Times and Tides
A Window to the World
Looking out of the window, at Nottingham, my heart sings. Just a second’s pause in the turn of the world to see the light coming.
It’s beautiful at this time of the morning. Not the city especially but the fresh new world, with the sun just over the horizon and a new day beginning. I hold the edge of my trumpet stethoscope in my hand to warm it, listening to the ticking of the clock and the murmur of words between them. They’ve not got long before the next contraction, a textbook case.
Turning back from the window, I smile at them. Fay and Kal they’re called. First timers.
“Ok, just let me listen to baby’s heartbeat again.”
Fay’s long hair is wet with sweat, and her body glows with the fierce exertion. Kal’s sitting beside her on the edge of the bed, with his hand resting on her leg.
I put my ear to the stethoscope, and I can hear the steady quick new heartbeat. A bit like listening to a seashell for the sound of the sea, both near and far away. This baby’s getting closer.
“All’s well,” I say, as the next contraction begins to move through Fay, and she moans and moves with it. “That’s it, go with it. You can do this.”
“Sinead?” Kal says to me in the next pause, “How much longer is it going to be?”
We’ve all been up all night, but their shift won’t be ending soon. They’re just beginning their life shift of parenthood together.
“Everything’s going really well, but I can’t say exactly.”
He seems like the kind of person who’d like to have a plan, or perhaps he just wants to be able to do more. He puts his arm around Fay and she rests her head on his shoulder.
“It’s going to be ok,” he says to her, as another contraction starts up and she lifts her head again. “It feels like forever, but we’re getting there.”
As the contraction subsides, Fay lies back onto the bed.
“Every time is forever,” she says to him, “and time goes so slowly. It’s like we’re taking on forever at snail’s pace.”
Ossie always got in early so he could have a strong cup of tea before the first call of the day. He drained the final sugary sludge from the bottom of the mug, rinsed it at the sink and set off for the ward at a smart pace. Transfer of a patient to the CT scanner, so nothing to carry on his way there, she’d stay in bed and he’d push her there in that. He checked the call sheet. Leah Jones SC3529. She was only a child, poor poppet. When he got there, she was smaller than he’d expected, barely made a ridge in the covers. According to her records she was near enough seven, but she looked younger. Brown curly hair and big eyes. She looked pale in herself. Not the colour of her skin but in the depths of her eyes. Her dad was sitting in the chair with a book open; he’d been reading to her.
Beds aren’t supposed to move about. They’re for quiet times and dreaming. At home, there’s room for Daddy to cuddle up and read to me; Mama used to sit next to me and sing me to sleep. My bed at home is made of wood and it’s got my name on it, Leah, in special wooden letters with animals on them. I’ve got two different duvet covers and they are both beautiful: one with ladybirds all over it and the other with Noah’s Ark and the rainbow goes across my big squidgy pillow. This bed has white sheets and a yellow blanket and the pillow is a bit flat. This bed’s got metal at both ends and it’s on wheels. That’s how they’re going to take me to the see tea scanner. It’s a big noisy tube and I’ve got to be brave while it looks inside of me. I think it’ll see my breakfast not my tea. Cornflakes and milk and a piece of toast with jam on. Maybe my courage will show up too, orange, like the sun rising. When the man with a bald head arrived, I looked at Daddy and he winked at me and smiled. On the man’s head was a dragon, quite a scary one, with big teeth. I didn’t mean for there to be crying, but it was starting to come out of my eyes. “What’s up Duck?” the man asked. His voice was loud and a bit scratchy. His badge said ‘Oswald Smith’ on. I snuck down under the yellow blanket, nearer to Humphrey, who had been hiding all day. “Have you ever been for a ride in a bed before?” I looked at Daddy to check, and he shook his head, so I shook mine too. I wanted to have a shell to hide in, like Humphrey has. Or he would have if he was a real snail. His is made of grey furry stuff and there’s yellow stitches to show the spiral going round it. “Nothing to worry about,” the man said, “We’ll take it at snail’s pace.” I pulled Humphrey up from under the covers. “Humphrey’s a snail,” I said.
This guy is so good at his job. My first thought was I wouldn’t want to meet him outside the Lace Maker’s Arms, but here is making Leah laugh, bringing her out of her shell. When she showed him Humphrey, he responded straight away. “Well would you look at that,” he said, “He’s probably related to my snail too.” He turned his arm so Leah could see the snail tattoo’d on the inside of his wrist. “What’s his name?” she asked. “He hasn’t got one,” he said. “Yet. Perhaps your Humphrey will be able to tell us what it is.” Then he bent down to undo the brakes on the bed wheels. Leah stroked Humphrey and looked at the dragon on his head. Its fangs reached out round the curve of his skull, each one with a drip of blood falling down towards the bulge of his thick neck. She’s usually super-sensitive to all things gory but she just looked curious about the dragon’s tail, which curled away behind his ear and down round under his chin. “Does he have a name?” she asked. The porter looked up. “The dragon?” he said. “She does.” He looked at me and grinned. “Picture of my ex-girlfriend, I always say.” And then turned back to Leah. “You can call her whatever you like.”
When the man stood up, he came round to near my head and tugged the bed away from the edge of the wall. Daddy stood up and the man went behind the bed and started pushing. “We’re off,” he said, “Have we got Leah? Got Daddy? Got Humphrey? Snail’s pace, I promise. Off we go.” The walls of the room slid past us and we went through the big magic doors that open without anyone pushing. The sounds of the other children went away. I couldn’t see much but there were plain walls and lots of windows with not much outside of them. They went past quickly, kept going past and I couldn’t see Daddy any more. I hugged Humphrey tighter and I closed my eyes. There was crying come out of them, but I didn’t make a noise.
She didn’t like the bed moving, that’s for sure. Some kiddies love it, like it’s a ride at Goose Fair, but she wasn’t one of them, poor little mite. Her dad walked next to me like a zombie. He was doing his best, but he looked ashen. Made me wonder where his wife is, not that I’d ask, of course. We’d got a way to go, especially taking it as slow as we were. She’d closed her eyes before we were halfway down the first corridor. Her dad was deep in his thoughts and didn’t notice when her tears started. I was just about to say something, when she spoke up for herself. “I don’t like it Daddy.” And she started to cry in earnest. I pulled the bed to a gentle stop.
I’d been lost in my thoughts, back with Eliza again, when Leah’s voice brought me back to the here and now. I went round the side of the bed and crouched down next to her. “Ssh, chicken,” I stroked her hair. “Don’t cry. It’s going to be ok.” “I don’t like it Daddy, what if I’m not brave enough?” I gave her hug and looked over her head to the porter. “Well now Daddy,” he said, “Looks like you’re going to get a ride too.” He nodded his head towards Leah. “All aboard sir, hop on.”
I waited until they were settled before I took the brake off. These beds are big, and they’re well made. We’re used to steering the course. Steady as you like, we set off again. She stopped crying and was taking it all in now that her dad had his arm round her. I could hear him, talking to her. “It’s a bit like a boat,” he said. “And we’re sailing along this ocean corridor.”
I felt myself stand up straighter when I saw him. Shoulders back and stomach in. I’d been just about to head off to the canteen when he came in and distracted me from thoughts of my cottage pie. There was something about him seemed familiar. You get a surprising number of young ones. More often they’re visitors, but when I asked if he needed any help, this one had an appointment.
“Oh yeah,” he said, “Can you tell me where I’ve got to go?”
“That’s what I’m here for,” I said, and waited while he opened an app on his phone, scrolled down to open a document.
“Here it is, where’s that?”
I put my glasses on to look at the screen. I should get varifocals, but they make me feel seasick when I’m walking up and down stairs. Which we do a lot here. Hospital volunteering is a great way to keep fit. Saves joining the gym. And you can get a cooked lunch, which gets you a day off from cooking in the evening.
“It’s a bit of a way,” I said, “I’ll walk with you if you like.”
I was pleased he’d said yes, I’d rather get the exercise than try to give directions, even if it did mean a late lunch. I can’t always visualise the turnings, but I can remember the way down any route that I’ve been before in daylight.
“My name’s Ernie,” I said, “welcome to the hospital.”
“I’m Imad,” he nodded at me. “Thanks.”
I hooked my glasses back over the neck of my sweatshirt. I never had a sweatshirt before I volunteered here, I was strictly a shirt and jumper man. But they said it was mandatory, so it’s a kind of uniform and they’re pretty good, I have to say. Warm and light, easy to wash and no ironing.
“How are you with stairs?” He was walking pretty well, but it’s always wise to check.
“Not so good at the moment. Got to get this knee sorted isn’t it?”
I stopped short of opening the door and stepped back to reach out and press the up button.
“I can’t wait to get my fitness back,” he said while we waited, “it’s killing me hanging around.”
I’d never ask directly but it’s ok if they want to talk. Sometimes I walk the length of the hospital in silence, with someone lost in their thoughts beside me. It’s if they’re crying it’s the hardest not to say anything, but not everyone wants to talk. Not this chap though, he’s a chatter.
“It’s my job,” he said, “Fitness. It’s what I do.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m a personal trainer,” he sounded proud. “Just started my own business.”
Out of the lift doors at the top, and we turn down the ocean corridor, there’s a big picture painted on the walls. Sand, sea, sunshine.
“That’s good innit,” he said and then he stopped suddenly and we almost collided.
“Do you like surfing?” I asked, as a sudden rush of memory washed over me. Warm sun on my back and cold water crashing down all around.
“I’ve never done it,” he said, “But I’m going to.”
“That’s going to be my thing,” he said. “Get this knee fixed and I’m going surfing.”
He started walking again and I took a couple of double steps to catch up with him.
“Have you done it?” he asked.
“Not for a long time,” I said, “Back when I was in the army I did it. Great fun.”
“I was Marines,” he said. “Thought you might be forces when I saw you.”
“Glad to hear it.” Again, that straightening in my spine. “You never did surfing?”
“Yeah, some of the lads did, but I was good at heights. Climbing was my thing then.”
We held the shared experience between us for the last few steps. Some things don’t need words.
“This is it,” I said, gesturing to the double doors beside us. “Reception’s through there.”
He gave me a half salute. “Thank you, Sir. I can take from here.”
“Good luck with the surfing.”
“Six months, I reckon. Maybe less. Physio’ll be easy now I know what my goal is.”
I let myself daydream on the walk along to the canteen. Walked on autopilot, bringing the ocean with me into every stairwell, every corridor. Those waves, that sunshine. The strength of youth. I cast myself adrift on my memory of the sea.
Memory of the Sea
There aren’t many here today. I’ve got a whole row of seats to myself. I wish I’d bought a paper on the way in. I need distracting and there’s only so long I can look at the pictures on the wall. To stop myself fidgeting, I put my hands in my coat’s pockets and my fingers find the sharp spine of a feather. Since no one’s watching, I pull it out, draw the gentle down across my palm.
I remember I was walking along the shore, a day out on my own, I was near the birds that gather at the edges of the sand. At first, I wanted them to take off, show me their wings and grace. I was waiting to live through them, escape up with them, into the distant sky. But I plodded on, with my hands in my pockets, grounded beside them.
The sand was packed unevenly below my feet and crunched grittily beneath each step. There were bird footprints next to mine, smaller, sharper and altogether more delicate. I realised I liked the company of them, didn’t want them to fly off and leave me.
In my pocket, then, my fingers found the sharp corner of the appointment card. Like the feather brings the memory of the birds now, the card brought the memory of her voice then.
“Shall I write the date down for you?” She was young and smart. Had bright clear eyes. I remember thinking of the difference between us. That she didn’t have to attend future appointments, come and sit on the moulded plastic chairs waiting to be called into a small close room for Procedures and Conversations.
I remember the sound of the birds too, chattering to one another as they pecked and poked into the sand. It seems amazing now, to have been in that wild place, with birds so free that they didn’t pay any heed to me.
There’s a buzzer and a call, someone says my name.
I stand up.
“Dr Casey’s ready for you now.”
I put the feather back in my pocket. Reporting in to someone else, to find out about what’s going on inside of me. I remember those birds, seemingly small and vulnerable, but they can fly. I remember them, taking off, playing in the sky, turning, swooping, freewheeling.
Bike’s the cheapest way. Saves the bus fare and anyway, I've always liked riding my bike, ever since I was a kid. Dad taught me and he was patient with me, but I've never been very good at it. I just like that feeling you get, when you’re going steady along the level, freewheeling, and life is just kind of flowing by. It's a bit like swimming. Which is another thing I like, but I'm not very good at.
I am good at my job. Had better be since people’s lives depend on it. “Just a cleaner”, people say, but the whole hospital depends on us. My mam died of sepsis after having me. Germs got in and they killed her. Dad gave me her name, Sandra, and I’m glad of that. I was born at home same as the rest of us were, but I think it’s better now most are born in hospitals. So long as there’s plenty of us to keep the place spotless.
We’re a good team in Cleaning Services. You’ve got to be a hard worker, but you’ll get the satisfaction of a job well done. Most of them are a lot younger than me now; since Betty retired, I’m the only one left from our gang. The young ones are the kind that get the bus and complain about the fares going up. But they do work hard and that’s what counts. There’s a lot of smutty talk too, but I don’t paid heed to that.
Seems as though it’s almost every week there’s a birthday on our team. We pay into a kitty to get us a cake and the person whose birthday was last, sorts it to buy the next one and we have a get together back at the base, after lunch. It’s nice to see everyone altogether sometimes.
Lucky I can carry stuff on my bike. Our Bob sorted the back out with a kind of shelf thing, and elastics, for shopping and that, but I had to pedal slow the day I brought Dora’s cake in. It was a beauty, full chocolate icing, and I didn’t want to ruin it. As it was, I’d almost dropped it when I was getting it out of the box and into my biggest cake tin at home.
They all enjoyed that cake. I didn’t tell them it was reduced in the Co-op, just put the change back in the kitty for next time. Dora gave me a hug to say thank you and she smelled lovely, of coconut. I had a nice warm chocolatey-coconutty flavour with me when I headed back to work for the last hour.
By the time I get to home time, I’m always ready for a sit down, until I actually get on my bike, and then it’s ok when I start pedalling. But that day, when I got to the lock up, I remembered I’d forgot my cake tin. My feet hurt that much that I almost left it, but sure enough when I got there, the tin was sat with all the crumbs still on it, so good job I went back because I gave it all a good wipe down with sanitiser spray.
It’s one of those fancy Christmas tins with a raised pattern on and I was looking at where the colours are wearing off on the top of the ridges, when I nearly bumped into the fellow who’d just come in the door. He was just stood there, looking all gormless and not knowing where to go. We’ve got volunteers for helping people but there was none about, so I asked him if he was ok and then walked him along to the gynae ward to find his missus. I’d’ve given him a piece of cake if I had one left, he didn’t look like he was eating right.
At the time it was that I got back to my bike again, I should have been almost home. Third time lucky, I fastened the tin on the back, and hopped straight on, before anything else could stop me. I guess I must have been feeling cocky after transporting the cake. I couldn’t be sure if was my fault or not, but it was definitely me that landed on the ground. I was going along fine, taking it steady, like I do, and then there was a car and a noise and a scream and I landed with a bang on the tarmac, with the tin and its lid clattering off in opposite directions.
At first, I thought the scream might have been me, but then it kept going on and I was lying back looking at the clouds and I felt quite peculiar but I was pretty sure I wasn’t making any noise. Soon enough I could see people’s faces instead of the sky and I could feel my back throbbing and it was nice to be lying down after a long day, but I would’ve rather been putting the kettle on at home.
The screaming had stopped and there was a lot of talking going on. I tried sitting up but a posh lady about my age with a purple fleece on wouldn’t let me. Said I’d got to wait. I tried to tell her I was fine, but she wasn’t having any of it. I lay for a bit longer, thinking what a good thing it was that it wasn’t raining and wondering how my bike was, and then I could hear a siren and started wondering who that was for.
It got louder and louder and then suddenly stopped and the talking stopped at the same time, and that’s when I realised it was for me. I pushed myself to sit up but I couldn’t do it. I’d only just managed to leave and they were going to take me back again!
“Hello Sandra, how are you doing?”
I must have looked confused because she laughed and tapped on my name badge.
“Says it here. On your way home were you?”
“Sorry about that. We’re going to have to give you a ride back. Just need to check you’re ok.”
That’s when I give up trying. Not in a bad way, I just had to go with it and let the ambulance lady be in charge. I didn’t even mind any more. It was a like a big wave went through me and I was awash with kindness.
Awash with Kindness
Levi Munro walks down the corridor to visit his wife Nora. He’s got a jacket and tie on, but if you look closely, his shirt is wrinkled. He walks steadily and with purpose and then pauses in front a picture on the wall. It’s just before the entrance to the ward and when he’s looked for a moment he takes a breath, turns and steps resolutely towards the doors.
He knows his way to Nora’s bedside now, walks past the two bays before turning into the third. At all times he looks straight ahead. Once in the right bay, he keeps his gaze high enough to avoid seeing the other ladies in their beds, and looks only for his wife, lying where he knows she’ll be. He ignores the siren call of his heart that stills tempts him to think that perhaps today she’ll be sitting up, perhaps this evening she’ll reach out to him, turn her face upwards for a kiss, like she used when he came home from work.
This evening there’s a nurse with her, a man that Levi wants to say is young despite the grey in the hair at his temples, the friendly lines that crinkle up when he smiles in greeting.
“Good evening Sir,” he says, “I’ve just been doing your lovely wife’s observations and I’m pleased to say that everything is just as it should be.”
“Thank you Harnish.” Levi hopes he manages to keep the frustration out of his voice.
But really, nothing is as it should be. Eating and sleeping alone after fifty years of company are wearing him thin, and not just because he doesn’t know how to cook. They’re a team, him and Nora, united in common purpose. He’s all at sea without her.
“How has your day been?” Harnish pushes the lid of the laptop half down and looks directly at Levi, his voice is filled with kindness.
“It’s been,” Levi faulters.
They both look at Nora, lying on the bed.
Levi takes out his handkerchief, to blow his nose.
“I’ll leave you two together for a while,” Harnish says. And then, “I’m sorry.”
Levi nods at him. Reaches up to pull the curtain further along, to provide at least a semblance of privacy.
“Remember that holiday we had by the sea?” he says to Nora, “When Jimmy was two and you were expecting with Esther?”
He knows he might be imagining it, but he hopes he sees that listening look in her eyes.
“Jimmy was a terror then, do you remember? He was into everything, and you were getting big by then, I remember you saying that he knew you couldn’t move fast to catch. Cheeky monkey he was. Those were happy days. I took him down to the beach early every morning, left you sleeping or at least pretending to.”
She could be pretending again, Levi knows it’s possible. He can’t believe she isn’t still in there, somewhere.
“We used to go right down to the water’s edge and then he’d run back and forth in front of every wave. Like a puppy. I’d just try to get him tired enough that he’d be ready for a nap mid-morning.”
It’s quiet when she doesn’t say anything, but not as quiet as being at home without her. His memory of that holiday is so strong, he feels she must be able to see it too. That’s what being married means to him, the never-ending waves of a continuing sense of connection.
Sense of Connection
This time of the night on the ward is so peaceful. When the jobs are done, the visitors have gone home, and the lights have been dimmed for sleep. Everyone tucked up, with a chance of rest and dreaming.
I call back in to see Mrs Emmet, Lana. Her chest still rises and falls evenly with her breathing, but she hasn’t spoken for a couple of days.
“Call me Lana,” she instructed me when she first came in, “It’s my name. What’s yours?”
“I’m Adila,” I said. “It means honest.”
“Good,” she said, “Pleased to meet you Adila.”
I learned a little of her story in the first few days. She was married to a diplomat and they travelled all over the world. She liked Malaysia best, the bright colours and friendly people. Told me about the bustling markets there and the warm water of the Indian Ocean.
“I never wanted children,” she said, “Which was lucky because we didn’t have any.”
“Did you have any brothers and sisters?” I asked her, wondering if she had any family that might visit.
“No, just me. And I’m all alone again now.”
She seemed to have been so happy in her long life, and her eyes were still bright in her wrinkled smiling face. Each time I came on shift I was glad to see her again.
I sit down next to her in the quiet bay. Listen to her breathing find its place amongst the sounds of the hospital.
Then her eyes open, and she looks at me, and a whisper of a smile crosses her face. She lifts her hand slightly from the bed and I offer mine to hold.
“Goodnight Lana,” I say, “It’s time to sleep now.”
She looks directly at me, and I think she knows who I am because she nods slightly.
Her gaze is clear and open, her eyes are a window to the world.