Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

07 September 2009

Essay: Patient Drowns (Newspaper Headline)

Hartley House, a rambling Victorian edifice, all pink brick and limestone facings, and lead-light windows with dubious heraldry in stained-glass, once a dynastic home, now government property, stood in five acres of deeply rural parkland. It was a place of peace, the business undertaken in its rooms and corridors hushed, its grounds rarely experiencing anything louder than the wind through stately trees or the rhythmic click and hiss of sprinklers nourishing perennially emerald lawns.

Here and there around the big house, discreetly hidden behind banks of laburnum or rhododendron, outhouses - garages, greenhouses and sheds - accommodated staff cars and a nine-seater minibus; hothouse fruits and vegetables, and seed boxes of young flowers ready for planting out in immaculately shaped and tended beds; and equipment for maintenance - ladders, trestles, gang mowers, power tools, the paraphernalia of a modest estate.

A famous trout stream bisected the grounds but the reach that passed through them was fished perhaps no more than a few times in season and then only by professional staff or eminent visitors who might spend an hour or two casting a dry fly from the gently sloping banks across beds of woven waterweed.

Upstream, at the nearest boundary, a footbridge crossed the river. Part of a public thoroughfare established by ancient right, it allowed a glimpse of Hartley House to those few local villagers who now rarely used it. Not only had the village become less populated, but those who were left were more inclined to use their cars for short journeys than to walk the distances to which their forbears had been accustomed.

Hartley House was a long stay hospital for military officers. Its sole purpose was to accommodate and care for men whose physical and mental war wounds had rendered them incapable of existence in the world at large, men so gravely impaired that only staff especially trained could attend to their needs. It had been commissioned as a hospital towards the end of the second world war and it would continue in that service until its last patients had either died or had been transferred to smaller, more ‘cost efficient’ units. The patients, most of them transformed in a flash of time from lusty young warriors into incurable automata, embarrassments to their government and their nation, were hidden from view here, out of sight and therefore virtually forgotten - certainly no threat of a reminder of debts that never could be repaid.

Doctors of medicine or psychology, physiotherapists and nurses complemented by inmates all of whom were mentally - and most of them physically - injured comprised this inward looking community. With professional detachment the doctors measured their charges’ remorseless deteriorations, and prescribed for their prolongations by instituting strict medicinal or dietary regimens which, through solids and fluids, would provide a balance of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals designed to manage vitality, and (as far as possible to a timetable) to minimize and regularize evacuation of body wastes.

Physiotherapists attempted, with limited success, to arrest atrophy, to sustain muscle tone, to flex joints, to clear airways, to try to bring to limp and useless bodies some semblance of the health they might have had had they been able to run and jump, walk and swim like those of their recent comrades who had emerged from battle relatively unscathed.

With varying degrees of tenderness and compassion the nurses, while often doubting that their administrations made much difference, sought to make their patients ‘comfortable’. Familiarity with distortion allowed them to change the diapers of incontinent men who lacked arms and legs; or firmly to hold bodies that flopped or twitched uncontrollably while pulling on their underpants, shirts, socks, trousers. The nurses were almost all women; young or early middle-aged women; healthy, strong, serious women who had long ago learned, as ‘professionals’ do, to ‘switch off’ at the end of their periods of duty and to enjoy their loved ones and leisure hours fully, the better to re-enter daily their community of infinite sadness.

Some of them, reminded perhaps of a lost father or older brother, grew attached to their patients, sensing some embers still glowing out of sight. Some were convinced that the grotesque grunts and moans emanating from yawning mouths and dribbling lips meant something. They talked to their men, confiding their hopes and fears and the inconsequential trivialities of life as if they were conducting one-way conversations over the coffee cups.

One such was Penny Allcott. Her special patient was ‘The Major’. He had been at Hartley House when she first arrived. Indeed, he had already taken up residence before she was born. In those days he had had visitors, an aging mother and father who would sit and hold his lifeless hands; an older sister who came out of duty, the sibling love she once had for him killed at the first sight of his repatriated body; some few comrades whose visits diminished as rapidly as they left the military and took up new professional or commercial lives at home and abroad.

Before Penny had come, The Major’s sister had married and gone to Canada, and his father had died; and for a few weeks only after her arrival his mother, pitifully frail, had managed irregular visits, undertaken painfully by train and taxi, to spend a little of the time remaining to her, head bowed, cheeks moist, until she, too, died leaving her son unconnected and hardly known of, a forgotten fragment of fast fading history.
Penny Allcott’s special attachment to this particular patient probably arose from that handful of maternal visits. The despairing bird-like fragile pose of his mother as she bent over her unresponsive son, the pair motionless, composed like some Donatello statue, moved her. It seemed to Penny that they personified Human Tragedy and it seemed also that once the old lady was gone she, Penny, was all he had left, the only single creature of warmth that could provide tenuous continuity with his past.

She felt she knew what he would have liked to have done had he been able to make a choice, and because the gardens of Hartley House were so tranquil she took him in his wheel chair, as often as the weather would permit, to sit beside the whispering willows of the river bank from where his dead eyes were confronted by sky and river, squirrels, birds, the occasional disturbance of a rising trout and the infrequent passage of villagers across the footbridge.

On this day she had looked from the solarium at the brightening sky, pleased to see the sun after a week of rain and, turning to The Major and heaving him from a slouch into a more balanced position in his chair, said, ‘Come on, my love. I think we can take you to your favourite spot for an hour or so.’

She pushed him across the damp lawns to the riverside where, setting a piece of fallen branch as a chock against a wheel, she tucked a tartan blanket around his deadweight figure, kissed him lightly on the cheek and strode back to the hospital to spend some time with her other charges.

The Major breathed regularly through his slightly open mouth. His hands were folded whitely and lightly on the blanket. The clear blue eyes were unfocussed in a child-like face. The life in him was involuntary; systems worked mechanically; the heart beat at 65 pulses a minute, blood pressure 120 over 80, the kidneys filtered, the bladder slowly filled, intestines expanded and contracted…


It was a pity, they’d all agreed, that he had not died there and then.

It would have been a perfect end to a perfect hero. Already wearing the ribbons of the Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross on his battledress beneath the parachutist’s smock, he would probably have been awarded some higher honour - perhaps the V.C. - had there been a witness left alive to that final act of heroism.

The men had waited fearfully, impatiently, as he had taken it upon himself to get Sergeant Major Baxter clear of the bridge where, having laid the charges and activated the fuse, he had lost his footing in his haste to gain safety and had become inextricably entwined in the barbed wire through which they’d only cut one narrow access.

‘Leave me. Get away, get away!’ Baxter had croaked gruffly as he hung below them wriggling like a fly in a web, the barbs of the festooned wire clutching at his uniform and caught on the sten gun which he had slung across his back. The five men, a corporal and four privates, had edged backwards, Private Manston clutching the canvas bag containing the remaining explosives to his chest like a mother her baby, their eyes pleading with their officer to give them the order.

Miller looked down into the darkening girders of the bridge assessing the risk, analysing the problem. He thought that there might be time. If only he could free the gun, then slide Baxter out of his smock he might be able to guide him up the rock wall of the deep ravine. He stood up and cocked an ear in the still, twilit air, hearing, at the limits of audibility, that queer mixture of sounds, the high-pitched squeak and rattle and the dull rumbling - more felt than heard - of enemy tanks, probing inexorably towards the final bridge.

He turned to the men. ‘Get yourselves off the approach. Wait for us over there.’ He nodded towards the entrance to an alley where they might make their leisurely escape once he’d freed Baxter and the charges had blown.

In his heart he doubted that there was time but he was damned if he was going to walk out on the poor sod. They’d been together too long. Tripoli; Sicily; Anzio; Monte Cassino; Ringway and the Parachute Training School…

Sarn’t Major Baxter and Major Mike Miller: they were a team, so close that if Miller had had his way he’d have spent his days in the Sergeants’ Mess - that’s how much he cared for Baxter and how little he respected the mostly unjustifiable division of officers from other ranks.

‘Hang on Baxter, I’m coming for you.’

Quickly setting aside his revolver, smock, battle blouse and belt he let himself down over the lip of the ravine starting a direct and more precipitous climb than the way they’d come; his toecaps sought scant purchase on the friable clay rock, his spatulate fingers explored narrow cracks, fissures and the skimpy shrubs that gave treacherous hand-hold. He ignored his tearing fingernails and grit-laden mouth in his considered haste. 

Pressed against the cliff he could feel, drumming through his chest, the vibrations of the approaching panzers.
‘You’re a bloody fool… sir.’ Baxter observed as Miller came level with him.

‘A little more respect, thank you Mr Baxter.’ Replied the major, his legs now braced against the bridge girders, conscious of the packed explosives visible but beyond reach on a farther truss, their detonation timer quietly ticking away the seconds. He began to work on Baxter’s sten gun, tearing his palms on barbs as he strained the wire over the short barrel and from beneath the awkward butt. He unhitched the swivel of the machine carbine’s strap whereupon, suddenly freed, it tumbled away, the butt catching momentarily on Baxter’s foot to send it spinning into the oily river.
‘End of part one…’ grunted Miller as he seized the NCO’s smock, attempting to lift it, with the slackened barbed wire, over Baxter’s head. Baxter meanwhile was mute for there was no more to be said. He assisted to the limit of his restricted movement, trying not to exacerbate their situation.

They heard the first tank stop at the far bank and they clung to each other and to the wire and girders as they were jolted by the sharp report of the tank’s gun. From somewhere close to the alley’s entrance there came the muffled detonation of the shell. Almost immediately it was followed by a much larger, more blossoming, more sinister explosion that rocked the bridge and sent a small avalanche of loosened boulders hurtling down the side of the ravine.

Neither Miller nor Baxter were to know that Private Manston’s bag of high explosives had been arbitrarily ignited by the tank gunner’s fluke shot, instantaneously blowing the five waiting men into a scatter of bloody pieces and smoking fabric.

Baxter wasn’t to know that one of the loosened boulders had hit Major Miller squarely between the shoulders and had sent him plummeting, bouncing and sprawling like a rag doll seventy feet to the river terrace below. The sergeant major had hardly time to register that the helping hands had disappeared before the detonation timer reached zero and a huge gap suddenly appeared in the central span of the bridge leaving Baxter dead from extreme percussion, still hanging, trapped in the rusting wire.

Nobody, neither friend nor foe, was alive to witness Miller’s heroism. Apart from the panzer troops who now, in fury and frustration, contemplated their split-second failure. Only one man in the bridge precinct was still alive - Major Mike Miller.

Enmity suspended, tender hands lifted him and took his living-dead body into care. His people were informed by way of the Red Cross that he was injured and captive; and when, presently, at the end of the war, he, a staring, unresponsive vegetable, was repatriated, that’s when they said he should have died, there at the bridge, the death of a hero who, with his men, had seriously aided the end of world war two.


Sounds of laughter were carried on the air from a group of village children gathered at the centre of the footbridge. The older ones, perhaps five to seven years of age, were playing ‘pooh-sticks’, climbing the horizontal side rails and throwing twigs that they had collected from below the riverside trees as far as they could upstream into the swirling waters then racing to the other side to see whose was the first to appear. One of them looked downstream and, catching sight of The Major sitting motionless beneath a willow tree, nudged his neighbour and pointed.

‘There’s the old man; he’ll come after us.’ she said, in her ignorance. The other children stared at him in the distance and shouted ‘Boo! Boo!’ at him without reaction. Then they fell to making scary noises and grotesque faces, trying to frighten each other. Their wailings and hootings turned to slightly hysterical shrieks as each tried to outdo the other, and soon they had clattered, squealing like piglets, off the bridge and into the trees on the far bank.

They left behind them an eighteen-month old toddler strapped into a pushchair. He was clutching a small toy koala that dropped from his grasp and rolled under the lowest rail on to the outermost footboard. The child mewed then wriggled in his harness his struggles becoming more and more frantic until at last he released one foot and then the other, rolled on to his tummy and slid to his knees as the pushchair rolled away from him. Then he turned and crawled under the rail reaching for the toy. He grabbed but instead of catching it he knocked it away and in his vain attempt to catch it he and the koala fell off the bridge and into the swollen river.

Miller’s pupils dilated and then shrank to pin points in the bright light. Images impinged on retinae as they always had but where they had not, for so many years, had their information transmitted, now they actuated a hidden switch. As the eyes focussed, electrical signals pulsed along disused conduits in the occult folds of Miller’s brain.

A low moan passed his lips and his forehead, unnaturally young-looking and unlined, creased into a distressed frown. Muscles and sinews moved arms whose only movement for years had been through the external, scientific stimulus of physiotherapist and nurse. The white hands rose from his lap and unerringly found their way to the upper rim of his wheels which they gripped and pushed forward, straining to roll the pneumatic tyres over the sticks with which they had been chocked by Penny Allcott.

Slowly the wheel chair moved; at first Miller had to push it but soon it gathered speed and his hands were thrown aside as it tracked across the steepening grass bank until its small stabilizing front castors plunged off the river bank and Miller was tipped into the stream. Freed from chair, blanket, robe and slippers, driven by muscle memory long stored but not forgotten in secret cells, he swam towards the little white bundle which, having swirled a few times in an eddy caused by the bridge piles, was now being drawn into the slow but powerful current.

They met at the centre of the stream, the child, strangely passive, kept afloat by air trapped in its bubble-padded boiler suit. Miller rolled on to his back and clutching the boy to his chest allowed them both to be carried on the stream as he breathed deeply, eyes wide open staring at the sky, its blueness patterned by the leaves and branches of the trees under which they passed on their way downstream. Thus, unseen, they floated beyond the farther border of the grounds of Hartley House, their fate so far unknown.

Somewhere beyond the unkempt banks which edged common land outside the park the river widened and deepened, its flow easing such that Miller was no longer able to ride upon it. He began to kick his legs weakly, frog-like, and looking to one side, found himself getting closer to where a small, crescent beach had been revealed as the waters had receded since the height of the spate. In a grunting, supreme spasm of effort he pushed the tot as high up the beach as he could reach where it lay, unmoving, shivering, exhausted, presently to fall asleep.

Involuntary duty done, Miller slipped back into the stream, his limbs useless. His eyes deadened as inside his brain the connexions failed. His lips moved momentarily and had somebody been there they might have heard them mutter ‘Hang on Baxter, I’m coming for you.’

He was swept slowly away towards the tail of the pool where the waters quickened and as he rolled face downwards and all life finally left him he sank, to reappear a little farther then to sink again without struggle, without protest.


There were two short reports in the newspaper. They were published a week apart and without connexion.

Eighteen-months old Thomas Peebles was found washed up on the banks of the Hart River near Lower Hartley on Sunday morning. It was thought that he had fallen into the river from the footbridge above Hartley House.
Older children had reported him missing after playing on the bridge and an immediate search had been undertaken by police and villagers.

Police Sergeant Tansey commented that the toddler’s survival was little short of miraculous in view of the swollen nature of the river following recent heavy rains. ‘Somebody was watching over him.’ he said, while issuing a warning to parents not to allow children so young to play unsupervised near such hazards.

The body of an elderly patient of Hartley House, a long term hospital for military officers, was found in the lower reaches of the Hart River late last night. While his identity has not yet been officially confirmed it is known that he was Major Michael Miller D.S.O., M.C. who was seriously disabled during a bridge demolition in Germany towards the end of the second world war.

An unnamed staff member from the hospital said that Major Miller had apparently fallen into the river from his wheel chair while unattended.

Some weeks later, following a formal but discreet enquiry by ministry and hospital officials, the coroner’s finding of ‘accidental death’ was endorsed, as was his expression of regret that the war hero had been left helpless and unattended.

Nurse Penny Allcott was dismissed as a result of her negligence.


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By Don Donovan