“White Room” by Niamh Bagnell

My eyelids hurt at the corners, acute angles of pain, they open to a bright room and I feel them throb. The whiteness of the room soothes me, and reminds me of Mondays in the factory when, usually in the horrors from the weekends, we would get into our whites and walk down the long cold white corridors. Monday mornings were the best part of the week. All the uncomplicated white, like everyone was dusted with snow, white hairnets on, and even guys with beards ending up with half their faces obscured by snoods, and everything quiet for a moment. There’s no quietness so heavy with the noise to come, a quietness that is short, pregnant; and then the doors would begin to open, and the guys began shouting orders, warnings, curses. Machines would start up, and a loud boppity music station put on blaring, so we could hear it above the noise. Within 40 seconds there’d be meat on the tables and everyone up to their elbows with sticky juices that used to belong somewhere else, in something living. The white walls seemed to bleed, and metal bins clashed and clanged, muscles strained and necks heaved.
The quietness of this white room is something different, a continuing calm, no chaos waiting to start. There’s just a steady hum of people talking quietly in a distant corridor, soft high-noted beeps of machines keeping watch, someone in the opposite bed breathing deep, and the giveaway clean-stink of hospital.

I’ve been here before. Maybe not this exact room, but I’ve been in this hospital. It’s the only one to be in, after a fight. They sent me down to the old one beside the river one time. The doctors there were more used to older punters, couldn’t reset a smashed nose, they’d have given me a new hip quicker. This place is the new one, all shiny, with remote control adjusting mattresses, and thin blankets that surprise you with their warmth.

I feel around my mouth with my tongue, finding no gaps in my front teeth, so the face must be alright, I smile to myself and doze some more.

For ages I was wasted, on the one woman – Trace. A nice looking girl and all, but I should have been getting around more, sharing the wealth, she just kept giving me reasons not to, seemed to understand me like no-one else. For a full 15 months I just always wanted another weekend of it, the mad sex, the laughs, the way she’d smooth my eyebrows for me, before we’d rip up the town together. We were a right team. When we worked together, it seemed impossible that we’d ever split up, her always making eyes at me from the packing line, cornering me in the packaging stores, she couldn’t get enough. But then we got made redundant, that made things simpler.

A flash of last Friday evening comes back to me, just as someone in the bed opposite turns in sleep. I was playing pool with Hughie – I remember it was bright out, so must’ve been an early beer. Hughie told me about Declan and Trace, he had a kind of a leer in his eye when he told it.
“So?”
“So nothing man, just wanted to let you know… you know?” He was playing with the chalk, tapping it on top of the cue.
“S’nothing to me what she does,” I shrugged.
“Yeah.”
“Fuckin Declan tho,” – I shook my head.
“I know,” said Hughie, and we both laughed, “the thought of her ridin’ a school teacher, man, just seems all wrong”
“What’s it to you anyway?” I turned mock serious.
“Ah sure I used to ride her too, when you were seeing her, when it was handy like, whenever you were too wrecked.” Hughie was always a messer.
“So you’ll know she was great in the sack?” I said, laughing along.
“Yeah, she said you were shite tho.”
“Fuckin Declan tho,” I shook my head again, “I know he has a job but…”
“I know…. Jeeeesus,” Hughie said, and we moved on to other topics.

***

A doctor arrives at about lunch time. I haven’t budged much, only enough to realise that my chest has sticky plasters everywhere, and my head seems to be covered. The doctor is young, about the same age as Kieran would be. He flinches from my gaze whenever I look, like he’s scared, concentrates hard on the chart. I just look at him.
“Well, eh… Fintan. You’ve had an incident.” He looks again at the chart. “You’ve suffered a trauma to the head. A skull fracture in fact…” he goes on a bit – explaining the location, the implications, how if I’m very careful and lucky that it shouldn’t become a growing fracture. “No nerve damage is apparent,” he finishes, looking at me as if I should be grateful.

He couldn’t be serious. If I wasn’t so dizzy with pain killers I’d ask him more, but when I don’t, he just puts down the clipboard quick, like it bit him, and stalks away. I hear a stir from the opposite bed. The aul lad there is wide awake, half sitting up against his pillows, staring across at me with glassy grey eyes.
“I thought it’d be something like that alright” he says.
“Yeah?” I manage. “Yeah… I mean,” he looks embarrassed now, “just with the bandages, you’re like a Mummy or something.”
He’s smiling shyly, like a kid trying to make friends in a playground. I can’t be having this conversation with some half broken aul lad, so I pretend to fall asleep, angling my head towards the ceiling. I look at the dark pink curtains of my eyelids, watch those specks for awhile, the ones that fall, fall, fall until you stop chasing them. You can drag them back, by looking upwards, and start the chase all over, little dead worms that dance for your own personal amusement. My head feels numb, I think about the split at the back, the magical un-knitting of fragile bone. I wonder if something’s oozing out, maybe the memory of the rest of the night has already spilled onto the hospital pillow, a sticky dark patch that’ll make the nurses “Tutt” as they change the sheets. But no, another fragment of the night comes to mind.
***

We went on from the local around 8pm, to meet the girls in town. Laura, my new squeeze who was already two weeks into her possible three with me, and Hughie’s chick wearing a top that almost came down to her belly button. I should explain – I’m only holding onto girls now for a maximum of three weeks, never want to be tricked into another 15 month long love, the world is too big. I figure three weeks per girl is fair. I might occasionally even go a week or two with no-one. No texts, no soft bodies to fondle, and no nagging. Laura’s a good girl, always perfectly made up, a girl who pays a lot of attention to herself. So far she’s been fine, sharing her fags, paying her way, she almost reminds me of Trace, but a lot younger, sillier. She laughs at everything I say, which makes me feel incredibly funny, but also like she’s easily amused. Friday night Laura was covered in glitter, they’d gotten drunk when putting on their make up, she explained, a bottle of buckfast between them. I thought she looked like a clown, and was feeling like maybe tonight would be a good night to end it with her.

The mini bus out to Night Shift was jammed with eejits in glitter, the driver had some crap country music on, his attempt to sober us up, but we were all flaming, we cheered going around the sharp bends in the road. I near crushed Laura with my weight, when we all threw ourselves the same direction as the bus’s swerve. She got narky then, claiming I’d leave a bruise on her, but it was only a game, at least Hughie’s chick found it funny, she was on the other side, falling onto me, her hands landing in the funniest places every time. We had a great laugh.

We staggered out of the bus just about staying vertical on the icy road, and the neon glow of the club welcomed us in, out of the freezing night. My stomach twisted a bit when I saw Declan’s car outside, just a few feet from the door; a shiny red biscuit tin of a yoke that he was, for some reason, insanely proud of. So Trace would be inside. I decided I was ok with that, I hadn’t seen her for a while. I wanted a nice little chat.

***

My recollection is disturbed by the sound of the man from the bed opposite, a gulping, greedy smash of jaws, he’s eating a packet of Monster Munch, licking his fingers breathing heavy between each bite. I can’t think about anything else while he’s at that. I wish I could get up, walk over there, and WHAM. Nut the fella, the soft bastard, rip his head off, punch him in the guts. The thought of my hard fist hitting into the soft stomach of the man, sinking into it like butter, sickens me. I press the nurse’s bell.

I ask the hassled looking woman that shows up for more painkillers, while the aul lad tries to bury the evidence under his blanket. The nurse says I can’t have any more than I’ve already got, she asks can I hang on a bit longer. I look blankly at her, what if I can’t? She lets her hand lightly touch my arm, I almost expect her to say “there there” and am ready to say “where where” if she does, but she doesn’t. No one ever says that in real life.

I realise when she’s gone that the head does actually hurt now, there’s a big ache all across the back of it, like that time Kieran got me with the spade. I’d been out-cold in the muck of the back garden for a whole hour before I’d been found. Kieran had been real annoyed that time, I’d called him some kind of name, can’t remember what, and he called me a “thick fuck,” his favourite insult. He had a savage temper. They hoped he’d grow out of it, the folks, didn’t reckon on his impatience wrecking that hope. You can’t grow out of something, if you’ve stopped growing. He took the bends in that dirt track as if it was a free rally course, worse than the nightclub bus-driver, as if the moss covering the walls would bounce him back to the centre. He thought he was a soldier driving a tank, but in reality he was a kid in a Micra. His story ended there in a field, my brother in a ball of fire, on his way home after the party in Bradley’s. He’d only just scored with Caroline, his long time target, had texted me the news, probably he’d been just sending that text when it happened, the eejit couldn’t have waited till he got home. Caroline wasn’t even at the funeral. Kieran would have loved her to have been, in a sexy little black outfit that’d have our dad leering after her, but she didn’t go. I was watching out for her. They only took a couple of days to take the car away, but not too soon for me to see its skeletal frame greyed like it had aged instead of Kieran, almost on his behalf. The tracks made by his tyres are still clear in the field.

I sigh.

I wonder idly what a growing fracture might amount to. I see my head splitting open when kids throw eggs at me next Halloween. I see myself wearing a helmet, bullet shaped, keeping me together. I see for the first time a possible end to my story, an end that comes unannounced, and messy, like my brother’s.

The door to the room is hesitantly opened, and I half expect some mousy wife of Monster Munch man to come creeping in, but instead it’s Laura.
“Well, hero!” she comes up to my bed, bright eyes excited and nervous darting around at everything in the room.
“Well” I say.
“Oh my god, you look like you’ve been in the wars” she says. “Well I suppose you have, almost…” she giggles, rearranging her hair over the dark bluish patch on her neck. “So, how are you?” she asks after a few seconds more.
“Fractured skull.” I tell her, and watch as her eyes light up in excitement, licking lips that are already so wet looking I can see clear reflections of the overhead lights in them.
“OMG, are you serious? Like your head is actually opened? I knew you could have died, I heard your head hitting the cement, and I thought you were a goner,” she is almost shouting and I squint in response, think about feigning sleep, but she’d probably just go ape calling nurses and doctors, claiming I was dying in her arms. She tries to make her face look worried, like she’s not just here to enjoy the melodrama, grasps a hand to her breast, plays with her shiny beaded necklace. “What can they do for that? Can they close it? Oh my god.” She repeats. “The girls were all texting me, asking for you, asking are you going to be ok, are you going to be ok?”
“Can’t talk.” I say. And then – “Need sleep.” I dismiss her.
She finally takes the hint, “I came here with Hughie, I’ll send him in, yeah? Just for a second.”
“Yeah” I say.

Hughie comes a few minutes after, looking stupid in his camouflage hoody.
“Did you see it?”
“Man it was mad” he says.
“I’m just trying to remember.”
“We’ll get that Declan freak, straight away,” he says, “the minute you get out of here we’ll be after him, don’t you worry.”
“You heard I got a split head?”
“Yeah, well we’ll give him some headache when you get out,” says Hughie. “When do you get out by the way?” I let the question hang a few seconds, and Hughie fiddles at his watch while awaiting a response. “Like can you sign yourself out?”
“Nah,” I say, “Think I’ll be a few days.” Hughie looks around the room, as if it could throw some doubt on what I’ve just said. The aul lad opposite is pretending to be absorbed in a book, as he has been since Laura arrived.
“You can’t let him away with this, broken head or no broken head, sure you’ve got the thickest head going, did you not tell the doctor that?”
“Is it still cold outside?” I ask, confusing him with the change in topic.
“Yeah,” he shrugs.
“See it’s dangerous, the fracture could get bigger if it ices over, you know freeze thaw, like a windscreen chip.”
He laughs, “Oh yeah. Good one, only for ya Finto, only for ya.”
“Go on, I need my beauty sleep,” I tell him and he goes.

***

Seeing Laura only makes me think more about Trace. I managed to track her down inside the club easy enough, up around the soft chairs, her old favourite haunt. I pounced when Declan had been sent to the bar, like the little lap dog that he is. I put my hands over her eyes, but she wouldn’t guess who, stubborn as ever. She knew well who it was, and wouldn’t give it to me. I sat down right beside her. Comfy, as if we were there together, I put my arm up on the back of the seat beside her, and let her enjoy the waft of Lynx. They say smell is strongly linked to memory, I wanted to give her a taste of what she was missing. Trace just looked me in the eye, as cool as anything. She was looking well, that delicate familiar face, her eyes, eyes I felt I’d seen almost from the inside, were cold, a bit of distance in them.
“So how’ve you been Finto?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Would I have asked if I didn’t?”
“I don’t know, would you?”
“Is this the latest thing?” she asked then.
“What?”
“Answering all questions with questions?”

She always, somehow, made me laugh, but I tried to look serious through it, which I always failed to do, and she always said she found that adorable, my failed attempts to look serious. She didn’t say it was adorable this time, just kept looking right back at me, bold as anything.
I’m not boasting now, but I’m considered “fairly good looking” that’s what a lot of girls say. Often, faced with my gaze, especially close up – women turn to water, weak and oozing melted wax, they just can’t resist. They say it feels like we’re the only two people in the world, when I look at them that way, like we’re in our own little nest and nothing else matters, so they tell me. Here was another good reason to never see anyone long term again, Trace seemed to be immune to my smouldering stare, had built up some kind of superhuman resistance. She simply looked on through it. She was unaffected. Declan came back from the bar, and I knocked over his pint of water on my way away to get some shots, you had to be really drunk to enjoy Night Shift, seeing Trace again had only sobered me.

Later I went onto the dance floor, finding Laura, getting a hand down the front of her hot pants in the crush of the bopping crowd, tearing a hole in her shiny tights, giving her a little thrill, fingers at work between her legs. I had my elbow crooked around her neck, holding her close while I sucked hard on the soft skinned bridge between her neck and shoulder. It was a beautiful moment and the icing on the cake was giving Trace another kind of finger at exactly the same time. I’d just happened to catch her eye as she walked towards the toilet, she gave me two slender fingers back from a distance, (one on each hand), and I think I closed my eyes then, desperately not wanting her to see that I’d seen.

The rest of the night is only visible in flashes: Laura smiling a big goofy drunken grin up at me; Hughie and his chick pointing at me and Laura on the dance floor, laughing; The gang of us getting back to the soft chairs, four of us sitting on top of each other like a many limbed animal; The music pounding through the seats, adding extra vibrations; A swirl of shots, bought between the girls, tequilas without the salt; Twenty five ex-girlfriends passing by.

I made it out to the car park before the rest, I think, climbed up on the little red biscuit tin car. The bouncers were laughing indulgently. When he arrived out, I did a little dance for Declan. “How’s this for ya teach?”

I jumped up and down on the roof, making sure to dent it. Trace was rolling her eyes and Declan made a run towards me. I got ready for him, made ready to jump, an imaginary graceful sailing through the air, karate drop kick in mind. I was at the disadvantage of moving in slow motion it seemed, giving him time to dodge the kick, so instead of his soft body breaking my fall I landed heavy on the road, and then I don’t know what. I have to imagine the next bit, the bit that led to my aching scalp, the kick from his steel capped boot. Another possibility, that I hit a kerb or a stone, or made a hole in the ground using my head for a spade, makes me think again of Kieran. He was probably watching, calling me a thick fuck, waiting for me to die on the dark road, to join him wherever he was. Only Laura the drama queen was there to save me, dialling an ambulance on her new phone, probably giving me uncalled for mouth-to-mouth.

***

I wake up late in the night. The aul lad opposite snoring deeply, nostrils roaring. I think over Hughie’s thirst for bloody action, Laura’s juvenile excited pride, Kieran calling me a thick fuck, Declan staring open gobbed at me dancing on his stupid biscuit tin car, the aul lad slobbering Monster Munch, Trace giving me the two slender fingers. My broken open head swirls with it. I long for one more quiet Monday morning, and things to be like they were before.

[A version of this story appeared in the winter 2010 issue of The Stinging Fly.]

Biographical Note:
Niamh lives in Cork. In 2009/ 2010 she hosted a weekly writing based radio show on Liffey Sound entitled “The Sunday Scrapbook”, and also founded and faciliated Lucan Teen Writers group for a number of years. She reads her poetry widely and can be found online at her blog variouscushions.blogspot.com.

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