from Children’s Hospital
It took Tina some time to realise what was wrong with the children. She heard them whisper from their beds in the night. She heard them discussing the hospital food in meticulous detail. Then she heard them vomiting in the toilets.
At first Tina could not take it in – she could only attend to her child. He was quite a different case. A little boy of two, Peter had contracted a form of blood poisoning. Tina knew one in ten children died of this condition. She knew that, but felt by concentrating all her powers upon Peter she could prevent this happening. When a doctor put a needle in the little boy’s spine (four nurses holding him down) and drew out a syringe of spinal fluid, she saw it was not cloudy. That was good.
But that had been three days before, and the medical team had not yet found the correct antibiotic to combat this particular strain of the infection. Not yet. The team was growing.
So Peter lay connected to a drip in a ward of the children’s hospital and slowly worsened, while Tina waited. It was the best place the boy could be, Tina’s husband assured her. Well, the best under the circumstances, he meant. He had told her that on his first and only visit.
Henry, the boy in the bed beside Peter, was probably eleven or twelve, although it was hard to tell. He spoke like a university student, yet his body was stick-like and undeveloped. Before, during and after every meal Henry swapped dietary and culinary notes with Amanda, the girl in the bed opposite. Amanda was also eleven or twelve, fair and skeletal, with tissue-paper skin. In appearance she was not unlike Henry.
‘Did you get chicken?’ Henry would ask, peering across the little ward.
‘I got ninety. That’s not fair.’
‘Did you get biscuits?’
‘Two coffee biscuits with sugar on top?’
‘Mine are Iced VoVos.’
‘Arnott’s? Or an imitation brand?’
In whispers the children began proposing swaps and various deals – your biscuit for my apple.
One morning Henry’s mother came to sit by her son’s bed. Tina met the woman’s eyes, and saw they were frantic beneath the surface. They must have been frantic for months, for years now, those eyes, thought Tina. Wanting to give the mother and child a little privacy, Tina decided to walk about the hospital, if only for a few minutes. Peter was asleep; his temperature was stable.
But when she returned she found Peter had worsened suddenly, the way children do – plummeting into illness, soaring into well-being. The little boy tugged at the cannula in his sleep, where a blood ring with plasma satellites seeped through the securing tape.I shouldn’t have left him, shouldn’t have left him, was all Tina could think, sponging Peter’s head from a bowl of water that soon grew warm.
Tina’s mother arrived, a short, rotund, Arabic-speaking woman with a tragic air, forever bearing food.
‘He needs food,’ Grandma declared, pinching Peter’s legs. ‘See, he’s losing weight. I’ve brought him his favourite biscuits.’
‘He can’t eat, Mum!’ replied Tina, trying not to raise her voice. ‘You know that.’
‘He needs to eat –’
The homely smell of Grandma’s cooking began permeating the ward. Amanda in the bed opposite wrinkled her nose, and she frowned at the television bolted to the roof above her bed.
‘But he’s getting thin,’ insisted Grandma.
‘Do you think I don’t notice? But he’s on a drip – see? He’s getting all he needs. Let go of his leg – don’t wake him!’
‘He’s not thin. He’s fat,’ said Amanda from the bed opposite.
Grandma shrugged, palms upward. Then she looked at Henry’s immaculately-made bed, and clucked approvingly. Henry had gone for a short walk with his mother. Grandma, who had taken Henry under her wing, placed a plate of baklava on the foot of the smooth bed.
‘Mum, what are you doing putting food on Henry’s bed?’ asked Tina.
‘It’s what he needs. I thought he might like my baklava. It’s the best ingredients.’
‘Mum, Henry is a very sick boy. He can’t eat baklava. It’s far too rich. Your baklava would probably kill Henry.’
Amanda glared from across the room at the plate occupying Henry’s bed.
‘He needs fattening up,’ said Grandma. ‘The poor boy is skin and bone.’
At that moment Henry appeared in the doorway. Still dressed in his pyjamas (the children never changed out of their pyjamas), his hair ruffled, Henry paused warily.
‘Your friend’s here,’ commented Amanda.
Henry frowned at the plate of baklava swimming in honey on his bed. The baklava was odourless – but not so Grandma’s tabouli, which had done battle with the antiseptic smell of the ward, and completely overwhelmed it. Suddenly the boy gagged, running away down the corridor.
‘Look what you did to him, Mum!’
‘What is wrong with these children?’ cried Grandma, throwing up her arms, arms flabby and white in her black dress. ‘I don’t understand – all these beautiful blond children, starving to death. Are they ghosts?’
‘They won’t eat.’
‘Won’t eat? Children who won’t eat? Whoever heard of such a thing? Tina, you ate like a horse, all my children ate like horses.’
A nurse took Peter’s temperature, impervious to the shots of Arabic fired across the bed. The boy’s temperature was still very high. Not brain-damage high, but seriously high. Grandma began quizzing Tina what the temperature really meant. Tina walked away, trying not to scream.
William Lane lives in the Hunter Valley, NSW. Transit Lounge has published three of his novels, Over the Water (2014), The Horses (2015) and The Salamanders (2016), and is due to publish his fourth novel, The Word, in September 2018. He has also published several short stories.