Every day I go to get off at the wrong floor. I keep forgetting. She’s in rehab now. They’ve given her six weeks in here, to assess progress, testing all the reflexes and how hard her hands can squeeze. After that, well, we’ll have to see, they say. They mean moving her to a permanent residential facility. Those are the actual words they use; they are good at jargon, of course; that is their job.
‘I think your reaction is a little emotive and inappropriate,’ they say; or, ‘We’re trying to find the most constructive way forward for patient recovery.’ I sit next to Beth’s bed and think up jargon for her, whispering.
‘Would you care to listen to your mobile melodygenerating headset device?’ I say, holding her Walkman near her ear, watching her eyes.
‘Can you indicate if you would like a drink from your cold-beverage receptacle?’ I persist, although of course she cannot sip and swallow, liquids trickle into her body via a tube. Watching her mouth for some flicker of a smile, of recognition. Some days her eyes are open, sometimes not. It is inappropriate, they tell me, to use the term ‘awake’ on the occasions she opens her eyes. Some other brain activity is occurring. There is no fevered one-blink-for-yes-twoblinks-for-no or finger-jabbing at letters on a newspaper page. There is nothing but this.
I talk, talk, talk. On bad days I believe them, because if she were sentient those eyes would be flashing out messages like a lighthouse: SOS. Shipwreck. There would not be this slow breathing, but tears of frustration, the hand she can move would flail the air, grab for something. Instead she is like a body relieved of its burden of energy, suspended. All seven patients in this room lie like islands, and whatever is shifting is deep under the surface. I check her charts, see what they’ve been subjecting her to in rehab — needles in the feet and hands, maybe, flashlight in the eyes. I don’t know. ‘Nil by mouth’ is what it says, which is the truth. Nothing going in. Nothing coming out.
That first day in intensive care when I’d arrived, one of the staff had asked if I was next-of-kin and I’d taken a shuddering breath and craned over her shoulder where I could see Beth’s bag and shoes next to the bed and her head inconceivably, impossibly, angled into that brace. They had her shopping bag there, everything in it intact. And jammed in the top, a bunch of flowers she’d been holding when the taxi hit her. They’d been six hours out of water and looking at them I glimpsed things as they would be from now on. The diodes pinching, monitoring, and the new glittery, chromium, machine-fed rules of helplessness. And my mouth waited to set this horror in motion, and I opened it and said: sister, yes, her sister. I would have said anything. I get here around 8.30 a.m. Link fingers in Beth’s, tell her about my trip down, the news I’d heard on the radio, anything. Such luxuriant amounts of time in this room; it stretches and balloons like molten glass. Each day, stepping blindly out of chaos. I have left my catering business in an uproar, gathered up the mail and dumped it in the top drawer, ignored the calls waiting on the answering machine.
Usually at this time of the morning I am selecting asparagus or stuffing capsicums, faxing the client to check how many vegetarians I should expect. We stack the random CD player and the industrial kitchen starts pumping. Nowadays it pumps in an entirely different way, like an artery losing blood, with my friend David the chef trying to instruct the two trainees from the employment service to hold things together, the three of them hapless as failing tourniquets. My business has fading vital signs; it is anaemic with lost clientele and drastically slipped standards. I, the chief surgeon, am standing gravely by, stripping off my rubber gloves.
When I press the stored number in the mobile phone the auto-dial sounds like the manic music before a cartoon. David and the trainees never answer. My own voice on the voicemail greets me, cheery as a head waiter covering up the bedlam behind the swinging doors. I try again, holding the handset against my sweater so I don’t have to hear that inane little loony tunes series of chirps. On with the show, this is it.
It was how I met Beth, actually, through catering. A university function, in the days when you couldn’t move in the food business without falling over a tray of sushi. Moroccan lamb was what I served that day, rice with preserved lemons, semolina cake. Big, satisfying carbohydrates. I’d left the faculty conference and wandered past a lecture theatre. She was up on the podium, reading poetry. To a roomful of restless undergraduates, who were doodling on their handouts and eyeing the clock. I stood there leaning against the door, thinking that the Dean could serve his own cake.
‘Look over here,’ says the physio, and she snaps her fingers, watching Beth’s eyes, which are gazing up at the ceiling. A ponderous, slow-motion blink. I will the eyes to turn to meet the physio’s snapping, to have them snap back angrily, absolutely alert. I imagine Beth saying, Yes, what? in that impatient way she has when she is focused on something else, imagine the physio staggering backwards in shock. Another blink, a kind of sigh. I bend my head near.
Sometimes Beth’s mouth forms a meandering string of vowels, slippery as water in a creek, the consonants that would make them words buried in that sleeping tongue. The first time it had happened was after a big mob of friends came in, back in the other room, and we’d all stood joking around her bed, behaving as if we were all standing round at a party but that Beth was engaged in some obscure performance piece of her own secret devising. We needed to out-act her. We brushed her hair and burned aromatherapy oils and turned her hands over in our own, and when visiting hours were finished and they had left, Beth spoke, very softly, and from far away, the clotted remnants of two words: no more.
Now the physio goes back to folding her arms as I bend to Beth’s cheek and hear the breathy vowel, deadened, exhaled. Is it no? Or is it go?
‘She’s not talking,’ says the physio. ‘Please don’t get your hopes up.’ Tell that bitch to go, maybe. That’s what I hope.
‘They’re not romantic poets,’ Beth said to me as we sat at my place on that first night and demolished the remains of the cake. ‘They’re the metaphysical poets. It was the golden age of the English Renaissance.’ She laced those long fingers together, those hands that looked like they could pluck birds out of the air. ‘Donne’s the one. Body and spirit.’ She had cake crumbs on her lower lip, and as she spoke it struck me that I’d been married to my ex for seven years and would never have waited like this, perfectly content, to see whether he would lick them off. ‘Headfirst into the riddle of intellect and love,’ she was saying, and then she paused, and grinned at me. ‘Great cake,’ she added. I reached over and brushed off the crumbs. I’d known her seven hours. And the ghostly, amazed remnant apparition of me who had been standing in the corner of the kitchen monitoring all this, aghast, turned around and walked out and I never heard from her again. It was as easy as that. I’m looking at those lips now, a thin line like a curve you would cut into pastry.
I wonder, by my troth, she had recited in that lecture, what thou and I Did, till we loved? Were we not wean’d till then? But suck’d on country pleasures, childishly? Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
I watch her face, talking. Her voluptuous thighs have become thin under the sheet, her hipbones protrude. Her food bag looks filled with puree of vegetables, something you sieve into a baby’s mouth out of a can. The tube they have inserted into her to receive this nourishment disappears under the sheet. ‘Careful, careful of all those tubes,’ the nurses are forever warning me, as if I’m going to lunge on her, crawl into bed beside her. Fit my body alongside hers there in the white envelope bed and by osmosis absorb her through my skin — Beth, my food and drink. For now I hold only her hand, feeling faint spasms ripple through it like a fish nibbling on a line, those fingers always seeming on the verge of gesture.
I could pick her up now and carry her, away from the baby food and the other six patients, slumbering on, out of this hermetic den. The door would resist, then the airlock would surrender, letting oxygen in. I sit and feel the spell overtake me, my head jerking backwards, awake and stricken. ‘You should go home,’ says a nurse, carrying bedding in. ‘You need ...’ She is going to say some sleep, but under the circumstances, amends it to rest.