Intensive Care is a strange place of quiet industry laced with panic; the constant soft footfall of the nurses, the clatter of patient notes against the metal bed-ends, a background symphony of bleeps and alarms.
I watch Sarah re-secure the plastic fingertip peg monitoring his oxygen levels as a nurse writes Jack’s name on a whiteboard over his bedside cabinet, bright blue capitals. I close my eyes and, though I’ve never been remotely religious, I pray.
‘Don’t try to move, I’ll call the nurse.’
I look over my shoulder for help as Jack struggles to pull himself up in bed, even though he’s been told in no uncertain terms by the ward sister to press his buzzer if he needs help.
‘For fuck’s sake, Lu, stop fussing. I can do it.’
He wouldn’t pull this kind of stunt if Sarah was here; she’d kick his sorry ass. He’s only trying his luck today because it’s Friday and I got off work early to come and visit on my own. He regained consciousness a couple of days ago and the doctors were, thank God, able to confirm no lasting brain injury, although they’re still running tests because he’s struggling with his hearing on one side. Since then it’s become apparent that he’s the patient from hell. His streak of independence is generally one of his better qualities, but his refusal to ask for help is borderline dangerous in his condition. He’s catheterized, and he has a cannula in his hand administering pain relief; every time he acts up and tries to do stuff for himself he sets off a furious series of alarms and high-pitched wails that bring nurses running.
I sit down as the staff nurse stalks down the ward and hoicks him into position against his pillows.
‘Your pretty face is starting to get on my nerves, O’Mara,’ she says, in that no-nonsense way experienced medical staff have.
He grins, apologetic. ‘Thank you, Eva. Sorry. Can I offer you a grape?’ He nods towards the fruit basket on the side, a gift from his colleagues.
‘Can you imagine how many grapes I get offered in here?’ She looks at him over her glasses. ‘If you want to do something for me, just press the buzzer next time you need help.’
She doesn’t hang around, leaving us alone again. I’m sitting in one of those fake leather, wipe-clean armchairs next to Jack’s bed in the corner of a ward of six beds, mostly older men. It’s afternoon visiting time, although you wouldn’t know it from the fact that most of them are snoozing in their pyjamas on top of their rumpled white sheets, no relatives to be seen. The window behind me is pushed up as far as it’ll go, and fans whir on some of the bedside cabinets, yet still there’s hardly a breath of air.
‘Hot out there today,’ I say. I’ve taken care to sit on the side that he can still hear properly from.
He sighs. ‘Is that what our friendship has come to? We’re reduced to talking about the weather?’
‘What else do you want to talk about?’
He shrugs his unbroken shoulder, then winces. ‘You’re the agony aunt. Tell me what the youth of today are worrying about.’
I unsnap a hairband from round my wrist and pull my hair back into a ponytail. ‘Okay. Well, it’s mostly girls who write in, so I get a lot of period-related questions.’
He rolls his eyes. ‘What else?’
‘Spots. They have a lot of spot issues. Someone asked me last week if dog saliva was good for acne.’
He brightens at the absurdity. ‘What did you tell them?’
‘Cat saliva is better.’
‘Of course I bloody didn’t.’
I pour him a glass of iced water from the jug an orderly has just deposited on his side table and stick a fresh straw in.
‘Here, have a drink.’ It’s difficult for him to lift the cup with one shoulder broken and his other hand tethered by the cannula, so I hold it in place while he sucks from the straw.
‘Thank you,’ he says, laying his head back on the pillow, closing his eyes with a huff of self-annoyance at the effort and the fact he has to ask for help with something as basic as a drink of water. ‘Tell me some more.’
I cast around for something that might catch his imagination. ‘Oh, I know. A boy wrote in a couple of weeks ago because the girl he’s mad about is moving to Ireland. He’s fifteen and she’s from a strict Catholic family who don’t approve. He wanted advice on how old he had to be before he could legally move there alone.’
‘Love’s young dream,’ Jack says, his eyes still closed. ‘What did you tell him?’
I look at his too-pale face, the pronounced hollows of his cheeks. He’s never carried any spare weight, and the toll of nearly a week of barely any solid food is apparent.
‘I said that I know how painful it can be letting someone you think you love go, but that I don’t believe there’s only one person in the world for each of us. It’s too fanciful, too limiting. I said he should give it some time and see how he feels, and he’ll probably find that he stops thinking about her so much, because that’s just how it goes, especially when you’re fifteen. I told him that there comes a point where you have to make the choice to be happy, because being sad for too long is exhausting. And that one day, you’ll look back, and you’ll not be able to remember exactly what it was you loved about that person.’
Jack nods, his eyes closed.
‘But I also said that sometimes, rarely, people can come back into your life. And if that happens, you should keep those people close to you for ever.’
I lapse into silence. He’s sleeping. I hope his dreams are good ones.
Fuckers. I chuck my mobile on top of the mess of dirty mugs and food detritus on the coffee table and sink back into the lumpy sofa. The weather can piss right off too, the bloody sun’s right in my eyes. I’d get up and close the curtains if I could be arsed. I can’t though, so I just shut my eyes. I may as well go back to sleep, seeing as I’m now officially unemployed. That’s what happens when you get too cocksure and hand in your notice at your old job before starting your new one, then get blindsided by a bloke who has a stroke at the wheel of his Volvo. At least I’m alive, everyone keeps telling me, look on the bright side, or some other equally trite shit. Where is the bright side of not being able to take up the job you’ve been working towards for your entire bloody career? I went through endless meetings and interviews, had the handshake, all but signed on the dotted line, appointment to be announced in the press within days. My dream contract was in the post for me to sign, and then bang, I’m busted up in a hospital bed and Jonny Fucking Nobody can’t wait to jump into my shoes instead. I’ve fallen between the gaps, and now I’m the nobody, and the way it’s going I won’t even be able to pay my rent in a couple of months’ time. The doctors can’t even tell me if I’ll get my hearing back in my right ear. I don’t think they’ll be queuing round the block to employ a DJ who can’t fucking hear. What happens then? I move in with Sarah and that cow-bag of a woman she works with? That’s not even an option. Cow-bag would be right on to the landlord about illegal subletting; she already begrudges the fact she has to share with one person, and she seems to especially detest me. I’m sure there’s nothing she’d like better than to see me in a cardboard box by the Thames. I don’t think she’d even toss me the money for a cup of tea.
Oh, deep joy, I can hear keys rattling in the front door. I wish to God I’d had the forethought to stay in bed and put the bolt on. Billy’s away at a family wedding somewhere up north, and Phil, a sound technician from my now ex-workplace, is in Goa, which means there’s only one person it can be. Sarah. Sarah, with her ever-present smile and undiluted zeal for life, when all I want to do is plough my way through an out-of-date ready meal and watch the Saturday afternoon football. And I don’t even like football.
‘Jack? I’m back. Where are you?’
‘In here,’ I say, as grouchily as possible. She appears in the doorway, all legs in a pink summer dress, and somewhere in the back of my head I feel ashamed at being slouched on the sofa in three-day-old joggers with curry stains. She’s been down in Exeter or somewhere on an assignment for a couple of days; if I’m honest, I didn’t think she was home until tomorrow. Bloody painkillers have fried my brain. I’d have changed my trousers, at least.