New people may arrive today. I wonder if, or for how long, they’ll survive.
My broom feels strong. We work well together. The ward floor is clean, patients lie relaxed, intravenous drips drip and there’s a general murmuring among visitors. This is how it should be.
Above us the pale sky seems gentle and hardly there, like it doesn’t want to get too close and disturb things.
The big waves will come soon and boom against rocks, trembling the world even this far away. If I were to lay the tip of this broom against my teeth when that happens, they would buzz together with each concussion.
I’ve started an intravenous drip on someone but not been back to check it’s running properly. I’m not even sure whose it was. I’ve, as usual, been a bit chaotic about taking and recording temperatures, blood pressure and so on. I wish I could get my head around organisation and routine but that never happens. It’s easy to make people feel cared for – but the practicality of it eludes me all too often.
Gerald has left his bed and started climbing the steep ragged cliff behind it. Somehow his mangled knee is mended. I wonder how much I helped that happen; it had been a real mess inside and took all my skill to reassemble. He always heals quickly though.
That’s a point. I’d better check if Elmer is in the lagoon with his spear. That’s dodgy when the waves come crashing over the outer ridge and pillars of rock. He scares people. Knees, and other things, can be damaged.
I like to swim there at those times, but not with him and his weaponry around. I’ll go and check now. I’m half out of the ward when I see Laura, actually her name is Lauren but we have two of those so I call her Laura because I’m easily confused. She’s sitting on a bed talking to someone but turns her head, curly red hair – dyed to make it even more red – swinging out and drifting across blue eyes, pale skin and freckles. She smiles, yellow and black teeth showing. I say hello and ask where her children are. She tells me to follow the noise. The children must have heard me. They leap from their hiding place under the bed and ambush my legs where they hang with giggling and shouting tenacity.
Waddling as a result, I head for the games room. The children must be bored. I don’t know who shuts the room down but it drives little ones mad. They’re happiest there or in the lagoon.
The door is locked but I have all the keys to this place. I love this door. It opens so easily, so silently … like it’s not trying to fight back in any way. It’s a perfect door and my favourite ever.
I used to set everything up for the children … taking my time against their impatience. Now they do it all – much faster too. I worked out some time ago that you only have to help children want to learn and they’ll do the rest.
Free of infantile encumbrance and to the music of virtual adventures and shouting children immersed in other worlds, I clamber down sun baked rocks towards the viridian and cerulean waters lying tranquil behind the ridge. When high tide comes, gigantic waves burst vast plumes of spray cascading down on anyone in the lagoon, battering those swimming. It’s the best fun I’ve ever had – and we get it twice a day.
Worryingly, Elmer is right by the ridge. When he’s all the way there it’s almost impossible to get him to give up his spear if I’m alone: there’s just no way to distract him. I think for a moment and decide to give up this time. If Lauren, the other Lauren that is, and Frankie were about they’d help. They’ll be out in the deeps collecting treasures, shells and strange stones, to make sculptures on the beach. I’ve seen these creations and am always stunned by the beauty, complexity or simplicity with which they’re constructed. Every high tide washes them away. Frankie says that’s a part of the idea.
He and Lauren can stay underwater for ages and dive deeper than I dare – three or four times deeper. They hunt sometimes, if they come across food, but Elmer outshines them by far. The fact that he’s in the lagoon now means he’s been into the darkest coldest depths again and again – and has already speared enough food for everyone today.
Everyone is a lot of people. He spends almost all of his time in the water and can understand when we talk to him but never uses words himself. I think he must have been a killer whale or something in a past life and never got the hang of human very well.
Mind you, I’m not sure if I’m much better.
There’s a niggle in me, darting around like a caged rodent: worrying. Oh yes, that drip. I ought to check on it. I’ll check them all; that way I’ll know I haven’t missed it.
Despite having walked from there to the lagoon, I’m above the ward now, looking down. This sort of thing happens so often here I barely notice.
There is no footpath winding between boulders in this part so I leap or skip from one to another. Sun-warmed grit hisses and chatters between rocks when my hands or feet brush soft stone.
People seem crowded around one bed in particular, and there are two new figures – a tall man wearing a white coat and a broad woman in an old-fashioned nurses’ uniform, lace cap and all.
People look up and point to me; some of them wave or beckon. I’ve been doing so well in my descent but now people are watching I’ll stumble and slide everywhere.
Slithering down on my bottom, I descend the last boulder in a rattle of stones which skitter among people’s feet and under the bed.
The man watches me; he’s so tall I have to look up. He points to the uniformed woman and says, “We’re here for report … handover … and found the ward unattended. Are you in charge?”
Closing my eyes for a moment I retreat back into my head while taking a deep calming breath: this man is going to be hard work. “Hello, I’m Col. Glad to meet you both. I expected you. There was that … vinegary feeling in the air which happens every time. What do I call you both?”
The woman smiles and replies. I say, “Another one! Please can I call you Lara or something? We have two Laurens already.”
“Lara will do fine.” She has one of those lovely low and slow West Indian voices with which each syllable comes out equally spaced like there’s absolutely no rush.
The first thing I need to know is roughly from where these people came, then I can orientate them. I say, “Lara, were you expecting this sort of thing?” I wave my hand rather vaguely around the ward, the sky and rocks.
“No, it is all a pleasant surprise, Col. Tell me, are you male or female? I can’t decide.” She laughs to heal any offence.
That has me stumped. “I … I haven’t given it any thought.”
She’s interrupted by the man who has an empty infusion bag in his hand. “This drip ran through. The patient could easily have died from an air embolus. Were you supposed to be on duty? Where is the patient?”
“What’s your name please?”
He drops bag, line and cannula on the empty bed. “Jack Charles, charge nurse. We’re here for report. Are you one of the staff, a volunteer, or…?”
“One of the patients? There are no designations. Yes, I’m all of those.” So are these two newcomers. They often arrive still thinking in categories, divisions and the authorities or behaviours – and status – assigned to each. He clearly does. Such things never worked where they came from: they sabotaged everything. Anyway those things have no place here.
I have to be careful answering, “You’ve come to a very different place. This is a case of get stuck in and do what you can. That’s the way this world works. It was probably the same in the place you just came from, but you were taught … and believed … it wasn’t.”
He’s too confused to reply quickly but Lara points to the empty bed. “And this patient?”
“Has left us.”
“Died?” she asks.
Jack finds his voice, “Is … did you accidentally kill a patient through negligence?” There’s a landslide of guilt and blame in his voice – but misses me entirely.
Laura, bless her, comes to my rescue. She’s squeezed through the crowd, the blaze of hair matching her mood. “Or did Col keep him alive for two and a half years because he didn’t want to leave yet? That’s what I saw.”
Jack continues to tower over me. “I ask again, what is your role?”
I shrug, “Jack, you’re going to have to accept things are different here. Entering a new world still dragging your last can cause trauma to you and everyone else. If you need a framework it’s this: we do what we can.”
“What we need,” he replies, “is a system in which needless deaths don’t occur.”
I sigh. “No needless deaths occur here. People leave but … I’m not always sure why.”
“Where is the patient’s body? I’ll take a look.”
Laura groans and says, “You’re not listening. He didn’t die: he left. Don’t ask where to because we don’t know any more than you.”
Jack points to the bed. “You mean he just disap…?”
Laura speaks over him, “Yes. Cope with it. Start listening and stop being in the place you just came from. Get it? Savvy?” She can be a little terrifying at times but on this occasion fails to shut him up. I’m so glad she’s on my side though.
“Right,” Jack’s voice silences people’s murmuring. “It appears I’m senior here so I’m going to…”
It’s my turn to interrupt, “No … well you can try but, as I said, you can only cause yourself and others aggravation and we don’t do that here. Listen to Laura.”
“It needs proper organisation…”
Laura responds, Really? Since when did organisation structures ever help? I bet you’ve had team leaders who didn’t know how to fix things, or unruly patients who forced everyone to work together efficiently – who leads who? And before you try: that’s a question you can’t answer.”
He’s still not listening, “It appears I’m senior here so…”
Laura pushes towards him, fists clenched. She screeches, “I told you to listen!”
“We need a system of…”
She growls now, “Involving a hierarchy? Who are the slaves?”
“We don’t need slaves.”
“Systems and rules make slaves.”
“We won’t make slaves.”
“But the patients have to do what they’re told or you restrain and inject them. They can’t leave when they want to – you’ll force them to stay alive. They have no rights. What is your definition of slave?”
“Enough, you two!” I shout. “Laura, please take Jack and show him around or he can come with us,” I point to Lara and myself. “Maybe he’ll get this place eventually. We should give him a chance. Laura, do come too. You are fabulous at making people think again.”
She snorts, “Shouting, you mean.”
I grin, “You do it so well. Let’s go to the lagoon. Elmer’s still in there and I need a hand.”
Lara takes my arm. “Yes, let’s take a look around, you seem to know what you’re doing.”
“What? But do I? No I don’t. Really I don’t. Come on.”
Jack looks around the ward, patients and collected faces. “I need to stay here. I won’t leave this place unattended.”
I take his arm, “Jack, it may be better if you leave, for you and us. This is probably not the right place for you. Not now: maybe it will be one day. If it’s too much, go to sleep and wake up; you’ll be back where you were before and this will just be a dream.”
His face twists, one eye half closing. “This is a dream? That explains everything.”
“It’s a dream or a film you’re watching, a game, a poem, whatever. Just switch it off or wake up or close the book.”
©Gary Bonn, 2020