Whenever, as they did now, the automatic doors at the hospital entrance closed behind her, Katie Jenkinson (she called herself Katie James when performing) would walk along the corridor, with thin coloured lines along the linoleum floor to direct patients to various departments, feeling uneasy. She had a medical condition which, though neither acute nor particularly serious, she preferred to forget whilst she led her life; visiting the hospital brought her condition home to her, as well as reminding her of other, and even more unpleasant, realities. The hospital was not her ramshackle local one but a specialist unit that, reaching with innumerable stories into the sky, was situated a few miles away from her rented flat. Today she was attending a clinic in order to have a simple procedure carried out upon her: the third in a series of infusions of iron.
She walked along the busy corridor on the ground floor, past a display of paintings by local amateur artists and a vast cafeteria used by staff as well as patients and visitors. She was a slim, attractive woman in her early forties, wearing a smart, matching skirt and jumper. Though her face was lined, she looked younger than her age; her long, curled, dark brown hair was fashionably cut, and her shapely figure was that of a thirty year old, even if she was bothered by a slight thickening of her belly and had been thinking of joining a gym. But she was too self-critical of slight imperfections: she turned more than one male head as she proceeded on her way through the hospital maze. Yet she was not married, nor at present even had a boyfriend; she had never had a child either. She could not have explained why this was so. Perhaps she had been unlucky; perhaps at some level she distrusted men; perhaps she had been hindered by conflicting ambitions and intentions. It was unclear. She was a dreamy individual, and lived in something of a dream.
She turned towards the lifts and squeezed into one that was going up. She folded her arms in the lift and took care that she touched no one and that no one touched her. An automated voice announced the arrival of the cramped capsule at each floor. She looked with envy at the boarding doctors or nurses, their identity badges on display; they didn’t have a medical condition. To think that on the previous evening she had been part of their normal, healthy, flawless world, singing in a café-bar in Hoxton. Katie had a part-time job in a bank, but it was song-writing and performing that took up most of her time and gave expression to her dreams and ambitions. Part of her wanted to be a star, though even she could sometimes see that this wasn’t likely now at her age. And even if you were a star… look at what Pavarotti had achieved, and now he was dead.
She escaped the lift on the sixth floor and walked along yet another corridor towards the clinic. She felt sealed off from the world up here; cleaning staff went silently about their work, and a very sick patient was wheeled past her, his head buried in his pillow. Yet only yesterday she had performed, accompanying herself on the piano, for nearly half an hour in the brightly lit café-bar, and received more than a smattering of applause at the end from the thirty or so customers. Her music was dreamy and ethereal, sung in a high soft voice. She thought of it as superior pop, inspired by classical influences, such as the Romantic composers; she had had some musical training. Recently she had hired the use of a studio and had been putting together a demo CD; this had cost her most of the savings she had made from her job in the bank. She thought of it as money well spent, although she could get depressed sometimes at the lack of real progress in her music career. She could not seem to advance from singing in small venues for a pittance.
The corridor narrowed; etchings by more unknown artists lined the walls; there was a draft from somewhere. Then the gleaming floor inclined for a few yards; she had arrived at her department: a ward to the left, an outpatients’ clinic to the right. She turned right and reported to the reception counter. The clinic was packed; there was hardly a free seat in the whole big room. Katie was puzzled: she had been asked to come this morning because they wouldn’t be particularly busy. Still, she would be seeing a member of the nursing staff, not one of the doctors. She sat down and waited.
As well as being crowded, it was uncomfortably warm in the clinic. Staff rushed about the place; notices on the walls warned of skin cancer through exposure to the sun, or advertised fundraising patients’ associations; a few patients in wheelchairs were left parked, stranded, in the aisles. Katie hadn’t brought a paper with her, and although she was not really attending the clinic, the wait turned out to be a long and tedious one; she realised that the nursing staff were busy after all. She occupied the time by developing in her mind a new song she was working on, though progress was slow without a piano.
Suddenly she became aware that she was being spoken to – had been, perhaps, for several moments. The woman sitting next to her had passed some remark. ‘Sorry?’ said Katie.
‘I said there’s always a shocking wait in this clinic. Too many patients, not enough doctors, that’s the problem,’ said the woman. She was in her sixties, round and fat, with a chubby, steroidal face; her hair was permed, and dyed an unnatural bronze colour. Her expression was sour.
‘I don’t really know,’ said Katie softly. ‘I don’t usually attend the clinic. I mean, I attend a clinic in this department sometimes, but not this one. Actually, I’ve come to see one of the nurses.’ She recognised that this sounded confusing, but she couldn’t help it: really, the woman was quite frightening.
‘I’ve been coming here for years to see Dr Parkman,’ said the woman. ‘He still wastes time by rushing out of his room every five minutes to go who knows where.’ She paused. ‘What’s your problem, dearie?’
‘Oh, nothing serious,’ said Katie.
‘Who told you that?’
‘Well, they always tell you that to start with. That’s what they told me.’
‘But really I haven’t anything…’
‘Since then,’ the woman continued, ‘I’ve had nothing but problems. I’ve had operations, umpteen tablets, years of dialysis, two transplants… sometimes you wonder whether it’s all worth it. I’m tired of it all.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Katie.
‘So don’t take too much notice of what doctors tell you,’ said the woman.
They were silent for a moment. Katie observed how the woman’s swollen feet and ankles poured over a pair of slipper-like shoes.
‘Still, my family’s been a great comfort to me,’ said the woman. ‘Are you married, dearie?’
‘No,’ said Katie.
‘What, a pretty girl like you?’
‘I’m not a girl any more.’
‘You’ve got about thirty years on me. Divorced?’
‘No, I’ve never been married.’
‘I can’t believe it.’
‘It’s true.’ Sometimes, hearing it spoken aloud, Katie could scarcely believe it herself. It was as though someone was shouting loudly and unpleasantly at her through her dream.
‘So you’ve no children?’ asked the woman.
‘I’ve got three. Two boys and a girl. They’re all grown up of course. I’ve two grandchildren as well now.’ She paused before adding reflectively: ‘Yes, a great comfort.’
‘They must be,’ said Katie.
‘Yes, it’s only my husband that causes me grief,’ laughed the woman. ‘Seriously, though, you ought to find yourself somebody. You’ll need someone to support you as your condition worsens.’
‘But my condition isn’t…’
‘I don’t know how I would have coped without Jack.’
They were quiet again, the woman glancing down at an out-of-date celebrity magazine on her lap. Katie thought about the boyfriends she had had: somehow she hadn’t been able to take that final step.
‘Mrs Gibbons?’ a man’s voice called out tentatively.
‘At last!’ said the woman. She stood up with effort, breathing heavily.
Katie peered along a corridor to their right. A distinguished-looking man with greying hair – Dr Parkman, presumably – was hovering outside a consulting room, a fat red file in his hand.
The woman patted Katie on the arm. ‘Take care, dearie. And good luck with your search,’ she said meaningfully. Then she waddled with difficulty towards the corridor and the awaiting Dr Parkman.
Katie felt sorry for her, though at another level she was relieved she didn’t have her health problems. It was depressing to be reminded of such things. But why did Mrs Gibbons assume that Katie’s condition would worsen? It worried Katie, and she had to reassure herself by recalling what the doctors had told her: that her condition was stable, treatable – she took pills – and not at all serious; they merely needed to ‘keep an eye’ on her for a while. In these days of medical frankness, there was no reason to doubt their word. She attended a clinic approximately every six months: that was hardly an indication of anything major. All the same, she couldn’t help seeing her condition as a flaw and a sign of weakness; it made her feel vulnerable.
She tried to get back to developing her new song, but somehow the hospital environment worked against concentration and creativity. She felt anxious, and she was increasingly irritated by the long wait to be seen; even the ranks of patients waiting to see a doctor had thinned. Eventually, however, a tall nurse in a pale blue uniform came up to her and said: ‘Katie Jenkinson?’
‘We’re ready for you now. Sorry about the delay, but we didn’t have a room.’
Katie followed the nurse along the corridor. On her previous two visits to undergo the same procedure, she had been looked after by a sister wearing the dark blue uniform. She didn’t like the change; moreover, she immediately had a bad feeling about this nurse. It wasn’t really because of the difference in rank; it was more because the nurse looked elderly – she probably wasn’t actually that old – and had a rough-looking face and a rough-sounding voice with a thick Scottish accent; the sister had been younger, with a soft Irish voice. Katie knew it was snobbish to think such a thing, but she felt that the nurse looked like a cleaning lady. And surely someone of her age should have been promoted by now?
The nurse led Katie into the first available room. There was a desk, a couple of chairs, an examination couch, and shelves of medical supplies. The nurse ushered Katie towards one of the chairs; next to it, there was an aluminium stand with, hanging from one of its pegs, a small transparent bag made fat by its dark brown contents. ‘That’s good stuff,’ said the nurse looking up at it. ‘It’ll put some life into you, sure enough.’
Katie considered that she had plenty of life in her already. She gritted her teeth and hoped that the procedure would go smoothly; somehow she doubted it would. ‘How have you been keeping?’ asked the nurse, her voice sounding as if she had spent the last twenty-four hours in a smoke-filled room. Her fair and grey hair was dry-looking too.
‘Fine,’ said Katie, as if there was no reason to expect otherwise.
‘That’s good,’ said the nurse absently, looking about her in the hope of setting her eyes on the equipment she wanted. ‘We’ll take some blood first, to keep a check on things, and then we can start the infusion. I just need to insert a cannula.’
However, she couldn’t seem to locate the needles; and when she had found them, she couldn’t find the pieces of gauze she wanted; and when she had found the gauze, she couldn’t lay her hands on the sticky tape. She scrabbled amongst the medical supplies, furiously sifting and lifting and tossing aside. ‘Now what’s happened to that…?’ Katie’s confidence in her diminished even further.
At last the nurse had everything she wanted spread out on the surface of a trolley. ‘What are your veins like?’ she asked.
‘Fine, as far as I know,’ said Katie, who pulled up the sleeve of her jumper.
The nurse tied a strip of rubber tubing tightly around Katie’s upper arm, then beat with her fingers – Katie noticed the wedding ring – on the veins in the crease of the elbow. ‘It’s looking good,’ she said.
Katie felt relieved. The nurse then picked up a needle and began to insert it into one of the veins. ‘Sharp scratch,’ she warned. But Katie felt more than a sharp scratch; she flinched with the pain. ‘Sorry,’ said the nurse. She jiggled the needle about: this hurt even more. Then she covered the needle with some sticky white tape and attached a syringe to the dangling cannula. But when she tried to take blood, very little would come out; she jiggled the needle again, causing Katie more pain. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the nurse, ‘but we’re going to have to start again. This isn’t working.’ She tore off the sticky tape and removed the needle, using a piece of gauze to soak up spots of blood. The inside of Katie’s elbow was a war zone. ‘Let’s see your other arm,’ said the nurse.
Katie obediently, if reluctantly, pulled up her other sleeve. Then the nurse began all over again, this time finding a prominent vein in Katie’s lower arm. ‘Who did you see last time?’
‘It was a sister, I think,’ said Katie.
‘A youngish one?’
‘She’s very young to be a sister.’
‘Aye. It can be just luck sometimes.’
Katie wasn’t so sure. She remembered how nice, and how competent, the sister had been.
The nurse picked up another needle. ‘If this doesn’t work,’ she said, ‘I’ll fetch someone else to do it. But I’m normally very good at this. I’ve spent years sticking tubes into dialysis patients.’
This time the insertion of the needle was even more painful than before, perhaps owing to the location of the vein. But at least it worked: when the nurse attached the syringe, the blood started to flow. When she had collected enough, she detached the syringe and laid it on the trolley. Then she connected a tube dangling from the transparent bag on the stand to the cannula in Katie’s arm. ‘We’re up and running,’ she said. Katie watched as the contents of the bag began to race down the long narrow tube and into her arm. The nurse adjusted the plastic regulator, so that the drip was slower, more stately. ‘How are you feeling?’ she asked.
‘I’m all right,’ said Katie, pleased that things seemed to be going smoothly at last.
The nurse went out of the room while the procedure continued, returning every so often to check on the patient and the state of the drip. The transparent bag began to shrink as its contents seeped into Katie. Katie’s thoughts maundered.
‘Almost there now,’ said the nurse eventually, gazing at the deflated bag. ‘I suppose you’ve been coming to the hospital for some time?’ she asked.
‘No, not really,’ said Katie. ‘My condition’s not serious.’
‘I don’t know the details of your case,’ said the nurse. ‘It’s just that most of our patients are with us for a long while. They become like old friends.’
Katie didn’t care for the sound of this. She wasn’t planning to be a patient long enough for friendship to develop.
‘That’s it,’ announced the nurse. ‘All finished.’
Katie could see that the long tube running down from the bag was now transparent rather than a dark red colour. The nurse disconnected the tube from the cannula; then, pressing on the area of the needle’s insertion with a piece of gauze, she withdrew the needle from Katie’s vein. Katie held out her arms awkwardly on the rests of the chair. There seemed to be blood everywhere: on her arms, on pieces of gauze, on the chair, on the aluminium trolley. There were even spots of blood on the floor. On Katie’s arms the smears of blood were accompanied by puncture marks and dark patches of developing bruises. The nurse pressed a piece of cotton wool to the place where the insertion had been, and then affixed it there with some sticky tape.
‘I bet you’re sorry you got me to look after you,’ she said. ‘You look like something out of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ She laughed.
Katie didn’t laugh. In fact, she was beginning to feel not well at all. She felt faint and somewhat dizzy. She told the nurse this.
‘You’d better lie down for a while before you go home. You can get this reaction sometimes.’
The nurse then helped Katie onto the unyielding examination couch, placing a folded blanket beneath her head to serve as a pillow. ‘I need to take your blood pressure,’ she said. ‘I’ll just have to pop out of the room for a second to find a machine.’
Before doing so, however, she pulled a blanket up over Katie to keep her warm, and as Katie lay there, hearing the nurse leave the room and then being aware of her eyelids gently closing, and with a sleepy consciousness of the world around her beginning to fade away to the sounds of her own ethereal music, she couldn’t help feeling as if – it was absurd, she knew – she would never leave this place again.
Graham Hubbard asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work