The Man in Bed Eight, a flash fiction by Eleanor Hooker

A nurse learns a hard lesson on the ward

Eleanor Hooker

Eleanor Hooker

 

Bed eight is in the corner. An old man lies on his side, staring at the wall. His skin is yellow parchment stretched over bone. His hospital issue pyjama-jacket has buttons missing, and is too small.

I place a chair at the wall side of his bed. When I sit down, his eyes, transparent grey, follow me, but he says nothing. His breathing is laboured; his chest can barely contain his ribs’ stretch.

‘Hello, Mr Walsh. Sister asked me to give you this ice to suck,’ I say.

‘Could I have a drink of cold water instead please?’ he asks. His breath smells of vinegar and his tongue is baked dry.

‘Sister says you’re not allowed to drink just yet’.

I wrap the ice in a gauze swab and put it to his lips.

‘What’s your name, girleen? He asks.

‘Beth,’ I say.

‘How old are you Beth?’

‘I’m eighteen.’

‘A child,’ he says and closes his eyes.

‘Mr Walsh?’

He opens his eyes, takes a moment to focus. He smiles at me.

‘Would you like me to wash your teeth?’ I say.

He nods and points to a round, yellow clay tub on the bedside locker. I pass it to him. He opens his mouth wide and with his thumb and the side of his forefinger removes his upper dentures and then his lower. He places them in the tub. His face collapses without his teeth and I feel I’ve done him an injury.

Sister finds me in the sluice room and demands to know why I’m not with the man in bed eight.

‘I’m washing his teeth, Sister,’ I say, holding them up as evidence.

‘Christ, Nurse, wear gloves,’ she snaps, and throws a pair of disposable gloves into the sink.

‘That’s much better,’ I say when Mr Walsh puts his teeth back in.

He thanks me and asks for more ice.

‘Where’re you from?’ He asks after a few moments.

‘Brandon Bay, the Maharees side.’ I say.

He reaches out and touches my face.

‘Faith. Who are your people?’

I tell him and he says he knew my grandfather. He says they fought on the same side in the Civil War. We chat for a while about home. He tells me about the swimming races from the bay to the Maharees, that sometimes he won, and sometimes my Granddad beat him. I hold his hand. I confide in him that I miss my Granddad more than anything in the world. He closes his eyes again. A tear runs down his cheek into the pillow.

‘May I wash your face?’ I say.

‘You can.’ he says. ‘Would you do something else for me, Beth?’

‘Of course,’ I say.

‘Would you find me pyjamas that fit? I’d like to look half decent when Chrissie visits this afternoon.’

The linen cupboard is on the far end of a long corridor outside the ward. Inside, there are floor-to-ceiling shelves with rows and rows of folded bed linen. The room has a white smell, of scalded, ironed starch. The pyjamas are on a top shelf and, not seeing any other means, I climb the slats to sit on the top shelf, close to the unshaded light bulb. I sift through the pyjamas until I find a pair that match, top and bottoms, that look nearly unworn.

With Sister’s ‘Christ Almighty tonight, what are you doing now nurse?’, I nearly fall off the shelf.

I scramble down. Sister points to the wooden ladder folded away behind the cupboard door.

‘What class of an eejit are you, Nurse?’ she asks.

‘An awful big one, Sister,’ I say.

She considers me for a moment, and when she smiles her whole face is transformed, and for a rare moment I get to see the woman she hides so well.

‘Do they know what’s wrong with you?’ I ask as I help Mr Walsh into fresh pyjamas.

‘Ara, I’d say I’m a goner,’ he says. ‘I brought up blood last night. Sure isn’t that a bad sign?’

‘Yes…no…I don’t really know,’ I say. ‘Today’s my first day on the wards you see.’

At 2.30pm the changeover takes place. The evening shift of staff and student nurses sit around Sister’s desk to take the report. I tell Mr Walsh I’ll see him in the morning.

‘You will indeed, girleen,’ he says.

That night I dream of my father sitting in a rocking chair in an immense dark place, lit only by the linen cupboard bulb above his head. He’s smiling at me, his book open on his lap. I am a distance away. I smile back, but am unable to move or to speak. He rocks in the chair. Back and forth. Back and forth. After a while, each time the chair comes back under the light, a different person is sitting in it; my Granddad, Mr Walsh, my Dad, over and over, back and forth, back and forth.

Next morning, I arrive on the ward early. Two third-year student nurses are washing down the plastic-covered mattress on bed eight. And even though I already know the answer, I ask ‘where’s Mr Walsh?’. One of the nurses takes me by the hand and steers me to the linen cupboard. She doesn’t pull the string to turn on the light.

‘You can cry in here for five minutes, then I’ll be back for you. Okay?’ she says, closing the door behind her.

‘Okay,’ I say.

But when she comes to get me five minutes later, I’m still crying.
Eleanor Hooker is the author of two poetry collections, The Shadow Owner’s Companion and A Tug of Blue (both Dedalus Press)

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