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.”