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Tonight’s shift at the nursing home had begun like any other. I’d just changed into my uniform when TJ popped his head around the staffroom door.
‘Dirty protest in room six, Gina. Be a doll and do the honours.’
It was the unwritten rule of the nursing home hierarchy: the lowliest of jobs would be done by the most junior of staff. I couldn’t complain – that was the lot of a trainee carer after all. We cleaned up, slopped out, hosed down and scrubbed in.
‘Room six again?’ I said. ‘That’s the third time in as many days.’
TJ nodded. He was the senior carer at the home. There was nothing you could tell him about human degeneration that he didn’t already know.
The cleaning equipment was kept in a room at the opposite side of the building, an Aladdin’s cave of bleach, bio-waste buckets and latex gloves. Devoid of genies, but replete with wishes, it was also the place where Lewis conducted all his business transactions: five Prozac for one OxyContin. Four Diazepam for two Viagra. Every microcosm creates its own black market. Lewis ran ours from the back of the store room, where commodities were exchanged in scrunched up wraps of tissue paper.
As I opened the door of the cleaning room, there was a flurry of movement in the far corner.
‘You might have knocked,’ said Lewis at the far back, half hidden behind the mop rack.
I could see two sets of eyes glaring back at me. He was down there with somebody else. Alf most likely, one of the residents.
‘Don’t mind me. Just doing my job.’
Lewis muttered something inaudible and Alf came shuffling out from behind the row of plastic mops, nodding to me as he passed. I nodded back.
‘Where’s TJ?’ said Lewis, when Alf had gone and the door closed behind him.
‘In the staff room. You’re safe.’
‘Not with you bursting in here whenever you feel like it. How many times have I told you just to knock on the door first?
‘I forgot, ok? Stop bitching at me.’
‘Stop bitching at me,’ he said, his voice girl-pitched.
I pushed past him to get to the mops. There was no talking to him sometimes. Usually when he hadn’t slept, or when he was bombed on psycho-meds. He’d been flying on some new pills lately. Proper head-benders. It was the reason I hadn’t introduced him yet to any of my friends. On a night out with Lewis, you could never be completely sure what was going to happen.
‘Did you hear about Ida?’ he said, tugging at the sleeve of my scrubs.
‘What about her?’
‘Kathy doesn’t think she’ll last the night.’
He shook his head. ‘It’s been downhill since her fall last Tuesday.’
I stopped what I was doing. Ida and I had been pals since my first shift here, ever since she’d found me wandering round the home with a bin liner full of bed sheets. ‘You look lost,’ she said, hooking her arm through mine and steering me in the direction of the laundry room.
‘So anyway, I was wondering. Seeing how and you and Ida had this…connection.’
‘Not this again, Lewis. Not now.’
‘But I thought you wanted to see it for yourself.’
‘So come tonight.’
‘But it’s Ida.’
‘All the more reason to come then,’ he said, nudging my face with his nose. I tried to push him away, but his hands were underneath my top already, fiddling with my bra. Somehow, in the scuffle, he slipped into the mop rack and sent one crashing to the floor.
His laughing started me laughing.
‘Come on, Gina. Come tonight,’ he said. ‘I’ll sort things out with TJ.’
Lewis was older than me, but only by a couple of years. He’d been working the nightshift at the nursing home ‘since forever’, he said. Given he was twenty one though and had come here straight from school, forever worked out at around five years or so in my book.
In all his time on the job, Lewis claimed he’d never once considered a move to the dayshift team. He put it down to loyalty – to TJ and to Kathy, the head nurse. He said they were like family to him.
Kathy was in charge of all the meds. After room six was cleaned up, I went to help her prep the drugs trolley.
‘Did you hear about Ida?’ she said, pouring yellow syrup from a brown bottle into little plastic medicine cups.
‘Lewis told me.’
‘I guess you’ll want to go and see her then, when it gets quiet?
I nodded. ‘Poor Ida.’
Kathy reached past me for the clipboard that hung on the wall, the place where she kept the checklists and log sheets that would need completing before the end of her shift.
‘I stopped by already to say goodbye to her,’ she said. ‘It won’t be long now but come and get me later, if you need to.’
She ran her pen down a column of figures on one of the log sheets, counting aloud as she made ticks in the check boxes. Later, she’d ring through the next day’s order to the pharmacist. It was the same drill every night. Drugs out and drugs in – that was Kathy’s job. Somewhere along the line the numbers were supposed to add up. When they didn’t, it was always down to somebody’s bad maths.
‘Ok, let’s get this show on the road,’ she said, pushing the drugs trolley in the direction of the TV room.
I followed her through the swing doors for the last ward round of the night. ‘Meds and beds,’ we called it. Then lights out at 10. No wonder Lewis had his cleaning cupboard regulars. Once dinner was out of the way, nights at the home offered few distractions. The Lewis dispensary offered a portal into another world, one far away from incontinence pads, scheduled sing-alongs and endless TV repeats.
Kathy didn’t officially know about me and Lewis but I suspected she had an inkling. He’d been on at me for three or four months now, ever since we got together, to join him for a crossing-over.
That’s what he called it anyway. Everyone else here called it dying.
‘They come for them,’ he said, when he first told me about it.
He shrugged. ‘It depends. You don’t always get to see them close up. Sometimes you just sense them. The ones who’ve already crossed.’
‘Ghosts, you mean?’
‘Not ghosts. Not in the way you’re thinking of.’
I must have looked confused.
‘Not woo-hoo,’ he explained. ‘Not bump in the night.’
‘Souls,’ he said. ‘Energies.’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘I don’t know how to explain it, Gina. Some things there are no words for. Some things you just need to see for yourself.’
He must have mentioned it at least a hundred times since then. A couple of residents had died in the last month alone and, on both occasions, he’d nagged me to join him while he sat with them at the end. The rule was that somebody had to because not everyone had families, or at least not everyone had the kind of families who would show up before the will was read. On the nightshift, it was usually Lewis who volunteered for the death duty. He said the whole thing blew his mind. It was the main reason why I’d agreed to join him later on. I’d seen Lewis in some pretty bad states: jaw grinding, eyes rolling up to heaven. A couple of times I’d even had to cover for him when he was too mashed to work. Ida and I were friends. I wasn’t sure the last thing she’d want to see in this life was Lewis with his mind blown open.
The hours just after midnight were the ones dedicated to making sure the home ran smoothly, to ordering new supplies or else printing out the next day’s menus. I did all the admin on the spare PC in Kathy’s office. The room was at the back of the building, right next to the fire exit. All the comings and goings of the smokers through its heavy door meant the office was at least kept ventilated. In the rest of the home it always felt like a hundred degrees.
‘Still here?’ said Kathy, just back from her break.
‘I haven’t finished the food order yet. It’s this new programme they installed. I’m still trying to figure it out,’ I lied, clicking around the screen haphazardly. Wasting even more time.
‘Maybe one day they’ll stop upgrading things we’ve just got used to and leave them as they are. Coffee?’ She said.
‘I’ll make it.’
In the kitchen I filled the kettle and texted Lewis to see if he wanted coffee too. He was in with Ida already; he’d called almost an hour ago to tell me it was time. ‘Just hurry,’ he texted back.
Ida had been unconscious since yesterday. A small-boned woman, her frame looked almost child-size in the bed. When I went in, she had both of her arms resting outside the duvet cover. Lewis was sat in an armchair next to her with one of his hands covering hers.
‘I made you coffee,’ I said, and popped it down next to him on the bedside cabinet.
Ida’s curtains were half open. I could feel a draught from the window and went to close them properly. Anything, even a jolt against the bed’s edge, could finish it when things were this close.
‘Leave them,’ Lewis said. ‘It’s easier for them to come through if the curtains are open.’
He blinked slowly. ‘You know who.’
‘There’s a draught, Lewis. It’s better for Ida if the curtains are closed.’
In front of the dressing table was a stand chair. I carried it over to where Lewis was sitting, avoiding eye contact. This wasn’t the time for an argument. Ida’s breathing was already laboured. It was the kind of breathing that leaves enough time between gasps to make you wonder if the next one’s ever going to come. I reached for Lewis’s free hand.
‘You need to try and relax,’ he said.
‘You’re not fine. It’s very tense in here. You’re going to make it difficult for them if you’re not relaxed.’
He shook my hand free of his and reached underneath his scrubs to the pouch he kept round his neck. It was Aztec patterned and fastened with a drawstring. He took out a small white pill and dropped it in my palm.
‘Take it. It’ll help you loosen up.’
It was too dim in the room, and the tablet too small, to make out the drug code imprinted in the middle. Not that it would have told me much anyway – I wasn’t a nurse, and besides, even Kathy had trouble keeping up with all the meds. Residents could be on more than 15 different drugs a day: before food, after food, first thing in the morning, last thing at night. Dosages fluctuated regularly. Side effects prompted a review. Older meds were always being replaced with newer meds, prescribed by locum doctors that came and went as shifts dictated. Kathy was all over the morphine, but who had time to keep track of those drugs lower down the food chain?
Lewis’s fingers were back in the pouch, pulling out another pill and downing it with a swig of coffee.
‘What if Kathy comes, or TJ?’
‘Why would they come? TJ’s on his own looking after the men’s rooms. I told him you’d be in here with me tonight. He’s not expecting to hear from us.’
‘Kathy will only come if we call her, so relax will you?’
He was right. There was only ever a skeleton staff on duty at night – not like in the daytime, when the place was teeming and relatives were always under your feet. Everything about the job was so much harder on nights. The only thing that was easier was the capacity to make mistakes. Those of us who worked the nightshift knew just how much it screwed up the body clock, slaying the circadian rhythms and cloaking the brain in a soupy, neural fog. Mistakes were easy to make. Pills went missing. Things slipped through the cracks. It’s why the dayshift called us zombies.
‘Maybe later,’ I said, and dropped the pill into the pocket of my scrubs.
Lewis shrugged and we sat there in silence, holding hands again and counting the seconds in between each of Ida’s breaths.
I must have dozed off briefly. When I woke up, the first light of morning was seeping through the crack in the curtains. Lewis was on his feet, fiddling with the radio on top of the bedside cabinet where voices were fading in and out and a fragment from some violin concerto floated through the speaker. Then came the static: a low ssshhhing noise filling the room with ambient distortion.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Electromagnetic waves,’ said Lewis. ‘It’s how they communicate.’
‘It’s too loud. Turn it down.’
I stood up to take a look at Ida. Her skin felt cold to the touch.
‘Maybe we should get Kathy?’
‘Maybe you should sit down and relax.’
I was about to put Ida’s arms under the duvet to keep her warm when I heard Lewis gasp. He was staring into the corner of the room where the wardrobe cast a shadow in a slanting line across the floor. I followed his gaze. The floral pattern of the wallpaper was just visible in the half light. In the wall mirror, I could see the reflection of the bedroom door. The corner edge of one of the curtains was twitching from the window draught but, apart from that, nothing moved.
‘I don’t see anything.’
Lewis didn’t reply. He was still staring into the far corner and had taken hold of Ida’s hand again, squeezing on her fingers.
‘Lewis,’ I said. ‘Lewis, be careful.’
‘They’re here, Ida. You can let go now.’
‘You let go, Lewis.’
He didn’t seem to hear me. I was trying not to raise my voice, but he wouldn’t let go of her hand. Eventually he did, but only because I’d prised two of his fingers back as far as they would go. Lewis recoiled into the arm chair. ‘What did you do that for?’ he said, holding his fingers and wincing.
When I turned back to Ida, I could hear she’d stopped breathing.
‘Lewis?’ I said but he didn’t reply.
I felt for a pulse in Ida’s neck and counted off the seconds. Then I put her arms beneath the duvet and pulled the cover to her chin. The radio next to her still hissed into the room. I switched it off and carried the stand chair back to the dresser.
‘It’s almost six,’ I said. ‘I should be getting the breakfast things set up. Will you stay here with Ida?’
Lewis didn’t reply. He was slumped back in the armchair, eyes closed and holding onto his fingers.
I waited another minute before digging his pill out of my pocket and washing it down the sink. Then I went to open the curtains. The sun had risen. It poured through the window, across Ida’s face, lighting her up like springtime. Outside in a tree, a lone sparrow hopped along the branch. Beyond the bedroom door, from somewhere down the corridor, the sounds of breakfast began to rattle through the silence.