“Gordy,” she says, leaning over me. Her breath smells of lunch, nothing unpleasant like my liquid food that smells of gone-off milk. Something with coriander, I think. Since the accident I have a sense of smell that’s almost a superpower.
“Time for a roll,” she says, pulling up the side of the bed and stretching my hand over to take hold of it. She lifts my good leg, the left one, and then levers me over. I roll on command and hit my head on the corner of the bedside cabinet. My water jug with its tepid offerings tips all over the floor. “Oh shivers,” she says.
“You can say shit. I don’t mind.”
She rolls her eyes. “Shit then. I shall have to let you go,” she says, releasing my hand. I roll back down. She cleans up the mess. Someone else comes into the room. It’s Goldilocks, the nurse with the shaved head.
It was Coriander’s idea to call her that. I like her irony.
“Mr Palmer’s wet again,” Goldilocks says. They leave the room and I go back to the grid.
In some countries it is against building regulations to construct hospitals with grid ceilings. The tiles that slot into the grid are heavy, could take you out in an earthquake and they harbour bacteria that can make people like me ill. But it’s cheaper to build hospitals this way. And people accept that sick people die of infections, it’s an expectation, so things will probably never change.
The grid is the only way that I can see the world, until I am rolled every few hours. My grid is particularly bad; there are dried stains of leaks from the ancient plumbing, and dark splash marks where others have catapulted tea bags at the ceiling. The grid holds memories. When I first got to the ward that has become my home, I was hallucinating with ICU psychosis and the grid came alive every night. Contorted faces: Beth, Andrew, Dee and April, their faces would tunnel toward me like a cyclone and then pop and disperse in front of my face, evolving into animals that I couldn’t run from.
Time passes. The nurse’s concept of a minute is, on average, usually an hour. Another bottom rubbed, a catheter emptied, a slurp of caffeine. I close my eyes and sleep. I ache for April; just a glimpse of her will do.
“Silas, are you listening? I said that Andrew came home drunk again.”
Beth, my sister, who spent most of her teenage years hung over, is surprised her teenage son is drinking too much.
“He’ll grow out of it,” I say.
My sister exhales. She
“Stop trying to be a good mother.”
“That’s great advice from someone who is childless.”
There is a pause of regret for both of us.
“Sorry, Silas, I shouldn’t have said that,” she says, touching my arm.
I change the subject.
“The nurses call me Gordy, did you know? It really takes me back in time.”
I was named after two uncles, Silas and Gordon. I was the last of five children and all the other family names had been taken. Mamma called me Silas and Daddy called me Gordy. I answered to both. I liked being different.
“It’s because your first and middle names got mixed up when you came in. Even the policeman called you Gordon. I think I laughed,” she says, swallowing hard at the memory of the night of the accident. Beth takes out her compact and corrects her appearance.
“It makes life a bit more interesting. I think they do it because I appreciate a sense of humour,” I say, trying to lighten the moment. Silence descends again. She eventually gets a phone call that takes her from the room.
Dee, my wife, could never get sober for long enough to conceive so I have no children of my own. I spent my career delivering hundreds of babies or surgically fixing the scarred fallopian tubes of women so that the egg and sperm could meet and magically form a baby. I did this work because I knew halfway through medical school that I could never be a physician in the fullest sense of the word, signing off on life’s departure every day. Delivering babies is one of the most positive things that occurs in a hospital.
“What’s that smell?”
Coriander and Goldilocks are back and doing the roll so that my posterior regions don’t die. They smell caffeinated. I smell of something else. They inspect my lower regions. Nothing. Thank goodness.
“It’s my hair,” I offer.
Goldilocks doesn’t have a problem with hair hygiene. She offers to shave my head.
“No. But thank you. There are not many men my age who still have hair.”
“How about we wash it?”
“Good idea,” I say.
It takes four people to wash my hair. Four to move me, so that my head hangs over the edge of the bed. My right leg is still broken and in a cast, so I can’t yet sit in a wheelchair. The doctor has to observe my neurological reactions. He smells of tobacco and last night’s red wine. My head was so beaten-up in the accident he thinks that washing my hair might make me ill again. It passes without incident. The murky smell of bed hair is gone.
The accident is a horrible memory. The impact was horrible; the pain that followed, the flowers meant for April eventually landing beside me. In the days afterward I watched everyone in the ICU from a corner of the room like a ghost. I watched my own body paralysed, sinking and falling with the wave of the respirator.
I watched my wife hold my hand trying with all her might to pour life and love back into my body. I watched April at the end of my bed pretending to be a casual observer.
I watched them discuss me and shake their heads. These clever medical men – whose old boys’ network I have never been part of – had absolutely no idea what to do. So they waited and I returned to my body.
There was good news: I hadn’t fractured my neck like that Superman actor. I’d just broken my back further down. So now lovemaking, walking and taking a leak and a dump are out of the question.
Indirectly, in the most ironic way possible, it was lovemaking that broke my body and changed my life forever.
There’s always evidence, even when you think you’re being discreet: a strange number on a phone bill; a text message sent to the wrong person; a whisper from an invested friend; a rumour that takes seed. It was none of these.
It was her underwear that unravelled us.
She woke me like she always did. April, my darling girl. A kiss on my shoulder. The feathery tail of her slim fingers down my spine. Intimate. A gentle warning that time was moving on.
“Have you seen my underwear?” she asked.
“Try the floor,” I said.
The position of our clothes defined our relationship, littering the floor of any room that we made love in. But among my shirt and trousers and her dress we never found it, and my lover went home without her bra. I searched the house for it. My study. The laundry room. Kitchen cupboards. Lost things turn up when you’re least expecting them. I should have extended my search to the garden. Because my wife Dee found it there. “There’s a red bra in the pohutukawa tree,” she said.
“A bra.” I managed incredulity. And my wife laughed. We stood there looking at it. I was speechless. Dee was very amused at first.
“It must have got there on the wind,” I said, wondering how big the lie had to become before I could fully sink into it. It grew by the second.
It was entirely possible that the bra which sat on the branches of the pohutukawa tree in our garden was carried there on the wind. Transported by a Wellington southerly, lifted from the tender clutch of a plastic clothes peg, to its picturesque resting place.
I also know that it was entirely possible that it was flung out onto the balcony in a moment of passion, and then the wind obliged to whip it into the tree and drop me up to my neck in a big fat lie. The bra was positioned on the fiery blooms, spread out like a bizarre advertisement in a lingerie catalogue. It was not shy. It couldn’t be.
I looked at the bra as if I had never seen it before; I looked at it as if it was a stranger, as if it had absolutely nothing to do with me.
Dee walked across our garden and looked briefly at the neighbour’s backyard, calculating its hypothetical movement on the wind from the washing line to the tree. I decided to get it out of the tree. I found myself stood in the garage holding the stepladder, trying to figure out a plausible explanation for my affair.
Love seems contrived when you try to explain it. You can love someone and be incapable of showing it, or you can love someone completely and utterly and be misunderstood for doing so. These are the two ways I have loved the most important women in my life.
Our love affair began with the words, “This is probably not a good idea.”
There is a way you work in an operating theatre, a method learned from years of study and practice. You learn the non-verbal cues of the nurses, all that eye-contact stirring up emotions I thought were dead and gone. Eventually, despite her warning, April and I did little to resist the pull of gravity between us.
I extended the legs of the ladder close to the tree, clipped the locks in place and retrieved the marker of my infidelity from the tree. It was only when I had it in my hand that Dee worked it out. Her eyes moved from me to the balcony which is adjacent to the tree and the guest room. At least I had the decency to avoid the marital bed. I watched her connect the dots.
Dee smashed her beloved wine, calling out ‘bastard’ over and over as she launched bottles of cabernet sauvignon into the base of our about-to-be-filled swimming pool. It was the action of a woman scorned but also an act of utter desperation that she could break her precious alcohol stash and think it would somehow make me stay.
But alcohol is a shrewd thief and she was lost to me a long time ago. So I left the house with a bag full of clothes and a plan in my head that would somehow arrive at a happy ending.
I went to a florist to buy flowers for April. It was a stupid, romantic gesture that I had never succumbed to before. When I can bear to let myself think about it now, my heart beat slows with the terror of regret at that moment. When I stepped out across the road from the florist’s shop to get back to my car, I stepped into the path of an oncoming car.
Life flashed in sequence: the cold winters of Canada; blazing summers; emigrating to New Zealand; kids with bare feet; dirty shell-littered beaches; the tremble of a hundred earthquakes; school; medical school; hospitals that smelt of cleaning fluid; Dee, freckled and happy on our honeymoon; the blood of a thousand patients; my blood on the road; the red wine amid broken shards of glass and swimming pool tiles.
My last conscious thought before my head hit the asphalt was of April. Speaking the irresistible truth: “This is probably not a good idea.”
I should have loved her more.
About our Short Story author:
Claire chooses simple adjectives to describe herself – a wife, mother, daughter, friend, and nurse. Not particularly comfortable writing about herself, she finds it far more intriguing to imagine someone else’s thoughts and feelings. Originally from Tewkesbury in England, Claire emigrated to New Zealand in 2006. After many years scribbling ideas in notebooks, she has now found time to polish her stories and enjoys writing about things that matter: life, love and heartbreak. Many of her stories are inspired by a long career in nursing. Claire is currently working on a novel.