Wednesday, June 10, 2009

learning the language

‘We think she had got up in the early hours to use the commode, and then just collapsed backwards. We haven’t moved her. We thought it best we didn’t.’

Hilda is lying on her back across the bed, neatly lain out with her mottled red feet set shoulder-width apart on the floor, her knees crooked at the edge of the mattress, her arms along by her sides. With her hands bunched into fists, her mouth sagging open, and with her fine white hair spread around behind her head like a makeshift halo, Hilda looks like a spirit singing a loud and apocalyptic note in the wilderness. But the power has gone and the music has faded, along with the last images she played out above her on the blank white screen of the ceiling. There’s nothing in the room now except a body on the bed, a collection of family photos on the sideboard and walls, and the four of us – the Warden, the policeman, Frank and me.

Frank goes over to Hilda and makes the official confirmation of death. There is a polite exchange of paperwork.

‘I should’ve finished an hour ago,’ the policeman says. ‘Do you mind if I have a seat?’
The home warden plumps a cushion for him on a white wicker chair.
His radio squawks, so he silences it.
The Warden tells us a little more about Hilda, then adds: ‘Who wants a cup of tea?’

When she comes back a few minutes later we’re all talking about Hong Kong.

‘My eldest sister went out there for a few months and now ten years later she’s only just thinking about where to go next. She loves it.’
‘I have a friend who’s just gone to China. He’s married a Chinese girl and he’s looking for work but I think he’s finding it tough. Where do you start with the language? And the writing – it’s just a sequence of lines.’
‘I’ve still got a little bit of school French. At least with that the words and sounds are recognisable. But Chinese? Where do you start with Chinese?’
The tea the warden made us is strong and reviving.

Through the window just above the bed I watch a man come out of his house across the road, stretch his back and then pick his way carefully down the wet stone steps of his garden to the road. He doesn’t pay any attention to the ambulance.
‘I think property is expensive in Hong Kong.’
‘Well, it’s so crowded. It’s going to be pricey. But there’s absolutely no crime over there. They don’t tolerate crime. You can go out without any kind of worry at all.’

The policeman takes another sip from his mug.

‘The relatives are on their way. I think they should be here in a little while.’
‘Would you like us to make Hilda a little more presentable on the bed?’
‘If you could.’
Hilda is small and frail. With the policeman controlling her legs, Frank around her middle and me with her arms and head, it’s a simple move to put her back into bed with her head on the soft white pillows and the quilt tucked up to her chin. I smooth down her hair and manage to close her eyes, but although we experiment with different pillow combinations we don’t succeed in closing her mouth.
‘Don’t worry. That’s better,’ says the Warden.
She looks out of the window, and then at the little silver watch on her wrist.
‘I do hope the Coroner’s men don’t get here before the relatives.’
‘No,’ says the policeman, putting his mug on the sideboard, then thinking better of it and picking it up again. ‘They don’t like to hang around.’


petrolhead said...

I always thought I would be upset the first time I saw a body in this line of work (I used to work in a hospice so I've seen a few) but it seemed strangely normal. We sat around waiting for the police to turn up, and tried to teach the patient's pet parrot to talk. It only seemed strange when you looked towards the hall and saw our man covered in a blanket.

Just to add to your Hong Kong discussion - I love it, but the air pollution is terrible. My dad could hardly breathe for the whole 2 weeks!

Spence Kennedy said...

I hope you taught it some appropriate phrases.

I remember going round a friend's house after school and finding a parrot in the sitting room. My friend said his Uncle Wally had just died, and they were looking after the parrot until someone could take him in permanently. I was going to ask him why his Aunt wanted to get rid of the bird when it suddenly squawked: 'Where's Wally? Where's Wally?'

Anonymous said...

I just love the random ramblings between the police and us at these sort of jobs.

Spence Kennedy said...

Me too! And because it's the kind of job where's there's not much to be done, in the context of a busy shift it can be quite a welcome break for everyone. (I know that might sound heartless to someone outside the ambulance, but you have to find your moments of calm where you can, and I think there's almost always a slightly hushed quality to the conversation, like you're chatting in church).

Christine said...

I remember last year when I found my mum dead in her flat that we sat with 2 policemen waiting for the coroner's men to arrive and they seemed quite happy to sit and chat even though we were waiting for an hour or so, was surreal I can tell you. And, yes, we talked about lots of random things too.