As she adjusted her white linen cap and carefully smoothed out the creases in her uniform, Sarah tried to forget her husband’s harsh words from earlier that day. Yet as soon as she tried to block them out, they seemed to find a way of echoing back to her. Richard’s impatient tone, still resonating uncomfortably in her thoughts. “You need to pull yourself together and get back to work. A couple of night shifts can’t possibly do you any harm,” he’d said.
Easy for him to say, as it wasn’t him who had lost the baby. It should have been their baby, that tiny bundle of cells which had pulsed on the screen at the anti-natal clinic. But recently she had felt as if this was only her problem. No matter what he said, Richard had never acknowledged the reality of their lost child and its short, fragile life, inside of her. She had attempted to discuss this issue with him, many times, but his answer was always a very firm, “It’s no use dwelling on the past, you’ll just make yourself ill.”
Satisfied that her cap was indeed straight and her dress was completely wrinkle free, Sarah lingered a little longer in front of the mirror. It had been several months now, since she had taken full responsibility for the ward, and this evening’s shift felt quite daunting. As she walked down the long corridor, she tried hard to project a confidence she didn’t feel. At least her first night back on the ward was to be spent in the company of Nurse Evans. Thelma was a little on the lazy side, but she had a cheerful and steady nature, and Sarah felt grateful to be in her company that evening.
The ward handover meeting from the late shift went smoothly. There were a few patients who needed extra care after returning from surgery, but nothing she couldn’t handle. It seemed a good night to return to work; much quieter than she could have hoped for. After the drugs round and the endless demands for bedpans, most of the patients had settled down for a relatively comfortable night, despite their recent surgery. Sarah felt herself unwind a little, and as the night wore on, she thought she caught a glimpse of her old confidence returning. Although she hated to admit it, maybe Richard had been right – perhaps it was a good time to return to work.
With the patients all settled for the evening, Sarah checked the operating schedule for the next day. A couple of the beds in one of the empty rooms at the end of the corridor needed fresh linen for the new admissions early the next morning. Normally, she would have sent Nurse Evans, who would have protested at the extra work, but tonight Sarah thought she would strip the beds and prepare them herself. It would save the time it would take to motivate Thelma, and such a dull, routine job might provide some welcome distraction from her racing thoughts.
Stopping at the door to room three, momentarily, she and checked that the previous patient’s names had been removed, and then pulled the linen skip into the room and began stripping the bed closest to the door. She tugged at the top sheet, which billowed in the air. As it landed, Sarah flinched when she saw a shadow moving in the corner of the room, near the window.
“Sorry I thought this room was empty,” she said, trying to check her trembling tone.
A pale woman with the long, damp hair stared back but didn’t speak. She was wearing a standard hospital gown, the kind that didn’t fasten completely at the back. Sarah watched the woman stand up and turn towards the window, which seemed pointless, as it was completely black outside. She was probably just coming round from an anaesthetic she’d had earlier and was still slightly out of it, Sarah thought. She had seen this happen before, some patients were confused and disorientated for several hours, the aesthetic seemed to affect people in different ways. At least it was a woman this time, as some of the male post-surgery behaviour could cause a whole different set of problems. She went over to the door and shouted for Nurse Evans – there was no reply. She could be in the sluice, or maybe sneaking a quick fag in the day room, knowing Thelma.
“This is a lot nicer than the last hospital I was in,” the woman whispered.
Sarah gave her a quick, irritated glance, noticing that the woman at the window was extremely slender, and looked quite a forlorn figure in her ill-fitting hospital gown.
“Which hospital was that?”
“Nowhere you will have been yet. It was horrible,” she said, staring out into the blackness.
“I didn’t belong in that place. They had no right locking me up like that. It wasn’t my fault,” she said close to tears.
“What wasn’t your fault?”
“My baby died!”
“Oh. Which hospital are you talking about?” she asked, a little shaken.
“I was committed to Brampton Psychiatric Hospital,” the woman said in a distant voice in the echoing room.
“Was that for post natal depression?” Sarah asked tentatively, knowing that for some very unfortunate women, the birth of their child could trigger a serious psychotic state and this woman didn’t seem entirely lucid.
“I lost the baby before it was born. They said I was very depressed…”
“So your doctor had you committed – for your own safety?”
“It was my husband who insisted on me being imprisoned in that horrible place. I begged him not to, but he wouldn’t listen to me. I think he lost all of his patience with me, in the end, when I didn’t recover fast enough to suit him. But he acted like everything was still normal, like nothing terrible had happened, told me we needed to get on with our lives, that it was ridiculous to morn a cluster of cells. He wound me up until I was hysterical, and then called the doctor and they put me away … The morning they came for me, I had this weird feeling that something was very wrong, and I panicked. I packed a bag and tried to get to the railway station before anything bad could happen.”
She spoke nervously as her fists clenched her nightdress tightly.
“Where were you going to go?”
“When I was a little girl, we spent our holidays at the seaside. I remember watching, mesmerised, as the waves foamed and rolled onto the sand. When I was little, I believed that the sea was magical – that just the sound of it, could smooth all of my problems away,” she replied wistfully.
“But you didn’t get to the seaside?”
“Not then, they were waiting for me, my husband and the doctor, at the end of the street. I never even made it far as the station. But later, after I was released, I went then. I knew I couldn’t stay at home – so it made sense.”
“What did you do at the seaside? Did you find somewhere to stay?”
“I walked for a while, but I felt very tired, so I got one of those old wooden deckchairs, the ones with the stripes, and placed one carefully at the edge of the water. I was there for hours, with my eyes closed listening to the waves as they crashed and died. Eventually the tide turned and I felt my feet getting wet, but I was too tired to move…”
“Look, you really need to go back to your own bed, now,” Sarah said as she folded the corner of the last bed and headed to the door with a full laundry skip. She caught sight of Nurse Evans emerging stealthily form the dayroom and instructed her to make sure the woman in room three was escorted safely back to her own bed. She realised that she hadn’t asked the patient her name, but it would written in the hand- over notes in the office. Maybe she was a referral from Brampton; she would definitely intended to check.
As Sarah emerged from the office with the notes in her hand, Nurse Evans gave her a confused look.
“What is it?
“I’m not sure who it was that you wanted me to put back to bed? I went to the room as you asked, but there was nobody there.” Thelma replied, fumbling inside her pocket for her notebook to check her notes from the handover meeting.
“Well. She must have gone back to bed on her own, then.”
“But nobody has been past the station since you shouted me! What did she look like?”
“Pale and slim, she was a referral from Brampton, I think.”
“Don’t tell me, she was gazing out of the window, talking about the sea?”
“Yes that’s right. Why?”
“And there I was, worried about you coming back to work too soon, and you start playing games. Thinking you’d catch me out you would with that old tale!”
“What do you mean?”
“The ghost story of course! The woman who drowned herself off Castleton Bay. Some people said that she sat in a deckchair on the beach, while the waves crashed over her head – committed suicide after losing a baby, they say.”
Sarah sank heavily into the chair at the nurses’ station, fumbling rapidly through the ward notes, finding no mention of a referral of a patient from Brampton.
“So you’re telling me, that you think this woman has been seen in the hospital before?”
“Many years ago … As the story goes, she can only be seen by someone who is in serious trouble. She appears to warn those who are going to die – whether by their own hand or someone else’s, I’m not quite sure why!”
“Tell me what as you know about her?”
“Her name was Madeleine, she was committed to Brampton many years ago by her husband. He was carrying on with another woman behind her back and needed to get her out of the way. After she was sectioned, the doctors at the hospital couldn’t find anything seriously wrong with her, she was just hysterical and appeared to be terrified of her husband, so they released her. When she arrived back home unexpectedly, she caught her husband with the other woman. In her own bed too!”
“What happened to her?”
“She ran off to Castlegate Bay, but her husband followed her. He told the inquest that he saw her drown, but there were many people who didn’t believe his story. Yet, as there was no actual proof of anything, the inquest recorded an open verdict. Nobody but the two of them, know the truth about what happened that day…”
Thelma was left talking to herself as Sarah ran down the corridor to room three. The room felt cold and empty, and the beds were just as she had left them. She shivered at the thought of her imagination playing wild tricks upon her. She must have heard this story before and her brain had chosen tonight to resurrect it. Great timing! The pale woman must have wandered in from another ward.
There was sure to be a real explanation and yet, when she thought of Richard and how cold and dismissive he had been lately …
Could Madeleine really have been trying to warn her?
Was Richard’s coldness a symptom of something being more seriously wrong in their relationship than she had imagined?
No, no of course not, it was ridiculous to think like that, she had been spooked by that old story, that was all.
Richard would never harm her, it was his idea that she came back to work nights, after all … although she had wondered why he seemed so keen to have the house to himself in the evenings. Maybe he just needed a break as it had been a really stressful time for them both. Sarah caught her breath and then exhaled slowly, trying to calm herself. Taking one last glance before leaving the room, for a moment she thought she saw the glowing outline of a pale figure, flickering across the dark window.
Sarah stood, mesmerised as the flickering image grew stronger until it began to play like a film across the screen of the window. In the film, there was a woman resembling the pallid figure, who was sat in a deckchair at the edge of the water. A man was lurking behind her and then he grabbed her very suddenly, dragging her to her feet. There were sounds now, which were muffled and distorted, then a piercing scream. The man grasped a fist full of the woman’s hair and dragged her into the water. He thrust her head down deep, underneath the surface – her legs and arms were flailing in the foam. Her screams had stopped now, and the only sound Sarah could hear was of the waves crashing onto the sand. The woman’s hair had come loose and frayed out like fan, but her body was entirely still.
The man stood up and began striding up the beach, Sarah flinched as she realised he was coming directly towards her. There was something familiar about this face that she that recognised. Not a physical resemblance exactly, but a cold, contemptuous look. It was the same look that Richard had given her, when she had tried to make him understand how she felt about the miscarriage.
Sarah swooned, feeling as if was swimming in waves of pure nausea, until they consumed her entirely and she collapsed onto the floor. The last thing she could remember was the sound of the sea. There was something oddly soothing about it, and as she drifted out of consciousness, all of her troubles seemed to melt away.
BIO : Sonia Kilvington is a journalist, short story writer, poet and novelist, living in Cyprus. She is currently published in the international noir collection Exiles, and has written two crime novels, The Main Line Murders and Buried In The Hills.