That Which is Left is Lost

Doctor Chris Wright was sure he wasn’t the only one to see that the paint on the corridor was beginning to flake off the wall, but he suspected he was the only one that cared. As senior physician at Dove Break he believed patients were entitled to a pristine environment not just because it was a medically equipped facility but because it would be the last place their families would remember them.

“Excuse me, Doctor Wright?”

Chris turned to face the nurse. The window behind Betsy was milky with smudges, but the light cast her in silhouette; a petite hourglass figure. Chris focused instead on the view beyond her, looking out toward the Pennines – a beautiful scene any time of year, but particularly this early in the autumn when the trees were dotted with rustic colours.

She stepped out of the light, drawing his attention away from the Yorkshire countryside. “There’s a new arrival, a Mrs Tailor? We need you to do the admission assessment.”

Chris nodded, though he hadn’t been expecting a new patient today. Betsy didn’t seem able to meet his eye, instead her gaze rested on his open collar where his tie should have been. The fingers on his right hand clasped his wedding ring, spinning it clockwise.

“Is that the admission form?”

She handed it to him and he tucked the file under his arm out of habit with a grateful smile.

Betsy turned away and called out as she walked away. “She’s in room four.”

Chris retrieved his tie from his pocket where he’d stuffed it in his rush to leave the house. His mind was still there, suffocated by his wife’s stony silence, but the action of fastening the tie shifted his focus to where it should have been: at work. He read through Madeline Tailor’s file as he made his way to her room a few doors up from the nurse’s station. According to the notes his new patient was a thirty-eight year old woman with advanced single cell lung carcinoma whose condition had not improved with chemotherapy or radiation. As a result her previous doctor diagnosed an ‘unfavourable prognosis’ – Chris pressed his lips together at the implied euphemism – and had suggested hospice care.  Mrs Tailor would be younger than many of the patients at the palliative care unit – younger than Chris himself at forty-two – and therefore she could be unprepared for the difficult weeks ahead. He only hoped she had the support and care of her family and friends to help her accept the inevitability of her condition.

He tapped on the door and was surprised when a diminutive woman with cobalt blue eyes and short, pixie-red hair opened it for him. Very few patients were mobile when they were admitted. They both paused to take one another in; Chris wondered what his new patient made of his height, short dark hair and square jaw.

“Mrs Tailor?” he asked.

She smiled, a sharp grin that lit up her pale, thin face. “I am,” she said stepping back to welcome him into the room.

“You really should be in bed.”

“I reckon I’ll be spending far too much time there once I’m in it, so forgive me for being reluctant.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You’re Doctor Wright?”

“Yes,” he offered his hand. Mrs Tailor took it and gave it a squeeze. Her hands were small and cold with blue veins visible beneath the skin. Chris didn’t tighten his own grip for fear of hurting her.  At barely five foot two a slight hunch in her shoulders betrayed the pain she must have been in.

“I need to do a quick examination if you don’t mind,” he gestured to the bed, where a crocheted blanket had already been spread across the pale pink sheets. A cursory glance around the rest of the room demonstrated Madeline Tailor had been busy. Most patients brought photographs, ornaments or magazines as scattered reminders of home. So far this patient had unpacked several small canvases decorated with playing cards, keys, safety pins and combs, the backdrops of which were all maps with various locations circled. The only other things he could see were a few notebooks and a selection of boxes of various sizes and pattern.

“Well, first things first,” she said as she shimmied up onto the bed and tucked the gown around her. “I’ll have no-one calling me Mrs Tailor. Please, just Madeline. I think sticking to polite etiquette when you’re going to watch me die is far too macabre.” She rolled her eyes as she spoke.

Chris appreciated her candour although he reserved judgement on her dismissive attitude. It was likely she was putting on a strong act and had not quite accepted the finality of her situation. As she leaned back into bed Chris noted how attractive she must have been before the cancer. Her skin was almost translucent but clear of any marks or wrinkles excepting the shadow of dark circles under her eyes. The cheekbones that jutted from her face would once have been a sculpted feature of a beautiful woman, but the ravages of the disease alongside the effects of the poison used to treat it had left her scrawny-looking, with limbs more bone than muscle. Chris wondered if she now looked in the mirror and only recognised the colour of her hair and the brightness in her eyes.

Madeline settled into a half sitting, half laying position propped up by pillows on the adjustable bed, and he stepped forward to do the examination. “And no sugar coating the truth,” she added. “I’m under no illusion why I’m here.”

Chris steadied her as he listened to the wheezing in her lungs. “May I ask why you chose to forgo further treatment?” he asked.

Madeline diverted her gaze but kept her chin up. “No point in fighting if your heart’s not in it, is there?” She refolded the edge of the blanket as she spoke. “Besides, it’s nothing I don’t deserve.”

13 thoughts on “That Which is Left is Lost

  1. Terah Harris says:

    I like this. A lot. I like the premise and the set-up was perfect. I immediately connected with Chris. Your first paragraph immediately pulled me into the story and you kept me interested by sprinkling in just enough details (troubles with his wife) to make care about Chris.

    However, you need to watch your use of inactive verbs. This first page is riddled with them. In the first sentence alone, you used “was” four times. Inactive verbs slow down your writing. With a little tightening, this first page can really shine (even more than it already does).

    Lastly, I think you can dig a little deeper with your descriptions. Show a little more. For example, one sentenced said “autumn when the trees were dotted with rustic colours.” What kind of trees? Live oaks? Pine? What rustic colors? Burgundy? Maroon? Gold? Help your reader see what your characters see.

    Overall, I truly enjoyed it. All the best to you!

    • Cat Lumb says:

      Thanks for this great feedback, especially about use of inactive verbs – well spotted and something I haven’t picked up on previously. I will look out for this beyond my initial 1,000 words too.
      So glad that you like it, as I’ve been struggling to get this first section pitched right for so long it’s great to hear that it’s working. Descriptions are something I struggle with, so I can certainly take your suggestions on board and look for how to deepen them.

      Really appreciate the positivity and constructive comments. Excellent feedback. 🙂

      • Terah Harris says:

        I would like to clarify my comment about the descriptions. I never said to add more. I said to show more as in specifics. For example, instead of saying trees. Mention the kind of tree. Instead of saying rustic colors. Mention an actual color.

        I apologize for the confusion. Again, I really enjoyed this and wish you all the best.

  2. Bob Buchko says:

    Agree on the verbs, but I’d caution against too much description. I loved the rustic tree description as is. Give enough to let us know the parts of the descriptions that are important to the story and let us fill in the rest from our imagination. I’d much rather have a brief, poignant description that evokes peace and beauty in my own mind instead of a long detailed description that takes me out of the narrative, even if what I’m seeing ends up being slightly different the what you saw when writing it.

    • Cat Lumb says:

      Thank you for your comments. Glad you like my description – I’ve had mixed responses about that specific part from others. Appreciate the time it took read and comment.

  3. Sofie says:

    I like this, the character of Chris is appealing and I like his voice. This made sure there was a connection right away.

    The descriptions seem fine as they are, I wouldn’t add too many of them, because they slow down the story.

  4. Rick Sherman says:

    I liked it so far. I agree with Terah’s note on description, anytime you can replace a general with a specific, I say do it. From the rusted looks of trees, I’m guessing it takes place in the eastern part of the US? Location is omitted so I’m having to guess.

    The description of Chris and his relationship with his wife is short, sweet, and gives us just enough of information we need right now. Well done.

    I echo the lack of active verbs. I tend to do this as well, but after rewriting them out, it does make it much stronger. GREAT WORK! I’d read more.

    • Cat Lumb says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting Rick. As you are in the US I’m guessing that the location hints of the Pennines and Yorkshire (both in the UK) slipped by.

      Great to hear that the titbits about Chris and his wife are intriguing and tat you’d read on. Appreciate the time you spent reading and commenting.

  5. Lori Parker says:

    For the edification of the geographically-challenged: The Pennines are in England; they are part of the Pennine Chain, the mountain range often referred to as the “backbone of England.” They extend from the Cheviot Hills on the Scottish border to the Peak District in Derbyshire. He’s looking at them from the vantage point of the Yorkshire countryside which is in the North of England. So, you see, the author has told us exactly where this takes place.

    Okay, truth be told, I had to look up the Pennines but I am familiar with Yorkshire, England so I had a pretty good idea where this was from the beginning. I gave everyone a British accent and settled into the story right away.

    It was easy to do because the writing flows naturally and without pretention. Sure the trees can have color but rustic is good for now. After all, it seems to me Chris only notes the details as they might affect his patients, hence he notices the chipped paint but fails to notice the nurse’s hourglass figure and instead looks past her out the window. It seems to me he’s more interested in the weather (something that will have an effect on his patients’ mental state) than the landscape. Perhaps later, as his interactions with Madeline increase, he will come to notice colors as well as all the other sensual experiences life has to offer. Right now, his wife is cold toward him so he’s got a ways to go yet before he thaws out.

    The only hiccup I had was when Chris “wondered what his new patient made of his height, short dark hair and square jaw.” It just didn’t ring true as something anyone would think to themselves. I suggest you pick one, say his hair since he’s noticed hers, and have him wonder what she might think of his own buzz cut, crew cut, shaggy style, unkempt look . . . you get the picture. The idea is to contrast something about her that he’s noticed right off with something about him that he thinks she might notice or that he feels self-conscious about. Then let his height and square jaw get mentioned later. If you go that way, have someone else, maybe the pretty nurse, mention his square jaw. It just doesn’t seem like that’s something someone would zero in on about themselves unless they were inclined toward narcissism. (Of course, I have a perfectly round face with almond eyes and full lips . . . but I’m just drawn that way. LOL)

    You have a strong talent for images and depicting personalities through personal actions and dialogue. Please do let us know when this is book is published. I’ll plunk down my British Pound Serling for sure. That is if the exchange rate is beneficial . . . and postage isn’t too high . . . and I can buy it through Amazon and download it onto my Kindle . . .

    May your day be blessed with laughter, courage and inspiration.


    • Cat Lumb says:

      Wow. You are definitely the type of champion I need for my book – thank you for all your feedback and thoughts. I totally agree with your observation of Chris’ description – that is something I’ve recently being trying to get right – so ii will be something I can look at again: like your idea of having him think something related to how he has seen Madeline – great tip.

      I am more than humbled by your final paragraph – and I might just print this out and stick it on my wall to remind me to keep going on those tough days when I wonder if anyone will ever want to read my book! Thank you so much for that lift in confidence. Please do connect with me via Twitter (@Cat_Lumb) or my blog to keep up to date.

      Really appreciate the time ypu put into reading and commenting on this piece. Thank you.
      Take Care, Cat

  6. Jeff Ziegler says:

    Excellent. The style reminds me of Anna Karenina – very character driven. The characters felt a little stock on first read. With the description of Chris it was “made of his height, short dark hair and square jaw,” which I read “tall, dark and handsome.” And she was the emphatically strong person seemingly unafraid of her plight. Based on your writing I did feel like there was far more underneath (including the wife and the nurse) and would look forward to a very character/dialog based story. I’m hooked, but you may want to tweak them if you aren’t looking to use that as a story device.

    I also liked your imagery, and it is painting a picture that is drawing me in as well. I am not sure if you selected Fall for the image alone or allegory of her condition, but it certainly seemed tied to the situation. I think it would be good to tie them, but again, too close and it will seem contrived.

    I look forward to seeing this in print. 🙂

    • Cat Lumb says:

      Thank you Jeff – I’m somewhat amazed by the comparison to Anna Karenina (quite a compliment!), but you are right in that it is a character driven story with a lot of the forward momentum coming from the dialogue so you are very astute.

      I agree about making the characters too stock-like, but hopefully they soon flesh out after the initial 1,000 words: especially Chris’ wife and the nurse along with the Madeline.

      I guess based on all this feedback, I should look at finding an agent and publisher as soon as I can – before you all forget the offer to keep reading! 🙂

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. It’s really useful.

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