Wet and Dry.
I lie staring at curtains pulled hastily around a hospital bed. On the other side, a doctor solemnly declares that the cancer is terminal. A man begins to cry. The voice of his wife cuts through his sobs. She tells him not to; it just won’t do. And she knew this would happen anyway. How many times had she told him? “You’ve killed yourself with what you loved the most,” she announces, “not me, not the kids, but cig-ar-ettes.” The man falls silent. When alone, his tears return and he tells me they help, but doesn’t quite know why.
I am anxious about his crying. He needs comfort. But I don’t know this man and the curtains were drawn when the news came. I should never have been listening. But lying in the next bed, I took it all in; every last word. I can’t pretend none of this has happened, is happening, so I stretch out my arm and invite him to take my hand, hoping this is the right thing to do. But it goes unnoticed. Or maybe unwanted. I offer to make him tea instead. He’d love one he says; it might make him settle and help sleep come.
The tea machine is near at hand. I press a button and water splutters from a tank into a cup that warns of dangerous hot liquids. But there is no steam and the tea tepid. A sign directs me to the cupboard below for milk. I find a plastic container with a happy cow pictured on the label. It promises to be deliciously fresh but when splashed into the tea, it sinks into the cup, as weighty as treacle, and then floats to the surface. I have to tell him the milk has turned and the water is barely warm; this offering will bring no comfort to anyone. But he says it won’t kill him. The cancer will do that. He drinks the tea anyway and says thank you, though it does not bring sleep. I lie in the bed next to his and listen to sobs that only subside when the sun comes up.
We awake facing each other with no more distance between us than twin beds in a cheap hotel bedroom. There is a smell of boiled eggs. We both manage a smile but not a good morning, since this is not that. A nurse wretches as she sniffs the milk before depositing jugs of water onto lockers with no cups. “Your wife’s rung,” she announces to my neighbour, “I said you’d had a good night and were absolutely fine. She’s coming in later. That should drive the blues away.” He lifts his head to look at her through eyes red and swollen with last night’s tears and turns to face the wall. I see his chest moving up and down in erratic motions, snatches of air sucked in and then blown out. It is the rhythm of breath that comes when crying without tears.