Amongst the Flutterers

I’m supposed to be dead”, Amy would say to the visitors wearing plastic smiles as they edged around the door into Room 1, Ward 5. It was gratifying to see them squirm at the mention of the ‘D’ word. In bleak times a girl must get her kicks any way she can. When Amy failed to defeat her illness, stubbornly refusing to rise and sparkle from the sheets like a New Year firework the number of visitors declined until only the troubled and lonely returned. They stopped bringing cheery cards, gifts of scented soap, lip balm and chocolates. Instead some of them drank her afternoon tea, ate her biscuits and ‘borrowed’ the taxi fare home. They all needed a sympathetic ear. There was Linda who was plagued by too many happy memories, Steve who was working out why his wife left him nine years before and Carol who couldn’t decide her next holiday destination. Amy tried to remember that just because she was dying didn’t mean others weren’t entitled to their own misery. It must be a hard choice between the Trans Siberian Express and an Alaskan cruise, after all.

Amy found terminal illness hard work. The doctors, nurses and visitors must be kept happy. It was considered bad form to show pain or fear. One must be positive and grateful at all times. “When you’re smiling…the whole world smiles” and all that shit. It was indeed true that even now there were things for which she was grateful. For a start, she had a room of her own and was no longer trapped with the dementia patients in Room 8. Amy’s new room didn’t have a view unless you stood on a chair and revolved your head like the demonically possessed girl in The Exorcist. Room 1 faced a brick wall with a row of identical windows. The sky could be seen only as a reflection in their glass panes. The best time was when the sun came up and flared in the windows opposite and a solitary seagull perched on her window sill, feathers so white, so exquisitely sculpted that Amy could almost taste the ocean. She imagined the bird swooping low over turquoise waves and then spiralling up into a pure blue sky.

The other thing to be grateful for was the night. Amy loved the night. It was the only time she felt safe. During the day an endless procession of strangers burst into her room without knocking regardless of her situation or state of undress. Dignity was a lost cause. To the army of uniforms she was no longer a woman but a lump of meat to be processed. During the day, she was lost even to herself, her mind focused anywhere but in this body, in this room. She felt she was looking down at herself from a great height, her body meant nothing more than a discarded old coat, too battered even for a charity shop. But at night as the ward gradually fell silent the real Amy returned. Sometimes she would talk to herself out loud, ‘I am Amy Baxter. I was once a teacher, a daughter, a sister, a wife. I am good at baking, knitting, gardening and pub quizzes. I am a loyal friend. My favourite meal is gammon with pineapple and chips. I prefer dogs to cats….’ After the ten thirty drugs trolley had squeaked its way from room to room, the footsteps, voices, slamming doors and buzzing alarms in the corridor lessened. Occasionally Amy heard a patient crying or shouting but it was not like Room 8 where the poor sods with dementia wailed all night and she never slept at all.

It was in Room 8 that Amy first started seeing the visions. When she arrived they put her in the bed near the window. The day was stormy. The ambulance had lurched violently in the gusts of wind on the journey to the hospital. She’d kept hoping they would plunge off the road on one of the hairpin bends so her suffering could be over. No such luck. It was cold in Room 8. The old metal windows were draughty and Amy pulled the blanket up to her chin. She was glad she’d brought her favourite yellow cardigan to keep her warm. She’d knitted it herself, embroidering the cuffs with small blue spots. She closed her eyes and tried to rest. After a while a nurse brought her a cup of tea. When Amy looked up she suddenly saw a jagged white light pulsating around the edge of the window frame, where the aluminium met the wall. She rubbed her eyes and blinked hard but the light was still there.
“What’s that light?” she asked the nurse pointing at the window.
“It’s the sky outside”, said the nurse.
“I know that, I mean what’s that white light streaming around the window?”
Amy looked up at the ceiling where there was a ventilation vent. To her astonishment strange rays of light were filtering through the metal grid. It looked like a scene from Star Trek.
“And up there, look!” she said to the nurse. “Can’t you see it? It’s like the wind coming in. I can see the wind!”
“There’s nothing there pet”, the nurse said. “It’s not Christmas you know. No fairy lights for you.”
Amy heard her go out into the corridor and say “The new one’s seeing fairy lights and she hasn’t even had her morphine yet!” Then laughter.

Amy hoped the lights would go away. She didn’t like seeing things other people couldn’t see. Did it mean she was on the verge of death or insanity? The next morning she could still see the lights but more faintly, wavering like thin silver strands. She tried not to look and never mentioned it to anyone again.

After Amy moved into her single room the weird lights vanished. She squinted at the window and tried hard to see something special but no, it was all completely ordinary. But then one day she was taken downstairs on a trolley for a CT scan. The lift was crammed with people, people of various age, race and build but one thing united them. They were all illuminated. Waves of intense colour pulsed from each human body, as if they all emanated a personal aurora as spectacular as the northern lights. Blues, greens, purples, all the colours of the rainbow. Tears welled in Amy’s eyes, not from her pain but from the beauty of each translucent soul standing shoulder to shoulder in the lift. She felt their hopes, dreams and fragility as concretely as she could see the nicotine stained fingers of the porter as he pressed the button for Level 1. When the lift doors opened the scene changed. People dispersed in different directions and they were back to being dull, normal humans.

When Steve came to visit, clutching a carrier bag full of photos of his ex-wife for Amy to admire, she tried to tell him about the life-affirming experience in the lift. He interrupted her story by saying it must be her drugs and could he have some please? After that, every time he texted to say he was on his way to the hospital she replied she was too tired for visitors. One time he turned up without texting and she pretended to be asleep. He never came again.

Amy’s evenings in Room 1 became more solitary but she didn’t mind. She didn’t watch the small TV which was set so high on the wall that it hurt her neck to look. Instead she would ask the nurse to open the window. It would only open about four inches to prevent suicides but that was enough to let the scent of rain and the sounds of the street into her room. Amy loved the birds who sang at night, their song mingling with the traffic noise, sirens and raucous drunks staggering home from the pub. One night she heard a man shouting“fuck off” over and over again at seagulls who were screaming loud enough to wake the dead. She imagined him out there with his bag of chips and the birds circling around.

Every night as her room darkened Amy would switch on the small spot lamp by her bed. One by one moths drifted through the open window forming an iridescent cloud in the pool of light. She liked to watch their hypnotic dance until she fell asleep. When she woke in the morning she found moths of every hue adorning her pillow like precious jewels. The nurses complained, some of them were afraid of winged creatures and ran shrieking from the room. The ward manager said it was unhygienic and in future the window must be kept closed at night.

On Amy’s last night she begged the kind Polish nurse to open the window.

“Just one more time,” Amy pleaded.

In the morning when the nurse brought breakfast Amy had vanished, her hospital gown cast off on the bed. A kaleidoscope of moths filled the room, shimmering over the walls, the ceiling and every surface. The largest and brightest was yellow marked with tiny blue spots. She was the first to leave, leading the others and fluttering out into the fresh cold air.

Amongst the Flutterers was first published on The Purple Hermit blog about a year ago under a pseudonym and in the second issue of The Haar.

photo by the author

Home is Where the Heart Stops

Part one

The smell hit her the instant she opened the door. A mix of cats, geraniums and cigarettes. Isabel hated smoking and potted geraniums in equal measure. She didn’t own a cat. She shoved the mountain of accumulated mail out of the way with her crutch. The paramedic placed her bags inside the hall and disappeared down the overgrown path without saying goodbye, still grumbling about how you were only allowed one piece of luggage in an ambulance.

Isabel closed the door behind her and locked it. Her hands shook and her heart threw summersaults of joy to be home, in her own private space, finally away from the prying eyes and probing fingers of the white coats. She’d thought this day would never come. She’d thought it was over, the end of the road, kaputt, finito, nothing left except bedpans, pain and humiliation. No future except days lying in her own stink, face down in a bowl of hospital porridge while the fat lady sang.

Panting with exertion she shuffled slowly into the living room and sank into the cane chair by the French doors that faced onto the garden. She’d missed her mountains, the light and emptiness of the vast sky. Her solitary room on Ward 3A looked out onto a brick wall. She couldn’t see the sky at all, not even a sliver. The only way she could tell if the sun was shining was by the light reflecting in the brickwork, the changes in hue. On a bright day the bricks gleamed like tiger’s eye. On a grey day they were a dull flesh pink.

Now Isabel surveyed her garden, still marvellous despite the weeds and rampant lawn. The hollyhocks blazed magenta. The roses drooped with lush scarlet blooms, the honeysuckle smothered the archway and on the horizon Morven and Scaraben glowed purple in the evening sun. She sat there for a long while, just breathing, in, out, in, out. She was alive. She was home. No one could hurt her now.

And then she saw the boots. Dirty workmen’s boots placed casually in the middle of the kilim rug she’d brought back from Turkey. They were caked with mud, one boot tilted as if they’d been cast off in a hurry, the soles worn, the brown leather wrinkled with age. Her chest tightened in panic and she scanned the room for other signs of disturbance. Everything seemed much as she’d left it the day of the accident other than a layer of dust and a few cobwebs. There were books and magazines in a tidy pile on the coffee table, logs stacked by the wood burner and dead daffodils in a stained glass vase on the window sill. Her grandmother’s vintage clock had stopped at five to five.

Isabel couldn’t bear to touch the disgusting boots with her bare hands so she nudged them closer with her crutch. One of them tipped over and a tiny square of paper fell out. Leaning unsteadily from her chair she picked it up and unfolded it with trembling fingers.

Written in red biro on a torn piece of graph paper was just one word, ‘remember’.

To be continued…

image by the author

Rehab

finally                       upright
and                            braced
swinging                  dead
legs                            between
parallel                     bars
I                                  struggle
towards                    reflections
of                               myself
one                            step
after                          another
says                           physio
walk                          tall
says                           physio
good                          girl
says                           physio
visiting                     hour
enter                         mother
face                           crumpled
and                            pale
my                             baby
is                               broken
she                            says

 

 

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Moth Dance

Alone in my hospital room at night I watch tiny particles of dust and fluff swirl beneath the reading lamp.  They say dust comprises of dead skin cells, we sweep them away when we clean, removing all trace of our former selves.  Our cells are constantly reproducing and every seven years our bodies regenerate anew.  Your body is repeatedly recycling itself but not your mind.  Your mind is an entirely different story.  Our brains become less active, neural pathways die, our memories fade and disappear, we lose skills and alertness,  sometimes we even lose our sense of self.

But back in my mean small room, Ward 3A.  I’ve been here fourteen weeks now.  A reluctant patient, more like prisoner. So every night I sit, sleepless and thoughtless watching the dust  and wondering if these are particles of the old me, a shedding of  my past life. Occasionally moths enter through the open window and dance wildly in the pool of light, their fragile wings clinking against the electric bulb. Blinded and bewildered they circle.  In the morning I find their wispy bodies spent and shrivelled on my sheets.

 

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Self portrait by the author

 

 

 

Leeds 76

The ambulance man with striking
green eyes stroked the inside
skin of her teenage arm as she lay
strapped (for her own safety) on the reeking
canvas of another NHS.
If you’re a lucky girl you’ll meet Jimmy!

She thought he was, maybe
trying to be nice (but those alien
fingers were electric…) No comfort
blanket, suspended in L10 skeletal
traction, legs akimbo and knicker
-less (for her own hygiene), a monster pain
-ted by Hieronymus Bosch. The male charge
nurse with watery grey eyes brought gin
secrets in a Barr’s Cream Soda bottle, hot
take-away through her open
window of gritty nights.
She thought he was, maybe,
trying to be nice (but gin made her sick,
she liked Babycham).
The glass half
-full on the sunny side.
Cheer up, might never happen,
said the porter with lizard pink
eyes taking her down to a strip
-lit basement, down corridors
lined with conduits.
If you’re a lucky girl you’ll meet Jimmy!

 

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Photo by the author

 

 

 

 

 

 

Down But Not Out

Hi Everyone,

I’ve been away for some time but I’m back, or at least for now. Apologies for my absence from Blogging World and the world in general. So far I’ve spent five weeks trapped in a small hospital room in Inverness following a fractured femur. Tragically my treatment has not gone according to plan. After the initial operations to repair the original fracture I have acquired another THREE broken bones in my legs due to careless handling and bad advice from Occupational Therapists and Physiotherapists. And the worst news is that the fresh broken bones are not fixable. Any surgery could make things worst not better.  No one seems to know what the prognosis is.

I’m trying to stay positive but it’s hard. I don’t know how much mobility or independence I will ever regain. It’s also hard not to be consumed with anger for the so-called experts in this hospital who have damaged me and are now trying to sweep their negligence under the carpet. I have not even had a proper apology or any acknowledgement that anything has gone wrong.

Anyway, when my mind is not fried by morphine, pain and exhaustion I will try to post here on The Purple Hermit and I hope my followers and supporters will understand.

 

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Absent Without Leave

                    

Flat on his bed in ICU, he reads pillow stories;
starched landscapes of the broken
road to Basrah carved in skin.

Beyond the window Wakefield drifts,
wet roofs and one naked
willow under billowing skies. He twists

that way, this way to see the tree
and Nil by Mouth taped to iron railings
while dust and paint shavings tally

time. The clock on the wall clings
forever to five to five.
His mouth is a desert storm.

In the morning, soft shoes slip slap on linoleum.
Nurses giggle, shuffle behind trolleys of tea,
dispensing toast and potions of sweet opium.

At night, they play cards under a green lamp.
Out of range, the falcon’s shadow
maps his name on the wall.

 

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Original photograph by the author

 

Red Blush

Seized by the scent of sun on skin
I make the first cut, split the almost sphere.
The morning ritual slicing from the center
around each segment, skirting the circumference,
parting flesh from flesh.  Blood perfect,
topped with a glace cherry
and served on blue china.

I want to cry out when she opens her gown
showing husks of missing breasts.
She was a stewardess before,
on the Queen Mary criss-crossing the Atlantic.
Now, she’s the kind lady on Ward 5
sharing grapefruit with a braided child
as winter sun breaks.

 

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