Leaving the car park, the clock tower confirmed she’d made it with five minutes to spare. Despite being home to several hundred people, and workplace for as many staff, there wasn’t another soul in sight. An aura of subterfuge enveloped Ghyllside – of deadness – as if behind the majestic facade lurked a yawning sinkhole, as if the roses in the turning circle were made of wax. Mounting the stone steps, Janice imagined mingling with the hapless new arrivals in the hospital’s heyday a century before. The ache of rejection. The fear of never seeing a friendly face again.
Janice pushed through the revolving door to traverse the tiled floor of the vestibule to a window in the teak-clad wall. In a room barely bigger than a broom cupboard, the receptionist plugged and unplugged cables on the switchboard. “You take a seat, Miss Lowry,” she said, when Janice stated her business. “Mr Pargeter will be with you in a jiffy.”
A stab of nervousness took Janice by surprise. After all, she’d only come out of politeness. Or apathy. She didn’t want the bloody job now. But interview practice was gold dust whatever the circumstances. Glancing around, she couldn’t spot any rival candidates. Unless the frail woman mumbling into a paper bag was also about to qualify as a social worker. Janice watched her pluck a jelly baby from the packet, bite off its head, and add its body to the tail of a procession snaking the bench.
Engrossed in the etiquette of a parallel universe, she seemed unaware of Janice, too self-absorbed to shimmy along for her to sit or deposit her bag. Yet the woman raised her gaze. “Did you run away from the circus?”
“Pardon me?” Janice would have been less shocked if the walls had addressed her. And, had she credited the patient with a voice stronger than a whisper, and the will to use it, she’d never have imagined her speaking like royalty.
The woman inspected a yellow jelly baby and stuffed it up her cardigan sleeve.
Could this be part of her assessment? Was the telephonist-cum-receptionist observing from her cubbyhole, scoring her for empathy, warmth and genuineness on a Xeroxed sheet? “The circus?”
She was still awaiting a response when a tall man emerged from a door opposite the entrance. Janice drank in his casual get-up – open-necked shirt, mud-coloured cords and Jesus sandals with socks – and sensed him appraising hers. But he didn’t blink at her pink hair, T-shirt and harlequin harem pants. If all the patients were as wacky as this woman, and the staff similarly offbeat, working at Ghyllside might be fun, with or without a boyfriend to go home to at night.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish