The Night Class

A thrilling short story from Matthew Blake, bestselling author of Anna O

Forgive us our sins.

Jim stops and concentrates. He banishes that old schoolboy prayer. His mind has been betraying him lately. Stan diagnosed it first, of course. Stan was perceptive like that. He didn’t have a degree or medical training, but he could spot danger better than anyone. They would sit on the rooftop, two renegade Chelsea Pensioners in regulation dress, and share an illicit cigarette. Stan would put the world to rights. Jim misses those days.

He turns back to the laptop now and looks at the figure on the screen. The lecturer is called Dr Benedict Prince. But Jim thinks of him more like a preacher than a prince, each sentence delivered with pulpit conviction. Jim wishes he had more teachers like Dr Prince when he was in school. The schoolmasters in his day were gowned disciplinarians with barks as sharp as canes. The army instructors were even worse. None had the flair of Dr Prince.

Is a criminal always responsible for their crimes? Do we have agency over our moral choices?

The library at Broadmoor is dim and hushed. The ceiling light blinks tipsily, as if half-alive, ensuring the computer area is either crepuscular or overlit. Jim watches the video closely and pays attention to the subtitles, offered for elderly students slightly hard of hearing. He’s no good with computers and Wi-Fi passwords. Nor was Stan. Two old soldiers with endless war stories, brave and battle-hardened but almost stupidly courageous. They were the last truly analogue duo. Here, at least, someone else does the tech stuff for him. Jim merely turns up and puts the headphones on.

Dr Prince continues with a suitably theatrical flourish.

How much of life is choice, and how much is outside our control?

‘An Introduction to Forensic Psychology’ by Dr Benedict Prince of the Abbey Sleep Clinic in Harley Street. Hosted by Birkbeck College, London. One lecture a week with a suggested reading list. Remote learning. Courtesy of His Majesty’s taxpayer, part of the in-house learning programme for patients at Broadmoor. Jim hasn’t had any formal education for nearly sixty years. But he’s enjoying this. It’s an escape from the memories of that night and the queasy, hygienic chaos of this place.

Yes, forensic psychology is not the most obvious subject. Jim could have chosen something far more innocent, like English Literature or History. Even other parts of psychology are tamer, as long as they don’t involve Freud and those crackpot theories about Oedipal urges and Electra complexes.

And yet Jim chose this one. Though picking Dr Prince’s course wasn’t entirely random. Jim always wanted to be a student. He went straight into the army at sixteen, saw action in the Falklands with the Parachute Regiment, then got dragged into the civil service in the 1990s thanks to a short-lived retraining scheme for veterans moving into Whitehall. He reinvented himself as the martinet capable of ensuring a Minister’s every wish was delivered with military efficiency.

Dr Prince has a nice voice. Jim imagines some of the younger female members of the class would find him attractive. Not that anyone is allowed to say such things these days. Stan always had a good laugh about that. But Jim, like Stan, is far too old to change how he views the world. Flirtation makes the world go round, or at least it used to.

Forensic psychology is about solving crimes through mental traces.

Dr Benedict Prince. It’s a good name too. Better than his anyway.

Jim Baker. It’s what sergeant majors and civil servants have always been called. People with the surname Prince can write books and dazzle with their podcasts and YouTube appearances. The Bakers of this world are the workhorses, squeezed into cheap suits and forever sifting emails and calendars, dealing with the plumbing of life. At least Jim is better than Stan. As Stan used to joke, the only thing named after Stanley is the capital of the Falklands and a knife. Neither are particularly impressive.

Not that Jim’s complaining. Life as a Baker was good until his wife died three years ago. Jim flirted with disaster then, far too much time with the bottle. His sleep became fitful, his dreams more violent. He would wake up not knowing where he was or what happened the night before. His old man was an alcoholic. Perhaps it was in the genes.

That’s when Stan rode to the rescue and persuaded him to move into the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. Stan was always a good friend like that. They first met fifty years ago as fresh-faced recruits and served together in 2 Para during the Falklands. Jim’s room at the Royal Hospital was next to Stan’s. It was like old times. They grew up together, then waited for death together. They always sat opposite each other in the dining hall and strolled through the grounds chatting about everything and nothing. Often they sneaked out to the rooftop for a smoke, giggling like schoolboys disobeying a teacher. They even received written warnings from the governor. Jim’s grief lost its sting. Stan made him want to live again. Stan saved his life more than once.

Dr Prince jiggles his arms onscreen and starts raising his voice for emphasis.

Forensic psychologists must ask the difficult questions and be prepared to grapple with the difficult answers.

Jim looks forward to each Thursday evening now. He wondered whether it would be all young folk, proper students, who would make him feel decrepit. But the class seems to be a healthy mix of ages, from baby-cheeked twentysomethings to oldsters like Jim making up the numbers. He is always at one remove, never fully joining in. But his brain is active again.

We will consider whether all of us in this room are really capable of murder.

Yes, Dr Prince is hamming it up now. Jim can tell this has been well-rehearsed. There’s an actorly fluency to the man. Jim can almost imagine Dr Prince as a politician or the more peacocky type of military officer with Sandhurst smartness and a staff college strut. The sort that Stan hated. Ruperts, as Stan called them, hogging the limelight while the grunts skulked in the shadows. Stan used to tease the officers mercilessly behind their backs. Jim remembers crying sometimes with laughter.

Do our minds leave an imprint when we commit a crime? How much do we understand about what goes on inside our own heads?

Some of the students have laptops out and are tapping noisily away. Others, like Jim, prefer to scribble notes by longhand. Jim doesn’t write the last sentence down. He knows why he took this course. He doesn’t understand his own mind. That’s the problem. He wants to know why he committed that horrifying act. Why he’s here in this building. Why that night happened. Stan would know. If only Jim could ask him.

Perhaps it’s just the curse of old soldiers. The din of guns, screams, bullets, blood – none of it ever fully stops. One incident decades later can bring it all back. But Jim knows that it wasn’t the Falklands, or not really. It was that other trauma. That’s what brought him here. That’s what caused this mess. Not in uniform at Goose Green, but suited and booted as private secretary to the Minister.

Finally, we will look at methods of treatment for those who used to be called criminally insane and examine institutions like Broadmoor Hospital.

Now Jim feels the tension in his stomach. The B-word. That’s how the Minister always referred to it. He can still hear her inquiring with a whisper: what’s the latest on the B-word, Jim? Is it all taken care of?

Jim, though, never complained. He wishes he had. Maybe he wouldn’t have been handed the Special Project. But he could be trusted. He ensured the Minister’s wishes were carried out. He delivered the signed authorisation in person. He had quiet words with the Attorney General’s advisers. He even visited Broadmoor to inspect the premises and consult with Dr Bloom who came up with the proposals and that shiver-inducing name for the experiment.


Jim reported back to the Minister like a good civil servant. After that, though, he stopped reading the crime stories in the newspapers. He blocked out those screams at Broadmoor. He started referring to it as the ‘B-word’ himself. It was a haunted house, a place that scared him like nowhere else, full of shouts and cries and terrors.

I want you to think about the psychology of criminals. Not just how different you are to them. But how similar too.

With that final flourish, Dr Prince’s class concludes. The other students put away their laptops or notepads. Jim clicks off the screen on the browser and hears the librarian approach him.

‘All done?’

Jim nods. ‘Yes, thank you.’

The librarian turns the computer off. Two of the guards wait to escort Jim back to his room. The librarian smiles. No one believes his stories about visiting Broadmoor now or being a civil servant. Who would? Not after what he did. He was always prone to night terrors, especially after his wife’s death. But, after the arrest, his lawyer advised that the judge might not buy it, given Jim’s connection with Broadmoor and the Special Project. The lawyer said it was better to plead for diminished responsibility citing age and past military trauma and get a hospital order instead of risking a Category-A prison, especially at his age. He might get a few months of treatment and then be out again. He would be classified as a patient rather than a prisoner.

So that’s what he did. And that’s what he got.

But the irony isn’t lost on him. Jim reaches his room on the Harrogate Ward now. He hears the door shut. He sits on the bed and looks around him. He sees his own shadow pass in the hallway outside. He’s been here for three weeks. He’s shown good signs of recovery and will probably be released in another few months and allowed to gently slide towards death. Broadmoor might be awful. But Belmarsh would still be worse.

He can hear the librarian and guards talking outside.

‘Poor guy still thinks he used to work here,’ says one.

The other one laughs.

They walk away. Jim doesn’t react. He picks up a book and starts reading. He tries not to think about the night terror that changed his life, the way this place infected everything, burrowing into his subconscious until it flared in such disastrous fashion.

The night terror had such logic, after all. The nightmare wasn’t real. But it felt it. He wasn’t a civil servant any longer, but a patient, trapped inside the special cage at Broadmoor, a sane man condemned as mad. No matter how much he protested, no one listened. So, as the nightmare continued, he waited patiently before making his escape. The anxiety dream continued with its heavy symbols, as he picked the lock of the cage and ran for freedom, reaching the roof of Broadmoor, through the rusty old door he and Stan always used for their cigarette breaks, one leap from liberty itself now. Except, as in all nightmares, he was pursued by a shadow who took the form of a Broadmoor guard, a faceless menace. With the inevitability of a dream, Jim decided to fight rather than surrender. The nightmare ended as he wrestled with the guard and used his military training to push the guard from the rooftop.

Down, down, down. Freedom. Escape.

Except that’s when the nightmare stopped. Jim still remembers opening his eyes. It was dawn and he was standing on the rooftop at the Royal Hospital, right by the creaky door, in the middle of the roof where they smoked, staring out at a fresh morning.

This time, though, he looked down and saw Stan’s body haloed by blood on the stony ground far, far below. The disbelief came first, then the shock set in. Finally came the profound, all-consuming terror. Both of them were dressed in their nightwear. And the horrible sequence of events made such nightmarish sense: Stan next door noticing Jim’s night terrors, following to try and help his old comrade-in-arms, Jim pushing Stan away, convinced his best friend was a guard trying to stop him escaping.

Two old soldiers, two best pals. One killer, one victim.

Everything blurred after that. The nightmare was over. But, really, another nightmare was just beginning. Jim heard the staff calling it a terrible accident. A case study for better mental health treatment for veterans and the dangers of dementia and PTSD. Both of the old decorated gents in 2 Para, according to the files, yet more victims of the Falklands conflict. Sad, so very sad. Jim didn’t tell them what the real memory was. Not the Falklands, not 2 Para, but Broadmoor, Medea, the Stockwell Monster. His work for the Minister twenty years ago. The sacrifices he made, the sins he committed, in the service of the state.

Jim focuses again now on the present. He continues reading the first chapter of his book, Anna O and Other Mysteries of the Mind by Dr Benedict Prince, and sees that Dr Prince has lifted his lecture from his own work.

Is a criminal always responsible for their crimes? Do we have agency over our moral choices?

Jim reads for a few more minutes and then closes the book. He lies back on his bed. He thinks of Stan trying to help him that night. He sometimes has conversations with Stan even now, company for these lonely nights. Jim recounts some of their old war stories, raises a chuckle, keeps the demons at bay. He wishes he’d never heard of Broadmoor, that he didn’t know this place existed. He survived a war only to find home was the true battlefront.

He closes his eyes and repeats the Lord’s Prayer under his breath, just as he does every single night, stopping as he gets to that impossible line. This time he concentrates, but doesn’t banish it. He repeats it instead. If only he could understand his own mind, solve the mystery of why and what and how.

Stan was good at that. If Stan were here, he’d get to the bottom of it. Stan spotted danger like no one else. If only he’d done so that night. Everything might be different.

Forgive us our sins.

Forgive us our sins.

Forgive us our sins.

Copyright © 2024 by Matthew Blake. All rights reserved.

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