A hair on the heart
It began with lie.
Not one that people would notice; just enough to get slip through the flimsy double doors and into the ward itself. She was pretty and articulate; it was enough to win over the matron and the doctor who sat at the desk. As she left them behind, the lights above flickered, just enough to make her wince. She blinked twice, heavily, and then began to look for his bed.
For a long while, the nurses remarked how dedicated the young woman was; each day she would bring fresh flowers, each evening she would haggle for an extra five minutes at the end of visiting hours. Most nights the nurses would concede the time just to sit and admire her. Every day she would quietly read from the same book. One nurse had slyly followed the young woman as she read and noticed it was only ever five pages, no more, no less.
Once, the youngest nurse remarked how she thought it strange the woman never actually touched the patient, not so much as a pat of the hand on arriving or leaving. The girl, barely out of school, looked around for approval and found only a sea of disapproving glances come her way. The visitor had, by then, become something of a saint in the ward, and the girl was shushed and ignored in equal measure. Later, in tears in the bathroom, the youngster resolved to never speak out like that again.
The patient, an elderly man, began dying at the end of the month. The sign, as always, was the way the tatty curtains were drawn around the bed. It was not so much an act of privacy as a red flag to those who worked in and around the ward; from the doctors on call to the cleaners late at night. This system angered many of the nurses but it was, in short, the most practical way to draw attention to the ailing patients. The hospital, long decayed and on the verge of closing, cut corners at every opportunity. The doctor who treated the old man had once sourly remarked how the building would soon resemble an egg-no corners-and others in the smoking room had laughed though he had not intended it as a joke.
The matron took the young woman to one side as she arrived and sat her down on the cleanest of the orange plastic chairs meant for delivery men or new visitors-such an inappropriate colour, the nurse had always thought-and told her the bad news. She explained how the old man had ‘taken a turn for the worse.’ The nurses used sayings over science when death reared its ugly head, and this woman in particular had become something of a master at it. Once, she had suffered a recurring nightmare of being informed about a terminal illness. The faceless doctor of her dream would only speak in metaphors and euphemisms and the illness was as much a mystery as the time she had left. Each night she woke up screaming, the traces of the lipless doctor whispering in her ear still at the edges of her mind.
The young woman seemed to accept the news with good grace; she nodded and smiled gently and asked all the suitable questions. Her voice was shaky, of course, but her eyes were clear; the sign of a strong woman in a crisis if ever there was one. She rose from the chair and drew the book closer to her chest, as if shielding her heart from the bad news. She began to walk away, stopped and turned around. Her humble request for an extra twenty minutes was accepted in an instant. The matron shushed her away as if they were old, familiar friends.
The night nurse, the same young girl who had once pointed out the woman’s non-contact with the patient, gently pushed her head around the curtain once (after politely coughing-the irony of doing this in a ITC ward lost on her) and then left the two of them alone. She had briefly seen how upset the young woman looked, how raw, and immediately felt guilty at her earlier observation. Once, having being left broken hearted, the young girl had stood in front of a mirror with a knife over her wrist; the expression of pure agony she saw in the reflection was what the young woman carried with her now. She turned the corner and resolved to make the twenty minutes stretch out as long as thirty, if it was at all possible.
“You’re dying,” the young woman said, trying to keep her voice level and calm. She had waited so long for this; she would not fail in the last few moments. The man’s eyes opened, rheumy and gummy, like sweets left for too long in a hot car. He looked at her and thought she saw fear in his eyes. Good, she thought.
“I hope you heard all the things I’ve said to you. About what I remember and what you did.” Her mind flashed to every word she had whispered in his ear; every one of his heavy, greedy touches, every jab of his too long nails. She had trained herself to talk for five minutes on each memory and then turn the page of the book in her hand. It brought one scar of history to a close and triggered the doorway to the next, fresh wound.
“What you did to me,” she said, her voice low and furious. The man twitched, flinching from her words. His stale old lips parted and he mouthed something. Feeling the old fear, she felt her body lock up as she tried to move closer. For a moment she drew breath, made a ten-count in her head and brought control back to herself. He was an old man now and couldn’t hurt her anymore. She forced herself forward, over him, almost lunging onto his body.
“I’m dying,” the old man said. His voice, when it came, was like a hair on her heart; a scratch she could not quite locate, an irritant. All the old majestic fear of his voice was gone now, all the power dissipated with time and rot.
“I know,” she said, exhilarated by the sudden sense of power she felt. She drew over him, her face casting shadows over his, feeling like the predator at last and no longer the prey.
“I know you’re dying, but I have to be the one to kill you,” she rasped in his ear and felt herself sear with heat as she said the words. He muttered something more and then lapsed into helpless, child-like mewling.
The young woman set aside the book and drew herself back over him. Without a second thought, she pinched his nose together and drew her palm over his mouth. The nightmare sensation-of the tongue, re-energised in death, lapping at her skin-did not materialise. She looked into his eyes as they faded and then let go when it was done. The act was so simple, she felt light when she levered herself away from the body. For a few minutes she resumed her position in the chair and reached over for the book. It sat in her hand, opened to some random page, until she was calm enough to gather herself up and leave. The lightness stayed with her as she stood and when she drew the curtain back, she surprised herself by not even taking a moment to look back at what she’d left behind.
The old man was taken to the morgue the next morning and the young woman was informed by the matron. A situation had arisen with work and she would not be able to witness the body. The nurse checked the next of kin and made arrangements, all the while using her best platitudes for the poor girl. Later, in the smoking room, all the nurses would mention the young woman fondly, and one or two would even make gallows-humour remarks about wanting someone like her to look after them in their last days, when husbands and errant lovers had all left or gone astray. Even though they would all soon forget about her, lost in their hectic, helter-skelter working days, they all smiled then, and thought of her as one of the good souls.
It was only the girl, the nurse who had once spoken out against the young woman, who thought it strange; strange the woman, who had been so committed, would suddenly not find the time to see him in his final state. Strange, that for one moment late last night, the nurse thought she’d seen the young woman’s shadow almost lunge across the space between chair and bed, as if she were set to attack. She thought all this, but stayed silent, still scarred by her previous admonishment of weeks before when she’d spoken up and the tears in the bathroom stall that followed. Instead, the young girl locked her lips shut and thought about the patients who still needed her help. The girl went about her rounds, determined to do a good job and tried not to notice the sting of doubt inside herself, like a hair against her heart, almost.