I hate that clock: The stupid thing doesn’t even tock.
Between the thin sheets of my hospital bed, I count the seventy-two ceiling tiles above my head – one for each hour I’ve been stuck in Ward 31. It feels like many more. The room is imprinted on my brain: custard-coloured walls, sticky floor, the smell of industrial cleaning products masking the smell of death, and that infuriating clock above the door. Slow and torturous it plays the soundtrack to my miserable evening, guarding the gateway of this medicinal prison. I’d rather be anywhere else.
Pain creeps across my chest like a panther stalking its prey; the morphine is wearing off. I shut my eyes tight until it passes.
‘Deborah!’ Esme, in bed two, shouts through the silence. ‘Deborah, is that you?’
Esme has dementia and calls for her daughter Deborah throughout the night, every night. According to Norma in bed four, Deborah died in a car accident years ago.
‘Deborah’s gone home,’ Norma replies. ‘Now settle down or you’ll wake the whole ward.’
‘Deborah, is that you?’
‘Yes, it’s me,’ Norma lies. ‘You’ve had a bad dream, now go back to sleep.’
‘Oh, alright then.’ Ward 31 falls back into the clutches of the ticking god.
It’s too dark to read the clock from my bed, but I know it’s 2am because all the shouting, crying and screaming patients in neighbouring wards are performing their deathly orchestra. The nurses call this the disco hour. Above the clamour, I hear Mrs Wilson’s frantic shouting in Ward 32. Norma calls her Lance Corporal Jones, after the character in Dad’s Army, because she always overreacts at the slightest thing. ‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ Norma sings whenever Mrs Wilson starts shouting, which makes me cry with laughter – until Esme orders us to be quiet.
I pull the sheets up to my neck. The heating doesn’t work in this hospital: It’s either too cold for these summer sheets or too warm for the itchy, wool blanket. Risking the itch, I grab the blanket and drape it over me, relishing the warmth. The minutes move with glacial slowness, and as I reach for the water on my beside table I cry out at the agonising stab in my side.
‘You okay, Becky?’ Norma whispers.
‘Yes, I’m fine.’ I try not to cry.
‘Shall I call the nurse?’
‘No, honestly, I’m fine. I just moved too fast.’ I sip my water and breathe slowly. The pain skulks back to its dark hiding place. Waiting. Watching.
I fall into a broken sleep of metronome dreams and cries for Deborah. My eyes open when Anna, the nurse, arrives to check on June in bed three. When I arrived here three days ago the sound of June’s laboured breathing was terrifying, an old truck engine spluttering to life on a cold winter’s day. But now there is silence. Anna hurries out of the room, confirming my fears. ‘Please don’t die’, I plead to the darkness.
An age passes. A troubled silence envelops bed three when Anna returns with the doctor. I haven’t seen this doctor before; his face is miserable. Drawing the curtain around June’s bed, they disappear inside. Their whispered conversation beats in time with the rhythm of the clock; I hold my breath.
‘Is she dead?’ I ask when the doctor appears from behind the curtain. He nods and is gone. I stare at the ceiling tiles once more, tears rolling down my cheeks.
‘She’s with Jesus now,’ Norma says. I envy her unshakeable faith. Norma has tried to convert me these last three days, but only embracing God when faced with death doesn’t seem right.
Anna sits on the edge of my bed and takes my hand. The light from the corridor shines on her auburn curls.
‘Are you okay, Becky?’
‘Yes, thanks,’ I sniffle.
‘June isn’t in pain anymore, sweetie.’ She smiles, wiping my tears with her thumb.
‘I know,’ I say without conviction.
‘Do you need something to help you sleep?’
‘I don’t like the way the tablets make me feel.’
‘I can ask the doctor for some different ones if you like, ones that won’t make you feel so nauseous?’
‘It’s not just the sickness, I don’t want to feel out of it all the time. If that makes sense?’
‘That makes sense,’ Anna says, removing her blue-rimmed glasses to dry her eyes. ‘Your mum tells me it’s your birthday soon. How long until the big day?’
‘Six days,’ I reply with a weak smile. ‘I’ll be twenty-two.’
She beams. ‘That’s something to look forward to when you finally get out of this horrid place.’ Squeezing my hand tight, she leans over and kisses my forehead. ‘Sweet dreams, Becky,’ she whispers as she leaves the room.
For the first time in seventy-two hours peace and quiet descend like soft, white clouds. I sigh and close my eyes, hoping to flee into painless sleep.
‘Deborah!’ Esme bellows, shattering my reverie. I jerk awake, knocking the water jug all over myself and the bed.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ I exclaim as water drips down my face, the sudden movement making me feel sick again.
‘Mind your language!’ Esme fires back. I am stunned into silence.
‘Don’t panic! Don’t panic!’ Norma chuckles, and I giggle despite my discomfort. Resting my head on wet pillows, I smile in the dark.
‘Well if this god of yours is real, Norma,’ I say. ‘it’s certainly got a crappy sense of humour.’
‘Oh He’s real alright, you mark my words,’ she replies. ‘Now get some rest.’
Maybe Norma is right, maybe she isn’t. We’ll all find out sooner or later. But right now all I want to do is sleep. Closing my eyes for the thousandth time tonight, the room as close to quiet as it will ever be, I finally drift into the splendid solitude of slumber, free from the noise and the pain and the monotony and the death and the sadness and the clock. Free from Ward 31.
Tick. For crying out loud, why doesn’t that damn thing tock?
About The Author
David Christopher Johnston is a fiction writer from England. He writes humorous and satirical fiction, ignoring the advice of teachers who told him (all those years ago) ‘joking around won’t get you anywhere in life’. From a working-class background, his stories traverse themes of mental health, class prejudice and the modern workplace. In his spare time he enjoys music, chuckling to his own jokes, and hiking.