Keith is woken by the bleeping of monitors. He must have nodded off for a second. Why do they make these rooms so stiflingly hot? For a second his brain fails to recognise where he is, then it all comes back with a gut punch: The ambulance, the blood, the bustle of people pushing him aside. The complex mixture of emotions; guilt that he wasn’t there, worry that it will be too late, the sheer helplessness of having no option but to give up his wife to a roomful of strangers. Kathleen’s still sleeping face is half covered beneath an oxygen mask. Keith hopes her brain has shut down into something like a low power mode. Conserving its energies for essential functions. He squeezes her hand. ‘Breathe,’ he whispers.
Keith has moved out of the family accommodation. Their new home is on Fraser Ward; a bright bay down the far end of a mint-green corridor with six beds, each with a semi-conscious occupant. The nurses in their plastic aprons and bright blue tunics swish to and fro like damselflies, never alighting for long in any one spot. Kathleen sleeps most of the time, seemingly oblivious to Keith and her surroundings. Keith prefers this place; the pace here is more restful, less frantic than the cacophony of the ICU. There are visiting hours that must be observed, mealtimes and drug rounds that occur with reassuring regularity. Keith feels his shoulders relaxing, Kathleen has survived the stage of immediate danger, he reasons. If she was going to die she would have done it by now he reasons.
Keith pulls into his parking spot opposite the yellow Mini. He has found it easiest to go straight to the furthest car park from the main building rather than spend time circling for a space. The walk allows him some exercise on his daily trip to Fraser ward. If ever there is another car occupying his space, an irrational sense of outrage sweeps over him. The yellow Mini is always there before him and acts as a landmark on his return journey. He has never seen the owner of this car. He wonders if maybe its former occupant parked up one day feeling unwell, went into the hospital and never came back out again. It would be easy to get lost in there, to follow the arrows down the windowless green tunnels, through doors and down stairwells, before collapsing exhausted into a side room labelled ‘sluice’.
Keith eats on the move now. Evening meals are whatever packaged sandwiches are left in the shop. Lunches are Kathleen’s leftover sponge puddings, washed down with tea the colour of brick dust. The puddings come in lidded steel dishes, four varieties served in rotation: syrup, marmalade, chocolate and spotted dick. The lunch supervisors give one to Keith, knowing that Kathleen won’t eat hers. He knows them all by name now. His favourite is Jenna with the blue hair, her unconventional colours add some much needed gaiety to the surroundings. These are the things he notices now. He does not notice how his trousers hang from his frame, how his face has become drawn and tired. There is no one to remind him to visit the barber or to change his slowly greying shirt. If he looks into a mirror at all, it is only to reverse his car.
Keith’s birthday has come and gone, unmarked. He does not take account of dates anymore. He registers the days of the week, but not how many have passed. He doesn’t notice that the car is beginning to smell like a bin that hasn’t been emptied in a while. The back footwells are filling with sandwich packets, coffee cups and parking tickets. A warning light flashes on the dashboard. Keith knows only that it is Wednesday. The library trolley comes through Fraser Ward on Wednesdays, usually pushed by Sheila who wears her glasses on a purple chain around her neck. Keith has been reading the latest Maeve Binchy to Kathleen, although she has slept through most of it. Lately he has taken to staying on the ward until 10pm, an hour past visiting hours, but nobody has commented.
The nurses have started talking to Keith about moving on. This feels like a personal affront, like he has been caught busking outside the town hall, though they are quick to assure him this is not the case. There are visits from social workers and therapists, ‘assessments of needs’, and talk of placements, facilities, specialist rehabilitation. Keith does not know what to say to these people. His mind feels like it has been filled with expandable foam – it cannot process this new vocabulary. His heart beats faster when they approach with their folders. He nods and smiles in what he hopes are the right places, hoping they will see that neither of them are in a fit state to move anywhere.
A new doctor visits Fraser Ward. She pulls up a high-backed chair and searches out Keith’s eye. She makes sure Keith has a cup of brick-dust tea when Cheryl comes by with the trolley. Keith cannot remember the words she uses, just that the irises of her blue eyes were ringed with a golden brown, like the colour of the tobacco he used to smoke before Kathleen decided he should stop. The doctor asks Keith to sign some papers about not resuscitating Kathleen in the case of cardiac arrest. There didn’t seem to be an option not to sign them.
Keith holds Kathleen’s cool hand on top on the bed sheet. There is an angry red bruise covering most of it where a new cannula was inserted yesterday. There were no sponge puddings today, but Keith found he didn’t have an appetite anyway.
Mick the gay porter delivers a new patient to Fraser Ward only an hour after Nigel the surly porter took the previous occupant elsewhere. He says hello to Keith who raises a limp hand in response. The nurses and their assistants come and go. Barb comes round offering newspapers and snacks. Keith shakes his head. He wonders if anyone will notice if he does not go home tonight. After the last visitors leave for the day, he leans back in his chair, slips off his shoes, and closes his eyes. The bleeping of the monitors is strangely comforting.
It is Monday morning and Staff Nurse Andrew is doing her last observations of the night shift. She reaches the last bay of Fraser Ward and checks her watch; her shift finishes in ten minutes. Kathleen Harris is sleeping. Nurse Andrew checks the drip and notes the observations on her chart. She registers that something is missing from this cubicle but cannot think what it is. But there is something extra that wasn’t there before. Next to the vinyl covered high-backed chair, is another chair; a dirty grey colour, the upholstery is worn and smells faintly of hospital dinners. Next to it is a pair of man’s shoes. Nurse Andrew wonders where the chair could have come from and makes a mental note to bring it out on the next hospital ‘dump the junk day’. She touches the forehead of Kathleen Harris and moves on to her final patient.
Rebecca Field lives and writes in Derbyshire. She has been published online by Riggwelter Press, Spelk fiction, The Cabinet of Heed and Ellipsis Zine among others. Rebecca has work in the 2018 and 2019 UK National Flash Fiction Day Anthologies and tweets at @RebeccaFwrites
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