A Breath of Fresh Air

This was a story I wrote for the competition on the website http://www.1000wordchallenge.com/

While it didn’t win any of the prizes, it received a mention in the list of stories they’d enjoyed, so I thought I’d share it here.



A Breath of Fresh Air

It’s impossible to say what it’s like, waking up in the same bed, in the same position, with a tube in your forearm, for 232 days. The smell is the first thing I notice, even after all this time. I can discern the subtle differences between the industrial solvents, with their acrid bite, the excretions and vomit of my fellow patients and, perhaps worst of all, my own body odour. Not that they don’t clean you here. I get a bed bath every day, from a very considerate nurse. But it isn’t the same. I never feel truly clean. At 32 years of age, it’s a depressing feeling. At 7:15 it all changes. The smell of breakfast wafting in like the scent of fresh bread from the heavenly bakery at the end of my childhood road. Of course, by the time the trolley gets to me, all that’s left is the mixed-up-yogurt-goo. Even toast is too much for the stomach of someone with my condition. So I’m left staring in disbelief at the pot in front of me, as I mix it with my spoon, recalling children’s TV – guests being “gunged” with a substance that was not dissimilar and might well have tasted better.

Today had come about because… well because of everything that had gone before it for the most of the last year. It had started with the headaches, then fainting, and then, after that first check-up, the complexity of my condition. All of my doctors had loved that word. ‘Complexity’. From the GP who referred me for the x-rays, to the radiologist who referred me to the specialist who, in turn, confined me to this bed. Three to six months was his prognosis. Not enough time to book a trip to Switzerland to end it on my terms and, according to the doctor, I didn’t have the strength for the journey anyway. Nearly nine months later and I’m still here. It’s why today is happening. Why today has to happen.

Just outside the frosted glass door of the ward, the duty nurse is standing behind her desk. I see a figure walk in. Voices, muffled by heavy doors, start off inaudible and before becoming a little raised. Then a shout. Now a thud. And silence. I pull back my privacy curtain. “What was that?” I ask my neighbour, Adam, a 37 year old taxi driver with pancreatic cancer and two to three months left. “God knows,” he replies, before he’s back into his book. Before I have another moment to think, the doors burst open and in rush my brother, Phil, and Lucy, one of my closest friends.

“She’s gone. We’ve got about 5 minutes til she gets back. Omar’s making a noise about someone who collapsed in the next ward. Once she finds out it’s bull shit, she’ll be straight back,” says Phil. “Get in.” He gestures to the wheelchair he has just unfolded from outside the ward. “I’d love to,” I throw back in my best sarcastic voice, “but I’m kind of stuck here,” motioning towards the needle stuck in my arm. Lucy walks around to my side of the bed and, together, they lower me into the chair. Lucy drags the saline on its trolley, trying to keep up with Phil as he wheels me out of the ward, into the corridor. “Bye, Adam,” I manage to shout. “Tara, boss,” comes the reply. Ever the taxi driver…

The lift arrives and we enter in silence. Nerves gripping us, vice-like, as we wonder how we’re going to pull this off. Lucy’s eyes betray her feelings as she stares at my arms. So thin now. Bones, skin and just a sliver of emaciated muscle. She puts a hand on my back, stroking me, gently. Comforting. The lift lurches to a stop at the ground floor and we exit swiftly, my body almost sliding off the chair as we zoom down the ramp to street level. Rounding the corner, we see Omar, talking with the police. He looks at me, then away. I won’t see him again. Not today. Not ever. A little further and I see Phil’s car. The same Peugeot 305 he’s had for as long as I can remember. Still hasn’t cleaned it. One of the back seats has been removed and he lifts me into the one on the opposite side, Lucy carefully putting in the saline, then looking at me. My arms, legs, the bones in my neck. So prominent now. Phil breaks down the wheelchair, tosses it into the boot and we’re off. Out on to the road.

It’s amazing, after months prostrate in a bed, how much you feel the motion of a car. Massive muscle wastage, drug consumption, and the very real presence of death as a spectre over every waking moment probably adds to it. Suddenly roundabouts are like rollercoasters. Speed bumps like a rocket launch. “I love you, bruv,” Phil shakes me from my thought process with his words. “You too, mate,” I manage back, choking a little bit.

Haring around one last corner, we park up. As soon as I open the door, the sound hits me. A tear spontaneously rolls onto my left cheek. The sea. It’s a typical day on the English Channel. The wind blasts into me like a wall, with deafening noise, each time the waves crash into the pebble beach. Phil lifts me out, my drip coming loose from my wrist. He tries to catch it and in doing so, I fall onto the pebbles, damp with spray from the water. “It’s ok,” I tell him in a rasp. Now, at this moment, pain takes a back seat. For the first time in months of dying, I am alive. An hour until sunset. My last. “Thank you,” I take a shallow breath that feels like a gasp to my weakening lungs. “…for bringing me here.” I taste the salt on my cold cheek with my tongue. “Everything is so fresh.”

A Breath of Fresh Air