This new story, Cecilia, is a companion piece to my previous story here, The Nurse My Father Loved
The wife brought me chocolates. She didn’t just leave them at the desk; she came right up to me in the ward.
‘Harry wanted to get you something,’ like she didn’t have a part in it, was just a means of getting the chocolates from him to me.
They were fancy, in a box like a gold brick with a little cardboard tag tied on the ribbon. Her sulky-looking daughter hung back at the doors of the unit, wanting to be away. I knew her name the other day, but I’ve forgotten now. She’s like a lot of teenagers that visit here, resenting having to look at so much illness and dying, and I’d probably feel the same in her shoes. Harry’s being moved to a general ward tonight, things are on the up for them. I search my head for the wife’s name.
‘You didn’t need to do that, Valerie,’ I say, but it comes out more harsh than I meant. I meant it like a thank you, not a brush off. Now I’m annoyed.
‘But I did,’ says Valerie, holding my eye, and I’m embarrassed, a bit, even though I’ve nothing to be embarrassed for.
He’s been with us for five days, out of it most of the time, a little delirious. When we removed his breathing tube yesterday he kept staring at me with eyes big as a boy’s, his cracked lips moving, trying to tell me something. I gave him sips of water, told him to take it easy. His hand in mine.
He started to cry then and I held on, telling him where he was, that he was okay.
He said he’d been living under the sea. People say all kinds of things when they’ve been sedated. They have dreams they can’t wake up from, nightmares often.
‘There’s been someone with you all the time,’ I said.
‘I know,’ he said, ‘you were with me.’
‘Well, not every shift – ’
‘They were trying to catch us, but you swam so fast. Pulling me through the water. Your lovely tail.’ His eyes dropped to my hips, where my tunic meets my navy trousers. He frowned. ‘Your tail….’
‘You need to rest yourself now.’ I said, but I couldn’t help smiling.
I passed by Frances at the desk.
‘Bed five dreamed I was a mermaid. He said my tail was lovely.’
Her mouth twisted up on one side, but she didn’t lift her eyes from the computer. ‘I heard. Are you sure he meant mermaid? You could’ve just been a big fish. Like a tuna.’
By late afternoon he had his head on straight, but he was still looking at me in that way, you know, sentimental. We’d shared some adventure in his head, something that might have seemed like years to him. When I leaned near him to check his lines, he said.
‘I should have married a girl like you.’
There were a lot of things I could have said to that. Like how if he thinks this is what I’m like at home, he’s sorely mistaken. Like what about his perfectly good wife, breaking her heart over him in the visitors' room. Some men get the idea that it’s to do with them, not with your job.
I’m good at what I do. Give me the sickest person in Scotland and I can take care of them. You do get attached sometimes, but it’s often to ones you lose, and we lose people in intensive care, that’s just the way it is. I work here because you get to take care of one person, properly. On other wards you’re running around chasing your tail, things you haven’t done yet stacking up in your head, never getting to the end.
Harry’s a lucky one, out of the woods. Too many days I’ve drawn the curtains around a bed and unhooked a quiet body from all the gubbins. Line by line. Cannulae, electrode patches, nasogastric tubes, ventilator tubes, catheters, drains. I cast them off from the machines to be themselves again, just a person. I tell them what I’m doing, all through last offices, even though they are already gone. I like to do it this way. Some nurses get nervous and chat about what they’re having for their tea. I hate that. I prefer to do it on my own.
Harry's wife is still in with him when my shift ends. He’ll be gone tomorrow, but I skip saying goodbye in case he starts to get soppy again. I don’t want her seeing that. I go behind the desk and find that someone has opened the box of chocolates. I take two for the bus stop and stand a moment, scanning the ward as it quietens towards night. The whooshing of the ventilators comes to me like the sound of waves.