Shirley checked her bag twice to see if she’d put tissues inside. The kitchen windows needed cleaning. She could do that when she returned home later. The visit would be quick. She went into the downstairs bathroom, applied some lip gloss, post box red, bared her teeth like a lioness, rubbed them with her index finger, added a liberal smattering of perfume, and left the house, double-checking the front door before getting into the car. Charles had only been in the hospital for two days, but how she looked would matter. She couldn’t work out whether she missed him or the idea of him. It was easier at home without him there; she could hide her need for life to be ordered, along with her penchant for a glass of Pinot Grigio. It was never more than a glass or two, but the way he curled his lips to one side said enough. The cat would have to find something wild to eat tonight, she thought, as the lights turned red at the end of the street.
Roxanne blasted out of the car radio, seeping out through the open windows. Summer nights like these felt hot and sticky. She glanced at the man in the Mondeo next to her, assessing her, and she turned down the dial. Dialing down was something she had become skilled at, she’d spent her whole life doing it. The Mondeo man had a gray beard and round glasses. He wouldn’t approve of red lights or selling your body to the night. He wouldn’t approve of her lip gloss, either. She had wanted to make the effort for Charles, whatever state he was in. She’d been taught to keep herself free of makeup or wild impulses, in keeping with her Mormon upbringing, but it went against her nature. Now she would take it out on the bathroom, scrubbing and cleansing, bleaching every inch of the surfaces. Her own body, though, would no longer be subjected to the same disciplines.
I know my mind is made up, So put away your makeup, Told you once I won't tell you again. It’s a bad way. The street thrummed with music; sounds from the fairground in the park up the road threatened to drown out her own. She could hear the screams. That much fear is bad for your heart, her father had told her. It’s the thrill, she had said at the time, but he’d already walked away. Charles had walked away when she talked about the cat or the children. The only thing that interested him these days was classic cars or some current news item, as long as it didn’t involve global warming, because it didn’t exist. She had learned to stick to frivolous subjects that did not involve the non-existent warming of the planet, the cat or the children. The latter had already left home. It made her heart feel weak. He never talked about them, as though they didn’t exist, either.
The lights went green and a young boy, about the same age as her Brian, floored it down the street towards the edge of the city, hair all slicked back, music louder than hers. He wouldn’t have heard of The Police. What she wouldn't give to go back to those days with her whole life ahead of her. The hospital was a street away. The sun lowered over the tower blocks. Children lined the pavements with chalks and footballs; carefree. The scent of charred red meat rose up between the houses in billows of smoke. The hospital car park created the usual fiasco of digging around for the right change, Or you’ll be towed, M’am, the parking attendant had told her when she’d gone in to visit Jan, from her book group, who was Just in for a small procedure. Shirley had never found out exactly what it involved.
Inside, staff swirled around like the beginnings of a storm with the swooshing and circling of currents, picking up things as they gathered speed. Patients were being pushed about on beds and in wheelchairs. Doctors moved swiftly and without looking up. A lady at reception was telling someone to Please come in to see a doctor. She hated the accident and emergency department. It reminded her of her brother, Ronnie, breaking his ankle in football at school. The smell of disinfectant made her queasy.
“Can you tell me where the cardiology ward is, please? I haven’t been before,” she said, as a nurse passed her with a tray of meds.
“Take the lift up to the fourth floor and it’s on your right.”
Shirley nodded, but the nurse had already gone, talking as she moved, her voice disappearing off down the corridor. The lift was empty. It stopped on the second floor. A lone man got in and stood away from her on the other side, didn’t look up, checked his watch. She always felt safer when people didn’t look directly at her, although she felt ridiculous thinking this as a grown woman. The lift juddered to a halt on the third floor. He got out. An elderly lady was waiting with a nurse, and holding a walking frame with a crocheted bag hanging from the top. They stepped in gently. Shirley pressed the button to hold the lift. The nurse nodded, put her arm on the back of the lady, rearranged the drip that was attached to a stand. Moving all of this metal between a fixed floor and a moving floor looked precarious, but she suspected that they were used to it. She had probably seen too many horror films, expected something to be severed. These were the kinds of thoughts that she couldn’t share, not with Charles, not with anyone. She turned to look in the mirror behind her, pulled out the red lip gloss, and reapplied it liberally. She pursed her lips together, got out on the fourth floor, and turned right.
The corridor was long and stark, with insipid green walls and a fire extinguisher with a ‘break glass press here’ sign on a red box on the wall just above. Charles did not appear to be in any of the rooms, which were mostly filled with older men, much older than him. In one room, a whole family had gathered and machines were beeping. She wondered whether he was, perhaps, nearing the end of his life, partly because she had seen a priest hovering in the corridor. In another, a lady sat knitting, watching a man sleep. She stopped to look at Shirley as she passed. It was a soulless place, not somewhere you would choose to be. Where was Charles? Had he left?
“Excuse, me?” she said at the nurse’s station, “Is there a Charles Stephens? I can’t find him.”
“Who are you?” asked a small nurse with her hair slicked back into a high ponytail, curls spilling out. She was holding some papers in one hand and tablets in another.
“His wife. I’m his wife, Shirley Stephens.”
“Right, well, he’s a little groggy. We’ve given him some strong pain medication. I’ll take you. I’m going that way. He’s in room 406.”
“Thank you,” said Shirley, wondering how they could deal with the stench of bleach and patients in pain, or worse, near the end of life. The place needed flowers, she thought, then she remembered that flowers were not allowed. The nurse led her to room 406, dropping off things on the way, swirling in and out of rooms the way she had seen in the entrance to the accident and emergency department: a storm brewing.
“There you, go,” said the nurse, “he’s here.” She disappeared off down the corridor. The priest was still in sight.
Charles was asleep. Shirley went in and sat down next to him, felt his forehead. It was cool to the touch. He was hooked up to machines. She wasn’t entirely sure what they were doing to his body, but it wasn’t life support, because this was not the intensive care unit. She would know if she was there. The room was darkened a little, squeezing out as much joy as a room where no flowers were allowed.
Shirley thought back to how they had met at the docks and how he had been youthful and robust, sweeping her up in his arms when she was eighteen, and about how the years had dialed him down, too. The spark that they had initially felt, replaced by a deep loyalty to one another, despite her constant cleaning and his incessant ramblings about cars and politics. She loved him, she knew that much. He could be a fool, of course, but she wasn’t naive enough to think he would be perfect, knew she would be devastated if he was nearing the end of life. He opened his eyes, squeezed her hand, turned his head towards her and gave a half-smile.
“Are you in pain, my love?” she asked.
“A little, but the nurses gave me something to help. It’s made me sleepy. You came?”
“Of course I came. Do you think I would leave you in here alone?”
“You’re always going on about the parking and I know how much you hate these places.”
“Maybe, but I wouldn’t just leave you and not visit.” He squeezed her hand again, gave her another half smile.
“Your lips look pretty,” he said. Shirley looked away, felt uncomfortable with the compliment, as though she didn’t deserve it. “How’s the house? Everything ok?”
“Yes,” she said, “Rachel’s coming home at the weekend. She said she’d pop in to see you.” She wouldn’t usually mention this, but it was important.
“There’s no need,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
“You’re her father, Charles. Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous would be having a heart attack,” he said. “I’m fit and healthy one minute and the next I wake up in this Godforsaken place.”
“It’s not Godforsaken,” she said, “Don’t be disrespectful, my love.”
“It’s not disrespectful, Shirley, and anyway, God would hardly check himself into a place like this, now, would he?”
Shirley smiled, although she felt that was also disrespectful. She liked his bluntness, the way he said all the things she was too afraid to say herself. “There’s nothing wrong with your mind, Charles, I’ll give you that, or your tongue for that matter.” They both smiled and he closed his eyes.
The nurse came in. “Everything alright?” she asked.
“Yes, can he have some more light? It’s quite dark in here. Do you know how long he’ll be in for?”
The nurse walked over to the windows and opened the blinds a fraction. It hardly made any difference to the light in the room. “He’ll be here at least a week. We’ll keep an eye on him and we will let you know. He needs to go on some medication for his blood pressure, though, but the doctor will explain it to you both.
“Blood pressure?” asked Shirley.
“The doctor will talk to him,” said the nurse, as she moved towards the door, trying to leave the room, like a beetle scuttling away from a predator.
“But his blood pressure has always been fine,” said Shirley.
“I think that’s unlikely,” said the nurse. He had a heart attack, Mrs. Stephens. I have to go, I have other patients to see.” She vanished, as though Shirley was about to swallow her up.
Shirley couldn’t understand why his heart attack was induced by high blood pressure when Charles had always told her it was fine. Had he not gone to the doctor? Had he lied? Why didn’t she know? Her chest felt tight and she wanted to go home and clean the kitchen windows.