Mum loved Andrew Lloyd-Webber. To me, that was always disappointing. But then, Mum read The Daily Mail, so it wasn’t really a surprise.
‘You watch X-Factor,’ she’d said.
‘Completely different - that’s ironic.’
‘Everything is,’ she said. ‘With you.’
I think of Mum a lot here. When they play Puccini on the radio, O Mio Bambino Caro (Mum only knew it as a song from a film) I listen on the plastic headsets they give out on the ward. I try not to think about hospital-acquired infections.
I’ve been here for 23 days. Another broken bone. I remember hearing the snap, seeing it poking out. They give me painkillers, but they don’t work. Doctors gather around me, asking questions. How long have I been an addict? Do I want to tell them anything?
‘Can’t you just fix me? Give me something that’ll help?’
‘It’s not that simple,’ they say.
It never is.
They go away, but I know they’ll be back. With more questions. I have one for them; my skin is peeling, oozing. Where does it come from - all this liquid seeping out of me?
Nurse Dreary comes to change my dressings. ‘How are we feeling today? Do we want to talk about anything?’ She means the fire. They always mean the fire.
‘No. Do you?’
Mrs Jhonny brings bananas. Yellow is not my favourite colour. I don’t invite her to sit down. Luckily, Mrs Jhonny’s bananas are turning black. I still keep her standing.
Mrs Jhonny is Spanish, I think. Or Dutch? She used to clean Mum’s flat. Once a week. Then Mum died, and I asked her to come every other. I couldn’t afford her so often. Plus, I’m tidier than Mum. I’m tidier than most people.
Mrs Jhonny looks at the chair by my bed. I ignore her gaze and tell her that it’s partly her fault I broke my wrist. She stares back at me blankly, her mask for hostility.
‘The smudge,’ I say, ‘in the bathroom.’
‘Smudge?’ Oh, she’s clever, Mrs Jhonny. Very clever.
‘On the window-frame. Really, you should have cleaned it.’
‘Ah, that smudge. But I couldn’t reach.’
This is Mrs Jhonny’s excuse for everything. ‘Never tall enough,’ she’d say in Mum’s lounge, chatting away the first of her two hours, slurping coffee, sipping into time she should’ve spent hovering, polishing, wiping smudges, her packet of dusters on the table, unopened, like dead canaries in a bag. ‘Just one more cigarette, then I start, Mr Leo, yes-no?’ And sucking on her fag, Mrs Jhonny’d tell the same story every week, then every other; why she never made the Olympic ice-skating team. But she came - Mrs Jhonny’d narrow a gap between finger and thumb – this close; something to do with her perfect circles in the ice not being perfect enough.
Mrs Jhonny leaves the bananas by my bed. I nod – my shorthand for ‘thanks, and tell her I’m having to let her go, seeing as….I can’t really say it’s on account of the bananas, can I? ….seeing as….I turn towards my arm in plaster, like this explains everything, that if she’d done her job I wouldn’t lying here now, with no pain relief.
Mrs Jhonny shuffles out of the ward, forlorn. Oh, she’s good – a born actress.
When she’s gone, I do my best Mrs Jhonny impression to amuse Nurse Dreary; the first pair of ice-skates, the cracks in the terracotta tiles when she put them on in Mama’s apartment, too excited to wait until the rink. And mama so angry about broken tiles, making me eat all the prawns in the paella, and me not liking prawns, not at all. Then Mama so proud, but then so sad. So close to being pick for team and only slipping one time - not like tall girls who slip every day, and not just on the ice. Putas who do things with trainer I never do. They make team. Me not – even with better circles. So, instead of Winter Olympics, I tour Europe and Far East in Flamenco Ice Spectacular. Big success. Flames of Andulusia (this I say with as much hiss and spit as I can manage; not difficult, given my body is sizzling in fluids.) But Russian lady on ice tour? Useless. Not know axel jump from selko but still they change me for her. Younger yes, and taller. Also cheaper. After that, show flop. What they expect?
Nurse Dreary looks at me. She wonders, politely, if I’m not being a little racist. Me? A racist? I tell her mockery is the only relief I have. And if Mrs Jhonny had talked less, worked more, I wouldn’t have been balanced on the bathtub, cleaning smudges, slipping, snapping bone.
Nurse Dreary looks confused. Not sure what to think now are you, fuck-face?
‘I’ve seen your notes,’ she says. ‘About the other times. The other…’ she looks embarrassed for a second, ‘…attempts.’
What is this? She thinks she’s a lawyer now? About to trap me with her razor-sharp intellect?
‘If you mean the bridge,’ I yawn. ‘That was an accident.’
I spell it out for her; September, one a.m., me freewheeling on the pavement over Albert Bridge, arms in the air, singing along to Cruel Summer. I lost my balance, my arm wedged in the railings. Snap. Simple. Yes, I may have been drunk.
And then I lay there, gazing out over the river. Lovely it looked at high-tide, dark currents flowing east to the North Sea where Dad used to work on the container ships, the gold on its surface dancing from the strings of light across the bridge. It was still pretty at low-tide, sun rising, when the road sweepers found me, half delirious by then. I asked them if this was a musical, and were they real cockneys, or just acting?
‘But why were you on the bridge?’ asks Nurse Dreary.
That’s all she can say?
I offer her a banana.
‘Oh, thank-you.’ She holds out her hand.
‘As if,’ I say.
Nurse Dreary shakes her head and walks off.
Teatime and someone has brought flowers. Not for me. A nurse says they’re not allowed now. I blame the EU.
I took lilies to Mum’s grave. She’d have preferred yellow chrysanths. But I just couldn’t do it.
Dr Mince says we need to have a little chat. ‘So many broken bones in so little time?’
‘Is that a song?’
Dr Mince laughs, professionally. ‘Risk-taking,’ he begins.
I reach for the headphones.
‘…is often a symptom of...’
I turn up the volume. Puccini. Again. Fuck, is that all they have?
Dr Mince gently unplugs the wire from the socket. Now that really is risk-taking, or it would be if my body wasn’t one huge weeping scab.
He clears his throat, begins again. ‘Encounters,’ – Dr Mince means sex - ‘in anonymous settings…’
‘Nurse Dreary’s been telling tales, hasn’t she?’
‘It’s her job,’ says Dr Mince.
‘To recognise behaviours that might be considered self-destructive.’ Dr Mince is referring to another one of my unlucky accidents. Really, I only told Nurse Dreary to shock her. If I’d known she’d go blabbing…
This time it’s Christmas; there’s a plastic tree, a banner – Season’s Greetings to All Our Customers, another sign beside it, laminated: Non-Slip Floors Can Still Be Slippery When Wet. White towels and disinfectant, caution thrown to the wind in the steam-room. Greedy mouths and fingers, tongues – I added this part, especially for Nurse Dreary. Waste of time - her face stayed blank as slate.
A slip in the dark. Snap. Groans mistaken for moans. If it wasn’t for Health & Safety, the staff – mostly pretty Brazilians here to learn English – might never have found me. The hourly wipe-down is when he came with sponge, a bored boy with better things to do, like homework, and getting to grips with Active and Passive verbs. He shone his torch into my eyes, scanned me with its weak beam, saw the bone sticking out. Looked twice to make sure it was a bone. And then he carried me – another time and it would’ve been the most romantic thing that’s ever happened to me - to the plastic sofas where the customers have cappuccinos and watch porn. On the way I noticed a mucky smear on the glass door. Cleaning a place like that, it must be heartbreaking.
Dr Mince has been on a training course. You can tell from his cardigan, the way he listens and nods, non-committal, non-judgemental. ‘How are you feeling today?’ he asks.
‘We need to talk about the fire,’ he says.
I peel a banana.
‘I’ll come back later,’ says Dr Mince. ‘When you’re feeling…stronger.’ Is he being sarcastic? Little shit.
I know what they’re doing - trying to make everything simple, neat, tidy. That’s what Mrs Jhonny was for. But all I got from her was the same old, same old. A little smudge in Mum’s bathroom – that’s all I asked her to clean - on a window painted shut so the walls turned mouldy.
I once said to Mum ‘you should get a man in, to fix that.’
‘Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?’ her voice was ashy, scratching, like she’d put pieces of coal in her heart and shaken it.
I’d have liked it better if she’d never got ill.
Nurse Dreary is back with the methadone; it acts as both detox and pain relief. I do some more Mrs Jhonny for her; on the ice how free I feel. Like swan – but these days all gone now. I wait for Nurse Dreary’s censure. It doesn’t come. She reaches for my hand, holds it tight in both of hers – a gesture of compassion? Prayer?
‘Fuck off,’ I shout.
‘Tell me about the fire,’ she whispers, murmury, soft. Blandly kind. ‘You’ll feel better.’
‘What is this – a fucking mental ward?’
Nurse Dreary doesn’t answer, just stands there, silent.
Fuck. Perhaps this isn’t Orthopaedics after all? I retch and Nurse Dreary grabs a bowl. I spit bile into it. Take that, you bitch.
Nurse Dreary walks off. There’s a ladder in her tights. Sloppy.
Mrs Jhonny once said – her coffee was cold on the table and I was fiddling with her packet of dusters, hoping she’d get the hint - that if only her daughter were more like me, looking after Mama when she so sick. Her daughter - not even pay for ticket back home. Seville? Amsterdam? I can’t remember.
Eventually she’d got the hoover out, and done a turn round the lounge. But the noise, it upset Mum so I’d asked her to turn it off. Mrs Jhonny went all sentimental, did her on the ice how free I feel, like swan, but these days, all gone. Jesus, I thought, if Mrs Jhonny carries on like this, Mum’ll die of boredom, before she dies of cancer.
Dr Mince is becoming devious. ‘Hypothetically,’ he peers over glasses balanced dangerously close to the end of his nose. Such a cliché. Does he do it to look reassuring? Cleverer than he is? I bet he lives alone, plays backgammon online with strangers. ‘…if there was a fire, I think I know what happened.’
‘Then why are you asking me?’
‘Closure,’ he says. ‘Part of the healing process.’ He has broken veins on his cheeks. From drink? Bad genes?
Two thirds of my body is flaking off, leaking pus and plasma on to my sheets. ‘And this will help my healing how?’
Dr Mince taps his head. ‘Here,’ he says. His finger catches the chain on his glasses, knocking them from his nose. I laugh. Pain shoots through my body, electric and raw.
At the end of the summer, when you couldn’t tell if the rattling was Mum’s lungs or the finials on her brass bed, I wished she’d hurry up and die. Soon as the thought had formed in my head, I wanted to take it back. But you can’t, can you? It stayed there, a guilty stain.
‘The drugs, the fire,’ Nurse Dreary says. ‘You wanted to…’
I can’t do this now. I wave my plastered arm towards the bananas, scabs crack and weep. ‘Take them away, please.’
Nurse Dreary hesitates, suspicious. Another one of my tricks?
Die. That’s what she was going to say. But she’s wrong. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to forget.
24 days I’ve been here now. Apparently, I’m not getting any better. Bones aren’t setting. There is talk of operations, grafts, transfusions. Dr Mince reckons that on the index measuring percentage of body area burnt, I’m at 75%.
‘Seventy-five?’ I say. ‘That’s a pass, right?’
Nurse Dreary is having a day off. I wonder what she gets up when she’s not here. Probably stuck at home, waiting for her new corner-sofa to be delivered. Nurse Sulk is on. Brisk, chilly, over-plucked eyebrows. Overweight.
‘Have you ticked your choices on the menu for tonight’s supper?’ Her breath is sour, damp.
‘Menu? Insult more like.’
‘You should eat something,’ she says.
‘You shouldn’t,’ I tell her.
She walks off.
There’s a lot of that on this ward.
I buried Mum the day after the August Bank Holiday. I thought she’d always be there. You do, don’t you? And then I went for a bike ride. But Dr Mince, he talks of risk-taking behaviours and symptoms. He wants to turn everything into a diagnosis.
Fractured tibia and third degree burns not good enough?
Maybe tomorrow, I’ll tell him about a fire, if that’s what he wants. Anything for a bit of peace and quiet. I’ll say it couldn’t have come at a better time, except for poor Elsa, of course; the stupid cat-flap let her in alright, but wouldn’t let her out again. It was always doing that, and the whole flat stank of cat pee.
And maybe I’ll say, I wanted to feel free – like swan, on ice.
Pain Relief by Magnus Norman was read by Kevin Potton at the Liars' League Fire & Ice event at The Wheatsheaf in London on Tuesday 8 December 2009.
Magnus Nelson divides his time between London and Bath. His first novel was universally rejected. Undeterred, he’s working on his second, Electrocuting Elephants. He also writes short stories; some have been shortlisted or won prizes. His work has been performed at Live-Lit events and on the radio.
Kevin Potton won the BBC Grace Wyndham Goldie Trust scholarship to train for three years at East 15 Acting School, an institution renowned for the ‘method’ approach. He was described by the founder and then principal of East 15, Margaret Walker, as a ‘truly transformational actor’. Kevin is a trained singer with versatility and comic flair.