Everything under the sun


I know a little bit of something about the man who was in this hospital bed before me. For today, at least, I will eat his food. Yesterday, he chose a breakfast, dinner and tea from the menu, and that, says the nurse, will be my selection for the day. “Menu choices are assigned to beds rather than people,” she declares, “it makes no difference if they are no longer here to consume it.” The two men opposite wink at me. One is completely bald with a very pink skin whilst the other is blessed with an extremely substantial moustache. The nurse is quick to leave the ward, though both men agree, that whilst moody, she’s a right little cracker.


The sheets weren’t even on when I arrived; three maltesers left rolling about in the locker and a banana by the water jug. The men tell me that the previous occupant of this bed just got up in the middle of the night and walked out. No explanation. A real mystery. Within the hour, the sheets were stripped, mattress disinfected and all his belongings taken away. “Looked like a Barbie doll he did,” muses the one with a bald head. He blows a kiss to his neighbour who pretends it has landed on his moustache. “I wouldn’t touch that banana if I were you,” shouts the bald comedian, and glancing at his neighbour, they burst into fits of laughter.


The men have to curtail their amusement when their lungs begin to cough and splutter. But a full recovery is rather hindered by the arrival of a breakfast trolley, tended by a very handsome Indian man. Black glossy hair, deep brown eyes and eyelashes that appear brushed by mascara; though such an exotic demeanour is rather compromised by the addition of a white plastic apron and bib. He calls everyone sir and asks if our choice of the toast is white or brown. Leaning forward in his bed and combing his moustache with a finger, the man opposite announces that he fancies white since he’s never got on with anything brown. His friend begins to breath heavily, snorting air in and out through his nose in an attempt to stifle laughter, though it does not last for long. The handsome Indian wheels his trolley away, gently humming as he goes, ignoring requests for tea.


The two men begin to watch me, hoping to register my appreciation at their jolly japes. A smile would be enough. Anything. But the new boy seems like he is not one for joining in. “You not feeling so good today then?” enquires the bald man. I am being given a second chance or at least the opportunity to explain myself. Nodding my head in answer to his question, I gain a temporary reprieve. They both figure that I must have been miles away, because the toast thing was just hilarious; really, really funny. I tell them I’m tired and wasn’t listening; the medication makes me drowsy.


Sleep must have occupied my entire morning, because when I wake, lunch is waiting on the bed-table. The contents of the plate seem curious from this eye level view. It is completely white. A square of pale fish is surrounded by two scoops of potato and a vegetable; which is also white. I presume it must be cauliflower. Inspecting this polar terrain further, I notice a pea stuck in the mash and wonder if the previous occupant of this bed didn’t care for greens. But I cannot eat it. The nausea is back worse than ever. Vapours from the food trolley permeate the air. It is a heady bouquet of fish, curry and custard with undertones of antiseptic. A woman in a blue polyester suit recites the menu choices back to each patient; checking that everyone is happy, or satisfied anyway. That’s her job she says, customer satisfaction.


But when visiting time comes, the wives of the men opposite are not happy. “Excuse me nurse,” barks the spouse of the man with pink skin, “how many times have I said he’s not to have tuna? He may like it, but it repeats on him and goes straight through. It’s all extra work for you at the end of the day.” The woman sitting next to her agrees. Prodding at the remains of a treacle and custard tart she shakes her head and sighs. This just isn’t good enough; especially since her husband is a suspected borderline diabetic and needs meat. It is lucky that she has planned ahead for this eventuality. A ‘Fray Bentos’ steak and kidney pie is at hand. It has been cooked through, and his favourite bit, the crispy pastry, carefully removed and placed in tin foil whilst the filling has been decanted into a flask.  When fully reconstituted on a plate, it appears remarkably intact.


I think it was the pie that made me vomit, though it did not ease the nausea. I try to open a window; fresh air might bring relief. It unfastens just enough to ease fingers through but no more. Somebody mutters that there’s no point trying to force it. These windows have been installed with safety in mind; so people don’t jump out. I go back to my bed and within minutes the air begins to clear. A welcome breeze gently rattles crippled blinds and the seagulls are calling, bickering over something they have found in the car park. In the distance, there is the hum of cars and the toot of a horn. I can hear the muffled roar of jet engines and imagine them flying high, etching white lines through a clear blue sky. And very faintly, a solitary bell rings from the steeple of the church nearby which they say is made of marble.


But then a different bell; high pitched and screaming like the gulls. And then another. A nurse rushes in. Red lights flash above the beds of the two men opposite. There must be an emergency. Their wives are standing up, arms crossed and faces pinched. “That man over there has opened the window on us and everyone’s freezing,” announces the woman, pointing at my bed with her flask of steak and kidney bits. “We’ve had everything under the sun and I’m not having him getting a chill on top of this.” The woman who worries over tuna is equally concerned. Her husband has been clinically dead. Twice. And she doesn’t want it to happen a third time because he’s got cold. The nurse closes the window tight. The two couples opposite stare over to my bed, but this time, it seems I am not to be given any kind of reprieve. “Unbelievable,” exclaims the man with a moustache.


Closing my eyes tight, I try and make myself blind to their stares. This veils the light, but does not hush the chatter of disapproving voices. A pounding starts in the middle of my chest. I am sick again. It feels like I have no air. And then sweat. Tears prick my eyes and I wonder what this is. I press the emergency bell and a nurse comes. She doesn’t think I’m any worse; and certainly not dying. But this infection is going to take a long time to clear; I need to persevere and relax a bit more. A couple of paracetamols should calm me down, make me feel a bit better, because she’d like to bring my smile back. Pinching my cheek, she grins and goes in search of tablets, though half way down the ward she looks back and asks when my partner is coming, because that should perk me up. “He’s very handsome,” she says, “we’ve all seen him.” The nurse has another idea too. He could take me outside if I wanted, only for a little while, to catch the sun. Just so long as I promise to come back and don’t do a runner. It’d be something to look forward to.


© 2019 nigelhurlstone.art