I'd like to share a sad little story with you.
If you like it, you can find more in Splintered Door.
It was my first day on the ward, and I’d never seen anything like it. All of my training could not have prepared me for this. It was like something from a horror movie.
Men and women lay in lines down separate sides of the room. Men to the right, women to the left. It was difficult to distinguish, though. Both sexes looked alike in their suffering. Alopecia stripped many of the women of their hair. Others had plucked it out, strand by strand. Many of the men were balding, and even the young ones were turning grey.
Deep lines furrowed their faces. Not one of them looked at me as I passed, their eyes glassy and despondent.
“Where would you like to start?” A blonde nurse appeared at my elbow.
I fished my stethoscope from my pocket and tried to bide time, draping it around my neck.
“I don’t know-”
“Nurse Vergessen. With the most urgent case?”
“They are all urgent, Doctor.”
Yes, I could see that. Each one of these men and women were wasting away before my very eyes. I began to fasten my white coat. Another distraction whilst struggling to arrive at a decisive action.
“I suggest,” she said with due deference, “that you begin at the far end and work your way down.”
“Thank you, Vergessen. An inspired proposal.”
She smiled at that, and I realised that she was actually rather pretty.
We began to walk down the centre of the room, flanked on either side by these foundering pieces of flesh. One woman sat upright in her bed. She reached out to me, yet she wasn’t reaching for me. Her expression told me that she was seeing something far beyond my mortal form. Past my shoulder, through the wall – a lifetime away.
It sent a shiver down my spine. I stopped for a moment until Vergessen touched my arm and prompted me to continue.
“They do that occasionally,” she whispered.
When we reached the far end of the row, I faltered once again.
“The women or the men first?”
“Chivalry dictates the fairer sex.”
“Yes. I suppose it does.”
I took the stethoscope from around my neck and pulled up a stool beside the first woman. It was difficult to look her in the face. She had probably never been beautiful, though even plain was a vast improvement on what this illness had done to her since. Her cheeks were concave, the bone of her skull pressing through paper-thin skin. A network of blue veins webbed her temples, and I found myself wondering what colour her hair had been when she had any.
I lifted her wrist to take her pulse with my finger, and noticed the scarring. Thick red welts crossed her skin from beneath the elbow to her Bracelets of Destiny. Lines both horizontal and vertical.
“Probably a razor,” Vergessen explained.
I avoided touching the wound, though well healed. It felt as though touching it might touch a part of her soul that I had no desire to look into.
“Right, well.” I separated the first few buttons on her nightgown, and pressed the bell of my stethoscope inside. Listening for a few moments, I concluded that – although shallow – her breathing was normal enough and required no critical attention. As I stood and turned away, I noted a single tear sliding down the side of her cheek.
“Why do they do that?” I asked.
“Why do they just stare upwards, with their eyes open? Can’t we do something about that? Tape them shut or something?”
“You’ll get used to it. After a while you won’t even notice.”
I doubted that very much.
“Have you been vaccinated?” she asked.
“It’s only effective in fifty-six per cent of cases, you know. Hardly seems worth it.”
“Any protection is better than none. Shall we continue?”
She blushed apologetically. I was in no mood to highlight the risk I was putting myself at. We had been warned about all of the dangers before leaving med school. I knew the signs to watch for. The rest was up to Fate.
On the opposite side of the room was an elderly man, recently admitted. There was still flesh on his bones, and no signs of the self-harm present in many of the younger patients. His breath came in tight hiccups as he clenched a crucifix to his stomach, turning his knuckles white.
“We should probably remove that, before it cuts into his hand,” I said.
“Good luck there.”
“Can we get one of the orderlies to do it?”
She took the man’s medical notes from the end of the bed and wrote on it with her pencil.
“I’ll bring it to the attention of someone,” she said.
As she leant down to replace the clipboard, I happened to notice the graceful curve of her inner wrist. Annoyed at myself, I returned to the elderly gentleman.
“Mr. Agées,” I prompted. “Mr. Agées, can you hear me?”
It was clear that he could not.
“How long has he been this way?”
“He arrived Wednesday.”
With a heavy heart, I had to admit: “He isn’t going to make it.”
She nodded and we moved on to the next female patient, zigzagging our way down the room, alternating between men and women.
By the time I had finished my round, I felt as though somebody had filled my suit with lead. “None of them are going to make it, are they?”
She bit her bottom lip, nervously.
“It happens sometimes,” she said. “Every now and then a miracle comes along.”
“Yes. I remember the last one. Olivia, her name was. She was here four years. We almost lost her twice. Then, one day, she simply started eating again. Ravenously. As though she had been starved her entire life. After a month she regained her colour and checked herself out.”
“After only one month?”
“Yes, very quick. That seems to be the case. Once a patient makes the decision to survive, it is a rapid transformation. But very few ever do so.”
I contemplated this. It was a constant wonder: the power of the human mind, both to harm and to heal.
I hung up my coat and my stethoscope by the door. As we walked down the corridor outside, I caught her eye. Passing the store cupboard, I checked both directions and then pulled her in with me.
“You’re beautiful,” I breathed, as I pressed her against the corner.
Her arms splayed to either side, gripping the wall with painted red nails.
“We mustn’t,” she panted, as I began to lift up her skirt. “The risk of infection – it’s too high.”
“We only live once.”
She clasped my shoulders and parted her legs.
We emerged, rearranging our ruffled clothing. We had both needed the release. You can’t work in such an intense environment, day-in day-out, without recreational recharge. Some turn to alcohol, others to hard drugs. Me, I just like sex.
The next day was terrible. We had a crash-and-burn case. A young woman, only eighteen, was rushed in after her paramour ran off with her best friend. We had to restrain her in the bed. She kept screaming: “Let me die, just let me die!”
“Fuck,” I said, leaning over to check her pupil dilation. “Two grains of Heartache and one of Melodrama – STAT!”
Nurse Vergessen had administered it even before I had finished giving the order. The woman fell back against her pillow with a shrivelled whimper.
“That should stabilise her, but it won’t be enough. What else do we have?”
“We could try half a milligram of Lost Wishes?”
I considered this, then nodded my agreement. “Sure. It’s worth a shot.”
It had been a shock to see someone in such immediate distress. It never usually happened like that. Normally, lovesickness was an insipid little disease that wasted away at a person’s neurological welfare over months and even years, replacing their blood with Want, and sapping their self-esteem. Such a violent strain of the disorder was an anomaly. She must have loved him very much indeed.
By late afternoon the elderly gentleman with the crucifix had stopped trembling and turned to stone in his bed. He was approaching the end rapidly. Wherever his wife had gone, he was about to join her, through sheer obstinate will.
It was a pitiful place to earn a living. By the time people ended up under our care, they were usually so sick with love that there was nothing could be done for them. The symptoms had come on gradually. Almost imperceptibly:
Lack of appetite.
Lack of sleep.
Inability to make eye contact.
Inability to string a coherent sentence together.
Shortness of breath.
Blushes like burns.
None of which were dangerous in themselves. Not unless an antidote failed to be administered. Like any disease, it required a trigger – that trigger was rejection. Or, in the case of the old man and the girl – loss.
Once they accepted that the antidote was completely unobtainable, the symptoms progressed:
Constant weeping from the eyes.
Loss of speech.
Sooner or later it would render them incapable of functioning in civilised society. They were referred here and, ninety-nine per cent of the time, it was up to us to nurse them to the end.
A tragic waste of life.
I peeled off my gloves and threw them at the medical waste bin. Rubbing a tired hand across my brow, I opened the door and made my way down the corridor towards the staff changing rooms. As I passed the store cupboard, it opened and a manicured hand reached out to pull me in by my collar.
“Thought you could use a little light relief,” Nurse Vergessen smiled.
“What a day.”
“Shhh,” she said, pressing her finger to my lips. “Don’t think about it.”
“Say, what is your name, anyway? Your real name?”
“Immer. Immer Vergessen.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
When I returned to the overhead hum of strip lighting, I had to squint against it. I enjoyed working in medicine. I enjoyed the success stories – being at the cutting edge of life and death. But the smell of detergent, and the bright whiteness of everything, I could do without.
The next few weeks passed in a blur of bed rounds and burials. It did become easier. You don’t want to believe that. You want to believe that every person’s life is worth something. That all men, and women, are equal in importance. But they’re not. It’s not that some matter and some don’t. But the ones that are important to you, are the ones you know. Every day new faces arrived and old ones left. You never spoke to them, you barely even registered. When they looked at you, they either looked through you or saw someone else. Their eventual passing ceased to disturb me in the way that it had during my first few days. It almost seemed like a natural conclusion to their existence. An organic ‘rightness’ that they should close their eyes and move no more. I was there to farm the dead.
There was one girl that did hold my attention, however. Her name was, or had been – I’m never sure whether ghosts can carry names – Dolore.
Dolore was in her early twenties. She had fallen for her father’s best friend, who had been married. He had flirted with Dolore and led her to believe that he might leave his wife for her. Then, just as cruelly, he took his family away to live in another country. Dolore’s symptoms progressed rapidly after that, yet the disease had not stripped her of all her beauty. Unlike the frail and contorted shapes in the beds next to her, Dolore retained a youthful glow. Her skin remained smooth and her lips rose-petal pink against her pale skin. She looked almost like a marble carving from the great churches of Europe. Perhaps a fair lady, taken prematurely.
Each day, before turning in my stethoscope, I would sit and take Dolore’s blood pressure, counting the beat of her pulse beneath my fingers. It fluttered like a falling leaf.
The day that she expired, something in me recoiled at the work I was doing. This seemed wrong. I was in the wrong profession. What was I doing here, overseeing a mortuary, when I could have gone into research? Tried to find a way to prevent people becoming lovesick in the first place? That would have been the way to make my mark. To forge a name in the world.
On the shifts Nurse Vergessen and I worked together, we almost always ended up in the store cupboard. She smelled of honey. Thick, sticky honey. On the afternoon that Dolore passed away, I was particularly rough with her. She almost protested, but I eased off a little before she had to. I don’t know why I acted like that. It was against my nature.
“Hey, look at me,” she said, lifting my chin with her finger. “What’s gotten into you?”
“I feel fine.”
She frowned at me and reached down to adjust her skirt.
That night I hardly slept. Dolore’s silent features floated to the surface of my mind like the raising of the Mary Rose. What had her life been like, I wondered. What had she taken pleasure in before she came of age to love? Had she had a happy childhood? Had she had friends? Had she known true pleasure – the type you find in chocolate and merry-go-rounds? The type that is yours entirely, and requires no other person. Any pleasure generated between two people has the potential to falter beneath the imperfections of both.
True pleasure is an experience of the singular self.
Had Dolore known this?
I found myself wondering about the man who had caused her downfall. I doubted that he had ever known what a precious creature he had attracted. Like a lacewing to the deadly Sundew. One sip of its nectar and the fragile insect is swallowed whole. Was it worth it – that single sip?
By the time my alarm signalled the start of my shift, I felt drained. I quenched my thirst with a glass of cold water and then went to work.
We lost a further two patients that day. I administered ridiculous quantities of Hope, Acceptance and Forgiveness, but none of it seemed to make any difference.
I paused by the cupboard door, pretending to adjust my socks. When Nurse Vergessen appeared, she went to walk past me.
“Wait,” I said, reaching for her.
“I have something to do today, Doctor,” she said, avoiding my eyes.
“Please. I really need this.”
She hesitated for a moment. Looking to check that the corridor was clear, she accompanied me inside.
“I’ll be quick,” I promised.
But something was wrong. As I grunted my last, I found my face pressed to her neck. I couldn’t bring myself to pull away.
“I really must go,” she whispered, trying gently to wriggle out from beneath me.
“Please. Just stay a while. Just a little while.”
“No, Doctor.” Her voice sounded harsh. “You need to let me go.”
I clutched her hair in my hand and brought myself to look into her eyes.
“Oh dear,” she said, a look of concern crossing her face.
“I think you should book an appointment with Doctor Harding.”
“Why? What do you mean?”
“Have you been sleeping?”
“You don’t look well.”
“What are you implying?”
“The vaccination. I don’t think it’s worked.”
“I’ll get a booster.”
“It may be too late for that.”
She was right. I knew she was. Yet it still hurt to hear it.
I couldn’t help it. Dolore had gotten to me. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Of all of my charges, she had been the only one I could not forget. The only one that I would have given up my profession to save. I would have swapped places with her if I could have. If only to see her open those pretty eyes and look at me once with recognition. I would have kissed the pain out of her, sucked the viper’s venom from her soul.
Like a wild flower, she had blown free in the gale. Left her wilting flesh for a world far beyond ours. A place where I could never reach her.
She had left me.
It cut to the very core.
My colleague, Doctor Harding, looked deeply sympathetic, but he didn’t pull his prognosis. You can’t when you’re speaking doctor to doctor. There are no secrets to go unsaid. You both know the score.
I was admitted to a private ward. Given a bed with a television of my own. There was never anything on. At least, nothing I felt able to focus upon.
Nurse Vergessen came to visit me once. She brought grapes and a copy of that week’s paper. I could tell by the way she said ‘goodbye’ that I would never see her again. It was a relief of sorts. I felt like a failure, even though it had never been my intention to become lovesick. I had followed most of the rules. I’d been as sensible as anyone else. I just couldn’t have predicted such a simple twinge of humanity opening up into a gaping, infected wound.
It didn’t take long for emotional septicaemia to set in. I found I couldn’t eat, I’d start crying for no apparent reason – other than the fact my heart was rent in two. I found myself biting the back of my hand to stop my own sobs. Harding never said it, but I knew he was chalking it up as ‘self harm’.
All the time, the only thought in my mind was Dolore. How our worlds had been separated by time. Had we only been born in the same neighbourhood, the same decade… I could have saved her all this. She would have loved me, and I would have loved her, and none of this would ever have come to pass.