Outpatients, a short story by Leland Bardwell
Outpatients was first published in The Irish Times on August 15th, 1984, as part of the Summer Stories series
Leland Bardwell at her home in Cloonagh, Ballinful, Co Sligo. Photograph: Dara MacDonaill
“This way. Please. No. Not you dear.” The orderly beckoned to Nina. “You,” she said. Her voice dropped, not sure whether Nina was next in the queue. Nina held the left elbow in her right fist taking care not to jolt it.
“Have you given your name, dear?”
“No. Not yet.”
“Oh,” the orderly said. “Then you’d better sit down again.”
Nina sat down on the wooden seat. She could see the nuns bustling around beyond the glass partition; they moved separately from each other, some with papers in their hands, all their faces polished. Behind the partition there was no sound; mute sisters of charity.
Hack away the sleeve as the arm swells! But they’re in a hurry and won’t notice.
Jesus! The bastard’s broken it this time! What can she tell them, these remote women? That she is a lousy wife and gets beaten up every so often? So she can’t admit it? Must she lie, make up a new story each time, each one more improbable than the last, in order to maintain the core of the myth that marriage works? So that as society believes, the woman is, finally, to blame? Is that it?
Nina was cold, undernourished, too lightly clad; she was trying not to shiver or laugh or annoy the woman beside her; she looked occasionally into the area beyond the glass partition and wondered would the nuns suddenly gather their papers into their arms and stride towards them – the sick, the destitute.
But she did laugh and the woman, or rather girl, beside her crouched low and shook her head; the pale hair rose and fell like lint on her cheeks.
“They take their time,” she said.
Nina read: NO LOITERING. Like the NO SMOKING notice it had been, always would be, ignored. They hung around and smoked, their hands curled round the cigarettes, wisps of smoke trailing through the fingers. When the nuns came they would stamp on the cigarettes and put the stubs in their pockets.
She knew it was lucky it was her left arm that he had hit for half an hour. Or it had seemed like that. It had been dole day and he had been drinking all afternoon.
He was in that sodden destructive mood that came on him every Tuesday and when he saw Frank, who had just called in, he began.
He’d simply said, “Go!” and Frank had gone and Brendan had picked up the axe handle. Useless her trying to escape, shielding her face with her forearm which took the punishment. She had run round the room, ducked under the table, shouting. Stop, please stop!
But it was lucky it was her left arm – she thought and thought about the sewing she needed to do; the middle child, poor kid, no button on his coat and off to school in rubber boots.
How did other mothers keep their children neat, spotless? Why couldn’t she? That time Frank came and sat beside them on the canal bank she had been ashamed of their pale grubby faces, the middle one. Again holding his coat shut with one hand and fishing for minnows with the other. But a short moment of happiness had come on her when he had put his notebooks on the grass and touched her shoulder.
“You don’t say very much,” he had said. “But you make me feel intelligent.” “What a strange thing to say,” had she said? Or perhaps, “But you are, aren’t you?” At any rate they had looked into the canal which was clear and still as a photograph till he’d let go her shoulder to stir the water with a stick and splinter their reflections and she thought he must have been embarrassed when he touched her but the touch of his hand on her arm had changed the day, the whole week, even.
The nun had come and was leading the girl beside her down the corridor. It would be her turn soon and she must have her story ready. Last month it had been a rigmarole about slipping in the wet yard and . . .
She looked up at the nun who had returned.
A biro was poised over the writing pad.
The few details checked, the nun looked at her arm. A precise glance. “How did you get this?”
And now the story must run its course. Nina remembered some half-prepared sentences:
“I was diving off a jetty at Seapoint and my arm hit off a rock.”
“Have you children?”
“And where were your children when you were diving into the sea?”
“Playing in the sand.”
“Yes. They were quite safe. You see . . .”
Nina stood now before the nun; anger had begun to run down her chest. “Yes,” she shouted.
“Sit down,” the nun said.
It was all wasted, the anger, the accelerated heart-beat; the nun had walked away and Nina had to sit again, alone this time except for a copy of “The Word” which lay half open on the seat beside her.
She would check her fury by reading “The Word”, a magazine which told you facts about people worse off than yourself as opposed to women’s magazines which left your mind open to fantasy. She slid her hand over the cover, uneasy, for as yet she was not prepared to admit to the lack of fight that had reduced her own life in essence to the status of some of the women from whom circumstances had removed the last grain of hope. But she was saved from opening it by the return of the nun. She bore upon her with that assertiveness that seemed even worse then than the anger that had now quite left, or worse, even, than the continuous throbbing of her arm.
“I was here three months ago with a broken nose.”
The nun looked away.
“I’ m accident prone.” Now she could begin to laugh, to ignore.
“I forgot to ask you your address.”
Nina’s arm was picked up and dropped like a stone being quickly rep laced on a nest of slugs. The shock of pain lodged under her armpit; tears burnt.
“I’ll have to find your file.”
Nina worried about the babies; would Brendan mind them or would he just go out and leave them alone?
“Get up, get up for God’s sake, you’ve broken my arm!” Had she said that with authority? Or, “I have to go to the hospital. Mind the children!” Please? Hardly!
There were others lined up now, not least an oldish man with all the emblems of the wino – mac stained from nights on the streets, a man who could never be astonished again, an old rag of a bandage on his hand – here for a dressing, a bit of warmth, a secure telling off.
Nina was invaded by coldness. She wished she could afford paper nappies. For how could she wring out pissy blankets with one broken arm?
“You may follow me.”
The nun came and went and Nina followed as she strode ahead as though in grand opera. In a small room two patients were already seated. Their expressions laid back, they held charts in their hands. One woman had a plaster cast down her leg which left her five toes bared, inquisitive, impervious to the cold. She wondered how long a fracture would take to heal in her own case? A month? Six weeks? The comedy might continue indefinitely, for how could she take in typing now? Yes, until the fracture knitted they would have to beg Brendan for some of his dole or steal – and not for the first time. She laughed, addressing the woman with the broken leg.
“Have you been here long?”
“I don’t know what they’re at.”
“Are you an in-patient?”
The woman got up painfully; she had been called to the next stage, the pre-X-ray room, to queue again, presumably. The orderly in charge of her turned to Nina.
“You for X-ray?”
“I think so.”
“Have you got your card? “
He herded out the woman on crutches; through the other door. The first nun entered.
“Where’s your chart?”
“I haven’t got one.”
The nun clicked her heels like a soldier on parade. “They keep doing that.”
Nina sat on with the second woman who had obscured herself behind a sheet of patience and the nun disappeared once more. She would give up smoking, save up, buy shoes those nice Clark’s sandals for the middle child. And walk out to meet Frank on the canal bank, lie in the sun, stir the water, talk of Brendan’s cruelty; she became lost in the fraud of fantasy.
“Here’s a card!”
“The Word” tucked under her bad arm, Nina took the card.
“I can’t find your chart.”
They couldn’t take the card away now, she thought. She spoke to the other woman.
“At least I have an identification. Perhaps things will speed up.”
“I doubt it,” the woman spoke undramatically. “They can change their minds if they like.”
“But they have to X-ray me now.”
“Don’t be too sure about that.”
Two nuns entered at last to bring them to the final room. There, those in the row of patients were mostly in regulation dressing gowns. Their faces were sliced from their bodies by a sly ray of sunshine. Relentless sunshine, showing up the illnesses on each face, making everyone look worse, even, than they were. She counted them – 12. The radiologist must have gone for her elevenses.
Would Brendan feed the baby, she wondered, looking the length of a TWA poster; the girl, chocolate-faced, sipped a blue drink under the shade of a striped umbrella; she was being watched by a young man, his chunky face animated by lust, his skin a lighter shade than the girl’s – the colour of cardboard.
But now they were moving; the queue was diminishing; the radiologist must be back from the coffee break. Had she eaten ginger biscuits?
The patients straightened their features each time a nun passed but Nina, not knowing why, could not do so; her lies, her self-protection, created an area of secrecy beyond which others could not travel. This she created in herself aware of its lack of value, good sense.
She thought only of the button missing from the child’s coat, even forgetting Frank or her husband, Brendan, the man with whom she sometimes felt she had traded her sanity.
The card fell out of her hand, lay at her feet; a discarded bingo card – squares and numbers – Nina Sheridan, upside down and married. Respectable . . .
How had the room emptied suddenly? The few magazines sliding from the recovered bench; the woman at her typewriter relaxing; a’ little coffee spilled on the saucer of an empty cup.
“You may go in now.”
She bent for the card to tuck into “The Word”. Careful again not to jolt her arm, aware of the lifting throb as she walked to the door of the X-ray room.
“Did he clout you?”
“Not once, but many times.”
No trace of disapproval on the radiologist’s faces; as she bent, the clean overall swung open over the fresh cotton of her dress. “Men are beasts!” She smiled, played with her machines. “I’ll try not to hurt you. You had a long wait.”
Now Nina could state: “Everyone’s in the same boat.”
“There’s no same boat about it. It’s the old formula. Take away people’s self-reliance. Tell them nothing. Then we give them the soft sell. Twenty, 30 times a day.”
She brushed Nina’s fingers.
“Try to straighten them.”
A half-moon with the hand was crushed back with the effort.
“Don’t apologise. Just lie there with your arm on the paper. I won’t hurt you,” she said again. The shutters of the machine swished.
“That’s great. Fine.”
So she had shut her eyes, she knew, because the face above her swung like a coin in the distance, too far away to touch, for she would have drawn her fingers like a pencil over the contour s of the mouth had she been able to reach.
“Perhaps I slept.” The radiologist held out a larger than foolscap envelope. “Where do I go now?”
“But the X-rays? May I not see . . . I mean . . .”
“I think you are the last this morning. Take your time.”
The radiologist was holding the door open watching the tread of the patient’s feet into the empty shoes; “The Word” was on the floor again, cover page folded back. A Somali infant stood naked, navel protruding like a rotten grape.
“I dropped my magazine. Or rather it’s not mine. It’s a good magazine, isn’t it?”
Love is so fleeting, Nina thought. So inadequate.