A short story by JONATHAN WILLIAMS
Hospitals are very loud places. They’ll tell you that it’s nice, and quiet, and calm. They’ll tell you that it will be private, and discreet. Neon signs flash ostensibly in the corridors: TERMINAL WARD, VISTING TIMES 1-3PM, 7-9PM (no terminating between these times.) They’ll tell you that you can trust them to give the scene absolute decorum; the plastic armchair next to the bed matches the dull, dulcet tones of the old pint glass perched in a ring of dust on the windowsill. The correct gravitas for every malady, though meals in plastic trays are a problem yet to be resolved. What hospitals very rarely do is tell you the truth.
The nurse is pulling the curtain around the bed, keeping the patient and the patient’s visitors inside. The nurse is sombre, and looks down and away to stage right throughout the scene. The nurse repeatedly sighs. The sigh is echoed in turn by each visitor, until it’s made its way to the patient, who struggles to draw breath. The nurse wipes a single well-placed tear from her cheek. The visitors are lying on each other’s shoulders in a circle with orgiastic pity.
“Are you okay?” someone asked. I had drenched my hand in sanitizer from the dispenser at the top of the corridor, staring down at the scene; estranged bodies come together, huddling over a living corpse, ready for the show. A ridiculous question for a ridiculous scene. How is the first act supposed to make you feel? The characters are introduced, the scene is normally set: the audience feels okay. But I knew these characters already; the scene was the same scene I saw yesterday. It did not need to be set. I did not need to be okay. Was I okay? I walked over.
Mum was shaving Dad; his head, titled back into the stained pillow, looked skeletal. His forehead loomed over the hollows of his eyes. There were bruises on his temples, on his cheeks, and in the pale darkness of his mouth you could see that his gums had receded, dry and desolate. I couldn’t tell you his last drink, but I could probably guess. He licked the bottom of his lip; the flakes of dead skin smoothed against the cracks. The flowers on the windowsill behind him were limp. They swung in the sickly air, impotent and desperately sucking in the last of the water that sat at the bottom of the pint glass.
I had just come from the canteen, the bar, and smelt of bleach. Plaice, peas and mashed potato, all microwaved to immediate perfection. Somehow, in the way that minds often work, I remembered that plaice was the favourite fish of Dad, and ordered it. Or maybe I was told that it was earlier that day. You see, I’d been to see this scene every day for the past six weeks, and all I could remember was that I didn’t like the taste of plaice anymore.
“What are you going to do?” Mum asked, wiping the excess foam from Dad’s decrepit throat. There was no blood: there never was anymore. It was like every drop had hidden away deep inside of him until he was emaciated, squeezed tight like an empty tube of cheap toothpaste, the last of life clutching to the head. After he had tried to kill himself with a steak knife from the kitchen, I had never seen him bleed again. I used to think that people only ever bled in private after that.
“I’ll go to the exam, I think?” I think I said that. I was looking at the flowers. Daffodils always reminded me of Dad, of Welsh roots. I had never seen a daffodil in Bangor, and not a single one grew in Nain’s garden, but beautiful bouquets of them were sold in the Co-Op in Caernarfon, where Dad used to buy most of his vodka. Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, after all.
There were muted mutters of agreement, and everyone looked away, biting nails or playing with the lint that they had secretly hidden away in their pockets. It was getting darker now: less to look at. The stage was being set. It was an easy visit in the afternoon because the canteen was always open; my name placed on a piece of paper in front of a plate of plaice, peas, and mashed potato for me to retrieve at the interval. But like a car crash in slow motion, we all inevitably turned our gazes to Dad. Straight on cue, entering cranium right came The Coma. A grand performance; it had the crowd captivated, but the stage didn’t feel properly set yet. Dad’s mouth still sat agape, perhaps in shock of such a late delivery. I thought the orchestra of ruffled bed sheets would subside, but the blisters moved with an impatient life of their own, the pus gesticulating against the bandage. The chafing distracted me. I think I heard someone snoring behind me.
I tried to pick up my book, but the nonchalance didn’t work as well as lint did. I stared instead at the cover. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, BY J.D. SALINGER. I never knew why titles had to shout. It was always very loud here. The cover was a bold red, and I knew that it was supposed to be about communism (Question 1: In what ways is THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, BY J.D. SALINGER a reaction to McCarthyism in 1950s America?), but all I could think about was the little blood cells in Dad, frightened out of their wits, racing and bumping and falling into each other to try and keep the heart going. Like a stage crew, they fell about in the background, trying to keep up with the scene. Phonies, I thought. I wasn’t sure which character I was addressing.
The exam was at 10am, and I had known weeks ago that I should have booked a matinee. I had preceded every scene with a visit to the school, dressed prim and yet improper for my day. Maths followed English in a blur of disillusioned. I imagined Holden would be good at algebra, and was glad for the distraction.
The night went on; the curtain opened occasionally and the nurse, still sombre, still looking away and sighing occasionally, checked Dad’s vitals. “Are you okay?” she would keep saying, her well placed tear perfectly springing out to a cavalcade of appreciative nods. What about the intermission? Brother needs the bathroom but he doesn’t want to miss anything, so we stay glued to our seats.
At 9:50am, the crescendo finally came. This was the climax, the culmination of all our intrepid, edge-of-seat-gripping, nail-biting patience. Like a tidal wave, Breath subsumed the scene. The daffodils waved. We held our breaths, mouths agape; arid deserts all staring at this impossible mirage. We waited for the tears to come and fill our sandy mouths with moisture. I could feel them falling but all I could hear was phonies in my head. One more heartbeat, so loud and clear like the cymbal of a band, the curve at the top of the wave, and Dad’s Last Breath came hurtling out, down into the crowd, down into our ears, into our lungs. It tasted of defeat. Like the conductor had forgotten that last flourish. It didn’t feel finished, but the stage crew had all gone home, and it was over.
When a play finishes, the curtain closes and the actors take their bows. But this scene started with the curtains closed; the actors had taken their bows to the doctors and nurses before they went behind the pale blue, clinical curtain. Now no one knew what to do. The theatre had been abandoned, and we all still sat on our seats, tears pouring from our faces, flooding the bed, flooding the scene. I think Holden thought I was being a Phony. The book was on the floor, mocking me. Its red was faded now though, a critic exiting, scoffing at my tears, and morning felt like midnight. The end of all things.
Dad’s liver obviously gave out first. Then his lungs, or so the sighing nurse said. It was his heart and his brain, in tandem, waltzing away off the stage that finished it. I still sit there sometimes, in my dreams, waiting for the end of this interval I’ve been sitting in for years. Waiting, always, for Act Two.