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Purposes of Death

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‘Tis now the very witching time of night’, thought Vivian, glancing back at the clock. Almost. It still lacked ten minutes to midnight (though she supposed in Elsinore they wouldn’t have had the exactitude clocks brought to one’s life, regulated down to the very minute). Unusually, she was alone on the ward. It was something Vivian hadn’t fully appreciated before she started her nurse training: nurses are never alone – well, almost never. That probationers like her could expect to work with others, was not really surprising. After all, they were here to learn, even if sometimes it felt just like being another pair of hands, there to help with the less savoury jobs. What had surprised was that none of them was ever alone. Staff nurses had orderlies and cleaners (not to mention the probationers) round them. Sisters had staff nurses, and so on. Even Matron, who had her own office, was rarely alone, accompanying consultants and other senior staff as she did when she toured the hospital; and tied up in meetings much of each day.

Tonight, however, Vivian was alone, and back on Crecy, which she hadn’t expected. An emergency had pulled all the experienced nurses off regular duty, and shuffled round responsibilities. Her familiarity with children’s nursing from last year had meant she was reassigned to this ward. Had there been anyone more senior available she would not have been left in charge. For tonight, however, lacking anyone more suitable, she was the sole representative of nursing care in the room.

Vivian stared out the glass doors at the end of the ward. Last time she had looked through these windows it had been early evening and the courtyard had been peaceful, showing only the glow from light lights by nursing stations as each ward settled for the night. This night a blaze of light came from the 1930s block across the central courtyard. All four theatres were operating tonight; the consultants having been called in, regardless of schedule, to deal with casualties from an explosion in a nearby factory. She remembered her rotation last year in Casualty: the bustle of controlled excitement, which could look chaotic to the onlooker, but which had purpose. Surgery would be dancing a minuet, with the moves set as the participants trod deliberately to patterns determined by custom and best practice. Other wards within the hospital would be quieter; but patients had a way of knowing what was happening, even though the drama was playing out in a different building. Some would sleep; a few of those whose recuperation had reached the stage of insomnia would hold vigil for the injured, praying for them, hoping their devotions to God would pull back to the living, those who teetered on the brink. She’d seen it happen when nursing one of the adult wards; and always it had seemed a strange exercise in faith to her. Surely if they did believe in heaven, they would not want to prevent someone from going there. Such was human nature, however, to exercise its compassion for others this way. That would not be the case here, though. As usual, at this time of night, the children’s ward was quiet. They were immune to understanding the dramas being enacted the other side of the grounds; and if sleepless more like to cry quietly for their mothers than demonstrate any sensitivity to the plight of strangers suffering the crisis of industrial accident. For now, all her patients were quiet.

The ward, always so bright during the day, with large high windows designed to let in as much light as possible, was grey now. Only one lamp at the desk was lit; it cast a circle of dim light, never enough to read by (had that even been allowed), though considered sufficient to write patient notes. Vivian’s back ached from sorting the laundry earlier in the evening; and she eyed the wicker chairs wistfully. Sister’s round was at midnight – past time now! She realised her musings had lasted a good twenty minutes.

Sure enough, regardless of what might be happening elsewhere, Night Sister arrived, slightly late, but still faithful to the routine. Her piercing gaze seemed to take in everything at one glance without need for anything more – omniscient and wise. Nonetheless, she was scrupulous in inspecting the records and walking down the middle of the floor between the rows of beds, checking all was in order. She walked confidently, firmly; yet her stout shoes made no sound against the linoleum, so used she was to night work and the imperative not to disturb unnecessarily anyone asleep. Vivian walked two paces behind and slightly to the right. Her supervisor stopped briefly at the foot of one of the cots, put a hand out to check for damp, then straightened the cover gently, stroking the little girl’s curls softly, before retracing her steps back to the nursing desk.

“That child won’t last many more days,” Sister’s voice was low as she pronounced her opinion, “but it will not be tonight, I think. Keep a close eye on her though and ring the buzzer for me if she takes a turn for the worse. We can send a messenger to her mother if need be.”

Vivian nodded acknowledgement of her instructions and Sister whisked away, leaving a waft of lavender and carbolic behind to mark her passing. Despite such a junior member of the hospital being left in charge, there were other tasks more in need of her attention. No deaths were expected on this ward tonight; and Sister was due elsewhere.

The quiet of the night settled in round Vivian again, if possible even more still than before. Truthfully, it was now morning of the next day; but there would be several hours before dawn arrived in all its pale rose beauty. For now, the shadows ruled. In a little while Vivian would make a start on some of the early morning tasks; but for now the basket chair beckoned. Grateful for the brief respite, she sat and rested her head on the chair back. She wouldn’t really sleep, she knew, just rest her eyes for a few minutes....

She started in shock as the church tower nearby chimed two o’clock.

“Relax,” a voice whispered in her ear, “they’re all sleeping peacefully – no wet nappies to change yet.”

“Where did you find out about babies, Jan?” whispered Vivian sleepily. Her brow furrowed slightly as she tried to catch an elusive memory of when she had said that before. “You can’t stay; I’m on duty.” She thought she might have said that before too; but his long fingers rubbed her tired shoulders methodically, easing their tension; and she relaxed into it, lulled back to a doze.

“I can’t stay either,” came the whisper, “it’s against the rules.”

“You never bother with rules,” Vivian’s sleepy voice sounded miffed. Jan had always got away with things she’d never been able to.

“I came to tell you....”

“I’ll get the sack if you’re seen....” If anything she sounded grumpier.

“My one chance to see my little sister again and she turns me away.” Jan’s voice was quietly amused.

He was always amused, Vivian thought, even when there was nothing to be funny about: endlessly in love with life, even in death. That last thought brought her eyes wide open.

Down the middle of the room he walked, a faint shape against the black of night. He walked like a cat: light on his feet, graceful, purposeful. A faint glimmer surrounded his shape; but apart from this he just looked like Jan. Not the Jan she had last seen, pale and drawn against the white of the hospital pillow as death crept ever closer. Jan as he had always been: brown from the sun, and – she could see as he turned to face her - eyes sparkling with interest and joy.

“You’re dead,” she said flatly. But she rose from her chair despite the distinct lack of welcome of her words, and crossed swiftly to him. “Why me?” she asked. “Why come to me and not Mic? We already said goodbye. They wouldn’t let him visit, because he wasn’t a relative.” Her tone was bitter with the injustice of it.

“Not goodbye.” Jan pulled her into his arms. Taller than her, even now, his chin rested briefly on top of her head, before he pulled back enough to see her face again. His arms were warm; he even smelled like Jan, earthy and clean at the same time. He was not what she had always thought a ghost would be.

“And what is a ghost supposed to be?” Jan answered her unspoken thought. “Why must I be so different in death than in life?” he asked plaintively.

She surprised herself by giggling at the expression on his face.

“That’s better,” he said. “Remember me laughing.”

“And Mic?”

Jan chuckled. “Remember him laughing too, if you want, though he has a more sober streak than I.”

“No, stupid,” Vivian said exasperated with this ghostly Jan, just as she had been with the living brother, “I meant will you visit him too?”

“When he needs me.” His eyes glowed as he looked at her. “Right now he doesn’t. And right now you need to change cot five.”

Vivian blinked at the non-sequitur, and turned briefly to glance at the squirming child behind her. It was only an instant; but when she turned back Jan was already over by the glass doors at the end of the ward. She watched as he slipped through them without opening. He paused for a moment on the balcony beyond, looked back; and, though it was hard to see properly in the dim light, she thought he smiled. Then he was gone, through the wrought-iron balcony railings, and past the little ledge beyond, disappearing into the black of night as if he had never been there.

Perhaps he hadn’t, she thought. Perhaps his shade had been born from her tiredness and sleepiness, from wishful thinking and dreams. She turned to cot five, which did need changing, automatically soothing the disturbed child as she efficiently remade the little bed with fresh sheets and tucked the boy back in. Even if he had simply been a figment of her imagination, she felt a renewed sense of purpose. She could not remember a time when she had not loved Jan, the older brother who had led her, teased her, challenged her, picked her up any time she had stumbled, and laughed with her. She had forgotten that before; she never would again.