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CYC-Online Issue 16 MAY 2000 / BACK
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a story

The hour of the wolf

Phil Carradice

A sudden ringing of the telephone, far off, staccato, terrifying in its insistence. Slowly, chillingly, it buffeted me into reality.

'Yes?'

I propped myself up on one elbow, eyes tightly shut to block out the darkness of the room, only outer edges of my brain achieving anything like a useful awareness. The voice at the other end of the 'phone was high and sharp.

'Phil? You'd better come across. We've got some trouble “Mark's just attacked the Night Watchman.'

I swore inwardly and tried to look at my watch. Too dark, too tired.

'How bad?' I asked.

'Not too serious. It's only just happened.'

'O.K. I'll be over.'

By the time I managed to pull on some clothes and reached the bathroom door, I had begun to come to. In the light of the bathroom cabinet I looked again at my watch. 3.05. Christ, I thought, always in the dead of night, never in the day.

The hour of the wolf, they called it. That strangely disquieting hour between three and four in the morning, the empty nothing of the night. An apt description for that simple, single span when even the most stolid, unimaginative of men look back across their shoulders and shudder.

The Secure Unit stood some twenty yards away from the main buildings of the Assessment Centre. At this hour of the morning it looked menacing and decidedly unpleasant. Holding, as it did, the most troubled and disturbed youngsters in the Centre it stood to reason most calls for help would come from inside its gloomy, forbidding walls. Now it was ablaze with lights. Chris, the sleeper-in and back up precaution for an event such as this, was awake and pacing the entrance hall. The Night Watchman was in the toilet being sick.

And of course, Mark. Sitting in his bedroom, face blank, outwardly calm. I sat down next to him on the bed. He looked away.

'Well?' I said. 'What the hell have you done now?'

'What do you mean? I haven't done anything, fuck all! He hit me first.'

I studied him, carefully. Medium height, dark; a handsome kid but dead about the eyes. Now he was breathing hard, aggression simmering like thunder beneath a layer, a thin veneer of sophistication.

'O.K. We'll talk about it in the morning,' I said. 'Just get into bed and go to sleep.

He rolled into the bed, face close up to the wall. I moved to the door.

'Phil? Can I play my radio?'

'Lightly,' I said.

Later I sat in the office, drinking coffee. The Night Watchman had gone home, bruised and somewhat stunned. Chris had been puzzled.

'Why?' he had asked me. 'He was calm all evening, went into his room no trouble. But just now – Christ, I had to drag him off. So why the change?'

I had been unable to answer him. I didn't know why any more than he did.

But now, sitting there, alone, it was somehow different. I felt open or exposed. Vulnerable, almost as if I was under attack. Swiftly, in one quick movement which was far more decisive than I felt, I pushed back my chair and strode out into the hall.

Silence, absolute and consuming. The emptiness of the building, despite its sleeping occupants locked into their safe and comforting bedrooms, seemed to pulse hostility. I walked to Mark's door and peered in through the observation window. He lay unmoving, radio toning endlessly to the sleeping room.

'It's almost as if I antagonized him somehow,' the Nightman had said.

Perhaps he had a point. He had never been particularly comfortable in the job – nervous, jumpy, almost as if he was waiting for trouble. Tonight, when Mark had rung the bell and asked for water, he had taken him a glass. And Mark, for some unaccountable reason, had flung the water over him and attacked.

I retreated to the office, apprehension filling the room, suffocating like a winter mist. I must need my head read, I reasoned, telling the Nightman I would take over from him.

'You go,' I had said. 'Go home and have a night's rest. I'll stay here until the morning shift takes over – there'll be no more trouble tonight.' Stupid bastard!

I picked up my pen and began to write my report of the incident. But I was unable to give it much more than cursory notice. My mind was elsewhere, anywhere but on the paper.

As much as I hated to admit it I was afraid. I tried to analyse my feelings but what the hell was there to be afraid of? Mark? Not really. He was asleep and, besides, we always got on well. There would be no problems there. Not fear of attack, then, but there was something, some basic, primal night fear churning around within me.

I think I felt then, as I had never felt before, the totally irrational nightmare fears of the young child. In that hour of the wolf, when all the sophistication and the role plays drop away, only the bare bones of your soul are left. And you are open, vulnerable and afraid.

I felt Mark's fear, sensed it covering the room. I could have wept for him and for myself as well.

Of course it did not exactly do my ego much good for me to admit that I was scared.

'It's all an act,' the Principal had often said. 'Never admit you're afraid, not even to yourself.'

Fear, however, is an intractable thing. It sweats and smells within the air, hangs fetid and putrescent like a fox's lair. And others pick it up, inhale it, drink it in. And act accordingly.

Perhaps that was it. The basic reaction to fear is more fear. The old story of expectation; if you expect someone to comply with your wishes, he invariably does; if you expect him to refuse, he will refuse.

Different people react to their fear in different ways. Some curl up, turn in upon themselves, but others – Mark, for instance – lash out in fury.

I forced myself to write. After two paragraphs I gave up, crumpled the paper and hurled it into the bin.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I glanced at the clock on the wall. 4.07. The hour of the wolf had passed – at least, my hour. For Mark, for the Night Watchman, for others, their hour might still be there. For some it might never pass.

For the first time since the incident began I felt easy. The fear had gone. I was alone but no longer afraid. I was in control. I picked up my pen and, once more, began to write.

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