I might be stuck here all night.’

The stationmaster escorted me back to his office and I called Mr Hartley, who was, on this occasion, less understanding. ‘I suppose I’d better come and get you,’ he grumbled. The stationmaster informed me that Dun­wich Heath was only five miles away: ‘You won’t have to wait for very long.’

He locked his office and we walked down the plat­form together. When we reached its end, he mounted his bicycle, said ‘Goodnight, sir’ and coasted down the ramp, ringing his bell.

I positioned myself beneath the projecting roof of the station and gazed out into a featureless expanse. The quiet was extraordinary. Dense and absolute. A car passed, driving very slowly, and I did not see another one until Mr Hartley arrived some thirty minutes later.

Mr Hartley was a big man with a pockmarked face and bulbous features. His hair was brushed to one side and he wore spectacles with circular lenses. He was not particu­larly talkative, although this was quite understandable given the circumstances. I apologized several times for my lateness, but this had no effect on his manner. He was still disinclined to make conversation. We passed through only one village on our way to the hospital, a place called Westleton, after which, thankfully, the mist began to lift and Mr Hartley was able to drive faster. A mile or so fur­ther on, the road became uneven and I had to press my palm against the dashboard so as to prevent myself from being thrown around. We passed between two square columns and I saw a cluster of faint lights ahead.

‘Wyldehope,’ said Hartley.

As we drew closer I realized that I was not looking at one building, but several – a central block flanked by out­houses. The car ground to a halt beside a stone porch, and when I got out, I took a few steps backwards to get a better look at my new home. It was too dark to see very much detail, but I was able to discern mullioned win­dows, mock battlements and a tower. A background noise was impinging on my awareness, and when I gave it my full attention, I realized that I was listening to the sea.

‘This way, please,’ said Mr Hartley. He was standing in front of the car with my suitcase.

We walked to the porch and the caretaker produced a bunch of keys from his coat pocket. He unlocked the door and we entered a spacious but dimly lit vestibule. It was decorated with wallpaper that I supposed must be Victorian – gloomy maroon stripes enlivened by a floral motif of faded gold. A suit of armour, evidently unpol­ished for centuries, stood guard by the stairs. I followed Mr Hartley up to the first-floor landing, where we passed beneath a stag’s head with glassy black eyes. When we reached the second-floor landing, Mr Hartley unlocked another door, switched on a light, and invited me to enter a wide hallway which had rooms adjoining it on both sides. He handed me a key. ‘You only need the one, sir. None of the other rooms on the second floor are occupied.’ I was shown a bedroom, a study, a small kitchen and a bathroom. The furniture was solid and functional, except for an antique writing bureau which was elegant and beautifully crafted. I imagined myself seated at it, writing a monograph.

‘Would you like your breakfast brought up, sir?’ asked the caretaker. ‘Or would you prefer to join the nurses in the staff canteen?’

‘If it isn’t any trouble, I think I’d like to eat here.’

‘I’ll tell Mrs Hartley. Seven o’clock suit you?’

‘That would be very good.’

‘Oh, I almost forgot – Dr Maitland called. He’ll be arriving tomorrow at ten thirty. I think you were expect­ing to see him a little earlier.’ Mr Hartley put the keys back in his pocket. ‘Well, I think that’s it, sir.’

I wanted a cup of tea, but dared not ask. ‘Thank you so much. And thank you for collecting me from the station. That was most kind of you.’

The caretaker appeared indifferent to my gratitude and said, rather brusquely, ‘Goodnight, sir.’

I locked the door to the landing and set about unpack­ing my suitcase. After hanging my shirts in the wardrobe, I filled a few drawers with the remainder of my clothes and distributed the rest of my possessions (mostly books and documents) in the study.

When I had finished, I walked down to the bathroom, where I washed my face and brushed my teeth. The sink was deep and its surface broken by fine cracks. Each of the taps had a circular enamel medallion at its centre, on which black letters spelled out the words ‘hot’ and ‘cold’. Raising my head, I looked at my reflection. I placed a finger under one of my eyes and dragged the loose skin downwards, exposing a crescent of pale, pink flesh.

There was a sound – a familiar sound – a sigh, and it seemed to come from just behind me.

I stared into the mirror, registering the emptiness of the bathroom.

That someone might be lurking in the hallway seemed very unlikely. I had heard no approaching footsteps, only the curious, breathy exhalation. Nevertheless, I found myself checking, and even peered into a few of the adja­cent rooms to make sure that I was truly alone.

The tap was still running, and I was about to go back to the sink in order to turn it off, when an obscure intuition made me hesitate. I was reminded of the superstitious wariness that arrests one’s progress the instant one perceives that the path ahead proceeds beneath a ladder. Irritated by my own irrationality, I marched over the linoleum, grasped the tap handle, and rotated it until the flow of water stopped. I looked at my reflection again, perhaps more carefully than before, and I was forced to concede that I was not looking my best: my complexion was sallow and my eyes bloodshot. It had been a long day and I was clearly overtired. A painful throbbing in my head accompanied each beat of my heart.

I returned to the bedroom, put on my pyjamas, and got into bed. As I listened to the subtle music of waves on shin­gle, London seemed very distant. I thought again about what had happened in the bathroom. If the ‘sigh’ had been produced by natural means – an obstruction in the pipes, the acoustical properties of the environment, and so on – then it was remarkable how chance events and processes had duplicated the effect with such fidelity: an intake of breath, the slow release of air from the lungs, a suggestion of descending pitch. It had been most disconcerting.

I slid down further between the crisp, clean sheets, and reached out to turn off the lamp. Although I was exhausted, it was some time before I closed my eyes.


Excerpted from The Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis. Copyright © 2013 by F.R. Tallis.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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