Quality Time

SurgeA story by Madeleine D’Arcy, taken from Surge: New Writing from Ireland

If only one of those idiot nurses would turn his television on. All he had to contemplate was the ceiling above him. That dreadful ceiling, with its banal magnolia paint. Supreme blandness, but for a daub in a slightly darker shade right above his bed. An oddly shaped imperfection – the result, he was convinced, of something more sinister – blood from an exploding vein, a leaping spurt of pus, an ejaculation? The reason for the overlay of paint obsessed him daily since he’d found himself stretched out on this hospital bed, helpless and utterly immobile.

The multiple ignominies of the past week made him seethe with impotent fury, but at least the lackeys had not overlooked his Laya GoldPlus health insurance, so he had a private room. His field of vision was limited to the upper part of the door on his left and of the window on the right, that dratted ceiling, the helpless emergency cord dangling like a neglected toy barely visible in the corner of his eye and, thankfully, the television, hanging on its metal limb high up on the far wall.

On duty today was the one he called Nurse Wretched. If only he could speak, he’d have a thing or two to say to that bitch. He detested all the nurses, in fact, except for little Nursie Tinybones, with her soft plump hands and incongruous scent of bubblegum and flowers. And Patchett, the physio, was not a bad sort – at least she provided the only smidgen of bodily ease he’d experienced since that blasted stroke.

If only bloody Nurse Wretched would switch the dratted TV on. The careless cow had also left his door ajar. He could hear the enervating clatter of the underlings outside and smell some disastrous boiled vegetableness floating in the disinfectant air. Even more excruciating was Wretched’s fake-sincere chatter with some female in the corridor outside.

‘So, here he is, and won’t he be delighted to see you, the poor poppet!’ Nurse Wretched squealed as she swung round the door and into the room, hovering over him, showing him off as if he were Exhibit A.
‘Now, look who’s come all the way from London to see her dear old dad!’ she cooed.
If only Wretched would drop dead.

‘Thank you, nurse.’ The other woman’s voice seemed unaccountably familiar, despite the slight English accent.

‘He can’t turn his head, dear.  You’ll have to get in close so he’ll see you.’

A middle-aged woman leaned over him. There was something distinctly recognisable about her.

‘So … this is a Diving Bell and Butterfly scenario, is it?’ asked the woman in her Englishy accent.

‘What?’

‘Am I correct to assume that he knows what’s going on even though he can’t move or speak or … well, do anything?’

‘He can move his eyes, dear, but that’s all. That’s how we know he likes to watch the telly.’

The Englishwoman looked at him, and he rolled both his eyes at her.

There, he thought. See what you make of that, girlie. See what you make of that.

‘And all these tubes?’

‘Well, pet, he can’t breathe properly without them.  We have to feed him intravenously as well.’ Nurse Wretched lowered her voice. ‘He has to wear an incontinence pad down below, of course.’

‘And you don’t know how long this condition will last?’

‘No, dear … well, I’m not allowed to say.  You’ll have to talk to the Consultant.’

‘I understand. Thank you, nurse.’

‘Right, then. I’ll leave you to it.’

Exit Nurse Wretched. The door clunked shut behind her.

The Englishwoman leaned over, so that he could see her face again.

‘Well, well, Dad,’ she said. ‘Long time, no see. It’s me, Trisha.’

Yes, it was his daughter, Trisha. He recognised those bitter little eyes, the bone structure of her face, the still-beautiful hair. She must be almost forty now, he supposed.  Well preserved, all the same. The lovely smooth blonde hair – a shame she wore it shorter now – what was the name of that style? A bob? The outfit was pitiful, somewhat like the clothes that Wifey used to wear. A blue denim jacket over a white blouse. Did they still call them blouses? Cheap dangly earrings. No class. How could she? Wifey had no class either. In the end, he had despised Wifey. Though not as much as she despised him, he supposed. He blinked. I’m still here girlie. See what you make of that.

Trisha looked almost afraid, but she recovered within moments. ‘You’re in there all right, aren’t you? You’re still there, Dad. Not that you deserve to be.’

The colour of his daughter’s hair was darker than he recalled. Ash blonde, was it? In his memory, she was a fairytale child with long golden tresses. From this rancid bedtrap he could still imagine – almost feel – the smooth ripeness of her hair.

‘Trust you to have great health insurance. Just as well, I suppose.  You’re going to be here for a long time.’ She walked around the bed, and from the other side she leaned over again to peer into his face.

‘Can you hear me?’ she asked, loudly. She looked into his eyes. ‘You’re in there all right, you bastard.  Yes, it’s me, your daughter. Let’s spend some quality time together, shall we?’ She straightened up and walked back around the bed. She sat down in the chair. He could barely see her now, but he could smell a faint lemony perfume.

‘Hilarious that you can’t talk,’ she said, in a hard voice. ‘You used to have plenty to say, didn’t you? Hardly ever stopped ranting at Mum and upsetting her.  When you were in the house, the only time we had peace was when you read to me. But the books you chose – I couldn’t understand half of them. Remember Don Quixote? Tilting at windmills. I had no idea what it was all about. I was probably only four then. I just listened. I’d do anything to keep you in a good mood.’

He remembered, quite suddenly and clearly, the cover of that book: a daft old man on a horse, wearing yellow armour, and little Sancho Panza, his underling, bound to obey a lunatic who was out of control. The tale had amused him once.

‘I remember the way you brushed my hair and counted. Forty slow brushstrokes on each section, and then you’d … oh God …’ She put her head in her hands.

He thought she might be crying.  What the heck was she fussing about?

‘I wish Mum could see you now – the state of you – but she can’t. She’s dead. She died two years ago. Did you know that? I didn’t bother letting you know. If only she had had your medical insurance – but the NHS wasn’t too bad.’ She wiped her eyes.

He heard the door open. Nurse Minnie Mouse squeaked in, all pert and businessy as usual.

‘Just got to do his bloods,’ she chirped.

How he hated them all.

At his side he felt, rather than saw, Trisha rising from the chair.

‘No need to move,’ Nurse Minnie Mouse said. ‘You can stay if you like. So long as you’re not squeamish.’

‘No, I’m not a bit squeamish. Thank you, nurse.’

He felt her sit down again, a small flow of air and that lemon fragrance, with a hint of flowers, perhaps lilies.

‘You’re the daughter, aren’t you? Call me Barbara,’ Mousey said cheerfully, as she jabbed a needle most painfully into the flesh of his upper arm. How he longed to roar at that despicable woman. All her persnickety tidiness and yet she was clueless about the most basic of tasks. That small rodent face of hers was asking to be hit.

‘I hear you only just arrived from London,’ said Mousey to his daughter. ‘You must be exhausted. I could bring you a cup of tea, if you like?’

‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m fine, thanks.’

‘So, whereabouts in London do you live?’

He wished Mousey would quit sticking her nosy little nose in. He hated her even more than Nurse Wretched now.

‘Muswell Hill.’

‘That’s North London, isn’t it? I used to live in Clapham once upon a time.’

‘I lived there too, for a while, when I was ten. Then my mother met my stepfather, so we moved to North London when I was twelve.’

From his stodgy static bed he felt intensely vexed. So Wifey had met someone else, the bitch? Surely it couldn’t have lasted.

‘And do you come back to Ireland very often?’

‘Not really,’ said Trisha.

‘Well, at least you’re here now, that’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ Nurse Minnie Mouse squeaked.
He could not see what the nurse was doing, but he could hear her fannying about beside him, probably fixing adhesive labels on the vials of his still-warm blood.

‘Yes,’ said his daughter, absently.

The nurse fumbled at the bottom of the bed. She wrote on a chart with a blue biro before returning the pen to her breast pocket and replacing the chart.

‘All done for now,’ she said. ‘I’ll leave you in peace.’ Exit Nurse Minnie Mouse with a see-through envelope containing his blood.

As soon as the door closed, Trisha spoke again. ‘She’s left us in peace, Dad,’ she said. ‘Pity you never left us in peace.’ She stood up and began to pace. ‘Mum was never right afterwards, you know. She tried. God help her, she tried. But she always went for the wrong men.’

Wifey was an idiot. That had become obvious over time. He could not conceive now of any possible reason why he had ever married Wifey, but it was hardly his fault she was an idiot.

‘Mum was so naive,’ his daugher continued. ‘Of course, people didn’t talk about things in those days.’ There she was again, at the side of the bed. She leaned over and stared into his eyes. ‘Can you hear me? Yes, you can, can’t you? So, let’s see, how many years is it since we had some quality time together? Thirty, maybe? Can you cast your mind back?’

How sarcastic she was, the little bitch.

‘Of course, Mum should have faced up to things, but she didn’t.  You got off scot-free.  You probably went on doing the same kind of thing all your life. Men like you, they don’t stop, do they?’
A phone rang out, a cheerful cha cha cha tone.

‘Hang on.’ She reached down, and he could hear a zip being unzipped, some fumbling sounds. She stood up and plonked her handbag on the bed. ‘Yes, that’s fine. I’ll be there,’ she said, into one of those new-fangled phones, before replacing it in the bag. She took out a handkerchief and blew her nose, before continuing. ‘Poor Mum. I blamed her for a long time, you know. She was so naive. In spite of those enormous blue eyes she couldn’t see what was going on under her nose.’

She got up again and began to pace up and down. ‘I wanted to tell her for so long, but you wouldn’t let me.  You said I could never tell.  You used to stroke my hair. Remember? You washed my hair too. That was one of your jobs. Then you’d plait it.’

Ah, yes, he had loved every hair on her little urchin head. He used to brush it for hours and smooth it into two beautiful princess-like ponytails or plait it in various delightful ways. He could almost feel the sap rising now. How delicious it was when her little friends began to ask him to arrange their hair too, to fix it in pretty plaits like hers. Perhaps he should have been a hairdresser. In his day, only women did that job. It was a sissy job, though, and he was certainly never a sissy.
‘My friends all wanted plaits like mine. Mary Kate came to our house, one day, to play.  You came home early from work, remember? Mum said, “Great, you’re back early. I’ll just pop out to the butcher’s.” You plaited Mary Kate’s hair, and then she went home, and then you took down my hair and brushed it straight, and you said my hair was the prettiest and that you loved me more than you loved anyone and that we had to be nice to each other.  You said it was our secret.  You’d have to cut my beautiful hair off if I told, and I’d have no hair left, and I’d be ugly, and I’d look like a boy, and that would be horrible.’

She sounded almost out of breath as she paced around the room. He couldn’t see much of her, but he could feel a minuscule flow of air as she moved back and forth somewhere near the foot of his bed. Maybe she was waving her arms. A windmill daughter. Or maybe a Don Quixote daughter, tilting uselessly at windmills. Once upon a time, she had sat on his knee while he read that book aloud. She was too young to understand the story, but he read it to her anyway.

‘The shock of it. I can’t describe it. Seeing my friend, Mary Kate, with her hair shorn. Stubby little haircut, like a boy’s. The look on her face. “I’m never going to your house again,” she said. “I can’t be your friend any more.” I knew it was your fault, but I said nothing.  You cut my hair off anyway, in the end.’

He remembered that little spoilsport, Mary Kate, who had told her mother about the fun they’d had. The little brat. She had had the most delicious chestnut hair. She told her story once, but she refused to tell it again, because he’d warned her, you see. Hair first, neck next, he’d whispered in her tiny ear. Ah, the overwhelming pleasure of that thick rope of hair shifting in his hand. Oh, the sheer joy of the blades working through the sheaf of chestnut brown. No choice but to do it once again, with his own, the blonde.

‘What did you do to her? What other awful things did you do?’ She leaned over him and stared right into his eyes. ‘How could you live with yourself? I can hardly live with myself, and I did nothing wrong.  You bastard.’

She moved out of his view again and paced while she spoke. ‘You know what, I was jealous. Can you believe it? You always said you loved me the most, and then I found out you were doing the same things with Mary Kate. Crazy, isn’t it? But that’s the way it was.’

She stopped and faced the window. Her smooth blonde hair touched the collar of her blue denim jacket. Shame it was so short now. ‘We were lucky.  We got help in London,’ she told the window. ‘A great charity. I still donate. Only for that place we’d have been on the streets. The thing is, I’ve had therapy since then – loads of therapy – but I can’t get over it.’ She paused and took a deep breath. ‘I still feel guilty,’ she continued. ‘We just ran away.  We left you there to do as you pleased. That didn’t solve anything. For men like you, there’s only one solution.’

He heard her unzip her bag again. There was a metallic swishing sound. ‘See what I have?’ she said, towering over him now with a large chrome scissors in her hand. ‘Chop chop.’ She snipped the scissors open, closed, open, closed, right in front of his face.

‘How do you like this?’ she said. ‘All these tubes. I could snip them all.’

Finally, he was afraid. It would be a painful death. Such hatred in her eyes. As usual, no Wretched Nursie, no Minnie Mousey Nursie, no little Nursie Tinybones. Like buses, there was not a single bloody nursie around when you needed one.

He felt cold air on his lower body. She had raised the bedclothes. He could only imagine the pathetic sight: his bare old legs, the hospital nightdress, the bulge of his hospital diapers underneath. His warm urine flowed along a catheter, and there was an itch somewhere on his left foot that he would never be able to scratch.

‘I think I’ll take your nappy off and give you a snip,’ she said. ‘I could do a right job on you, couldn’t I? I could snip, snip, snip your dirty great thing right off.’

He felt the bedclothes being replaced carefully.

‘Hmm,’ she said and leaned over. She snipped the scissors several times, efficiently, in front of his face. Then she stopped and looked straight into his eyes. ‘Not today,’ she sighed. ‘I can’t be bothered today. Snip snip. I’ll take my time about it. See you tomorrow.’

She picked up her handbag and held it high, so he could see her place the scissors carefully inside. ‘Toodle-pip and toodle-oo,’ she called, as she left the room.

Damn it, he thought, his heart racing. He had once accused Wifey of having a fancy man. He’d even tried to slap the truth out of her. He’d been certain the child was not his own. Now, he realised he had been wrong. This girl was flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. The same feisty spirit. That zest for danger. The delicious tension. The tantalising feeling that a nurse could walk in on them at any moment.  What a cunning little vixen. He was almost looking forward to her next visit.

But now the television was blank. That blasted Nurse Wretched. He wished she’d hurry up and turn it on.

Madeleine D’Arcy worked as a criminal legal-aid solicitor and as a legal editor in London before returning to Cork in 1999 with her husband and son. She began to write short stories in 2005. In 2010, she received a Hennessy X.O. Literary Award for First Fiction as well as the overall Hennessy X.O. Literary Award for New Irish Writer. Madeleine’s story ‘Dog Pound’ has been made into a short film, starring Frank Kelly. Her short-story collection, Waiting for the Bullet, was published by Doire Press in April 2014. She is a student on the inaugural master’s degree in creative writing at UCC.