Doris did not reveal her plan to enable Matilda to access the ward telephone, but she did arrange for her to send a farewell note to Eustace despite being denied both writing paper and ink. Matilda did not relish Doris rousing her from sleep and ushering her to the lavatories the moment a particularly lackadaisical night nurse put her feet up in the office and began to snore.
Summer’s heat intensified the stench and the moonlight exposed the smears of menstrual blood and faecal matter on walls, porcelain and tile. It was not a place to linger, as the responsibility for cleaning the area fell to patients who were too disturbed and incapable to work in the bakery, laundry or kitchens, and who could not be trusted with bleach. When Doris gave Matilda a few sheets of medicated paper, stamped Government property, and pointed her towards the windowsill, Matilda dampened it at the basin and used it – as far as possible, given its poor absorbency – to swab the ledge.
Doris tutted. “We seem to be out of parchment, madam. You’ll have to make do with bog roll.” She handed her a few more sheets of Izal and a pin.
Suddenly self-conscious, Matilda hunched over the paper, like a schoolgirl in an exam. Its smell, although unpleasant, partly neutralised the odour in the air. Unfortunately, whether she tried scratching the rough side or the smooth side, it was hopeless: the pin either tore the paper or left no mark.
“You’ll be popular the morrow when they’ve nowt to wipe their bums with.” Doris snatched the pin and pierced Matilda’s thumb, releasing a tiny red bauble from her skin. “Was you never blood-sisters in them posh houses? Now, get writing! Nurse Ninny won’t keep her eyes shut for ever and I want my bed.”
Matilda had pondered the wording several times a day since Doris first mooted the idea. She wanted something cordial but not overfamiliar, something that would disgrace neither of them if her note were discovered. A line of verse would have done the job but, at this hour, attempting to recall the poetry she had learnt by rote – at school or with her mother for public-speaking contests – was like trying to catch a bubble or a dandelion clock.
She need not have bothered. Doris’s strategy, although better than nothing, made even a short message a challenge. GOOD LUCK YOUR FRIEND MATILDA would have to suffice.
Tiptoeing back to the dormitory, while relieved to have escaped the night nurse’s attention, Matilda felt a hollowness which was not solely from the paltry diet. Doubtful, despite Doris’s promise, she could contact Henry by telephone, Matilda had wondered if she might ask Eustace to smuggle a letter out. But no language, however lyrical, could cushion the shock of a missive scrawled on toilet paper in his sister’s blood.
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