You enter the park. The gate swings shut behind you, the guttural clank of metal on metal resonating through your skull. How many times have you walked through that gate? Thousands, probably. But you never noticed until now how loud it was.
You need a rest, a break, a chance to get out of the house. Not that you do much anymore, so you’re not sure what exactly it is you’re taking a break from. Still resting. The change of scene doesn’t seem to have had much of an effect on you. You’re just cold.
Kids are on the pitch that you and your mates trampled at their age. Scruffy-haired boys with muddy shins, their names and faces long forgotten now. The children shriek into the sunset, their silhouettes chasing the black dot that bounces across the grass.
A dog charges past you, Frisbee caught between its jaws. You had a dog once, but it died. Cancer.
Your mother told you it was sent to live on a farm. You were four, and you believed her.
You wanted to live on the farm too, you decided.
You watch the dog recede into the distance.
You locate an empty bench. Sit down. Breathe. Groan, as quietly as possible.
You taught kids here once, when you volunteered at the holiday camp. They boasted about your contributions years later.
A woman passes you, toddler hanging on to her hand. She glances back at you over her shoulder, and you grit your teeth. She recognises you, but she can’t quite place you.
You close your eyes. The light makes your head throb. You don’t spend much time in the sunshine any more.
“Mummy, why is that man asleep?”
“Don’t point, darling, it’s not polite.”
You do not open your eyes. You listen to the child’s voice piping away down the path, staring into your eyelids. You stare for so long that you forget the blackness is there; it merges into one blind spot. Maybe this is what death looks like.
The pain is still sawing at your brain, but the medication would just make it worse. It clouds your head, stops you thinking straight.
You hear the battering of wings, and open one eye. A seagull has stopped to investigate, but takes off once you shift position. There in one breath, then gone.
You wish you’d brought a jacket. You wonder how long you have to spend here for it to “do you good”.
Your phone buzzes, but you ignore it. The kids from the pitch are filtering out of the gate now, and the day has dimmed. You contemplate standing up. You groan internally. You heave yourself to your feet. Your legs never used to shake like this. You look at the empty football pitch. You sigh. You walk away.
I keep tripping because the floor is all squeaky and slippy. Mummy hasn’t been in any of the rooms, I think she went home in the car and left me maybe. She will be cross because I ran away, I didn’t mean to be naughty but the needle was massive and I didn’t want it in my arm, all sharp and digging. Maybe I missed my injection time and I can go home now. She said it isn’t meant to hurt you, it’s to protect you against nasty diseases. But it can’t be good if it hurts, so I think maybe she made a mistake.
There’s posters with people looking worried and there’s funny words and sometimes the people look happy maybe because the doctor made them better but it’s all wrong because I’m lost and they’re laughing at me.
I want to shout out for her but I might start crying and then they will laugh at me and I can’t cry because I’m not a baby, I’m five and I have to find her before the hospital closes and I get locked in.
My throat is all funny and hot, like my breath is trying to run away, and I feel all watery and like I want to make a big noise but I can’t I can’t.
There’s footsteps but they’re like shuffling, Mummy’s feet go tap tap tap.
“Are you all right, sweetheart?”
That’s a lady and she’s smiling at me, I haven’t seen her before but I think she’s a doctor because she has a card with her picture on it and she’s wearing the funny necklace they use to listen to your heart. I don’t think she’s meant to be wearing it now, maybe she forgot to take it off. I have to be careful in case she secretly has a needle in her pocket but I don’t think I will mind if she listens to my heart, I just don’t want a sore poked arm.
She asks me if I am lost and I nod my head yes. She holds my hand like Mummy does and that makes me feel sad but I don’t know why, she takes me to a big desk and there is Mummy looking all messy and annoyed like when she’s trying to do work and I want to play. When she sees me she makes this big breath like the wind going whoooo and shakes my shoulders but not hard, and then she gives me a hug and I can feel my chest going back to normal. Like something was squeezing all the time but now it’s letting me go. She says: you had me worried sick. It’s a funny thing to say in a hospital when there are doctors and lots of sick people. I say can we go home and she says promise me you won’t run away again, and I say I promise.
The waiting room is a wash of blue, a desperate reach for tranquillity: Blue chairs spilling their foam upholstery, a faded seascape hung lopsidedly on the peeling wallpaper, a chipped blue plant pot.
The plant is dying.
There is a murmur of whispered conversations, with no real reason for the hush.
Besides a stack of mismatched pamphlets, crumpled magazines are strewn across the little table in front of you: celebrity gossip of two summers ago; a torn electronics magazine; copies of Gardening Weekly. People steal the good ones, apparently.
Questions about cancer?
You snort, and the woman opposite you glances up.
The word patient originally meant “one who suffers”. It was Greek, or Latin, or something. You don’t remember.
Patience is a virtue, and yours is being worn thin. You can always rely on the doctor to be late. Have patience, patient. You almost smile.
The little girl’s heels scuff the leg of her chair, dangling at least a foot above the floor. She rubs one ear of the threadbare rabbit squashed within the crook of her elbow.
“One’s more than enough, Emily – do you want to have false teeth when you’re older?”
The child sticks out her bottom lip. “Four.”
“Don’t be silly, sweetheart!”
“For my age – one two three four five.” She beams.
“I’ll let you have two treats, how does that sound? Now, are you ready to be a brave girl and get your injection done?”
The mother glances at you, smiles, rolls her eyes knowingly. You stare blankly at her, and she falters, dropping her gaze. Your mouth twitches in a delayed attempt at a compensatory smile.
You wonder how many sweets you would get for being brave.
An obnoxious little ping sounds from your mobile. The tinny vibration sends sharp twinges to the back of your eyes, scraping against your sockets.
Five missed calls.
People spare a thought for you every now and then, remember that you exist. The sad friend, the dying friend, the token of their pity. They think of you occasionally, think that they ought to make the most of you while you’re still there. You switch off your phone, stuff it into your pocket.
Your name flashes up on the panel on the wall, as the first brutal twinge snaps at your chest. It makes your head spin, the few paces to the surgery.
You should be honest about how bad it’s getting, but what good would it do? They’ll just prescribe you more drugs. More and more drugs to clog the dregs of your mind. They can’t save you.
You glance at the scans on the desk, the illness mapped out like spilled ink. It seems to cover most of your body at this point. You’re not hearing the words spilling from the doctor’s mouth. It’s time to start thinking about more effective pain relief. You have to understand that these are often lifeshortening, but the quality of life will increase significantly. We have to be thinking about balance at this time.
Will you consider the options over the week?
You want to go to bed, to lie there until your heart finally splutters to a halt.
You pass the child again on your way out, still happily babbling about sweets.
And then pain.
It is a supernova, clamping down on your heart, your head. It seizes you, gripping your chest, pummelling your brain as your legs shake, spasm, and suddenly your limbs are knocking against the floor and there is nothing but darkness, and alarms, and shrill voices, a wailing child and the thud of running feet, so many of them, and
It is never an easy thing, losing a patient.
He had become numb to the fact that he was dying. He had been terminal for months. He gritted his teeth and ploughed through each day.
She knew who he was, of course. She recognised his face the first time he walked into her surgery.
She had slyly Googled his name later that afternoon.
Retired footballer, consumed by disease. If he had been in one of the bigger teams, the press wouldn’t have left him alone. It’s fortunate for him, really, that he retired years ago.
It’s hardest for the loved ones, usually, but he has – had – no family that she needs to tell. She had pitied him, but in a strange, perverse way she can’t help feeling that it is a blessing. It is an impossible feat, having to wrench the hope from the tear-stained relatives, having to tell them what they know already, somehow. They are the ones who will feel the weight of the loss, the blow that strikes again, and again.
He was always alone. She asked him, once, whether he would like to have somebody there with him for his next appointment. Somebody you trust, she had said. A friend, or relative, or – ? He had snorted, and she did not ask him again.
It does not feel real, not yet.
“I’m afraid Anthony has passed away,” she informs the empty room.
Her gaze lingers over his file. Gently, she closes the cover.
‘Patient’ was published in 2016 as part of the UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing anthology, Undertow.