Delia Radu

Dread all over the body – red all over the body. Could you send a picture, the surgery nurse said, just pop it in the link I’m texting right now. Day before yesterday. Horror nude photo. Rob took it, she was too weak to fuss with the phone camera. Not to worry, the nurse said, this has just slipped into the latest list of symptoms but breaking out in a rash is a trifle, how’s the breathing, how’s the oxygen? Those were okay. And now in ambulance bed. Brief look at the insides of her hands: palms like puffer fish with some more appended puffer fish to make up for fingers. Her whole frame is of an inflated puffer fish. Red, hot, no, freezing. The paramedic unbolts hatch above bed; plucks out blanket: wave of mint-green bursting in the air; then spreading out all over her. Stupid blurred mind thinks mint’s for cooling skin down, green’s lush-warm: lucky, just the thing for her this lucky-charm-balm-blanket. The paramedic wraps her up. His hands must be made of air. And Rob’s hands? Stupid question: if she doesn’t know which material and immaterial materials Rob’s hands are made of then who does? If she’s not alive to with by those hands then who is? But of late they hurt even at the lightest touch: when she fell over in the hall and her feet wouldn’t carry her anymore, Rob lifted-hurt, held-hurt, helped-hurt her back to bed. Where is he? Law-bound to isolate. Caught bloody virus first. But milder his. Rob’s hands only moments ago: waving as ambulance door snapped shut.

The ambulance stops; this is it; this isn’t it; it’s overcrowded indoors in A&E reception so they’ll stay put for a bit. The paramedic smiles. She nods: getting harder and harder for blurred mind to ooze out words. Besides, the warmth in the man’s smile is so real and deep it chokes her up. Just like his warming-cooling-cocoon-blanket. A poor fish who’s in a bad way needs only that little to be awestruck with gratitude. Would some fresh air be okay, he asks now. Nod. Door snapped open. Square of air severe clouds severe blue wet leaves shedding haze of dew all around near and far even over her sore eyelids. Man’s jumped outside. Talking to a nurse. They say they’ll go on strike like the rail and bar people they’ll – she can’t hear anything anymore because on the inside of her head a dark greyness happens. She’s falling; can’t be; she’s lying face up in ambulance trolley right here; but falling – not from here, no, from a big height. The paramedic’s back by her side: some water? Nod. He does some toing and froing between her and A&E reception then says you’re in and folds the blanket around her like a shawl with all the gentleness of all the gentle people on earth then hands her over to the porter who also helps with hoisting her into the wheelchair.

In is not in-in – it’s a great river of people. Wheelchair clamped at end of row of chairs. Listen for your name, the porter says, they’ll call you asap. She leans forward. Faint. Falling from a big height. The dark greyness spilling inside the head, again. Mustn’t lose it if so a lost one lost for good won’t make out name when they call her won’t be admitted in-in. Brief look around: corridor. Not one river of patients but two; parallel: people jammed along opposite walls that don’t appear to end anywhere. Straight across from her: a wheel-chaired man; skin and bones; trembly; hair like iced-up grasses. Next to him: a mother; child in her lap listless; no, shouldn’t say think liken to pietà; blaze of blue and yellow: a tote bag, stripy; wedged between chair’s armrest and madonna’s hip. Next: man chubby blond bearded. Next: man young lanky nervy; resting elbows on knees; shapely hands. Next: toilet; unisex; swing door. Next: a blur – the dark greyness stealing over her again. She stoops down, eyes closed,

But now awake. Thin white-haired man’s been taken away. Madonna still around; one hand cupped under toddler’s head; the other pulling paper hanky from tote. The bearded man is coming out of the toilet; bang goes the swing door. The young man with shapely hands walks along the corridor. Springy steps. Awake, and from now on she must force the stupid eyes to stay awake. But how? Cartoon toothpicks holding them open? If only she could laugh even just in the head even just a tiny bit. So faint. And the greyness now rising in the eyes every other minute. And under each of the second man’s springy steps the floor jerks up. She knows it doesn’t. Though it just does. By now the first man, Bearded, no, too weak in the head, she thinks of him as Be, Be’s made a bee – she’s still after a tiny laugh – line towards her, plopped his chubbiness on seat next to her. Got something like a cardboard cowboy hat in his hands: a single-use bedpan; sticks cardboard hollow between thighs; leans over it; clears throat; fills it with as many gobs of phlegm as he can muster; olive glossy somewhat elastic; arranges used bedpan in his stead on seat next to her; creepy offering; but the good gods of NHS won’t take offence; they must have seen much worse; they let Be be; so now he goes to reception and glues himself to the glass enclosure yelling this is crap how long before I’m seen by doctor shit-shit-shit you treat me like shit I won’t take shit from a bunch of pieces of shit. All eyes on Be now. But he stops yelling just as suddenly as he started and retreats in his old seat next to the madonna. All quiet. Until the other man, the one with springy steps, needs the toilet; bounce goes the door – in; then he comes out with a capital-B- Bounce; Bo, in her head he’s Bo now; and as Bo’s out of the loo Be’s in; and then Be’s out in next to no time. Lights swinging, flashing. They don’t. It’s the toilet neon bright glow discharged into leaden corridor air when door slams a shift from too much light to just enough.

The greyness again. Thick tide rising in the eyes. Falling. Leaning forward. Eyes shut. Hot, no, freezing cold. Lucky-charm-balm-blanket has fallen off her swollen shoulders ages ago.

Someone’s folding the blanket around her, now, with all the gentleness of all the gentle people on earth. Bo, the man with shapely hands. He does this with one hand, only. It feels so good, no, because while he does this his other hand clasps and gently-gently lifts the old plastic supermarket bag that rests – no, not anymore – that was until a moment ago resting in her lap: her hospital bag. She’s stunned by her own guttural no, by the atavistic energy powering her useless puffer-fish-like hands to grab the pitiful bag, pull it back, fight him for it. Bag jerked up and down. A couple of moments. He lets go. Meanwhile everyone’s staring at Be who’s yelling and making a new scene in front of the reception desk. Bo still with her quietly busying himself around her like some huge spider. Why won’t he leave her alone now? No, Bo keeps fiddling with her talisman-blanket and bends down to whisper into her ear, still gently-gently, shush chill we good. And she – not able to budge. Like hell we good. He’s lingering because he expects her to fall in a faint in a minute. But no, he moves away – for now. Pacing up and down in the corner of her eye.

Barely a thing in the old plastic bag. Rob, back in their flat: full of love, covid, panic; no clue how what to pack for her while waiting for the ambulance. She thinks she said toothbrush. She thinks Rob dropped in a nightie. Clothes for when she’s out: none. She wouldn’t fit into anything anyway as she is now a giant inflated puffer fish. Phone plus charger must be the most useful things in the bag. Bo wouldn’t disagree. Where is he? Not too close, not too far.

He’s back. She struggles to straighten up in the wheelchair. Trapped. Can’t ask for help. Stupid exhausted mind won’t allow even a syllable out. She wonders how she managed to say no to him, the first time. Careful, he’s stretching his hand towards her. Again. He touches his hand to her bag but doesn’t grab hold of it he’s just patting it as if it were a puppy: good-little-baggie. Then off he goes.

They’ve been calling many names. This time they call the name of the ill child. The madonna hurries towards the open gate. She can see her from behind: not just the arms, the woman’s entire trunk appears wrapped around the child; curved shell of flesh shielding the other little helpless body. Hang on: and the blue and yellow tote the woman fumbled in for hankies? Neither on woman’s shoulder nor where she sat. Never mind. In every mother’s book tot beats tote. Bo wouldn’t disagree.

Her own name now. But called from ten feet away from her wheelchair. No way to speak, no way to turn herself around – she lifts one arm in the air. They don’t spot her. They call her name out once more. Arm in the air. Nothing. Last call. Nightmare. This time they see her.

In-in. Quick bright Ariels by her side. They wheel her away for a few tests but otherwise she rests in bed tied to the drip stand and they consult her in this small room and bring certain machines in here for more tests. Some results pretty bad. But they start her on several treatments. Text message to Rob; puffer-fish-like fingers in slow-motion mode; thank goodness for autocomplete; some words compose themselves at once: blood-thinner, acute injury, inflammatory overdrive; thank goodness machine’s okay with repeats: fab-fab-fab ppl here, she types, they look after me so-so-so well; esp Ebru, she adds, but no, the phone’s turned her nurse’s name’s into Evri, the new Hermes with the parcels; if only she could have a tiny laugh; she types the name again; presses send. Ebru, Ebru. Ebru is after all her new Hermes. Ebru has winged feet. Ebru is subtle. Ebru’s injections don’t hurt even when they do. Ebru answers all the questions before they fall from someone’s lips. Ebru doesn’t mind bringing the commode in. Ebru is beautiful. Ebru has eyelashes of black silk.

Ebru’s just got in with good news: they’re due to go to the ME ward now. Helps her get into the wheelchair. Leaves her facing the window and dashes out to find a porter.
She looks outside. On the other side of the window, silhouetted against the afternoon light, she sees the torsos of two men, the blond and dark backs of their heads and the shimmering end of the cigarette they’re sharing. The men look at one another and laugh now so she can see their faces in profile: Be and Bo. Best friends. She follows their movements as if on a big screen. Be’s now having the final puff. No, final-final puff goes to Bo whose hand stretches once more towards her – to stub cig in window box. Be puts his arm around Bo’s waist and thus entwined they make straight for the exit: Baloo and Bagheera, she thinks. Walking away together at the end of the old cartoon. Couple of bare necessities of life on them. Light stuff. Bigger belongings of A&E bums chucked in bathroom medical waste bin during all those door-banging trips to the loo. Be’s serial bursts of outrage? Oldest trick in the jungle. And the bedpan? A warning marker planted next to a piece of easy meat. Keep-Your Distance signage. In the age of isolation by fiat – isolation by phlegm.

Baloo and Bagheera are now passing through the main hospital gate. They fade into the distance, under the trees, Jungle-Bookishly, watched by Bloat from Finding Nemo who’s waiting to be wheeled to – Ebru’s told her just now what ME is: Major Emergency.

Delia Radu

Delia Radu is a journalist, writer and translator. Born and educated in Bucharest, she’s lived and worked in London since 1999. Her journalistic work was published on the BBC News website and BBC Sounds. Her literary work has appeared in the Cardinal Points Literary Journal, Litro, Circumference, Mantis and Acumen.

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