SHORT STORY CONTEST
BONES, BURNS & BEDPANS
by Saffron Marchant
THE YEAR IS 1965. Early morning. At a table in a restaurant in a hospital, on the wintry outskirts of London, a young woman sits with a pen in her hand. She stares absently at a coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II that hangs upon the wall. A radio behind the food counter plays the new Rolling Stones song, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.’ The air is heavy with the smoke from cigarettes and the smell of fried bacon, undercut with antiseptic. The seated woman is my mother, Gretta Cummins, or how I imagine my mother was, back when she was a student nurse aged twenty-one.
It is the pocket of time before the start of Mum’s shift on the Accident and Emergency Ward, or Casualty, as it was known back then. She’s swigging tea and writing a letter to her own mother at home in Ireland. Mum’s red hair, clipped close to her skull but still unruly, curls out from beneath her stiff white cap. Her uniform is the purple striped dress of the not-yet qualified, a starched white apron, starched white cuffs, waist nipped in by a purple nylon belt. I can see Mum so clearly in my mind’s eye, that I can watch her pale, freckled hand as it moves across the page. The Supervising Sister likes us starched to within an inch of our lives, my mother writes. Every time she’s lost for a word, Mum stares up at the Queen, who’s all crown and ermine, with a scepter that could take your eye out. My mother pats the bare nape of her neck. She can’t help but notice that she has the same hairstyle as this monarch, and she’s not sure how she feels about that, so she returns to her letter. I won a nursing award, Mam, she writes. The Rolling Stones continue to wail on the radio, the voices tinny, the drums small. Mum puts down her pen and sighs. She’s got the song stuck now, it’s trapped in her head like a bird in a chimney; she will hum it all day.
Mum doesn’t know this yet, for how could she, but today is an important one, perhaps the most significant of her life so far. She expects the day ahead of her to be an ordinary one of broken bones and burns and blood. Temperature, pulse and blood pressure. The swoosh-swoosh-swoosh of cubicle curtains pulled back and forth, the busy squeak of shoes upon the linoleum floor, the groans and the cries of the patients. A day of bandaging and stitching and injecting, of catheters and bed-pans and more pulse-taking. Monitoring, watching, observing and reassuring: There, there, my dear. Rows of watchful wounded on the plastic seats in the waiting room. Ambulance men pushing gurneys as they shout out the stories: Fell off a roof or Hit by a bus or Just didn’t wake up this morning. The matters of blood: taking, stemming, transfusing.
A day spent listening to hearts.
But today, there will be all of this and more.
Today is the day when my mother meets my father for the first time.
Here’s my dad, Johnny Street, in 1965. London-born, aged thirty-one, with a shock of dark hair, blue eyes, horn-rimmed glasses, six feet tall. I imagine him standing beside a large wooden bench, in the back room of a shop, a few miles from my mum’s hospital. He’s rolled out a sheet of material across this new cutting table. A child in the War and a National Serviceman as a teenager, my dad grew up with the Blitz and the army in his voice and his memories—Doodlebugs and air raid sirens and blown-to-smithereens—East London’s in his vowels and his glottal stops—gawdin-bennet and oh-my-giddy-aunt and you-got-to-be-‘avin’-a-laugh. But now look at my father. He’s packed in his job as a sausage salesman, sold his car, rented a shop. He wants to be a self-made man. The sky’s the limit, announces my father to the empty room. The radio introduces a new song by the Rolling Stones. I can’t get no what? Johnny asks the dust motes and rolls of material. Bloody hell, Johnny, concentrate, he admonishes himself. Dad stares across the cutting table again.
In the future, whenever they hear ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,’ my parents will barrel back through time, to when she was a student-nurse and he’d just set up shop as a cushion-maker. Throughout the 1980s, if they are in their car when the opening guitar riff comes on the radio, they will both reach for the volume knob and blast their three children on the back seat with sound. Their eldest child—me—a teenager with a terrible perm, will roll her eyes. My younger sister and baby brother will bounce around the back seat, my parents will rhythmically nod their heads. I will stare stoically out of the car window and sing my own version of the song ‘(My Family Is) So Embarrassing.’
But that family in that car is years away. Right now, my mum hasn’t even met my dad. Right now, it is just before nine o’clock in the morning, a day in 1965. Here’s my mother, in the staff restaurant of Oldchurch Hospital, a few minutes before the start of her shift. A cup of tea is cooling on the table in front of her, the Queen in her furs and glitter is upon the wall. When Mum first arrived in England, she was half-demented with homesickness. She’d had no choice but to leave home; everyone was going—America, Australia, Argentina—there were no jobs in Ireland—South Africa, New Zealand, Hong Kong. Mum had chosen a teaching hospital in London, but the city was so concrete and grey, the people unfriendly. Gretta found that she yearned for her hometown and the sight of the sea, that distant blue strip of the Atlantic. She pined for her mother, sent home a tumble of letters. It’s grand here, she wrote, even when it wasn’t. She remembered how the tea in the hospital restaurant tasted different, that she’d sworn she would never get used to the taste of milk from a tin. She was a farmer’s daughter, only ever had milk from the cow. Gretta thinks that when she first started studying to be a nurse, back in 1963, she was in the before of her life. Before she could stitch or suture. Before she’d seen a dead body, let alone dressed one. Before she’d known the balm of the newborns on the Obstetrics Ward, that when you sit in the nursery and bottle-feed a baby, your own troubles get smaller.
She’d cut off her waist length hair and wore one of her two new jumpers on the boat across the Irish Sea from Rosslare in Ireland to Fishguard in Wales. The jumper was awful itchy, tight as a ligature around her neck. She vomited throughout the night, leaning out of her bottom bunk with her head over a bucket provided for this purpose, as the gunmetal sea heaved against the porthole. Mum can see herself, with all the other student nurses, a mere two years ago, on the first day in the hospital. They were all sent by the Supervising Sister, to take a tea-break in this restaurant. She remembers sitting at this very table and listening to the other girls, their first day nerves, their high voices spilling over and into each other, each one of them pink of cheek and damp of armpit, the Hospital being so deadly hot. They all doggedly ignored one of the other girls at the table, who was sobbing enough to produce great strings of snot.
Where d’ye come from? Where ya from?
Hey, I’ve got an aunt in Kilkenny, my pop’s side.
Gretta kept forgetting that she’d cut off her hair. Sligo. Galway. Derry. She kept reaching behind her for the thick rope of her braid. When she couldn’t find her hair, Mum had remembered that she’d left her mother and that old song was caught in her head: Oh Danny Boy, the pipes the pipes are calling. It was her mother’s voice she could hear, with its slight falsetto shake in the higher notes. The summer’s gone and all the flowers are dying.
Kinsale, Gretta said when it was her turn to speak, and the singing inside her had stopped abruptly. County Cork, she added, sounding much stronger than she felt.
Johnny Street has rolled up his shirtsleeves and pushed his horn-rimmed spectacles back up the bridge of his nose. Out comes his tongue, a pulsing pink triangle on his upper lip, as Dad, concentrating hard, leans across his new cloth-cutting table and aligns his new cloth-cutting machine with some brand new bry-nylon.
Dad does not notice the proximity of the sharp blade with the top of his left leg. He pokes out his tongue still further, it’s an arrow of flesh now, as he pushes a button on the cutting machine. A whirring pulse reverberates up through his left palm that is flattened against the table. The blade slices cleanly through the cloth. Dad gives a little aha of triumph. He changes angle, moves the machine. An obstacle. He pushes the machine harder. The obstacle gives way.
Oh, my giddy aunt! shouts my father. Blood seeps out of his trousers, into the bry-nylon spread across the cutting table.
My mother, still sitting beneath the Queen, shakes her head to free herself from her memories. She reads the last sentence she has written: I won a nursing award, Mam. Gretta knows it’s a sin to show off, but she’s proud of this, has tacked the sash that reads Nurse of the Year, 1965, to the wall above her bed, beside the crucifix. When she’d first arrived at the nurses’ quarters, how she had marveled at that single bed, all to herself. The sink, the wardrobe, the hanging hook on the back of her own front door. She’d left behind in Ballinspittle that family bed of knees and feet and elbows, herself and three, four sometimes five others, piled into one mattress, the older ones whispering in the dark about hobgoblins and banshees, the younger ones yelling at them to whisht.
She writes God Bless and folds the letter into quarters, slides it into the airmail envelope, licks the gummed fold. The arms of the rotary clock move; the ever-present Queen stares towards the back of the food counter. My mother unpicks the starched cuffs. Sister O’Brien doesn’t like them to wear the cuffs when they are working, so Mum will pop them into her locker on the way to the Accident Ward. The letter she will drop into the post box. She stands up, gives a little head nod to the Queen.
I imagine my dad, on that everyday morning, so ordinary except for his blood-loss, sitting in Oldchurch Hospital’s Casualty Ward, lost in self-criticism and doubt. What sort of idiot slices himself in the leg with his own cloth-cutting machine? All those hours he’s spent learning, learning, learning. Over-lock, cross-stitch, hem, fold. Maybe I should go back to Mattessons. But if he does that, Dad realizes as soon as the thought hits him, if he goes back to selling sausages, then he’ll have to start calling other men, sir, again, just like in the army. And Johnny Street never wants to let another man dictate his fate—
You wanna make sure you get into cubicle 3, son. The nurse in there’s a sparkler. The old man on the chair next to Dad’s has an eye patch adhered over his right eye with a decisive plaster cross. The uncovered eye, working hard to compensate, whirls in its socket.
Dad says, Nice-looking dolly-bird, is she?
Gorgeous Irish redhead, the man says with a chuckle that precipitates a hacking, smoker’s cough and a gob of mucus into a grimy handkerchief. She’s my favorite out of all the girls in here.
The curtains to two cubicles open at the same time. Two nurses appear, one young, one old.
John Street? The softness of the Irish brogue reminds my dad of velvet, and the fluff that you stuff into cushions. He stands up as his mouth stretches into his cross-bow smile. He barely hears the old man whisper, You lucky git! Look at the battle axe I’ve got!
Alfred! shouts the other nurse peering over the dipped heads in the waiting room. What you doing back here, already? She shakes her clipboard at the old man. There ain’t nothing wrong with you. You’re a malingerer, that’s what.
The younger nurse says, in a louder voice, less soft, John Street? Johnny’s feet squeak on the linoleum as he walks across the ward. I’m smiling like I’m a simple fella, he thinks as he stops in front of her. Red hair curls out from beneath her nurse’s cap.
That’s me, says Johnny. I’m Street.
The nurse raises her eyebrows, delicate, pointed little things, like the ruffle on a curtain pelmet. She holds back the curtain on her cubicle. Inside. Let’s be seeing you. They are alone.
(And it starts here, amidst the kidney-shaped bedpans, the syringes, the catheters, rolls of bandages and tubes of burns ointment. If a life can be reduced to a list of the lives it engenders: three children (spaced five years apart like Stalin’s Plans), five pet rabbits, seven guinea pigs and twenty-eight Russian hamsters.)
What have you done to yourself, Mr. Street?
I was cutting material with my cutting machine. My dad points at his leg. His trousers are soaked with blood. I’ve set up a cushion shop.
The eyebrows come down Mum’s forehead, the eyes settle beneath them with a knowing glance. She says: I once knew of a little girl whose father was a butcher and she put both hands into his meat-mincing machine. Mum makes fists of her hands and folds them towards her at the wrist. All she had left were stumps. Beware the accident at work, Mr. Street. A person could die in their workplace.
My father nods.
Now. Take off your trousers, please, but leave on your underpants.
And he did, as he has done ever since, precisely as she told him.
Saffron Marchant lives in Hong Kong with her family. She studied English Literature at Oxford University and holds an MFA with distinction from Hong Kong’s City University. She won a Best of the Net in 2015 and second and third prize in the Fish Publishing Short Memoir Contests (2013 and 2015).