Showcasing creative writing by university students around the world.

Illustration by Daria Hlazatova

Published Tuesday, July 24th, 2012

Words by

The Patient

In the months before the boy died she would sit with him and tell him stories of her childhood; how she used to love the mountains and how she went south for the winter. Then, as he deteriorated, she stopped telling those stories. Instead, after her shift, she would sit with him and watch him breathe.

In the months before the boy died she would sit with him and tell him stories of her childhood; how she used to love the mountains and how she went south for the winter. Then, as he deteriorated, she stopped telling those stories. Instead, after her shift, she would sit with him and watch him breathe. Every day his breathing became more laboured: there was more rasping, a greater effort to inflate his lungs. Each time he exhaled she saw more of the life leave him.


She never met the father. The mother had told her flippantly that he was far too busy to visit. The mother would sit against the wall of the room, her heels finding a place on the linoleum where they wouldn’t slip, and rooting themselves there. She picked at the red nail varnish on her fingernails, peeling it off in strips so that the doctor and her patient could hear the muted tearing sound from the other side of the room, across the vast expanse that separated them. Pieces of the stuff were flicked and scattered across the floor in a crescent around the mother until they were a colony of ants, worshipping at the altar of a deity. Then she would take out her bottle of lacquer and paint new layers of red onto her nails. She never spoke directly to the boy, only to the doctor to enquire after his progress, though there was seldom any to report. She never looked at the boy. Instead her eyes were round and slippery as she stared vacantly at the wall above his heart monitor.


Every morning the doctor jogged in the darkness twice around her block. It was almost winter and the sky was bleeding. Her breath would swirl out in front of her, great gusts of vitality. She drove to the hospital an hour before her shift began so she could feed the boy his breakfast. His swallowing mechanism was failing and she would wipe the liquid that escaped his mouth from his chin and cheeks. His lips were an almost-blue, a purple tinge. His arms would have been too weak to lift the spoon even if he’d still had his hands.


The mother visited once a week.


When the doctor had finished sitting with the boy in the evenings she drove home. The sky was bleeding at night now, too. It was getting colder. Slivers of red trickled across the roof of the doctor’s car. When she got home she turned on the news and ate cereal. The heating had packed up weeks ago and she slept in a sleeping bag in her living room, because it was the warmest part of the house. She had two electric heaters plugged in which she had borrowed from the neighbours. The only rooms she had ventured into since the heating had gone were the kitchen, downstairs bathroom and the living room. The rest of the house was barren.


On weekends she did the food shopping (not much for one person) and went to the gym in the evenings. She thought she was a man – man hands, man face, man physique. Her husband had hated her for it. Her vigorous fitness plan at the gym reassured her that her body had not completely deteriorated into masculinity.


She visited the boy after lunch on a Sunday and brought books to read to him and music for him to listen to. The last Sunday before the boy’s death the mother was there too. She was on the phone to a client when the doctor entered the room with magazines. The mother snapped her phone shut and regarded the doctor.


“Where is your uniform?” she asked.

I’m not on duty.

The mother looked at the magazines.

“He never liked those sorts.”

I’m sorry.

“You’ve lost weight.”


The doctor looked down at herself. She hadn’t noticed any changes in her physique. Perhaps her jeans were a little looser than usual.


“You’re awfully slim-hipped”, the mother remarked. “Lose any more and you’ll disappear.”


Then her phone rang and she left the room to answer it. The doctor sat down next to the boy and read a magazine aloud to him.


The following day the ward matron called her into the bereavement counselling room.


“You’re spending a lot of time with that patient”, she told the doctor.


The doctor shrugged. The boy has no one. His mother is never there.


“Well, here’s the problem. The patient’s mother has lodged a formal complaint against you. She claims that you’re taking an unnatural interest in the patient’s welfare. Please remember that your relationships with your patients should remain strictly professional.”


The doctor raised her eyebrows.


“Just be warned”, the matron continued, “not to overstep the mark.”


The matron had a round, soft bosom and kind eyes and hands. The doctor left the ward and stepped out into the chill of the car park. It was late, and the concrete was barren.  The sky was still bleeding, and it was bloodier than ever. Now, strands were dripping from the vast expanse and spilling onto the roof of her car, dribbling down the sides of it, onto her windscreen and bonnet, forming a pool of liquid on the ground. The doctor wondered if anyone was going to do something about it. She contemplated returning to the ward to find a caretaker, but the thought of encountering the matron or the patient’s mother stopped her. Instead she drove home, peering through the blood that coated her windscreen. When she got home she took buckets of cold water and washed them over the car, stretching her shadow along the curb in the pale streetlight.


That night the heat in the living room was stifling. The doctor took her sleeping bag upstairs to the master bedroom. The double bed was still unmade, exactly how she had left it weeks ago. A thin layer of dust covered every surface and photograph. Her footsteps on the carpet sent up plumes of dust. She made the bed and placed the sleeping bag on top of it before slipping into it. Out of the bedroom door and directly down the hall was the door to the nursery, illuminated by the hall light. It had a blue heart-shaped quilted pillow on it.


She drove to the hospital two hours after her shift had started. For once the sky had lightened up to an almost-blue, a purple tinge. The car park was empty, again. As she began her rounds the matron approached her.


“Where were you?”


I overslept. I apologise. I’ll do overtime this weekend to make up for it.


“That’s not my point, doctor”, the matron continued. “One of your patients went into cardiac arrest this morning. The F1s failed to resuscitate him. He died.”


He died.


She didn’t ask which patient had gone into cardiac arrest. The matron’s voice and face had already told her. A noise that sounded like a baby choking bubbled to her lips and escaped her throat. The noise was oddly familiar, like something the doctor had half-heard a long time ago. She couldn’t place it.


“Doctor, I know you’re upset”, the matron continued, “but I have to ask, how is everything in your personal life? It’s unlike you to be so late to work. How are things with your husband? How is he coping? How are you both coping?”


The doctor looked down at her man hands and strove to answer the matron. She had no husband. She was no wife, and she certainly was no mother.


She stepped back into the car park, which was still a barren wasteland, save for her own car, which was drenched entirely in blood. She opened the door, her hand slipping on the handle and staining red, and crawled in. The sun shone through the windscreen and made dancing red light patterns on the passenger seat. Outside, it started to rain.

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