Life on the cancer ward ebbs and flows in the way it does in any other tributary. A flutter of motion here, an abstract thought there. The need to eat and drink. Splashes of colour. Shadows on curtains. A random sexual fantasy pinned behind a pillow. Personal items laid out in rows. Incredulity at the unlikelihood of existence, coupled with an increasing awareness that everything must end.
The shower at our end had been reduced to a luke-warm trickle and I do like my showers, twice a day, if you don’t mind. So I’d started going to the other end. Theirs was like a waterfall by comparison.
One morning the door was locked, so I stood and chatted with the new arrival: a man who lay in the bed opposite the washroom.
“Someone just went in,” he said, as I grappled with the handle.
I let go and looked over.
“I used to be in that bed. You’re lucky. It’s nice and quiet, and you’re nearest to the shower.”
He asked me how it was on the ward and I said it was about as good as cancer wards get, although the menu left a lot to be desired, if one still had any appetite left, that was. He said he hadn’t lost his yet. I told him mine came and went, but that the sight of hospital food made my stomach contract with nausea. It was just as well, I told him, that I had people on the outside, who could bring food in, because I couldn’t eat that shit again, not even with a gun against my head. He said he hoped he wouldn’t be staying long enough for things to get that bad. It was only the food that was bad, I told him.
Then he glanced toward the window and said he had people on the outside too. His daughter and two sons would be visiting tomorrow. That’s what I live for, I told him: the visits. He agreed.
I heard the washroom door open. I turned around to see someone walking away.
“You can have your shower now,” the new arrival told me.
Inside the water there is no time. Lather rinses over me with a lustre like pearl; that’s when I separate myself from dust. I like to think it’s a way of taking control, although I know I’m probably fooling myself. Either way, I’m never the person I was when I step out of the shower.
That evening I was lying on my bed. I never used to get under the covers until it was time to sleep, otherwise it felt like surrender. I was buried in a book. It was quiet on the ward, which was a rare and welcome relief. Earlier that evening all manner of beeping and clamour and commotion had been distracting me from my book.
After that it had become gloriously and unusually quiet.
Then a nurse came over to my bed. She told me not to go to the other end that night, as some equipment had been knocked over, and there were chemical puddles awaiting cleaners.
After she had gone the night drew in and then I needed that shower: the energy, the heat, the ablution. So I slunk along to the other end. It seemed the cleaners had already been, as there were no puddles, no bright yellow hazard signs, no bits of equipment lying on the floor. The washroom door was ajar and I turned to see if the new arrival was still awake. The curtains were drawn around his bed and everything was quiet.
Inside the water there is no time, no separation. A membrane holds the fluid inside of me. But as the heat increases and the rhythms intensify the membrane dissolves; now the fluid inside of me merges with the water without. There is no division. I am that.
When I came out of the washroom I saw them: two burly porters, seemingly building-site labourers reduced to working nights at the hospital. They grappled with the new arrival – as if lifting a sack of sand – and dragged his body off the bed, pushing it into a large, black leather bag. When they finally got it in, one of them pulled the silver zip that described the bag’s circumference. Then they put it on their trolley and wheeled toward the door.
I got beneath the covers. There were no words left to read, no thoughts left to think, no patterns on the ceiling to play tricks upon my mind. Everything was dislocated. I put my ear plugs in. I closed my eyes.
The next morning I headed for the shower. I stopped outside the washroom door and looked at the empty bed. In my mind’s eye I could still see the dead man.
Everything had been cleaned and neatly tidied up. The curtains were tied behind the headboard and the bed made-up. Daylight angled through the windows in blue and grey and white. It felt just the way normality should feel.
Then I noticed two NHS bags on the chair next to the bed, exactly like the ones I stored my clothes in. I moved forward a little. All of the man’s personal items had been amassed and packed up into these two plastic bags. Tied between the handles was his NHS wristband, with his name, date of birth, and hospital number displayed, as it was, in the same way, on mine. I looked down at the bright green plastic band around my wrist, at the pink button holding it in place, and I turned around and headed for the shower.
Inside the water there is no time. I do not exist; the person I invented is washed away in increments and spirals down the plughole. Inside the water there are no lies. I hang myself upon the hook with my robe.
But when I’m dressed and dry the dust begins to settle: redundant associations and futile conjecture. They build up until I return to the water. I know I’ll never be free of them until I return for good.
In the afternoon I was sitting in the chair next to my bed, reading. The dead man’s family came to visit that day, as he said they would. They knew in advance that he was dead. I heard them crying. So I guess they came to see the place where the old man left the world, to deal with bureaucracy, and to collect his belongings – in the two plastic bags – which had been placed on the chair next to his bed.
I had never heard crying like that before, as if the earth had been ruptured. It shook the trees at their roots. The daughter walked between the sons and she was broken. They held her by each arm and she swayed and fell between them.
As they were walking away I wanted to go over and say I know your daddy was looking forward to seeing you darling… but I couldn’t. They went.
I put my book down. Now the light was green and grey. The curtain around my bed was half-drawn on the runner. I looked at the plastic bracelet dangling from my wrist. It said everything about me you could ever need to know. From my date of birth, for example, you could establish the corresponding positions of the planets, and see if it made any difference, or meant anything at all. Do you really think those constellations exist just for you? That they can stop the wheel-nuts flying off at random? Or intervene in any way at all?
I thought about the neurons in my brain, and how their constellations had allowed me to think that I’m the person I think I am. The persona is a mask. It is moulded by the early years and their happenstance. The face on the mask is one I drew myself, although everyone sees it differently. I struggle with it myself sometimes. It scarcely matters though, for everything I possess, everything I think I am, will one day be reduced to two plastic bags and a wristband.