by David Gower
a half of mild and bitter
The room was warm and bright but sterile.
Ted lay in the bed feeling tired and weaker than he had ever felt in his life. He could not understand why he was here, or for that matter where ‘here’ was. Where were Mick and Geoff his mates who he had seen last as they dodged the search party? The last he recalled was a bang and then falling into a bottomless blackness.
Now he found himself in what seemed to be a hospital bed yet the things in the room seemed different in some way. The bedclothes like nothing he had at home – how long ago home seemed to be – or in the barracks. The lights seemed brighter and harsher than he had known before. This was not a military hospital, neither was it like any British hospital he had seen. Where was he? His head seemed less like cotton wool than earlier. His thinking had been confused and it seemed that people had come in and out of his awareness. Friendly faces but strangers. Talking about things that had never happened as though they were real. The rumours might be true about those experiments and psychological torture.
He looked at his hands, they too were different. Not his hands but those of someone else, smaller, creased, blotchy – he had never seen this except on old men – what had these people done to him? Was this one of the hospitals in the special camps that the briefing officer had said were used to experiment on prisoners? He knew modern drugs could change thinking but could these doctors change one’s very body and why would they? What could they gain by it?
Moving the covers to one side he went to get up. His legs felt weak as he steadied himself against the bedside locker. Who were the people in the photograph frame on the locker? The window was locked and seemed to be made of a strange material unlike anything he had seen before. Was it the secret material produced in the factory that had been their target?
A man’s voice called from outside the door, “Eric, make sure that all the doors are secure and our guests are comfortable for the night.”
The reply from the unseen Eric came immediately. The door handle twisted but no one entered. “This last one is secure”.
If Ted was a prisoner in this place he was still under orders. Perhaps Mick and Geoff were here too. It could not be long before the questions would come. What was their mission? Where had they come from? Who had planned their intrusion into the enemy stronghold?
Ted was cold and logical in his thinking. A trained soldier on special service not expected to show mercy or receive it from an enemy. Now, somehow, he was a prisoner and his body had been subjected to some devilish process by unknown hands. He could only be sure of one fact, things would not get better. He was on his own and his duty was to complete the mission or get back to his own lines.
What to do? Get out of this room? Cell? Hospital from Hell? Whatever this place was he must find his mates, get out of the building and make his way back to safety. Completing the original mission was out of the question – how could he if he did not even know where he was now? Just now getting outside was the ‘mission’, nothing else.
Eric had worked on the unit for 6 months. His accent was strong but he found that he could be understood easily enough by the inmates. Sometimes they would speak easily without seeming to realise the purpose of his questions. His training had enabled him to make an easy relationship with those he interviewed, at least most of them. They were confused, the medication weakened their thought processes and where could they go to in their physical state. It was shame that they had found themselves here. It was a sad thing that Eric would go over the same ground time and time again with them.
Some days were better than others and when he got a breakthrough, even if it was only a sliver of information or some recognition by the inmate of their position, it gave him a professional satisfaction. The moments were unpredictable but he had watched his colleagues use a mixture of drugs, talking, photographs, constant repetition and returning to established incontrovertible facts to carry out their duties and report on progress. He had never recognised the importance of this work until seeing how those breakthroughs were used. Now he was a convert to these methods and would defend their use to anyone outside the unit. He filled in the duty sheets in the quietness of the night as his coffee cooled beside him.
Ted looked for some means of escape and a weapon. No sign of his own clothing anywhere in the room, nothing sharp in any drawers, nothing to make a fire, no poker, not a thing that seemed to offer itself as a silent killing device.
If Eric or one of his mates came how could they be overcome quietly? Hospital staff would be unlikely to be armed and might provide a change of clothing to get out of the building. Could he find Mick or Geoff or should he just get out and make a run for home? What was in the room that he could use? He would only get one chance.
The telephone jangled in the office. Eric picked up the receiver. The weather had closed in and the relief officer could not get to the unit as had been scheduled. Eric and the team were to remain on duty until someone could get through. Nothing else for it but to continue the shift into the night.
Working with the men was difficult. They were often resistant. They seemed to want freedom whilst seeming to lose motivation and independence of thought. Was it the drugs or the conditioning that made them like this? Eric thought about this often and worried that he might react in the same way should he ever become a ‘guest’ of such a unit. It was not beyond the realms of possibility.
Ted had a plan, not a minute by minute, finely honed set piece but a ‘use what there is as best you can’ plan. What did the Sergeant say? “When a plan goes out of the window never jump after it!”
Well, this plan to get out of this strange place was a bread and butter, plain cooking, home-made one. The next time someone came to the door on their own it would be a tap on the head with the small table. The thought of the word ‘tap’ brought a smile to Ted. No one ever ‘tapped’ in his unit, it was kill and have no hesitation or you might be killed. The training of the special unit had changed him into someone able to focus on the task in hand and put to the back of their mind ideas of fair play.
Do it hard, fast and make it final. Now it would be a waiting game for whoever came to the door and it would be their unlucky day. If Ted could overcome his foe quietly and change clothes perhaps he could make it to the outside. His thoughts blurred again, what had they done to him? Why did this phases come and go, would they ever stop?
The night was quiet. Outside the landscape had an unreal appearance. White and ghostly yet silent as snow fell as if a child’s snow globe had been shaken and the contents were beginning to settle. The unit was quiet too. Dosing these people with medication was a reliable – though potentially dangerous - way of ensuring a peaceful night. The warmth of Eric’s office contrasted against the frigid world outside. An uneventful night. No problems with the inmates and the dawn brought with it the sharp light of a winter day. Soon the relief would arrive Eric would hand over to the next shift to continue their interaction with the inmates. It could only ever end in the deaths of the latter.
For Ted the dawn brought a tingle of fear mixed with agitation. He knew and recognised the adrenalin surge before any contact with the enemy from previous missions but this was different. More of those lapses of reality as ghostly images came and went whilst he watched the blackness of night slip through shades of grey into the stark white of a winter morning. The time for waiting was almost over and the moment of action loomed relentless.
It must be now, no second chance would come if his mind continued to play these tricks. If he could get home to base or at least a message to his commander about this place and their fiendish medicines perhaps he could get back to some sense of normality. If only his head would clear so he could think straight. The periods of confusion seemed to have been going on forever but how could this be when his clearest memory was the moments before the mission going awry? It defied logic.
He had a crystal clear recollection of him and his mates crawling to the lines of the enemy. The graveyard humour before insertion into the enemy’s backyard. The wirecutters gripped in his hand as they prepared to cut the wire between them and their target. All as if it were yesterday.
Yesterday? Last week? Last month? How long had he been here? Who were the faces who loomed into his life and claimed he knew them? How sophisticated these new techniques were to trap him into admitting who he was and giving away his mates and unit. Name, rank, number. Nothing more would he give. He had been prepared for beatings, for hunger, for sleep deprivation but not their technique of talking the relentless playacting of his interrogators insisting on some madcap invented history of his life. He must get out here and make a ‘home run’. If not that then kill one of these jailers, find his mates and try to destroy this nest of mental destruction.
Cooking smells eased through the door. Funny how a solid obstacle like Ted’s door which would defy a grown man with a set of lock picks failed to stop the smell of food permeating through the slightest crack. Ted thought that a poison gas could take the same route if this war had taken a different course. The odour of breakfast seemed strangely homely in this prison. Odd how no matter where you were these basic elements of life remained the same. A pity he would miss a meal as would whoever was unlucky enough to cross his path when that door opened.
Breakfast ready and Eric would have his before handing over to the next shift. Time to get the guests out of their rooms and start another day for them. His thoughts turned to pity as he thought of their fate. No one could avoid death but was he prolonging the process which Nature might have shortened naturally with all these drugs? He would take Ted his breakfast and hope that the war hero would spend today in the 21st century free from his dementia that played such cruel tricks on him and his family.