On the final day of the workshop we did an exercise that was almost like a party game in its randomness: Each of us wrote down a character, an event and a setting on separate pieces of paper. As expected, these were then randomly distributed around the class. When all the dust had settled, I had been given the plot of LOST: A caring nurse, at the end of the world, on an island.
I decided to write a piece set in a story world I’m sort of working on (tentatively called The Plague Wards). The evaluation piece I’d submitted for the workshop was actually set in this world, and the consistent feedback I’d gotten was that the main character was pretty flat. Part of fleshing her out involves working out her background, so I decided to write this piece about her mother.
Before her shift starts Mary goes to the washroom and washes her hands twice: Once after she exits the cubicle, and once after she’s fixed her hair. When she first started work here, she found she liked the smell of the hospital soap. It had floral notes that reminded her of something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Something happy.
She pulls blue latex over her freshly-scented fingers as her shift partner preps the charts & meds. Even with the frown distorting her face Su comes off as so young, so pretty. Mary catches herself thinking about what groceries to buy for dinner. She forgot. She forgot about the quarantine.
Su draws in a sharp breath and her lips compress. “What happened?” Mary asks, although from the lines building up around Su’s eyes she can guess at what it is.
“We have one less patient today.”
“Oh? Which one?” This, she can’t guess, since so many of them are on the brink.
She leans over to look at the screen on the pushcart, but Su answers before she can read it. “The old man in ward 57.”
The old man in Ward 57, Mr Lim, is Patient Zero’s father. She will wake from her coma – if she wakes from her coma – to find her father dead. Mary exhales.
Su’s face crumples, suddenly: It’s like tissue paper tearing through, these breakdowns. Mary has become used to them, so much that whenever she feels her own face form those same shapes, she knows what to do to force everything back in. She hugs Su, gripping her heaving shoulders with her flower-scented, latex-wrapped fingers.
“There’s no cure,” Su says. “The Government can’t help us. Everybody here is going to die.” Her words rise and fall, like fish struggling against a stream’s current.
Mary keeps her shoulders straight and her voice firm as she looks Su in the eye. “No, the cure is coming,” she says. “Listen, Su: Listen. Don’t worry. My daughter, you know Yann? She works for the Government, she’s in Buona Vista, and she says they’re going to find it. They’re already halfway there. It’s only a matter of time. It’s coming.”
“Not in time for Mr Lim.”
Mary tightens her grip on Su’s shoulders. “But we can still save other people.” A trite statement, but maybe one she needed to hear.
“Yeah, ok,” Su says. She’s already drying her eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m just so tired.”
“We’re all tired. It’s normal, don’t blame yourself.”
Su gives her a watery smile. She looks like a washcloth that’s been rinsed too many times. Mary wonders if Yann’s tired too, staying up in her lab with its lights & petri dishes and rows of chemicals, trying to make sense of what they are saying.
“I’m ok,” Su says. “Let’s go.”
They walk down the corridor towards the wards. Here, there and everywhere, everything smells like antiseptic, sprayed madly on to cover a stench.