For Ina and all at SLTU. 

 

                                                                                                                                                     Here are no

shadows to show us

where we are.

 

Paula Allen

 

 

                                                       

                                                                                                                                     Loch Lomond Shores
2002

 

 

                                                                                                                

 

Philip is floating in space inside a beautiful room. Above his head a golden mist

dissolves into infinity. Voices mutter from behind an invisible partition. He suspects he

is being observed and that people are discussing his case.

 

At some point he has become transparent although he cannot remember how or

when. Through the back of his skull he sees the warm sheets of an undisturbed

bed beckoning him earthward.

 

He tries to explore the room but this proves difficult. The air becomes heavy, a

transparent, viscous fluid. He holds his breath and swims along a wall into a

corridor. The shadows of invisible people pass by and the sterile imprints of their

bodies shiver in the air around him like rainbows. He continues swimming and

arrives at a dead end. In an alcove an icy waterfall shatters into an ornamental

pool.


 

After a time the effort of swimming exhausts him. He is unable to breathe and

is afraid of drowning. He returns to his place above the bed and hovers. Air

enters his body through his pores and his fear of suffocation subsides. As

he floats he wonders why he no longer knows himself. He has transformed 

into a vast, shapeless embryo, without provenance, floating alone in the womb of

space.

 

 


 *

 

 

A woman sits on a chair in the corner of the room. Her hair is disheveled but beneath

her open cardigan her uniform is immaculate, as if chosen for a special occasion. As

night falls she reaches across to the table beside her and clicks on an anglepoise

lamp. The dim aura cast by the lamp and the firefly illuminations from the machines at

Philip's bedside glimmer in the darkness.


 
The woman, whose name is Rachel, is studying a journal in preparation for an

exam. The use of opiates for analgesia in the case of patients suffering from

delirium  is not recommended.
 

The information dissolves into a sea of fatigue . She yawns, shivers, glances up to

Philip's bed, but does not raise her eyes to where her patient is floating.


Why can't she see me? Philip wonders.

 



*

 


Philip needs to be washed several times a day. Although he's been unconsciousness

for a week he never stops shitting. Keeping Philip clean is one of the tasks associated

with Rachel's job but she does not mind. He might come back at any moment and she

wants him to wake up fresh, in sheets as clean as a Spring morning.

 

She approaches the bed, smoothes the blanket, lifts the observations pad from its

slot, records Philip's levels, examines the tubes that sprout from his body,

shines a penlight in his eye. The pupil inexplicably responds; his reading is still three

on the Glasgow scale, although his limbs are no longer rigid.


 

"Where are you, my dear?" she whispers in his ear.


The lights blink, the filter shunts away like a mill. Rain batters at the windows and

boiling silver clouds fly along in the moonlit sky.




Rachel goes to the room next door and asks for help. Frankie, the auxiliary, joins

her with all the necessary materials. She unscrews the top from a bottle of

Hibiscrub, splashes the pink liquid into a plastic tub, runs water from the mixer tap,

swishes the froth around. The two women position themselves on

either side of the bed, don their Vitrex gloves, lift Philip by the shoulders, slip the

soiled pad and the the sheets out from beneath him, peel off his sweaty pyjama

jacket, bathe his chest, arms, face, armpits - replace the sheet, lay him down,

wash his legs, groin, feet, turn him over, wipe his anus with aqueous ointment, sit him

upright, pull on a new pyjama jacket and comb his hair. To finish off, Frankie

shaves him; in the process she nicks a slice of parched skin from his chin. A thin,

urgent trail of blood trickles down his neck. Low platelets, Rachel says. She sits

beside him on the bed, holds a clotting stick against the cut. Twenty minutes pass

before the flow finally ceases.When they finish Frankie leaves the room and returns

with coffee for Rachel, which the nurse drinks in silence. The window rattles. The wind

rushing by outside sounds cold. Rachel pulls her cardigan tightly around her

shoulders even though the radiators are on full and she is sweating.

 

 

*



 
In order for the filter to work Philip must remain motionless at all times. Even the

slightest twitch activates the alarm. When this happens the pump stops working

and Philip's toxic blood begins to poison him. Only when Rachel is on duty can Philip

lie peacefully for hours at a time without moving a muscle.

 

 

*



 

A nurse whom Philip has never seen before walks into the shadows at the far side

of the room. She stands by a steel trolley. Philip's arm is laid out on a surgical tray.

The nurse unwraps a procedure kit, dips a cotton ball into a tray containing a

creosote-coloured liquid and cleans the skin. She discards the cotton into a yellow

incinerator bag and draws up a syringe of heparin, squirts out a misty plume of

excess liquid and injects the rest into his fistula. Philip is frightened that the nurse

would do something so irresponsible, so dangerous. He fears he may have been

getting on everyone's nerves and now they want to kill him.

 

 

*

 



Rachel is never sure if Philip hears her but once the ward lights have been

extinguished and they are alone together in the wilderness of the dark, she speaks

to him to cheer him up. She tells him about a field in the North where years before

she watched a meteorite fall to earth in a ball of flames.

 

The hill rises steeply at first, then you come to a pasture, which is usually empty. A

burn runs through it with yellow water that tastes of sulphur. You can't drink from it

because sometimes sheep fall in further up and drown.


I got really sick once from drinking the water there.


There's a brilliant view over the loch. Every moment something changes. People

think there's more to look at in the City, but that's rubbish. The land is never

monotonous. Shadows the size of mountains fly over the hills in a single breath.

Light comes up out of the ground like a living thing.


At first I thought the flare was a firework, then I knew it was an iron stone. I was

sure I knew where it landed, but I was wrong. I looked all the next day but  found

nothing. That was five years ago. I camp there every summer but still I've never

found it.

 

Philip wanders, pulled this way and that by every word.

 
No fields

No sky

No wind

No one on the road 

No one in the village

No beasts in the fields

The door of the house is open

Everything is put away

No one lives here.

 

 

*


 


One evening he is awoken by a steely scratching at his throat. A necklace of

barbed wire encircles his neck. Movement is painful and frightening. When he

remembers he is forbidden to move he concentrates his attention on breathing into

his abdomen and his panic subsides. He allows his mind to float away, still and

unperturbed, like a dead man's hat down a river.


 
This is no life for a human being, he says, aloud. This is barbaric.

 
There's no alternative, Rachel replies.

 
Fuck! Philip shouts, so loudly he wakes a patient in the neighbouring ward.

 
Fuck!


Fuck!

 
Fuck!

 

Throughout the next twenty-four hours he repeats the curse loudly, over and over.

Frankie, a devout Catholic woman who has only worked in the ward for a few

days, is shocked but Rachel explains:

 

On top of everything else, dying can be very irritating.


 

 

 

Occasionally, during the night, Philip hears snatches of conversation at his

bedside. Tonight Frankie is telling Rachel about a disaster that occurred in another

ward earlier in the day. The auxiliary's voice is trembling. She explains to Rachel that

she hadn't intended to talk about about the event but it had been a terrible shock

and was already becoming a burdensome memory she couldn't get out of her mind.

 

She'd been working in the dialysis ward when she and the nurse who was on duty with

her had been called away to attend to an emergency elsewhere. When she returned,

she discovered that one of the old women in her own room, motivated by terror, or

frustration, or even sorrow at her own predicament, had torn the canula from her arm.

With the blind passivity of any such device her dialysis machine had continued to

pump litre after litre of blood out onto the floor, while the patient, at least until she

succumbed to unconsciousness, along with one or two other patients who were awake,

had watched in mute bemusement.They found the pallid, lifeless woman slumped back

in her chair and the floor a lake of exsanguination.

 

The image of this catastrophe floated for a while in Philip's mind before dissolving, but

when it reappeared some days later he asked Rachel about it.

 

Such events, Rachel explained, though far from commonplace, did occur sometimes in

hospitals. Patients with poor prognoses would hurl themselves from

unlocked windows, some refused their medications, one hanged himself in the

bathroom and others seemed to fade away as if having surrendered to an implacable

destiny. The hospital learned from these events and new protocols were always being

introduced to minimise the risk to distressed patients from their own states of mind.

Still there seemed to be no limit to the ingenuity some of them could

bring to the problem of countermanding any protocol and occasionally, as in this

case,something unpredictable might happen that left the field open for acts of 

self-destruction.

 

 *

 

 

During the morning ward round a registrar stays behind to examine him. While

auscultating Philip's heart, he observes: I've heard that in Ancient Piraeus the

lifeguards would only charge a nominal sum when they saved a man from

drowning. They seemed to think there was no way of knowing whether or not they

were doing him a favour.

 

*



 
Voices murmur from the nurses' station. It is dark in the corridor but a glow from

beneath the door attracts him like the lights of an inn. Rachel appears from around

a corner, a revenant in surreal white.



I'm expecting some ice cream from America!


At this time of night? Are you sure?


Of course, I'm sure.


Well, go back to bed and we'll let you know when it arrives.


Don't patronise me.


I wouldn't think of patronising you.

 

 

He turns backs along the hallway to his door, shuffles into the windy chill, slips into

bed, draws the blanket up to his chin. Throughout the night Rachel appears again

and again. Each time something is different and he does not recognise her. She

has changed her uniform, or grown taller, or dyed her hair or put on a mask, or

becomes a man, or a child, or transformed into a terrifying machine.

 

 

*

 

 

There is nothing whatever beautiful in Philip's, or his companions' experience, yet beauty

ascends from their flesh like a reconciling spirit and frees them from all squalor and

despair. It is the point at which invisible worlds appear whose existence each of

them has suspected all through their incarceration. Philip observes and says nothing

as the air scintillates with new life. He hears his brother and sister patients'

breathingtheir quiet moaning or senseless babbling, and in the background the

murmur of nurses along the corridor. It seems as if they're all sharing the same life, the

same lungs and hearts, the same messages traveling along the same neural

pathways. All of them have become mutually inextricable and engaged in a vital project

to which each must contribute. Weeks pass as they come and go and the

hospital's digestive system consumes and disposes of their lives

  


*

 

 



 

 

He first catches sight of Allen not long after he wakes up for the first time: in the

bed across the aisle, a row of skeletal fingers clutch at a bedspread; a parchment

skinned face glows as if a candle were burning inside his skull. Beneath the blankets

the shape of a tiny, shrunken body and around his bed spiders' webs of tubes and

lines, machinery, monitors and meters bleeping and flashing. To Philip, Allen looks

a thousand years old. Every morning as the ward round leaves, Allen's wife appears

at the door carrying a chair. She hurries over to his bedside, sets down the chair

and immediately lays her body over his as if trying to protect him against some

disaster that's about to crash down on his head. Even when his eyes are closed and

his breathing has become so shallow you'd swear he'd died, she croons his name,

strokes his face, his arms, his bony hands.Occasionally she dabs his lips with a little

pink sponge soaked in water;  every now and then a tongue tip appears and

brushes away the moisture. When she leans over to kiss him the ghost of a smile

flickers across his face like a bolt of frail, distant lightning. For a few days Allen

is the first  person Philip sees in the morning and the last person he sees before the

lights go out. Over a period of weeks he begins to feel as close to this oblivious companion

as if he was his own brother.

 

Then one morning Allen's bed is empty; sheets, blanket and pillow cases crisp and

clean, the machines and IV stands removed, all trace of his time there laundered and

expunged.

 

*

 

 

The following day Allen is replaced by  the Doomed Teenager. She is fifteen years

old. Her boyfriend has broken up with her earlier in the week and she's swallowed a

bottle of Paracetomol. The next morning she feels OK, - not even depressed. She gets

sick a couple of times, but then she seems better. She tells her mother what she's

done, but says she's OK now, she'll be fine. They take the bus into town and go

shopping. Her mother buys her a new top, everything is almost back to normal. The

pills kick in later in the evening. Mum brings her down in a taxi to A&E. She's admitted

to HD and pumped full of Parvalax but it's too late. She becomes delirious and the

nurses have to restrain her from getting out of bed. Day and all night her ventilator

quacks like a robotic duck. She goes on struggling to free herself but the nurses are

too strong. During the night she kicks at her sheets as if riding a bicycle, cries out,

blacks out and by the morning of the following day is no longer there.

 

 

 

 



One night the Angel of Death appears at Philip's bedside. Slender, suave, black

eyes,black shirt, black trousers, black shoes, black hair. The sound of the pump

fades, the wind dies, the darkness deepens, a chill rushes through him like an

unstoppable wave into a breached ship. He shivers, takes a deep breath, steps

out of himself into thick, hollow silence, but after a long pause the figure turns

away, creeps to the door, and is gone.

 


*

 


Every night the cool, steady gaze of  Rachel's eyes accompanies him into the dark.

Philip says goodbye, goodbye to everything. The chaplain, having been here

before, is not afraid to help him. Philip begins with the place of his confinement. He

lets his eyes dwell briefly on the blemishes in the paintwork, the imperfections he

hasn't noticed before, which now seem as personal as the idiosyncrasies of a face,

the sinuous chrome curve of the mixer tap, the military grey drugs cabinet on the

wall by the door, the shadows in the creased sheet, the geometry of painted steel and

plastic, the leaves flashing past beyond the window, the bending treetops, the

pure, uninhabited emptiness of colour delineated by roofs, trees, the pleasing or

unsettling angles and intersections, aerials, phone lines, scaffolding. Next he

turns his attention to the pathology of indentations, marks, skin tones, and the

shapes of faces, patients, old and young, nurses, other white-coated personnel,

'and this is what I want to happen when I'm dead,' he says. The chaplain nods,

agrees to conduct the ceremony, suggests a reading, even though the patient has

no beliefs to speak of, has never in all this time thought of praying.

 

A spot on a hillside, no marker, a few pals present, the senseless whimsicality

of the demented man dictating everything, and then finally, goodbye to the

human, to the dead who have preceded him, to his circle of diminishing

allegiances, mother, father, Rachel, half-forgotten friends. There is a composure about

these arrangements; having prowled this labyrinth for months his search for a loophole

is over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everything beautiful in Nature is concealed, and the greater its beauty the more deeply it is hidden.

 

Hazarat Inhayat Khan

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 A shorter version first published in Gutter Magazine, Glasgow, Issue 4 Spring 2011

copyright Graeme Williamson 2010 

 
 

 


 

 
 
 
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