Ken McClure

Fenton's winter


Edinburgh 1988

The power driven door of the steriliser swung slowly shut. Its side shields clamped it in an air-tight embrace and a vacuum pump began sucking out the air until, four minutes later, the automatic controller stopped the pump and opened up a valve. Scalding steam from the hospital's main supply line flooded in to raise the internal temperature to one hundred and twenty-six degrees centigrade. The pre-formed vacuum ensured that the steam found its way into every nook and cranny of the load, giving up its latent heat and, in doing so, destroying all vestige of microbial life. The smallest virus hiding in the remotest corner of a crease would be sought out and exterminated by the relentless steam. There would be no hiding place, no escape, no reprieve. An orange light flicked on as the temperature reached its target and triggered an electric timer. A relay clicked on and off as it held the temperature steady on 126 degrees.

Half way through the cycle Sister Moira Kincaid returned from lunch and furrowed her brow. She walked over to the unattended steriliser and took down a clip-board from the side of the machine, checking through the one line entries with her fore finger and frowning even more. Last entry nine fifteen, eight packs of surgical dressings, fourteen instrument packs, gloves, gowns…Cycle Normal…Emptied eleven thirty…Signed J. MacLean. There was no further entry, no indication of what the present load might be or who had commissioned it. Two sins had been committed and Moira Kincaid was annoyed. As sister in charge of the Central Sterile Supply Department at the Princess Mary Hospital it was her job to know every thing about everything in her own department. She was a stickler for order and routine. Someone had upset that routine and that someone, she decided, was going to have a very uncomfortable afternoon.

Steriliser Orderly, John MacLean, was whistling as he returned from his lunch break but the off-key rendition died on his lips as he saw the vinegar stare that welcomed him.

'Is something wrong?' he asked tentatively.

Moira Kincaid tapped the edge of the clipboard against the side of the steriliser and paused for effect. 'This autoclave is running yet there is no entry on the board.'

MacLean sighed slightly with relief. 'Not me,' he said, 'It was empty when I went for my break, besides, there was no load for it.'

Moira Kincaid looked puzzled. 'That's what I thought,' she said quietly.

'Might be MacDonald Sister.'


MacLean looked uncomfortable. 'Harry sometimes sterilises his home brewing equipment in it,' he said sheepishly.

'Ask him to come and see me when he gets back,' said Moira Kincaid as she turned on her heel and walked across the tiled floor to her office.

Moira Kincaid closed the door behind her and leaned back on it for a moment before letting her breath out in a long sigh. She was glad to have these few moments before MacDonald arrived. It would give her time to calm down and get things into perspective. She would give MacDonald a dressing down but it would go no further than that for, facing facts, MacLean and MacDonald were the best orderlies she had had since taking over the department. She would be loath to lose either of them. Running the Sterile Supply Department was very different to ward work for there was no chain of command, simply because none was required. The work of preparing sterile dressings and instruments did not demand qualified nursing personnel, only the application of average intelligence. As a result her staff of seven, five women and two men were all of equally unqualified status. Keeping harmony among the seven was a prime consideration; petty niggles and jealousies had to be stamped out as soon as they occurred while the vital nature of the work had to be stressed constantly. An unsterile instrument pack in theatre would almost certainly mean infection and death for an innocent patient and should such an event occur there would be only one head on the chopping block…hers. A knock came to the door. 'Come.'

'You wanted to see me Sister?'

Moira Kincaid swivelled round in her chair, 'Come in MacDonald. Close the door.' She held the man's gaze till he broke eye contact and looked briefly at the floor. 'Now understand this,' she began, 'I personally have no objection to your sterilising your brewery in the autoclaves but one thing I do insist on, as you should well know by now, is that every steriliser run should be properly logged and signed for by the operator.'

'I'm sorry…I don't understand,' said the man.

Moira Kincaid was irritated. 'Number three autoclave, your home brewing utensils man. You didn't log the run.'

'But I'm not using the autoclave,' protested the man

'Then who…' Moira Kincaid's voice trailed off and she got to her feet to follow MacDonald out in to the main sterilising area. They joined MacLean in standing in front of number three steriliser.

'How long to go?'

'Two or three minutes.' They waited in silence while the machine's safety systems sent reports to its silicon brain about conditions inside the chamber. They saw the pressure recorder fall to one atmosphere and traced the painfully slow descent of the temperature gauge until a buzzer began to sound and the green OPEN-DOOR light flashed on.

'Right then, let's have a look, open it up.

MacLean pressed the door release and the steel shrouds slowly relaxed their grip on the seal. With a slight sigh the air-tight joint broke and the heavy door swung open allowing a residual cloud of steam to billow out.

'Well John, what is it?'

MacLean stayed silent. His eyes opened wider and wider until they stopped seeing and he collapsed on to the tiled floor in front of the steriliser. There was a sickening crack as he hit his head on the corner of the door shield and blood welled up from a gash on his forehead to spill on to the tiles. Together, Moira Kincaid and John MacLean went to his aid but, as the steam cleared, all concern for their colleague evaporated for there, in the chamber of the steriliser, sat the pressure-cooked body of a man.

MacDonald stumbled to the nearest sink and voided his lunch; Moira Kincaid's nails dug into her cheeks in a sub-conscious attempt to divert attention from the horror before her eyes but there was no denying the fact that she recognised the man. Despite flesh peeling off the cheek bones and the congealing of the eyes she knew that she was looking at the body of Dr Neil Munro from the Biochemistry Department.


Small groups of people were discussing the tragedy in nearly every room of the Biochemistry Department but Tom Fenton did not join any of them. He cleared his work bench, washed his hands and put on his waterproof gear. The big Honda started first time and, switching on the lights, he pulled out into the early evening traffic. As he neared the City centre a double deck bus drew out sharply in front of him causing him to brake hard and correct a slight wanderlust in the rear wheel but he remained impassive. He weaved purposefully in and out of the rush hour traffic in Princes Street, not even bothering to glance up at the castle, the first time he had failed to do so in the two years he had worked in Edinburgh.

The flat felt cold and empty when he got in. 'Jenny!' he called out as he pulled off his gloves. 'Jenny!' he repeated, looking into the kitchen then he remembered that she was on late duty and cursed under his breath. Without pausing to take off the rest of his leathers he poured himself a large Bell's whisky and walked over to the window. He revolved the glass in his hand for a moment while looking at the hurrying figures below then threw the

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