Today, Ash Wednesday, has been declared No Smoking Day to help those giving up for Lent. There is no Mass in our little hamlet because the local priest looks after seventeen parishes.
At reception I check in as a visitor for Madame Blanc, my neighbour, aka Dill. When Dill was still at home we used to look out for each other, not because we’re friends but because we’re the oldest people in the hamlet.
In the hospital corridors I meet no one with an ash cross on their forehead. No nurses are in sight, although I suspect a smokers’ conference in a room I passed that exudes a whiff of tobacco.
Dill is alone in a single room at the end of a corridor. An unfinished ‘power’ drink sits on her bed table. She dozes, her tiny knees drawn up to one side as though to escape something awful, perhaps braced against the next wave of pain. I sit and wait.
Through the open door I watch several nurses move up the corridor as they visit rooms. Each has a trolley bearing a laptop. Here may be the clue to everything: the hospital is spanking new, bright, pleasant, not too warm or cold, part of a purely material machine that takes no account of the human or spiritual. I imagine meetings over minimum risk and choice of laptops produced by private companies whose mission is profit. So many hospital jobs have been cut that those who distribute medication and do other highly responsible tasks are hard put to minister to all their patients during a shift.
A good-looking young nurse arrives noisily, causing Dill to stir. The nurse nods to me then shouts down at Dill from her full height. The young are so tall these days. When I want to hear Dill I have to go on my knees or, for longer discussion, find a low stool to place by the bed. This happened weeks ago, when little Dill whispered about not getting to the toilet in time, nurses running in all directions with bundles of laundry, the door shut, the window open. I’m not suggesting staff have time to take a chair or get on their knees, I’m just underlining the difficulty of Dill hearing anything except the young woman’s “Hey, Beautiful!” which I consider patronising. Through a haze of morphine Dill doesn’t notice me but musters the strength to ask what medication she is being given. The nurse gives a trade name of paracetamol rightly assuming Dill wouldn’t recognise the generic. I fail to see its use if it’s competing with morphine – which isn’t mentioned – but no one’s asking me what I think. The young woman goes off to speak loudly in another room.
The clock on the wall and the two alarm clocks on Dill’s bedside table show noon. A servant on farms all her life and a stickler for precision, Dill has spotted trays passing by to other rooms. I imagine her situation a little like being stone drunk, conscious of what is going on but unable to react, finding one’s timeframes slowing and speeding up inexplicably. It is clear that she is waiting for a tray to be plonked in front of her as yesterday, when I coaxed her to eat a few spoons of something soft. Today no tray arrives.
I go in search of the person who seems to be in charge of food.
“Dill won’t be getting a tray,” she says. “It’s up to her to ask for whatever she wants.”
“Dill can’t even press the call button, let alone feed herself,” I say.
“You can do it for her,” the orderly replies firmly.
I can hardly argue with that, although it does lead me to wonder if anyone will check all afternoon whether Dill is still alive.
The orderly comes back with me. There is more unilateral shouting while she tries to ascertain what Dill wants to eat. Dill looks askance. “What’s for lunch?” she asks.
The orderly shrugs. “You can have whatever you want.”
“Ask for lobster, Dill,” I suggest.
She has the grace to laugh. Dill is beyond it. I’m tempted to add it wouldn’t even break her Ash Wednesday fast.
It emerges that what’s on offer for Dill is baby food: little tubs of yogurt, white cheese, stewed fruit. Disappointed, Dill opts for stewed apple.
When it arrives, I feed her. “I’m like a suckling calf,” she says, clearly either very hungry or very thirsty. I wonder if they might let her starve to death.
After the effort, she dozes off again.
I sit for a while before creeping away, leaving her and the clocks.
In the room next to Dill’s, I spot two other neighbours from our hamlet, hovering. The wife is being admitted but still dressed, in a mustard hand-knit pullover and an old grey skirt and looking extremely puzzled. Her husband, wearing another pullover she knitted, waves to me. I notice that his pullover is more ornate, in two colours, while hers is the simplest of stitches and styles. He smiles, a smile to reassure her and me. They are next in age to Dill and me. He and I know that his wife will not be knitting any more pullovers.
It is the last time I will see either of the women alive.
I drive away, slowly and carefully, car windows open, smoking in defiance. There is an overall greyness of ashes, lightened by the almond trees, which are white with blossom.
Mary Byrne grew up in Ireland, now lives in France. Short fiction published/broadcast in print and online in Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand. Short fiction in The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories, The Irish Times, Prairie Schooner, Dalhousie Review, Transnational Literature. Debut collection Plugging the Causal Breach was released in August 2019 by Regal House Publishing.