Chapter 1 (Revised)
The first sound that William was aware of after the darkness threw him to the ground was the noise of the heavy plastic doors as they swung closed behind the ambulance men who were retreating from the room. He didn’t like it. The sound slapped him back into an awareness that he had avoided for decades. He frowned as the harsh lights assaulted his eyelids. He didn’t want to let it in. Then, suddenly, he did. He wanted it. All. He suddenly ached for the noise, the light, and the touch of … someone.
Feeling like an escaping balloon from a child’s birthday party he started to relax and was surprisingly content as he slipped happily between consciousness and his dream from then on. He felt warm at last. This lasted for what seemed like an eternity, but was in reality two and a half minutes. Then, without any fanfare or ceremony William exhaled. It was a deep and satisfying sensation. Nobody else was aware of it. He was having his own private performance.
The ambulance men were long gone back to their truck when the man they had brought in was signed over to the emergency team on shift that night – he was no longer their responsibility. The junior doctors were the ones who had to worry about him now. The crew had bagged him on the way in from the docks. He was big sick. All they wanted to do was to get him through the doors in one piece. Now they were off the road until they had cleaned up their truck. Then they would wait for another call from control, hopefully not another blue one straight away. He was their last job, the clean up was the next one. Their part in his life was over.
Behind the sign reading ‘Authorized personnel only’ the staff on duty in St Thomas’ A & E department had been experiencing unusual lull in the intake that night. They were appreciative of the chance to breathe and restock the supplies. They knew it wouldn’t last long. They were right.
Rest time was over a mere five minutes after it had begun.
Like well rehearsed soldiers engaged in a military operation they took their places around the body that was suddenly in front of them.
“On two …” Hugh, the junior doctor, who was leading the shift that evening, took control. “One, two …”
The man was lifted up and moved. Then they started work.
“Where are the obs?” The question was asked from the side of the bed where the nurses were already starting their life saving routine. The team moved like synchronized swimmers. Arms reached over and through others. They looked like a couple of octopus as they worked. In moments they had everything in place.
“GCS is 3 people, we’ve got to bring him back.”
Commands and responses flew through the air. Voices gave steady reports of the readings coming from the equipment that was already attached to William’s body. The team were confident in their actions. William lay still and let them knead him like dough. He didn’t move. He couldn’t move.
After several frenetic moments there was a break in activity as they all stood back. The temporary silence around William was buffeted by the noise of people doing the exact same thing in adjacent spaces. The collision of voices as they invaded the already damaged bodies was due to continue all night. The six people in the room inhaled as one.
“Who is he?” The nurse at the foot of the bed asked the room.
“He’s a nobody.” Came the flat reply.
“Doesn’t he any ID on him?”
“No.” Another tired voice responded. “According to the ambulance crew they found him on the underpass by the river, he was on his last legs then. Some kids down there drinking, probably going to rob him but, look , he hasn’t got anything…”
Dr. Hugh Cross took a moment to look at the notes that had been handed over with the man in front of him.
“And, he wouldn’t speak to them either. So he hasn’t got a name. And he can’t speak now we’ve tubed him,” the staff nurse looked up at the rest of the team who were standing ready for the next action to be dictated. They all looked up at the monitor by William’s head. It made faint noises. They knew what would come next. Trying to fill the inevitable space they discussed him as he disappeared before them. The silence that followed the long steady tone on the machine was heavy.
“Time of death …”
One of the technicians spoke. “The crew brought that stuff in with him, that dirty blanket and bag, that’s all he came in with, apart from the clothes he’s wearing - if you can still call them that. They’ve seen better days.”
“Poor sod.” Staff nurse Jane Clarke started the final process.
“Another one bites the dust …” This evening the attempts at humor didn’t result in any responsive banter. Nobody hummed a tune.
“We did our best. We couldn’t do anything else. Could we?”
“Not much point really.”
“What possessed them to call us? Was he even really still with us when he came in? They don’t usually bother. Now we’ve got all the paperwork to do. They could have left him there and then…” Hugh sounded bitter, but he was not. He felt afraid. In that moment he remembered hiding in a wardrobe when he was 6 years old. He remembered thinking that no one would find him and he would remain lost behind his mother’s evening dresses for ever.
“…somebody else would have the bother not us.” Jane turned away from William and switched the monitor off. Hugh was glad that Jane was speaking. He felt like he was in a time whirlwind. He sensed the room spinning
Although they were used to finishing off each other’s thoughts this time everyone felt uncomfortable. They all sensed it, but no one wanted to voice it.
“He’s the fifth one this year you know.” Rosie felt brave enough to speak when the cleaners came into the room.
As they removed their gloves and aprons Hugh spoke again.
“The last one took me two days to complete the forms. I’m not doing this one. I’m dog-tired. One of you will have to do it.”
William John Chatsworth breathed his last breath inside the emergency room at 11:37. He had wanted to make it to the weekend, he’d always like going special places on the weekend. It was Thursday.
The staff stood back and sighed. His body, emaciated under the layers of the wardrobe that he always wore, sighed in response.
Each of them relished the quiet time and the group of them were reluctant to move for a while. Two of them were in their third day of the night rota and were already showing signs of the frayed nerves that they usually acquire after several intense nights fighting to save lives or limbs.
All present in the brightly lit room, except William, had chosen to exchange their time for different amounts of money and the chance to give their gift of healing to all who came through the smooth sliding doors. William, who had just left the room, had arrived too late to receive any benefit from them.
William, also known as chatty Willie, hadn’t been inside a hospital since his wife died fifteen years earlier. He had been inside anywhere much. He liked the open air. It gave him a sense of freedom.
Gloved hands reached over his body.
“I guess we’d better get on with it. Who’s going to help me? We have to find something on him, you know, something to give us a clue.”
“I’m off for a kip. Sorry. You can do this, can’t you? Call me if a real emergency comes in. If nothing big comes in then please let me be. I’ve only had three hours in the last two day. Give me a break, please. Just five minutes, that’s all.”
With that Dr Cross, who was nothing like his name, swept out of the room and headed to the staff area. He was about to cry but didn’t know why, so he put his head down and walked rapidly away from his colleagues.
Like ants following a trail of sugar three others left the room just as quickly as Hugh did.
The two nurses that were left in the room didn’t protest, instead they chose an air of business efficiency as they set about their next task.
The layers of clothes were pulled back and they automatically recoiled as the smell rose from him. The gloved hands on both sides of his body worked like unknown robots. He was as anonymous to them then as they were to remain to him forever.
“How can people live like this?”
“Beats me. I’ve got to have a shower every day. This once a year washing thing would drive me mad.”
“Maybe it did, maybe that’s why he’s like this.”
“Oh, c’mon! You don’t believe that any more than I do. He’s just another example of people who opt out of the system and make it harder for the rest of us. Look at him.”
Two pairs of eyes surveyed the body they were stripping. This searching for identity was undertaken with a detachment they had had to acquire. The form on the table was no longer a person, it was a mystery to be solved. Written up and filed away. Under NFA: homeless man.
“He’s what? Maybe in his late 50s? Early 60s at a push. He must have had a home some time recently.”
“God, you say this every time, Rosie, but they don’t all have somewhere or someone who is going to miss them. Some of them are just alone. They choose that. Can’t you let it go? Just this once?”
“Someone must miss him.”
“Will it shut you up if I agree with you?”
“Will you two give it a rest? And just get on with finding something on him. We can’t have another John Doe this year, it’s too early. The other one has just been buried. I read it in the paper last week.”
“See, that’s what I mean,” Rosie raised her head towards the centre of the room, talking to all of them but no-one in particular. “We’ve got to find him someone who cares that he’s gone.”
“It’s enough having to touch him, I’m not going to take him home in an urn as well,” dry laughter spun across his body. William, however, did not hear it.
“Look, here you are. I’ve found something. Some papers in one of the coat pockets. Looks like letters of something. They may have an address on it.”
“OK. Put them in there.”
The silver tray became William’s new identity storage unit. The papers were joined by some newspaper cuttings.
“Is that it?”
The small pile of grubby papers sat to the left of William’s cooling body. He had no more use for them. Earlier that day he had fingered them lovingly and smiled. Now they meant nothing to the people gathered around him. They had closed his eyelids. The brown and blue mismatched eyes were visionless.
“God. I hope that when I die I amount to more than some mouldy old bits of newspaper.” The nurses turned to see Hugh leaning against the wall by the doors. They hadn’t heard him return.
“Sure you will, Hugh. You’re still on the fast-track remember. All those bonds and shares will come in handy when you decide you’re not going to muck in with us commoners any more. I’m sure Daddy will find you a cushy position in one of his companies. Either that or we’ll soon be calling you ‘Mr’ and you’ll pretend you don’t know us anymore!”
“Funny thing is, I think I’ve seen him before.” Hugh ignored the last remarks.
“They all look the same – and smell the same – when they’ve got to this condition.” Jane Clarke shook her head as she efficiently searched the body.
“Don’t get all weird on us now, Hugh, I think you’d better go and have a stiff drink – only coffee though! Remember, we’ve only just come on. Is it even kicking out time yet?” glancing up at the clock on the wall she sighed, “Our night is just starting. Man up.”
“Anyway,” Jane continued awkwardly, “When could you have seen him? He’s stinking and dead, your stinking rich and … nah, you’d better stop that excessive partying at the weekends ‘cause it’s making you see things.”
“What about his shoes?”
Jane’s derisory laughter filled the room. It was hollow.
“Oh, come on, Rosie, not the feet again. I swear you have a foot fetish, girl! But, if you’re so keen, you can do them.”
“I will,” her response was tired. She was tired all over. It was his eyes that made her want to finish the job completely. He’d somehow got to her. They had been trained out of making the connection with the patients that came into for a service, as they put it, they had all been trained to do their job and forget the bodies that came and went. Most of the time the training was adequate. Sometime, like this Thursday evening, things were different.
Rosie had arrived at work after an argument with her partner and wasn’t in the best of moods. She’d forgotten to bring any change or her credit cards and was therefore without money for food all night. It didn’t matter that she had worked with most of the team for months, and with some of them for a couple of years, she still did not feel comfortable borrowing money from them, even for the evening. She had had that trained into her as well. From childhood. ‘Look after your money and it’ll look after you. Stand on your own two feet.’ Drummed into her. Her parents’ voices were ingrained into her head. The years alone had also made her independent. The streets were the best teacher.
When this man laying in front of her had horizontally burst through the doors she had been put off all thoughts of food, anyway. He had a very unpleasant damp smell to him. His clothes had the scent of the streets infused into them. He was hanging on by a thread – if he was hanging on. The team had tried to kick start his life, but they got to him too late. As he lay on the bed their firm hold on him brought no rewards. Rosie looked around her, the smell he wore didn’t really disgust her, it just unsettled her. It made her nauseous. She remembered that smell - too well. But her colleagues didn’t need to know about that.
The memories started flooding back and Rosie thought she was hallucinating for a moment. A thought implanted itself in her mind. It was a more recent memory. Just before he died she was sure that he had winked at her, from his one brown eye, and she felt a smile from him. Although she hadn’t seen his lips change shape Rosie had made a connection with the dying man and now she couldn’t just let him go without doing the search properly.
His shoes and socks came off. He had three pairs of socks on. Inside the last pair was a small silver key, wrapped in some dirty material that could have started out as cotton wool. It was attached to his big toe by a piece of string.
Later Rosie sat alone in the break room. The coin she had found in the bottom of her bag had supplied her with the chocolate bar she was eating. Staff always eat the worst meals at night in the hospital. Rosie is used to eating odd meals at strange times she did the same through her training. After the medical education she had paid for by working two different jobs and studying when she had breaks getting on the night shift seems like a familiar routine. This is her new way of life. And it suits her more than usual at the moment because it takes her away from Stuart at nights.
(Go to Chapter 2)