Life on the Suburban Fringe by S.R.Noss
1. The Beginning of the End
Evening, Sunday December 31st 1989
The locals call this place Gods Waiting Room. It’s not a moniker formed from fondness. Rather one born of a quintessentially British sort of humour. The building itself is damned cold and cavernous. Gloom pervades its every pore as sunshine struggles to pierce row upon row of grime encrusted Victorian windows. Paint flakes and peels wherever you touch the walls, revealing layers of monochrome colours from a century past. The heating’s on its last legs. Copper pipes rumble with steam amidst gothic metalwork but precious little warmth radiates out into the cavern rooms. It’s the sort of place that leaves you hoping there’s a better heaven on the other side.
Darkness reigns beyond the narrow bed. A little pool of bedside light is all we have to see by. I try not to look but I can’t help but find it all a bit creepy. Ever since I was small I’ve been scared of the dark and the longer I sit here it feels like the demons of the shadows are circling and creeping ever closer until the hairs on my neck begin to crawl. But I’m a man now, so there’s no fear here to be shown. I get up and wander around the room switching on unlit lamps that lay dormant next to unmanned beds amidst this sea of inky darkness.
Slowly the little pools of light join together to push back the night from whence it came, filling its wake with a muted sallow glow. The appearance of warmth is deceiving though and so a spare blanket is purloined from a neighbouring bed and wrapped around me as a cloak. I billow forth, Lawrence of Arabia style, as I head back towards my tally chair.
Sitting down I pause for a moment to compose myself, breathing deep into my lungs, coughing once, rotating my shoulders and neck, stretching my back out, trying to become relaxed. Hours, perhaps days stretch ahead in Gods waiting room. Once done I steel myself to begin again. I can do this, no sweat. I will go on. I begin counting once again.
“One, one thousand, two one thousand…” onwards my voice marches, keeping pace; marking time with the rasping breathes of a dying man.
Time slips by immemorial and so does my attention. After a while, tired of counting never ending breaths and eyes sore from the exertion of staying awake, I drift away, head resting on the crook of an arm wedged against the bedside table. Then I am awakened from my melancholy sleep by a floorboard unexpectedly squeaking behind me, startling me awake and resulting in my letting out an embarrassing yelp of fright. I only hope its not demons of the night come to steal the livings souls.
‘Sorry,’ comes a whisper, ‘didn’t mean to make you jump.’ I turn to see nurse Rosaline walking out of the gloom at the far end of the room. Her face is apologetic. ‘Don’t worry, you’re not the first I’ve done it too. Do it all the time if truth be told. Always accidental mind you,’ she continued with a conspiratorial wink. ‘You’d be amazed how many people hear a noise and think its Death himself creeping up on them.’ She smiles to put me at ease then nods towards the bed. ‘So how’s he doing then?’
I mumble an answer whilst trying to hide my embarrassment. She goes over to the bed to check her patient, takes a thermometer out of her top pocket and pops it into his mouth. The stipulated thirty seconds are waited then she checked it and wrote new notes on the chart by the end of the bed. Satisfied that that all vital signs are still visible she leans down to tuck the jumbled bedcovers around him back into some sort order. Fold and tuck job done she pulled a spare chair over and sat down facing me.
‘So how you feeling then Marty?’ she asks in a series of machinegun fire statements, ‘It must be getting pretty lonely just sat there day and night. Why don’t you go get some fresh air for an hour or two? Everyone needs a break now and then you know. I’d be happy to sit with him whilst you’re gone, so you needed worry about him being on his own.’
I take a moment to answer. I’m not really sure how I feel at the moment. The past couple of days have left me drained and confused as well as looking terrible. My hair and skin are greasy and my clothes are starting to develop a smell that is in a league of their own. Death is one thing to cope with, but the experience of watching the process of dying is quite another.
‘To be honest, I’m not really sure,’ I reply, knowing full well that a wash and change of clothes is the least I can do for everyone’s sake.
She nods in understanding. ‘It’s to be expected Marty, you’re tired and worn out. You’ve barely slept and sooner or later you’re going to burn out.’ Her hand rested on my shoulder in an act of friendship. ‘Take a break Marty, go get something to eat, some sleep perhaps. I’ll sit and keep watch. He wouldn’t want to see you going to the dogs because of him now, would he?’
She’s right and I know it. Sleep and food deprivation are taking their toll. For the last two days I’d subsisted on a diet of sugary drinks, crisps and chocolate with the odd snatched hour of sleep here and there. To go on like this is madness and I know she is right, it will cause me more harm than good. But then what choice do I really have? I made a promise and I don’t intend to break it now. It’s not the sort of man I was raised to be.
‘You’re not going to heed my advice are you Marty?’
I shake my head dumbly, too stubborn to acknowledge how right she really is.
‘Well I’ll tell you what,’ she gestures with her hand as she stands up, ‘I’ll meet you halfway. You stay here and I’ll go sort you out a nice big steaming mug of sweet tea and a good old greasy bacon sandwich. How does that sound to you?’
‘If I’m honest, it sounds great. You sure it isn’t any trouble?’
‘Of course not Marty, of course not. Then once you’ve eaten I’ll sit with him for half an hour whilst you go and freshen up. How’s that sound for a plan then?’ She didn’t wait for an answer but was instead up and out of her chair before I could say anything. ‘It’s settled then, back in sixty ticks.”
As she walks away I call out after her.
“Nurse Rosaline” She turns, head slightly cocked as if asking what it is I want. “Thank you”.
Her glossy red smile is enough to melt your heart and make you want to commit to a lifetime of Saturday nights in, just to make her happy
‘Anytime Marty, anytime’ and with that my angel of mercy disappears back into the darkness to seek out sweet tea and bacon sandwiches. Engaging with her, even if it’s only for a couple of minutes, has been keeping me sane during the last 48 hours. In another lifetime I could have married a woman like her, had kids, done the whole shebang, been happy, but not anymore. Not after the last few months of my life. I exhale the frustrated sigh of oh so many men across the ages and turn back to my tally chair, to do my job, to keep time with his demise.
The old rambling Victorian pile in which the hospice is housed is where the city has been sending it’s old and infirm to end their days for over a hundred years. Consequently each generation have added to, amended and developed the once stately building so that corridors, rooms and doorways are a hotchpotch jumble of dead ends and blind corners that seem to lead somewhere yet nowhere at all.
Eventually, after a series of wrong turns, I found a visitors’ wash room deep within the bowels of the building. It’s eerily quiet here at New Year’s. Most patients are home for the holidays leaving only those few too critical or uncared for behind. I flip the light switch a couple of times to see if I can spark the bulb into life but nothing happens. This place is so old and underfunded that they can’t even seem to afford new lights bulbs. It makes me bloody angry but then again whose going to spend money on the dead and dying when there’s not even enough for the living. I shake my head at the injustice of Thatcherism at its finest.
The wash room doesn’t seem to have changed much since the hospital was built and smells musty with age. With no electric light the only illumination came from a small grimy skylight that casts the room a dappled dirt grey. A shiver runs down my spin and I’m not sure if it’s due to the cold or to some sort of irrational fear but for wont of any better options decide to use it nonetheless.
I walk over to the wash basins and run the hot water tap. The copper pipes that run from beneath, up the wall and disappear into the ceiling, rattle and vibrate as pressure is forced down them, threatening to wake those few poor sleeping souls left in the building. The water that eventually comes out is dogshit brown in colour and understandably unappealing, so I plump instead to splash my face with cold water, no matter how bone chilling it may be. ‘Sssuuuhhhvvv’, air whistles through my teeth. My teeth chatter as I look into the mirror to see tired moonlight eyes gazing back.
The washroom must share the same air ventilation as the kitchen because the room has the residue of sweet sizzling bacon. I take a deep lungful of air and relish the aroma. A soft feline voice accompanies it, echoing gently out of the vent overhead as someone in the kitchen sings as they wash up. Whoever it is her voice is as soft and delicate as a songbird.
Positive thoughts don’t last long though for my mind is Jekyll and Hyde at the moment. Dark voices keep creeping their way in. ‘Go on, do it, do something about it,’ they whisper, ‘be bold, be brave, be free.’ No matter how hard I try to ignore them they keep coming on strong. I grip onto the enamel washbasin and roar silently to myself. My head pushes against the mirror as my knuckles whiten. My forehead feels cooled by the condensation it touches. ‘How did it come to this, I ask myself, just how did it come to this?’
Without me realizing it midnight must have arrived because the room is lit up by a spectrum of flashing colours. I clamber onto the metal radiator beneath the skylight and peer through at the night sky. Fireworks blossom everywhere; blossoms of crimson poppy reds, cornflower yellows and greens as deep as ivy light the darkness. Beyond them the stars twinkle, little pinpricks of hoary light amidst this sea of exploding colours. Across the world a billion faces smile and arms reach out to celebrate the dawning of a new decade. A bright new world becomes and then there’s me, alone in a toilet, peeking on tiptoes at the fun others will have. The darkness within envelopes me once again and tiredness clouds my mind. At that singular moment being one seems the loneliest number of them all.
I’ve been away from my tally chair for too long. I rinse my hands and dry them off then exit the washroom, determined, mind set. Back upstairs little has changed. Breaths still rasp out with irregular rhythm. Nurse Rosaline turns and smiles to reassure me nothing has changed in my absence. She vacates the chair for me and departs, promising to be back and check on us both in a little while. I haven’t long before she returns.
I take a pillow from a nearby bed and sit down with it clasped to my chest. It would be so easy, it would barely take a minute. Yet would it be for love and release or hate and revenge? I can’t honestly answer that but what I do know is that either way it would be for his redemption and mine. I lift the pillow from my chest and lean towards the bed then sit back undecided. So I begin to speak, determined to tell Grandad my story, make him hear just what I’ve been through because of him, whilst still wondering just how it came to this at all.