Christian R. Fennell
On the Rise in the Young
There’s not much to see except chimneys and treetops but he’s grateful for the window all the same. It sure beats the view his neighbour’s got-although right now the poor chap’s coughing his lungs up. Thank God they put the curtain up.
It’s his first day here. They brought him in a little after midnight. The pain had been so great they’d put him under and he’d only come to a short time ago when guttural sounds from the next bed had cut through his haze of drugs like a scythe.
A nurse was drawing the curtains around the other patient when he finally opened his eyes. The window was a temporary balm. But even that became a source of irritation when a huge black crow perched on the ledge and scrutinised him down the length of its beak. He shooed it away. It left in its own time.
They brought him breakfast: stewed fruit and toast. He wasn’t hungry so he left it on the tray. He’d like to sleep some more but there’s too much activity. He pulls himself up by the handle above his bed. He still can’t see over the ledge. Next chance he gets he’ll ask the nurse to shorten the chain. A bit more leverage and he’ll be able to look down into the courtyard. He gazes up at the air conditioning vent and wonders how long he’ll be here. He heard someone mention six days but he’s not sure if it was him or the other guy they were referring to. His neighbour groans, knocks something over and chunders. A minute later a nurse arrives and disappears into the curtained perimeter. The crow returns. Maybe it’s a different crow. Who can tell? It has the same nosy tendencies as the other bird. He gropes about on the bedside table, searching for something to throw at the window. There’s a phone…and a jug of water. The nurse emerges from the curtains, needle in hand. She looks over at his untouched breakfast and glances-disapprovingly, he thinks-at him.
“What’s the matter with him?” he asks, nodding at the pleated curtains.
The nurse is gone before he can ask her about the chain. He looks out the window. The crow is gone too but has left a white star-shaped deposit on the ledge-white like the cocoon on his leg. The patient in the next bed groans.
“You okay mate?”
He gets a grunt for an answer. The medicine must be taking its course, he thinks, looking at the phone again. Who can he call? His daughter’s in Canberra.
She gave him her mobile number but he’s never bothered to use it. It’s scribbled on the top of an old form guide somewhere. Albert and Mary, his next door neighbours, have his number but he never thought to get theirs. After all, they’re only next door.
“Gordon? Gordon Atkins?”
A tall woman with a stethoscope looped around her neck hovers in the doorway.
“I’m Doctor Raeburn.” She moves to the foot of the bed. He can’t get over how tall she is. “We’ve inserted a steel pin in your femur Mr Atkins. That’s the thigh bone.”
He gives her a purposefully blank look.
“Let’s see. You live alone, right?”
“I’ve got a daughter.”
“Does she live nearby?”
“She’s in Canberra.”
“She lives in Canberra?”
He shakes his head. He doesn’t trust tall women. “She’s there on business.”
“Do you receive home help of any sort Mr Atkins? Meals on wheels?”
He returns to the sanctuary of the window. “How long will I be here?”
“We’ve got you booked in at rehab from the twenty-fourth. That’s a week from today. You’ll get your own room and a TV.”
She thinks this will cheer him and it does to an extent. There’s nothing worse than sharing a room when you’re crook, especially with someone who can’t keep a lid on their guts. He feels better about her now. She’s not so tall after all. He asks her if she can shorten the chain. While she’s adjusting it he whispers in her ear.
“What’s wrong with that guy?”
“I’m not allowed to divulge those sorts of details Mr Atkins.”
He looks at the drawn curtains and frowns. “Any chance of being moved into a different room?”
The doctor shakes her head. “We’re full up here. You’ll have to make do I’m afraid.”
He’s about to say something but he doesn’t want to cause any trouble.
She fixed the chain after all. He lifts himself higher. That’s better. He can see the courtyard now.
“Just press the buzzer if you need anything Mr Atkins. And do try to eat.”
She checks her watch. “It’s almost lunchtime anyway.”
There are pigeons in the courtyard. A woman in a wheelchair is feeding them crumbs from a plastic bag. It’s a soothing sight. He doesn’t know how he’d cope if he was in the other bed. Maybe he’d draw the curtains around himself too.
Lunch arrives. They take away his breakfast and move the trolley closer as if this will encourage him to eat. He takes a peek. The roast beef doesn’t look half bad. It’s the soup that puts him off. Green, bilious, like something you’d expect to find in a spittoon.
As he picks at his food they pull back the curtains from the other patient.
He’s somewhere in his thirties but at present looks ready to keel over.
“Feeling better are we?”
The young man clears his throat. He pours a drink from the jug of water beside his bed.
“The name’s Atkins. Broken leg. Be here a few days.”
The young man pulls himself up by the handle. “I’ll be out of here by tea time. I hate hospitals.”
“I guess that’s why they gave me the window.”
“I guess so.”
He wishes they’d left the curtain around the miserable sod. Now he’s really glad he’s got the window. He turns to face the courtyard only to find the crow roosting on the ledge again. What is it with that bird? The young man picks up the phone.
“They’ve got me in until dinner. No, tea time. Yeah, that’s right.
They’ve given me a referral to some shrink. Me neither. Part of their job I guess. Don’t worry I’ll be there. Just keep ‘em cold. Okay. Cheers.”
The crow does a bit of preening and takes off. He turns his attention to the younger patient. “They’ve got me booked in at rehab. I’ll get my own room and a TV. Rehab hey?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Rehab. Are you taking the piss?”
“Not at all.”
“It sounds like it. Anyway, what’s the story with you pops?”
“Story? There’s no story. I’ve got a broken leg.”
“And how’d you manage that?”
“I had a fall.”
“So you just…fell down?”
“More or less.”
The tea lady comes to collect their trays. “Still not hungry I see?”
“He’s got a broken leg,” the young man informs her.
He waits for the tea lady to go before bringing up the conversation on the phone. “Have they booked you in somewhere yet for your…problem?”
His roommate laughs. “There’s nothing wrong with your hearing is there pops?”
“It’s a small room.”
The young man shakes his head in amusement. “I had a rough night on the turps that’s all. Passed out in the pub. Some bright spark thought I’d OD’d and rang an ambulance. That’s how I wound up here. It’s nothing serious.”
“This is a one-off pops. Haven’t you ever pushed the envelope before?
Ever drank on an empty stomach? Mixed your drinks?”
He can’t remember that far back. Anyway, the point is he didn’t end up in hospital like this fool when he did indulge. He lets his gaze fall to the courtyard.
The woman in the wheelchair is sitting in the sun. She’s got no more crumbs to throw at the pigeons. The birds go on nibbling at seeds-the courtyard is awash with them.
“So you’ll be gone by tea time?”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit irresponsible?”
“Drinking again so soon?”
His roommate laughs so hard he starts to cough. “You really pay attention to private conversations don’t you pops?”
“I was just enquiring. You seemed pretty crook before.”
“And I’ve just told you why. I had a little too much merry juice that’s all.
If I’d known I was going to spend an afternoon getting lectured by my grandfather I’d have pulled the pin three or four pints earlier.”
Something black sends the pigeons scurrying. It’s the crow. It moves fearlessly beneath the wheelchair and emerges with a crust of bread in its beak.
“Anyway, you’re a fine one to talk.”
“What have I done?”
“That leg of yours. Nobody just falls.”
“I’m picturing you right now pops. You’re on the ski slopes at Mt Hotham right? Or you’re playing hopscotch with the neighbourhood kids. No, wait a minute, I can see it now. You’re at the circus in your clown suit. You start your juggling act and topple off your stilts. Am I right?”
“You must be getting better.”
“Then how’d you break the leg?”
“For the second time in as many minutes…” The old man pauses to prop himself up-the pillows are slippery. “Wait till you get to my age.”
“No thanks pops. I don’t intend to hang around that long.”
He returns to the window. The lady in the wheelchair is gone. So too are the pigeons. He wonders who’ll look after his house while he’s away. Maybe he can look up Albert and Mary in the phone book. They’re sure to be wondering how he is; after all, it was most likely them who rang the police. They always check up on him before the late news. He’d heard the phone ring. But he couldn’t move. Sprawled on the bathroom floor, a towel draped clumsily over his privates, he thought he’d never get up.
He watches the young punk do pull-ups on the chain above his bed.
“What were you drinking?”
“What’s that pops?”
“I said what were you drinking to make you so sick?”
The young man flops down on his pillow and gazes thoughtfully at the ceiling. “Let’s see.” His chest is heaving from exercise. “To be honest I can’t remember.”
He stops to catch his breath. “I drank whatever was put in front of me.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Problem drinking. They say it’s on the rise in the young.”
“Listen here pops–” A woman’s scream cuts him off. A crow explodes into the room, black and huge. It flies across the beds and in its confusion leaves a coin-sized dropping on the old man’s pillow. A nurse standing in the doorway gasps as the beating wings come her way-the bird is frighteningly large. She takes cover and shuts the door behind her as soon as it’s gone.
“How’d it get in here?” the young man asks her accusingly.
The nurse catches her breath. “They’re working on the air conditioning.
It must have entered through a vent.” She fixes her hair and sits down by the window.
Outside, the pandemonium continues. The nurse sees the funny side now she’s safe. “That was a bit of excitement hey?”
The young man clasps the handle above his bed. He nods at his companion. “Looks like pops here will be needing a new pillow.”
The nurse goes over to assist the old man. She removes the pillow slip, scrunches it up and puts it on the tray beside his tepid soup. “Laundry will bring a fresh one. When everything’s under control, that is.” There’s a loud crash outside.
“I hope they don’t take too long apprehending that bird. I’m due to leave here soon.”
“So you can get smashed again?”
“That’s right pops. So I can get hammered and wind up back here with you.”
The nurse listens to the volley of insults with a pained smile.
“…You’re a drain on the public purse…”
“…And you’re just a stubborn old fool who needs to live in a retirement home…”
The old man’s jaw drops.
“Go on admit it. The reason you broke that leg of yours is because you’re too damn stubborn to ask for help. I heard you talking to that doctor before. You’ve got no-one to take care of you have you pops?”
The nurse turns to face the window. She’s embarrassed now.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d stop calling me pops.”
“Would you now?”
“Then perhaps you can lay off about the drink.”
“He’s a diabetic you know.” The nurse can’t keep quiet any longer.
“He almost died last night. He’ll die soon if he doesn’t start taking care of himself.” She sees their stunned faces in the window. “It’s been a crazy day,” she tells their reflections. “That bird out there…I didn’t mean to let on about your condition.”
People are still running around outside. Someone yells “grab it, grab it” and someone else swears. The young patient flings back his sheet. He strips off his hospital gown and changes in front of the nurse. Then he picks up the phone.
“Dave, this is Josh. Yeah, a miraculous recovery. Listen, can you do us a favour? That’s right. Yeah I know but if I stay in this place any longer I’ll crack.
Cool. See you in five.” He hangs up the phone and grins defiantly at the nurse.
“You might want to close the door behind me. We don’t want that bird annoying pops.” He taps the old man’s cast. “Been nice knowing you pops. And do enquire about home help.”
The young man slams the door behind him, saving the nurse the trouble.
She moves to the empty bed and begins an indeterminate wait. “Looks like you’ve got the room to yourself now, Mr Atkins.”
The old man turns to the window. “Poor bugger,” he says, biting down on a smile. “But you can’t tell them anything these days.”
Christian R. Fennell’s short stories have appeared in various print and online publications including Quadrant, Antipodes and Snorkel. In 2012, his award-winning story ‘Mirage’ was adapted into a radio play and broadcast on Southern FM. He lives in Melbourne, Australia, with his wife and three cats.
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