A recent spate of TV shows and movies show how exciting hospitals can be. Sure... for the doctors.
We were drinking in the stars -- that was our name for the place, on account of the tiny fairy lights strung across the ceiling. I was feeling pretty low. I'd split with Veronica a few days before. Naturally, I was feeling cut up about it. On the way home I began to feel ill -- Tom had to hold me up. I must have been a dead weight. I just wanted to lie down right there in the street.
I had this pain, somewhere down below my stomach. Then it seemed like a great black curtain came down over me. I passed out. When I woke up, I was here. The doctors were conferring. They decided to operate.
Disposition of the ward, brief description: Eight beds, four along each side of a short rectangle; nurses' table at one end, my left, entrance doors behind; toilets and examination room at the other end, my right; single-storied building, flat roof, interior painted pale yellow.
Joe wants to know what I'm writing. "What's that you're writing?" he calls from his bed opposite. What shall I tell him? That I'm writing down the events in this hospital, setting it all down just as it happens? He's in here; I'll make him famous! On reflection I tell him I'm writing a letter to my girlfriend Veronica. After all, he may not like what I've written. He may not want his secrets disclosed.
They've given me a chemise to wear. It's much too short; it stops well above my knees. I'm sure I heard the others sniggering just now as I went to the loo. Suddenly a nurse arrives and draws the curtain around my bed. She's come to shave me. At first I misunderstand, then I realize -- it's my penis she's come to shave! She lifts my chemise. There it is, sad little thing. Christ! Look at the size of those scissors! I hope she knows what she's doing.
Carefully she snips the hair away. Gently she lifts the testicles to get the hair underneath. She's very thorough. And very gentle. Too gentle! She's wearing plastic gloves, but still her touch feels gentle. It was okay until she started to use the shaver, that soft vibration. It started to grow. I just couldn't help it. When she saw what was happening she speeded up. She nicked me once or twice but got finished really quick. In the end it was fully erect. I don't know who was redder; she, me, or it! Surely you'd think they'd get a male nurse to do these things.
I was conscious during the operation. Honestly. Of course, they put me out in the usual way. I was asleep before I could count to -- well, I can't even remember what number. But somehow I was conscious of the operation itself. I could see the surgeon. The whole time, he was explaining what he was doing to someone I couldn't see. It wasn't an out-of-body experience -- I was right in here the whole time, where I usually am. I could just make out the surgeon working away down there and not much else.
I could feel the cuts. They weren't painful. It was like I'd had some local anesthetic. The knife would cut, blood would run out; then another cut, and another, but no pain. At one point the surgeon held up something he'd cut away, an ugly little mass, dripping blood. I saw it again later. Pickled, in a little glass jar! The doctor showed it to me. They'd preserved it! Apparently it was a perfect specimen.
Tom brought me a note from Veronica. She says she's sorry to hear what's happened. She wants to know if she can visit me. I told him to tell her no. I couldn't face her. This enforced separation should do us good, give us time to make up our minds whether we want to go on or not. Just what is going on between her and Peter anyway? Why does he keep cropping up if it's me she wants? That night I found them together in our flat was more than a little suspicious.
Okay, I admit it, I'm jealous. But I seem to have reason to be.
Reg is in the bed on my left. I never found out what he was in for. One thing I did find out -- he talks to himself. It's a bit disconcerting until you get used to it, him suddenly starting up out of nowhere, top of his voice, any old subject. It's worst at night.
Take last night for example. I was asleep. Suddenly: "Fire! Fire!" It was Reg shouting at the top of his voice. "Everybody out! Everybody out! Fire!" I vaguely remember him trying to get up out of bed, to lead us all to safety, I suppose. A nurse was struggling to restrain him. Then I must have fallen asleep again. In the morning I heard him telling the doctor all about it, how there was this fire up on the roof, flames lighting up all the sky. How did he know? the doctor wanted to know. He'd been up there, that's how. Last night. He'd seen it. The doctor said he must have been dreaming. But no, he was adamant. He'd been there. He'd seen it. The flames had scorched his pajamas.
"Look!" He showed some brown marks on his trousers and top. I know it seems incredible, but they certainly looked like scorch marks.
Joe. Poor Joe. It's three o'clock, Joe. The nurse is coming for you.
Look at him over there, lying on his side, pretending to sleep.
Joe. It's three o'clock, Joe.
The nurse is here. She helps him off the bed. Slowly they make their way to the examination room. It takes several minutes, several slow minutes, their shuffling journey. Total silence descends on the ward. It's always the same at three o'clock, total silence as Joe is led away. Today I watch the sunlight streaking in through the windows, a million specks of dust drifting in each silent beam.
Then it comes. The scream. Joe's scream. It flies through the ward like a knife. They're changing the dressing of the wound on his bottom. For some reason it has to be left open, that wound. Each day at three they remove the light dressing to reveal the curious wound. Five cuts they made, a five-pointed star. For some reason they haven't sewn it up yet. It has to be left open, that horrid five-pointed star, its red edges flaring with pain. They put some ointment on it. They touch it. Joe screams, the scream flying through the ward like a knife, cutting us all as it passes. Poor Joe.
Here he, comes shuffling back again. The nurse lays him on his side. He's trembling all over. Poor Joe. You can rest now, Joe. The agony's over. Until tomorrow.
Tom came again last night. He says there's nothing going on between Veronica and Peter. He says I've no reason to be jealous. Maybe he's right -- but then why am I so jealous? I only have to see Veronica talking to someone else and straight away I get suspicious. Pretty soon I'm hopping mad. It happens every time. What's the matter with me?
An old guy's just come in. They've put him in the bed on the far left opposite me. He's asleep propped up on his pillows. He's got a drip. Just back from an operation, I suppose. There's someone with him, a dark form huddled in the shadows by his bed. A woman I think, holding his hand on the bedspread.
Until now, the bed on my right has been unoccupied, a pure white sacrificial slab waiting for a victim. That victim turned out to be Len. Len arrived with a real problem: He was having trouble pissing. Sometimes he could and sometimes he couldn't. When he couldn't, the pressure built up inside, causing much pain until (blessed relief!) he pissed again.
The trouble was, Len's problem was getting worse. The times when he could were getting shorter, and the times when he couldn't, longer. It was some kind of growth or blockage, interfering with his tubes.
Soon after his arrival, the crisis came: He stopped altogether. He suffered dreadfully that first time. We all felt for him. Though the doctors certainly had a point: A few more minutes, they said, and it might break through again. When, after many earnest conferences, even they were convinced this was not to be, they inserted a tube, a narrow polyethylene tube, up his penis. I don't know how far they had to push it before it broke through, but when it did Len's piss came trickling out into a pot at the side of his bed.
After that they were forever experimenting, carting him off for endless tests, trying one drug after another. I lost count of the number of times that tube was removed to see if he was cured, then reinserted when he could stand the agony no longer. They always let him have the tube at night so he could sleep peacefully. Many nights I lay awake listening, in the quiet periods when Reg wasn't raving, to the irregular drips and trickles that fell into the pot from Len's tube.
Just suppose Veronica does fancy Peter. How does that affect her relationship with me? Does it mean she doesn't love me? Is that what I want, then? That above all, she should love me? It seems I need to believe in her love, yet the slightest thing makes me doubt it.
Tom says she does love me. He says it's me that's uncommitted and changeable. He says that if she loves me, it's not likely her feelings will change every time she meets another man. Perhaps I should put my trust in Tom's judgment and give up my own. He seems to understand these things much better than me.
It's meal time. This happens in more or less the same way three times a day. We aren't allowed to eat in our beds. The nurses set up a long table in the middle of the ward. Everyone who's able -- in other words, all of us except that old guy at the end -- has to get to that table to eat.
Picture the scene: The table is set up. The food trolley has arrived. The exodus begins. The slow, painful exodus. In one place or another we all have our wounds. To one degree or another we're all in pain. We all have to get to that table. Unaided. It's part of the physiotherapy. No excuses allowed!
Our movements are excruciatingly slow, as if filmed in slow motion, with a sudden jerk every now and then -- a lurch, a scream. We all try our best, but accidents can't be avoided. Your leg suddenly slips over the side of the bed, tearing at your wound. Trying to stand up, you lose control and topple over, clutching at the blankets to check your fall. Once you're down, there's no way you can get up. It's all fours from then on, doggie fashion! Thus did we all hobble and limp and crawl to our places at the table.
It takes a good fifteen minutes for us all to assemble. Len comes trailing his plastic tube, which in turn trails a thin trickle of urine, marking his meandering course. Usually a nurse brought over his pot, too, but sometimes she forgot. When this happened a pool of urine would slowly expand under his chair as we ate. Reg comes chattering incessantly. And Joe comes slowly, quietly, slowest of us all, always last to arrive. Then the meal can begin.
If there is soup, I keep my eye on Reg. I think he is allergic to soup. Watch him now: He's got a large spoonful. He's raising it carefully to his lips. Watch its slow ascent. It's just reached his lower lip. It's almost there. Suddenly he sneezes. Soup flies everywhere! This occurred, on average, one spoonful in three. You could get pretty messy some days when there was soup.
I've just realized that we're all sitting down at this table, all seven of us, including Joe. How does he do it with that wound of his? Then I notice that his elbows are propped up on the table each side of his plate. I take a peek under the table. He hasn't got a chair at all! He's just crouching there, resting on his elbows. Poor Joe. How he managed to keep that up through all those painfully slow meals I'll never know.
Len hasn't been making much progress. That tube of his has been in and out a dozen times but still he's got his blockage. Now one of the doctors has had a bright idea. I overheard him giving Len instructions. On the cupboard by his bed is a jug of water and a glass. Every half hour, the doctor says, he's to drink half a glass of water. Until when? Until the blockage is cleared.
Of course! Why didn't somebody think of it before! I think that doctor must have been a plumber before. Your drain's blocked, what do you do? Turn on all your taps, build up a head of water, try to force it through. Sometimes it works -- with drains. It looked to me like the same principles were being applied here. Len's tubes are blocked, build up the pressure, something must give. Something!
I was amazed at the trusting way Len accepted this regime. It sounded like kill or cure to me. A desperate remedy! The tube was removed. It was nine o'clock. He took his first drink. It's midday now. He's been religiously taking his half glass every half hour. He says he feels uncomfortable. That's all. He's confident this new idea of the doctor's will do the trick.
Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. I always thought that was wrong. Absence, I thought, inclines you to forget. I see now there can be exceptions, special cases, where absence does intensify your feelings. Like with Veronica, for instance. It's been a week now since I walked out on her. I can't get her out of my mind. I'm thinking about her all the time. Why hasn't she come to see me? I know I told her not to, but if she loved me she'd come anyway! I've decided to tell her I love her; I don't think I ever told her before. I'll tell her I won't be jealous in the future. I'll tell her my love for her is not diminished if she has other friends, other lovers even. I'm getting ready to make up with her; I've got my speech prepared.
Six o'clock. Tea time. Six of us at table. Len's suffering. He can't make it to the table. I look back at him sitting in his bed. He's paler, much paler. The pain he must be suffering! I see him reach out for his six o'clock drink. It's heroic! Or stupid.
While I'm turned around looking back at Len a sudden urgent shout of "Nurse!" rings out from the other end of the ward, the old guy's bed. His companion has jumped to her feet. "Nurse! Nurse!" She's frantic. It seems there's something wrong with his drip. We all turn and look. Hey! She's right! That can't be right! Instead of the usual clear liquid in the bottle and tube, it's red, dark red, creeping up the tube into the bottom of the bottle. It must be his blood flowing back up the tube.
"Nurse! Nurse!" We all join in, make as much noise as we can. It can't be right, his blood flowing back up the tube like that. The nurse comes. The curtain is drawn round his bed. The doctor comes. Everyone falls silent, except Reg. He starts chattering away to himself, about that fire up on the roof, about how he'd told them, about how they wouldn't listen, about how he knew there'd be casualties, he'd warned them, now perhaps they'd take him seriously. All the rest of us were silent but we were thinking the same thing. That the old guy was dead, I mean. They wheeled him out half an hour later. The woman, his dark companion, followed him out.
"Hey, Joe!" It's me, calling out across the ward. It's midnight. Even Reg is asleep. The only sound, apart from me calling out, is coming from Len. He's in agony. Only instead of screaming as he ought to, he's moaning. It's a low moan; he's suppressing his agony. He's trying so hard to make this experiment succeed -- too hard, if you ask me.
Joe agrees with me. We've got to do something about Len, or he'll be dead by morning. Slowly, painfully, I get out of bed. I hobble over to Len's bed. Christ, he's green! In the faint night light of the ward he's green. He's trembling all over. And moaning. A low moan that seems to come from somewhere deep inside him. But it's his face that's worst of all. That horrible green! He seems to see me. He's still semiconscious. His hand goes out, trembling wildly, reaching for his glass. He's still trying to keep up those half-hour drinks!
I take the glass and jug away. Then I set off to find a nurse. Before I reach the door, Len gives up. He can't suppress his agony any more. He lets it out. He screams. He screams and screams. I'll never forget it. I look back at his contorted green face, the mouth wide open, screaming. Shriek after shriek. A nurse rushes past me. She tries to pacify him but he won't be pacified. He can't be pacified. He screams and screams. The problem is, there's no doctor available until the morning to authorize stopping the experiment.
Until the morning? He'll be dead by then!
There's a little conference amongst the nurses, an urgent telephone call, while Len's screams pierce the air. Just hold up the receiver, let whomever's there listen to Len directly!
Finally they get their authorization. They draw the curtain round. We all wait, breathless, while the tube is inserted. The screaming stops. The moaning dies down. It's so quiet. Then we hear the urine trickling out into the pot. Ethereal music! We can breathe again. Len's going to be all right. I picture him slowly changing color as his pain subsides. Green first, then orange, yellow, white, and finally pink, his normal healthy pink. When they draw back the curtain there he is. Len! His normal healthy pink! He smiles. Yes! Straight-away a smile! It's incredible. He'll be all right now.
Only I'm afraid it's back to the drawing board for Len. Smile while you can, Len. Even now that plumber doctor of yours is dreaming up some new scheme to clear that blockage.
Veronica's come to visit me. She's wearing a very short skirt, revealing her long bare legs. Right away I start to tell her how, lying here, I've realized how much I love her, how I've always loved her only I didn't realize it until now, how I'm going to stop being jealous -- you know, my speech!
Veronica smiles. She drew her chair nearer while I was speaking. Then she leans close to me, across the bed. I think she's going to kiss me, you know, out of gratitude. But she whispers in my ear, "Oh, Chris, do shut up! If anyone overhears, they'll have you locked up. You're raving! You've been lying here too long, all on your own. I know what you need."
She stands up, draws the curtain round the bed, throws back the blankets, and lifts my chemise. From somewhere beyond the cotton wool and plasters my penis slowly rises. Veronica slips off her knickers and jumps onto me. It hurts. Christ it hurts! But I love it! When it's over, she tosses back her hair, smiling down at me, her eyes flashing. I draw her down and kiss her. Then we hear Joe calling out from beyond the curtain. "Hey Chris, what's going on?" Veronica starts to giggle.
Suddenly, I feel a pain somewhere down there. What's happening? Veronica gets off. There's blood everywhere! On her skirt. On me. All over me! The dressing's been torn off. The stitches have come undone. There's blood pouring from the open wound! Veronica snatches up her knickers and presses them firmly against the wound, squeezing the edges together to stop the bleeding. She's laughing so much, tears are streaming down her face. I'm laughing too, even though it hurts. My eyes are streaming too. Everything looks red through my tears. There's blood everywhere. It's no use. We can't stop it. We'll have to call for help.
"Nurse," we cry. "Nurse!"
Chris Villars (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in London and earns his living as a computer systems analyst. He writes short stories and paints abstract pictures.
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Chris Villars.