It’s a story
Cab from Chelsea Harbour to Chelsea and Westminster Hospital
“I am too old to play at the game and not of sufficiently poor stock to watch others at it”.
“But you must support someone”.
“I support my family and the team at King’s, not a dozen drooling cretins chasing around in the mud”.
“But you’re from ‘round here”.
“Chelski man then; no wonder you’re keeping schtum”.
“I am no such thing”.
“Live in Chelsea, Chelsea man. Simple”.
“The logic of that statement seems incontestable but fans of the game are reputed to be a disloyal horde”.
“What then, Fulham? Like it down the cottage?”
“That lethal miasma drifting off the Thames, I should think not”.
“They’ve cleaned it up a bit in the last two hundred years”.
“Any body of water under the influence of the tide will induce madness to those who pass significant time within sight of it, cleaned up or otherwise”.
“You might have something there; my cousin in Gravesend is a bit mental”.
“Aaah, a Gravesend and Northfleet man?”
“No, he’s Man U”.
“Well he who lives in Gravesend must be a Gravesend man, per your theory?”
“He says he’s from Manchester, in a past life”.
“The unconscious tides of the mind erode the foundations upon which we build ourselves – he’s obviously being pulled to sea. I suppose he watches the tides?”
“I don’t know about that but he fell in the pond at Thurrock last New Year’s eve; was a bit of a laugh”.
“Just here please, I’ll get the paper and walk the rest of the way”.
“Alright Doc, let’s know if you need a lift tomorrow”.
“I doubt it, last day today. Retiring”.
“Well, good luck Doc”.
“Good morning; Murray Mints and ten piccadilly please”.
“No Times today?”
“Not today, thank you”.
“Didn’t know you a smoker”.
“No good for you doc”.
“It’s kind of you to sell them to me, in that case”.
“Got to make a living”.
“And so near a hospital”.
“They come in here in their pyjamas with their drips on wheels to buy them; crazy”.
“They’ll stop, eventually”.
“Here; keep the change”.
“But this is twenty”.
“Yes, I know. Keep it”.
“You mean so I don’t tell Mrs doc about the fags?”
“She’ll never know”.
Walk to hospital
It was not a long walk to the hospital. The weather was cool and the clouds scudded by, high and bright above him. It was striking to him that he felt a friendship towards the taxi driver; privilege and opportunity had driven them to two very different destinations but there they were, in the same place at the same time, two men talking.
As he walked, he noticed the trees growing up through the unlikely earth, their pearlescent buds signalling the longer days, but he still wore his gloves. That grey, insistent anxiety that twists his stomach seems to be flourishing too, as he walked towards the hospital. A day to remember, he knows already. Perhaps it is not anxiety but impatience.
The high globs of cloud make their hasty commute East to the mountains, the Alps or the Pyrenees , preparing to shed their burden and lay gleaming snow for the late season skiers delight. Emily had not enjoyed skiing so he had set her up in a deck chair, the sun on her face and warming glass of spiced wine; she could watch the weaving and tumbling skiers all day. Even the ugly, exhausted chalet woman whose angry, bored eyes, pinched-mouthing good-cheer on a rota, could not erode the pleasantness. He thinks about his knee, cartilage trouble (“new skis, like rockets”); he had never been a coward. Even if he had been warned. Would always go ahead and to hell with the consequences. It’s still there, that old resolve.
Three men walk abreast towards him. They wear working men’s clothes and one carries a blue box with some sort of power tool in it. He recognises the language they speak as Polish. He also recognises the determined faces of men and he wonders if they see the same in his face; that he too is doing what he must. One skips onto the road to allow him to pass and then back onto the path.
Beeps, sirens, revving bus. Two patients in pyjamas stoop by the pond, smoking and swearing. One has a drip on castors. Stubbornly sucking on their fags; the small rebellion. Why not? It’s their right. Fuckin’ right. It seems conspicuously at odds with common sense, but it is the way of people in difficult situations, to reclaim a part of themselves, even if it does harm. It doesn’t have to make sense. Traffic tumbles frantically by. He has never seen a bus driver gesticulate as much as a taxi driver. Bus drivers are so much more serene; calmly piloting their crowds. He would bet there is a lower occurrence of stress related illnesses in bus drivers. He is a bus driver, he concludes; less prone to excitability, but still navigating a difficult route.
They had taken the holiday before Emily’s treatment started, a year ago. Might be a while until she could contend with the mountains again, if things went well. When she suggested skiing, he knew it was more for him than for her; after all, he lost himself to the slopes and the labour of skiing. She imagined the greatest burden landed on him; much like a dying star which just disappears, while the satellites in its gravity would be set adrift in a universe of uncertainty. But she would still be with him, wherever they went, and she would sit quietly and watch him. Loving him as he swept in such elegant, joyful arcs across the snow.
The planting beds around the entrance of the hospital could do with some attention. What life there was looked sick and dying; awaiting the final cut. There really is no hope of reviving these wretched twigs; best pull it all up and decide what do do with the bare, butt-littered dirt. Start again. What does this say about the hospital? Can anything be saved?
“Hello Doc,” says Sonia, Sri Lankan, wonderful bright honest smile. Blue cotton nurse’s coat. Name on a lanyard, cheap pumps on her feet. She’s walking with tired, broad cheeked Levotna who smiles too. But so tired.
Imperiously, he walks. He does not know why he adopts this gait, like a field Marshall inspecting, but he does. Emily always said he looked distinguished, refined in his camel overcoat. Striding, straight back and all lofty. Disguised.
Gleaming from an apres-ski shower, Emily would celebrate with him, always, another day on the hills. And laugh. Around the long pine table, chalet girls racing to get service finished, wine bottles chiming and brandy glasses over full. He remembers becoming boisterous, caught up in the tempo, and squeezing his Emily in a red-faced bear hug. She hadn’t enjoyed that. “Stop it!” she had hissed, but he mistook her plea for encouragement. “STOP IT! I CAN’T MOVE” and he let go, ashamed, and she shook and shook with tears. Embarrassed and angry, she had vanished down the steps to their room. She could not cope with being trapped. She felt suffocated and panicked, she said. Please don’t do it again. She hates being trapped. She didn’t use that word very much; ‘hate’. Married thirty two years and maybe three times she said it. And the other times, the things she said she hated were ideas: the idea of that orphan lying for warmth, during a brutal Russian winter, on her mother’s just deceased corpse; the idea of desensitised and lonely teenagers watching beheadings on the Internet for stimulation.
“Come to see the patient?” asked Veronique from ward desk. The whiteness of her shirt cuffs contrasted with her lustrous mahogany skin. Her look was cool but behind her professional mask, that softness, that knowing he carried a weight. Still time for kindness in this cyclone; always a surprise.
“Any sign of improvement?” he asks, knowing the answer. Even hope is eroded, however mighty a pillar it once seemed. Eventually you stand back on the bare, stony ground.
“No change”, she says. Efficiency in delivering news; still no dreaded, sympathetic eyes. He has heard this news so many times, it needs no embellishment or supplement.
That afternoon, the last day of their holiday, he had skied until shadows were long on the choppy piste. That’s the problem with Spring skiing; soft, dirty, bumpy snow on the low slopes. He would have to take care of Emily on the run back down. When he got back to her, she was impatient to get back to the chalet and the vin chaud has freed her to give him an enthusiastic telling off. She was still muttering angrily as she pushed her feet into her boots and clicked onto her skis. It was a few hundred metres to the car park, where their car would be waiting. But the snow was difficult to read; hidden patches of treacherous slush, sudden slick stretches and drops. Only half a dozen other skiers in sight, struggling and swearing.
He walks on the pale linoleum of the corridor, that expression of thought on his face, the one that keeps people away. He feels for the cigarettes in his pocket. Has not smoked for thirty-seven years, since before Emily. But it is a day for change and why he chooses the crackle of burning tobacco, his companion during those lonely, angry days of his twenties, he does not know. Perhaps it signifies an escape. The patient he is here to see has been in a grave condition and unresponsive during every single visit he has made. For almost a year, he has stood, observed, listened and left with progressively less hope for this soul.
Emily, irate, bobbled up and down on the bumpy snow, near the edge where it seemed less hazardous. But she hit a slick stretch and suddenly arced into deeper snow, straight off the piste and into the gully and the ominous pines. When her head thumped against the thick trunk of the tree, she had lost a ski and all control. If only she had secured the helmet. He had heard the impact and knew it was bad. There was no call of pain. She lay deep in shadow, not moving. He called out to one of the remaining skiers that his wife is badly hurt; could they get the emergency services. The skier waved his assent and took off over the bumps. Kneeling by the side of his wife, her blood shocking on the blueing snow, he brushed pieces of bark from her quiet, swelling face.
The patient has been cleaned assiduously for the duration of her stay in the hospital but the smell of decay was inescapable. The catheters, pipes and cables; the gentle mechanical whirring and the sound of the pumps all evidence that she is artificially alive. One subtle change in the room and the balance would be upset; the status quo interrupted. The sickness, the prompt for the holiday, still attacked her anyway, and it would claim her in the end. Of that there is no doubt. Like the others on this floor, so close to death, this one is perched on the very edge of the abyss. They rarely make it back but the doctors try. Their duty. His own duty is different. He sits in the sofa chair next to her bed and waits.
Hours pass, and then alarms suddenly, running in corridors. Some emergency; some final effort to deny what the patient probably, by now, longed for. The low voices and fast feet fly past the door of this small hospital room. He feels the release of being forgotten, so many of the staff busy elsewhere. Or perhaps it is opportunity. A small window opens in his mind.
He acts quickly. Ventilator off, pillow, pressure. Not much time needed, to push something already so close to the edge. Chair under door handle slowing them, but the alarms and the nurses are muddled. They come though at last, in practiced haste, chair banging, two of them bustle past without looking at him, only at her. Their work is measured; chest compressions, air, shocks. But it soon subsides. It’s too late. She’s gone, relieved at last. They are exasperated; put the blanket gently over her face. One, Levotna, regards him. “What have you done?”.
“She hates being trapped. Hates it.” He says, wondering at what he had done.
“Oh Mr Mills,” she says, just sad.
“But she’s free now, you see?”