Most of us have been there. You are at a party, glass of wine in hand. More often than not, you would rather be anywhere else. As is expected of you, you get chatting with a stranger- that man hovering around the buffet table who everybody else is avoiding. You successfully negotiate the pleasantries, but as you get further into the conversation, a whole multitude of topics may arise: politics, music, sexuality, religion. And then come the questions. When did you decide to support Labour, the Conservatives, Lib Dem? When did you start loving The Beatles? When did you know you were gay? You take a sip from your glass to have a moment to think.
People ask these questions as though an answer should already be prepared with a date and time, as though everything is in black and white. I have had very few epiphanies in my life. I would hazard a guess that not many people have, but regardless, let me show you a memory.
My eyes are squinted against the sun, and the cheap shirt of my uniform clings to my back. I feel sorry for my partner in her thick navy tunic with white trim. We are in the nicer part of town, where the retirement homes and bungalows are situated. The house is just one of a thousand homes on a thousand streets. In the late morning sunshine, it should be pretty, but to me it is as if there is a cloud hanging over it, a grim shadow that I can put down to nothing but association. The walk up the drive seems longer than it should. We share a glance, take a deep breath, and knock.
The door is answered by the husband. He is portly and in his early sixties, with flushed cheeks and a salt and pepper beard. He gives us a smile in greeting- he is always happy, or else on the verge of tears.
‘Don’t you two ever get any time off?’
His jokes never really hit their mark- we are happy to laugh along with them anyway. We appreciate the effort.
‘Chance would be a fine thing,’ I say. He gives us another smile. It is different to the one he gives his wife when she screams at him.
I’ve often observed that the more skilled a medical professional you are, the less is expected of you in terms of emotional support. Doctors may breeze in and act aloof. District nurses can afford to spend a little more time if they can, but people expect more from those giving daily care. The best carers are those who can talk about everything and nothing at the same time. My partner immediately starts with the pleasantries. I chip in from time to time.
He lets us in to the living room. It is dark and stuffy, with the curtains still drawn against the late morning sun. It takes a little time for my eyes to adjust. Gradually, I am able to make out the furniture, a whole rooms worth compacted into half the space. It is interspersed with brown boxes, the happy green and sterile white of nurse packs and other medical supplies. The whole room has the distinct, sweet cloying smell of sickness.
The husband shuts the front door. It blocks out all sound, but for the occasional passing traffic, birdsong, and the hum of the air mattress on the hospital bed. I find our file and tag in, automatically letting the office know we have arrived. Passing it to my partner to do the same, I pick my way over the barricade of furniture like a peasant in the French revolution. She is set in the far corner and I stop at her bedside.
I see the topography of her face, the depressions of sunken eyes, the stark cold ridges of her cheek bones, and the coarse grey forest of hair on her head. But these are just flashes that will not form into a concrete image. Show me a picture of this woman now, even in full health, and I could not differentiate her from any other walking down the street.
Beneath the covers, I know that her emaciation is complete. She is the image of sacrifice and suffering, missing only the marks of stigmata at hands, feet and side. On previous visits I have rolled her to be washed, a hand on shoulder and hip. Each time, I imagine my fingers sinking into her waxy skin like plasticine. Instead, I’ve felt the grate of bone, and think of them crumbling like sandstone. It is as though she has been vacuum packed within herself, but instead of air it is the life that has been drained from her.
Moving to the nearby window, I crack the curtains to wake her gently. I glance at the blue sky and take a step back, watching the dust move in the light like incense smoke. It reminds me of the Sunday mornings of my youth, when I felt the cold age of stone in my position by the side of the altar. From there I was close enough that the sanctuary, solid and glorious from the pews of the congregation, was revealed as flaking gold paint over dry and crumbling wood.
We are alone together now. My partner has gone for water and towels. The woman’s husband is with her, continuing with the small talk. I guess it must be the only part of the day that feels normal to him. His wife has started moaning. I move to her side and speak her name. Her head tosses a little from side to side but she doesn’t open her eyes.
Moving away so she can wake slowly, I instead detach the night bag that hangs from the bed. Her moans increase to a wail. It is always like this, and I curse myself for not being the one to go for water. There is nothing I can do, and not wanting to look at her too closely, I busy myself collecting what we might need: clean pad, fresh clothes, and creams. Because of this, I have my back to her when she speaks.
I turn and her eyes are on me, even as her head continues to toss.
’You’re an angel.’
It is a statement- definite. Almost an accusation, said in a way that means I am certain she believes it to her core. I know I look young, clean-shaven, boyish and in my first job after school, but I would not call myself angelic. I smile, not sympathetically, but in embarrassment- for her, for me, for her husband, I do not know.
I start to deny it.
‘No.’ I change my mind half way as I don’t want to worry her. It comes out barely audible and I can tell she doesn’t hear.
We continue to stare at each other. It is perhaps the most focused I have ever seen her. She is normally in a stupor, kept under by drugs that are fed directly into her by a syringe driver. Either in a stupor, or screaming.
’You’re an angel.’
Her eyes are bright. I stand in silence for a long moment, awkward and unsure. Eventually, I hear my partner coming back with the husband and look towards their voices. When I turn back, her eyes are dull and she has started groaning again. I clear my throat and busy myself with nothing.
We work quickly, and before leaving my partner writes the usual report and hands it to me:
Care receiver fine. Full wash and dress in bed. Cream applied to pressure areas as per MAR. Pad changed. Night bag removed and emptied. Moved up the bed via slide sheet. Made comfortable. All done with consent. Next of kin present and nothing else required on leaving.
I give a cursory glance and sign my name to it.
Carers talk about everything. It is a product of seeing people at their most intimate and vulnerable. Back in the car and on our way to the next call there is a foreign silence between us. We share a glance. It is usually the time we talk about things, laugh and trivialize. It helps. I open my mouth to tell my partner, maybe ask her with a smile and a wink if she thinks I look angelic too. The air seems to stick in my throat, as thick and cloying as the air in that room. I don’t want to tell her. I don’t want it trivialised, dismissed and forgotten. I’m not sure why.
I confess, it would be a lie to say I saw incense smoke at the time; that I imagined the woman’s waxy skin as plasticine, or found nature laid out in the lines of her face. Looking back, I see those images, and more: light streaming through the window from heaven; her emaciated body hung from a cross in front of a whole congregation. I do not remember thinking of god at all, and I have thought of him many times since. But having imagined that you’ve asked me when it was I lost religion, I would be unable to explain any better than to give you this memory as an answer.
Patrick Hackett works as a Care Assistant while studying English Literature and Creative Writing part-time with The Open University. This is his first publication.