Each ward has a certain stock of linen in its cupboard. That stock can only be kept at the proper level by strict barter of a soiled object for a clean duplicate of the same object. As there are three hundred and sixty-five days in the year on which this transaction occurs, and sixty wards’ bundles of linen to be dealt with by both the Dirty Linen Department and the Clean Linen Department on each of those days, it is clear that exactitude in the filling-in of the form aforementioned becomes an affair of almost nightmare importance. Bring back from the Clean Linen Store three dusters instead of the four dusters which you previously handed in at the Dirty Linen Store, and your cupboard will, to the end of time, be short of one duster which it should have possessed. Even if Sister fails to pounce promptly on the evidence of the loss, the quartermaster’s dread stocktaking will ultimately find you out. Your cupboard declines to correspond with his book-entries. And there is trouble brewing, in consequence. (But indeed, if the loss of a single duster were the sole crime revealed on stocktaking day, you would be fortunate.)
The orderly, with an obese bundle of washing on his back, plods from the ward to the Dirty Linen Store at quarter to nine every morning. I say he “plods” because the bundle is generally too heavy for transportation at a rapid pace. Twenty sheets are usually but a part of the bundle; and twenty sheets are alone no light burden. Between his teeth—both his hands being occupied with the balancing of the bundle—he carries his chit: that indispensable list. Arrived at the store he dumps the bundle on the ground, opens it, and pitches its contents piecemeal over a counter to one of the staff of the store. One by one the objects are named and counted aloud, as they fly across the counter, the staff orderly simultaneously checking the list and keeping an eye on what he is receiving. For we may, by guile, palm off on him one sheet as two. It can be done, by means of a certain legerdemain which comes with practice. Or we may have received from the Dry Store, amongst the rags meant for cleaning purposes, a couple of quite worn-out socks, not a pair, and long past placing on human feet: these derelicts, with a rapid motion, can be passed over the counter amongst the good socks, and only later in the day will the Dirty Linen Store officials detect the fraud—when it is impossible to locate its perpetrator. The store-orderly’s job is therefore one requiring some astuteness: his checking of the list has to be achieved at a high speed and in the midst of a babel; for as many ward-orderlies are present as the length of the counter will accommodate, and they are all getting rid of their dirty-linen bundles at the tops of their voices.