Copyright © 2016, Riis Marshall and Turfhill Court Press

Sunnyvale—a lovely name—conjuring up visions of views of sun-drenched green and pleasant hills stretching to the horizon, cultivated fields, pastures and orchards outlined by ancient hedgerows and dry-stone walls. Sunnyvale—lovely—that is, until one utters its full name: the Sunnyvale Lunatic Asylum. Perched high on a hill above the village, it was opened in 1851, a grand and grim—likely its builders would have preferred ‘imposing and stern’ as better choices of adjectives—monument to Victorian architecture and the humane treatment of lunatics. Until its closure in 1962 it was at the forefront of therapies for the treatment and occasionally cures for the entire range of conditions of madness: malarial therapy, barbiturate induced deep sleep therapy, insulin shock therapy, cardiazol shock therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, transorbital lobotomy, compulsory sterilization and therapeutic nihilism. None of it worked, of course, certainly not from the inmates’ perspectives. On the other hand, from the perspective of the general public it worked after a fashion: the lunatics were safely, if not always quietly, housed in the asylum; out of sight, out of mind, if you’ll pardon a rather dark and tasteless pun.

Following its closing it was surrounded by a high chain-link fence to which were affixed, at regular intervals, imposing signs warning people of the danger of entering and ordering them to KEEP OUT. Over the years, trees and shrubs that once graced carefully tended gardens turned into a jungle of sorts: growing higher and higher, thicker and thicker, wilder and wilder. Weeds appeared between the bricks of drives and pavements, and these, too, grew higher, thicker and wilder, forming an undergrowth to compliment the faux jungle canopy.

Today rather than being treated to lobotomies, former inmates, now more politically correctly described as ‘patients’, ‘residents’, ‘service recipients’ and sometimes even ‘customers’ are treated with something called ‘care in the community’. Whether this works any better than the older remedies is still a matter of debate.

Two facts are known about the Sunnyvale Lunatic Asylum of today. First, it has been purchased by an anonymous property developer who soon, quite soon actually, has planning permission to convert it into a large number of posh apartments to be sold to incomers at obscenely high prices. Second, it is haunted and during hours of darkness the screams of long-dead inmates can be heard echoing through wards, treatment rooms, operating theatres, padded cells and corridors. When local people are queried, none acknowledges she or he has actually heard the screams, but each knows somebody who most assuredly has.

It was a summer of discovery: Gordon, James and Robert were eleven years old and all would have turned twelve before returning to school in the autumn. They were old enough, now, to be allowed to roam far beyond the immediate confines of their gardens, the commons and playing fields for sometimes the entire day without too many parental queries about their whereabouts. Something else was happening: they were confronted by an almost indescribably vague feeling, not even felt so much as subtly sensed in the pit of the stomach, that there was something more to girls than their being the convenient objects of teasing and absurd practical jokes.

It was also the summer they decided it was time to find weaknesses in the fences surrounding Sunnyvale, create a convenient, boy-sized hole hidden from the approach by trees and shrubs, screw up their courage and engage in some ambitious exploration—well, during daylight anyhow.

Thus through most of July they made many trips up the hill, through their hole in the fence, through the jungle and into a ground-level door allowing them access to storage rooms and kitchens. They moved, cautiously at first then more boldly, up from the kitchens to the main entrance hall where they established a sort of base camp. The hall was a high, grand, four-storey, wood-panelled affair with an imposing front door, stained glass skylight and an even more imposing wide staircase that led, as they discovered during their explorations, to equally grandly panelled offices, libraries, meeting rooms and dining rooms where presumably managers and staff, although likely not patients, dwelled. Almost all books, papers, equipment of all kinds and soft furnishings were gone but desks, tables, chairs, cabinets, coat trees and assorted bits of furniture remained. Some were intact, some tumbled and broken, all now smothered in layers of dust and cobwebs. A few table and standard lamps were found among this wreckage but these failed to work because of an absence of electricity.

Most windows were unbroken and these, too, were covered in dust although they admitted enough light to allow investigations of the seemingly endless number of rooms and apparent miles of labyrinthine corridors. Thus from their base camp, on each visit the boys ranged deeper and deeper into the bowels of the huge building. And thus during their adventures there emerged an organization of sorts. Gordon: their de facto leader came up with ideas; James: their facilitator turned these ideas into practical realities and Robert: their mechanic addressed any technical issues hindering these schemes.

They enlarged the hole in the fence so they could enter and exit without even stooping and Robert found an impressive ring of mouldy keys, one of which fitted the lock on the front door. Now they could enter the entrance hall directly from the forecourt without their having to traverse the gloomy halls linking the kitchen entrance to the rest of the building.

Had they been a bit older and wiser in the ways of personal objectives, theories of organizational dynamics and group behaviour they would have noted the clear distinctions between the almost opulent splendour of the richly panelled entrance hall, main staircase, stained glass skylight, generous offices and dining rooms, and the stark, nay dismal, wards, treatment rooms, operating theatres, day rooms and cells, all painted in several gloomy shades of green—lighter for upper walls and ceilings, darker for lower walls and floors—where inmates were protected behind locked, iron-barred doors.

Throughout July and the first half of August they sometimes discussed the possibility of a venture into Sunnyvale after dark; and not only after dark but at midnight. And as they considered this, they thought about the possibility of daring some girls to meet them there: their last big adventure of the summer before—ugh!—returning to school.

Arrangements were surreptitiously complete: Margaret, Sheila and Ann, also eleven going on twelve were the three most likely to accept the dare. On a Saturday afternoon all six asked permission to stay over at a friend’s house for one night: Gordon at James’ house, Margaret at Sheila’s house, et al; it is highly likely this ruse was practised equally successfully in Athens in 220BC. They were each to bring either a torch or the sort of battery lantern one takes on camping trips and something to drink, preferably but not necessarily alcoholic. In days gone bye at least one would have brought some cigarettes but today this would be considered gauche. The girls were to walk up the hill separately from the boys—in order not to attract too much attention, of course—and whichever group arrived first would sit around the big table they had dusted off and placed in the middle of the entrance hall, and wait for the others. Everything was in order.

Well—not quite. The boys had a further plan they had not communicated to the girls. They arrived well ahead of them to arrange their little surprise. They assembled in a first floor meeting room next to the landing. Each had brought a white bed sheet and Robert, the technician, a pair of scissors. They cut eyeholes in the sheets then draped them over their heads and made adjustments to ensure they could see adequately in the dim light. Then they grasped a fold in each hand and practised walking silently around the room while waving their arms about: trying to look as much like diaphanous, disembodied spirits as possible. When they were comfortable with this, they added gentle but malevolent WhoooOOOoooOOOooo!s to the ensemble, trying to make them sound as frightening and haunting as possible.

They were ready. Gordon, as leader, crept quietly out onto the landing to see if the girls had arrived. They had not but he was pleased to see sufficient moonlight shining through the skylight to make it possible for them to work their evil. Their plan was to float silently, in single file, down the main staircase and parade around the periphery of the hall working closer and closer to girls until they were noticed, ideally with a scream of terror, then they would wave their sheets about, emit a series of WhoooOOOoooOOOooo!s, make one more full circuit of the room as they increased their pace to a run then peel off and disappear into the main corridor leading back into the blackness of the building.

Gordon stayed on the landing, leaning on the balustrade looking down. The girls arrived a few minutes later, waving torches around as they set up their camping lantern on the big table, arranged some chairs and made themselves comfortable. They spoke to each other quietly so what reached the landing was not conversation but a few giggles and girlish murmur.

It was time. They donned their sheets, looked at each other through their eyeholes and stepped out onto the landing: Gordon leading, James next and Robert following—three white sheets, not so much glowing white as mist-like lighter patches in the surrounding darkness. Gordon glanced behind him at the other two and moved across the landing to the top of the stairs. They stepped off and began their slow descent to the lower landing. So far, so good.

Then there on this lower landing the wheels came off. As they passed the tall, ornately framed mirror that graced the landing, Gordon glanced and saw not the three white sheets he expected to see but four. He shrieked—an authentic scream of terror, threw off his sheet and ran down the stairs as fast as he could without stumbling. Margaret looked up when she heard his scream and pounding footsteps as he flew down the last flight of steps and she, too, screamed, stood up, knocking over her chair and followed him across the hall and out the front door. Before his sheet had come fully to rest on the floor James looked in the mirror and saw three sheets rather than two. His cry was even louder than Gordon’s if that were possible and by the time he reached the front door Sheila was immediately behind him. A thoroughly bewildered Robert looked, not in the mirror but behind him at the fourth sheet and reached the bottom of the stairs just as Ann was flying out the door. He ran as never before and caught up with the five as they were queuing at the hole in the fence.

Two weeks later the six returned to school without ever having spoken, in pairs or as a group, about their adventure. Perhaps the boys, as individuals, thought about that fourth white sheet; if this were the case, none ever talked about it. They never returned to collect their torches, lanterns, drinks or sheets, nor did they discuss whether grown-ups had ever noticed the absence of these items.

The trees, bushes and weeds have grown even higher around the Sunnyvale Lunatic Asylum. The promised property development has yet to happen—perhaps later. Local people still affirm they hear screams emanating from the building around midnight—especially during full moons. Some have ventured close enough to stand at the fence guarding the entrance and gaze across the approach to the big front door. A few swear it looks as though it now hangs partway open.

All things considered, it was an interesting summer: a proper coming of age. One question remains though: did the boys ever figure out what it was about girls that made them feel insecure, puzzled and with that unexplained tingling in the pits of their stomachs? Well, that will just have to remain another tale for another time.


An excerpt from Os Doran’s first thriller, Nudge Nudge Wink Wink Die

Copyright © 2017 Riis Marshall and Turfhill Court Press

The senior surgeon spoke to Bill without turning from his work: ‘Let’s go on bypass.’

Bill unclamped the venous line and adjusted the flow, then: ‘We’re on bypass.’

Venous blood returning to the heart from the body through two major veins, the superior and inferior venae cavae now flowed into cannulae inserted in these veins then into flexible plastic tubing leading to a reservoir mounted on Bill’s pump console. From the reservoir it flowed into an oxygenator where, as in the lungs, adding oxygen and removing carbon dioxide turned it from venous into arterial blood. A roller pump returned it to the patient through more plastic tubing; here it re-entered the patient’s body through another cannula inserted in the femoral artery. It coursed ‘backwards’ up the descending aorta and the aortic arch as far as the aortic valve. During its ascent it streamed from this major artery into the entire arterial system, delivering oxygen to the body.

The heart-lung machine—an amazing creation of the human mind. Pundits refer to it simply as ‘the pump’. It replaces a patient’s heart and lungs during operations so surgeons can make repairs to the heart or surrounding major blood vessels. On bypass these major organs are isolated completely from the patient’s cardiovascular system while the pump maintains full blood flow to the entire body, but especially to the brain that cannot survive without irreparable damage if deprived of oxygen for more than about three minutes.

Apart from more effective oxygenation technology and some electronic gadgetry, this machine has changed very little since it began to see service in operating theatres in the late fifties and early sixties in the last century. And the one element unchanged over these sixty years is the perfusionist, sometimes referred to as the ‘pump technician’, sometimes as the ‘heart-lung machine operator’ and sometimes most grandly as an ‘extracorporeal circulation technician’. Although surrounded very closely by a dozen of the most thoroughly competent individuals regularly gathered in one room and totally committed to their joint work, his job is one of the loneliest in the world.

Bill changed into scrubs at six forty-five in the morning on a typical workday and trundled the console and perfusion system into the operating theatre. There is nothing really impressive or even vaguely interesting about the console other than to the uninitiated—a stainless steel box on wheels comprising roller pumps, a few switches, dials and gauges.

He positioned the console out of the way of people going about their various duties. Then he set the perfusion system—clearly more impressive than the console—on top of it. The perfusion system is a thoroughly complicated assembly of mostly transparent plastic components in various sizes and shapes, some enclosing bits of arcana relevant to their functions. Flexible, clear plastic tubing, part of it concealed within sterile wrappers, joins all these components.

Bill primed his machine with one and one-half litres of an isotonic fluid: Hartmann’s solution, sometimes called ‘CSL’. He removed a unit of CSL from a supply cabinet and recorded the batch number in his notebook. Before he emptied this unit into the reservoir, he held up both the unit and the entry in his notebook for inspection by the circulating nurse. After she confirmed the information he recorded agreed with the information on the label, he transferred the solution to the machine. The nurse repeated this confirmation for all three units. By now surgeons had entered the theatre, were gowned and gloved, arranged themselves at the table and began the operation.

He moved the pump to directly behind the senior surgeon then arranged a stool, sat down comfortably, turned on the oxygen and one of the pumps circulating fluid through the machine then noted the level in the reservoir.

Now his workday truly began. He quietly said to the senior surgeon: ‘We’re ready to go on bypass,’ then sat back and waited until they were ready.

Later the surgeon turned to him: ‘We’re ready for the lines.’

Bill reached for the one part of this system still enshrouded in a sterile wrapper, opened it and carefully exposed a coil of plastic tubing with fluid coursing through it. The surgeon manoeuvred it up and onto the table with no danger to the integrity of the sterile field. Bill placed a clamp on the venous line and sat back again. He said nothing; he was asked no questions.

It was a simple as this: from the time the surgeon ordered him to go on bypass until the patient came off, anywhere from ten minutes to eight hours according to the severity of the defect and the nature of the repair, he sat silently attending his machine. He and his machine were a unit with one aim: to maintain the patient’s blood pressure and volume. And in spite of the apparent complexity of this mass of gleaming stainless steel, pumps, plastic gadgets and tubing, he achieved this doing nothing more than maintaining the fluid level in the reservoir by making minor adjustments to the speed of the roller pumps. He might have opted for an electronic monitoring system to do this automatically but preferred to do it manually, arguing this kept him alert.

Later the surgeon spoke, again without looking away from the field: ‘Let’s come off bypass.’

Bill clamped the venous line: ‘We’re off bypass.’

When they were satisfied the heart was functioning normally, they removed the lines and handed them back to him. He wheeled the pump into the corridor, took a break then began the rest of his work for the day.


An excerpt from Os Doran’s first thriller, Nudge Nudge Wink Wink Die

Copyright © 2017 Riis Marshall and Turfhill Court Press

Os Doran, close protection security consultant, turned onto final and the deafening silence from the rear seat told him at the very least they were not going to die. He was learning to fly gliders. Today it was not about flying them—he was already reasonably good at this, today it was about landing them, an entirely different matter. Maybe this is something of a metaphor for life, one only gets one chance at it.

He rolled out of his turn six-hundred feet above the ground instead of where his instructor told him he should be—three hundred. His turn was well-coordinated; it was just that damned height! He extended the airbrakes fully and worked the elevator—up and down, up and down. The nose followed and his speed control went all to hell: instead of his planned forty-five knots, theirs fluctuated from a little too fast fifty to a much too fast seventy.

He kept the brakes fully open and struggled with the speed. He closed them to half when they were twenty feet above the grass and was able to get their speed down to something near fifty-five knots—more or less. Still no sound from behind him. They hit the ground with a resounding thud that did no damage other than to his now quite fragile ego. They rolled to a stop and the right wing dropped slowly to the ground.

Finally, a quiet response from the back seat: ‘That wasn’t a landing – that was an arrival.’

Os said nothing.

They climbed out, pushed the glider to the edge of the runway and waited for the tractor to retrieve them.

His instructor smiled a fatherly sort of smile: ‘Great flight except for that last little bit at the very end. Couple more weeks and you’ll be ready to go off on your own.’

Os smiled a sonly sort of smile: ‘Must try harder.’