The hospital was an old filing cabinet of a building. Patients were shuffled then sorted: in, out, pending. Then there were those consigned to the mysterious depths of the interior; they had been examined, categorised then assigned to the cardiac ward, orthopaedics, oncology etc.
Bill accompanied his wife to the consultation. He had dressed for the occasion and sat stoically next to Phyllis in his suit. He had risen many hours earlier to shave, and then, placing newspaper on the kitchen table, he had buffed the leather of his shoes until they reflected his eyes. He stared down and acknowledged the concern in them. Now he sat next to her, trembling slightly, uncertain whether to take her hand, much as he had all those years ago on their first evening out together.
As on that first evening, Phyllis smiled reassuringly, only this time her eyes told him that her mind was far away, she was already leaving him.
Phyllis was of a generation who saw admittance into hospital, if not to give birth, as the end of the line. Even more telling was the gnawing pain, nothing existed outside of this when it bit into her, and yet was of her. She had sat on the plastic chair, clutching the manila file which held her destiny and felt the outside world spin away from her. All that had frightened and worried her in that world melted into meaninglessness.
After a little coaxing, Bill had agreed to go home. She watched him walk through the swing doors with some relief, unaware that he would remain in the corridor on the other side for another half an hour, clutching the handrail with all of his strength in an effort to control the waves of emotion, which had immobilised him.
Phyllis had no choice but to commit, but there were so many rituals on this road, all of them unfamiliar, yet mundane. There was something so ordinary about it all, but of course it was, she considered.
She was not used to the attention; and for the first few days, it had seemed that there was always some procedure she must undergo, or some grave information she must absorb, when all she really wanted was to dream.
At last she was left to her own thoughts, as she had so often been in that other world. All those stories she had never told, all those things she had known and had never spoken of, were dissolving. Did it matter that she had not taken the trouble to leave something of her real self behind? She shrugged. Somehow it didn’t, and she settled with the only company she had ever felt secure in, the running commentary of her mind.
Ever so flat, these pillows, and they have a funny smell, clean, but medicinal. A few drops of lavender oil on them would be blissful. I can’t really ask for that though, it was trouble enough asking the girl to leave the curtain open, you’d think I’d asked for the moon.
I shouldn’t complain, she was ever so nice really, and she gave me a top up. Takes the edge off and leaves you all floaty. I’m as comfortable as can be expected.
That’s what they say to stop relatives worrying, isn’t it?
‘Oh good, she’s comfortable.’
They have a vision of a sweetly smiling face drifting into sleep and turn their attentions to their own lives. And why not? It’s not as though worrying helps anyone. Oh comfort; the illusion that masks the unpleasantness underneath, like the lovely feeling from the drugs. I know they are not making me better, just making me feel better; if you don’t think too much, that’s enough.
It’s the small things that make a difference now. Like the curtain being left open. It’s not as though there’s much to see, but I have a little patch of sky. It was a stained- glass blue today; if I could have tapped it, it would have shattered into a billion million pieces. What would have been behind it, I wonder? Now it is a lovely inky violet, soft, like billowy bed-linen, lit up by a blurry moon, all hazy and indistinct, like me.
Ever so dusty, the moon. As a child I imagined it to be as soft as a powder puff. I might fall into the moon as into a drift of the finest talc, and come up smelling sweet as from a Sunday bath. All wrapped up in a fresh nightie and sheets, still scented with garden. I’d look up at this very same moon and feel, comfortable.
Turns out there’s nothing soft about moon dust. It’s sharp and scratchy and gets into everything. Once it’s snagged onto something it just won’t let go. Those astronauts had terrible trouble with it, but you can’t really expect to go into space and not run into a few problems.
Moon dust is always on the move. You wouldn’t have much impact up there with a feather duster. It’s not the dust that makes it look all hazy, but it looks dusty tonight. Like there’s Vaseline on the lens, to hide the wrinkles. Well, she’s pretty old, the moon. Bits get chipped off her all the time, she’s full of holes, craters; but they’re not too clear tonight. She’s still there though, casting her silver glow. Funny how we just expect her to be there and feel safe to forget her. The constant moon. What would we do if she simply crumbled away into dust and dispersed?
A gibbous moon. Not a pretty word. It makes you consider what is hidden, and I don’t want to think about that, too tiring. It’s hard enough to think about what I can see. That was my policy with the dusting; polish the bits you can see. Haven’t done that in ages though. When the children were young I would spend hours, days probably, if you added up all the time together, slathering wooden surfaces in that lavender smelling wax and rub and rub away. I loved pushing my fingers behind the cloth into the wax, and that smell, a sweet sensation far back inside the mind. Afterwards it felt like I had made a difference. I had cast a cloak of comfort over my family, by casting away the dust. It’s always about the feeling really, when it comes down to it.
Runcible. I always think of that too, by way of the cow, the dish and the owl and the pussy cat. As though they’re all in the room with me. All sitting around, perfectly serious, but we have mixed feelings about the runcible spoon; useful, but too pointy. You want softness.
Earth dust is soft.
You should see how quickly it piles up under the beds. All of us lying here shedding our skins, I suppose. We’re rubbing away to nothing. They have these wonderful mops which whips it all away with a graceful sweep. I could do with one of those mops, but I haven’t seen them in the shops. You can never quite get what you want, can you?
The moon is too far away for me to look at anymore. I need something closer to hand. My hand. With its criss-crossing lines, like a network of roads on another planet, as seen from space. All the dust that has come off that hand, all the dust that hand has moved and made. It’s all finite though. Nothing new is really made or vanished away; it just changes shape, transforms into something else.
I wonder what I’ll become next. Best just to relax into it. Into the softness of fine dust. Comfortable -like.
In another bed, only a few streets away from the liquorice allsort hospital tower, Bill lay alone in their bed. He stared at the blankness above, knowing that something had irrevocably altered.