Dead leaves, fractions broken by time, add to the loam of the forest. The flight of a startled bird, the double thump footfall of a rabbit and the creak of my soles; these all hang in the air. My solitude reveals no further aches or pains to add to the list of silences kept.
I take a moment to check the hole as I walk to work. Watching the excavation grow is habitual; my discomfort deepening. I do not like looking at it. But as I move away every step refreshes that image; walking simply switches the frame forwards or back in time, how the shape grew, what it will be in a week. Memory is a camera that will not let my mind alone. It is obvious that the shape has changed again; there has been more digging since my last visit. They have removed some of the young saplings this time. I should like to walk around the hole; mark out its circumference with the reach of my stride. The thought remains as an impulse but I have no rational explanation for this diversion. I suggest to myself that measuring it would be dangerous; I am frightened; when the spades bite into the earth it makes the edge unstable. The remaining distance to the hospital takes me further back, to the first day of the hole. Then the sweet chestnut tree was sawn down; I reached out and touched the sticky sap rising in its winter bones.
* * * * *
My damp boots take their spot in the locker room. Every other space is full; I am last to join this shift. All my life, all my career even the empty minutes have expanded in my hands. The sterile white shoes left out for me are not mine; they compress my left foot more than the right, but they do smell better than my own. The scrubs, which do fit, have come from the childrens’ ward. I know that the laundry has trouble getting ours clean. Today Roadrunner is endlessly chased around my chest, his faded charms still alive. When I was a child I couldn’t understand why Coyote never caught the bird; how Roadrunner could be such a simple hero. These seem to come my way once a month or so.
The form that the first man brings is from his employer. This is some relief. He works as a roofer. This is a simple break to his arm; the result of an innocent fall. He looks at me with the usual terror all the same. He has large eyes, heavily lined. The wrinkles I see as smile lines. He is my age, the same school year anyway.
I want him to smile but I cannot find a platitude to fit. We are in the same place, both of us, there is no avoiding that. He repairs broken houses with what is to hand, I do what I can when he falls. We are still alive, still welded to here. He winces and grips my forearm as I raise his hand to assess the extent of the break. I cannot justify the expense of a trip to the imaging lab for this. His hand is warm and bears a broad, scarred and worn wedding ring. There is an image in my head of his wife, strong and determined, holding him as they fall asleep at night. I wonder if they have the chance to work together and, as I dip bandages, if there are children. There is screaming in a room distant and I fail to find any words to cover the pain that is drawn.
In my mind-picture there are two children, blond as he must have been when he was younger. They are playing in the doorway of a house that opens out on to the street. As he leaves he expresses a gratitude that fills my frame. It will carry me for an hour or two.
* * * * *
My breath rests in white gusts in the dark after I leave the common room and its noisy television, making my walk back to my room in the Hall. There are people still there; they will stay awake watching repeats and conversation will fade as they fall away; to sleep or to bed. Half a life ago I had those friends, or others like them, in student common rooms. Long afternoons drifted as we spent our imagined exhaustion. We watched dramas about actors playing doctors and nurses, called them out on failures of knowledge and eyed up the eye-candy patients. For a little while we kept our promises to stay in touch. They slipped away, too many of them, to new hospitals in the compounds. They are doctors, acting, serving the luxury illnesses of money and longevity. I do not know them anymore. Against the black bricks of night the windows of the wards and rooms of the hospital are dazzling. Those corridors and rooms are the days of my world.
The water reeks of fluoride and snatches at the plumbing as I wash my face. The scent reminds me of chlorine and the ecstatic dissonance of swimming pools. Swimming pool tiles, shiny and slippery like teeth. I used to swim once; we used to race at the local pool. Every day I swam; it eased the stress.
My flesh is warm enough under the blankets, under cold white sheets thinned by age, but my book slips from my hands, the words from my mind. I wish for a story so complete that I can fly from the tiredness. When I dream it will be of bodies; their beauty and infirmity. My dreams are the weight of the day. Nothing but breath carries me into and out of sleep.
And another morning; more routine and no pleasure in the walk through the forest edge to work. Yet I make it all the same. It is still the shortest path. There has been a heavy rain in the night. The sky is blue now yet the leaves continue the tune; but the echo is harder, less regular, colder somehow. The drops fall on my bare neck, I feel each one and must try to find a scarf for the winter. My eyes are drawn down the slope; to its edge. The hole has not grown wider and I cannot see whether they have deepened it because rain water has gathered there. The surface is mirror-smooth in the centre; the droplets only punctuate the edges where they slide from the leaves. This new mirror carries the burden of my image, just my head and shoulders, reflected in the stillness, cut away from my body by the action of the falling rain.
* * * * *
Regular green scrubs today and my own shoes. There is a note in my pigeon hole to say that there will again be two doctors on each shift. The extra body will come up on the bus from town. There are no questions I can ask; I am late again; everyone else has already gone up.
This patient, she twitches her form between long thin fingers, short arrhythmic movements. It is a pink, double sided report from the internment camp. I stand by the bed and she pushes the form at me before I can speak. So I read. There are more blanks than answers; no-one has bothered to say what her employment was, telling me only that she lacks stamina. She has five more weeks still to do at the camp on the other side of the town.
She begins to talk, a stream of ceaseless grievances, sensing a licence to speak here that she has been denied (I know the way of the camps) for many months. Her talking is a recipe: a job in the city, clean uniforms and a bed in a hostel, harassment, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, arguing, sex, fighting, drinking. Then the city police, more arguing, sex, fighting; a beating. Her body tells the same story; underweight and bruised and no periods. An austerity demo that got head counted landed me in the Oxford camp, years back, when it was new. Places like that stay with you.
Her lack of stamina is malnutrition really; a thirst for life that cannot be properly answered. She is untrained and surplus to a contracting economy. I am glad she is not mine in any way; her presence here is the only evidence I’ll see of her losses and failures. And that is more than most will realise. I tell her to rest when she can and we both laugh at the conscious and casual cruelty of my advice.
* * * * *
The wind catches on the corners of the walls as I walk over to dinner. The dining room at the Hall is busy, all of us caught up in the promise of the day’s hot meal. Three of the four overhead light fittings are dark; probably it is because the fluorescent tubes or their tiny starters have been stolen. The people sitting in the direct pool of light seem at once louder and less distinct; uncertain actors on an accidental stage. The rest of us are the crowd; a broad wash of faces and talk.
I find a seat in amongst the night shift; their faces are still soft with rest. Their conversation quickly leaves me behind and my mind drifts through the noise. The thought comes to me that there is a new voice here, someone that I recognise but who does not belong. I wonder if voices are like faces; easy to mistake one from another given enough stored up clues. Whatever. It doesn’t matter if he is the new doctor. He is only of any use to me if he turns up tomorrow to share the work; if he stays for the next day and the one after that. Otherwise this is a free meal that helps no-one but him. The main part of dinner is a too-hot meat pie of indeterminate parts. It has been cooked a long way distant and then microwaved in a kitchen area which is sterile of any other activity. By the time it is cool enough for me to eat the room is largely empty.
It is darker indoors than out but the uneven tree line at the ridge still makes a black horizon. The moon is a short blade cutting a draining sky. I wonder at my own motivations as I follow my usual short cut. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I will find another path. But tonight the remaining water in the hole is covered by beech leaves. The wind does not reach them and nothing disturbs the leaf-boats from their lack of progress. That the water has not turned stagnant at any point is a mystery. I’ve asked the workmen who dig here, I’ve asked the managers but no-one will tell me what the hole is for.
* * * * *
For a second day there are green scrubs; shoes that might, or might not, be mine. I can hear voices in the operating room adjacent and I have no time to read the request slip that is on my peg; they are shouting for me. Already the other doctor is scrubbed up, masked and working. The patient breathes through a ventilator and there is a lot of blood on the floor. I look at the stopwatch they have started on the wall. They are forty five minutes into this. He works on through an incision that they have made in the patient’s abdomen. His gloved hand points to a second site on the thigh that is bleeding, slowly. It is a rough, round puncture, cutting through skin and tissue that looks like it extends down below the muscle. Some metal rod, something of that nature, forced into the leg by the force of the fall. He’ll have been at the site clearance for the retail units that none of us can afford. The surrounding skin is caked in brick dust and flakes of rust. I start; stopping the blood flow and cleaning.
When I next look up at the stopwatch only a few minutes have passed. Time passing slowly is never good news. The ventilator wheezes unhindered. I realise that everyone has stopped working. The new doctor speaks, confirming the death. It is very good to have someone else make that call. I’ve heard this voice, speaking these words borrowed from some ancient television drama, a long time before today. He removes his glasses, rubs his eyes with this arm; I know the movement and the face revealed. This isn’t the first body we’ve worked on together.
The emergency has caused a backlog but the balance of the shift passes without incident. Minor referrals from triage balance out with cuts and breaks; we have been sent a few infections of one kind or another. It is the usual offering of injury and neglect.
* * * * *
His work visa in the U.S. had expired; when there had been space on a flight they deported him. He is foolishly glad to be back. His newly allocated room is cleaner than mine in some fundamental way; the fittings are newer but it is more than that. The bed is well placed under a high window and from here I watch as he unpacks and talks. His monologue runs round on itself, merges with memories I had put away. He has connected a tiny old laptop to the mains to play an internet radio station that I don’t know. On the flight he had been light fingered, bringing away with him two packets of biscuits. As his fingers dig into the cheap, plastic film his hands start to shake. I take the packet and unwrap it and he sits on the edge of the bed with the careful control of one who has been awake too long.
“Do you still run?” I ask him.
“No. Too tired,” he says. “You swim?”
“No. No pool.”
He stands again to fetch his glasses from the desk and sits down by me. “You haven’t changed much.”
“Yes I have. I look old, I’m underweight and overworked.”
“You always were direct.”
The biscuits are sweet and familiar, leaving me hungrier. Through the window I hear the rattle of a delivery lorry in the yard and I find myself rambling, the room warmed by our talking. We go forward and back; out on tangents shared from the past. Tomorrow breaks down into different cases, the way we will share them, adjusting as we go. We talk about other people’s children, friends that have died, the fate of second weddings that we both attended as guests. I joke about the food here and he makes plans. He will walk into town tomorrow to find coffee; he has a taste for American coffee. Maybe there will be apples. I laugh at him.
* * * * *
At some point in that planning we had fallen asleep. My arms are wrapped around me; my back is sore from sleeping in so narrow a space, my body is stiff and heavy with rest. His note says he was up early and has walked to town.
When I leave I find the longer route to the hospital is busy; everyone else has long since found this second path. I can see the forest edge and, beyond that, a fluttering of yellow tape around the hole. There are men working by it, emptying a trailer hitched to one of hospital vans. When I raise an arm they are far enough away that they disappear under the silhouette of my hand. The men work in pairs, moving back and to, dressed in orderlies overalls that are the wrong green for camouflage. One man stands at the edge, the other in the bottom of the hole as they lift each rigor stiffened bundle in. I know what the hole is for.
I estimate the steps to town and the walking speed of my friend.
I wonder when he will be back.
Coffee and apples.