The hospital ward is a space where anything can happen and where a different life takes over. On our one the metal bed frames are cream, as are the curtains we can pull around for privacy. Even the walls, floor tiles and the ceiling are shades of the same cream colour. There are six beds in two lines of three, pushed back against opposite walls and they are identical in every way. Blue covers lie over white sheets, and men of all shapes, lengths and sizes manage to look at least comfortable in the narrow beds. Poles from the ceiling carry the curtains which demarcate the separate bed areas; we share a rail between us, so if I pull my side curtain it opens onto the man beside me. Windows run along the wall opposite the door and are about two or three feet from the floor. Old windows now, large rectangles of aluminium-framed double glazing, throwing in warmth when the sun shines. The toilet is up and opposite me, and the sliding door is always open, which I’m always closing. I don’t want to see or smell it; the idea of germs is strong enough without a regular reminder. Next to my bed is the shower room, not used much and always clean; during my time I’m to only one to take a shower, though I’m probably the only one capable of washing myself too. This is the view from my bed while I read and watch the people coming and going, the doctors the nurses, the carers and the cleaners. The men who really fascinate me though are the shavers.
It’s an act of kindness and dignity to shave another man when he is incapable of such a simple task. The men who come to shave the patients do so with that dignity, as if it’s an honour. Watching them carefully applying a damp cloth to the bare face and dabbing the skin to get the bristles wet is very beautiful, as so many simple, everyday things can be when watched at a remove. They then tuck a towel under the chin, as if preparing to feed soup to a child, and the patient sits still while the cream is applied by brush. After wetting the razor, the man gets to work. The strokes are so careful, not a cheek nicked, and in the silence you hear the gentle rhythm as the razor slides the cream off the face, cutting the bristles as it goes. The man rinses the razor in his bowl of water each time, and freshly shaved skin begins to reappear with each stroke. The shaver talks with each patient, though once the shaving starts the banter from the man with the razor is answered only by a meeting of eyes, a raised eyebrow or a very slight nod. Without this fun, would it be embarrassing for the men? Is having to be shaved a sign of their incapacity, as shaving was something they always did themselves?
I wonder what the men do when not shaving, as they dress the same as the porters. Are they hospital staff who do the job as part of their daily routine, or are they dedicated shavers, doing the rounds of the wards and care homes? Do the shavers tell strangers in the pub that they shave old men for a living? Is it something they are proud of, or is it a job they keep silent? I hope they realize how important their work is to the men here. If you are clean-shaven all your life the feeling of bristle reminds you of uncleanliness, and you get a boost after a shave. The patients in the ward certainly appreciate the work; you can see it in their smiles.
The man opposite me must be in his 90s and is close to death. Family members come and go and usually leave in tears. They hold his hands and tell how much they love him, though he never wakes. This morning he gets a shave, the shaver chatting with him as he lathers the tiny face and removes the cream with his blade. The man will leave this world in the early afternoon, peacefully and without a bristle on his face.
The man from the bed by the window follows me down to the TV room. While I watch the football he sits on a chair by the wall away to my right. A tall man, probably around my age and dressed in chequered pyjamas, he’s not wearing a dressing gown but is in slippers and socks. Behind the strong-looking glasses, his eyes move in separate orbits. We make small talk about the match, though he can’t possibly see the screen from his seat and his biggest contribution is that English football has gone to the dogs since all the foreign money arrived.
After a bit he asks what by now are the usual questions: ‘What was I in for? How long was I going to be in? What do the doctors say?’ After giving him a full rundown, he tells me about being in for eight weeks, after a stroke at 5 o’clock one morning nearly killed him. Another clot in his leg has him using a walking stick, the hospital-issue aluminium type with a padded handle. Pneumonia contracted in the hospital had gone undetected until one day he passed out while doing physio for the wonky leg. Now he’s back to normal and hoping that a meeting of the brass on Friday will get him home. He’s definitely cross-eyed, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the stroke or the clot? The man sees me as an ally of sorts and finally, when finished with the questions, he warns:
“Take no notice of that fellow beside you. He’s fucking mad. He roared at one of the nurses last week. Blamed her for him falling over. Said she had pulled the floor out from under him when he was walking,” his eyes seem to be jumping all over his face as he speaks, just like, well a madman, or one of those exaggerated lunatics you see in silent movies. Then he gets up but stops behind my back, so I have to turn to see his face, the eyes still looking like they have a life of their own behind the glasses. He’s looking at the screen, but I’m wondering why he is standing behind me to do so.
“The rest of them are ok, but he’s mad, fucking mad, take no notice,” he says and walks out the door. No goodbye or see you later, just the advice. I wait for a while before going to bed, to let the other five fall asleep and when back on the ward, I close the curtains and read until my eyes won’t stay open.
The next morning begins as they always do in hospital, with a nurse waking me around six o’clock. Nurse Honey, her actual name, takes my blood pressure, makes sure my monitor is in place and reading properly, before handing me a tub of pills, which I swallow with a glass of water. After the meds Nurse Honey produces a syringe and apologises:
“Sorry Mr Verling,’ she says, unsheathing the long needle, “this has to go into your stomach.”
“That’s fine,” I smile back, “I had two yesterday. I’m used to it.”
I never thought I’d be used to getting injections of blood thinners directly into my stomach. Spending time in hospital due to ill-health is something else I presumed was well down the line. Not so, and two months before my 50th birthday I’m lying out in a six-bed ward, fascinated and scared all at the same time. My heart isn’t working properly, so cardiograph and blood readings tell the doctors, though I feel fine. After Nurse Honey goes I fall back to sleep, making the most of the quiet on the ward.
Two hours later I’m reading my book and the ‘fucking madman’ is sitting in his chair. Mr Leahy, I heard Nurse Honey call him, is looking at me with a gentle pleading, like a man desperate for help though embarrassed to ask. Nurse Honey had put him in his chair between our beds and went to get a blanket. Mr Leahy is an elderly man who probably feels as helpless as a child once more, and doesn’t like it but hasn’t a choice. The curtain is half-drawn between us, but he pushes it back or at least tries too before I pull it fully to the wall.
“You in long?” I ask.
The others in the ward fall silent.
“One year,” he says with the index finger on his right hand pointing up and a slight flick of the wrist for emphasis.
“A year?” I ask, genuinely shocked. I thought the cross-eyed man’s eight weeks was long enough.
“I was fine at first, but my legs have got bad since I came in. I can barely walk now.”
“A year in this ward?” I ask again.
“Here, there and everywhere”, he points around him, at imaginary places.
The others are all looking at us now. Were they familiar with this, another rookie being sucked in until the madman blew?
“Nobody wants to hold onto me. They keep sending me back here.”
He must be difficult all right I think, the warning of the ‘madman’ still playing in my head. Nobody wanted him could be true; he was probably too much trouble, too likely to fly off the handle when you least expected him. Now he’s dumped here, back where they might be able to control him, dumped on the public ward where different staff would have to deal with him because they were obliged to, an obligation of care. A year without visitors or anyone to talk to and so bad on his feet that he can’t get out of bed without help. I look at him in blue pyjamas like my father would wear and a heavy dressing gown, waiting for someone to get him ready for the day. Mr Leahy may once have been someone’s husband, a childhood sweetheart or a good friend. Why he’s here alone and for so long I don’t know, but life does have so many twists and turns.
“My feet are frozen,” he says and points to his exposed lower legs, “from there down I can’t feel a thing except the cold.”
Outside the sun is shining, the warm sun of early summer and our ward, facing south is getting the best of it, but when I look at Mr Leahy’s legs, they look lifeless. Both legs, from before the ankles and down to his toes, are shapeless, like skinned branches of a tree left to bleach in the sun. The toenails are clipped, but the skin looks dead, more like a large human crubeen than anything else.
“They look bad alright,” I say.
He puts his feet on a pillow from the bed and puts another pillow on top.
“I have to try keep them warm,” he says, settling back into the chair, resting his arms on the narrow wooden handles, before reaching behind to take the emergency-button console down from the holder on the wall and putting it between the pillows too, “this heater will do the job. They will soon begin to heat up now and get the circulation going.”
I don’t know what to say. The others are looking over still, and one of them laughs. It isn’t for me to correct him and from the look of his feet, I reckon a four-bar heater wouldn’t make a difference. Neatly and carefully, he closes up any gaps between to two pillows, bending over and flattening them together.
“That’s better,” he says while fixing the second pillow on top.
Sitting up again he pushes his fine hair back off his face, flattening the lengths over his scalp and behind his ears. Though fine and grey, it’s thick too, like the hair of a young man. I can see how he had once been young, which you can’t with everyone. Pushing his hair back is a lifetime habit, I guess, and the hairstyle is one he has groomed since he became a proud young man, and the pride is still in there. The handsome face beneath deserves to be shown, but the fine, almost wrinkle-free skin is that colour of a man who has been indoors for a long time. Mr Leahy’s high cheekbones are obvious and beneath his eyes is almost free of any bags. This is a man who likes to look tidy, aware of keeping up appearances. For Mr Leahy it must have been a change to come in here, being under the control of others is something new.
With his feet covered Mr Leahy rarely looks at me, instead staring forward as he talks and looks at some spot on the far wall. Maybe his eyesight isn’t great, I think, though I can’t see glasses anywhere. Maybe he’s used to people listening to him, and even though he doesn’t raise his voice, I can hear him clearly, as obviously can the ones across the other side of the ward. Another nurse comes with a blanket and places it over the pillows, leaving, I notice, the ‘heater’ in place. The nurse tucks the blanket under Mr Leahy’s cushions and pads it in around the gap between them.
“There, that will do you better,” he says.
“Thank you,” says Mr Leahy, like a helpless schoolboy who has been done a favour from a visiting aunt or uncle.
The nurse leaves without a word, not looking at anyone and I smile at him as he turns to check the ward from the open doorway, but he doesn’t return the gesture, just speeds off to his next task.
“How’s that now?” I ask.
“Fine,” he answers, in what I now recognise as a Cork lilt.
Mr Leahy sits no more than a couple of feet away from me, but looking out as if in a room on his own. I wonder if this been his way always or is it something he’s doing from a year inside, gradually becoming institutionalised by the daily boredom. Mr Leahy has a noble face, with the strong features set off by that mane of grey hair, and the steady stare is not intimidating but that of a man who has a lot going on in his head. Was being ignored, being alone, contributing to his condition? Is his treatment one of minimum care with the hope he’ll stay quiet and not be trouble, leaving staff to care for those who needed more immediate attention? I could have stared at him all day and I don’t think he would have noticed, unlike us who are aware of the world and don’t like the attention. I wonder what his story is, why he’s in here, what had he done with his life?
The cough of the man across the way starts like the outboard motor of a small boat trying to splutter into action. The sound is the only one now in the ward, everyone else is settled, the morning preparations are over and we are ready to face the day.
“Do you like music?” Mr Leahy asks after the coughing stops.
“I do,” I answer.
“My father, Lord have mercy on him, always wanted two things for me,” he continues, “he wanted me to have a trade and to love music.”
“Was he a musician?” I ask.
“No, but he was a beautiful dancer. You should have seen him dancing across the floor with the cousins. Everyone watching him dance,” Mr Leahy’s voice fades as if he’s watching his father dance while talking to me.
“Can you dance?”
“Yes, but not anymore,” Mr Leahy says looking at his feet, “I still remember all the jig steps though: ‘Hop one, hop down, hop one two three four.”
Mr Leahy’s feet move to his jig timings. I look at his face watching his feet move. Is he remembering a love he once danced with in a time now gone, or is it his father gliding across the floor teaching him the steps?
There is sadness in Mr Leahy but he’s not a madman, just a gentle soul alone at the end of his life.
While standing outside Eason’s I see a man I know walking through the crowd. Dressed in his barrister’s suit and head down in deep conversation with an elegant looking lady, I almost don’t recognise Richard. We say a brief hello as he hurries past, while the lady with him glances at me with a look of recognition. I try to place her too, but as she’s in close discussion with Richard, I only get a side view of her face.
I’m waiting for my daughter Ruby, who’s buying a few lastminute college things around town before returning for what will, in all probability, be a few weeks away. Ruby came home for the days just gone, but we both know that with the pandemic spreading it’s for the best that she returns to Limerick until the worst of it passes. Neither of us is saying anything, but the feeling is there. I also know that it might be my last bit of time with Ruby for the next few weeks and to make the most of our morning.
Waiting for Ruby gives me time to stand still and watch Tralee go about its business, and I think this is my first time since the March lockdown that I have time to do it. After Richard passes a few more familiar faces go into Eason’s or carry on to Pennys. People nod or say hello, and often I won’t recognise someone as they are wearing a mask. I’m wary of coming too close to anyone and keep moving, sentry-like, up and down outside the shop. A few minutes go by of watching and moving until Richard reappears on his own, with the usual smile on his face. I smile back, happy to see him.
“How’s Daisy?” he asks.
Daisy is our family dog. A lovable ball of fur who wriggles and smiles when she sees you and though only small in stature, holds a huge place in all our hearts. I take Daisy for a walk around the town park every morning. We usually leave around eight o’clock, doing two laps of the 35-acres, meeting other dogs and their owners along the way. Who we meet and where depends on our time of leaving home. How Richard knows of Daisy and why he’s asking me about her catches me by surprise.
“She’s fine,” I answer, always happy to talk about our little ragamuffin.
“That was my Mum with me, and she asked ‘who’s that man?’ when we said hello,” Richard explains to my probably quizzical looking face, “she meets you every morning in the park with Daisy, when she’s walking Alfie,”
“Ah, that’s why I knew her from somewhere,” I laugh, knowing now who the lady Richard was talking to earlier – Alfie’s owner.
Each day I enter the park through the kissing gates by Castle Countess. Often as I walk up the well- worn, poured-concrete steps to the path, I meet Alfie and his owner. If not right at the top of the steps, it is somewhere close by. Alfie’s problem is an infatuation with Daisy; not content with seeing her he’ll stop and not move until Daisy comes along. Daisy shows little interest in Alfie, another small dog, but it’s nothing personal, Daisy just loves humans over dogs. Even if they are ahead of us in the park, Alfie will sit down and not budge. Often Richard’s Mum will be pulling at him or cajoling him just to move but to little or no avail. The other dog with them takes no interest in Daisy except maybe to bark before going for a sniff in the leaves. For Alfie though it’s love, and most mornings I’ll have to try rush past, apologising for delaying the team out for their walk. Without Alfie by her side, I didn’t recognise Richard’s Mum in town, though we have had many laughs at the hopelessness of Alfie’s love. Lately though Alfie has fallen out of love and our chatting time has reduced as a result.
It’s the same around the park. We meet Bailey and her master every day, and each time Daisy and Bailey will have a barking match and block each other’s path until one blinks, and gives way. I’ve no idea of who Bailey’s owner is or where he lives, though we have great chats most days. There’s also Teddy who is now in love with Daisy too, a small black fellow who, like Alfie, won’t budge until he sniffs at Daisy, much to his owner’s annoyance. I’ve often spoken with another walker about our dogs, the upset he went through when one died and about caring for his sick father when in A&E one night. I don’t know his name and almost didn’t recognise him this morning when I met him carrying a plastic bag but without his dog. I was later than usual, and the man had already walked the dog and was on his way home after doing the shopping. Another woman I meet always apologises for her Yorkie snuffling around Daisy, but as I always tell her, there’s no need. One woman who doesn’t know me but whose son is a friend of Lisa’s through work, will stop to discuss politics and whatever is in the news, while her new arrival Scarlett the beagle, gets to know Daisy. Their tetchy relationship is improving, but Scarlett definitely takes after her movie heroine namesake at times, not that Daisy is the best example of how to behave in public. Owners and dogs meet at different stages of our walks but are known only to each other by our four-legged companions.
When Daisy and I come home each morning, Lisa will always ask who we met, and I’ll list off all these people whose names I do not know, starting with ‘Oh Alfie and his owner’, (now ‘Alfie and Richard’s mother,’) or ‘Bailey and Bailey’s Dad,’ or ‘the Polish lady and her funny little dog,’ and add a few lines from each conversation.
Now I realise I’m probably one of these people in the others’ homes. I’m ‘the man with the beard with Daisy’ who is a story in another kitchen when a morning walk is over. No doubt it is the same all over the world, and there’s something warming about how the simple ways of our dogs define how we are recognised. The nod, the chat, and comments on the weather make for a pleasant beginning to a day, and start lovely friendships.