By David Christopher Johnston
I hate that clock: the stupid thing doesn’t even tock.
Between the thin sheets of my hospital bed, I count the seventy-two ceiling tiles above my head — one for each hour I’ve been stuck in Ward 31. It feels like many more. The room is imprinted on my brain: custard-coloured walls, sticky floor, the smell of industrial cleaning products (masking the smell of death), and that infuriating clock above the door. Slow and torturous it plays the soundtrack to my miserable evening, guarding the gateway of this medicinal prison. I’d rather be anywhere else than here.
Waves of pain ripple through my chest; the morphine is wearing off. I close my eyes until it passes.
‘Deborah!’ Esme, in bed two, shouts through the silence. ‘Deborah, is that you?’
Esme has dementia and calls for her daughter, Deborah, throughout the night, every night. According to Norma in bed four, Deborah died in a car accident years ago.
‘Deborah’s gone home,’ Norma replies. ‘Now settle down or you’ll wake the whole ward.’
Deborah, is that you?’
‘Yes, it’s me,’ Norma lies. ‘You’ve had a bad dream, now go back to sleep.’
‘Oh, alright then,’ Esme mutters. Ward 31 falls back into the clutches of the Ticking God.
It’s too dark to read the clock from my bed, but I know it’s 2 a.m. because all the shouting, crying and screaming patients (in neighbouring wards) are performing their deathly orchestra. The nurses call this the Disco Hour. Above the clamour, I hear Mrs Wilson’s frantic shouting in Ward 32. Norma calls her Lance Corporal Jones (from the British sitcom, Dad’s Army) because she always overreacts at the slightest thing. Don’t panic! Don’t panic! Norma sings whenever Mrs Wilson starts shouting, which makes me cry with laughter — until Esme orders us to be quiet.
I pull the sheets up to my neck. The heating doesn’t work in this hospital: it’s either too cold for these summer sheets or too warm for the itchy, wool blanket. Risking the itch, I grab the blanket and drape it over me, relishing the warmth. Reaching for the water on my bedside table another stab of pain shoots up my side. I cry out.
‘You OK, Becky?’ Norma whispers from across the room.
‘Yes, I’m fine,’ I manage, trying not to cry.
‘Shall I call the nurse?’
‘No, honestly I’m fine. I just moved too fast, that’s all.’ I sip the water and breathe slowly. The pain recedes into its dark hiding place.
I fall into a broken sleep of metronome dreams and cries for Deborah. An hour passes, maybe two. My eyes open when Anna, the nurse, arrives to check on June, in bed three. When I arrived here three days ago the sound of June’s laboured breathing was terrifying, reminding me of an old truck engine spluttering into life on a cold winter’s day. But now there is silence. Anna hurries out of the room, confirming my fears. Please don’t die, I plead to the detached darkness.
An age passes. Troublesome silence surrounds bed three when Anna returns with a doctor. I haven’t seen this doctor before; he has a miserable face. Drawing the hospital curtain around June’s bed, they disappear inside. Their whispered conversation beats in time with the rhythm of the clock; I hold my breath anxiously.
‘Is she dead?’ I ask when the doctor appears from behind the curtain. He nods and is gone. I stare at the ceiling tiles once more, tears rolling down my cheeks.
‘She’s with Jesus now,’ Norma says. I envy her unshakeable faith. Faith, like the latest teenage fashion, is something that has passed me by. Norma has tried her best to convert me these last three days, but only embracing God when faced with death doesn’t seem right to me.
Anna appears from behind the curtain and sits down on the edge of my bed, taking my hand. The light from the corridor shines on her beautiful, curly hair.
‘Are you OK, Becky?’
‘Yes, thanks,’ I sniffle.
‘June isn’t in pain anymore, sweetie,’ she smiles, wiping my tears with her thumb. ‘So don’t be sad.’
‘I know,’ I say without conviction.
‘Do you need something to help you sleep?’
‘No, it’s OK.’
‘Are you sure?’
Anna goes quiet for a moment, removing her blue-rimmed glasses to dry her eyes. ‘Your mum tells me it’s your birthday soon,’ she says. ‘How long until the big day?’
‘Six days,’ I reply with a weak smile. ‘I’ll be twenty-two.’
‘Well then,’ she beams, ‘That’s something to look forward to when you finally get out of this horrid place.’ Squeezing my hand tight, she leans over and kisses my forehead. ‘Sweet dreams, Becky,’ she whispers before she leaves the room.
For the first time in seventy-two hours peace and quiet descends like soft, white clouds. I take a deep breath and close my eyes, hoping to escape this nightmare into painless sleep.
‘Deborah!’ Esme bellows, shattering my brief solitude. I jerk awake, knocking the water jug all over myself and the bed.
‘Oh, for fuck sake,’ I exclaim, as water drips down my face. Pain fizzes through my ribcage, making me feel sick again.
‘Mind your language!’ Esme fires back. I am stunned into silence.
‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ Norma chuckles, and I giggle despite my frustration and discomfort. Resting my head onto wet pillows, I risk a brief smile in the dark.
‘Well if this God of yours is real, Norma,’ I say. ‘He’s certainly got a crappy sense of humour.’
‘Oh he’s real alright, you mark my words,’ she replies. ‘Now get some rest.’
Maybe Norma is right: maybe she isn’t. I guess we’ll all find out sooner or later. But right now all I want to do is sleep. Closing my eyes for the thousandth time tonight, the room as close to quiet as it will ever be, I feel myself drifting away on a breeze of beautiful dreams.
For crying out loud, why doesn’t that damn thing tock?
Copyright © 2020 David Christopher Johnston.
David Christopher Johnston hereby asserts and gives notice of his right under s.77 and s.78 of the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work of fiction. All moral rights are asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this work of fiction may be reproduced or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author. This story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.