Already late for work and head fizzing with caffeine, Sophie stepped from the bus into a squall of rain. It was dark and very cold. The bus slapped though puddles, sending high arcs of gritty water across her path. Then it accelerated away, leaving her engulfed in a haze of diesel fumes. The hospital entrance was a good ten minutes away, and she was running late, so she pulled her hood up against the persistent rain and stepped briskly into the cold night.
Her morning had begun with the usual shakes. She had woken to a pounding head and a cruel need for a drink. Sophie had passed out in her armchair the night before and her hip still hurt where the wooden arm had dug into her flesh. She had found the letter under her whisky bottle. Condensation had formed an almost perfect circle around her name. Moisture had seeped through the brown envelope and dampened the letter inside. The ink had bled across the page, but it was still legible. New Angel Nursing Agency, (she hadn’t heard of that one), was offering her some temporary night work, in Ward H, of the City Hospital. She had to report, register and get into uniform by ten p.m. tonight. She was horrified at the thought of going back to work.
Sophie had searched her foggy memory for any recollections of a decision return to nursing. She couldn’t remember anything, but then her days slipped past in a haze, and there were gaps in her memory a mile wide. She must have applied; after all, nursing agencies don’t do cold calls. At first she was physically sickened by the thought of returning to nursing, but after a drink or two she calmed down and asked herself; what was the worst that could happen? She doubted that her life could get any worse and this might just be a way of picking up the pieces. So she attempted to clean herself up, scraped her hair back, tried to disguise her scars with makeup, found some half presentable clothes and with her heart in her mouth, set off to try to pick up the pieces of the career that she had once loved.
Five minutes from the bus stop, she was breathing heavily and feeling dizzy. Her phone alarm beeped, Sophie glanced down at her pocket and barged into a group of four youths who had emerged silently from the shadows. She was momentarily drawn to their alcohol breath. They swore loudly and roughly bounced her from one to the other.
‘ Sorry, sorry, I’m late for work’ she apologised, trying to block their groping fingers. She elbowed away a hand that was searching for her breast.
‘You want to be more careful’ said a quiet voice in her ear. She looked up and saw a youth with a knife thin face, inches away from hers. His sour breath smelled of cigarettes and beer. Cold eyes, appraised her body, and left an icy trail on her skin.
‘Sorry’ said Sophie pulling her bag from their grasp, as she pushed her way between them. Laughter and jeers followed her as she stumbled away from them.
‘ Sorry! You will be’ shouted the youth. A passing car headlights cast a flash of light onto the nearby hospital gates and Sophie ran for safety.
A single lamp, suspended from an iron arch, illuminated the rusted wrought iron gates and dense evergreen shrubbery that lined the path to the old City Hospital building. It had once been a workhouse and still held a place of dread in the minds of many of the old people in the area. The old building could be seen through the bars. It had been built to be stern and imposing and it loomed dark and sinister in front of her. Sophie felt a rising sense of foreboding as she stepped reluctantly through the gates and began to walk up the drive.
She was cold, wet and her resolve was weakening with each step. She really didn’t know if she could do this. Her legs felt weak and she seriously needed a drink. She glanced up for a second, the hospital was four floors high and the darkened windows looked as if they were barred. Large puddles on the drive reflected a broken mirror image of the face of the building, making it seem even taller and more forbidding. An almost full moon silhouetted a derelict cupola in the centre of the slick black roof.
The entrance lobby was empty and silent, disturbed only by the sound of her laboured breathing. The lobby smelled of disinfectant and old flowers. The heavy door slammed behind her, sending an echo rebounding along the dimly lit corridors to her left and right. A dusty, flapping entrail of a cobweb hung from a lantern hung high in the centre of the imposing dark wooden staircase.
Briefly illuminated by the moon, a stained glass window showed the Victorian workhouse when it was newly built. Underneath, she could see black spidery letters
Beware the four spectres: old age, poverty, sickness and idleness.
The hair rose on the back of her neck. She could see four ragged figures peering through the windows of the workhouse, one on each floor. The moon slid behind a cloud, the window blackened. As it re-emerged she looked at the window again, and her heart missed a beat, the ghostly figure on the ground floor was gone.
Trying to gather her courage, she decided that her eyes must have been playing tricks on her. It was perhaps the fear of returning to work that was so unsettling. Sophie knew that this might be her last chance to pull her life back together. She couldn’t afford to fail. A movement in the corridor to her right caught her attention, but there was nothing to be seen. She shivered and began to walk.
Checked in and changed into her nurse’s uniform, she began to walk along the corridor leading to ward H. The lights sensed her movement, lighting up the corridor in front and plunging it into darkness after she had passed. She felt as if the bubble of light was shrinking around her. It seemed as if she was walking into darkness; and she feared that if she stopped she would be engulfed by the predatory shadows at her heels.
Sophie closed the ward door behind her with relief. The ward was an old nightingale ward, long, with high windows running along one side. The nurse’s station was in the centre. A single reading lamp cast a cone of light onto the desk but seemed to deepen the gloom in the rest of the ward. The smell of the ward was familiar and reassuring, she began to feel that she might be able to cope.
She checked the medical notes and saw that the men had a variety of ailments but the common factor was that they were all failing to thrive; they were fading away. A man died in his sleep, of what was described as ‘causes unknown’, every day or perhaps two. The notes reported that the men’s behaviour was calm during the day but unpredictable and violent at night. There was an element of self-harm, with bruising and scratching happening almost nightly. Sedation had been tried but was unsuccessful; the men seemed to want to stay awake, it was almost as if they feared sleep.
Sophie glanced up from the notes. Curtains were drawn around each bed and a cold ribbon of light ringed the floor around each bay. The atmosphere was one of tense anticipation, no one snored, they just lay silent and still. Behind her in the darkness, a cooling radiator clicked.
Usually the sickest patient was placed nearest to the door, so that they could be taken to the mortuary without disturbing the ward. She began at the other end, intending to work along the beds to get a sense of how the men slipped toward death. She parted the curtains of the first bay and stepped into the gloom.
A gaunt birdlike man lay unmoving on the bed. He was wearing faded striped pyjamas, buttoned to a knot of curly grey hair at the cleft of his throat. His eyes were half closed and ringed with shadows. His skin was pallid and he had deep scratches on his cheeks. For a moment she thought that he was dead, but then he took a deep shuddering breath.
‘Hello. Have they found us another one?’ His voice was a gravelly whisper.
‘Hello, yes, Mr. er…’ she glanced at his name over his bed head ‘Graham. I’m here until breakfast. Is there anything I can get you?’
He looked past her; his face was expressionless, bereft of hope. As if nothing she did, would ever help.
‘Anything?’ she said softly.
His eyes widened in terror and he shrank into his pillow; there was something behind her. She felt a chill around her ankles as if she was standing in an icy wind. Sophie stepped back and looked at her feet, a cold grey mist trailed across the floor and wound between her ankles and around her legs. She felt a wave of nausea as it touched her skin. It snaked around her body, up onto the bed, and along Graham’s body.
Sophie watched in horror as the mist condensed in front of the man’s face. She could still see him, but the mist shimmered, it was as if she was seeing Graham through a horrifying ethereal mask. Deep black voids where the eyes should have been searched her soul. Sophie was transfixed as the grotesque lips began to move. A chill spread through her body. She didn’t hear so much as feel the words vibrate inside her head.
‘Sorry. You will be!’ he laughed, course and hard, like the rough youths that she had met earlier. Sophie was terrified, her heart pounded in her ears. Then the mask blurred, the mist thinned and fell, heavy, to the floor, where it trailed silently under the curtain into the next bay.
Released, Graham screamed, clawing at his face. Sophie grasped hold of his thin wrists to stop him tearing his flesh. She could feel spittle hit her cheek as he leaned toward her and hissed,
‘For god’s sake do something.’
She stepped away from the bed leaving a scent of whisky and cheap perfume; Graham breathed it in, as if it might ground him in this world.
The mist had passed along the row of beds, slipping below the curtain of each bay, leaving man after man screaming in agony. Sophie ran to the far end of the ward and snatched back the curtains.
The ghostly mist had gained substance as it drew energy from each man. Sophie realised that it was one of the spectres that she had seen in the stained glass window. It was kneeling on the bed, rags flaring behind him in some otherworldly wind. It reached down toward the shivering and terrified man, and plunged its spectral hand into his chest. His heart ceased to beat.
‘Stop it! Stop it at once. Leave that man alone’ Sophie hissed at the shrouded spectre. It’s face melted and then reformed in front of her. ‘ Leave this place, leave my patients alone.’ She felt as if the words were freezing in her mouth. Ice-cold eyes searched her face. She heard the spectre deep in her bones
‘You see me, do you nurse?’
‘Yes… get out … leave …’ Sophie felt as if her legs would fail her.
The spectre’s laughter remained long after he had passed through her and disappeared into the night.
Sophie stepped from the bus into the diesel ladened fog. She watched the bus melt into the night. It was bitterly cold, and the air felt solid and impenetrable.
She had been awake all day trying to decide if she dare go back, finally she had fallen into a whisky fuelled sleep at about seven. She awoke two hours later, still shaken by the events of the previous night, but found to her surprise that she was angrier than she was scared. Something was killing the patients in her ward and for the first time for years she knew just what she had to do.
Pulling her collar up to her ears, Sophie walked toward the hospital gates. Her footsteps were amplified in the gloom. A car drove past, monetarily illuminating her path and leaving a swirling trail in the darkening fog. A man stepped silently from the shadows. She reached out for the rusted gate, hoping to step through them and avoid him. A smell of stale cigarettes and beer reminded her of the thin-faced young man from the previous night.
‘Thought I would find you here’ said a low whisper in her ear ‘ you really should take more care.’ He reached out and caught her coat sleeve.
‘Give me your phone’ he demanded
‘No’ said Sophie taking her phone from her pocket and clutching it to her chest
‘Like I said, you should have taken more care’ growled the man as he pushed her hard against the gate. Her face slammed against the cold iron. The scars on her face and neck flared with pain. She felt a spike of static electricity as he ripped the phone from her hand. The light above flickered with the impact. He held the phone up in victory, and laughed before stepping back into the fog and disappearing from view.
Shocked and angry she turned and ran for the safety of the hospital. She ran through the lobby and into the corridor. Desperate to get to her ward she ran headlong into the darkness, the bubble of light stuttered behind her. Sophie threw her coat on the back of the chair and sat down at the nurse’s station. She was about to pick up the phone and report the theft when Graham called from the second bay
‘It’s ok lads, she’s come back, I can smell her. Perfume and whisky. It’s definitely her.’
There were murmurs of relief from behind the curtains. Feeling curious, she got up and began to walk along the ward. It seemed different, but she couldn’t quite work out in what way. As she passed, each man called goodnight, through the curtain. Sophie smiled; she was back where she belonged.
Her smile turned to horror as she began to feel a familiar oppressive coldness. There was a presence behind her, reluctantly; she turned around to find that she was looking directly into condensing ectoplasm. It slowly formed the face of the spectre that she had seen the night before. He had come to kill again.
‘Stop.’ She sounded braver than she felt. The grey figure mocked her with his laughter. Summoning up her courage, she stepped forward ‘ I will not let you kill another man’ her heart pounding in her ears, she added ‘no one else will die on my watch. Do you hear me? I will not allow it?’
‘Not this time?’ he mocked. The Spectre seemed to grow, to rise and hover over her head. Sophie was consumed with dread. Still laughing it opened its mouth wider and wider until it had engulfed her completely. A gaping black void snatched Sophie from her feet and threw her into a spinning darkness. She tumbled over an over. Blackness surrounded her and all that she could hear was a haunting, baleful wind. The tumbling ceased, the moaning wind rose to become the sound of mothers screaming the names of their dead children. The stench of rot and decay hung around her like fog. She looked at her hands and they bled from picking oakum. She was cold, bone deep cold, and she was starving. Her clothes turned to rags and she felt centuries old.
She stumbled forwards, towards the heat of a lighted candle and in a rush she was back in the ward, face to face with the spectre.
‘It doesn’t have to be like that’ she spoke with compassion
‘What does it matter if they die early? Who cares?.’ spoke the spectre into her mind
‘ Society cares about them now’
Summoning all of the pain that she felt for the things that she had done, and all of the self-loathing for the things that she hadn’t, Sophie closed her eyes, stepped forward and reached for the spectre’s soul. She showed it heat and light, a hungry child being given breakfast at school, a homeless soldier being led to a warm bed, a nurse kneeling to dress a wound, tenderness in a place of refuge, and in the end a peaceful and a pain free death.
‘No one dies in a ditch these days’ she said softly.
The spectre howled ‘Say it isn’t so!’
‘It is so’ she whispered
A rush of wind pushed Sophie back, the curtains around the beds whipped and strained against their rails, snapping in the wind, as the spectre screamed and spiraled faster around the room. Windows shook in their frames, as it gathered speed and with one last howling blast, the spectre exploded from the ward and raced along the corridor. Seconds later there was a loud bang and the clatter of breaking glass.
Graham sat on a chair in the reception area waiting for a taxi to take him home. He was the last man who had suffered at the hands of the spectre, to leave ward H. They weren’t sure why it had stopped its nightly visits, but they knew that it had something to do with a nurse called Sophie who had fought for them. She returned each night to guard them as they slept. They knew that it was Sophie, because if they woke, they could smell her perfume and a faint trail of whisky.
He looked up at the boarding over what had once been a stained glass window and smiled.
Graham picked up a newspaper from the table by his side. He glanced at the headline and then scanned down the page. His eyes were slowly drawn back to the headline.
BODY OF NURSE FOUND IN CITY HOSPITAL GROUNDS
Workmen repairing damage to a vandalised window on 15th December, found the body of Sophie James. Her decomposed body was found in undergrowth near the gates of the City Hospital. Tests suggest that she was stabbed on the night of 15th November. The motive is not thought to have been robbery, her phone was found close to her body.
Well-known, 35-year-old James was decorated for bravery after rescuing patients from a hospital fire in 2007. Ms. James was single handedly responsible for the rescue of ten children, for which she was awarded a prestigious medal for bravery. Friends say that she was unable to forgive herself for the deaths of the remaining two children and she gradually became a recluse. Neighbours report that she was a quiet woman who kept herself to herself and that they are shocked that something like this could happen.
Anyone with information that might help the police with their enquiries should contact Crime Stoppers 0800 555111
‘Oh Sophie’ Graham sighed as he touched the picture of her smiling face. Then he smoothed the paper, folded it and slipped it into his bag. He sensed the faintest trace of perfume and whisky and smiled, and then he stood up, picked up his bag and stepped into the sunshine.