We’ve successfully transferred our patient onto the ITU bed. The nurse who accompanied us on the trip is completing her handover; she points us in the direction of the kitchen to make ourselves a cup of tea.
By the hot water dispenser and the draining board stacked with mugs is a tray of apples and a tray of cake. Another nurse pops in to fetch something. I ask her if it’s all right if we grab a bite to eat.
‘Help yourselves. Whatever you fancy. We’ve got Victoria Sponge Sandwich, Ginger cake, some iced buns. Fill your boots.’
‘Wow! Amazing! This is like – Cake Central.’
She laughs and leaves.
When she’s gone, I take an apple instead.
I stand in the doorway of the kitchen and look around, alternating bites and sips.
A narrow corridor separates the kitchen, utility and other rooms on this side from the access points to the ITU bays on the other. Most of the curtains are drawn around the beds and the lights are turned down low. It’s a muted, heavy blue atmosphere, intricately paced by the various bleeps and clicks of the life support machines.
I notice an elderly woman standing off to my left. She’s holding a stick in one hand and a raincoat in the other.
‘Are you lost? Can I help?’
‘It’s his teeth. They don’t really fit with the tube.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. Is he a relative of yours? Do you…?’
‘It shouldn’t be him, you know. He supported the rest of us all these years. It shouldn’t be him lying there.’
‘I’m afraid I’m out of area so I don’t know my way around that well. Let me find you someone who can help.’
She doesn’t seem to see me so much as lift her chin and sniff the air.
‘Just a minute,’ I say, looking for a place to put my apple and coffee.
But luckily the cake nurse comes back.
‘Come on, Margaret. This way.’
She gently guides her down one of the blue-curtained aisles.
I go back into the kitchen. Rae is leaning against a counter, cradling her empty mug. She looks tired. I wash our mugs up and put them back in the rack. When I go outside, the old woman is there again. She’s standing in the corridor, coat in one hand, stick in the other as before.
‘Are you going home now?’ I ask.
She doesn’t reply, but leans in to look up at the wall to the side of the kitchen door. There’s a framed picture there, a child’s drawing of a nurse: crazy pink smile; googly eyes; hair frizzing out around a red cross cap; stick arms and legs splayed out. There’s a bronze plaque just beneath the picture, but I can’t make it out in this light.
‘That’s actually a photo,’ I say to the woman.
‘She works here.’
The old woman leans in closer.
I wish I hadn’t tried to make a joke of it. She’s taken me seriously and I don’t know how to carry on. And anyway, the nurse probably does work here, drawn by the child of a former patient, maybe.
Before I can figure out what to say, the Cake Nurse appears again.
‘Come on, Margaret. Bill’s doing fine. Let me show you to the relatives’ room.’
As she gently turns her round she whispers to me: Had your cake yet?
She gives a kind of victory wave, then gently rests her hand back on the old woman’s shoulder.I watch as the two of them walk off side-by-side down the corridor.