The hospital closed when I was twenty-two.
The old building, yellow and many-windowed, ghosts Flemington Road. Exhausted. Exhaust streaked. Empty. It falls down slowly, brickwork pulling away like a scab.
On my birthday, I find a hole large enough to walk through. My wife stands in it, bricks cutting jagged blocks of shadow across her face. She looks at me, eyes squinted, one hand braced on the exposed wall.
‘Really now?’ she says. ‘We’re doing this today?’
‘We’re here, aren’t we?’
She snorts. ‘And? You backed out last time.’
‘Rude,’ I mutter.
Between trying not to fall on my face over uneven ground and Imogen looking at me like she isn’t sure if she should kiss me or keep stirring, it’s not easy to close the distance between us. The building looms. My own breathing is too loud and, yeah – maybe she has a point.
I’ve made it this far three times. This far. No further.
I make a terrible delinquent.
Hands on my face. Imogen’s thumb traces my lip, my cheek. Nail bitten skin catches at me, and I half wince, half smile. She slides her other hand around so it cups the back of my head.
‘Come on,’ she says. ‘You’re all right.’
There are twelve kids left in the ward when Ross dies. Imogen is the newest one. Feverish new, nervous new: the skin of her face drawn tight from steroids, little silvery marks stretching over cheeks and chin and forehead.
I wish I could say that Ward 137 North paused at the sight of her. A full, romance-novel spectacle, where bodies freeze mid-turn while nurses look up. There’d be kids dropping their books (light), or Lego (large), or their own legs (more common than you think) all over the place in this vision. But that’s not how hospitals work.
Or romance novels.
It’s Tuesday. We have art therapy on Tuesdays and Ross is dead. The therapist cries over Ross more than his mother and looks ready to collapse beneath her butcher’s paper. The word channelling comes up a lot, and then she’s gone, trailing sweet, non-toxic ink and ten differently dubious versions of a dead boy’s face.
We’ve been having his funeral in increments, while he was still around to direct it. Not what I’d do, sure – but morbid works for some people.
We’ve been having his funeral in increments, while he was still around to direct it.
Imogen’s nurse follows the therapist. He’s gagging for a shift change, performing last duties with his whole body drawn back toward the door.
The nurse squints at me, and he must be new, because–
‘Sayor-riss?’ he says, hands fluttering between our bodies. ‘This is Imogen.’
I open my mouth.
The girl steps forward. Stares at my wrist. ‘Sheer-shuh,’ she says. ‘That’s how you say it, right?’
My face hurts. I think I’m smiling.
‘What are you doing?’ Imogen looks at me, takes in the paint that’s smeared up halfway to my elbows.
‘Painting tiles,’ I say. ‘What does it look like?’
The foyer is thick with dust, the walls and ceiling crying strips of peeled paint. Vaccination posters hang half off the walls. One, a giant needle with improbable eyes, gave me nightmares for years. Now, it is a melted face under a mixture of rain and old gypsum.
Magpie song and traffic seep in behind us, muted and uncomfortable in the spaces where the outside used to get lost in beeping and the sound of people throwing up into plastic.
Imogen looks around, swirling fingers through the dust on the abandoned front desk before running to a giant glass cabinet. She pushes her way inside, pressing her hands against its walls. Cracks in the glass show stark on her skin.
‘Don’t you remember this?’ She laughs. ‘It had all the creepy dolls in it. Just staring at everyone and – oi.’
I take the photo before she finishes spluttering. The phone flash off the glass turns the light into liquid, until she’s a blur of red cardigan and bright, crooked teeth.
I grin at her. ‘You’re all framed. It’s cute.’
‘Nerd.’ Imogen laughs, sketching a lopsided love-heart in the grime on the glass. ‘Just so you know, for my birthday we’re just having dinner. And pretending to be normal.’
‘Well,’ she says, smirking. ‘If you take me for fancy dinner we’ll look rich enough to be eccentric. Is that more plausible?’
‘For you, I shall cheerfully exceed our means.’
Imogen grins. ‘Lead on.’
Tiles are a big part of hospitals. Solid. Bright. Easy to clean. It makes sense, if you think about it.
(Don’t think about it.)
I know this place. I know the walls. I spend half my time stuck to them, IV cord taking my blood in one direction and electricity in another. I’ve lived a long time dying, and I still don’t know who decided that splashes of memory were a good idea, but they’re everywhere. Helen, 1963 is in the administration foyer, black ink streaking to green in the loops of her letters. Veronica, 1977 is next to the ward service lifts, east wing. Her tile is an eye, wide and long lashed, the iris a smarting violet that matches half the decorations in orthopaedics. There are walls for the living. The forgotten. The dead. Lost pets and parents.
I’ve lived a long time dying, and I still don’t know who decided that splashes of memory were a good idea, but they’re everywhere.
The tiles stretch out along corridors, showing up like iridescent patches of scale. Most have names and dates. A matching record in the basement, somewhere between the prosthetics wing and the first circle of hell. Most aren’t very good. I know you’re not supposed to say bad things about sick kids, but most of us have shit hand-eye coordination, and the rest are under ten.
But now, I’m waiting in orthopaedics and I have a piece of 1986 under my left hand. Smooth. Square. Covered in tiny figures. A girl, or at least as much of a girl as any kid can make out of primary colours and a paintbrush that was probably too big for their hand. But the shape is there: a dress, spotted pink and white. She has little, upward flips for hair, an oval face that doesn’t have much more than a smile. There’s a dog. It’s yellow. They usually are. She’s EMILIE F, 1986.
A rattle and a rasp.
‘Cancer,’ Imogen says. ‘To be more specific, osteosarcoma. Something quick and dirty.’
‘You would know.’
‘Shut up!’ There’s laughter in the words, all tangled up under the oxygen mask. Something bright sneaking in through the mechanical mess of hisses. Warmth under the rasp. I shake my head.
There isn’t dust on the tile. It’s not high up enough on the wall for that. But the colours are sunk deep, so the tile’s own surface coats the paint like a lacquer, instead the other way around.
‘It’s not always cancer,’ I say. ‘Maybe she didn’t die–’
‘–maybe she grew up. Got some actual art skills–’
‘Funny, Saoirse.’ Imogen shifts, tugging at her IV stand. It comes to heel, clattering up in the corner of my eye. ‘Have I ever said that it’s creepy you’re obsessed with these things?’
‘Not this week.’
‘Well.’ Her free hand finds mine. ‘That was an oversight.’
I take more photos as we move through the old corridors. Grass invades, ankle high and determined as it breaks tile and fraying laminate. Imogen’s shadow against a twisted metal bedframe. Valency Temple, 1957 is still embedded into the wall by one of the consulting wings, the paintwork almost gone.
‘I actually remember that tile,’ Imogen says. ‘You showed it to me for – well, for some reason.’
‘I was infatuated with you,’ I tell her.
A smirk for that. ‘Water is also wet,’ she says. ‘I still don’t know why, though. The ‘roids were not a good look.’ She sketches exaggerated circles in the air around her face.
‘I was infatuated! With you!’ I repeat, because some days everyone needs to hear that sort of thing twice. ‘Besides,’ I say, ‘You made oxygen tubing stylish by force of will. I took my leg off for you.’
‘You still take your leg off for me.’
I’m blushing. She’s laughing at me. Order restored.
A sparrow pecks at the grass in one corner, hopping in its best impression of a drab wind-up toy. Little beggar doesn’t stay still enough for a picture.
Imogen kicks a battered plastic chair, face drawn into the same scowl she gave me when she said that we might as well use my shiny dual citizenship and get married somewhere that recognised it. Between the scowl and the modified krav maga, plastic doesn’t stand a chance.
The chair scrapes on the floor and the bird flutters off in peeping protest, but I can see the appeal. I manage to get a shot mid kick, and send it to Mum. She spent more time in those chairs than anyone should.
I kick the chair too, best I can. Since my centre of gravity is somewhere in my left elbow, this means a lurching swing and falling on my arse in the dirt.
Imogen hunkers down by my head. ‘If you did that to make me smile–’
‘–it worked,’ I say. ‘Help me up?’
‘Where are we going?’
No one sleeps in long-stay wards. If you’re well enough to be there, then you’ve passed the point where your body stages long, black protests about chemo or surgery drugs or whatever horse tranquilliser someone with A/P in front of their name says to give you on the ward round. You hurt, but you’re bored.
Small hurts sing – a cannula, pressing up against the big vein in your hand because you looked at it funny; the skin-too-tight, are-there-ants-under-there itch of morphine everywhere you never expected to think about.
(The backs of your ears? They can really itch at two in the morning.)
On good days, we sneak out. Imogen has a harder time with stealth – she’s on more IVs than I am and they rattle. But she likes challenges.
‘See?’ I tell Imogen as we lurch and jangle through the labyrinth. ‘This whole wing is totally deserted at night.’
Strip lights flicker. Imogen is breathing hard – there’s bubbles in it and my body aches with thinking not that bad, not that bad in time with my own stupid heartbeat. My new prosthetic helps. The fit isn’t right and each step sends wires of pain up around the knee socket, then straight into my hip. Pain is useful.
I reach out, lay my hand on one of the oldest tiles I’ve ever found in the hospital. Valency Temple, 1957. A faded daisy chain. ‘Dead empty,’ I say. ‘Just us. And the ghosts. Obviously.’
She sticks out her tongue. ‘Yeah nah. No ghosts.’
I wish I had a torch. I’d do that thing they do in American movies, where kids on school camps use one to light up their face and be spooky. All I can do is point at the tile. Then at Peter Dimitriades, 1974. Alex Chung, 1990 drew an angel that has one wing way oversized. I want to add shadows to it, sketch the figure falling under its own weight.
Imogen rolls her eyes. ‘These tiles do not have ghosts of patients in them,’ she says. ‘If they do, I’m going to find yours and smash it. Then we’ll do mine.’
‘I’m serious, Saoirse.’ She’s flushed, her hand slicking over with sweat in my own before she pulls it away. ‘If I’m going to die, I don’t want to be stuck here.’
Not that bad, says my heartbeat. Everything – is – not-that-bad.
I show her sleeping day wings and corridors that look out onto more of themselves. I tell Imogen that they hold pockets of time. That, if we’re not careful – or if we’re very careful – the next nurse we see will be a Ward Sister from 1968, who’ll chase us back to our iron lung.
I show her sleeping day wings and corridors that look out onto more of themselves. I tell Imogen that they hold pockets of time.
‘We haven’t got polio, dumbarse. How old are you, anyway?’
I smirk. ‘65. I age backwards.’
‘Yeah, I read that book for Year Nine, too.’ She shakes her head. Measures herself against a sketched-in height chart on one of the corridor walls. She is, unsurprisingly, taller than Priya Shah, age eight.
‘Fifteen,’ I say. ‘I’m fifteen.’
‘Almost old enough for that iron lung, then.’
I laugh. ‘Old enough to get out of here, anyway.’
‘What are you going to do?’ she asks.
‘Go to adult hospital, probably.’
She grimaces, eyes half gone, nose scrunched up. ‘Ugh. Boring.’
I want to laugh, because it is boring, but the idea of getting out of here – really out, not just a false start, not just home respite – fits worse than my new leg. There’s a clawing, throat-tight sort of panic as want and fear break out in sweat. Or hives. I bet it’s hives.
I bet Mum would tell me I’m being melodramatic.
I really don’t want to think about Mum right now. Not when Imogen’s sighing at me.
‘Calm down,’ she says. ‘I know what I’m going to do.’
‘Get on a plane,’ she says. ‘Learn a martial art. Kiss some people.’
‘All on the plane?’
‘Don’t be stupid,’ she says. ‘I just–’
I swallow. We don’t get caught on the way back to the ward, but we don’t touch either. We’re quiet. Self-stuck. I don’t know how to say that she can kiss people here without saying, oh god, that she can kiss people here.
And if I say that, who says she’ll even want to kiss me?
‘I don’t want to forget them,’ I say, by the time Imogen and I make it to the long stay wards and a tile that says IMOGEN PARKER, 1990 in angry, wobbling capitals. There’s no illustration, just a subtitle in red.
Art therapy, it reads, is f***ing stupid. S made me do it. The ‘fucking’ is redacted with love hearts instead of asterisks, rage in each tiny line. I can’t believe they kept it. Except that Imogen was dying spectacularly at that point, and maybe the ward staff felt bad. It was the sort of long, shadow-eyed gasping death that gets shown in medical dramas.
‘I don’t want to forget us,’ I say. ‘Any of us.’
‘We were little shits,’ Imogen says. She’s close, looking at the tile over my shoulder. We don’t touch, but I can feel the small space between her body and my back, charged and warm and familiar.
A soft kiss at the nape of my neck.
‘And I bet this whole broken-down, old-as-balls building is full of asbestos,’ Imogen whispers. ‘I just thought of it. If we get mesothelioma from your nostalgia trip I am going to kill you. Once I stop laughing.’
‘That’s–’ I swallow. ‘That is sick.’
I turn, appalled. I can’t un-think it now. Imogen doesn’t back away, just shifts so she’s holding me, hands braced on my upper arms. This close, I can see every line, every freckle. She’s wearing enamel ladybirds up along her right ear, and I can see the white, raised scars at her throat and jaw from tracheotomy or the sort of emergency IV where no one has time to care about pain. I can see each breath start and feel where it ends.
And I can see she’s beaming.
‘The look on your face,’ she says. ‘If we can’t make these jokes, Saoirse, who can?’
She presses her face into my shoulder, hands sliding around to my back until we’re a tangle of you are awful and I know, and I love you, too.
She kisses me and I’m fifteen again, split and shaking, lips chapped and the two of us tripping over our tongues and plastic tubing, tasting of iodine and artificial sweetener and nerves. I half expect the old IV machine to start keening in the background, oxygen leads kinked beyond repair while nurses run to separate us and escort us back to clinical, sexless beds.
She kisses me and I’m fifteen again, split and shaking, lips chapped and the two of us tripping over our tongues and plastic tubing, tasting of iodine and artificial sweetener and nerves.
We kiss like we’re fifteen while we’re thirty, with years of dailiness and bickering and survival licking up into any small space our bodies have left. She kisses like we’re eighteen and arguing about someone’s filthy cup collection (mine) or too many clothes on the floor (hers). We kiss like the triumph found in clean blood tests at twenty-three and the knowledge that we adjust for fatigue (hers) or chronic pain (mine) and can still do this. A life, all back-and-forth and the good sort of bruises. We kiss until my words run out, and when I pull away, she’s smirking and bright-eyed, no trace of blue about her lips. She breathes.
‘Happy birthday,’ she says. ‘We never did get to make out properly here.’ She sighs. ‘You know, without nurses or my fainting from lack of air. So not romantic. Thought I’d fix it. Are you done with the daft photos?’
‘Thanks.’ The words are tangled up in a laugh. ‘But I really wish you hadn’t mentioned asbestos.’
Imogen shrugs. ‘I’ll make it up to you. We’ve got time.’
We leave the hospital hand in hand. Names in my head and my phone, but our own tiles left to watch us go from the crumbling walls. We’ve got time. I’ll take those over the romance novel ‘three little words’ any day.
It’s good to get out.